A Year in Shorts Day 157: "The Ugly Duckling"
Boy, it’s been a while since we’ve covered a Disney short, hasn’t it? When you consider how dominant they tend to be in this category, you would think we’d be discussing them more regularly. Well, I suppose it’s more important to look at the more obscure shorts. But like it or not, Disney played an important role in the history of animation and we’ve got a lot left to explore. So let’s take a look at the 1939 film The Ugly Duckling!
Much like The Little Matchgirl, Jack Cutting and Clyde Geronimi's The Ugly Duckling is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It's one of Hans Christian Andersen's happier tales, which is saying very little. Disney's adaptation is fairly faithful (at least when compared to films like The Little Mermaid), although it softens much of the abused heaped upon the titular character and removing the constant threat of violent death. Cowards. They also make the duckling very, very cute, no doubt giving countless uglier young birds in the audience horrible self-esteem issues. But that's Hollywood for you.
Speaking of Hollywood trends, The Ugly Duckling is technically a remake; Disney had adapted the story once before eight years prior. Imagine that, Disney remaking one of their films! The new version of The Ugly Duckling also happens to be the last of the Silly Symphonies, ending a ten year run of animated shorts. From the 1940s onward, the vast majority of Disney's shorts would focus on established characters such as Mickey, Donald and Goofy, with a couple of notable exceptions. The shorts that followed absolutely have their merits, but very few have the artistic ambitions of the Silly Symphonies. Which makes sense if you think about it. Throughout the thirties, the Silly Symphonies mostly served as training for the animators as they prepared for their first feature. Once Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out, the animators who worked on the Symphonies certainly had bigger fish to fry.
But that's all inside baseball really, and doesn't really say much about the short itself. And the short is pretty good! The story is very simple (maybe a little too simple, without any of the queer subtext Andersen's work is known for), but it's cute and effective. And I suppose that it has to be simple, as the short is told entirely without dialogue. Unless you count quacks and honks as dialogue. The animation is every bit as lovely as you'd expect from a Silly Symphony, with expressive character designs and beautiful painted backgrounds.
And yet at times the short seems a little unsure of itself, as if the good-natured goofiness of the Mickey and Friends shorts is trying to break free from the more slow-paced constraints of the average Silly Symphony. It is, in short, something of an odd duck. That makes it a little unsatisfying (it's not as beautiful as the best Silly Symphonies, but it's not as funny as your average Donald Duck cartoon), but interesting as well. And the Academy clearly didn't mind the tonal dissonance, as they awarded Walt Disney with his eighth consecutive Academy Award for Best Animated short for the film. The king would be (briefly) dethroned the following year, but Disney definitely ended the decade on top.
Keep up with the Oscar Baiting here on Letterboxd!
"The Ugly Duckling" is available to watch on Disney +
The Great Oscar Baiter is a not-for-profit work of criticism. All images herein are property of their respective owners and are protected under Fair Use.