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Disney Rarities - Celebrated Shorts: 1920s - 1960s DVD Review

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Disc 1: 18 Cartoons: (Click title to view that portion of the review)
1923: Alice's Wonderland; 1924: Alice's Wild West Show, Alice Gets in Dutch;
1925: Alice's Egg Plant, Alice in the Jungle; 1926: Alice's Murderous Mystery;
1927: Alice the Whaler; 1938: Ferdinand the Bull; 1943: Chicken Little;
1944: The Pelican and the Snipe; 1950: The Brave Engineer, Morris, The Midget Moose;
1952: Lambert the Sheepish Lion, The Little House;
1953: Adventures in Music: Melody, Football: Now and Then, Adventures in Music: Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, Ben and Me

Disc 2: 13 Cartoons: (Click title to view that portion of the review)
1954: Pigs is Pigs, Social Lion;
1956: Hooked Bear, Jack and Old Mac, In the Bag, A Cowboy Needs a Horse;
1957: The Story of Anyburg, U.S.A., The Truth About Mother Goose;
1958: Paul Bunyan; 1959: Noah's Ark; 1960: Goliath II;
1961: The Saga of Windwagon Smith; 1962: A Symposium on Popular Songs

Video and Audio
Bonus Material: "Alice's Cartoon World: An Interview with Virginia Davis", "From Kansas City to Hollywood: A Timeline of Disney's Silent Era", Audio Commentary: "A Symposium on Popular Songs", "A Feather in His Collar", Galleries
Closing Thoughts
Running Time: 373 Minutes (6 hours, 13 minutes) / Rating: Not Rated
Disc Two: 179 minutes (155 - shorts, 3 - introduction, 21 - extras)
Various Aspect Ratios (Original Ratios Upheld) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, Stereo (English)
Originally Released between 1923 and 1962
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned / DVD Release Date: December 6, 2005
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9); Suggested Retail Price: $32.99

REVIEW CONTENTS

Page 1: Set Overview and Disc 1 Shorts
Page 2: Disc 2 Shorts, Video & Audio, Bonus Features, and Closing Thoughts

DISC 2

As is customary, Leonard Maltin returns for an automatically-played introduction on Disc 2. His focus falls upon the more recent shorts of the set, which makes sense as they appear on Disc 2. Again, he points out some highlights of this disc -- the films they originally played with, the awards they won, and so on -- and how cool it is they are compiled together now on DVD. One mention Leonard makes seems to suggest that there will be an excerpt of a "Disneyland" anthology episode ("The Titlemakers") on the stop-motion used for The Parent Trap's opening titles (and a few of the Disc 2 shorts). Oddly, it is not actually included on the disc (though the episode can be found in full on the original Parent Trap's two DVD appearances), but there is brief talk of it in the lone commentary, so perhaps that's all he meant.

Disc 2 holds 13 cartoons, which are again offered in alphabetical and chronological listings in addition to the "Play All" option that I rarely find use for.

Flannery likes to go by the book, literally. A lion on a subway? What's wrong with that? Old Mac can play a mean piano. Man, OK, cool. Thanks!

THE SHORTS

Pigs is Pigs (1954) (9:43)
The presence of a couple of guinea pigs at the Westcote railroad station create countless offspring as well as a load of paperwork for administrative bureaucrats including by-the-book agent Flannery when their owner won't pay the rate for standard pigs on them. Adapted from Ellis Parker Butler's story, this is one of the oddest shorts on the set, but it is certainly entertaining with its fast-paced, rhyming Irish-jig-like music.

Social Lion (1954) (6:49)
An African lion is taken to the city and gets loose. Despite being king of the jungle, he goes unnoticed by most of the busy local folks as he walks the streets, rides the subway,
delivers a speech, pops in at a bar, and gets fitted for a suit.

Hooked Bear (1956) (6:16)
Humphrey the Bear, who debuted in Goofy's Hold That Pose (1950) and appeared in a number of Donald Duck shorts in the first half of the decade, finally got two shorts belonging to the fussy park ranger Audubon J. Woodlore and him. Though the lesser of the pair, this one still thoroughly entertains as Humphrey makes repeated attempts to obtain a meal out of the lake during the busy fishing season.

Jack and Old Mac (1956) (7:00)
This is basically two jazz-inclined musical shorts in one. First is a swingin' rendition of "The House That Jack Built" boasting imaginative animation in which the writing of a word turns into its meaning (such as "cow" turning into a cow, and so on). Second and longer is "Old McDonald Had a Band", where instrument sounds replace the traditional barnyard noises. With the exception of his displeased wife, Old Mac's family all jams on musical instruments, even the pets.

First you stick a rag, put it in the bag (bump bump)... Every cowboy needs a horse (needs a horse, needs a horse)... The little lawyer saves the day for cars in "The Story of Anyburg, U.S.A." Let's just hope this doesn't look like they're agreeing with him.

In the Bag (1956) (7:34)
Exactly three months after headlining a short, Humphrey returned for another Cinemascope outing with Ranger Woodlore. Here at the promise of a warm cooked meal, the large and likable one, along with his fellow brown bears, pick up litter from the park according to a grid that the Ranger has made. Many have fond memories of this cartoon, with good reason. It's a delightful little piece, with catchy music, funny twists, plenty of butt-bumping, and even a cameo by Smokey Bear.

A Cowboy Needs a Horse (1956) (6:54)
While tucked in his bed, an ordinary boy dreams of being a cowboy. His transformation, accompanied by a catchy tune and the addition of a horse, a hat, spurs, and so on, is quite appealing. His adventures in the West with Indians and bandits are not as captivating, but the fun conclusion redeems it.

The Story of Anyburg, U.S.A. (1957) (10:29)
The people of Anyburg, U.S.A. bring a lawsuit against the group they deem responsible for most of the trouble in their town: automobiles! While it's probably a little longer than it needs to be, this short reminds us that complaints of reckless driving are anything but new.

These colorful jesters perform nursery rhymes in the fun short "The Truth About Mother Goose." Giant man versus machine in "Paul Bunyan." Noah oversees the animal arrivals in the stop-motion musical "Noah's Ark."

The Truth About Mother Goose (1957) (14:38)
In this memorable cartoon, the none-too-cheery stories behind well-known nursery rhymes are revealed. Each segment begins with an upbeat performance of the song, follows with a depiction of the historical inspiration, and concludes with a somehow less jolly rendition of the tune. It covers "Little Jack Horner", "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary", "London Bridge is Falling Down" with a clever contrast of amusing animation and serious narration.

Paul Bunyan (1958) (16:57)
This short brings to life the tall tale of giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his large blue ox Babe. It presents Bunyan's shore-side discovery as a baby, his small town youth, his tree-cutting journeys out west, and his standoff with the diminutive Joe Muffaw with his steam-powered saw. This is one of the better narrative cartoons of the set, though environmentalists may disapprove.

Noah's Ark (1959) (20:48)
The well-known biblical tale is brought to life as a stop-motion musical, which feels more like Rankin/Bass's specials in the medium than a Disney production, only it's more stylized. Noah is advised by a heavenly voice that a great rainstorm is coming which will wipe out most of Earth's inhabitants. So he and his three sons build a boat to precise specifications and begin rounding up two animals of every kind, plus of course, their own women. When the lengthy time on the boat brings spirits down, Noah's sons provide some music to cheer everyone up. Interestingly, household items are used to create the characters; the whooping cranes have pencil beaks, corks are abound, and the moose's antlers are really sporks. This is a Disney oddity, if ever there was one, but it offers quite a fun time.

Goliath II stands up to someone his own size. The mayor's daughter thinks Windwagon Smith is fairly studly. The egomaniac Ludwig von Drake tells you about the hit tunes he's written in "A Symposium on Popular Songs."

Goliath II (1960) (15:02)
Goliath II, a tiny, young elephant feels like a disappointment to his parents, especially his father, the largest elephant around. He runs off and must avoid Raja, a tiger who yearns to taste an elephant. But when a creature more fearsome than any other appears in the jungle, only Goliath stands up to it.

The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961) (13:22)
In the olden days, a stranger named Captain Smith arrives in a wagon that's pulled not by animals, but by the wind. His presence gives the townsfolk the idea to sail the prairies in a larger vehicle of similar design. This is one of the weaker shorts of the lot, but its un-Disney visual styles and the protagonist's slight resemblance to Bob "Mr. Incredible" Parr more than justify a viewing.

A Symposium on Popular Songs (1962) (19:44)
Ludwig von Drake, the scatterbrained, finance-conscious personality who made his debut as the host of Walt's anthology television series when it was renamed "Wonderful World of Color", hosts this trip down memory lane recalling the hit songs that he wrote. The short bounces between von Drake's indirect introductions and stop-motion-animated sequences of paper cut-outs that bring the music to life. Along with von Drake's fictional tour, viewers are taken on an actual tour through the musical styles of the first sixty years or so of last century. The tunes land somewhere between parody and homage. They include rag, Bing Crosby-style crooning, boogie woogie, and, most memorably, "Puppy Love" à la Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. This is one of the collection's more dated cartoons (although von Drake's ramblings about stereophonic sound don't seem all that different from a modern technophile's babble), but those who are fond of the popular music of previous generations should get a kick out of it.

Paul Bunyan celebrates a small town Christmas as an adolescent. "Puppy Love is here to stay..."

VIDEO & AUDIO

As can be expected from such a diverse group of shorts, picture quality is a mixed bag, to say the least. Unfortunately, even with the usual consideration of age and inherit deterioration, the video is a bit less satisfying overall than it is on most Walt Disney Treasures. The Alice comedies are easily the oldest films on the set; at 80 years of age and beyond, they're among the earliest of all Disney films.
Featuring a rounded, pre-Academy frame, they are presented in black & white and slightly bordered on all fours. Though they're rough looking as to be expected, they are surprisingly consistent and definitely watchable. It is apparent that significant work has gone into restoring them. Among these, Alice's Egg Plant is noticeably more plagued than the first few, which makes it evident early on that the quality of the visuals is not always directly related to the source's age, a fact repeatedly reinforced throughout the set.

Most of the more modern cartoons look quite a bit better. At their best, print flaws and intrusions are almost nonexistent and are minor enough to enable carefree viewing. Some of them aren't as crisp as one would like and marked by mild cases of moiré. Even the finest-looking shorts aren't quite as pristine as the drastically-restored Platinum Edition feature-length films, but they are clearly treated better than elsewhere as either standalone extras or in budget compilation series like Timeless Tales and Classic Cartoon Favorites. Unfortunately, not all fare so well. The element on Goliath II is quite dirty, and the short is subjected to color fluctuations. The charming stop-motion piece Noah's Ark is consistently littered with artifacts, which may be more inherent to its media but doesn't make its appearance much less disappointing.

As far as I can tell, all of the films appear in their original theatrical aspect ratios. One has come to expect such faithful presentation from Leonard Maltin and the Treasures line. Therefore, it can be deduced that the majority of shorts (the Alice comedies' minor variation aside) were created in the Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and the close-enough 1.33:1 fullscreen presentation is as it should be. A handful of the films, however, were created in the Cinemascope widescreen format. These are the Humphrey shorts Hooked Bear and In the Bag plus Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, all from the early-to-mid '50s (when Disney began experimenting with wider framing for live action subjects and Lady and the Tramp).

Unfortunately, this trio has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions the way the few widescreen shorts on past Treasures DVDs (the three post-Walt Mickey shorts on Living Color, Volume Two are all that come to mind) have been. Accordingly, none of these three look as good as they should, since anywhere from 20 - 42% of the possible DVD resolution has gone to black bars that should have been player-generated. A close look reveals a few oddities; the Humphrey shorts actually measure between 1.95:1 and 2.05:1, while Toot, Whistle... comes in at 2.25:1. While framing seemed consistently good, what I know about Cinemascope tells me the Humphrey shorts should be quite a bit wider. The sometimes-helpful Internet Movie Database lists the aspect ratios for all three as 2.35:1. Meanwhile, incomplete headlines in Anyburg, U.S.A. suggest that this 1957 short may be cropped to some degree as well. None of this amounts to anything worth getting really riled up about, but I'd hope that efforts have been taken here to present these shorts as accurately as possible. Such has been the case in the past, but let's not hope those producing these discs have gotten sloppy in the mastering process.

There's less to say (and complain) about the solid audio presentation. Everything is encoded in two-channel Dolby Digital and most of it would appear to be monaural in nature, but the few shorts created in stereo are faithfully reproduced as such here. None of this ever approaches the design or impact of a modern cartoon (perhaps the surround-encoded menu music makes the biggest splash), but no sane soul demands such a thing from rare, vintage Disney shorts. One thing worth mentioning is that since the Alice comedies were originally silent, the fidelity and crispness of the recordings inform us the soundtracks are brand new, but the style of the music very much could be from the 1920s. Certain sound effects are punctuated musically or with what sound like foley effects. I'm not sure if there was a written score, enlightening script, or old recordings to go by, or if the producers merely winged it, but the design seems tactful and appropriate.

Lenny says "Welcome to our family time, welcome to our brotherly time!" Virginia Davis still has spunk. Walt's earliest years in showbusiness are covered in "From Kansas City to Hollywood."

BONUS FEATURES

Though several Walt Disney Treasures of the past have been fairly light on bonus features, Disney Rarities feels as if it lends itself to much more insight that could have been provided. Admittedly, there's not much more that could be done with the creative talent behind most of the shorts (most of whom passed on).
In addition, the characters and cartoons have not especially left a legacy to ponder the way Disney's enduring central characters have, leaving their respective Treasures to cover. Still, with only five skimpy extras, a supplements enthusiast can't help but feel shortchanged to some degree.

At least what is here is quite excellent. First up, on Disc 1, is "Alice's Cartoon World: An Interview with Virginia Davis" (11:30) which finds Leonard Maltin leading an enthusiastic interview with the lady who portrayed the little girl Alice in Walt's silent comedies beginning more than 80 years ago. Surprisingly, Davis is quite lively and still bears some resemblance to the pint-sized protagonist who was qualified as "Walt's first star." She recalls the low-budget production of the 1920s shorts and working with Walt Disney, who often filmed at her house and didn't have enough money for retakes. She also discusses watching the films now, her favorite of the shorts (Alice's Wild West Show), and perhaps most interestingly, what separated her from Disney and prevented her from nearly becoming both the speaking voice and reference model for Snow White: a raw salary deal and demanding contract stipulations. Needless to say, it's a fascinating retrospective.

Next up is "From Kansas City to Hollywood: A Timeline of Disney's Silent Era" (8:25), a simple but very good featurette on Walt's journey into the movie industry. Leonard Maltin narrates to stills and silent footage, covering Disney's humble beginnings at a Kansas City ad agency, the modernized fairy tales he dubbed Laugh-o-Grams, how a dentist saved his career, the 56 silent Alice comedies he made, the formation of the Disney Brothers Studio, his move towards pure animation, and finally, Mickey Mouse and the discovery of synchronized sound. From the title alone, I assumed this would be a series of text screens, so even if this ultimately has the same effect, its presentation was better than expected.

There's some kind of a message in "A Feather in His Collar", but I'm having trouble finding it. Any help? The gallery for "The Little House." "Disney Rarities": Disc 2's Main Menu

Moving onto Disc 2, you'll find the first audio commentary on a Walt Disney Treasures tin. Maltin teams up with longtime Disney songwriter Richard Sherman to discuss A Symposium on Popular Songs, the last cartoon on the set. Sherman recalls the evolution of this short and the von Drake character, reveals his personal history in music (his father, a songwriter in the '20s, provided more than a little inspiration for this short), and sheds plenty of contextual light on what is likely the film that benefits most from such a thing, being a send-up of contemporary and then-recent fads in popular music.

Also on Disc 2, is "A Feather in His Collar", a remarkably brief wartime short, in which Pluto illustrates donating to his local community chest. The cartoon runs just 1 minute and 20 seconds; Maltin's intro adds 22 seconds.

Finally, there are the galleries which hold artwork from just four of the set's shorts: Ferdinand the Bull, The Little House, The Story of Anyburg, U.S.A, and Chicken Little. Each cartoon features 4-14 stills, for 38 in total. They include story sketches, background paintings, and character model sheets. I suppose limited resources can be blamed for such paltry offerings, but at least they provided something extra for a few of the shorts.

The 4x3 menus are consistent with past Treasures DVDs; simple, serviceable, and mostly satisfying. The only animation they feature is in the typical stage curtains-opening introduction. Relevant instrumentals accompany the Main, Bonus Features, and Set Up menus, but are wisely left off the short selections pages. A single iconic sketch or still from the disc's shorts adorns each section of the selection screens. As is traditional for the Treasures, there are no Sneak Peeks at the start of either disc, which makes this DVD a true Disney Rarity. One minor quibble, when there is a wide range of lengths to the shorts, it would be helpful if the menu made an effort to let you know of the running time beforehand. As it is, that's another way this review can serve you. Print it out, fold it up, and put it in your case if you'd like to plan your viewing without a willy-nilly schedule.

Tut, tut. Looks like rain. Even cavemen had the toot, whistle, plunk, and boom down pat.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Disney Rarities makes for a fine addition to the Treasures line. While its seven Alice comedies are surely dated and demand more patience than your typical Disney short, they are fascinating to see and have never been as wonderfully presented as now. The rest of the bunch offers several hours of highly entertaining cartoons, few of which have been released to DVD before. Though the set is somewhat light on extras (the included bonuses are worthwhile) and certain cartoons leave room for improvement in the visuals department, this is a largely pleasing collection overall.

Filled with shorts that have been unfairly overlooked for most of their existences simply due to not being part of any particular cartoon series, Disney Rarities provides a package many will consider more enjoyable than the character or series DVD collections. There's not a single formula being applied ad nauseam and you get to span decades, mediums, and styles, all the while maintaining the time-tested sensibilities of Disney animation. Taken together, the individual components are pretty great, and the whole feels even greater than the sum of its parts.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

REVIEW CONTENTS
Page 1: Set Overview and Disc 1 Shorts
Page 2: Disc 2 Shorts, Video & Audio, Bonus Features, and Closing Thoughts

UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | Wave 5 on the Walt Disney Treasures Page | Treasures in Direct-to-Video Listings

Related Interview
UltimateDisney.com Presents An Interview with Leonard Maltin (December 2005)

Other Walt Disney Treasures and Cartoon Compilations Reviewed
The Chronological Donald, Volume 2 • Elfego Baca • The Swamp Fox: Legendary Heroes
The Complete Pluto, Volume 1 • Mickey Mouse in Living Color: Volume 2
Walt Disney on the Front Lines • Tomorrowland • Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio
The Chronological Donald: Volume 1 • The Mickey Mouse Club: Week One
Davy Crockett: The Complete Televised Series • Disneyland USA
Mickey Mouse in Black & White • Mickey Mouse in Black & White: Volume 2
Timeless Tales: Volume One • Timeless Tales: Volume Two
Classic Cartoon Favorites: Volume 7 - Extreme Adventure Fun • Volume 9 - Classic Holiday Stories

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Review posted December 5, 2005.