8 Lessons on Creative Service from Disney’s ‘Silly Symphonies’
By Joseph Sunde
Teaching our children about the value and virtues of hard work and sound stewardship is an important part of parenting, and in a privileged age where opportunity and prosperity sometimes come rather easily, such lessons can be hard to come by.
In an effort to instill such virtues in my own young children, I’ve taken to a variety of methods, from stories to chores to games, and so on. But one such avenue that’s proven particularly effective is Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, a remarkable set of 75 animated shorts produced from 1929 to 1939.
Spun from a mix of myths, fables, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and original stories, the cartoons evolved from simple musical toons to cohesive ethical tales. The entire series is well worth taking in, and in the space below, I offer highlights of 8 particular shorts that strike me as particularly powerful. Each offers a distinct mix of humor and artistry, as well as a range of healthy prods to the imagination when it comes to how we approach work, wealth, and stewardship.
1. Beware of Short-Term Solutions — Three Little Pigs (1933)
Perhaps the most famous of the series, “Three Little Pigs” went on to win numerous awards and spur several off-shoot shorts. Unlike the traditional tale, it avoids the deaths of pigs 1 and 2, while still offering the same parallels to Jesus’ parable of the wise and the foolish builders.
Jesus was, of course, referring to things mightier than sticks or bricks. But likewise, “Three Little Pigs” reminds us to be wary of short-term pseudo-solutions and quick fixes as we build civilization together. As Neal Gabler chronicles in his biography of Walt Disney, the corresponding song (“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”) would go on to become somewhat of an anthem during the Great Depression, fostering parallels among the general public between the pigs and average hard-working citizens.
2. Greed is Blindness — The Golden Touch (1935)
In this musical retelling of the myth of King Midas, we see a thoroughly comical amplification of avarice and idolatry. “I never cared for women, and I never cared for wine,” Midas sings, “But when I count a large amount of money, it’s divine!”
Midas is a greedy man, granted the power to turn everything he touches into gold by an elf named Goldie. Upon receiving this supposed “gift,” however, he soon realizes the folly of his materialism, eventually begging Goldie to take his power away and all the gold that came with it. “My kingdom for a hamburger!” he cries, reminding us just how much money and power can distract us from the simple and important things in life.
And yes: hamburgers = important.
3. Share in the Toil of Others — Wise Little Hen (1934)
Based on another famous fairy tale, “Wise Little Hen” offers strong warnings against idleness, ungratefulness, and lopsided consumerism. Although the hen continuously invites her neighbors to share in her toil — from sowing to reaping to producing — the hen is routinely greeted with apathy, laziness, and excuse-making. She proceeds with different companions and bakes a host of tasty treats, each of which her entitled neighbors are suddenly eager to indulge.
Although her final act isn’t exactly Christian — outright refusing to share the fruits of her labor — as Christians, we ought to be concerned with filling our tables in such a way that we can share with those who have fallen on hard times. That requires hard work, so when we’re invited to join in these efforts, we’d do well to say, “yes.” For ourselves, but more importantly, for the world.
4. Work to Serve — Elmer Elephant (1936)
Elmer Elephant is scorned, ridiculed, and cast out by his fellow animals for the oddity and seeming uselessness of his trunk. Yet after feeling sad and frustrated about his situation, a fire soon breaks out, giving Elmer an opportunity to rescue those very same animals via the gift that God gave him. Society and the market may not recognize or celebrate our gifts in certain seasons or applications, but God has given each of us unique talents and gifts through which we can contribute to those around us.
As Lester DeKoster writes, “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” Thus, rather than getting discouraged or retreating from society in isolation, we should always be looking for opportunities to offer ourselves up in the service of others in new and creative ways.
5. Don’t Follow Your Passion — The Flying Mouse (1934)
In one of the more peculiar shorts of the series, a young mouse dreams of flying like a bird. Upon performing an act of sacrifice and bravery, he is granted his wish by a fairy, bearing new wings as a result. “A mouse was never meant to fly,” she warns him. “Be careful. Beware.”
Ignoring her warnings, and having received his wings, his “passion” quickly backfires, scaring away friends and family and inviting a host of unsavory companions. The lesson: Sometimes our personal aspirations and vocational desires are misaligned with who God created us to be and what he’s called us to do.
In the end, the mouse realizes his folly and achieves vocational clarity, offering a great companion to Mike Rowe’s recent advice about not “following your passion.” Follow the Shepherd, and he will make your paths straight.
6. Avoid the Traps of Privilege and Success — Tortoise and the Hare (1934)
In a rather standard retelling of the classic fable, we see the risks of privilege and success: pride, neglect, idleness, and waste. Though the hare has enormous natural advantage and opportunity, the tortoise has the inner mental and spiritual strength to press on and overcome.
We are left to wonder: If the hare were to steward his mind, time, and energy as prudently as the tortoise, what might he achieve?
7. Don’t Undervalue the Gifts of Others — Pied Piper (1933)
In a peppy rendition of a story that haunted me as a child, we see yet again the consequences of manipulating and undervaluing the gifts of others. Upon ridding a town of its rat infestation through the music of his magic pipe, the piper is turned away by the mayor, who refuses to offer him the promised compensation. “A bag of gold?” the mayor asks, “You crazy loon! All you did was pipe a tune!”
Angrily, the piper proceeds to wield that same gift to inflict the city with something far worse than rats — childlessness — luring its young citizens away forever. “You’re dishonest and ungrateful,” he says, “and it really is a shame that the children of this city should grow up to be the same.”
It’s a dark end to a dark legend, and we surely don’t want to respond as the piper does. But much like the mayor, how often does our ungratefulness and undervaluing of the gifts and contributions of others lead to our own destruction?
8. You Owe the World a Livin’ — Grasshopper and the Ants (1934)
Based on another well-worn fable, with imagery stretching back to Proverbs, here we find a grasshopper who comically quotes Genesis 2:9 to justify his leisurely lifestyle. “The world owes us a livin’,” sings the grasshopper, instructing a young ant not to “soil his Sunday pants.”
When winter comes, however, the grasshopper sings a different tune. Yet unlike the Wise Old Hen, the Queen Ant chooses to forgive him despite his selfishness. After giving him a thorough Pauline scolding, she promptly puts him to work, in a conclusion that aptly connects the Economy of Creative Service with the Economy of Wonder.
As the grasshopper concludes in song: “I owe the world a livin’.” And indeed, we do.
Originally published at the Acton PowerBlog.