Lost in the Movies: Three Little Pigs

Three Little Pigs

Blessed with one of the catchiest songs ever sung, Disney's Three Little Pigs asks, "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" a message that resonated with Depression-era audiences. Perhaps it will resonate again with our own. In fact, Three Little Pigs has elements even more relevant to our financial conditions than those of 1933, when it first came out. For one thing, it's a movie about a housing crisis. Those homes of straw and stick, like the homes paid for through bad mortgages, prove flimsy in the face of Big Bad Mortgage Collectors who come looking for the bill. Actually, Three Little Pigs proves a very Republican reading of economic hard times, appropriate since Walt Disney was an anti-New Dealer, but its "lazy and fun-loving people get what they deserve" message is undercut by various elements of subversion.

First of all, the two dopey pigs who build their houses of straw and stick are just more fun than "Practical Pig," who's a sourpuss. They have squeaky high-pitched, cheerful voices while Practical sounds cranky and phlegmatic. If you're not delighted when the two pigs rush to throw their flimsy homes together, pick up their instruments and frolic through the front yards, jutting their chins in the air, kicking their legs up, and jerking their arms back and forth in rowing motions, then your happiness meter is seriously miscalibrated. OK, so they should have known better and when Practical grouses that "work and play don't mix" he's right - thanks to his foresight he and his brothers (or buddies?) don't end up as bacon - but who would you rather spend 8 minutes with?

Meanwhile, the Big Bad Wolf lurks in the shadows and he's an incredibly creepy creation - a disturbingly Satanic canine. In fact, he looks more like the furry devil figure in Rosemary's Baby (especially once his clothes fall off) than any wolf I've ever seen. Saliva runs off his jaws in a constant stream and he's prone to shift his eyes slightly to the side, regarding the viewer with conspiratorial glances. Besides huffing and puffing to blow the pigs' houses down, the Wolf tries several disguises - first he's a sheep, then he's a Jewish peddler, complete with trenchcoat, thick glasses, and incredibly long schnozz. This obviously offensive sequence was re-edited on the DVD I saw, making the Wolf into a more innocuous appearing Fuller brush salesman (though he sounds retarded, raising new questions of political correctness) but the old version can be found on You Tube (though oddly with the new dialogue, if I'm not mistaken).

As I said, the work-hard ethos of Three Little Pigs is constantly undercut by how much fun the cartoon is and how likable the silly lazy little pigs are. The cartoon is also filled with winking, subversive touches. Inside their various domiciles they have little pictures up. Straw Pig has some pin-ups of piggies in hula skirts, while Stick Pig takes it one step further: his pin-ups are slightly blurred, suggesting a salacious quality masked by the obfuscation. Practical Pig, per his solidity, has portraits of dear old mom and dad on the wall. "Mother" is shown with little piglets suckling, while "Father" is presented as a string of sausage.

The cartoon is couched in the sunny simplicity of early Technicolor animation. There's a surrealistic quality to the contrast of the sunflowered scenery and the dark, ferocious wolf: cartoons can often summon the texture of dreams and nightmares more evocatively than live action, and this venture is no exception. As for the wolf and the pigs, I also wonder if there was a bit of needling on the animators' parts. Uncle Walt was known to be a tyrannical boss and his animators sometimes chaffed under his control. Did they see themselves as the giddy little pigs resisting his temper tantrums? Who knows, but sometimes I suspect the tension between Walt's mythical overtones and the animator's anarchic impulses (as well as the possible contradictions between these qualities in Walt himself) inevitably enrich the studio's work.

Warner Brothers would later develop a style which lampooned and subverted the more straightforward toon tales of Disney. After watching Three Little Pigs, I saw a collection of Looney Tunes based on fairy tales. Each take has its place. The Warner Bros. conception is refreshing in a very modern sense: it's secular, straightforward, unpretentious, urban, and ethnic. Sometimes Disney gets short shrift in this department but what it has that Looney Tunes generally doesn't is a weirdly surreal, dreamlike vibe, which sometimes shifts into the uncanny. It's partly to do with tapping into the viewer's half-remembered childlike impressions (whereas Looney Tunes generally brings out the adult in the child, Disney does the reverse) and repeatedly tapping into some weird, psychological never never land where sunflowers are ten feet high, pigs sing and dance, but sinister wolves lurk behind the trees, waiting to gobble you up when you're not looking. Who's afraid of the big bad wolf indeed...

You can watch a version of Three Little Pigs here:


James Hansen said...

Interesting reading of the film. I'm, of course, always glad to see more done on animated shorts, especially from the hand-drawn days. I think there are many more sophisticated shorts (in general), particularly from Tex Avery, but this one is good. I haven't revisited these in a really long time...I need to have a fun day and go through a bunch of these. I was really into Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies for a while, but am way behind. Anyways, this wolf is weird, but its nothing compared to RED HOT RIDING HOOD. Damn!

Nice post. Hopefully there's more where this came from down the line!

Joel Bocko said...

I think the difference between Disney and Avery, Warners, et al. is between something elemental and something sophisticated. There's definitely more to appeal to the modern sensibility in Looney Tunes, but there's something more dreamlike and uncanny about Disney for some reason. I end up liking both for different reasons.

I am very unhappy that Red Hot Riding Hood does not appear to be on DVD, or at least not on Netflix. I've been looking for it for a while. However, I recently saw the Warners take on Goldilocks circa 1940, which is one of the most brilliantly subversive takes on a fairy tale I've ever seen (Riding Hood & Goldilocks engaging on girl talk then handing something over the split screen to each other). I believe Tex Avery was behind that one too.

...but wait! Apparently Red Hot Riding Hood is on You Tube; it just occurred to me to check there. I will hold onto that idea and review it this coming week.

I've also got some reviews of both Warners' and Disney WWII propaganda (inspired by Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running) coming soon...

James Hansen said...

There are some decent versions of RED HOT RIDING HOOD on YouTube. The colors aren't as vibrant as they should be, but its still worth watching on there. (Oh...I thought I had read your whole response and just went down and saw that you found these.)

I didn't mean to infer that Disney is bad or even unsophisticated...I like both as well but find Avery more interesting. That's not to say the Disney shorts (or features) aren't of note...I will just always have a slight preference for animation (and films, for that matter) being a little more subversive and perverse.

I look forward to the WW2 Propaganda films...there is some really weird stuff out there.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, don't get me wrong...often I'm more in the mood for the subversive take too. I hope the Disney WWII shorts are good as Netflix was having trouble with them, so I bit the bullet and ordered them on Amazon (the collectin's been in my cart for years). In my defense, I haven't bought a DVD since The Buford Pusser Story in August...and that one was only $1!

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