Before the release of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", the animators at the Disney studios had to run tests to see if the special effects they could use at the time would even be possible. "The Old Mill" was one of those tests, and did it pay off in the end? You bet it did. Released in 1937, the same year that saw the release of the aforementioned "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "The Old Mill" would in itself be a milestone in Walt Disney's Silly Symphony series. It was unlike any other animated short released at the time, in that it was the first picture to use the "Multi-plane camera", which allowed the 2D animation to look more 3D. The use of realism and experimentations with light, color, and rotoscoping (animating by drawing over real-life images) also gave the film a distinct look amongst all of the other animated shorts released at the time, making it more like a moving painting as opposed to a moving cartoon strip.
There isn't really that much of a story, except that we see the different animals occupy an old, beat-up windmill, such as birds, frogs, insects, mice, bats, etc. Suddenly, a storm sweeps over the land, causing the windmill to spin, and various parts of it becoming more and more loose as the storm intensifies, thus threatening all life within. As it goes on, you see the mill come apart, piece by piece, the wind flowing into the holes of a tree, making it sound like a haunting choir, and the animals trying to keep safe from the harsh weather, until finally, a flash of thunder strikes the mill, nearly demolishing it as the storm dies down. In the end, all of the animals survive the endeavor and begin anew as a new dawn approaches over the remains of the old mill.
Imagine for a moment that you were an average joe in 1937, stepping into what was then called a movie-house, and seeing something like this for the first time before the feature begins. For many an audience, it was unlike anything that they have seen before, even by Disney standards. But it was simply a taste from what's to come from the studio later that year. Today, the film still holds up as it did back then. The animation itself is worth noting, as it's so smooth and true to life. The music, which helps move the film along, completely sets the mood, from its happiest moments to the most grim.
The film, along with the release of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", would show that animation has a place in the industry and can be just as respected as any other motion picture. It has the power to tell unique stories that live-action films could not, and can make moviegoers emote. They began to feel uneasy when the storm came. They shook with fear and worried when the mother bird protecting her eggs as the mill wheel turned, and they sighed with relief that nothing bad happened in the end. This was what going to the movies was going to be like from there on, and as a result of that effort, Walt's team won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Subject.
Today, it's a historic piece of animated art, still enjoyed by both kids and adults alike, and as of 2015, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry division of the U.S. Library of Congress. The film can be found on the first volume of the Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphony sets, or the Diamond Edition of the 1942 film "Bambi". If you have either one of these, by all means, definitely give it a watch.