Moments in which you are transported back in time are as ineffable as they are rare, and they can be triggered by the damndest things. That unique brand of wistfulness is what took hold the moment I heard "My, What a Happy Day" for the first time in more than 35 years.
Allow me to explain. When I was 6 or so, I had inherited from an older sibling a vinyl album of the entire audio for Disney's animated short, Mickey and the Beanstalk, complete with an illustrated booklet so you could read along to the saga. I was entranced by the pictures and music -- or, at least I'm guessing I was, since seeing the 1947 movie on DVD whisked me back to those childhood remembrances.
Now that the self-absorbed rambling is out of the way, let me just say that Disney Animation Collection 1: Mickey and the Beanstalk is a delightful trip down memory lane. Its five shorts hearken back to a time long before the world's most famous mouse was such an upstanding member of society.
To be sure, the Mickey Mouse captured in this volume is a heck of a lot feistier than the thoroughly sanitized fella who currently hosts the Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. The Mickey of yesteryear is certainly likeable, but he's also a creature of mischief, lust (check out his committed lip-lock with Minnie at the end of Brave Little Tailor) and a willingness to occasionally bend the rules.
The centerpiece, of course, is Mickey and the Beanstalk. Released theatrically in 1947 as half of Fun & Fancy Free but later modified for television in the Fifties, the version included here is the TV-friendly one that replaced narrators Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (celebrated ventriloquist and dummy, for those of you who -- shame on you -- don't know such things) for Disney character Professor Ludwig Von Drake and an affable bug named Herman. After some gratuitous clips from a handful of other Disney classics, we get to the story's re-imagining of "Jack and the Beanstalk." The place in question is Happy Valley, a once-idyllic land that flourished under the magical spell of a singing gold harp.
Alas, the harp was swiped by Willie the Giant, and the theft has transformed Happy Valley into a desolate wasteland that resembles something out of the Mad Max franchise. Among its unhappy residents are Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. Starving and poverty-stricken, the three peasants are relegated to dining on paper-thin slices of bread and a single bean. It's enough to drive a duck bonkers, and it does. Once Donald tries to slaughter the milk-cow, Mickey resolves to sell the bovine for a little much-needed money.
But Mickey isn't the shrewdest negotiator. He returns home without money, but with a handful of magic beans, which grow a beanstalk that leads to the big bad giant, who ... aw, you know where this is going.
Clocking in at nearly 30 minutes, Mickey and the Beanstalk is a true Disney gem that features a smattering of terrific songs and studio animators at their most imaginative. More than 60 years after its debut, some of the sequences still crackle with energy and inventiveness. And for those interested in such things, the short also marked the last time that Uncle Walt himself provided the voice of Mickey.
And the rest of the collection's cartoons aren't half-bad, either.
In 1938's The Brave Little Tailor (9 minutes), Mickey is a tailor in a kingdom terrorized by yet another giant (Did Disney have a problem with tall folks?). Our lovable mouse is mistaken for an accomplished giant-slayer, and so he is dispatched by the King to beat back the big brute. With its freewheeling and somewhat violent vibe, the fun little flick seems more like a Warner Brothers' Loony Tunes creation.
Thru the Mirror, from 1936, is decidedly more surreal. Mickey falls asleep reading Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and dreams that he enters a strange netherworld when he jumps through a mirror. It's a spirited piece of music-filled whimsy, a sort of Fantasia dress rehearsal, complete with a bellicose set of playing cards and antiquated household appliances -- a big radio, a candlestick phone -- taking on vivid personalities. All this and a quick Busby Berkeley parody, too, with a running time just shy of 9 minutes.
The oldest short in the collection, 1934's Gulliver Mickey, is also the only black-and-white offering. This time around, Mickey regales his adoring progeny with a tall tale of how he was shipwrecked and mistaken by some wee Lilliputians for -- here we go again -- a giant. The short is seven minutes, 55 seconds.
Finally, 1940's Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip is a lively bit of chaos as Mickey tries sneaking Pluto on to a train. His nemesis is railroad conductor Pete (who has also mellowed quite a bit with age). The cartoon clocks in at seven minutes, 47 seconds.
Picture quality varies widely from short to short. For the most part, unfortunately, the transfer is a disappointment. Mickey and the Beanstalk, Thru the Mirror and Gulliver Mickey are plagued by stretches of slight grain, small tears and white flickers. Aspect ratio is 1.33:1.
The 2.0 Dolby mono is serviceable enough for most of the shorts, but it falls on its face in Mickey and the Beanstalk. The audio for that 'toon is often muddy and muffled, making it difficult to even make out much of the Ludwig Von Drake narration.
Optional subtitles are in Spanish, French and English for the hearing-impaired.
The sole extra is a "collectible" litho of Mickey, Donald and Goofy.
All the cartoon shorts included in this volume are available in previous Disney DVD releases, so hardcore collectors might not be interested. Despite significant shortcomings in video and audio, however, Disney Animation Collection 1: Mickey and the Beanstalk is a fun (and nicely prices) assortment of vintage entertainment from the House of Mouse.