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Director: Fyodor Khitruk
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Lion and Ox © Soyuzmultfilm‘Lion and Ox’ is one of Fyodor Khitruk’s most serious films. It’s a very beautiful short about an ox who befriends a lion. Unfortunately, a devious little fox sets the two against each other, with fatal results.

This simple fable is told without words. They’re not necessary, for the animation is stunning. Apart from the fox, the animals are animated very reallistically, but they still retain a strong sense of emotion, telling the tale in expressions. The designs are very graphic, with beautiful ink lines. The backgrounds, too, are gorgeous, and reminiscent of Chinese paintings in their suggestions of the savanna by using a few powerful paintbrushes.

Watch ‘Lion and Ox’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: October 10, 1951
Stars: Woody Woodpecker
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Redwood Sap © Walter Lantz‘Redwood Sap’ is the fable of the grasshopper and the ants disguised as a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

Woody Woodpecker plays the role of the grasshopper, being extremely lazy, and stealing food from his neighbors: two beavers, a squirrel and a nest of ants. In the opening shot we watch him reading a book called “work and how to avoid it” by Hans Doolittle, and later we learn that Woody’s motto is “Why worry about tomorrow, I’m gone the day after”.

Then winter arrives, and Woody even refuses to join the birds flying South. However, confronted with an empty stomach and an empty cupboard Woody is forced to beg his neighbors for food. They however punish him for their maltreatment. So, when spring arrives they find him trapped inside an ice cube. However, when the animals take pity on Woody and revive him, they soon experience the woodpecker hasn’t learned a bit…

‘Redwood Sap’ is not a gag cartoon like contemporary Woody Woodpecker shorts. With its fable-like story it looks back to cartoons of the 1930s. However, in its speed, its animation and in its dubious moral, it’s clearly a product of its own time. ‘Redwood Sap’ shows the inventiveness of the Walter Lantz studio, who could turn out original cartoons even on a small budget.

Watch ‘Redwood Sap’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: December 17, 1943
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Chicken Little © Walt DisneyThis Disney short is an original take on the classic fable. It has a clear war message, even though there’s no direct visible link to World War II.

The villain, Foxy Loxy, uses a psychology book, from which he quotes, to lure the inhabitants of a poultry farm into his cave. The inhabitants of the poultry farm are clear representations of contemporary American society, including the upper class (turkeys), female middle class (chicken), male working class (ducks) and the youth (chickens and roosters, whom we see dancing to hot jazz in a short scene).

Foxy Loxy chooses a simpleton called Chicken Little as his main object, making him believe the sky is falling and encouraging him to spread the rumor. Originally, Foxy Loxy was to read from Adolf Hitler’s book ‘Mein Kampf’. It is not likely that the quotes are really from ‘Mein Kampf’, but they do contain surprisingly true lessons in how to manipulate the masses and how to undermine the present authority.

The film’s clear war message is not to fall for rumors and not to join mass hysteria. The film’s ending is as grim as there ever was one in a classic cartoon. In fact, the vision of a graveyard full of chicken bones is only topped by the similar ending in ‘Education for Death’ from the same year.

‘Chicken Little’ remains a little known Disney film, but its message is surprisingly fresh, and is probably even more valid today in an era in which propaganda and false rumors roam the internet and social media than it was during World War II.

‘Chicken Little’ was to be the last short directed by Clyde Geronimi before his dull comeback in ‘The big wash’ (1948). The Disney studio revisited the fable in 2005 in the feature film ‘Chicken Little’, which has ca. nothing in common with this far more interesting and disturbing short.

Watch ‘Chicken Little’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Władysław Starewicz
Release Date: 1922
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Frogs Who Wanted a King © Ladislav StarewiczAfter the October revolution, Władysław Starewicz fled to France, where he continued to make stop motion films until his death in 1965. ‘The Frogs Who Wanted a King’ is the fourth film he made in France, and probably his most political.

The film is based on one of Aesop’s fables. Some frogs ask Jupiter for a king. Jupiter sends them one, but the king looks like a tree and does nothing at all. The frogs don’t like him, so Jupiter sends them a stork, who, naturally, eats the unfortunate amphibians.

The message may be that it’s better to have a dull government than one that kills you, a message Starewicz could certainly relate to, being forced to exile by the oppressing communist regime in Russia.

Once again, Starewicz’ animation is top notch. The film has a particularly fable-like character, taking place in its own, very convincing universe.

Watch ‘The Frogs Who Wanted a King’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 31, 1936
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Country Cousin © Walt DisneyA very beautifully executed rendering of the classic tale, ‘The Country Cousin’ is a gem among the Silly Symphonies.

Its story is lean and economical, its characterization highly effective and its silent acting superb. Particularly noteworthy is the drunken performance of the Country Cousin, animated by Art Babbitt, which belongs to the highlights of animation.

Everyone who wants to know what ‘character animation’ is all about, should go and watch this cartoon. One cannot find a better example of it: the two mice look similar, but are very different in their behavior, attitude, and personality. Moreover, their personalities are played completely in mime, without any help from characteristic voices.

Besides this, ‘The Country Cousin’ contains some very realistic animation of people’s feet walking on the sidewalk. Indeed, the human realism of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) was not far away anymore.

Thirteen years later, Tex Avery would explore the theme of ‘The Country Cousin’ once again, albeit quite differently and way more ridiculously, in his hilarious short ‘Little Rural Riding Hood’ (1949).

Watch ‘The Country Cousin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 63
To the previous Silly Symphony: Three Blind Mouseketeers
To the next Silly Symphony: Mother Pluto

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
June 9, 1934
Stars:
Donald Duck
Rating:
★★★★
Review:

The Wise Little Hen © Walt Disney‘The Wise Little Hen’ is a simple and quite moralistic Silly Symphony carried by a mediocre, yet all too memorable song. I guess it might have fallen into oblivion, were it not for Donald Duck.

In his first appearance Donald Duck is a real sailor, living on a boat and dancing the hornpipe. He’s a strong voice character from the start. When he joyfully shouts ‘oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!’ we all know it’s him, even though his looks are different.

Indeed, like Goofy’s voice, Donald Duck’s voice anticipated the character. When Walt Disney heard Clarence Nash use this particular voice, he really wanted something to do with it. According to animator Bill Cottrell, cited in ‘They Drew As They Pleased’, concept artist Albert Hurter was responsible for the duck’s looks. He gave Donald his trademark sailor suit, which he maintained to the present day.

Besides his typical voice and suit, Donald Duck displays two of his typical character traits: egotism and his tendency to trick others. However, he does not yet display his short temper: when ultimately foiled by the hen he’s not breaking down in anger, but joins Peter Pig in remorseful self-chastisement (a gag reused from an early Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon called ‘Rival Romeos‘, 1928). But Donald would show his temper, in his next cartoon: ‘Orphan’s Benefit‘.

Besides Donald Duck this cartoon is interesting for an appetizing and startlingly realistic animation shot of butter melting on hot corn.

Watch ‘The Wise Little Hen’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 45
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Big Bad Wolf
To the next Silly Symphony: The Flying Mouse

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: February 10
, 1934
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Grasshopper and the Ants © Walt Disney‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ is easily one of the best Silly Symphonies: it has a catchy song, great use of color and beautiful effect animation. Notice, for instance, the realism of the leaves blowing away during the autumn scene. One can even recognize which trees they’re from!

The grasshopper, too, is a wonderfully designed character, based on concept art by the great Albert Hurter. In contrast, the design of the ants looks a little primitive, still belonging to the black and white era. But, by now, the Disney staff has fully mastered the idea of character animation. This is best shown in the final dance scene: even in a crowd of lookalikes one easily recognizes the joyful ant the Grasshopper had tempted earlier.

Note that morality notwithstanding, the grasshopper is allowed to do what he does best: singing and playing. An encouragement to view art as an important contribution to society. Even so, the way the queen finally invites him is a real cliff-hanger.

This cartoon’s theme song, ‘the world owes me a living’ was composed by Leigh Harline, who would also compose the catchy songs of ‘Pinocchio‘. the grasshopper’s catchy song would become Goofy’s theme song. No wonder, for he and the Grasshopper share the same voice, by Pinto Colvig.

Watch ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 42
To the previous Silly Symphony: The China Shop
To the next Silly Symphony: Funny Little Bunnies

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: December 12, 1931
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Ugly Duckling 1931 © Walt DisneyThis is the first of two versions of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ made by Disney.

Unlike the latter, more familiar version, this ugly duckling is a real duck, accidentally born to a chicken. He’s rejected until he saves his chick brothers and sisters from drowning in a long, fast and exciting action scene, involving both a tornado and a waterfall.

Although looking crude and primitive when compared to the 1939 short, this first version of The Ugly Duckling is a milestone in Disney’s storytelling: while the earlier Silly Symphonies contain a lot of repetitive animation and dance routines, The Ugly Duckling is the first Silly Symphony to tell a coherent story from the beginning to the end. Even the Mickey Mouse films of that time are not that consistent. There still is some rhythmic movement, especially at the beginning, but most of the animation is there to tell the story.

The duckling (who repeatedly looks to the audience for sympathy – not unlike Oliver Hardy) is a real character who transforms from an outcast to a hero, and gains its well-earned sympathy at last. Its best scenes are when it feels rejected, not only by his ‘family’, but also by a cow, a dog and a frog. There’s some genuine feeling of loneliness and unhappiness in these scenes, unparalleled in any other animated film of the time.

This short, which is neither about gags nor about moving to music, would be the first testimony of Disney’s ambitions in storytelling.

Watch ‘The Ugly Duckling’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 25
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Fox Hunt
To the next Silly Symphony: The Bird Store

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