Disney+ streaming service has finally been released in the United Kingdom. It became the magical escape and small mercy for many Brits during the COVID-19 lockdown. Despite, being released in the United States of America for many months, Disney+ only became available in the UK on the 24th of March, 2020.
Prior to the release of Disney+ my subscription (like other UK Disney fans) had been with DisneyLife, which similarly was a streaming site for Disney content. DisneyLife was only available in Ireland and the United Kingdom leading me to believe it was a test drive for Disney+. Both services offer the key Disney content such as Disney movies and television shows. The key difference with Disney+ is it offers more content that would attract audiences past the Disney fandom. Some key new additions include options to view The Simpsons, Marvel Movies, and indeed more Disney content. Furthermore, DisneyLife had some minor issues, for example, severs would crash consistently and nothing was in chronological order. Thankfully, Disney+ has rectified these issues and truly surpassed DisneyLife.
However, as a self proclaimed Disney nerd, my favourite function on Disney+ is the Through the Decades section. This allows you to watch the Disney content by the year it was released. The history involved in Disney films adds another layer of magic. This option easily allows us to see the evolution of animation and storytelling. The servers do all the work for you, as it orders the films and animation shorts by their release date. This includes Mickey films and selections of the Silly Symphony’s in the order they first appeared in cinema. Having glanced through I discovered a few films I have not have seen before, including some films that were not released by Disney originally. Of course, any true fan will notice they do not have all the shorts or movies but there is a large quantity to view so I will focus on the positives.
In this blog, I will be reviewing the films and shorts in the chronological order they appear via the app and the quality from the Disney+ service. I do not claim to offer any further nuance to the Disney fandom over then my sincere love of animation and movie history. I shall break the era’s down into sections due to the sheer volume of content.
Steamboat Willie 1928
The first on the Disney+ binge is Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. This film is the linchpin for the Disney company, creating not only the face of the company, but also demonstrating the ingenuity of filmmakers for years to come. This simple film may not look like much to modern audiences yet it is secured in history as the first animated film with synchronized sound! Whilst the cartoon is very sketchy by today’s standards it must have been groundbreaking for viewers during its release date. It is a must-watch for a true Disney fan.
The story itself is pretty dull, Mickey is driving a steamboat under the order of the mean Captain Pete. Minnie Mouse is trying to board the boat and Mickey assists her aboard. The remainder of the short focuses on Mickey trying to cheer her up after a goat eats her musical instrument. He does this by playing Turkey in the Straw, using the animals as instruments. At some parts, it looks like animal cruelty as he wrings a duck’s neck back and forth to make it quack. Nevertheless, the film offers light-hearted humour and is a piece of animation history.
Santa’s Workshop 1932
Disney+ error number 1. Any true Disney nerd will know this is not the next film that was released after Steamboat Willie but, Disney+ still gets points for adding a good majority of these animated shorts. There is a considerable jump in the years, losing some key Mickey Mouse films and Silly Symphony’s that were made in black and white. I also have a slight criticism as this film was technically realised after Flowers and Trees, which was the first Silly Symphony in colour. Given it was released in the same year I can forgive this small error. Most films on Disney+ are well organised so let us overlooks this nearsighted mistake.
The film itself is pretty simple, it involves the elves preparing in Santa’s Workshop for the important sleigh ride on Christmas Eve. The animation is very vibrant when compared to Steamboat Willie, yet it still retains this comic book style or drawing were things not entirely refined.
Interestingly, Disney+ have edited out a segment from this film which is ironically included on the DisneyLife version. This segment involved racial stereotypes among the toys. I can understand Disney’s decision to do this despite it being part of the history of the company. It is worth noting Disney+ placed a disclaimer on the older movies stating these films may contain outdated cultural deceptions.
Flowers and Trees 1932
This was actually the first Silly Symphony in colour! The film is full of vibrant pallets that still stand out in the modern cinema. I particularly like the villainous tree stump animation with its green snaked tongue. Unlike the previous two shorts in this Disney marathon, this film offers a structured storyline.
Two prosperous trees fall in love and the flowers are joyous at their union. Unfortunately, an evil tree stump seeks to destroy their love by creating a forest fire. When the tree stump falls victims to his own flames only the rain is able to save the forest. As nature is revived the two trees are able to marry.
Mickey Ye Olden Days 1933
Mickey Mouse returns! Whilst this cartoon is in black and white one can see that the animation style has improved vastly from Steamboat Willie. For example, the animals are more recognisable when compared to their 1928 counterparts. The story arch is also considerably better than Steamboat Willie.
Minnie’s father has betrothed her to the Goofy Prince and when she refuses the marriage she is locked in a tower. Mickey comes to her rescue but he must battle the prince in order to win his fair maiden’s hand.
Personally, I find most Mickey cartoons can be a little lacklustre but I really enjoyed this one. Generally, in his films, there is little to gauge my interest. Mickey is a good guy and thus has little to playoff. He may be loveable but he is not really humorous and so he works better in fairy tale stories where you expect good to overcome evil.
Three Little Pigs 1933
This is my favourite of all the Silly Symphony’s. If you decided to skip some of the shorts I would highly recommend watching this one.
I actually first became acquainted with this film through the soundtrack as a small boy. The song “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” was always a favourite in my Disney CD collection. It years later before I would see the film. It tells the classic tale of The Three Little Pigs.
What makes this Silly Symphony so memorable is the song is so darn catchy. You literally end up humming the song before it has ended. This is also the first fairy tale story used for this decade. You can see how already how Disney magic brings classic stories into a new life.
The animation is beautiful and distinct for its time. I enjoyed the small attention to details adding whimsical jokes for viewers. For example in the eldest pigs home (i.e the practical pig), the paintings of the parents on the wall. The mother is a drawing of a pig with the piglets feeding off her, but the father is portrayed as a rack of sausages.
The Silly Symphony was also a huge success with audiences of the day, so much that movie cinema ran the cartoon several months after its release. Beards were hung on the three pigs photos to show how long there had been playing at the cinema. The great financial response allowed the company to experiment further with animated movies undoubtedly paving the way for Snow White that began production in 1934.
The Big Bad Wolf 1934
Disney’s first sequel? The Big Bad Wolf works as a continuation to The Three Pigs using the narrative from the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. What is clever about this sequel is it hosts the same cast of characters. This seems plausible as both stories involve a wolf as a villain. It seems only logical it would be the same wolf.
It is clever how the Practical Pig becomes the hero of the story this time instead of the huntsman of the fairy tale. Sidenote: The Practical Pig sounds like Grumpy from Snow White. Whilst on the topic of similarities, Little Red Riding Hood, looks like a cute chubby Shirly Temple. The animation of the characters are pretty good but Little Red Riding Hood looks very cartoony when compared to Snow White. For example, Little Red’s hands look rather strange and her movements are not very fluid. Thankfully, it works well in this short and is not too noticeable.
The Grasshopper and the Ants 1934
The famous Aesop fable of the lazy grasshopper and the ants who work all summer. For anyone unfamiliar here is a brief description.
The grasshopper is a fiddler who refused to be prepared for the inevitable winter mocking the ants who were preparing to store food for winter. When the winter comes the grasshopper nearly dies whilst the ants prosper in their home. The Queen Ant shows mercy on the grasshopper but insists he must earn his keep by playing the fiddle for her ants.
The animation is pretty simple but you can enjoy the colours and characterisation of the grasshopper, he looks similar to Goofy.
The Goddess of Spring 1934
Moving from fable and fairy tale, Disney+ gives us the Greek Myth of Persephone, The Goddess of Spring. For anyone not familiar with the mythology this is a brief description.
Spring was once eternal on earth until Persephone was captured by Hades and forced to live in the underworld. Hades eventually agreed to release Persephone once a year for a small-time if she promises to return to him each winter.
Once again the animation is still lacking that refined Disney magic. I found the human animation questionable. Persephone moves around like a peculiar puppet on a string and her facial features are miles away from the animation of Snow White. Furthermore, I wasn’t a fan of the use of operatic music. Whilst I do love theatrical music there seemed to be a disconnect for me in this film. Indeed, I found the singing of Persephone hard to make out at times. Perhaps, this is something to do with the way the audio was recorded at the time.
The Wise Little Hen 1934
If you are a Donald Duck fan, this was an important Silly Symphony. This is his debut appearance in cinema. Ironically, Donald Duck does not do much in this film so it is a wonder he ended up becoming so popular. Indeed in this short, he looks more like a duck then the anamorphic creature we know and love today. The film is based on an American fable called The Little Red Hen.
The Wise Hen and her chicks want help harvesting corn, but get no aid from the lazy Donald Duck and Peter Pig. It is only when she is able to enjoy eating the corn that the pair will realise the error of there ways. I found the music in this short much more enjoyable than The Goddess of Springe. I particually liked the way the hen clucks through her singing.
The Tortoise and the Hare 1935
The return of Aesop’s fables! Now we focus on the famous story of the race between the tortoise and hare. This fable holds the important message that slow and steady wins the race.
The film is very enjoyable because of the hatred the audience builds for the hare. Max the hare is an arrogant show-off, he has a typical ‘jack the lad’ attitude so you are really rooting for the tortoise. Sidenote: The animation of Max is a mixture of Bugs Bunny and Lampwick from Pinnochio.
Overall, the animation style in this film looks like illustrative work right form a child’s boo and gives a Winnie The Pooh vibe. One small detail I loved was the signs in the background are written incorrectly, reminding me again of Winnie the Pooh.
The Golden Touch 1935
The film works as a musical retelling of King Midas.
A magical dwarf gives a greedy king the ability to turn everything to gold. The king enjoys the newfound gift until he realizes he cannot eat. The animators were clever enough to draw King Midas as a large gluttonous man that could be compared to King Henry VIII. This befits the moral of this story as the king becomes miserable wanting to exchange gluttony for gluttony. The dwarf returns offering to remove the curse but ends up taking everything the king owns in exchange for a simple burger.
The audio seems to be getting better or the diction from actors has improved either way I can make out all the words. The animation is fun but cartoony. King Midas has a small pink potatoes nose, this seems to be a common thing in old animation. It is not a bad thing per se, but you can see how animation became more realistic as years progress.
Mickey Mouse the Band Concert 1935
This was the first Mickey short to feature Donald Duck leading to the eventual dream team of Mickey, Donald and Goofy.
I mentioned before that Mickey shorts can be lacklustre and this was also the opinion of the company. The creative team felt it was necessary to add different personalities. Donald Duck was the perfect addition to balance Mickey’s kind disposition. Donald is angry and funny all at the same time.
The film is about Mickey’s band playing a live concert when a twister appears. However, this does not stop the band playing even after they are swept up by the storm. The animation works in synch with the music so seamlessly that it reminds me of a segment from Fantasia.
The Three Little Wolves 1936
This is the third instalment in The Three Little Pigs story. It felt appropriate to end the first section of this blog post on this film.
The story now follows Big Bad Wolf and his three cubs who plan to kill the pigs once more. Meanwhile, the frivolous pigs are mocking their eldest brother who has built a wolf alarm. The rest of this film works as a little pig retelling of ‘the boy who cried wolf’. This seems like a befitting addition to the ‘Little Pigs’ films.
For some reason, the wolf now speaks with a German accent from time to time, but it works. It was great to see the wolf drag himself up again this time as Boo Peep which adds another nursery rhyme/ fairy tale element into the mix. Overall, I love the Little Pigs films because of the wit and music and each sequel seems to add more to the story.
In Part 2 we get the first full length animated movie ever made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs