Friday, June 21, 2013

Best Silly Symphonies

Netflix just added several collections of classic Disney shorts and I have been loving working my way through them.  The series ran from 1929 to 1939 and while mainly remembered now by animation aficionados, it was the most influential cartoon series of the time.  Its influence is felt in the title of other studios' series such as Happy Harmonies, Color Rhapsodies, Merrie Melodies and yes, even Looney Tunes.

Walt used Silly Symphonies to push animation.  The series featured a greater use of accent on music, color, personality animation, realism than had been used prior.  The series is tied with Tom and Jerry for most Oscar wins in an animated short series.  There are many Silly Symphonies and many people have their own favorites, but here are the twenty I would consider to be the best.

20. Grasshopper and the Ants (1934)
The best adaptation I have seen of Aesop's fable of Ants and the Grasshopper.  The grasshopper is voiced by Pinto Colvig and makes a fun, memorable one shot character.

19. Babes in the Woods (1932)
Essentially the story of Hansel and Gretel, but with more fantasy elements.  Two kids find elves in the woods and start playing with them until they are captured by a wicked witch who does some twisted things before they defeat her.

18. Wynken, Blynken and Nod (1938)
Disney pushed its limits on being adorable in Silly Symphonies.   One of the cutest is Wynken, Blynken and Nod, the favorite Silly Symphony of animation historian Jerry Beck.  It is a very simple cartoon but try not to smile at the antics of the three babies sailing across the sky.

17. Little Hiawatha (1937)
This character was popular enough to receive his own comic book series in Europe.  Another cute kid cartoon, but this one has some more depth to the main character.  The character animation is great as it portrays Little Hiawatha as trying to act tough and brave without losing the character's heart and innocence.  A lot of fun gags with his small physicality and pants that are too big.

16. Wise Little Hen (1934)
First appearance of Donald.  Even without the duck it is a great short, but Donald makes a strong debut here and steals the show.  This short is one of the main reasons that the series is still remembered today.

15. Night Before Christmas (1933)
Disney attempted several sequel shorts to his more successful ones, but they never captured the greatness of the originals.  This is easily the best sequel symphony as it features the return of Disney's jolly Santa (from Santa's Workshop) in Clement Moore's classic poem.

14. Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938)
Pop culture references in animation are nothing new, this is a good early example and one of the best.  This is Disney's most extensive use of celebrity personalities, something they had usually shied away from.  This cartoon has not aged the best, because the movie stars caricatured are not popular anymore. But the characterization on them are spot on and very funny.

13. The Goddess of Spring (1934)
This cartoon represents Walt using the Silly Symphonies as a test for future feature films.  This was the first realistic portrayal of a human form, the Goddess of Spring is a clear forerunner to the character of Snow White.  The artistry in this is really beautiful.  With spring looking gorgeous and hell looking terrifying.  Disney putting realism to good use and pushing it as far as it could go at the time.

12. Tortoise and the Hare (1935)
One of the more famous Disney adaptations of a classic fairy tale.  The characterization of both Toby Tortoise and Max Hare is well defined and interesting.  Max Hare has actually been considered an inspiration for Bugs Bunny.  The two returned in the fun sequel Toby Tortoise Returns which features cameos from other Silly Symphonies stars.

11. Country Cousin (1936)
Much like how Tortoise and the Hare could be considered an influence on Bugs Bunny, this can be considered an influence on Tom and Jerry.  The fish out of water gags with the hick mouse is fun and the animation is very well done.  The scale of the giant city is almost breathtaking.  This short, like several on this list, won an Oscar.

10. Elmer Elephant (1936)
This feels different from most of the other Disney cartoons.  It is overly cutesy, colorful and full of non-realistic anthropomorphic animals.  This really feels like a picture book and a good example of Disney telling a great underdog story.  Not Disney's most mature work, but that is not a bad thing.  Disney's kids stuff is still top notch.

9. Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935)
One of Disney's most mature shorts.  It has both subtle and open references to sexuality, death, alcohol and the courts system.  I have never read if this short was an intentional criticism of the justice system, but it is difficult to think is isn't when the jury sings, "We don't know who killed Cock Robin, so we will hang them all."

8. Three Orphan Kittens (1935)
Disney's move towards realism has been criticized by some in the animation field, but they figured out great ways to use it.  Disney studied the movements of real cats (just as they would later research animals for Bambi) and placed them in a real looking house.  But the animators found every possible gag they could for the cats and it is both adorable and entertaining.  With the popularity of cats online I am surprised that this has not found a modern audiences.

7. Flowers and the Trees (1932)
Best known for being the first cartoon using the advanced Technicolor process.  Less impressive coloration methods had been used by other studios prior to this, but Disney got an exclusive contract with Technicolor.  A good example of Disney's relentless pursuit of making sure his cartoons were the best they could be.  This lively cartoon was the perfect debut for color.

6. Santa's Workshop (1932)
One of the best on screen versions of Santa.  A holiday classic to this day.

5. Skeleton Dance (1929)
The first Silly Symphony perfectly demonstrates what this series could accomplish.  Music had never been used to this extent before in animation and Disney furthers its style and ability to animate realistically.  The dances are well choreographed and memorable.

4. Ugly Duckling (1939)
This Oscar winner was the final Silly Symphony.  Earlier in the thirties Disney had animated The Ugly Duckling as a black and white short, but Disney animation had grown leaps and bounds since then.  This represents the best things about the series.  It has cute characters and funny gags but there is emotion and a realism to the setting.  This short is both heartbreaking and touching as the ugly duckling tries to belong.  This is feature film level calibre, one of Disney's best.

3. Music Land (1935)
Very different and much more surreal than Disney's other shorts, but it all works.  The setting of the two battling music kingdoms is well set up and the short's commitment to the music filled world is great.  There is no dialogue, all of the characters speak in musical notes.  There are great gags such as the characters writing on staff paper or using a xylophone as a raft.  Not the most famous Disney short, but definitely one of the best.

2. The Old Mill (1937)
The first use of the multiplane camera and the extra depth shows.  The realistic look of the setting is absolutely beautiful.  I have seen stills from this for sale, not because this cartoon is popular but because this cartoon is such a work of art.  One of Disney's most artistically driven cartoons.

1. Three Little Pigs (1933)
Was there any question?  I named this one of the most important steps in Disney's evolution.  This is one of the most popular cartoons of all time and still holds up to this day.


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  2. when i was 6th class i watched Little Hiawatha episode daily you after see your blog i remember my childhood memories ( THE CAT CONCERTO TOM AND JERRY )