Hey, Pluto!

By 1930, Mickey Mouse had become a bona fide animated star. Since his creation two years earlier at the hands of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, he had starred in almost two dozen black-and-white shorts, ranging from his ever-popular debut in Steamboat Willie to Mickey’s Follies (1929), which introduced “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” the song that would remain Mickey’s theme for several years. These early cartoons became immensely popular, but after a few years, Disney’s writers and animators began having trouble crafting new, interesting material for the company’s flagship character. It didn’t help that the character of Mickey had begun to evolve (likely at Walt’s behest) from a sly schemer (a la his predecessor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) into a paragon of “good” behavior (albeit with some killer dance moves).

The development of a strong supporting cast of characters solved this problem, as figures such as the temperamental Donald Duck, the appropriately-named Goofy, and the rascally chipmunks Chip ‘n’ Dale allowed the animators to indulge in more varied storylines, with new gags that were sometimes silly, sometimes mean-spirited. Donald could be the bully, Goofy could do the crazy stunts, and Chip ‘n’ Dale could provide the mischievousness that Mickey’s sometimes bland portrayal lacked.

But those characters didn’t emerge until later (Goofy in 1932, Donald in 1934, the chipmunks in 1943). The earliest supporting characters in the Mickey shorts–figures such as Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar–would not prove to be as lasting a presence in the Mickey cartoons throughout the years. Though Mickey’s recurring early nemesis, Pete (who had originally debuted as a villain in the “Alice Comedies” and the Oswald shorts), would remain a go-to “bad guy” figure over the years, Clarabelle and Horace–and their barnyard friends–were not nearly as popular. By the late 1930s, the pair only appeared in a handful of shorts, and by the mid-1940s, they were essentially forgotten.

But in 1930, one of Mickey’s most popular and longest-lasting supporting characters was introduced, when he was given what every young, anthropomorphized mouse needs: a canine companion.

Pluto (or, as he was initially known, Pluto the Pup) didn’t start out as Mickey’s dog, however. In his first appearance, in 1930’s The Picnic, he was actually Minnie’s dog, and his name was Rover. But even before that cartoon, a precursor of Pluto popped up in The Chain Gang, which was released a month before The Picnic in 1930. In that short, Mickey escapes from jail and Pete is sent after him, trailing a pair of vaguely familiar-looking bloodhounds.

The design of these dogs was adapted and refined for The Picnic. In the cartoon, Minnie insists on bringing her “little Rover” along on the trip, and in a scene that likely enrages PETA advocates everywhere, Mickey ties the dog to the back of the car before driving off and dragging him behind. But when Pluto spots a pair of dancing (and honking) rabbits, the dog ends up dragging the car–and the hapless Mickey and Minnie–behind himself as he sets out on the chase.

Pluto debuted as Mickey’s companion almost seven months later, in the 1931 short The Moose HuntIt is in this cartoon in which the character is first referred to as “Pluto.” The origins of the character’s name, however, have long been in dispute. More than a year earlier, in 1930, the current-dwarf-planet-formerly-known-as-a-“planet”-planet Pluto was discovered. It has long been believed that Disney subsequently named the dog after the planet (as opposed to the original source of the name–the Roman god of the underworld), but Disney never officially indicated why the name was ultimately given to the character. Still, it can’t be a coincidence that the name “Pluto” was in the news quite a bit while the dog was being created …

Over the years, Pluto has arguably become the most lovable Disney creation. And in many ways, this is due to his non-anthropomorphized nature. Unlike most of the other animal characters in the Disney universe, Pluto does not walk upright, nor does he speak, though he does occasionally snicker in addition to typical canine communication such as whining, barking, and growling. His movements and behavior are that of a dog–an uncommonly versatile dog, true, but a pet nonetheless.

In many ways, Pluto hearkens back to Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, the seminal animated short that inspired a generation of artists including Walt Disney himself. Gertie’s appeal as an animated creature that could communicate through sheer will of personality alone is revisited in Pluto’s antics. But Pluto also has the benefits of an overly expressive face, which can convey everything from joy to anger to utter befuddlement. Who needs words when the entire audience can tell what a character’s thinking with one quizzical glance or bared grimace?

This reliance on physicality is exemplified in Playful Pluto (1934), which is Pluto’s first significant role in a cartoon. It’s not the best Pluto cartoon–in essence, it’s little more than a series of funny vignettes in which Pluto’s titular playfulness interrupts Mickey’s attempts to get some work done around the house. But the scene that steals the show–and ultimately makes this cartoon an important one in the annals of animation–is a carefully-crafted sequence in which the dog has an uncomfortably close encounter with a sticky flystrip.

This scene has become famous over the years, and with good reason. Animated by Norm Ferguson, who had worked on developing the character from its earliest days, the “flypaper sequence” has been lauded by animators and historians for its realistic depiction of a “thinking” character. According to storied Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, authors of The Illusion of Life (considered the veritable bible of animation by many in the field), this single minute-long scene was a groundbreaking moment in the development of animated characters whose thoughts could be telegraphed solely through their movements on the screen, as opposed to relying on dialogue to express their feelings.

As animation scholar Michael Barrier states in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age (2003):

“Throughout the sequence, Pluto’s state of mind is always visible, in his expressive face and body. The gags are well-constructed–everything that happens to Pluto seems possible, in a physical sense, with none of the gags forced–but it is the trajectory of the dog’s emotions that makes this sequence so vivid.”

Indeed, Pluto’s reactions to his predicament flow naturally from one impediment to the next. You can almost see the wheels turning in Pluto’s mind as he tries to extricate himself from the flypaper, his emotional responses running the gamut from startled to confused to determined to angry to purely frustrated. In an era when cartoon characters relied on witty dialogue and music to get their full intentions across to the audience, Pluto’s bout with the flypaper is truly a marvel.

Over the years, Pluto starred in a number of shorts, some with Mickey, some with Minnie,  and some on his own. He’s been paired with Donald Duck and Chip ‘n’ Dale in several cartoons. He has a particularly antagonistic relationship with the last two, as evidenced by shorts such as 1943’s Private Pluto (the chipmunks’ first appearance), the Oscar-nominated Squatters’ Rights (1947), and 1952’s Pluto’s Christmas Tree (which has always been one of my particular favorites).

And any time Mickey welcomed another pet into the house, Pluto had something to say (bark?) about it, whether it be Figaro, the mischievous cat from the 1940 film Pinocchio (see Pluto’s Sweater, 1949) or a fun-loving seal, as in the Academy Award-nominated cartoon posted above, 1948’s Mickey and the Seal.

In the early 1950s, Disney ceased production on Pluto-starring cartoons while continuing to produce toons featuring other characters such as the ever-popular Donald. But the lovable pooch is still a welcome presence in Disney shows and other modern media, including the early-2000s series House of Mouse, the current computer-animated Disney Junior series Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and the Kingdom Hearts video games. Still, for me, his appeal will always lie in those early cartoons, because Pluto’s two-decade run of shorts produced some seriously hilarious and aww-inducing bits of animated genius.

Like Mickey, I just can’t be mad at’cha, Pluto, old boy.


Some more fun facts about the precocious pup:

  • For most of the first thirty years of his existence, Pluto’s barks and grunts were voiced by Pinto Colvig, who was also the original voice of Goofy (though he did not record Goofy’s infamous yodeling “holler”). Among numerous other roles, Colvig also played both Sleepy and Grumpy in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
  • Playful Pluto is the cartoon shown to the convicts near the end of Sullivan’s Travels (1941), which prompts Sullivan (Joel McCrea) to realize the importance of humor in helping people get through their daily lives.
  • Though Pluto is known for being a non-speaking character, he actually does speak briefly in The Moose Hunt. When Mickey believes he has (accidentally) shot Pluto, he weeps and begs the dog to “speak to me–say something!” At that, Pluto sits up and says, “Kiss me!” while batting his eyelashes.
  • Pluto appeared in two entries in the Silly Symphonies series, both without Mickey: 1932’s Just Dogs, and 1936’s Mother Pluto.
  • In two different cartoons, Pluto is seen as having a family: in Pluto’s Quin-puplets (1937), he has a wife (Fifi the Pekinese) and five children, but in 1942’s Pluto Junior, he has a single son.
  • The Pluto-starring 1941 short Lend a Paw (a remake of the 1933 black-and-white cartoon Mickey’s Pal Pluto) won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, beating out an unprecedented NINE other nominees, including another Disney cartoon, Truant Officer Donald.
  • When Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the first theatrical Mickey Mouse cartoon in thirty years, was released in 1983, Pluto was the only Disney stock character not to be featured (even though the long-forgotten Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar were!).

This post is our (long-winded) contribution to the Classic Movie Dogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Make sure to check out the other wonderful entries that will posted between now and Wednesday, February 22nd!

21 thoughts on “Hey, Pluto!

  1. Brandie, a remarkably thorough discussion of Pluto and his origins. I especially like the way you show how Pluto was the one who pioneered the concept of animated characters showing their emotions and “thoughts” through both their body language and their “facial expressions” without speaking, in your fascinating description of Pluto’s struggles with the flypaper. This is something I take so much for granted that it never occurred to me that there was a time when this wasn’t so and that it must have had its origins somewhere. And thanks for reminding us of the Pluto-“Sullivan’s Travels” connection!

  2. Brandie, what a fantastic profile of Pluto, filled with revelations (for me) about the “playful pup.” You raise an excellent point about his success being due, in part, to his “non-anthropomorphized nature.” I’m hard-pressed to think of another recurring animated animal character in which that’s also the case. Your delightful description of the “Playful Pluto” cartoon sent me in search of it and, to my surprise, I was able to watch it. It’s truly one of Pluto’s best! In addition to the flypaper, there’s a great scene when the playful pup battles a garden hose. That’s just not right that Pluto didn’t get a part in MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL.

  3. Brandie,
    What a delightful look back at Pluto and his introduction, addition into one of our most iconic dogs. That clip of Steamboat Willie was beyond cute!

    I thoroughly enjoyed your trivia on Pluto, how he came to be. We lived pretty close to Disneyland as kids so we were there a lot! It felt like every school outing had Disneyland or Knotts Berry Farm involved. Pluto was the character that I always gravitated towards when roaming around the park.

    A perfect write up for the Dogathon and the fact that it brought back such great childhood memories was a plus.

  4. Brandie ~ an informative and inspired selection for this tribute to canines on film. I’m a big fan of animation and I have a special fondness for the early shorts. These “moving drawings” often capture a glimpse of American pop culture more succinct than feature films: the fashions, the music and the charming amateur nature just make me smile. I, like most kids born from the 1940s on, grew up watching Disney films but I admit that I knew nothing of “the playful pup’s” origins or his importance as a canine character. He did have an uncanny ability to speak volumes simply by positioning his ears as an eternal question mark (he was also capable of doing more damage than a tornado).

  5. Wow! I love this entry. All of it! I’m a big fan of classic animation and Pluto has long been my favorite of the Disney characters. Although, I will admit, I didn’t know why until reading your post. He’s all of our pet!

    Wonderful history lesson. Thank you.


  6. Brandie, I just loved your affectionate and wonderfully detailed salute to that playful pup Pluto! I had never thought about how “non-anthropomorphized” Pluto really is, but you’re absolutely right; Pluto may look cartoony (being a cartoon, after all :-)), but the animators truly have him behaving like a real dog pooch. Your post was so rich in details and fascinating facts, a real joy to read. BRAVA on a fabulous job, Brandie!

  7. This was a fascinating and thorough profile of a spectacular pup who set the bar for other animated dogs. I was always intrigued that Pluto didn’t speak although you revealed that he did utter two memorable words one time. I enjoyed your information about the discovery of the planet that was later determined to not be a planet around the time that this cartoon pup was named. This was such a fun post, Brandie, and I really enjoyed learning about this playful pup and scene stealer. Excellent post!

  8. Brandie, just to put it short and sweet, this is one of your best. You have brought Pluto to life from inception to current time, and your facts and trivia are fascinating. You are so right — I really had fun seeing the flypaper bit again (actually, I had fun watching the whole thing!) I love that Pluto’s only line of dialogue was so funny! Kudos for a really excellent post!

  9. Brandie, I have enjoyed reading your recent focus on animation. This is also an excellent entry in Rick’s Dogathon. Pluto is one of my favorite characters in the Mickey Mouse crew, so I really liked this profile. I remember the one time he spoke (which you discuss above)–I kept asking myself has he ever spoke before? Now, I have my answer.

  10. Brandie, Reading your wonderful review and watching the clips brought back such wonderful memories. Pluto, was one of my favorite Disney characters.

    I have to agree.. the flypaper scene was too cute. Thanks for the smile 🙂

  11. What a wonderful post. I never knew much about Pluto – or if I did, I’ve forgotten it – but I always liked that he remained a pet and a ‘real’ dog – as you pointed out. I’ve always wondered, too, what type of dog Pluto is supposed to be, but I’ve never quite come up with an answer.

    I’ve enjoyed reading all your Pluto-facts and links, too. I am most fond of the early Pluto and Mickey and really, all the rest of the cast of characters. I’m not a huge fan of computer animation.

  12. Wow, very insightful post, so much stuff about Pluto that I didn’t know, even though he’s probably my favorite Disney character. It’s interesting because what I love about Pluto is that his behavior and story lines are always in-line with that of what a normal dog might get himself into. You can actually relate to Pluto’s predicaments because we’ve all seen real dogs who have gotten themselves into a bumbling mess before.

  13. I learned something today!

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen the old classic Disney cartoons. I really should get my hands on some for my daughter. I really have fond memories of watching them.

  14. (Head Admin Jason): As a big fan of Mickey and the gang, I just could not imagine the mouse without his dog. Pluto is truly a dog of dogs. Despite the fact that he is (normally) the only character in the shorts that does not talk, as was pointed out, his actions and pantomime more then makes up for the communication barrier.

    I rushed out to pick up both “Disney Treasures” sets with the Pluto shorts (and watched them over and over again) and hope our efforts over at Open Vault Disney can pave the way for Pluto’s modern outings that have not yet been released to finally end up released, for fans that just can’t get enough of everyone’s favorite cartoon dog! Thanks for the review!

  15. The definitive look at Pluto. I can’t tell you how thoroughly I enjoyed this piece.

    For many years I believe I overlooked the greatness of the character, but my special needs son is a great fan and he opened my eyes.

    A favourite scene of mine is Pluto on ice skates in “On Ice”. Surely, Pluto is a mime on a par with Chaplin or Stan Laurel.

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