Review by KC Carlson
Disney has spoiled me so much with the general love, care, and professionalism that goes into each of the Special Editions of their classic animation features that I was somewhat surprised by the slipshod quality that went into the production of these discs. Not that the actual shorts aren’t (usually) wonderful — it’s just that the presentation and production quality of these collections is so remarkably inconsistent that it makes them not only frustrating to watch, but I found myself questioning the reason for their very existence over and over again while watching them.
Collectors and animation aficionados will not be pleased with these discs, due to the fact that most (if not all) of the shorts do not seem to be remastered, despite the fact that remastered versions of many of them exist in other collections. Many of the prints used here are scratched, specky, not color corrected, or have very bad or inconsistent sound. Some of the prints are so dark that you can’t even see what’s going on in certain scenes. There is also no documentation of what you are seeing — and many of the cartoons really need it, both for context and for historical purposes. For example, the very first Donald Duck cartoon, The Wise Little Hen, is included on one of these discs, but this fact (and potential selling point) is not mentioned anywhere on the packaging.
Nor are these discs really useful for more general audiences. Initially, I thought these discs might be used as low-cost video “babysitters” to keep kids occupied for an hour or so, but the age of some of these cartoons means that there is the occasional potentially offensive racial or sexual stereotype (although there are no warning labels on the packaging) and a handful of the cartoons are quite cruel and/or bizarre (see below for details) that may affect the youngest of viewers. (Although every adult I know has at least one story about a scary cartoon or movie that traumatized them as a child, and most of my friends didn’t end up as axe murderers, so what do I really know anyway?)
As much as Disney’s Silly Symphonies series — a large part of these collections — is both historic and beautiful to watch, I often question the ability of these cartoons — which now appear to be from another world filled with overly hyper dancing flowers and animals and much bad semi-operatic singing — to actually keep the attention of today’s youngest viewers, as sad as it is to actually type that. Unless I’m totally wrong and kids really do love them some opera these days…
Despite the uber-slick outer packaging, specifically designed to be super-metallic (“Ooooooo, shiny!”), thus drawing small children directly to them in the stores, the actual DVD menus are so crappy (somebody spent all of 30 seconds “designing” them) and utilize such — except for Mickey — generic-looking artwork, the DVDs themselves actually and amusingly look like the low-cost rip-offs that litter the dollar stores and low-end department stores that were probably the reason for Disney for producing these discs in the first place.
But, as I said, the short films themselves are (mostly) classics. So let’s take a look at each of the sets’ contents individually, and you can judge them for yourselves. Each volume generally features a longer cartoon (15 to 35 minutes) and a selection of shorter cartoons, running in total about an hour or a little longer.
Volume 1: Mickey and the Beanstalk
Originally a part of 1947’s compilation feature Fun and Fancy Free, Mickey and the Beanstalk stars Mickey, Donald, and Goofy in a story based loosely on the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk. However, the version on this collection is NOT the original — this is the version which was originally broadcast on a 1963 episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, narrated by Ludwig Von Drake (and Herman). The original version features narration by Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. There is also a version featuring narration by Disney go-to guy Sterling Holloway (best known today as the voice of Winnie the Pooh).
This cartoon is one of Disney’s true classics, featuring great character bits for both Donald and Goofy. It’s also notable for being the last cartoon where Walt Disney himself provided the voice for Mickey Mouse. It should be pointed out that this version is edited from the original, both to allow for Von Drake’s narration as well as, reportedly, to eliminate some WWII references. Sadly, this is one of the prints that is scratchy and dark.
Another classic Mickey Mouse short is the 1938 The Brave Little Tailor, again based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It was also one of the last of the original lushly animated shorts produced, as by this point Disney had begun producing their feature-length cartoons and would soon cut back on production elements of their shorts. A gorgeous cartoon, unfortunately marred by a dust-infested print.
This is an all-Mickey set, also featuring the Mouse in Gulliver Mickey (1934 and B&W); Thru the Mirror (1936), an all-singing and dancing cartoon loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (with amazing animation and a possible contribution by “Duck Man” Carl Barks as an inbetweener); and Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip (1940), featuring a funny train trip with Pluto hidden in a suitcase and being tormented by conductor Pete.
Despite the the questionable prints (and the laughable cover of a gigantic Mickey being chased up the beanstalk by a dwarf-sized giant), this is one of the best collections of the series.
Volume Two: The Three Little Pigs
This is a collection of all short films, mostly Silly Symphony cartoons and featuring the classic Three Little Pigs (1933) and two of its sequels, The Big Bad Wolf (1934) and Three Little Wolves (1936). The original, of course, is one of the most famous and most popular cartoons in history, featuring the classic song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” (which incidentally features future Warner music superstar Carl Stalling playing on the soundtrack). The original won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. This is the censored version of the cartoon, with Jewish caricature and topical references removed. Watch for the picture of “Father” hanging in Practical Pig’s house.
The Big Bad Wolf adds Little Red Riding Hood and her grandma to the mix and reprises the popular song. Three Little Wolves involves the Big Bad teaching the three little wolves the fine points of eating pork. There’s a lot of later-period Warner Brothers-style humor in this one with the the crossdressing wolf (as Little Bo Peep) and Practical Pig’s Rube Goldberg-esque “Wolf Pacifier” (which looks like a typical Acme product that Wile E. Coyote would use). Very funny cartoon, especially for Disney.
Lambert the Sheepish Lion is a latter-period (1952) short about a lion cub accidentally delivered by a stork to a flock of sheep (a much-used cartoon premise). It’s narrated by Sterling Holloway. Three Blind Mouseketeers (1936) is a big head-scratcher to me, as it not only makes fun of the blind (or at least blind mice), it also features a gruesome shot of a decapitated mouse! Elmer Elephant (1936) is an overly cute story of a shy and awkward young elephant who overcomes many obstacles to win over his peers, as well as get the girl!
I’ve grouped these together because they all share the similar theme of the central characters being tormented and teased because they are different in some way. It seemed to be a popular theme at Disney — see also The Ugly Duckling and Goliath II on other volumes of this series, as well as features like Dumbo and probably others that aren’t coming to mind right now. Granted, the tormented always rise up and are victorious (or at least proven to be better than the tormentors) in these stories, but I am always somewhat shocked to see the glee in which various tauntings and tormenting are doled out in many Disney productions. I have to wonder if this is the reason that I’m often ambivalent towards Disney in general. It’s also quite interesting to come across these often cruel stories, especially in light of how squeaky-clean the Disney legacy has been scrubbed since Walt’s death. It also begs the question about why these no-longer-quite-fitting-the-image projects keep being reissued to potentially traumatize future generations of kids? Obviously a topic for a larger conversation…
But my nomination for cartoon most in need of some additional context is Chicken Little (1943), seemingly a re-telling of the traditional fable, except for the wily fox using a book labeled “Psychology” to confuse and disorient the denizens of the chicken coop who, truth to tell, are already pretty dim-witted to begin with. Ultimately, the fox manages to lure all the chickens back to his cave where the cartoon ends with a very un-Disney-like slow pan across the fox’s den, revealing hundreds of chicken bones. The implication is that the fox has eaten the entire cast! Easily one of the biggest WTF? moments in Disney cartoons!
In complaining about this cartoon to friend and Disney aficionado Roger Ash, he informed me that there was a lot going on behind-the-scenes in this cartoon — so much that when the cartoon was presented in the Walt Disney Treasures – On The Front Lines collection, it was put into proper perspective in an introduction by noted cartoon historian Leonard Maltin. Apparently, it was originally intended as a wartime propaganda cartoon, to show how easily the public at large could be influenced by outside forces (I know, I know… I’m not going there) and could ultimately destroy the American Way. Originally, the “Psychology” book was supposed to be Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (the excerpts the fox reads aloud in the cartoon are supposedly still from the book). The actual cartoon was additionally further censored when scenes of the chickens smoking and drinking were later cut. A truly bizarre Disney footnote — and a really strange choice of cartoons on a collection being marketed to kids.
Obviously, not my favorite of the bunch, for several reasons. And parents would be wise to give this one the once-over before leaving it alone with younger kids.
Volume 3: The Prince and the Pauper
The lead feature is the wonderful modern-day retelling of Mark Twain’s classic tale, matched with a bundle of occasionally questionable shorts.
The 26-minute long The Prince and the Pauper (1990) has pauper Mickey switching places with the identical-looking Prince, and Pluto (because dogs always know!) and Goofy (due to a special handshake) are the only ones who are aware of the swap. Also features Donald, Pete, the rarely seen Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, and the Weasels (originally seen in The Wind in the Willows, see Volume 5). This short was originally seen during the original theatrical release of The Rescuers Down Under.
The Pied Piper (1933) follows the letter of the original Robert Browning poem, including the conclusion where the Piper lures away the townspeople’s children in lieu of non-payment for earlier ridding the town of its rat problem — kind of a jarring finale to a Disney Silly Symphony cartoon. Old King Cole (1933) is a mostly plotless music cartoon featuring many cameos from previous Silly Symphony cartoons. A Knight for a Day (1946) is a typical Goofy outing where the Goofster must joust Sir Cumference (great pun!) for the hand of Princes Esmerelda. Ye Olden Days (1933) is a B&W Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring Mickey vs. proto-Goofy Dippy Dawg (as Prince Goofy of Poopoopadoo) to rescue Maid Minnie from having to marry the goofy prince. Best gag of the cartoon is when Mickey’s donkey starts beating up Goofy’s horse.
The Prince and the Pauper is really good. The rest… Ehhhh…
Volume 4: The Tortoise and the Hare
Okay, this one confuses me a little bit, as I would think that the longer (and stronger) Paul Bunyan should have been the anchor film. But I’m not a marketing genius…
So I guess The Tortoise and the Hare (1935) gets top billing here because it won an Academy Award for best Short Subject: Cartoons. It is a cartoon retelling of the classic Aesop’s fable, so we all know what’s going to happen and the only details are the gags that happen during the race. Like Max Hare getting distracted by four girly bunnies and later playing tennis with himself (only in cartoons!). This was popular enough to spawn a sequel (several more if you count Bugs Bunny cartoons) — Toby Tortoise Returns (1936), although this time the competition is a mismatched boxing match. This cartoon is notable for the many cameos from previous Silly Symphonies cartoons (including the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, Donald Duck, and Cock Robin) and for the unusual audio background of random shouting voices (as in a real boxing match) and very little background music (and what is there is often very subtle).
Babes in the Woods (1932) is a very early color Silly Symphony cartoon, very loosely based on Hansel and Gretel, which is not a great cartoon but somewhat amusing for the archer elves on the flying geese. When the arrows don’t defeat the witch, they start throwing pies at her. Not as funny as it sounds — this is actually a pretty grim cartoon. Not much better is The Goddess of Spring (1934), although Roger informs me that this one is historically important, as the animators are practicing on animating realistic humans and shadow techniques in anticipation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Based loosely on the myth of Persephone and the creation of the seasons, this one includes cloying, melodramatic singing; dancing flowers; elves with what look like condoms for hats; mutant flowers (with eyeballs); singing and dancing demons; and freezing, crying animals as well as a trip to Hell. A sure-fire hit for the kids!
Paul Bunyan (1958) was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid (I remember it being shown frequently in school along with Johnny Appleseed (see Volume 6) and Donald Duck in Mathmagicland. This 17-minute cartoon was also blessed with a very memorable song (sung by the Mellowmen featuring Thurl Ravenscroft as Paul. Ravenscroft is probably best remembered for being the voice of Tony the Tiger — “It’s GRRRR-ATE!”). The cartoon was very effectively told as the legendary folklore that it was, by a series of so-called eyewitnesses to the events in Paul’s (and Babe, his blue ox) life. I really miss living in the Midwest, where — at least when I was growing up — you couldn’t drive more than 20 miles without seeing giant statutes of Paul and occasionally, Babe, some of which were based on the design of this cartoon — or at least that’s how I remember it.
The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961) is another of Disney’s adaptations of American Tall Tales, this one about a giant Conestoga wagon outfitted with a wind sail that sailed across the the Great Midwest until it ran afoul of a giant tornado. Like Paul Bunyan before it, this 13-minute short is very much UPA-inspired. (UPA was an animation studio that changed the look of modern animation design. They were wildly popular and inspirational during the 1950s. Their best-known characters included Gerald Mc Boing-Boing and Mr. Magoo).
This collection is kind of hit-or-miss, but I love both Paul Bunyan and Windwagon Smith.
Volume 5: The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows was originally released as half of the 1949 feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. (The other half being The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, not included here.) Based on the much-beloved children’s book by Kenneth Grahame, this 35-minute feature seems to be one of the more polarizing (as well as unknown) Disney efforts — people either love it or dislike it, it seems, and it appears much overshadowed by its more popular original co-feature. It’s also slightly more adult than the usual Disney fare, dealing with issues of insanity, as it does throughout a prolonged court sequence. I think it’s a lost classic, but I admit that it moves very slowly, especially at the beginning. Unfortunately, the print used here is so dark and muddy that you cannot always tell what’s happening on screen, especially during the nighttime outdoors scenes — of which there are several. There are also a couple of visible splices. This is the original appearance of the weasels that would later pop up in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, working for Judge Doom.
The Ugly Duckling (1939), based on the short story by Hans Christian Andersen, was a remake of an earlier (1931) Silly Symphonies short (in B&W) and is one of the best loved cartoons in history, also winning the Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. Interestingly, this Technicolor version is the last of the Silly Symphonies series of shorts. It also serves as the inspiration for a sequence in the modern-day Lilo and Stitch (2002) movie, and thus it is a favorite of at least two members of our household.
It’s very interesting watching this short from an adult perspective, especially having not seen it it in a very long time. First of all, I’m really not sure if the sad little guy is actually an ugly duckling or a swan (he grows into a swan in the original story, but he doesn’t really look like either a duckling or a young swan in the cartoon). One thing I am reasonably sure of now, which I glossed over as a kid, is that the duck parents are obviously having a discussion about the actual paternity of the the poor little guy — right in front of him! — which only makes the eventual abandonment of him by the duck family even harder to bear, at least for me. One of the saddest, most wrenching cartoons ever made. Beautiful — but very hard to watch.
The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934) is another famous Silly Symphony cartoon, most notable for the song “The World Owes Me a Living” as sung by the fiddle-playing grasshopper, voiced by a pre-Goofy Pinto Colvig. Based on the ancient fable by Aesop, the cartoon was Disney-fied by giving the grasshopper a happy ending, by being taken in by the ants after nearly dying (as he does in the original fable) and being fed in return for entertaining the ants with his fiddling and singing. A mixed message perhaps, but still a memorable cartoon. Unfortunately, another poor print, this time with cel shadows and a couple of badly out-of focus sequences.
The Wise LIttle Hen (1934), an otherwise unremarkable cartoon based on the old folk tale The Little Red Hen, just happens to be the very first appearance of Donald Duck, also in sort of an unremarkable role. Even Walt thought that Donald’s cartoon cohort, Peter Pig, would be Disney’s next break-out star. (He was never seen again.) Donald, even in this limited appearance, got to showcase his two most memorable traits — his short temper and his unintelligible voice (provided by Clarence Nash). More historical than fun.
Also included are The Golden Touch (1935) — reportedly the last short directed by Walt Disney, it was so poorly received by the public that he never directed another one — and The Robber Kitten (1935), an odd little cartoon that somehow is equally annoying and not annoying. Very popular with people named Ambrose.
Some really interesting stuff here marred by poor disc production. And frankly, I kept falling asleep during this one, although I don’t recommend watching all six of these collections in one sitting like I did.
Volume 6: The Reluctant Dragon
The Reluctant Dragon has an interesting history. This 20-minute animated segment originally appeared in a 1941 full-length movie — also called The Reluctant Dragon — that combined both live-action and animation as well as being in both black-and-white and color. The live-action portion of the film stars radio comedian Robert Benchley, who tours the Disney Studios and learns much about producing an animated film. The film also shows Disney staffers, including Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Norman Ferguson, Clarence Nash, and Walt Disney himself. Unfortunately the film came out in the midst of the Disney animator strike of 1941. Possibly because of this and the fact that the public and critics weren’t pleased that the film was just a collection of short animated segments and self-serving live action, the film didn’t do well at the box office, not even making back the cost of production. Thus, it’s not one of Disney’s better-known animation projects.
The cartoon itself is based on Kenneth Grahame’s book of the same name. The dragon is reluctant because he is actually quite witty and urbane and because he writes poetry, he’s much too busy to attack the villagers. Nonetheless, the villagers are afraid of an impending dragon attack, so they send a knight (Sir Giles) out to kill the dragon. Fortunately, Sir Giles is equally urbane, and he and the dragon become good friends. They stage a mock battle, but when the villagers realize that the dragon means no harm, he’s later taken in by them. Interestingly, the opening credits include caricatures of all the creators who worked on the feature, including future Pogo creator Walt Kelly. Unfortunately this is also a well-worn print which is dirty, specky, and fuzzy and features an often weak soundtrack.
1938’s Ferdinand the Bull was also a Academy Award winner for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. Based on the famous book by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, Ferdinand is about a bull who would rather smell the flowers than be in bullfights. He accidentally ends up in a bullring after being stung by a bee. His subsequent angry reaction indicates to the bullfighters that he will be a ferocious foe in the ring, and Ferdinand is brought to the bullring to fight — except he refuses and sits in the middle of the ring. The line of matadors who enter the ring were drawn by Ward Kimball based on a number of Disney staffers, including the head matador, who was based on Walt Disney. One of the classics.
Goliath II (1960) looks a lot like a warm-up to The Jungle Book (1966). It tells the story of a baby elephant who never grows beyond the size of a mouse. Goliath is a huge disappointment to his father, the original Goliath and leader of the elephant herd. Because of his size, he’s constantly underfoot and in danger of being stepped on by the other elephants. After being ostracized by the other elephants, he decides to run away, gets accidentally trapped underground, and is eventually branded a rogue elephant by the tribe, having disgraced his father. But, as in all good Disney movies, Goliath proves his worth in combating a great threat to the elephant tribe — a mouse! (What else?). This clever 15-minute short is narrated by Sterling Holloway.
The Legend of Johnny Appleseed originally appeared in the 1948 compilation Melody Time. This 19-minute feature tells the folklore version of the life and death of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) who traveled the county with just a bag of apple seeds, a Bible, and a tin pot hat (and no knife and no gun), sowing his seeds and being a friend to all animals. Dennis Day, a popular singer of the time, provided Johnny’s voice, as well as that of the angel that sets Johnny on his quest to the West. The feature includes several memorable songs including “The Lord Is Good to Me,” “The Pioneers Song”, and “The Apple Song” — all performed by Day. A wonderful and uplifting short feature.
In terms of overall quality on the shorts, this is the strongest entry in the series. It’s a shame that the picture and sound quality of The Reluctant Dragon is not as good as the other features on this disc.
It’s also unfortunate that the Walt Disney Treasures series is so limited and prone to go out of print so rapidly. Many of the shorts on these Walt Disney Animation Collection: Classic Short Films discs have previously appeared there in restored versions. It’s a shame that, for whatever reason, Disney did not use the restored versions for these editions, as many of these cartoons are just as well-loved and important as the Disney classic features to their fans, and they are certainly more deserving of better presentations than these often slipshod and inferior current collections.
Special thanks to Roger Ash for additional Disney animation information and comments. (Complimentary copies for this review were provided by the studio.)