A look back at Disney from 1960 and earlier. Here are the top 20 old Disney cartoons:
20. The Ugly Duckling – 1939, Silly Symphony
Oh the feels. The classic story is given a particularly poignant update in the sequence when the duckling seems to have found happiness with a decoy.
19. Who Killed Cock Robin? – 1935, Silly Symphony
A weird little retelling, with caricatures of Mae West, Harpo Marx, and Stepin Fetchit, amongst others. Amusing, musical little short.
18. The Little House – 1952
A Mary Blair short, with her trademark visuals. Though best in her longer works, this adaptation of the picture book is saved from saccharine by Blair’s artistic quality.
17. The Brave Little Tailor – 1938, Mickey Mouse
Visually beautiful, heroic Mickey takes on a giant, with a little twist at the end. It is the most successful of the attempted adaptations of existing fables and fairy-tales in shorts.
16. The Truth About Mother Goose – 1957
Disney decided the fifties were an era to educate America with their shorts. This unusual cartoon explains the history behind old nursery rhymes.
15. Music Land – 1935, Silly Symphony
Symphony and Jazz are at odds, with a pair of discordant young lovers…not an original plot. But it is perfect to showcase the ‘Silly Symphony’ format, with music in place of words, high imagination, and a tender quality, without being pap (at one point King Sax is seen ‘tickling’ a Ukelele hula girl…)
14. Ferdinand the Bull – 1938
Academy Award-winning, this adaptation of the classic children’s book is perfect Disney of the late 30s. A quiet protagonist, an obvious moral, plenty of humor and a little action. This is the first of Disney’s trademark gentler cartoons.
13. Clock Cleaners – 1937, Mickey Mouse
Disney came close to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in this short. It’s the mark of a great cartoon when Goofy’s high-teetering antics can keep you on the edge of your seat. This is an example of a short whose staying power resides in the timing and gags.
12. Ben and Me – 1953
Disney only did a few shorts longer than ten minutes. (‘Paul Bunyan’ jumps to mind.) The difficulty is holding the audience’s attention with, well, two-dimensional characters. The ‘Me’ of this short is colonial Amos Mouse a Sterling Holloway narrated-character almost as interesting Ben Franklin.
11. Goofy Gymnastics – 1949, Goofy
“Boy, did you see that? Nobody takes a wallop like Goofy. What timing! What finesse! What a genius!” So says Roger Rabbit, viewing this cartoon. Goofy was never my favorite. I preferred the irascible Donald to the dope. But this cartoon may be the apex of physical comedy in Disney.
10. Donald Applecore – 1952, Donald Duck
Donald’s humor, much like his Loony counterpart Daffy, lies in quality of his foil. The nephews never got the best laughs out of Donald’s anger, probably since they were family. With the nephews we always see the plot from their point of view, and predictably watch the follow-through. But Chip and Dale, wily and surprising, get Donald explosively mad in this cartoon. The comedy escalates quickly.
9. In the Bag – 1956, Humphrey the Bear
Humphrey the Bear got his own series – for two cartoons. His humor is not subtle. Leonard Maltin supposedly said these shorts were ‘belly-laughs’ which typically is not Disney. But the quality of the humor is the question. Humphrey is hapless, with just enough guile so we don’t feel bad at laughing at his consistent failures, losses, and fumbles. The portly ranger, too, is an underappreciated character.
8. Thru the Mirror – 1936, Mickey Mouse
This is a jazzy short, loosely based on ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. It’s a great product of its era. The short earns high points in the imagination category, transforming a living room and den into a world of living beings, some sixty years before ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Not only that, it succeeds in creating a unique animated dance scene worthy of Astaire, and duel worthy of ‘Stardust’.
7. The Band Concert – 1935, Mickey Mouse
The first color Disney cartoon. The first time Goofy, Donald, and Mickey shared a short. Goofy was still a peripheral character, but Mickey and Donald’s antagonism had already been developed in earlier cartoons. What makes the two so great in ‘The Band Concert’ is that each gets in a number of quality potshots at the other. Nor is either, really, to blame for their actions, making the escalation even funnier.
6. A Cowboy Needs a Horse – 1958
In 1951, UPA won an Academy Award for their excellent ‘Gerald McBoing Boing’. The UPA style – angular, flat, modern – was almost antithetical to Disney’s artistic style, coming out of the 40s. Disney spent the decade developing their style (compare ‘Ichabod’ to ‘Sleeping Beauty’). In 1958 they created the best artistic answer to UPA’s challenge, and arguably did it better.
5. Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom – 1953, Adventures in Music
Academy Award-winning, this short blends the new UPA-influenced style with Disney’s drive to educate in the 50s. So we get an animated music history lesson, how all instruments were developed. Attempting to be global in scope, shots at multiculturalism come off as vaguely offensive. Yet the music, artistry, and unusual subject matter combine to create an unforgettably smart work.
4. Steamboat Willie – 1928, Mickey Mouse
This is the first Disney cartoon with sound, and the oldest entry on this list. Mickey Mouse had only starred in two previous cartoons, and his appearance quickly became iconic. Walt Disney had been making animated films since 1921, but for most, ‘Steamboat’ is the moment Disney became recognizable. The amusing short also features audience’s first chance to see Mickey go toe to toe with his nemesis Pete.
3. Donald in Mathmagic Land – 1959, Donald Duck
From the earliest on the list, we come now to the latest. Walt Disney decided to dust off this excellent Academy Award-nominated short in 1961, as the first program aired on Wonderful World of Color. A generation grew up with it, showed it their kids, and now their grandkids are learning the beauty and wonder of mathematics through a visually stunning blend of animation and live footage. Artistically ‘Mathmagic Land’ is a high point of the 1950s UPA style, and marks the decline of the short era until quite recently, with works like ‘Paperman’. Unlike Goofy and Mickey, both of whom have had features since 2010, Donald hasn’t had another feature since 1965, and the last few are the worst examples of educational films that Disney used their animation department for in that decade. With luck Donald will return to his former position in the near future.
2. The Skeleton Dance – 1929, Silly Symphonies
The first ‘Silly Symphony.’ A weird plot, as we watch a quartet of skeletons dance in a graveyard. That’s it. There are no words in the short, setting a trend for the Silly Symphonies to follow. Simplicity leads to timelessness. Anyone can understand the humor, the visuals, the appeal of the cartoon. Unlike later Symphonies, there is no moral or lesson. When I show people this cartoon they are still entertained, often puzzled, and always laughing. It gets to the root of animation’s greatest talent, which is the presentation the bizarre, even the absurd. This dance macabre comes years before Fleischer will master the black and white surrealism in Betty Boop shorts such as ‘Minnie the Moocher’ and ‘Snow White.’ It also helped Disney diversify – for the next almost ten years shorts will be divided between the ‘Mickey Mouse’ series, often repetitive, and the new breadth of imagination in the ‘Symphonies’.
1. The Old Mill – 1937, Silly Symphonies
Academy Award winning is the least of the accolades. For this cartoon Disney’s team invented the multiplane camera, which allows for a three-dimensional effect. This camera will, henceforth, dominate animation. As far as the plot, we follow the story of a night in the mill, again, so simple as to be impossible not to understand. Visually stunning, the timing and use of music is also perfect to create suspense and engage the viewer. If I could pick only one Disney cartoon to show people, ‘The Old Mill’ would be my choice. With drama and humor, triumph and tragedy, in ten minutes it is surprisingly diverse for a seemingly limited subject. This short also marks a definitive break from the older, repetitive style of animation found in works like ‘The Skeleton Dance’. Even the repeated sequence of the swallow going round the gears is done with alternating perspectives, zooming, angles, and panning. Animation so often creates the incredible – flying anvils, King Neptune’s palace, fantastic beasts – but this shows the potential for the ordinary, an old mill, being beautiful and captivating.