We all know that it's a simple race between Toby Tortoise (slow but sure)
and Max Hare (blue streak). The animals are all on the hare's side - even
the skunks who received special seating. Toby, meanwhile, stumbles out of
the gate and gets mocked by all in attendance. Toby wishes Max well, but
Max arrogantly tells him that he won't beat him too bad, so as they shake,
Max pulls the hand away twice on the poor turtle.
The raccoon signals the start of the race and Max gets off to a flying
start, leaving Toby spinning at the starting gate. The raccoon assists by
shooting a few pellets at his shell and Toby finally gets going, but not
until Max leaves a tree, a stork, an owl, and almost anything in his path
in the dust. Max decides to pull under a little tree and take a nap while
Toby is casually galloping with the snails around him. To Toby's disbelief,
he sees Max sleeping, so quietly he tip-toes by Max and takes the lead.
Little does Toby know that Max was playing possum with him, so once Toby
got out to what looked to be a safe lead, Max ignored all speed limit rules
and nearly broke the sound barrier by whizzing by Toby. It was such a gust
of speed that Toby's hat remained airborne for at least 10 seconds!
The biggest mistake Max made (which later cost him the race) was stopping
in front of four female bunnies (possible
Funny Little Bunny rejects) who
called him over. They all think that Max is handsome, so Max decides to
impress the bunnies - but before he does, Toby passes Max and ignores all
calls by the bunnies even though he did crash into a tree stump. Thinking
that he still has this race in the bag, Max decides to put on a one-hare
show by playing solitaire Robin Hood (he shoots the arrow at an apple he
puts on his head and splits it in two), solitaire baseball, and
tennis. By the time his show is finished, the bunnies have won him over.
... a huge scream comes from the crowd as they see a shocker in the making.
The tortoise is way ahead of Max at this point, so Max has to go and finish
Toby off. Max makes one last mistake by blowing kisses at the bunnies as
he speeds his merry way. The gap would close very quickly for sure.
Toby sees Max come from nowhere, so Toby had to pull off a trick of his
own to fend him off. Toby pulls up his shell and stretches his legs and
runs for the finish line. Max closes the gap very quickly, and just as they
saw the finish line, Max thought he had closed the entire gap, but Toby
stretches his neck as long as he could and crossed the finish line before
Max did - by a foot and a half (well, I meant a neck and a half). To the
crowd's delight, and Max's disbelief, Toby was carried off by the animals
as the cartoon closes. Replays of the finish clearly showed that Toby did
cross the finish line before Max did.
The moral? Slow and steady wins the race ... most of the time. If Max's
racing career was that short-lived, imagine what his boxing career was like
two years later.
But it's not just the wonderful feeling of speed that makes this cartoon so good. As you point out, Max and Toby are excellent characters. Toby's so good natured it's impossible not to like him and Max has an undeniable charisma despite being a bit of a jerk who deservedly loses the race.
We’re all familiar with the basics of the story: an overconfident rabbit races a turtle, and ends up losing because of all the detours he takes. The moral is simple: slow and steady wins the race. Knowing that it’s such a familiar story, how did Disney translate it?
It comes off surprisingly well. Rather than a simple challenge, the animators chose to make the setting a well publicized sporting event. That adds much needed humor to the tale. Max Hare, the rabbit, comes out in a robe, just like a boxing match, as does the tortoise. That adds a bit of pomp and circumstance to the goings on, and makes it an event from the start of the short.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the similarities between Max Hare and the later Bugs Bunny over at Warner Bros. A bunny began appearing in Warner shorts around 1938, but the Bugs we know and love began in full in 1939-1940. His appearance then is very similar to that of Max Hare. Is there a connection? Sure is. Chuck Thorsen, who was on the Disney staff at the time of this short, later went to WB and worked on Bugs.
That’s not to say that Max and Bugs are the same. They certainly are not. Most people credit other animators at Warner for Bugs, but Thorsen was definitely involved. Just something to keep in mind.
Max Hare would go on to star in other Silly Symphonies, which we’ll get to, but his trademark here is his cockiness. He is so sure he’s going to win the race, and he stops not once, but twice. The first time is simply a nap, but then he sees a gaggle of young rabbit girls. That really gets his attention.
This is the scene that really makes you wonder about the Bugs connection. Max demonstrates his speed to the girls by doing both ends of a sporting feat. For example, he pitches a baseball, runs over and hits it, then runs back and catches it. Sound familiar? It’s very much like Baseball Bugs, a later short featuring the Warner rabbit.
Regardless of that connection, Toby Tortoise also has future potential. He, too, would appear again after this short, and with good reason. The expression and movements of Toby are spot on, and communicate everything you need to know about him with minimal dialogue. It’s a great bit of work by the animators.
The sound effects stand out in this as well. When Max is running, we get a sound like an ambulance tearing through a city street. It’s very appropriate, because Max is knocking anything and everything out of his way. It really makes for an instantly recognizable sound cue, which is key to the short.
Max and Toby are great characters, and they come off particularly well in this short. It’s no surprise to me that they would be used again by the Disney staff, although in some different roles. We’ll look at those as we get to them.