Silly Symphonies: It’s Research!

Yes, research! In the interest of social and behavioral science, I watched a few of the Silly Symphonies mentioned in Disneyanity  on Disney+ yesterday. I was tired and just couldn’t seem to get my butt in gear (Mom! Remember my brother and I wiggling our butts around like a stick shift when you used that figure of speech on us? “I’m having trouble with my clutch!”), so instead of grumping about what a lazy person I was all day and feeling bad about myself, I decided to try something different.

No, I did not use my amazing willpower to get up off the couch and do what needed to be done!

I decided to take the day off from other activities and read more of my book, watch some of the shows mentioned in it, talk on the phone with my mom and my brother, and just generally chill. I did feel a twinge of guilt for eating the rest of the oatmeal cookies AND the last of the peanut butter pretzels, but that’s what happens when I read. I must nibble! Which reminds me, I really need to find better reading nibbles. Any ideas? Raw veggies are boring but probably a good bet.

silly symphonies
By Walt Disney Productions – Published by The Walt Disney Company, Fair use, Link

The first few shows mentioned in Disneyanity are Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy which I’ve seen about a thousand times. Both are shown in Main Street Cinema at Disneyland, and between my own childhood and my children’s I’ve spent quite a bit of time in there. No need to rewatch those, so I skipped to the Silly Symphonies. The Ugly Duckling I still remember well so I moved on to Flowers and Trees, The Goddess of Spring, and The Grasshopper and the Ants!

In Flowers and Trees, the animation was beautiful, the story told without a word, beautiful. I loved the feminine tree dancing, the curve of her “breast” seen each time she turned, so subtle. The old tree stump getting jealous and starting a fire, and the reaction of the forest. He only hurt himself in the end, just as jealousy does to us.

And then there was The Goddess of Spring. I will admit watching the character dance made me laugh. The animation of the 30’s, I’m not sure what it is, but her arms and body are elongated and moving in such a strange way. Just a tad creepy, really.

In the book, Brode writes “And yet numerous critics, professional as well as (in the age of the Internet and IMBD) amateur, complain that ‘Disney gets the story all wrong.’ Which is a naïve approach to the continuing art of storytelling. In fact, there is no original version of the Persephone tale in existence. During the Greek Golden Age, poets drew on oral versions of fables dating back to Mycenean and other early agricultural societies, existing long before anyone set down narratives in writing. What Disney achieved is what those storytellers earlier did; take a tale with ongoing/universal appeal for humanity itself and relate this so as to ring true for the citizenry of the artist’s own time.”

That’s what we do, it’s why we tell stories in the first place. We all know that there are no completely original stories. If my kids and I had seen this version, I would have become curious about its origin, and looked up other versions and shared them with my kids. This version is 90 years old. How would it be rewritten and presented today?

The Grasshopper and the Ant. Man, I can envision an entirely different kind of story. I do understand the point of Aesop’s fable was to encourage citizens to work together, not slack, help the community prepare for winter, but wouldn’t that have been better told as an errant fellow-ant instead of a grasshopper? I would retell the story as a cautionary tale about how different people (insects) live a different kind of life, all according to their own principles, each having its own motivations and outcomes, but all respected. An “I’m not crazy. I’m just not you.” story.

That reminds me of us making fun of tv shows and cartoons to that put WAY too much emphasis on “diversity” and not nearly enough on the content of the story. There are clever storytelling ways to get a point across without being too preachy or obvious, and Walt was the master of that.

As an afterthought (I really wasn’t ready to go make dinner), I decided to watch one more show, Ferdinand the Bull!

I distinctly remember reading this book as a kid. I know…you’re surprised that I loved books a kid too, but it’s true. This was one of my favorite picture books, one of the hundreds of classics I bought and read to my own kids as they grew up. The short movie was every bit as cute. I haven’t seen the new movie, but I think I’ll watch it today and see how they remade it into a longer feature.

Now…here’s where the author of Disneyanity and I part ways. He says shows like Ferdinand the Bull (1938) and The Reluctant Dragon (1941) were a statement on Walt’s position on homosexuality. I disagree. Ferdinand was a passivist, not homosexual. He simply wasn’t interested in fighting. As to the Reluctant Dragon, I haven’t seen it lately, but I do remember him being rather “effeminate” as well, but I do believe it was also, at the time, more of a statement about being different.

And THAT is a universal topic, one on which we could all use some continued education today. Just because someone looks a certain a way, here a bull and a dragon, doesn’t mean they will act like you believe they should. We should all be taking people at who they actually say they are, not what we think they should be.

Which makes me think again. Isn’t that the better way to tell a story? Lately it seems everything around me, every book, movie, club, etc. is segmented into narrower and narrower niches. If I don’t see exactly myself in the story, and if the story isn’t exactly about my likes/dislikes, culture, or situation, then it isn’t for me, and I can’t learn anything from it. At least that’s what I feel I’m being told.

I think that this is the kind of thing the keeps us all separate and fighting. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to make stories that help us realize that we are all different in a million different ways, but one greater thing unites us? We are all human.

That made me think of a story I’d like to see. One that shows us how much we all inadvertently misunderstand each other and that’s what creates the conflict.

Picture this: A large community that seemingly speaks the same language and fights constantly, but as the story progresses you realize that they use the same words but each has their own, entirely different meanings. When one character says hand me the salt, another character throws it toward him. This opens into a fight because the original character believes that the thrower is hostile. The thrower just thinks the asker is completely crazy. Then somehow, they learn that “hand me” means something totally different to each of them.

I think Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, and Jim Carrey need to be in this.  

Misunderstandings about meaning and intent, assuming that you know what a person wants or needs, and overstepping each other’s personal boundaries, are what start 99% of the battles we are facing right now. Good storytelling can help us here.

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