It begins with the silhouettes of soldiers moving against a war-wrecked background, but that lasts for only a few seconds; you might not even notice it if your eyes are drawn instead to the film's title. Then a somewhat more comfortable scene appears: snow falling, the stained glass of a church, a Christmas carol on the soundtrack. Except the church is a ruin, and you can see some barbed wire in the snow, and the camera is soon panning past the wreckage of a tank.
But that surreal setup doesn't last long. A minute into the film, we're watching a warm and friendly village filled with cute anthropomorphic animals. A trio of carolers is singing, and Christmas wreaths are hanging in the windows. Inside one home, a squirrel knits near a cozy fireplace; two children rest happily in a cradle rocking at her knee. The boys' grandfather comes home and they scurry into his arms, wishing him a merry Christmas. "A very merry Christmas!" he agrees. "Peace on Earth, goodwill to men!"
And that prompts the squirrel children to ask: "What are men, Grandpa?"
So begins Hugh Harman's Peace on Earth, an animated short released in theaters a few weeks before Christmas in 1939. It's one of those cartoons that would have played before the feature film began, but this one is a bit darker than the adventures of Porky Pig or Mickey Mouse. Asked what exactly what the "men" in "goodwill to men" are, the grandfather squirrel replies, "There ain't no men in the world no more, sonnies." He chuckles. "Nope. No more men."
Men were "like monsters," he recalls, and now the camera shows us a World War I grunt wearing a gas mask and armed with a bayonet. He tells them about our wars, and especially about the big one that wiped all the people out. He tells them about the last two men left on Earth, and he describes how they killed each other. And he tells about the woodsy creatures who entered the ruins of civilization, building houses from the helmets of dead soldiers, reading a Bible in that bombed-out church and feeling wonder and puzzlement when they came to the words "thou shalt not kill." He remembers an owl remarking, "Looks like a mighty good book of rules, but I guess them men didn't pay much attention to it."
It is the cuddliest post-apocalyptic tale ever, like someone decided to cross Winnie the Pooh with The Day After. And it's kind of great: