Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Disney is repackaging some short subjects already seen in Silly Symphonies archive treasures
cans and other
collections. This volume one is an economical way to get the classic The Three Little Pigs
and watch some others in a no-fuss, no extras environment.
The hourlong program starts with the odd-cartoon-out, a Mickey Mouse comeback two reeler from 1990,
The Prince and the Pauper. It's not bad, exactly, but like the earlier Mickey's Christmas
Carol is basically a takeoff and not all that challenging. As with most later Disney animation
before the musical-comedy revolution begun by The Little Mermaid, it's not all that memorable.
But the other entries are a quartet of Technicolor Silly Symphonies from the early
years of the Depression, one undisputed classic and four honorable mentions. Until the Warner Bros.
cartoon studio sprang way ahead with its sassy characterizations and wild sense of humor, these
fable-like shows were the tops in animated short subject entertainment. And did I read that Disney
had a veritable lock on the Technicolor process for animation, for at least a few years?
The short subjects show Disney and his animators sometimes putting a new twist on the idea of
'fables for kids', as the scripts for these dazzlers sport extra messages that are fun to
pick out. At the UCLA film school in the early 1970s, Savant attended some classes where a new
associate professor named Robert Rosen lectured. He gave an analysis of The Three Little Pigs
from a Depression-era point of view that was hilariously astute. Professors like Rosen, Howard
Suber and Robert Epstein taught us to look for cultural agendas in films that even the writers
might not have been aware of.
The Three Little Pigs is from 1932 and is of course the most famous of the bunch. The song
fits the show well and is a great response to the Depression in general; 'The wolf is at the door'
was a common expression of the time. The cartoon's solution to all problems is work and enterprise.
Piper Pig and Fifer Pig are flighty playboy swine who think nothing of things like security. One
pinups on his wall and the other pictures of pugilistic sports-pigs. Practical Pig, on the other
hand, spends his days working and improving his situation. He doesn't play his (brick) piano until
a full day's labor is done. He also believes in family values: A picture of 'mother' shows a fat
hog with a full litter of piglets, while a picture of 'father' is a string of sausage links! It's a
toss-up whether the film is pro- FDR or pro- Hoover. It seems to say that jobs are the most
important issue, but I'd vote for the pro- Hoover interpretation because the film ignores the
economic complication that there's no work and no free capital to get industry moving again. By
branding the 'unemployed' pigs as shiftless idlers, it places all blame on them.
Uh ... none of the above in any way detracts from the cartoon's entertainment value. Just the
song is a delight, even if we don't think of how it inspired a title for Edward Albee.
The Tortoise and the Hare (1934) is the first of three shorts directed by Wilfred Jackson, a
Disney veteran of many shorts who also directed sequences in Pinocchio and Dumbo.
It's a standard take on the tale, augmenting the basic story with vivid characters (puffed-up
rabbit, nerdish turtle) and an extra complication. Mr. Hare blows the big race not because he falls
asleep -- he just feigns that to give the tortoise false hopes -- but because he's too eager to
show off for several girls' school bunnies sitting on a wall.
The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934) is a moral fable if there ever was one. A happy-go-lucky
fiddle-playing grasshopper makes fun of the industrious ants. He learns his lesson when he has to
accept their charity to keep from starving and freezing when winter comes. Again, it's work versus
idleness; the inference is that you can't be serious or responsible unless you're laboring ten hours
a day. This harsh view of the world must have rung true for millions of dispossessed Americans, and
again the writers seem intent on blaming the needy and insisting that their problems are due
completely to bad character or a frivolous lifestyle. One song the grasshopper fiddles
for is a Russian dance. Is this just coincidence, or is Disney telling us that everyone not
interested in working like a mule is by definition a Communist? The grasshopper's salvation is
admitting he was wrong, wrong, wrong in his politics, and taking a menial job as musician/jester
in the Ant nest (to a 'monarch' Queen ant, no less). Or is the Queen just letting him hang around
in case the winter food supply runs out?
The grasshoppers' voice is done by a fascinating guy by the name of Pinto Colvig, who was a clown
and a cartoonist before getting into the movies. He ended up contributing to a lot of Disney shows,
and originated the voices of Goofy and Pluto, Practical Pig, two Dwarfs. He also did Gabby & Bluto
for Max Fleischer, pioneered the read-along record and book concept, and was also the first Television
Bozo the Clown. Quite a career.
1933's The Pied Piper is a grim fable that replaces the violence and tragedy of the Robert
Browning poem with a kind of surreal creepiness. There are a lot of fairly unattractive human
characters in this one, trying to deal with the plague of rats. This is a clear example of why it's
always a good idea to honor a contract. The standard read of the original tale is made a bit
more complicated. The rats are horrid vermin and their destruction by drowning is cause for
rejoicing. There's no drowning here. The piper's magic cause a huge piece of Swiss cheese to appear
out of thin air. The rats climb into its holes, and then the piper makes the cheese disappear again,
taking the rats with it.
That bit of non-violent alteration is followed by a swift finish that alters the idea of a
community that loses its children because of its lack of justice and fairness. Hamelin's
kids seem to
be doing all the work, and when the piper makes them follow him, it isn't into a dark cave but a
magical fairyland (we hear a sound-alike version of the song Babes in
Toyland). Even the little crippled kid is allowed in, the door shuts, and THE END. To hell with
the parents, they didn't deserve the tykes in the first place. Once again, a Disney film has a
rather radical reshuffle of thematic priorities.
Disneys' DVD of Walt Disney's Timeless Tales Volume One looks fine, with bright color. All
the short subjects are flat, which is correct for all but the 1990 episode. The Grasshopper
cartoon has a substantial number of shots where the color registration is off, but otherwise the
picture and audio for the whole bunch are just fine.
The package comes with a little booklet version of The Prince and the Pauper. The DVD
starts with a series of promos that can only be skipped (on my player) with the 'next chapter'
button. Disney has a lot of short subjects, some of them culled from original feature compilations
like Make Mine Music that still make excellent kiddie entertainment. Savant has no
complaints about this collection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Walt Disney's Timeless Tales Volume One rates:
Movie: Excellent to Good
Video: Excellent to Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 22, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson