Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Flowers and Trees

There are certain milestones in Disney animation that everyone points to – Steamboat Willie (the first Mickey cartoon released), The Skeleton Dance (the first Silly Symphony) – and we have reached another one today with Flowers and Trees. The milestone here is the very first use of Technicolor’s three color process in animation, bringing us the first Disney short in full color.

As such, this short has to be evaluated a little differently. Did the animators use the addition of color to their benefit? Is the short different because of the color? Does the color enhance the storytelling? I think I can safely say the answer is “yes” to all three questions.

Flowers and Trees is simply charming. There’s not a better way I can think of to describe it. It harkens back to the earlier “season” shorts like Spring or Summer in that it is really a pastoral cartoon. Obviously, featuring flowers and trees in bloom would lead to that, but there’s more than that here. There is a sense of peace, tranquility and happiness that permeates the opening scenes.

The storytelling here is superb. The short really is a sort of throwback, in that it’s more of an interpretation of a piece of music, but it does feature a continuous story from beginning to end. Two trees have fallen in love as spring erupts all over, only to be menaced by a dark, horrible tree that wants to steal the female.

After the inevitable denial, the evil tree goes for the gusto by setting the forest on fire! It’s here where the colors really pop off the screen, as the “firelings” attack the various forest creatures. Before this the color was limited with various browns and greens, but the hot orange flames really stand out, and you feel the menace as they run around attacking the landscape.

Ultimately, when the fire clears, the evil tree is dead, and the good trees join together in a mock “wedding” complete with a ring made of a caterpillar. The final scene even features a rainbow, which is a stunning piece that would not have been possible to show in black and white.

The other question to answer is why use color on the Silly Symphonies? Surely, investing in color for Mickey Mouse, the studio’s most popular character, would make more sense, right? In truth, no, it wouldn’t. Walt looked at all the angles, and despite the myth making, he was a shrewd businessman. The Silly Symphonies were lagging in popularity behind Mickey, so Walt put color into the mix to boost lagging sales. And it worked. From this point forward, the Silly Symphonies would grow in popularity, although they would never reach the heights of Mickey Mouse.

Flowers and Trees, though, is just a great short, in both animation and storytelling. You feel for the characters, because of great personality shown by the trees and the mushrooms and more. The spring pastoral is soothing for the soul, which is what some of the best Disney shorts give you. Flowers and Trees is one of those best Disney shorts.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.


  1. I am wondering why the Silly Symphony after the next one is in black and white. My only guesses are that Walt Disney didn't have enough money or wanted to save some money, or perhaps did not have enough resources to produce a third technicolour Silly Symphony right away (perhaps someone else knows why if I don't), but why only one Silly Symphony was in black and white and the ones after it in colour is a bit odd.

  2. It could also be that the last B&W Silly Symphony had some delays in production, or in release, pushing it out past the switch to all-colour Symphonies.

  3. Great review of this milestone short, Ryan. It's certainly a different experience watching the first colour short after seeing all the earlier black and whites in order. Colour is quite tastefully used in this one. You might expect the first technicolor cartoon to make immediate use of bright, garish colours, really getting the whole spectrum in. Instead it's quite subdued, evoking a nice picture-book feel, with natural, earthy colours appropriate for the woodland setting.

    The title card for this cartoon is surprisingly bland, however. I'd have expected more colours to have been incorporated into the design, rather than the brown design featured here – it almost sepia tone! I suppose Disney didn't want a load of bright colours having anyone's eye out after viewing a black and white newsreel in the cinema! Also the colours here fit well with the rest of the short.

    Another thing that's different about the title is that it now reads "Mickey Mouse presents" rather than simply "A Walt Disney Silly Symhpony". We've seen this before, but only on reissue titles. The Mickey Mouse byline seems to have started with the United Artists pictures (so was probably on Just Dogs and "The Bears and the Bees" too) and is included on the posters for the UA cartoons. It's interesting that this clever device – associating Mickey's famous name with the less popular series in order to boost their appeal - is only starting to be used now. There had been something of a dry spell for the Sillies in early 1932 which does seem kind of telling.

    As for the order of colour and black and white cartoons, according to Merritt and Kaufmann's Silly Symphony book, the final B&W Silly Symphony, "Bugs in Love" is actually next, with "King Neptune" and all the other colour ones following after. "Bugs" was actually in production around the same time as "Flowers". With this in mind, the final B&W Silly makes more sense!

  4. Yes, that does make a lot more sense. I had a feeling some of you might know more about that matter than I did.


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