This weekend, millions of viewers will likely tune in on Sunday night for the 84th Academy Awards. I enjoy watching the telecast each year, mainly as it helps remind me of the past year in cinema. There's less incentive for me to watch who wins; after all, the award is rather arbitrary and not always the indicator of quality, but of popular consensus/bias of the time. It's more fun to see the filmmaking community come together and celebrate each other's work. Still, it's always fun to have yearly marathons when I dig out all Academy Award-winning Best Pictures in my collection. It's likely the only time of the year that I'll sit down and watch movies I may otherwise neglect, like 1942's Mrs. Miniver (an excellent war drama with Greer Garson) or 1980's Ordinary People (which I first watched in 11th grade English class).
One of my favorite marathons, however, is my Silly Symphony marathon. Walt Disney dominated the "Best Short Subject (Cartoon)" category in the 1930's, winning each year from 1932 (the category's inception) to 1939. The eight cartoons that won truly represent some of the best that Disney has to offer. This week on Saturday Matinee, we'll take a look at my favorite from those eight shorts: "The Tortoise and the Hare."
It's the day of the big race. All the animals have gathered to watch what they assume will be a short race. After all, the runners are Max Hare and Toby Tortoise. Max should easily outrun Toby, right? Both wish each other luck, and the raccoon fires off the starting pistol. Like a bullet, Max runs away, while Toby retreats into his shell. A few more shots prompt Toby to start running, slow and steady. Max is well ahead by now, and so he pretends to take a nap. Toby soon passes him, but not for long. Max begins running once again, but he gets distracted by the young female bunnies of Miss Cottontail's Girls' School.
Max decides to stay and impress them, even as Toby passes by. One of the bunnies is concerned, but Max is sure he can catch up later. "My middle name is Speed!" he says, assuringly. Heading over to their sports field, Max shoots a bow and arrow, running just in time to place an apple on his head for the arrow to pierce. He then tosses a baseball, then runs to the other end to hit it with a bat. This impresses the girls greatly. But they're most taken by his tennis game, in which he runs back and forth to opposite ends of the court to volley the ball. The girls cheer him, and we then hear the crowd of animals cheering in the background.
Believe it or not, Toby Tortoise is nearing the finish line! Max blows kisses to the school bunnies and begins running for the finish line as well. Despite his best efforts, Max does not get to the finish line, and Toby Tortoise wins the race!
I grew up watching "The Tortoise and the Hare" on a VHS tape that was mentioned many Saturday Matinees ago. The tape included this short, "Father Noah's Ark," and "Peculiar Penguins," which I covered on Saturday Matinee last July. "Father Noah's Ark" was always my favorite, but I'll have to concede that "The Tortoise and the Hair" was the best-produced of the three. The character design for Max and Toby are very well-done, and the animators for Max did a wonderful job of keeping that boastful expression on his face at all times. It's one of his defining features. No matter what Max was doing, his face was always contorted in such a vain way, probably due to his always-open mouth and large protruding front teeth.
Likewise, Toby's spindly rubbery limbs were definitive of himself. He moves about at a slow pace, it's quite graceful and the movement reflects that. Watch him running when he suddenly hits the tree stump. It's a classic example of Disney's "squash and stretch" principle in animation, but also works to show how agile Toby is, even with that bothersome shell that sometimes inhibits his movements.
I had always hoped that Disney would have done more with the characters. Both return to duke it out in boxing in 1936's "Toby Tortoise Returns," but it would have been great to see the pair in their own series. They worked together well in an "Odd Couple" sort of way, and I could easily see them having a series that played around with the "slow and steady wins the race" idea. For example, each short could have Max and Toby working separately on the same project. Max will start his fast, get well ahead of Toby, and then get distracted. Meanwhile, Toby continues working on the project while Max does whatever fast-running hares do. By the short's end, Toby's project is done and Max rushes to get his done, only for it to always fall apart or not be as good as Toby's. If Disney can have someone steal Pluto's bone in more ways than one, they could surely find different projects for Max and Toby to compete over. They could be putting up a fence, maintaining a garden, or even boxing chocolate a la "I Love Lucy"!
"The Tortoise and the Hare" can be found on three Disney DVDs. It's one of the cartoons featured in 2001's "Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies," and later re-appeared on 2005's "Walt Disney's Timeless Tales, Volume One." Its most recent appearance is in the "Walt Disney Animation Collection" line, where it headlines Volume 4, released in 2009. That compilation DVD also includes "Toby Tortoise Returns" and four additional cartoons: "Babes in the Woods" (1932), "The Goddess of Spring" (1934), "Paul Bunyan" (1958), and "The Saga of Windwagon Smith" (1961).