The House of Mouse is no dummy. Ever since the VCR proved that parents would prefer any manner of babysitter - including a faceless, nameless electronic one - than actually having to deal with their kids, the enterprise Uncle Walt built has been using its incredibly cartoon catalog as a nonstop supply line of home video fodder. From their groundbreaking features to the films they made during the less successful "wilderness years" (the late '60s and '70s) they have repackaged and reconfigured everything, using embargo dates and generational nostalgia as a means of making even the most sensible customer breakdown and buy their product. As analog gave way to digital, and DVD has started sprouting Blu-ray offshoots, the keepers of the Disney legacy have managed to manipulate collectors and consumers into rebuying their efforts over and over again. The Animation Collection, Classic Short Films line is no different. As you will see below, it takes several titles previously available elsewhere and reconfigures them into a disc no completist can resist. And frankly, for those unfamiliar with the company's pre-'80s output, these overviews are well worth visiting.
Going way back into the Disney archives and including one of its best loved mini-masterworks, this edition of the Classic Short Films collection definitely holds some merit. Story-wise, here are the familiar tales told:
The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934) - While he plays his fiddle and fools around, the grasshopper laughs at the hardworking ants. He changes his tune once winter comes around.
The Wise Little Hen (1934) (The debut of Donald Duck) - Hoping to find someone to help her plant, farm, and harvest her corn, the wise little hen asks Peter Pig and Donald Duck for help. They feign bellyaches instead.
The Golden Touch (1935) - King Midas wants everything he touches to turn to gold. A mischievous little elf makes him regret what he wishes for.
The Robber Kitten (1935) - Rebellious and unwilling to take his bath, a little feline fancies himself a highwayman and runs away from home. When he meets up with a real criminal, however, he learns that he's not up to a life of lawlessness.
The Ugly Duckling (Oscar winner, 1939) - After all her eggs hatch, mother duck is disturbed to see that one of her children is not as attractive as the others. After being exiled from his family, the little fowl finally finds a home.
The Wind in the Willows (1949) - Mr. Toad and his friends Mole, Ratty, and Angus MacBadger all live by the riverside, inseparable as friends and compatriots. This is truly tested when the amphibian's tendency toward uncontrolled mania leads him to court where he is accused of stealing a car. Even worse, the case results to the dispossession of Toad Hall. Desperate to help their friend, the trio takes it upon themselves to investigate the claims of bartender Winkie and his associates, the weasels. Turns out Toad may be innocent after all.
For many, the legacy of Mr. Toad can be boiled down to a single bonehead decision by the people who play around with Disney World's star attractions. For decades, the "Wild" adventures of this insane amphibian and his dark ride theme park equivalent were hugely popular. No trip to the Magic Kingdom was complete without a journey (or two) through both sides of the amusement's car crash craziness. Now, it's all gone, wiped away for some silliness about the 100 Acre Wood, a boy named Christopher Robin, and a honey-prone Pooh bear. No offense, A. A. Milne, but we frog fanatics just can't cotton to a comparison between a calm kiddie cruise through brightly colored eye candy and a madcap romp aroundToad Hall and parts surrounding. Perhaps it's one of the reasons why revisiting The Wind in the Willows is so enjoyable. Aside from the various elements that actually made it into the ride itself, the Disney animators do a delightful job of bringing Kenneth Grahame's subversive characters to life. Even better, there are links to contemporary cartooning as the last act invasion of weasels will instantly remind viewers of a similar bunch of stoats in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
As entertaining and fun as The Wind in the Willows is (removed from its original pairing with the House of Mouse's take on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), the rest of the short films here are equally excellent. The efforts from 1934 and 1935 specifically show how a small group of people applying their obvious talents to a single goal can forge something wholly unforgettable. The animation is sublime, the denseness and detail adding to the antiquate quality of the images. Similarly, Disney was expert at silent storytelling, having made their reputation years before sound came to celluloid. The character design and facial expressions lend the perfect amount of emotion to the narrative, and when they go for laughs, no one knows timing better than Uncle Walt's workers. Sure, there are times when we see through the manipulation and recognize the old school sentimentality at play, but for the most part, Disney defined the art of short filmmaking. None of the offerings here overstay their welcome or underperform when required to open up in scope.
Still, there is a reason to give pause before an actual purchase. By giving the company your hard earned coinage for less than complete compendiums like this, you support their decision to keep their output scattered and incomplete. It's a lot like the lesson Sony had to learn when Three Stooges fans stopped sustaining the "three shorts per DVD" release of the comedians' classic films and, instead, opted for a remastered series that offered the efforts in complete chronological order. Disney doesn't do this. Even their metal tin special edition froufrou sets stumble instead of doing the right historical thing. No one is demanding that the studio release everything in their creative canon (though a few contemporary exclusions argue for a strict Song of the South avoidance) or put everything into a fully remastered and digitally shiny transfer. But when you ask fans to spring for multiple sets of random titles, you're suggesting they'll stoop to buying anything. The Walt Disney Animation Collection Classic Short Films will be a treasure to anyone new to the ways of the House of Mouse. For everyone else, the aroma of marketing and its demographically designed exploitation may insight a dollar and cents conundrum which is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
Offered in a 1.33:1 full screen image, the transfers here are rather hit and miss. Willows looks good, albeit sprinkled with age and dirty issues. The Ugly Duckling and The Golden Touch sparkle like they are brand new, while the Grasshopper and the Ants and The Wise Little Hen also appear dated and unpolished. Colors occasionally fade and prints are not as crisp as expected. Indeed, if one were cynical, they could argue that these are the same masters utilized on the numerous Disney cable channels and not new at all. But without specific proof of such repurposing, we will simply say the visuals are acceptable and leave it at that.
Don't let the Surround Sound tag fool you - the Dolby Digital mix here is as good as you'd expect from something recreating technology from 60 years ago. In that regard, the audio is never tinny or distorted, and there is a warmth to the later offering that helps hide the lack of any stereophonic support. While not even remotely close to reference quality, the sonic situation here is solid.
Nothing - well, unless you consider a group of "previews" (read: trailers and teasers) and something called Disney's 'Fastplay' added content. This critic clearly doesn't, and that's a shame. If the company wanted to introduce these classics to a new generation of viewers, a little backstory or context would go a long way of supplementing the shorts presented.
It's the classic scoring battle - content presented vs. the actual package itself. The images are almost uniformly excellent (considering their age) while the other tech specs do little to support or subvert a score. Without any additional bells and whistles to worry about, the final rating will have to rely almost solely on the value of the cartoons provided against the manner in which the House of Mouse meters out its product. In that regard, clear members of the DVD Talk Collector's Series are marginalized to the point where the package itself is more or less Recommended. A couple of bonus features and we'd have something deserving a "Higher" score. As time goes on and new formats find their way into the home video market, there is no doubt that Disney will keep revisiting its vaults for more and more money-based merchandising. If you only care about having another repeat entry in your daily ritual of child sitting, this disc will do just fine. Fans of the artform may want to wait for something a little more substantive.
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