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The story is a basic adaptation of Aesop's classic fable, centered around the cocky speedster Max Hare, competing with the friendly but slow-witted Toby Tortoise. However, what sets this short apart is not it's bare-bone story but rather what it introduced into cartoons. The characters, while simplistic and one-dimensional, were a fairly good advancement as far as characterization went for Disney shorts of the time period. Another important aspect the short helped pioneer was the use of faster speed in cartoons, setting an example that would be copied by the Looney Tunes studio in some of their own cartoons. Another thing this short is notable for is Max Hare being the inspiration for the character of Bugs Bunny, as claimed by Tex Avery.
The short was a hit when it was released, earning the 1935 Academy Award for cartoon short subjects. The short was popular enough to receive a follow-up in 1936, Toby Tortoise Returns, featuring a rematch between Max and Toby, but with a boxing match rather than a race. The short is particularly interesting in that it features not only an original story not based on a previous fable or myth, it was Disney's most cartoony short ever done since the earliest days of Mickey Mouse, with lots of strong exaggeration, cartoony gags and a non-sentimental tone that make it feel like a proto-Looney Tunes short--quite ironic when one realizes the Looney Tunes were only mildly cartoony during that time, instead trying to fruitlessly ape Disney's traditional short cartoons in terms of pathos and storytelling. "Returns" was also notable for being the first major animation assignment of Ward Kimball, one of Disneys Nine Old Men and noted for being Disney's most cartoony director, which is probably why this short turned out so different from a typical Disney cartoon.
Curiously, a similar cartoon would be made to this in 1938 by Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett, a short cartoon called "Porky & Daffy", which also features a boxing match and decidely cartoony gags. Perhaps the short was a, shall we say, "inspiration" for Mr. Clampett?
Tropes Both Shorts Contain:
- Animation Bump: The original cartoon isn't badly animated, but it looks pretty shabby when you compare it to "Toby Tortoise Returns".
- Adorkable: Toby Tortoise.
- Annoying Laugh: Max Hare. "Haha haha hahaaaaa...."
- The Cameo:
- The bunny girls that swoon over Max make a blink and you'll miss it cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
- Many other Silly Symphonies characters appear in the sequel short, including Jenny Wren from "Who Killed Cock Robin?" and Practical Pig from "Three Little Pigs".
- When Jenny arrives, she steals the heart of everyone in the audience, among them Horace Horsecollar, Goofy and Donald Duck.
- Captain Ersatz: As noted above, Bugs Bunny is essentially a more fleshed out interpretation of Max Hare.
- Curb Stomp Battle: Toby is utterly hopeless against beating Max in "Returns", until Max stuffs fireworks and firecrackers into his shell, which upon lighting send Toby flying, finally allowing him to (inadvertedly) get the upper hand.
- Double Entendre: Delivered by Mae West ersatz Jenny Wren to Toby when he is knocked out of the ring and needs some motivation.
"I like a man that takes his time..."
- Good Is Dumb: Toby Tortoise.
- Hammerspace: Toby's small shell is capable of holding lots of firecrackers, a mouse-trap, a fair amount of water, and a diving helmet!
- Jerkass: Max Hare
- Mickey Mousing: At some parts of "Toby Tortoise Returns".
- Something Completely Different: Toby Tortoise Returns, of course.
- Smelly Skunk: Appears as a gag in the first short.
- Super Speed: A trait of Max Hare. His speed is fast enough to where the wind from it can completely uproot a tree!
- Turtle Power: Ol' Toby Tortoise.
- Wheel-O-Feet: A proto-example is done by Max Hare.
- Zany Cartoon: "Toby Tortoise Returns", a rarity for Disney cartoons in general.