Disney's short cartoons have been treated fairly well on DVD thus far. Purists have had some minor quibbles, but in general, the "Walt Disney Treasures" line has proven a treat for cinephiles, loaded up with special features and bulked up with plenty of content--and they've been priced accordingly. I'd like to think that the new "Walt Disney Animation Collection" is an attempt to put out more bare-bones, kid-friendly versions of their most famous shorts at a bargain price, although it's certainly possible that Disney is simply recycling material to make some more cash.
The Walt Disney Animation Collection Volume 2: Three Little Pigs collects seven Disney shorts, beginning with the Academy Award-winning 1933 short cartoon "Three Little Pigs." It's an all-time classic, one of the most famous of all cartoons, and deservedly so; a vivid and clever retelling of a classic tale, it is also given considerable oomph by the irritatingly catchy hit song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" If you can watch this disc and not have that song rattling around your head the rest of the day, you're made of stronger stuff than I. "Three Little Pigs" is also notable for its clever comic touches. I particularly liked how the third pig has a wall portrait of a mother pig laying on the ground with several suckling piglets and the label "mother" below; a few moments later, we see that he also has a wall portrait of a string of sausage, with the label "father" below that. Timeless and charming, "Three Little Pigs" sets the bar pretty high for the rest of the set.
Following the phenomenal success of that short, Disney pushed out a sequel the next year, again under the auspices of its "Silly Symphonies" banner (I like how they bear the credit of "Mickey Mouse Presents," which conjures up an image of Mickey as some kind of Spielberg-style Hollywood power player). "The Big Bad Wolf" brings back the title character and the three pigs (two of them carefree, one responsible), this time adding Little Red Riding Hood and her grandma to the mix, fusing the two fairy tales into one. The two pigs (against their sensible brother's advice) offer to show Red a shortcut through the forest and protect her along the way; the Big Bad Wolf soon reveals himself (first in somewhat disturbing drag as "Goldilocks, the fairy queen") and the pigs run off, leaving the Wolf and Red to play out the rest of the story on their own before the third pig stages a daring rescue. There are a couple of funny beats here (in the midst of the whole "what big teeth you have" bit, the Wolf broadly takes an aside to the audience, asking "How am I doin'?"), but the trouble with watching the short, at this late date, is that it can't help but pale in comparison to the far superior Looney Tunes parody of the Red Riding Hood tale ("To have, seeeeeee?"). With its weaker jokes and undeniably rushed ending, "The Big Bad Wolf" is unfortunate proof that sequels aren't equal, even in the case of short cartoons.
The third short of the Pigs series, "Three Little Wolves," was released in 1936. This one introduces the Big Bad Wolf's three sons, who he is teaching (apparently in German?) the love of pork products. We return to the three pigs, and note that Practical Pig is plenty patient with his dunderhead brothers, considering that he keeps saving their asses all the time (and will again here). The Big Bad Wolf traps the two pigs this time by dressing up as Little Bo Peep--leading to an awkward moment where the Wolf (again in drag) locks the door behind him, causing the two pigs to turn bright red and purr, "Why, Bo Peep!" "Three Little Wolves" also doesn't quite measure up to the first short, but it does have one very good bit, in which the Wolf goes through Practical Pig's Rube Goldbergian "Wolf Pacifier."
Strangely, the fourth pigs short ("The Practical Pig" from 1939) has not been included here; the remaining four shorts are all animal-based fairy tales. My favorite of the bunch is the 1951 Oscar nominee "Lambert, The Sheepish Lion." Narrated by Sterling Holloway, this sweet story of a lion who the stork accidentally delivers with a litter of sheep is a fine representation of the fifties-era Disney look--it's a bit slicker and sleeker, though less charmingly antique than the films that precede it. However, you can see the leaps and bounds that the Disney animators have taken in character design--Lambert is memorable and adorable as both a cub and a lion.
"Chicken Little" is one of the most famous shorts in the bunch, though it frankly isn't as tight and well-told as some of the others. Many of the jokes miss, but it's still a goofily enjoyable piece with a surprisingly dark ending. "Three Blind Mousketeeers" is a modest but clever cartoon, in which the titular heroes swipe a truckload of cheese, evading a complex series of mousetraps (and, later, an angry guard), mostly by accident.
The last short of the set is "Elmer Elephant," a "Rudolph"-style tale in which a sympathetic character is ridiculed because he's different, only to subsequently save the day thanks to his unique abilities. This one was new to me, and I found it lovable and a little bit heartbreaking--particularly in a sad, quiet moment where our title character looks at himself in the reflection of a lake and tries to roll up the trunk is the object of his peers' derision. It's an engaging cartoon, and a fine capper to this collection.
Reviews and comments have been all over the map for this series of discs, but I found the quality of the 1.33:1 image to be perfectly satisfactory. The picture is very sharp, with colors bright and full. The only real flaw is occasional dirt and specks, but those are mostly fleeting (though they are a bit more noticeable in "Chicken Little" and "Elmer Elephant"). Overall, these cartoons look quite good here, particularly considering their age.
The 2.0 audio is adequate if not impressive. Dialogue and effects are clear and audible if slightly thin, though there is some occasional distortion in the higher-pitched music cues. It's nothing to write home about, but again, considering the age of the source materials, it not bad either.
English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also offered.
No bonus featured are included here, save for trailers for Disney's Snow White, Up, Bedtime Stories, and The Princess and The Frog.
Serious Disney fans will undoubtedly give The Walt Disney Animation Collection Volume 2: Three Little Pigs a pass; all of the cartoons within are available elsewhere, frequently supplemented by bonus materials and plenty of other goodies. But more casual cartoon watchers and parents looking for a quick and easy watch for the kids will find the lower price point an agreeable trade-off for the bare-bones presentation and short running time (just under an hour). For those consumers, it's a pretty good buy.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.