The Disney version mixes this story up with the evil witch from Hansel
and Gretel who lives in a cottage made of candy. The cartoon is not an adaptation
of Hansel and Gretel and does not use any other parts of that story: There
are no unfit parents or breadcrumbs, the witch is not a cannibal, and the
children do not push her into the oven. There is also a village of friendly
elves, and it is they who rescue the children. Friendly elves are not in
the classic stories like The Babes in the Wood and Hansel and Gretel, but
they were a frequent feature of children's stories in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries.
As one might expect with this kind of mixmash, this is not one of the
great Disney cartoons, but it's still fun to watch the kids and the elves
fighting with the witch.
One trivial remark: Hänsl and Gretel are wearing traditional costumes
typical for some old Dutch fishing-villages (I can tell, I am Dutch). However,
the landscape looks anything but Dutch (in fact, it looks pretty Mid-European).
Talking about being lost!
Two kids, paralleling the Hansel and Gretel story, wander away from
where they are supposed to be and land themselves in some very dark,
spooky woods. The animals colorfully add some spicy scares in many forms
as the children are walking through. One set of animals provide creepy
images for the eyes for the tree, bats fly in the children's faces from
a short, hollow stump, and black birds (one of which looked like the
face of an owl), blended in perfectly with the old, black tree. The
howling wind and bunnies running under the children did not help their
mood any, but there was a light at the end of the woods ... the children
hear happy noises from a distance and notice many merry dwarfs cheerfully
springing all around having a good time while they work. (Coincidental
idea for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs five years later?)
Immediately the mood of the children reverses gears as they watch
the dwarfs enjoying themselves ... even when cleansing their beards.
They approached the children and welcomed them by merrily dancing around
them while four others tooted "Little Brown Jug" with objects of the
aforementioned title. The fun goes on for a little while until a strong
wind blows in ... a witch was flying on her broomstick, circling over
them several times. Obviously the dwarfs took cover instantaneously,
but had some trouble fitting the children into one of their hiding places.
When this clear-cut "Wizard Of Oz" reject landed, she offered the
children a ride on her broomstick. The dwarfs were surprised that they
went, but more surprising was the safe travel to what the children thought
was a dream destination ... a house only the Gingerbread Man would love
(since it was made out of candy). To their delight, the children snack
a little on the house; then were invited inside for more "sugar and
spice and everything nice." Needless to say, it was an obvious trap.
The inside of the house was gutted with rats, spiders, cats, mice,
bats, and any other animal that would make a normal being cringe. The
witch's sugar and spice was to transform the children into creepy animals
... and that is nowhere near nice. When the children try to run away
they both get stopped by a very strong spider web, giving the witch a
great advantage. She first takes the boy, and to the animals' delight,
pours potion over him and turns him into a spider, then handcuffs him
(it) across from the cat. The witch proceeds to take a yellow potion
from the fireplace and throws it on the cat, causing it to turn to stone.
However, three was not the charm when the witch tried to pour potion
on the girl. An arrow hits the bulls eye (the potion, that is), and as
the witch hides the girl in a door on the floor, she goes outside to
see what the commotion was. It was a dwarf making fun of the witch,
signaling that it was time to save the children. There's no need to
say how prepared all the dwarfs were for this attack.
Two dwarfs trip the witch, then other shower her with arrows from
all directions. Meanwhile, the spider (the boy) pulls open the door
so the girl could escape. As he is doing so, he hits his head on the
table leg, enabling a returning formula to strike him on the head, transforming
back to his old self. The witch tried an air assault but the dwarfs
were one step ahead of her, continuously showering her with not just
more arrows, but also pumpkins.
Back at the house, the girl took some of the returning formula, poured
it on all the animals and turned them back into the children they were.
In short, they were not the first ones to fall for the witch's trap.
The trapped children celebrate their freedom, while back outside, the
relentless attack continues as the dwarfs pelt the witch with pies from
the top of the house. One dwarf finally lassoed her reliable transportation
(the broomstick) away from the witch, so it was nowhere but downhill
for her, however, the children wanted a piece of the action. All of
them bring the yellow potion from the fireplace (used to turn the cat
into stone) outside, and the witch landed perfectly into the gook. She
was able to move a few steps until she completely froze ... and all
the children took pride by dancing around the newly formed "Witch Rock",
just like the dwarfs danced around the boy and girl earlier. Of course
the dwarfs joined in outside the children's circle.
This was not a bad attempt in retelling Hansel and Gretel, especially
with this being one of the first 5 cartoons ever released in color.
This cartoon will test how strong a child's stomach is ... only to realize
later in life that this story simply crosses over with Halloween. Just
don't fall for a stranger's offer!
The short uses a framing sequence, which is something new for the Silly Symphonies. We are greeted by a scene of Witch Rock, a very idyllic scene as nature frolics around the rock while a singer expounds on the scene. We are told that we will learn how this rock came to be, and that is what the story is about.
The meat of the short is driven by the titular babes in the woods, who are Hansel and Gretel, even if they are not named. They are weak character designs, in my opinion, with mere dark circles for eyes and mouth, similar to the mermaids in
King Neptune. This limits their facial expressions, which is critical to human characters. Despite that, some great visual gags of having animals form scary faces on the trees and ground get the point across that they are terrified of being in the woods.
This is a precursor of sorts to a similar scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when Snow White runs through the woods and is terrorized by floating logs that look like alligators or trees that look alive. Interesting to see it utilized here first.
The babes come across a group of gnomes, in a departure from the Hansel and Gretel tale. They befriend the gnomes, engaging in some serious partying before the witch breaks things up. Just a fun note – the song the gnomes sing as they dance around the babes is very similar to “The Merry Old Land of Oz” from The Wizard of Oz film that is still 7 years away from being made at this point. I don’t believe that there’s a connection between the two, but just found it funny.
The kids are lured away by the witch, apparently unfazed by the fact that the gnomes scattered and hid when she appeared. It’s pretty funny that the kids don’t worry about that and get on her broom anyway, merely for the promise of some candy. The candy house is there, of course, but it’s a trap, as the witch draws them inside to torment them.
The scenes with the witch in the house are very dark. She introduces the kids to the snakes, spiders and rats that she has turned other children into, and transforms the boy into a spider. It’s quite scary, and shows a side of Disney animation I don’t think we’ve seen before.
The gnomes come to the rescue, of course, in a scene reminiscent of the many insect/animal charges we have seen in other Silly Symphonies. The Witch Rock gets formed when our heroes transform the other kids back into their human selves, and they manage to have the witch fall into a vat of her own potions. She creeps her way across the screen, ending up as the rock from the beginning.
The use of the framing device is very well done, and it makes the story complete. I have to say that the use of color really makes a difference here as well. It’s the first time I felt that this short could not have been done without the color. That was not the case with earlier shorts. All in all, a very solid effort by the Disney team.
One thing I've been trying to do, whilst following the Disney filmography along with you, is watch cartoons and films of the same era from different studios, seeing how they compare and who's influencing who. I haven't done this quite as much I would have liked due to time, but I think I'm safe in saying that this kind of cartoon was pretty influential. Disney would, of course, continual to make fairy tale cartoons, but the other studios (particularly as they moved into
color) would attempt fairy tale cartoons with a similar tone to this one (often in series which label them as 'classics').
The 'frights' in this cartoon are especially nicely done. The inside of the witch's house, the fate of the children and callousness of the hag herself build up some nice chills. I know the character design of some of the characters in these early
color shorts don't hold up too well now, but bare in mind that they are early attempts by artists who are learning the craft as they create it. I'm sure the goal was to beautifully bring to life storybook style characters in the children, even if they can't quite pull it off just yet. It's just like looking at the humans in early Pixar films and comparing them to what they do now. They had to start somewhere!
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