Not content to rest on his Mickey Mouse-generated laurels, Walt Disney decided to expand the studio’s animated horizons. Soon after the world’s most famous rodent became a smash, Disney decided to branch into some more varied and ambitious fare with the “Silly Symphonies”. These shorts focused on music to a certain degree, and unlike the Mouse-related offerings, they featured a varying roster of characters.
The series started with 1929’s “The Skeleton Dance”, a short that lives up to its name. It’s a simple affair, as we watch some bony characters come to life and shake a skeletal leg. More than six decades later, the cartoon remains surprisingly entertaining and inventive; it’s not the best of the series, but it’s a fun affair.
From there, the Symphonies branch into all sorts of subjects. Many of these revolve around fairy tales or moral fables. We find adaptations of “The Three Little Pigs”, “The Ugly Duckling”, the story of King Midas (“The Golden Touch”), “The Tortoise and the Hare”, and “The Grasshopper and the Ants”, among many others. Some offer original tales but they feel similar, like “The Wise Little Hen”, “The Country Cousin”, “Elmer the Elephant”, and “The Flying Mouse”, all of which teach definite lessons. There’s also a biblical tale from “Father Noah’s Ark”.
Somewhat formless animal tales appear much of the time. In shorts like “Peculiar Penguins”, “Funny Little Bunnies”, “Birds of a Feather”, “Busy Beavers”, and “Just Dogs”, we see compendiums of critters who frolic together in cute ways. Additional cuteness appears during some kiddie-oriented clips. “Babes In the Woods”, “Lullaby Land”, and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” all fall into that category.
There are also some more vaguely themed pieces. “The China Plate” and “Egyptian Melodies” both feature a little ethnic flavor, while “Cookie Carnival” has some baked goods come to life. “Music Land” gives us a Romeo and Juliet style romance between some symbols of jazz and classical, and “Flowers and Trees” shows a romantic dalliance among vegetation. “The Old Mill” probably gives us the most realistic short in the bunch as it focuses on life in the titular building.
Most of the cartoons found on Mickey Mouse In Living Color stayed at a fairly high level of quality. Few were absolutely terrific, but the set also offered no real duds. The same isn’t true for Silly Symphonies. To be sure, the majority of the shorts are reasonably entertaining and fun, and a few genuine prizes emerge. However, some of the pieces seem to appear largely for historical reasons.
Actually, most of the real milestone cartoons are also pretty entertaining. “The Skeleton Dance” isn’t here solely because it was the first Symphony. Well, maybe that is why they included it, but it’s still a fun piece. “Flowers and Trees” was the first color cartoon, which ensured its presence. It’s not a classic otherwise, but it seems well executed and charming.
Probably the least entertaining of the historical clips is “The Old Mill”. The cartoon marked the debut of the multiplane camera, and it does offer some interesting visuals. However, it seems a little bland and not very interesting, though it comes across like an early test for 1940’s Fantasia, which worked on similar lines.
Easily the best of the milestone cartoons is 1934’s “The Wise Little Hen”. This piece marked the debut of one Donald Duck. Whereas Mickey Mouse’s personality changed radically after his 1928 debut in “Steamboat Willie”, the Duck basically emerged fully formed. Actually, his irascible temperament wasn’t on display, but he still came across as typically selfish. It’s great to see him in this early stage, and the cartoon is very entertaining.
Interestingly, two sequels offered excellent material. “Toby Tortoise Returns” and “The Three Little Wolves” were absolutely terrific shorts. These 1936 pieces were well executed and rich, and both seemed much funnier than average. 1933’s “The Three Little Pigs” is quite possibly the most popular short ever made, but I much prefer “Wolves” as well as another spin-off, 1939’s
”The Practical Pig”.
Other highlights include additional animal-related shorts. 1936’s “Elmer Elephant” shows the great depth of characterization the studio had started to develop by that stage. Its protagonist is warm and likable and miles beyond anything they could have done a few years earlier.
An even stronger example of this growth is demonstrated via Disney’s two versions of “The Ugly Duckling”. One was produced in 1931, while the second came out in 1939. The former’s interesting but pretty basic, while the latter really shows all of the style and substance the studio gained during the interim. It’s hard to believe the same group was responsible for both, as the 1939 edition is radically superior to the first one.
It’s also one of the best shorts in this package. It offers excellent characterizations and is a very compelling cartoon. Strangely, if you select the “Play All” option, the DVD runs the 1939 version before the original. You can change this manually, of course, but I don’t understand why they did it this way.
If I had to pick the worst of the bunch, I’d focus on a few duds. As I watched these cartoons, I gave each one a rating based on a scale of one to 10. I counted those that received a four or below as the poorest shorts. “Father Noah’s Ark” and “The China Plate” seem very basic and blah, and both “Birds of a Feather” and “Busy Beavers” also suffer from excessive simplicity and repetition. Frankly, the oldest cartoons were generally the least interesting, so it should come as no surprise that all of these came out from 1933 or earlier.
Only a few weak cartoons came from the period after 1933. The cutesy “Funny Little Bunnies” emerged in 1934, while the grating and excessively moralizing - even for Disney! - “The Golden Touch” appeared in 1935. Of my favorites - those that earned an eight or above - only “The Wise Little Hen” was created prior to 1936. I’m glad the older shorts were represented here for historical balance, but the “newer” ones - y’know, those that are only 65 years old - were clearly superior.
Unlike the chronological orientation of Mickey Mouse, Silly Symphonies gathers its shorts into various themes. As such, we find sections such as “Fables and Fairy Tales”, “Favorite Characters”, “Accent on Music”, and “Nature on the Screen”. Each disc provides a “View All” option as well. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason to the pacing within each area, and “View All” simply runs through them in the order they’re presented within the subgroups.
On one hand, I should probably be happy with this organization. After all, I most disliked the earliest cartoons, so it would have been painful to sit through so many of them one after another. Nonetheless, I still would have preferred a chronological distribution. This array seems haphazard, and it would have been more interesting to watch the series as it evolves.
Nonetheless, I remain pretty happy with Silly Symphonies. The cartoons themselves aren’t as consistently entertaining as those on Mickey Mouse In Living Color, but I can easily accept that since they cover a much wider time frame and also have to account for more historical milestones. Some of the shorts are winners, some are duds, but I’m glad to own them all just the same.
One oddity about this DVD. If you select “View All”, you won’t, at least not for DVD Two. For reasons unknown, this option omits “Woodland Café”. Instead, the program skips immediately into the supplements. You can still access “Woodland” from the submenu, but it seems weird that it fails to appear otherwise.
Silly Symphonies appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the cartoons showed a mix of problems, they remained quite solid for their age.
Sharpness generally appeared quite good. At times, some softness interfered with the presentation; periodically, sequences looked a bit blurry or out of focus. However, those instances seemed fairly infrequent, as the cartoons largely were reasonably crisp and clear. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, but some light edge enhancement did seem visible on occasion.
Print flaws varied but generally stayed minor for material of this vintage. Overall, the most significant issues related to light dust and/or grain along with some occasional marks, speckles, grit and blotches. A few examples of debris and spots occurred as well as a periodic flickering quality on the right side of the frame. Some shorts looked worse than others, and these issues didn’t always relate purely to age. Cartoons like “The Skeleton Dance” and “Flowers and Trees” seemed fairly clean, but considering their historical importance, I’d imagine Disney worked harder to keep them up to snuff. The same applied to Donald Duck’s debut in “The Wise Little Hen”, which may be the best looking cartoon in the package. Some of the shorts did look moderately rough at times; print issues never became excessive, especially when we consider the age of the films, but they could be more distracting at times. Still, I’ve seen much worse in regard to other flicks from the Thirties, and the defects remained quite modest as a whole.
Colors usually looked reasonably good, but they also seemed somewhat erratic. Much of the time the tones appeared nicely bright and vivid. They stuck mainly with primary colors, though some of the shorts provided more varied and rich tones, and they normally appeared fairly lush and distinct. However, the hues could look somewhat drab and flat at times. They were never bad, but they occasionally lacked much depth and vibrancy.
Black levels also appeared nicely rich for the most part, while shadow detail was clear and accurate throughout the shorts. As a whole, I was very pleased with the quality of the Silly Symphonies cartoons. However, I did have some trouble conjuring my grade for the picture. I ended up with a “B” but was a little uncomfortable with that for this reason: I also gave Mickey Mouse In Living Color a “B”, and that collection definitely offered more consistent images. However, that package didn’t go back as far in time; it started with 1935, whereas Symphonies stretched back to the late Twenties. That difference may seem insubstantial, but in movie time, it’s an eternity. As we go back through the Thirties, films start to look worse and worse. I expect much more from a 1939 release than I do from a 1934 movie. As such, the somewhat older vintage of many of the Symphonies led me to be more forgiving of its flaws.
The monaural audio of Silly Symphonies also demonstrated age-related concerns, and it showed the same exponential increase in issues when we progressed farther back through the year. Dialogue sounded a little edgy at times, but for the most part, the lines were acceptably clear and accurate. Effects showed a bit of distortion and harshness, but they stayed fairly clean and distinct through the shorts. Music also demonstrated variable levels of shrill and rough tones, but this wasn’t unexpected, and the score seemed reasonably solid. Decent depth accompanied some effects, such as stomping of large characters, but the track was pretty thin and tinny as a whole.
Varying levels of background concerns appeared throughout the shorts, and these intensified as we moved farther into the past. I heard modest pops, clicks, hiss and hum at times during the cartoons. These issues became more significant with the older cartoons, during which some of the background defects seemed more dominant. However, the tracks seemed pretty clean for audio of this era. Overall, the sound heard during Silly Symphonies won’t win any awards, but I found the mixes to come across as pretty clear and accurate for their age.
Silly Symphonies packs a few extras, most of which appear on DVD Two. Both DVDs start with the same 60-second Introduction from film critic/historian Leonard Maltin. He relates the genesis of the “Silly Symphonies” series as he leads us into the package. In addition, both DVDs feature Leonard’s Picks areas. These include cartoons found elsewhere on the discs, but if you watch them here, you’ll find quick introductions to these prominent pieces. Maltin’s comments last between 35 seconds and 82 seconds, and they appear prior to “The Flying Mouse”, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”, “The Three Little Pigs”, “The Tortoise and the Hare”, “The Grasshopper and the Ants”, “The Ugly Duckling” (both 1931 and 1939 versions), “Music Land”, “Flowers and Trees”, and “The Skeleton Dance”. Note that the intro for the two “Ugly Ducklings” shorts is the same. None of Maltin’s remarks are terribly fascinating, but they offer a nice little piece of background for these cartoons.
DVD One includes no obvious extras other than the various introductions, though I’ll return to the disc when I get into Easter eggs. DVD Two provides the main supplements. In addition to “Leonard’s Picks”, we get two featurettes. Songs of the Silly Symphonies provides an 11-minute and 40-second chat between Maltin and composer Richard Sherman, part of the team who did the music for Mary Poppins and other Disney flicks. The two discuss Sherman’s experiences with the studio and they also cover their impressions of some “Silly Symphonies” tunes. It’s a nicely chatty and engaging little piece, and the insights Sherman offers into working with Walt are quite good.
Maltin reappears in Silly Symphonies Souvenirs. During this 17-minute and 25-second piece, he goes through the Walt Disney Archives and talks with its founder, Dave Smith. They offer a nice tour of “Silly Symphony”-related merchandise. They start with “The Three Little Pigs”, which was the first “SS” to produce lots of materials, and they go through the history of merchandising and show us many examples. Smith also gives us some tips for bargain hunting. It’s a fun little program that lets us see some interesting gewgaws.
Lastly, we get a fine Gallery of stills. We find 119 images that are spread across thumbnails on seven screens; all except for the last one include 18 pictures. Most of these concentrate on a few different cartoons, and the package ends with a more general overview. This area includes lots of great materials; we see things such as “Good Housekeeping” pages, production photos and art, storyboards, pencil sketches and finished backgrounds, and many other items. It’s a great little collection.
As I alluded earlier, Silly Symphonies includes a mess of Easter eggs. Most of these appear on DVD One. First of all, from the menu, highlight the “S” in “Symphonies”. Press “enter” and you’ll get a 95-second clip from a Disney TV show in which Walt discusses the history of moral fables. This then leads into the same version of “The Grasshopper and the Ants” available elsewhere on the DVD.
In the “Leonard’s Picks” area of DVD One, highlight “Leonard” at the top of the screen. Click “enter” and you’ll find another snippet from a Disney TV program. In this one, we learn about Eugene Field, the writer of “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”; the cartoon follows this.
Even better are the three cartoons not found elsewhere on the disc. >From the “Captions” screen, if you highlight the urchin in the bottom left of the screen and click “enter”, you’ll see a 40 second Disney TV show about “The Three Little Pigs”. This is fun, but the real treat comes afterward, when we get the entire “The Practical Pig” short; it runs for nine minutes and three seconds including the introduction. I liked this one better than the other “Three Little Pigs”-related shorts on the DVD.
On the second “Fables and Fairy Tales” screen, highlight “Lullaby Land”, move left and click on the sword to get another Disney TV clip. That one runs for two minutes and is followed by the full “Water Babies” short. All told, this area lasts 10 minutes and 17 seconds including the TV materials. “Water Babies” is excessively cute, but it’s still a nice bonus.
Finally, from the “Favorite Characters” screen, click up from “The Wise Little Hen” to highlight a chick. Hit “enter” to get yet another Disney TV piece. It gives us a three minute and 12 second discussion of the history of “Who Killed Cock Robin?”; the short follows the introduction. The entire package lasts for 11 minutes and 42 seconds. “Cock Robin” offers one of the better cartoons in the set, which means that between it and “Practical”, two of the three “hidden” shorts top many of those easily available.
DVD Two also includes a few eggs. Go to “Nature on the Screen” and highlight “Mother Pluto”. Click left to display a “star”. Hit “enter” and we’ll see more Disney TV as Walt gives us a 62-second discussion of “The Old Mill”. The full cartoon ensues after that.
More substantial is another cartoon not available elsewhere in the set. Go to “Accent On Music” and highlight the saxophone’s hat then hit “enter”. After a 38-second Disney TV intro from Walt, we get the entire “Farmyard Symphony” short. Including Walt’s piece, the program lasts eight minutes and 50 seconds.
Note that a few of the cartoons found on this package also appear on other Disney DVDs. “Farmyard Symphony” and “Music Land” originally appeared on Make Mine Music, while both “Elmer Elephant” and “The Flying Mouse” were found on Dumbo. As one who owns both of those discs, I’d have preferred that the set only include shorts that never showed up elsewhere, but four repeat customers out of 34 total shorts isn’t a bad figure.
As a whole, I’m very pleased with the Silly Symphonies package. These shorts weren’t as consistently compelling as those on its sister Mickey Mouse In Living Color set, but they offer some very interesting moments as a whole. The picture and sound quality can be erratic, but overall they seem quite strong for such old material. Without question, Silly Symphonies falls into “must have” territory for animation fans.