December 13, 2016

The Small One (1978)

A young boy is ordered by his farmer father to take their old donkey, named Small One, into town to sell him at market. The boy struggles to do what he has been commanded: Small One is a beloved pet, and is very old, and the only person who wishes to buy him is a tanner who wants to kill Small One for his leather.

The Small One is an odd little curiosity in Walt Disney history. It is a 1978 animated short feature, running 26 minutes in total, and was paired in cinemas with a re-release of Disney's popular classic Pinocchio. Pairing new short features with pre-existing animated films was a cost-effective way for Walt Disney Pictures to get people into cinemas: some would be attracted by experiencing an old favourite again, others would be attracted by the new film attached to it. The company attempted it again in 1983 with the pairing of Mickey's Christmas Carol and The Rescuers, as well as Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore and The Sword in the Stone.

The Small One also stands out among Disney's long back catalogue because it is an overtly religious film: the town in which the boy attempts to sell his donkey is Nazareth, and its eventual buyer is Joseph father of Jesus.

It clear on viewing The Small One why it is a comparatively obscure film. It has a very straight-forward and comparatively humourless tone, and after a brief set-up simply moves from one scene of the boy failing to offload his donkey to another. The religious subject matter is perhaps one factor in that. It is not unimaginable that the production team were leery of joking around a key Bible story too much.

I also expect that Walt Disney Pictures has never been particularly keen to remind viewers of the film either. About halfway through a trio of Jewish moneylenders in the town market leap into a song and dance routine about earning money. It is a shockingly crass antisemitic stereotype, dancing along the edge of being actively offensive. When the film was finally released on DVD part of the song's lyrics were actually re-recorded to remove a reference to cheating customers. It is slightly curious that Disney would so fiercely hide their 1946 feature Song of the South from public release, out of fears its outdated presentation on slavery and race would offend, but did not take the same attitude with The Small One. It's particularly odd when you consider Song of the South was a technologically ground-breaking movie featuring the first Oscar-winning performance by an African-American man. By contrast if Disney had hidden The Small One in a vault instead, I doubt anyone would notice it was gone.

The Small One was directed by Don Bluth, who would later abandon the Walt Disney Animation Studios for independent work at other major studios including The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail. Here he uses a conflicted style, combining the scratchier visual elements of 1970s Disney animation with the beautifully painted, rich backgrounds of the studio's earlier work. You can sense a desire to present as much of that old-fashioned Disney style as possible, however it seems that by 1978 too much of that old technique had gone. The final result is a bit of a mess, and I swear the donkey's head keeps changing size from scene to scene - and indeed shot to shot.

The Small One is not in any sense a Disney classic, but it is a fascinating curiosity. It is a strange choice of subject matter, it has an unfortunate presentation of Judaism, and it treats everything with an odd, dour seriousness. Bluth completists - he must have some - would enjoy tracking it down, as would hard-core Disney enthusiasts. Everybody else can easily give it a miss.

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