We don't get many Silly Symphonies shown in the UK and if they're like
this I'd love to see more.
Elmer Elephant has the looks of a storybook. It's beautifully animated,
with lots of shadows, and has well-designed characters. Especially the hippo,
who has an absurdly low voice, is a wonderful character. It's both surprising
and a shame that no other cartoon has been made with these cute characters
in their beautiful jungle forest. Of course, the idea of a kind elephant
being mocked for a handicap would later return in "Dumbo", making
Elephant its immediate predecessor.
It's fairly easy to see that Elmer is one of Tillie's favorites as she
cleans off his face for him and then goes all gushy over his gift; a simple
bouquet of flowers. Possibly it's a bit of jealousy from the other attendees
(including one bear cub who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain
cartoon mouse) but when Tillie goes up to her jungle penthouse (to do what,
we're not told) the other party goers decide to taunt Elmer about his trunk
with a variety of disguises, including the ultimate insult of one monkey
making a caricature of Elmer out of his rear end and tail!
Without Tillie to defend him. Elmer wanders off dejected, trying to find
some way to disguise his trunk. But then he comes across Joe Giraffe, with
an extremely long neck. He points out to Elmer that he's not the only animal
in the jungle who might look a little silly, and points out a group of pelicans
who give their best Jimmy Durante impression. Elmer begins to feel a little
better, but suddenly there is an alarm! Somehow, Tillie's birthday party
is going up in flames!
Elmer and Joe head off to the fire with the pelicans in tow to find that
all the other party-goers have been able to do is run around like chickens
panicking. There is some attempt to put out the blaze by a monkey fire-brigade,
but the personified flames make quick work of the fire-ladder, as they do
a makeshift trampoline the other animals try to use to get Tillie down from
her penthouse. The pelicans are able to bring water because of the size
of their beaks; Elmer, standing atop Joe Giraffe's head has the proper height
to shoot out the flames with water from his trunk. Because of their physical
peculiarities, Elmer, Joe and the pelicans are able to put out the fire,
rescue Tillie from her precarious perch and save the day!
Elmer Elephant was well-received by the public and some Disney artists
felt that it was an important step towards the pathos that would give features
such as "Dumbo" it's charm. It was a remarkable step for Disney as Elmer
was able to convey a variety of emotions, even though he had not a single
line of dialogue in the entire short. It was also unusual for a Silly Symphony
as it retreated from the standard form of using the music in the forefront.
Although it does have a couple of musical numbers, the story takes center
stage. Some, however, felt that the pathos wasn't enough and it had a sense
of emptiness at it's core.
One who was disappointed with the way it came out was the original storywriter,
Bianca Majolie. Majolie was an anomaly at Disney; a woman in the male dominated
story department. Walt approved the first idea she submitted - an original
story entitled "The Romance of Baby Elephant" which went into production
in mid-1935. However, as it went through the story department, more slapstick
ideas were added to the original charming story. It was the brutal aspects
of the slapstick that Marjolie objected to but, being the "new kid in town",
her objections went unheard.
Most of her ideas for characters and narrative were retained, however,
including the moral in her words "that usefulness is more important than
beauty ... that things that are not decorative may be extremely useful and
should be cherished for that reason."
Elmer is really a precursor to Dumbo in many ways, as it features a simplistic, cute elephant being mocked for his “handicap,” which later becomes his biggest asset. Elmer feels like a storybook, and the look and feel of this short reflects that. The characters are overly cute, and have alliterative names like Elmer Elephant or Tillie Tiger.
When Elmer heads to Tillie’s birthday party, he is at first encouraged because despite ending up with cake on his face, Tillie is rather taken with him. But after Tillie retreats into her treehouse, the other kids start teasing Elmer mercilessly. They are making fun of his nose, which seems odd, because, well, he’s an elephant. What did they expect?
Regardless, Elmer tries to hide his nose, but runs off into the jungle in tears. The jungle is rendered beautifully in the backgrounds. It’s a far cry from the Alice shorts or the Mickey black and white shorts where the jungle was a flat surface with a few palm trees. This is a beautiful, watercolor background, and it’s one of the best features of the short.
Elmer meets a giraffe in the jungle who tells him not to worry. It’s an admonition that really seems to fall short. The interaction between Elmer and the giraffe is strained, at least to me, and the best part of it is really the pelicans nearby, who do their best Jimmy Durante impression to convince Elmer that a large nose isn’t that bad.
As I stated, the liability becomes an asset when a fire envelops Tillie’s treehouse, and Elmer rides to the rescue on the neck of his giraffe friend. The scenes of Elmer spraying the fire with his trunk are fun, and the movements of the fire to avoid him are some of the best animation of the short.
Elmer ends up with the girl and the admiration of the other guests, and all ends well. That said, watching this short just brought home to me the wide difference between the two types of Silly Symphonies. It’s not something that you see in the Mickey Mouse shorts. I looked to see if it was a director-based thing, but best I could tell it was not. Any thoughts on why there is such a wide difference between the two types of Silly Symphonies?
The opening scene contains everything I like and don't like about the aesthetics of this cartoon. The use of
color is lovely and there's some excellent use of shadows which give both Elmer and his surroundings a feeling of depth. However, fat-headed, round- cheeked Elmer is just too sickly cute. That what I find interesting about this cartoon – Disney has done cute before, but these characters don't look like any others in the Disney canon. A lot of effort must have been put into creating the world of this cartoon, which doesn't look quite like any of the others. A sequel was never made and the characters were featured in comics and magazines, but this animated cartoon remains unique in the Disney library.
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