The duckling (who repeatedly looks to the audience for sympathy -not
unlike Oliver Hardy) is a real character who transforms from an outcast
to a hero, and gains its well-earned sympathy at last.
This short, which is neither about gags nor about moving to music, would
be the first testimony of Disney's ambitions in storytelling.
I know that constant readers of the site are probably sick of my constant refrain of story vs. music, but it is a part of this early life in the Disney Studio. Iwerks, Stalling and their particular talents were built for creating cartoons that featured impressionist or silly visuals to accompany songs, such as in
The Skeleton Dance. But with the loss of those two, the shift occurs to telling stories, which is what Disney would be known for in decades to come.
In The Ugly Duckling, we get a clear example of what Walt and his team are capable of when they attempt to tell a story. The characters are imbued with personality, pathos and life in a way that other Silly Symphonies have been unable to accomplish. When the duckling is cast out by his mother, a hen, the tears that he cries are heart breaking.
The animation here is not a standout in its artistry. Other than the duckling and its mother hen, the majority of the other characters are very simple, and the backgrounds and effects are nothing special. That does not detract from the storytelling, though, which is superb. As a viewer, you are always aware of where the action is, the emotions going through the characters’ minds, and you wait to see what will happen next.
That is the other thing that is accomplished here, probably for the first time. As I watched, I felt a real sense of suspense. I wanted to find out what was going to happen to the duckling. While I knew the story, I still was intrigued by what was happening and wanted to see how he would resolve things. The final scene, where the duckling rescues his brothers and sisters from their precarious perch in the river is very well done. The whole time that scene is running, the outcome is obvious, but it’s still compelling. That is the mark of a well done story.
The story is a familiar one – a duckling is born to a family of chickens, and is ugly compared to the cute little chicks. The mother hen pushes the duckling out of the family. But, when a tornado comes through, the duckling manages to warn the hen and her chicks, then saves the chicks from falling over a raging waterfall.
It is clear watching this short that story telling is where the talent of the Disney animators lies. They have the ability to create compelling characters, give the viewer a narrative to follow using those characters, and pay it off with exciting action, even if it’s just emotional action. Seeing this makes it no surprise that this was the first studio to successfully create a feature length animated film.
I love how music is used to tell the story in this one. Unlike earlier Symphonies, everything that happens moves the story along. However, every action, be it a tumble, footstep or teardrop is still in time to the music. It really is expertly done.
The emotions of the main character are wonderfully portrayed too. It's easy for the audience to
emphasize with the little duckling and you can't help but feel sorry for him. One nice touch is how, when the mother hen finally hugs the duckling and hails him as a hero, he at first flinches a little bit. It's no wonder after the rough way she'd handled him in the past.
One odd detail in Merritt and Kaufman's book is that it mentions that a frog spits in the duckling's eye after razzing his own reflection. I wonder where they got that horrible idea from, because that scene wasn't in the version I watched.