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 third volume, The Walt Disney Animation Collection Volume 3: The Prince and the Paupertakes its title from the centerpiece cartoon, a 25-minute adaptation of the venerable Mark Twain story. Originally released to theatres in 1990 accompanying The Rescuers Down Under, "Prince" stars Mickey Mouse in the dual role of a street urchin and a prince whose father the king is on his deathbed. The story progresses along the expected lines, with the duo switching places and seeing how the other half lives. The short definitely feels like late-period but pre-90s renaissance Disney; some of the slapstick is a little forced, the music is obnoxious, and while I applaud them for finding roles for so many favorite characters, there's not enough Donald and way too much Goofy. Those complaints aside, much of the film is quite charming, and it is a lean, efficient retelling, briskly paced all the way up to its well-assembled pseudo-action climax.
The disc is rounded out by several other Disney shorts, of varying periods, loosely bonded by their (roughly) Renaissance settings. First we take a long jump back, all the way to 1933, for the Silly Symphony adaptation of "The Pied Piper." The contrast between the look and styles of the two shorts is a little jarring at first, but there's plenty to like here; they do some clever sight gags with the village's rampaging rats, while the parade of rats dancing out of the village is a striking image. "Old King Cole" (also from 1933) is also charming, though there's not much offered in the way of plot; it's basically a big cartoon musical number, with various characters from children's songs and fairy tale characters popping up and doing a little song and dance (including an appearance by the three little pigs, who--looking much different--fronted their own Silly Symphony that same year).
Next up is "Ye Olden Days," a vintage Mickey Mouse short; though it also dates from 1933, this one is in black and white (which makes it appear much older than the others). Mickey stars as a minstrel who tries to save princess Minnie Mouse from her arranged marriage with Goofy (then known as Dippy Dawg). "Ye Olden Days" has some scattered laughs, and is charming as all get out; it also offers the fascinating opportunity to see these early incarnations of the characters (it's a little surprising, for example, to see Mickey and Goofy pitted against each other).
The package's final cartoon is "A Knight for a Day," a jaunty, fast-paced Goofy comedy from 1946. It begins as a parody of sporting events (and the coverage of them) before getting into its main story, in which Goofy (as "Cedrick"), a knight's valet, is forced to step into his master's armor in a fierce fighting competition for the love of a fair maiden. The slapstick is clever and the look of the animation is slick, bright, and colorful, making this a strong closing short for a fine collection.
Reviews and comments have been all over the map for this series of discs, and the quality of the 1.33:1 image varies quite a bit from short to short here. For most of the cartoons, particularly the newer ones, the image is average to above-average; in "The Prince and The Pauper," for instance, the picture is crisp and bright, full of sharp edges and deep, vivid saturation. On the two Silly Symphonies that follow, the colors are noticeably more washed out, but what the hell, they're sixty years older. The only real flaw is fleeting dirt and specks, but the only short in which those are really a distraction is "Ye Olden Days"--which appears to have been pulled from a pretty worn-out print, so prevalent are the scratches and dirt. That short aside, these cartoons look pretty good, particularly considering their age.
The 2.0 audio track is decent, though far from reference-quality. Again, it's all about the age of the source; "Prince and the Pauper" sounds great, with full music cues and rich dialogue recording, but the shorts from the thirties are noticeably thinner and occasionally hissy. However, even at its roughest, there's still nothing happening aurally that's terribly distracting.
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 pass on the The Walt Disney Animation Collection titles; all of the cartoons within them 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.