My little grandniece, who will turn four later this month, loves to watch cartoons on Netflix when she is visiting us. Although she has been a video fanatic at least since she was two (I am old enough to remember when cartoons appeared on TV on Saturday mornings only), we encourage her to get involved in other activities as well. While she visited us over the weekend, she played with the cats, got a good look at the chickens, romped about with the neighbor kids, created things with Play-Doh (the blue and red mashed together for so long that all of her creations are now rendered in a sickly purplish hue) and was taught to play Chutes ‘n Ladders by Uncle Guac.
However, it is the cartoons that really take me back. My grandniece’s fascination with Peppa Pig, Shopkins, Minnie Mouse and the cast of Frozen notwithstanding, I am amazed by how engrossed she becomes in some of the original Disney animation from the 1930s to 1950s, now available anytime on Netflix and YouTube. This time around, she wanted to watch the short films “The Big Bad Wolf” and “The Three Little Wolves,” not once, not twice, but over and over again. Aging baby boomers will likely share my fond memories of the “Mickey Mouse presents” Silly Symphonies. A series of these feature the three little pigs and I must say that the quality of the Depression era animation is mind-blowing. You can see how the fancy Pixar stuff of today was influenced by these early works.
I am particularly fascinated by the way the three pigs (protagonists of both of these shorts) are drawn. Their coloring is very pink. They have appropriately piggy ears, snouts and hooves. The little curly tail (referred to by the wolves as the “curly cue”) is present. Only the “worker pig” is clothed on the lower half of its body (in overalls, including a patch over the rear end while a hole for the curly cue to stick out). The other two pigs are naked below the chest. Their belly buttons are visible, as are the cracks of their rear ends, but no external genitalia are in evidence. This, I suppose, not only accommodated the sensibilities of the era, but also made the series more appropriate for children. I was a bit surprised that the butt cracks were drawn in, and I wonder how this got past the censors. Perhaps this was deemed okay for animals other than humans?
The wolves all have long bushy tails, lots of black fur and, of course, huge mouths with prominent sets of very white, sharply pointed teeth. As Walt Disney was involved in producing some of the war effort propaganda, I can understand why the wolves, villains of these tales, speak with a pronounced German accent. For example, the “father wolf” teaches his lupine offspring from wall charts labeled “choice cuts of pig” and “pig product chart” that include “pigsen feet” for “pigs’ feet” and “schweine stew” (using the German word for “pig”).
Unlike the 19th century “three little pigs” folk tale, in Disney’s “The Three Little Wolves,” the pigs appear to reside together in a single structure rather than in three separate dwellings. Perhaps this is a reference to the wolf’s prior destruction (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”) of the flimsy houses built by “fiddler pig” and “piper pig.” In fact, it appears that “worker pig,” who is so busy with bricks and mortar, is constructing an addition to its home, perhaps because its existing residence is too small to accommodate the porcine threesome.
In addition to this reference to the original “three little pigs” story, “The Three Little Wolves” also includes significant elements of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The former character appears early in the film; “fiddler pig” and “piper pig” attempt to escort her to Grandma’s house via the short cut through the woods known to be frequented by the wolves (against the advice of the ever practical “worker pig”). The two musical pigs also play a trick on the worker pig by blowing a horn (hanging from a tree below a sign reading “wolf alarm, for emergency use only”) when no wolves are in evidence. The worker pig (who hits its head on a board and nearly shoots itself in its rush to arrive on the scene) warns the other two that such antics will result in no response to the horn when the wolf really is in the area. It’s amazing how smoothly Disney manages to mash these three stories together.
As a vegan, I have to wonder whether “The Three Little Wolves” contains a subtextual protest against carnivorism. Not only do the lupine villains speak with German accents, but they crave “choice cuts” of pork, a German staple. One pig is industrious and the other two are happy-go-lucky musicians, but their contributions matter not to the wolves, who visibly salivate at the thought of eating them. When the wolves finally do catch up with the two musical pigs and truss them side-by-side in a pan, they are ordered to say “Ah!” so that an apple can be shoved into their open mouths prior to cooking. The pigs in the pan are just on the verge of being placed on the fire when the wolves are interrupted. Apparently, the plan was to roast the pigs alive. While I like to think this is designed as a display of the animal cruelty involved in cooking animals, more likely it was intended as a reference to the cruelty of the Germans during World War II. The bottom line is that we sympathize with the playful pigs who are forced to spend their time devising ways of escaping being eaten by the wolves (building a “wolf appeaser,” blowing the emergency horn) or running away from the pursuing wolves.
While this cartoon makes it very obvious that the wolves wish to eat the pigs, Disney never shows us what the pigs eat. However, the theme of opposing the consumption of animals is extended in another Disney short film, “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion,” which my grandniece also watched several times at our house. In that film, the wolf, forever the carnivorous villain, is after sheep rather than pigs. At the very end of the eight-minute cartoon, after the antagonist is soundly vanquished, the audience is told not to worry about the fate of the wolf. Although the wolf is kicked off the edge of a cliff, it is shown clinging to a branch that adequately sustains the wolf because it grows berries “every spring.” The carnivore converted to a vegan!
My guess is that these lessons are totally lost on the generations of children for whom they were intended and that the adults watching with them just don’t give a damn (after all, the roast is in the oven).