All animation companies could take a cue from Disney on how to remarket and reconfigure their lengthy past catalog. Remember, for every feature film the House of Mouse made from 1937 until the late '60s, they propped up their profit margin with hundreds of celebrated shorts. Walt Disney won 22 Oscars over the course of his career, and even after he died in 1966, his company continued to flourish. No where was this truer than with the advent of home video. Moms and Dads, using any excuse to avoid interaction with their demanding, career-addling offspring, took to the instant nostalgia of Disney many classic titles, turning the once floundering film conglomerate into a mighty media giant. It even continues to this day, as DVD and Blu-ray overwhelm the now digital landscape. A good example of this propensity toward repackaging their otherwise available artifacts comes in the form of the latest Mickey made merchandise - the Walt Disney Animation Collection Classic Short Films. 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.
Offering four short films from all phases of the company's creative output, this set settles on a pair of segments that were previously part of a much larger production. In the case of Dragon, the live action material is missing. With Appleseed, the rest of Melody Time is nowhere to be seen. Still, here are the stories illustrated, beginning with the classic fable of:
Ferdinand the Bull (Oscar winner, 1938) - As a massive, ferocious looking animal, Ferdinand is expected to participate in the annual bullfight. Sadly, all he wants to do is sit around and smell the flowers.
The Reluctant Dragon (1941) - When a young boy discovers a dragon in his kingdom, he calls on Sir Giles to slay the beast. Unfortunately, all the monster wants to do is recite poetry. And he finds a solid soul mate in the weary old warrior. So they all concoct a plan to fool the townspeople who only want to see the bloodsport such a creature/champion dynamic usually creates.
Johnny Appleseed (1948) - Hoping to spread his love of apples all across America, young Johnny Appleseed takes up his bag of fruit pits and proceeds to walk the land, planting any plowing along the way.
Goliath II (1960) - Goliath II is the smallest animal in the herd. As a matter of fact, he's an incredibly tiny pachyderm. While everyone considers him a pest, his standoff against one of their natural enemies wins the hearts of his cynical superiors.
It's no surprise how important cartoons are to children, especially those growing up in an era when educators thought the animated format could teach wee ones anything - from math to morals. Many of us got our history out of pen and ink portraits of our founding fathers, while life lessons best left for parents and paid professionals were doled out by Martians, monsters, and men of super-heroic strength. So it's interesting to watch these offerings from Disney and realize how little they have to do with catering to kids. For the most part, these were efforts made for adults, the patrons of your typical mid-century Cineplex feeling incredibly gypped if their night at the movies didn't contain a feature, a serial, a newsreel, a series of coming attractions, and most importantly, a new cartoon from a favored studio. While Disney was one of the first to "dial down" their material to fit a growing underage viewership, at least three of the short films presented here have elements that would clearly fly over the head of your average grade school subject.
Of the three, Ferdinand is the most commercial. It tells a wonderful little tale about being true to yourself while indulging in some Warner Brothers level slapstick. Appleseed has an unusually preachy message that ties God and faith into the efforts of the wandering planter. Luckily, Dennis Day's voice acting (and singing) saves the day. Similarly, Goliath II comes from the period when Disney was skimping on their typical denseness and detail. You can tell the artwork is from the '60s, since it deals in angles, lines, and pencil "ghosts" that would come to define the company's next 20 years. But the biggest revelation here is Dragon. Again, it is missing the entire preamble which finds Robert Benchley touring the Disney studios to see how a typical production is handled. As he stumbles from component to component - camera, foley, sketching, coloring, etc - we see how the animators take and idea and illustrate it. Obviously, The Reluctant Dragon short is the result of their efforts, and it's an unusual work. Arguing against the usual good vs. evil set-up of a knight vs. beast situation, art and poetry are championed in ways that may make contemporary kids blush with cultural embarrassment.
From a consumer standpoint, we are only talking about a mere hour of content. That's it. As you will see below, there are no bonus features offered or attempts by Disney to contextualize these classics. Indeed, if you wanted to know where Johnny Appleseed first appeared (as stated before, it was part of the Fantasia like Melody Time) or that Dragon was a mostly live action feature with only about 40 minutes of animation, you have to look elsewhere for this information. When Warner Brothers releases its Merrie Melodies, it at least tries to offer up some small amount of historical heft. Here, we can see the commercial concerns of the company taking center stage. These collections are not meant to provide some kind of consolation for the Mouse House completeist. Instead, they are almost unnecessary examples of reconfiguring to fit a new - and supposedly, eager - under-aged fanbase. While it seems silly to argue over motives, especially when the shorts themselves are so entertaining, one does have to wonder what Disney really cares about - the viewers, or the bottom line.
Offered in a 1.33:1 full screen image, the transfers here are consistently good. Both Ferdinand and Johnny Appleseed look freshly minted and almost brand new. The Reluctant Dragon suffers from a fair amount of softness and colors that aren't as sharp as one would expect. Goliath II is undermined by the aforementioned modernization of the process, Xerox copy "ghosts" occasionally sneaking into the frames. Even with these minor issues, the prints here are pretty good. While not exactly pristine in their "should have been remastered" availability, they offer an excellent non-reference quality visual.
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.
With all four shorts surely earning the "classics" tag, and the presentation being more than passable, this volume of The Walt Disney Animation Collection Classic Short Films should easily earn a Highly Recommended rating. The talent and artistry involved deserve at least that much. However, the commercial element tends to wipeout some of this gradient goodwill, and the fact that a few of these efforts are missing their contextual betters argues for a kind of crassness that definitely needs addressing. Therefore, the score will be bumped down to Recommended, remembering that, for some, this will be their first exposure to Disney's old school delights. Indeed, for those raised on Hannah Montana, Camp Rock, and other lame live action fare, these animated gems while sparkle like new. For others more familiar with the House of Mouse mythos, however, they are merely cogs in a continuous merchandising machine. We don't necessarily fault the cash grab, but these cartoons merit more.
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