The story is a basic adaptation of Aesop's classic fable of The Tortoise and the Hare, centered around the cocky speedster Max Hare, competing with the friendly but slow-witted Toby Tortoise. However, what sets this short apart is not its 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 Disney's 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 decidedly cartoony gags. Perhaps the short was, shall we say, an "inspiration" for Mr. Clampett?
"The Tortoise and the Hare" & "Toby Tortoise Returns" provides examples of:
- An Aesop: He who takes his time will get there in the end.
- Allegory: The true message of the short could be seen as this: Don't get overconfident because it can lead to underestimating your opponent, which can be the biggest mistake anyone can make in a competition.
- Animation Bump: The original cartoon isn't badly animated, but it looks pretty shabby when you compare it to "Toby Tortoise Returns".
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: When Toby comes across Max sleeping, he turns to the audience, and shushes them.
- 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?", the Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, Elmer Elephant and Tillie Tiger.
- 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 at beating Max in "Returns", until Max stuffs fireworks and firecrackers into his shell, which upon lighting send Toby flying, finally allowing him to (inadvertently) get the upper hand.
- Curb-Stomp Cushion: This is provoked by Toby hiding inside his shell, which Max is unable to penetrate (he gets a mouse trap to the hand when he tries to pull Toby out).
- Denser and Wackier: Compared to the usual more earnest or sweet-natured Silly Symphonies fare, these two shorts, but especially the second, are much more odd-ball in tone, even getting in a few risqué jokes.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Max Hare's ultimate undoing in the first short, spending the entire latter half of the cartoon showboating for four young female bunnies.
- Double Entendre: Delivered by Mae West ersatz Jenny Wren to Toby when he is knocked out of the ring and needs some motivation.Jenny: I like a man that takes his time...
- Good Is Dumb: Toby Tortoise is at least rather slow-minded and clumsy. However, he prevails by not being insanely arrogant as Max Hare is.
- 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.
- "Metaphor" Is My Middle Name:Girl Rabbit: Don't you think you'd better go? The tortoise has the lead.
Max Hare: Say, I've lots of time to play. My middle name is "Speed."
- Mickey Mousing: At some parts of "Toby Tortoise Returns".
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Max Hare is based on boxer Max Baer.
- Rhymes on a Dime: A Silly Symphonies trademark, mainly used by Max and the girl bunnies.
- Signature Laugh: Max Hare's "Ha-HA ha-HA ha-HA!"
- Slower Than a Snail: In one shot, Toby has snails literally running circles around him.
- Small Name, Big Ego: In both shorts, Max' biggest undoing is less Toby himself and more his extreme overconfidence. He actually has to give Toby an opening several times over by showing off for him to finally lose the upper hand.
- Smelly Skunk: Appears as a gag in the first short: a pair of skunks in the audience get a bleacher all to themselves.
- Something Completely Different: "Toby Tortoise Returns", of course.
- 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.