May 27, 2015

Review: The Ugly Duckling (1931)

What a year 1931 was for Disney. Two years after the inception of Silly Symphony which aimed to find the perfect mix between animation and music, there were no less than ten short films released under that banner. That ties it with 1930 and 1935 in terms of quantity. What a year it was for Wilfred Jackson as well who directed six of those ten films. 

Anyhow, The Ugly Duckling was one of two Disney adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, the other one being released in 1939 as a remake of this one. While the 1939 version isn't the most faithful adaptation out there, the 1931 version pretty much throws the original story out the window and does its own thing.


At a Glance

Genre: animation, family, short
Directed by: Wilfred Jackson
Produced by: Walt Disney
Written by: N/A
Music by: N/A
Running time: 7 minutes
Production company: Walt Disney Productions
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Country: United States
Language: N/A
Budget: N/A
Box office: N/A

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Florence Gill



A mother hen (voice: Florence Gill) proudly watches her chicks hatch. As she fawns over them, the last egg of the nest hatches, revealing a featherless, large-billed duckling. Shocked and not really sure how to respond, the mother hen hastily rounds up her chicks and escorts them outside the coop.


The Ugly Duckling is done in simple black and white (no Technicolor here) and doesn't feature the smooth animation of later Silly Symphony films. It's a little more jittery and simplistic, but that's probably being a bit unfair since this short film is now 84 years old. The technical limitations can be forgiven I think.

There is however a pretty visually impressive tornado sequence that couldn't have been a cake walk to create.While it might look pretty pedestrian in this day and age, seeing a tornado rip up a farm must've been quite the thrill back in 1931. It's multi-layered with different elements moving in different areas of the frame which is something that adds to the complexity of the scene. Definitely not a cake walk for animators.

In terms of the story, I really think that The Ugly Duckling is an allegory for racism. I mean, here we have a "different-looking" bird being shunned by the others for not looking like them. Given the fact that the ugly duckling in question is also darker than the others also seems to indicate that. I'd say that that's pretty progressive for 1931.

Additionally, the story does a good job at making you sympathize for the poor duckling. The Disney animators succeeded in making the duckling look pitiful, but cute at the same time. He's got that so ugly that he's cute thing going on. The emotional weight of the story isn't as heavy as it is in Disney's later remake, but there's definitely enough there for a couple of "awww's" from time to time. The music is also integrated in satisfying fashion.

The Ugly Duckling barely resembles Andersen's original story besides the fact that it features a duckling who gets cruelly shunned. The simple story is still a good one and the animation is a success if you keep the film's age in mind. I've seen worse computer-generated animation films in the last few years if you ask me, so it's pretty easy to be forgiving. What seriously impressed me the most however were the anti-racist themes for a movie that was made when racism was a fact of life.



Related Reviews:

Ugly Duckling (1939)

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