Culture

10 Classic Disney Cartoons For Introducing Mythology & Morality to the Next Generation

My New Year’s Resolutions this year:

Dear Spencer Klavan,

I’d like to congratulate you for your first PJ Lifestyle piece that we published today, “10 Movies Stolen Right Out of The Odyssey.” Editing it and talking with you inspired me to finally get around to finishing a list that’s been on my mind lingering for a few weeks now. But I’m also going to twist things up a bit to really start pushing this list business further. I wrote my previous list post in letter format to Lisa De Pasquale in response to her book Finding Mr. Righteous, and I think it’s a style I’m going to continue and encourage for others as a way to, borrowing a phrase from my wife, kill two stones with one bird. This month I’m going to start focusing to try and write more lists myself but they’ll be with the increased goal of trying to encourage dialogue between writers and readers and to inspire ideas for more articles.

Over the course of several months this spring I watched through and featured all of the Silly Symphony Disney cartoons from the 1930s in the PJ Lifestyle Cartoon at Noon feature. They’re all available on YouTube and are filled with insights into the period’s culture, fashions, racial shortcomings, and technological developments. In studying them and now in comparing to other studios’ generally less impressive releases, it’s clear how Disney dominated: he continually pushed the technology further and he used it to develop meaningful art drawing from deep, substantive mythological sources to promote positive moral values. I believe cinematically these efforts reached their peak with Fantasia, what has become my favorite film of late, and whose pieces can be seen in some of these earlier efforts.

Spencer, with your background in classics and your interest in bringing out some of the dark, hidden aspects of Greek and Roman mythology and their relation to our culture today I’m really excited about the ideas you’re going to start developing. Here are some of the ideas that I’ve been considering courtesy of some of the mythology, folklore, and fables Disney drew from in making his shorts.

CCing some of the other Lifestyle writers exploring pop culture and moral value themes on occasion too: Chris Queen, Susan L.M. Goldberg, Kathy Shaidle, and Hannah Sternberg, I’d invite you to consider these subjects too in your own writings. (And if anyone else would like to submit a blog post responding to these ideas DaveSwindlePJM @ gmail.com or lets talk on Twitter: @DaveSwindle. I’d like to start featuring more Twitter discussions at PJ Lifestyle.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzM7OIOKEik

1. “Playful Pan,” the 15th Silly Symphony, released December 28, 1930

This early Silly Symphony, from the period when they were still in black and white, features the fertility god Pan playing his flute, inspiring nature to come alive. Then when a bolt of lightning strikes a tree a fire breaks out. Pan returns to save the animals, hypnotizing the flame and luring it into a lake.

Spencer, it didn’t occur to me while we were talking but with your musical background in addition to your Classics training you might be in a unique position to discuss the power of music in myth. In studying the Disney films and in researching on early religious practices — Shamanism, per Weston La Barre  — I’ve seen a recurring pattern of images and themes. Throughout the cartoons and into Snow White it’s very common for a character to take control of nature through song. I think in a sense this image of flute playing or singing hypnotizing animals and plants or fire into following direction can be understood more in a literal sense too, that the music we create and that we listen to can shape us  and our worlds in strange ways.

“It is also significant that all early musical instruments-drum, musical bow, rasp, rattle or harp-were originally shaman’s magic paraphernalia specifically and still are among primitive Siberian and American Indian tribes.” – Weston La Barre, page 422 of Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNOt9LEX3ho

2. “King Neptune,” the 30th Silly Symphony, released September 17, 1932

In this Silly Symphony cartoon the pirates stop to try and kidnap the mermaids, with Neptune sending the sea animals to make war against them before stepping in himself. I recently picked up a graphic novel version of the odyssey, and it reminds me of the way Neptune, god of the sea, played the role of antagonist. The war against the randomness and capriciousness of the gods can be understood as the perpetual conflict of pagan society: man is always subservient to nature, weaker than the forces of nature and at their mercy.

Yesterday was just a day filled with great writer phone calls. Spencer, a few hours after we brainstormed I got to catch up with Chris Queen, my fellow Disney aficionado who has written many lists analyzing cultural themes in Disney movies and parks. One of the things that I commented on, in thinking about how much April enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean during our years as pass holders, was the way that the culture of pirates, having been defeated and conquered had now been reinvented as amusements for children, the actual reality of how cruel and horrible they were whitewashed into the background, but still there when we look closely.

The Odyssey is actually a pretty violent, brutal story when we get beyond the outlines most of us received in junior high. So too with the Disney cartoons drawing from emotionally charged myth — this too is a fight over sex and violence, surrounded by a reminder of the randomness of nature. In a naturalistic sense when Neptune is attacking the ship it can be understood as an ordinary storm, and this artistic rendering is the literary exaggeration.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hcRkmZJ4Xc

3. “Babes in the Woods,” the 32nd Silly Symphony, released November 19, 1932

This Silly Symphony blends Hansel and Gretel with Snow White to create a vivid archetype. I see some of the roots going deeper, with the witch as a blending of two witches in the Odyssey. Spencer, your piece mentioned Calypso, who used her music to seduce Odysseus and keep him for years. Another figure who detained the hero’s homecoming for a year was Circe who also had a penchant for collecting humans-turned-into-creatures.

For some reason in considering this archetype Valerie Jarrett comes to mind, with the Obamas as kind of the lost children she has cast her spells on to implement her agenda. I’m going to plan to explore deeper into the depictions of witchcraft in myth and culture to see if there are any other useful parallels for interpreting today’s events… 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3mkimHFmo0

4. “Father Noah’s Ark,” the 35th Silly Symphony, released April 8, 1933

Apart from editing several pieces I missed out on direct participation in the Noah debate a few months back. But it’s finally coming on Blu Ray via Netflix tomorrow. I look forward to seeing Darren Aronofsky’s interpretation, which I gather tends to straddle the line between Pagan and Jewish traditions. (See Susan L.M. Goldberg’s analysis here: Noah: A Good Jewish Boy’s Cinematic Drash.)

After seeing it then I’ll plan to do a list ranking Aronofsky’s films from worst to best. Have you seen any of his movies? He’s much maligned by many PJ readers but he’s one of the few filmmakers who’s remained one of my favorites for over a decade now as my own values changed so much and he continued putting out great films.

5. “The Pied Piper,” the 38th Silly Symphony, released September 16, 1933

This is one of my favorites, and one can see how it parallels with Playful Pan and the Shamanistic tradition of music taking control of nature and of people. And the conclusion is such a delightful Disney fantasy of being able to escape an injustice through magic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16ywzJ3U7rg

6. “The Grasshopper and the Ants,” the 42nd Silly Symphony, released February 17 1934

This is a Silly Symphony that in recent years has gone viral as an ideal fable for the age of Obama. I think it’s a fantastic model for how fables can be utilized to communicate basic moral truths. This medium of the cartoon fable set to music should be revived and celebrated more in the YouTube era. I wonder what other Aesop’s Fables might have potential for delivering important ideas today…

7. “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the 49th Silly Symphony, released December 8, 1934 January 19 1935

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oCo6svPV18

8. “The Wise Little Hen,” the 45th Silly Symphony  May 19, 1934

Looks like Ronald Reagan figured out how to use this one back in 1976:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXfjHUztULY

9. “The Goddess of Spring,” the 48th Silly Symphony, released December 8, 1934, and directed by Wilfred Jackson

This is perhaps the most stunning, serious and direct adaptation of  Greek myth in the whole series. It was also an important experiment in developing the Disney aesthetic, the first attempt at realistic, humanlike characters.

Dissecting the sex and gender themes in this myth and cartoon is probably something worthy of a whole list…

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9qC-pk6K2U

10. “The Golden Touch,” the 50th Silly Symphony, released  February 16 1935, the final cartoon officially directed by Walt Disney (and generally regarded as a failure of his by critics but I don’t know what they’re talking about. This is a wonderful cartoon.)

Spencer, this last cartoon with mythological sources is another of my favorites in the series. I think it’s so useful for holding up as an example of how myths can deliver moral lessons in compact, entertaining forms. I think as you start exploring myths in a more popular sense and mining them for insights about today we should start thinking about what narratives have the most potential to be reinvented for today, in these web-friendly mediums.

Best wishes to you and I look forward to editing more of your pieces,

David