If Disney's the Oscar-nominated animated short film Get a Horse! had a thesis statement it would be the phrase coming from the car horn belonging to villain Peg Leg Pete: "Make way for the future."
The line comes at the beginning of the short–which will be shown with the rest of the nominated shorts in select theaters this weekend—when the action is still entirely rendered in hand-drawn, black and white animation, before it (almost literally) bursts out of the screen into glorious CG color and 3D. It's also a little confusing, why is this the villain's threat to the happily whistling Mickey and Minnie Mouse riding on a hay cart, and director Lauren MacMullan explained that she got a lot of questions about it. "I thought it was a nice little precursor, maybe you start thinking a little early, this is a bit odd that we’re hearing this," MacMullan said. "But it is also about every era even in 1928 was an era of change. The horse was giving way to the auto and now maybe 2D is giving way to CG, but I don’t think one is better than the other."
What makes Get a Horse! so distinct is the homage to both the old and the new. As Mickey, Minnie, and Horace Horsecollar battle Peg Leg Pete, they act out, essentially, a history of animation on the screen. Mickey's dialogue is even drawn from archival audio of Walt himself voicing the character. (They couldn't find Walt saying the word "red" as Mickey, producer Dorothy McKim said, so an associate editor had to build the word from different parts of the letter "R.")
MacMullan, a television animator who had come to Disney to work on Wreck-It Ralph, heard the studio was looking for ideas having to do with their classic characters and sold the idea on just one image. "The one image was basically like black and white old Mickey with a couple of chickens and maybe there’s a cow there or something and he’s just stuck his foot out from the screen," she told us. "That Purple Rose of Cairo moment. You see that it’s in a theater and you see these heads sort of watching it. And that was all I had really, but they liked just that feeling."
MacMullan said she had taught herself to animate with the 1928 "rubber hose" style, and calls it "like vaudeville on paper." Animators didn't play by any sort of real world rules. You can see the vaudevillian element, the gags, in Get a Horse! both in the black and white and in the CG. Black and white Mickey, at one point, unfolds his leg, turning it into a staircase that Minnie can climb up. In the CG, Horace Horsecollar uses his own leg to lasso a stuck Mickey, who is dangling from a ceiling.
On one hand Get a Horse! is just a thrilling cinematic romp, which (like this year's Gravity) has to be seen in 3D in a theater to be experienced in full. But it's also brimming with metaphors. The title, MacMullan explained, is a reference to a phrase popular among the anti-car contingent in the early days of automobiles, yelled by farmers and the likes when sporty motor cars would break down and strand their drivers. But the message of the short is not that the old style is inherently better than its newer counterpart in animation. "Horse wins over Pete in the car because Horse and Mickey combined are more inventive, and Pete just has power," MacMullan said. "I think the takeaway would probably be invention rules, and being inventive and inventive is a good thing, even if it’s a mix of old and new."
MacMullan herself does, though, "prefer horses." She would go out and visit some horses when working on the film—Disney is located in Los Angeles' equestrian district—and one specifically would come out of his stable when she whistled "Turkey in the Straw," the song featured in the short.