Father Noah’s Ark was a Disney Silly Symphony, released in 1933. It was directed by Wilfred Jackson, who would later work on many of Disney’s classic feature films of Disney’s Silver Age in the 1950s such as Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and The Tramp. It is an adaptation of the Noah’s Ark story, though the title character looks more like Father Christmas than Father Noah. He is plump, wears all red and has a long white beard.
I first saw this short when I was very young when it was featured on a VHS release of Dumbo, and when I first saw it I remember thinking Father Noah was meant to be Santa. He does resemble Santas in other Silly Symphony cartoons from this time.
Father Noah’s sons, Ham, Shem and Japeth look identical except for their hair and beards being different colours. Ham has yellow hair, Shem has black hair and Japeth has red hair. They are shown building the Ark’s roof, while their wives, who again look identical except their hair colour, one with yellow hair, one with black hair and one with red hair, load supplies of fruit and vegetables into the Ark. Then there’s Father Noah’s wife, Mother Noah, who is a stout, hardy washerwoman.
A lot of the humour in the beginning of the cartoon comes from the way the animals help build the ark, similar to what would be later done in The Flintstones. We see porcupines catch fruit and vegetables on their spines, a rhino being used by two monkeys to charge at a tree cutting into boards, a wooden car with snakes as wheels and a bird as a horn, a hippo punching holes into wood with its teeth, and woodpeckers hammering nails in. While these are all quite funny, thinking about it, it seems incredibly unfair that some of these animals are going to be left behind to drown in the flood! We see several monkeys hard at work painting the Ark, chopping and sawing wood and as builders, and several elephants moving heavy wooden logs, you have to wonder if they know only two of each creature is getting on this Ark they’re building.
But if you think that makes our protagonists look cruel, that’s nothing compared to when most of the animals have got on and the skunks turn up late. They ask, well squeak, for help to get on and instead Father Noah’s sons take the plank back up and set sail. Obviously the joke is that they don’t want the skunks on board because skunks are meant to smell bad, but even as a kid I thought that was a nasty thing to do. It seems even more so when watching it now, as having become a natural history geek I’ve learnt that in real life skunks don’t smell most of the time, their famous scent is a defensive technique they only use when threatened, and even then it’s actually quite rare for them to employ it. Still, I think we’re meant to view the skunks as underdogs to support, as the animators have made them look very cute, and when they do make it on the Ark, seeing the poor things clinging onto the roof of the Ark against crashing waves you can’t help but root for them. They also have the distinction of being the first creatures to step off the Ark onto dry land, albeit unlike the others they haven’t been able to have any offspring while on there.
The short features other stock animal stereotypes; cute penguins, an elephant too fat to fit through a door, a stubborn donkey (though only one is seen going on the Ark,), rabbits having lots and lots and lots of babies, and at the end dogs all going to sniff a tree while their puppies go to sniff a smaller tree.
There is a noticeable tone shift once the rain begins to fall. The smiley-faced sun is covered by clouds, and the cartoon becomes more dramatic, with such scenes as the animals running towards the Ark, the Ark being tossed around on the sea by waves, the people inside praying, and a candle burning and slowly melting as a timer for the 40 days of rain. The cartoon never completely loses its light comedy aspect. Comic relief shows up in between all those scenes, for example Father Noah’s mouth being filled with rainwater while he sings and the fact that Mother Noah is nonchalantly knitting while everyone else is praying, but those darker scenes are still compelling.
After that the clouds part and the smiley-face is visible again, which leads to the mood becoming uplifting when the Ark has landed, everybody is happy that it is all over and they can start again. There are some very nice and memorable images at the end, such as the great Ark on top of a tree, the pastel coloured rainbow and the beautiful dove with the olive branch.
This short has its flaws, and parts of it are a little dated, the human characters in particular. Father Noah and his sons have Mickey Mouse gloves, and the wives of Noah’s sons look a bit out of place with the rest of the cartoon. They all have porcelain white skin, pigtails and their singing voices seem like a jingle from an old advert; they even mention “canned sardines” in their verse for some reason. There are signs of it with some of the animals as well. Many of the animals resemble Mickey Mouse in their design, and the cow seen running towards the Ark looks very like Clarabelle Cow.
But those are nitpicks really. The cartoon has held up very well considering it is 81 years old. It’s quite fun and charming, is beautifully animated. and it does a great job telling the story. It is helped by making use of classical music, adapting Beethoven’s 12 Contredanses. It has some creative visuals, one of my favourite being a lightning bolt going through a cloud and it breaking in two and leaking water looking like an egg being cracked.
I always thought of images from this short (the animals running to the Ark, the Ark in sea, the rainbow and Ark on a tree, the dove with the olive branch) whenever we learned about Noah’s Ark at school. While this cartoon is not perfect, I’d still recommend it.