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Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts

Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts
Disney DVD
1923-62 / B&W and Color / 1:37 flat full frame / +/326 min. / Part of the Walt Disney Treasures Series / Street Date December 6, 2005 / 32.99
30 short subjects

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Walt Disney Treasures Series is still coming up with collectable items to fill their fancy tin-box packaging, and this selection of Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts will appeal mostly to completists and 'serious collectors', bless 'em. Historically, the shorts here fill a lot of holes in the Disney story, as we learn more about Walt's struggle to maintain solvency as the hottest young animation director in 1920's Kansas City. After that the pick of animated cartoons becomes a hit and miss affair, with short subjects designed as launch vehicles for characters that never made it and tryout exercises for new animation styles to fit new financial constraints. Along the way are some nuggets of glory amid less memorable work. The collection finally segues into animation done for Television in the early 1960s.

Each disc in the two-disc set begins with a welcome introduction by Leonard Maltin, whose comments help get us into the right frame of mind to appreciate material not associated with core Disney genius. Menus arrange the shows alphabetically and chronologically; I found that viewing them in the order they were released gives one a better handle on the evolution of Disney animation.

The Selection:

Disc One:

Alice's Wonderland (1923); Alice's Wild West Show; Alice Gets in Dutch (1924): Alice's Egg Plant; Alice in the Jungle (1925); Alice's Mysterious Mystery (1926); Alice the Whaler. (1927) These B&W shorts see Walt (along with future animation greats Ub Iwerks and the Harmans) carving his own niche in the then-tough cartoon field by offering a live-action / animated combo. Little Alice is a girl in costume shot against carboard sets and cleverly matted into designed blank spaces in the cartoons, forcing the filmmakers to use their ingenuity to keep the interaction interesting. Besides performing with animated characters, Alice is shown riding all kinds of vehicles and shooting cartoon arrows in a Wild West show. What now seems like a limited idea kept Walt going for over four years, and helped him make the jump from Kansas City to Los Angeles.

Ferdinand the Bull. (1938) This short and the next ...

Chicken Little (1943) ... are actually repeats. Ferdinand just came out a while back on the kiddie disc Walt Disney's Timeless Tales Volume Two and Chicken Little is a memorable short subject on the fascinating Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines The War Years disc. They're both good cartoons but we're surprised to see repeats on a series of supposedly rare and exclusive shorts.

The Pelican and the Snipe. (1944) This is a segment rejected from the wartime Saludos Amigos, but beyond the fact that it takes place at a lighthouse off the coast of Uruguay it hasn't much Latin flavor. Two seabirds tangle with airplanes practicing bombing drills. We have to ask whose air force it's meant to be, since the countries in the area are all supposed to be neutrals.

The Brave Engineer; Morris, the Midget Moose. (1950) Now we get into the mixed company of the later post-war era. By 1950 Disney was beyond his lavish perfectionist animated classics and was surely looking toward other interests like live-action feature films, Television and amusement parks. Animated shorts began to disappear as costs rose and the market dried up. From here on in new techniques would be tried out to make them cheaper. Story concepts, good music and funny ideas work without beautiful animation, but without them, lower grade animated shorts get dull fast. The cartoon about the Moose is just a weak idea that doesn't pay off. On the other hand, the Brave Engineer cartoon is an energetic retelling of the Casey Jones tale. The Disney gang loved trains and I remember this one appearing on the Television show several times.

Lambert the Sheepish Lion; The Little House. (1952) Another odd pair of one-shots. The Lion cartoon almost shapes up like a predictable Mighty Mouse story and the lion isn't all that charming. The Little House strains to find charm in a sentimental tale about an anthropomorphosed cottage that is neglected as the city grows up around her (I'm not looking forward to getting irate mail about that opinion... ).

Adventures in Music: Melody; Football Now and Then; Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom; Ben and Me. 1953 shows the animators going off in more interesting directions. The football cartoon has fun comparing 1950s football with 1880's football; both are quaint compared to today's sport, but how could Disney work in steroids gags? The two music-oriented shows are educational stimulants - either Disney just liked the idea of combining music and animation or he was helping out music education on a larger scale. Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom is a little classic that will get even a tone-deaf person like Savant thinking musically. Ben and Me is a big title in the Disney canon and one can see how it could be used to promote History in small fry, but once the basic gag is revealed (Ben Franklin's mouse did all the brainwork for his inventions and innovations) it dips in interest.

Disc Two:

Pigs is Pigs; Social Lion. (1954) Depending on one's point of view, here's where things really thin out. Pigs is Pigs is actually very good. A pair of guinea pigs soon multiply into millions, with a clever subplot satirizing bureaucracy to hold it together. Star Trek's The Trouble with Tribbles seems inspired by this.

Hooked Bear; Jack and Old Mac; In the Bag; A Cowboy Needs a Horse. (1956) These cartoons are pretty forgettable, with the exception of A Cowboy Needs a Horse - it expresses perfectly the 1950s view of the way kids loved Westerns back then.

The Story of Anyburg, U.S.A.; The Truth about Mother Goose. (1957) The Anyburg tale comes off as a rather cynical pro-progress argument that cheats to make people opposed to traffic congestion look like fools. The Mother Goose cartoon is a very pleasant mix of music and history that was expanded somehow into a full TV hour -- they must have packed it with commercials, on-camera scenes of Walt and perhaps an extra short subject.

Paul Bunyan. (1958) A popular tale done in a minimalist animation style that starts to cramp the fun, at least for this viewer.

Noah's Ark (1959) and ...

Goliath II. (1960) Here Disney gets into some stop-motion experimentation along the lines of George Pal Puppetoons. Cute but not all that compelling.

The Saga of Windwagon Smith. (1961) This cartoon about a giant wind-driven prairie schooner has both a romantic aspect and a nice tall-tale attitude that carry it through.

A Symposium on Popular Songs. (1962) Professor Ludwig Von Drake (voice: Paul Frees) is introduced in an elaborate music themed attraction made expressly for Television. It also appears to be done in the sketchy style that resembles the later Xeroxed-line animation from the studio.

The overall feeling of the shows are that, even though there are some winners here, this disc is simply an odds'n ends bin in search of a reason to be. It's partially rescued by two fine extras on disc one:

Alice's Cartoon World is a Leonard Maltin interview with Virginia Davis, the still-peppy star of the old Alice cartoons that helped Walt launch his branded name. She really was his first star, even though most of her performances were filmed in her mother's house (honest!). A documentary on Walt's career trajectory before Mickey Mouse, From Kansas City to Hollywood: A Timeline of Disney's Silent Era 1923 -1928 is very interesting. Walt seems to have been a powerful combination of personality, artistic ideas and business sense. On disc two, composer Richard Sherman provides a commentary for A Symposium on Popular Songs. A "bonus extra" turns out to be a commercial. A Feather in His Collar is a promo made to boost the concept of "Your local" Community Chest.

Quality on all the cartoons is excellent, with even the ancient Alice shorts in very good condition. Disney completists will consider this a must-have disc set.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts rates:
Movie: Excellent at least in terms of archival virtuosity
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Docu on Walt's silent films, interview with Virginia Davis, 'Bonus cartoon'
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 17, 2005

A disquieting note from reader Al Lutz, 12.20.05: Hiya Glenn, I was surprised to see the positive review you gave to the Rarities set video transfers. Unlike the previous releases this time they didn't bother to remaster the materials and the set suffers for it (as does the new Donald tin).

Digging around I found out Maltin doesn't even see the material before it gets issued, and apparently Disney was well aware of the quality issues which is why the review copies went out so late.

I got so flummoxed by all this I even did a protest article page on it. Since the article went up a few folks from Disney have sent me screen captures from other DVDs where more than a few of the Rarities shorts were first released (Paul Bunyan, Toot, etc.), and guess what? They had already remastered them for DVD!

Apparently they just pulled up all the old transfers for this new set and didn't bother to check for newer ones.

It's a shame to collect this stuff and see second volumes come out that are inferior in picture quality to the first. Chances are they will only issue this stuff once on DVD and we'll be stuck with the poor quality transfers for the life of the format.

I'll be doing a follow up with this new info next week. I know it seems silly to complain about this stuff to, of all companies, Disney... but I guess these titles for me are what Danger: Diabolik is to you. I just hate to see the mess they've made of them. -- Al Lutz, 12.20.05

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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