Monday, June 1, 2015

194. The Big Bad Wolf

SERIES: Silly Symphony

The Three Little Pigs return to find they share a common enemy with Little Red Riding Hood: the Big Bad Wolf.

The Three Little Pigs was a surprise success for Walt Disney. More than any Silly Symphony that came before, it was extraordinarily popular with a theme song that spread like wildfire. And much like today, the public began clamoring for a follow-up. Theater owners who saw the draw of the first short began to demand "more pigs". Walt had no interest in sequels. He didn't want to repeat his past successes, he wanted to move forward and try new things. He didn't see the Three Little Pigs as repeat characters like Mickey Mouse; it was a telling of the fairy tale, the story was told, the end. However, Walt did bow to the whim of the people, and the company ultimately made three more shorts featuring the Three Little Pigs (the Pigs also made cameo appearances in a few others). The final one, "The Practical Pig", was released as the first and only short in the Three Little Pigs own series (today it's generally lumped in with the Silly Symphonies like the others). The first of the Pig sequels, "The Big Bad Wolf", ultimately proves that Walt was correct and that sequels are rarely as good as the original.

Perhaps Walt's reluctance to go forward with a sequel explains the story for this short, which is not really about the Pigs at all. Instead, it's mostly an attempt to tell "Little Red Riding Hood" in the Silly Symphony tradition. Since a Big Bad Wolf features in both stories, it is clever to use the character already introduced. The short ends up being a slightly uncomfortable marriage of stories between Red Riding Hood and the Pig that never quite pays off. Audiences who came wanting more pigs were probably a bit disappointed. One wonders whether a straight, swine-less Red Riding Hood short might have worked better. Yet, I appreciate Disney's attempt to please audiences while doing something different, and while it's not the best of the Pigs shorts, it has fun moments. It works better if taken more as a Red Riding Hood short than as a true sequel. The "Practical Pig" is once again the moral compass, making explicit the lesson to avoid shortcuts. But somehow I think involving the Pigs takes away from Little Red. Interestingly, by bringing a new character into the world of the Pigs, Disney ends up slowly building a kind of fairy tale world where all these characters live. The later Silly Symphonies would exploit this a little further, as characters would sometimes turn up in other shorts. Eventually, the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony series cross-pollinated characters (Donald Duck began in a Silly Symphony before jumping over to Mickey cartoons, and Pluto starred in a Silly Symphony before getting his own series). Those who think Marvel's "cinematic universe" is unprecedented should pay more attention to what studios were doing in the 1930s.

I love the design on Little Red Riding Hood. She resembles a living Kewpie doll, which I'm sure was part of the intent. Take a look at her hands and how teeny tiny her fingers are! They've really played up her sort of infantile innocence with design choices like that. I also like the way she skips.

The Big Bad Wolf had several disguises in his first appearance, and this trend carries into the other shorts as well. This one introduces a new element: a tendency to now dress in feminine costumes. It's worth remembering this is years before Bugs Bunny. Having him try to seduce Red Riding Hood in the woods not as himself but in drag as "Goldilocks the Fairy Queen" is a fun it of added silliness. And even though it doesn't really go anywhere (as his disguise fails fairly quickly), the business of him flitting about from the trees and singing is delightfully goofy. I consider this short far inferior to the original, but this sequence always makes me laugh. Perhaps this disguise also helps sell the idea of him disguised as Grandma later: he has a penchant for drag disguises!

The middle of the short, which plays the Red Riding Hood exchange without porcine interference, is the highlight. The Big Bad Wolf is a fun character in the way he riffs on a well-known story. He even breaks the fourth wall at one point. I always laugh when she asks how he feels and he says, "Terrible!" in his wolf voice. Many Disney cartoons of this period feature a Jimmy Durante joke. He was a popular star of the time, known for his big nose. You may recognize him as the narrator of Frosty the Snowman. This short has perhaps the best Durante joke in the entire Disney canon, as the Wolf slips in an impression after the "what a big nose you've got!"


This cartoon follows a more sanitized version of the story. The Red Riding Hood tale is one that gets less and less grim with each generation. The earliest versions feature not only Grandma but also Little Red getting eaten by the wolf. No salvation or happy ending, just a cautionary tale about traveling through the woods. Later versions introduce a hunter who kills the wolf and frees Grandma from inside him. The Grimm version takes this one step further by not killing the wolf, but filling its belly with rocks after rescuing Grandma. More recent versions have done away with the eating altogether, and the Wolf just hides Granny in a closet or cupboard due to his haste. This is the version used by Disney. On one hand, it's sad that the story has gotten so far away from its roots, where the central incidents remain but the themes about safety do not. Still, Disney is making a cartoon for laughs not for education, and still managed to throw the lesson in there. It was smart to use the Practical Pig in the huntsman role, as he already has a history of defeating the Wolf. Just as in the first cartoon, a fireplace plays a crucial role. This time, the Pig fills the Wolf's pants with popcorn and hot coals. The popping of the corn perhaps recalls subliminally the shot of a hunter's gun. Also, I can't help wondering if the hot coals are a nod to the rocks in the belly from the Grimm version. Disney often has fun with popcorn in its cartoons. I think this may be the first time.

The final moment of the cartoon, in which the Pigs sing, "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? He's a great big sissy!" feels unearned to me in a way, and more a way to reference the prior short. He was a very real threat, and ending on "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" again is odd. Though I wonder how we are supposed to take the "great big sissy" line. Could this be the reason for the flouncy Fairy Queen garb? Is Disney insinuating a homosexual element to the word "sissy"?

I can't say I don't enjoy The Big Bad Wolf, as there are certainly moments that make me laugh. But it has nowhere near the energy or invention of The Three Little Pigs or even of later Pig shorts. As a cartoon seemingly trying to serve two masters, it's amusing but nothing more. However, it's an interesting experiment from the Disney company, testing the potential of sequels and how far they could bend their series. But it's more noteworthy for being the first Disney sequel than for being exceptionally innovative or funny.

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