USA / 1933
Of the seventy five Silly Symphonies animated shorts produced by the Walt Disney company from 1929 to 1939, Three Little Pigs was by far the most successful.
The original Silly Symphonies concept was, as the name suggests, a series of cinema shorts which were accompaniments to pieces of music, almost like the music videos of the day. As the intention here wasn’t to sell records however, the music wasn’t necessarily contemporary popular hits, it could be old standards or classical pieces or anything else that inspired the animators. The films were mainly one-offs, with no continuing characters or themes, unlike the Mickey Mouse shorts which were also being made by Disney Studios at the time.
As the Silly Symphonies series progressed however it became less about the music and more about the company experimenting in pushing the art and techniques of animation, and in doing so, developed (not necessarily invented) many of the building blocks of animated films we take for granted today; advanced character animation, multi plane camera, special effects animation (see also The Old Mill article in this list), emotional storytelling and even full-colour film all emanated from this avenue of intense experimentation from the studios.
Whereas films like The Old Mill pushed the envelope of special effects, realism and multi plane photography, Three Little Pigs represents a big step forward in the sophistication of character animation, pushing Disney way ahead of the competition. The three pigs, although sharing almost identical character design, have very distinct personalities, which are defined by brilliantly expressive animation.
The lead animator Fred Moore, one of the great animators of the Disney Studios’ golden years, was known for his appealing drawing style and was credited for the classic redesign of Micky Mouse for Fantasia. Moore was tragically killed in a car accident in 1952.
Three Little Pigs is typically Disney in that it redesigns an old fable for a new audience. It became one of the most successful short films of all time, a cinema attraction in its own right rather than just a supporting film, and won that year’s Oscar for short film. Its theme song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” became a huge hit in the depression years, as the song, and therefore the film, came to express and symbolize the hope and resilience of the American people during harsh economic times. During the early years of World War II it was also used to refer to Hitler’s expansion in Europe. This made it, whether by accident or intention, almost unique among Disney cartoons in that it could be considered a political allegory (another candidate would be the 1943 Donald Duck short, Der Fuehrer’s Face).
One sequence in Three Little Pigs was self-censored; originally showing the Big Bad Wolf dressed up as a stereotypical Jewish peddler, this was quickly removed and changed to have the character dressed as a brush salesman. This was used by Walt Disney’s critics as evidence of anti-Semitism, but this charge was refuted by everyone close to him and is perhaps best seen in context of the aforementioned Der Fuehrer’s Face which was an unambiguous attack on the rise of Fascism. In actual fact this kind of gag was typical of the unfortunate casual stereotyping common at the time in much popular entertainment. At least Disney realised it was offensive and cut the scene.
Disney followed Three Little Pigs with three sequels, failing, however, to achieve the success of the original. This is believed to have convinced him of the value of moving forwards with new ideas and taking risks, rather than adopting the cautious and short-sighted policy of sequels, an approach which reaped rewards for his company. His slogan after this was “You can’t top pigs with pigs!”
Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!