Fairy tales have long served as source material for filmmakers–only natural when one considers how universal those stories truly are. These fantastical, largely archetypal narratives draw on moral codes and lessons that transcend time, telling and retelling tales that have been woven for centuries, with new generations altering and finessing the stories to fit their particular moment in time. Fairy tales help us define our world, and how it works, from a young age, and perhaps more than anything, show us how very different, and yet how very similar, we are from one another.
It’s little wonder, then, that fairy tales, populated as they are with mystical creatures, talking animals, and beautiful people, have appealed particularly to animators since the earliest years of film animation. Indeed, the oldest surviving animated feature-length film is a German fairy tale, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, written, directed, and animated by Lotte Reinger and released in 1926. Eleven years later, another German fairy tale (from the ever-popular Brothers Grimm), Schneewittchen, was adapted into the first fully Technicolor animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, produced by Walt Disney in 1937. In the years before and in between the releases of those two features, and even more so in the decades after, animation studios would tap the fairy tale well again and again and again, bringing the most familiar and beloved stories of all time to the screen in new and creative ways.
The previously-mentioned Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, never could have imagined that their lives’ work of collecting folk and fairy tales in book form would someday provide a practical blueprint for many a movie and cartoon. Think of the many stories that they collected and characters that they popularized: Snow White. Cinderella. Rapunzel. Sleeping Beauty. Hansel and Gretel. The Brave Little Tailor. The Elves and the Shoemaker. Rumpelstiltskin. Little Red Cap.
Let’s go back to that last one. We all probably know her better as Little Red Riding Hood. You know, the naive, precious little waif who thinks that the VERY OBVIOUS WOLF SHE JUST MET who is now in Grandma’s bed must be her dear old Granny, and she’s just very, very sick with an unknown illness that makes one grow fur and hideous fangs?
I’m going to pause here for a moment and refer to my favorite James Thurber story, The Little Girl and the Wolf, published in 1939. For your reading pleasure, here it is in its (brief) entirety:
One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.
When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.
(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)
Moving along …
Little Red Riding Hood has been the inspiration for any number of animated shorts and features in the past century or so, some of them quite memorable, some perhaps less so (ahem). Here’s a handful of the former, which do a pretty great job of drawing inspiration from the fairy tale while bringing a somewhat original spin to the proceedings.
Red Hot Riding Hood
Tex Avery, 1943
Long before Edward Everett Horton narrated a series of “Fractured Fairy Tales” for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Tex Avery presented his own unique, skewed take on the genre. Red Hot Riding Hood is one of the most notable productions of Avery’s long career, arguably the most influential and best-remembered of his many animated shorts. On the Jerry Beck-curated list of the “50 Greatest Cartoons,” Red Hot ranks seventh, and is the highest-placed MGM cartoon on the list (its 1949 semi-sequel, Little Rural Riding Hood, also appears on the list at #23). Red Hot is a prime example of a master gag craftsman at work, one who is more than willing to push the envelope in order to garner the most laughs. And push the envelope he does, for this ain’t the Grimm Brothers’ tired old tale. Just ask the censors, who reportedly had a conniption fit (or twelve) about certain “unsavory” elements of the cartoon.
Little Red Walking Hood
Tex Avery, 1937
Before Tex Avery put the hot-cha-cha in Little Red, he jazzed up the old tale in Little Red Walking Hood for Warner Bros. in 1937. If this cartoon seems familiar, it’s because Avery borrowed somewhat from himself for the more infamous Red Hot toon, including Red’s Katharine Hepburn-esque speaking intonation and the multiple bits of breaking the fourth wall (an Avery hallmark). This cartoon is notable for its inclusion of the character of Egghead, an Avery creation who was eventually set aside for (or, depending on who you ask, morphed into) Elmer Fudd. Also, note the truly creative animation (especially in the characterization of the wolf), crafted by artist Irv Spence, who moved with Avery to MGM in 1941: Spence would also go on to do some uncredited animation work on Red Hot Riding Hood for Avery before moving to the Hanna-Barbera unit to work on the Tom and Jerry series of cartoons.
Little Red Riding Rabbit
Friz Freleng, 1944
In this memorable cartoon, Freleng casts his Red as that most obnoxious of 1940s creatures: yes, folks, it’s the dreaded bobbysoxer. Okay, so perhaps it’s taking it a bit far, but it makes for an interesting twist for that gag at the end of the cartoon, doesn’t it? And the entire thing hinges on Bea Benaderet’s absolutely perfect, side-splittingly funny voiceover performance as Red (purportedly parodying radio and film personality Cass Daley), as well as Billy Bletcher (best known as Disney’s Pete) as the increasingly frustrated wolf who’s actually not at all interested in eating Red for once. And to complete the trifecta of great vocal deliveries, we of course have the great Mel Blanc as Bugs. Watch this one now, and you’ll have “Five O’Clock Whistle” in your head all.day.long. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Red Riding Hoodwinked
Friz Freleng, 1955
Freleng revisited the Red Riding Hood story eleven years after the previous cartoon with this short starring everyone’s favorite “sweet widdle birdie,” Tweety. As Little Red tries to deliver her gift of Tweety to Granny, Sylvester teams up with the Big Bad Wolf in an attempt to corner their respective prey, to predictable results. This cartoon is notable as the first time the great June Foray voices the character of Granny, taking over from Bea Benaderet, who had originated the role in 1950. Granny here is a thinly-veiled parody of Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners, which turned out to be pretty apt timing on Warner Bros. part, considering that the Honeymooners series (spun off from the popular sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show) debuted on television just a few weeks before this cartoon premiered in theaters.
Little Red Riding Hood
Walt Disney, 1922
When Walt Disney was a struggling cartoonist in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early 1920s, he founded a short-lived company called Laugh-O-Gram Studio, dedicated to producing short animated versions of fairy tales. The first of these productions, Little Red Riding Hood, was long thought to be lost, but was rediscovered in London in the late 1990s and restored. And so with that stroke of luck, we now have a complete copy of Walt Disney’s first animated work produced under his own auspices. Though Disney is given sole credit for the “cartooning” here, he was greatly assisted in the effort by two people: his longtime partner Ub Iwerks, and a high school student named Rudy Ising, who would later go on to co-found the animation departments of both Warner Bros. and MGM alongside fellow Laugh-O-Gram animator Hugh Harman.
The Big Bad Wolf
Walt Disney, 1934
In 1933, Three Little Pigs was an absolute phenomenon for the Disney studio (you can read more about it in our article about the cartoon). Under pressure to release a sequel (some things never change), Disney combined the tale of the pigs with the story of Little Red Riding Hood to produce this entry in the Silly Symphonies series, which conveniently provides a built-in excuse to recycle the first cartoon’s smash hit musical number “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” This short actually marks the second of four Silly Symphonies that would feature the popular porkers–two more starring the characters debuted in 1936 and 1939, respectively, though none matched the original in acclaim.
Red Riding Hood
Van Beuren Studios, 1931
The Van Beuren studio can always be counted on for some twisted takes on classic stories, and their version of Little Red–an entry in the studio’s ongoing series called Aesop’s Sound Fables, though the tale of Red Riding Hood as we generally know it was not one of Aesop’s stories–is no different. In this version, Red is a not-so-vague approximation of Minnie Mouse (it’s such a similar design, it’s a wonder they didn’t get sued by Disney), Grandma takes a “jazz tonic” and turns into an ass-slapping, hip-swiveling hoochie mama, and the Wolf … well, he just seems to forget himself–and his wife and many, many cubs–altogether. It’s wild, it’s weird, it’s kind of wonderful: let’s just say, you can definitely tell this was a pre-Code era cartoon if there ever was one. Also, I could use some of that jazz tonic, please and thank you.
Dizzy Red Riding Hood
Max Fleischer, 1931
Speaking of the pre-Code era, we can’t forget about sweet Betty. The Fleischers enjoyed casting Betty Boop as the heroine of popular fairy tales–their version of Snow White is not only one of the best Boop toons, but one of the best cartoons of all time, period–and it’s fun to see Betty take on another such role here, alongside frequent costar Bimbo. Of course, it’s a pre-Code Betty Boop cartoon, so there are some naughtier gags mixed in with the usual Fleischer tricks, like an extended caper with Betty’s garters and the ending bit in which Bimbo essentially gropes Betty’s boobs (a lot). But, hey, at least everyone but the wolf is having a good time, am I right?
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