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The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit DVD Review

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Disc 1: 13 Oswald Shorts (Click title to view that portion of the review)
1927: Trolley Troubles, Oh Teacher, Great Guns!, The Mechanical Cow, The Ocean Hop, All Wet
1928: Rival Romeos, Bright Lights, Ozzie of the Mounted, Oh What a Knight, Sky Scrappers, The Fox Chase, Tall Timber

Bonus Material: "Oswald Comes Home", Audio Commentaries, Gallery;
Disc 2: The Hand Behind the Mouse
The Work of Ub Iwerks: Alice Gets Stung (1925), Alice in the Wooly West (1926), Alice's Balloon Race (1926), Plane Crazy (1928), Steamboat Willie (1928), The Skeleton Dance (1929)

Video and Audio

Closing Thoughts

Running Time: 270 Minutes (4 hours, 24 minutes) / Rating: Not Rated
Running Time breakdown: 80 - shorts, 6 - introductions, 184 - extras

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio) / Dolby Digital Surround (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Shorts Originally Released between 1927 and 1928
DVD Release Date: December 11, 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $32.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9)

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REVIEW CONTENTS

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


Disney CEO Bob Iger is depicted in heroic light in "Oswald Comes Home", the set's only featurette. This Oswald stencil set is one of the few color images in the 60-still Gallery. Leonard Maltin introduces each disc in a room that's been decorated with Oswald imagery.

BONUS FEATURES

Disc 1's biggest supplement is "Oswald Comes Home" (13:50), a featurette which starts at the unlikely 2006 transaction that returned Oswald to the Disney family and proceeds to look back at Oswald's personality and films. A great roster of interview subjects is asked to comment including current Disney CEO Robert Iger (the piece's hero), Roy Disney, and Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller, while Leonard Maltin narrates.

Audio commentaries are offered on 6 of the 13 Oswald shorts.
These add a little bit of value and the necessary time commitment is so small that listening is a no-brainer for anyone so inclined. That said, they're definitely not the most interesting or educational tracks. Animator Mark Kausler flies solo on The Ocean Hop and Oh Teacher, and is joined by Leonard Maltin to discuss Oh What a Knight. Kausler points out who animated what (esoteric knowledge not many will be equipped to appreciated) and also what bits are missing from these versions (later being dubbed in with an explanation - the full versions are lost). Animation historian Jerry Beck remarks upon Bright Lights with Maltin in addition to Ozzie of the Mounted and The Fox Chase by himself. He doesn't have much to share with us on the shorts, so instead he mainly narrates, points out what he likes, and shares peripheral information about Disney and other studios.

If you only want a taste of these commentaries, the two that feature Maltin are your best bet. Not because he proves himself to be a bottomless resource, but because, par for the format, two speakers are better than one. Though there's not much in these short discussions to gleam or marvel at, they're welcome for providing a scene-specific response from three figures that presumably rank among Oswald's biggest fans and authorities.

A minute-long fragment from Sagebrush Sadie, an Oswald short believed to be extinct, is presented from unfinished character animation. Though it's nice to see what we can, there's not enough to make heads or tails of a story that involves horse and wagon mayhem.

Despite the plural use, Disc 1's "Galleries" offers just one gallery which holds 60 images. These are a limited but enjoyable mix of print advertisements for theater exhibitors, news articles, character sketches, and poster designs.

DISC 2

Since they don't directly reflect the set's title, I guess Disc 2's contents are best considered Bonus Material, which the booklet designates them (but not the menus). Leonard Maltin returns to introduce the disc in a short video (2:03) that explains Ub Iwerks' significance in early Disney animation and the personal project that the platter's main feature is.

These two young pipe-smoking pals are none other than Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney seen in a photograph from "The Hand Behind the Mouse." Walt Disney passes along bad news to his brother Roy via Western Union telegraph: Ub Iwerks resigns from the Disney studio.

That feature is The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story, the 92-minute, Disney-distributed 1999 documentary on the animator that was written and directed by his granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks. This is a really great film that sheds some much-needed light on a man who seems as directly responsible as Walt Disney (if not more so) for bringing Mickey Mouse to life.
Inevitably, Walt shares a claim in the film's focus, as he and Ub are depicted as boyhood friends from rural America who ventured out to Hollywood on essentially a whim and went onto have tremendous effect on the medium of animation and the art of imagination.

The feature does a great job of supplying information in an interesting and lightly entertaining way. There are valuable interviews with the likes of Iwerks' son Don, a mustachioed Roy E. Disney, Leonard Maltin, legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, Pixar's John Lasseter, and the original Alice actress Virginia Davis. Excerpts from relevant discussed works are also dutifully provided. The feature is at its best in its middle, when in their third series of short collaborations (after Alice and Oswald), Iwerks and Disney found success with Mickey Mouse. The popularity of their creation is captured in a charming instrumental montage that shows terrific flair the rest of the piece could use a little of.

The creative apex that was Mickey bore personal grief and led to Iwerks leaving the Disney studio for a decade to make edgy cartoons at his own animation house. We get several glimpses at these fascinatingly risquι works, which are cleverly interwoven with William Hays talking about the values that would form his infamous production code of moral standards. The Hays Code, competition, and the shorts' bleak outlook are cited as reasons for the failure of Iwerks' studio. But a happy ending is in store, for he would return to Walt and discover various filmmaking innovations as part of his visual effects work. It's tough to figure out if the importance of mentioned awards and technical inventions (ranging from Alfred Hitchock's The Birds to Disney park attractions) is being overstated or underplayed, but one thing is clear: no first-time viewer will come away without gaining a wealth of knowledge of and appreciation for an individual who is largely unsung in the Walt-centric view of Disney that both the company and fans tend to take.

If there's one thing that might disappoint viewers, it is that although we spend 92 minutes on this man, we don't seem to get any closer to knowing what he was like. The title is Hand Behind the Mouse not Man Behind the Mouse, so it can't be faulted for misleading. Still, Iwerks' personality is practically ignored in favor of a chronological study of his life work that's asked to speak for him. This minor complaint isn't enough to mar an otherwise fine film and, though some may simply not have the patience to endure this type of thing in one sitting, the director deserves credit for bringing an even hand and keen eye to a personal subject worth sharing. Recycled Life, her 2006 short documentary on a Guatemalan garbage dump, was an Oscar nominee and her latest feature, The Pixar Story, is thematically relevant for anyone reading this review. Hand Behind the Mouse is narrated by Kelsey Grammer, during a stretch when the "Frasier" actor was really racking up voiceover work, for Disney (Toy Story 2, Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas) and others (Animal Farm, Bartok the Magnificent).

Julius the cat laughs at this bunny's pleas for mercy in "Alice Gets Stung." "Alice in the Wooly West" finds Julius playing trigger-happy cowcat. Julius and Alice are teammates in "Alice's Balloon Race."

Rounding out the disc is a section called "The Work of Ub Iwerks" which serves up half a dozen shorts that were largely the result of Iwerks' efforts.
Under "Before Oswald", we get three of the animation/live-action hybrid silent Alice comedies, two of which have not before been released on DVD (and all of which are new to Disney DVD). "After Oswald" supplies two of Mickey Mouse's first three shorts, each a landmark, plus the oft-admired debut Silly Symphonies cartoon The Skeleton Dance. Some of these are covered and seen in the documentary, making their inclusion perfectly appropriate and a no-brainer for this light second disc.

Alice Gets Stung (1925) (8:40)
This short eventually lives up to its title, but not until young human girl Alice gets caught up in animal antics including Julius the cat chasing a rabbit and bottom-swapping bears.

Alice in the Wooly West (1926) (6:49)
Alice is primarily a spectator as cats and bears play rodeo and cowboy bandits.

Alice's Balloon Race (1926) (7:48)
Alice participates in a hot air balloon race, as does Julius the cat who has all sorts of wacky ideas, most involving other animals, to overcome various obstacles.

Minnie tries to prevent Carolyn Cow (a forebear to Clarabelle) from wrecking Lucky Mickey's flight in "Plane Crazy." Minnie looks back to see Minnie running to catch up in the historic "Steamboat Willie." The first of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies, "The Skeleton Dance" is set at night in a graveyard where... skeletons dance.

Plane Crazy (1928) (5:56)
As pilot of a small newly-built airplane, Mickey Mouse runs into some takeoff trouble (and Clarabelle Cow, then called Carolyn). Good thing Minnie is there to help steer him right!

Steamboat Willie (1928) (7:42)
You're not a serious fan of Disney animation if the iconic image of Mickey Mouse whistling and steering a boat isn't already burnt into your consciousness. The rest of this milestone short isn't as apt to turn up in company retrospectives: Mickey helps a tardy Minnie board the ship, has some run-ins with bully boss Pete, and uses a variety of objects and animals to play "Turkey in the Straw."

The Skeleton Dance (1929) (5:31)
At a graveyard on a night of a full moon, a quartet of human skeletons come to life and skillfully dance in unison and individually.

Usual for the Treasures, the set's menus are static screens with appropriate instrumental accompaniment. Disc 2's few screens don't match Disc 1's, with pale cursors and a pencil sketch motif that's more Oswald-minded than the disc is. Like other new Disney DVDs, this one treats viewers to subtitles on all bonus features, which naturally end up being much more useful than the shorts' largely barren subtitle tracks.

Spanking a hot dog has got to be one of the strangest things that Oswald (or anyone) has ever done. Oh hello, I'm Ub Iwerks and you've just caught me drawing this little feller known as Mickey Mouse. I do the work, Walt gets the credit. That's how we roll.

VIDEO and AUDIO

For being 80 years old and reportedly not very well preserved, the central content of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit looks surprisingly great. The cartoons were gathered from a wide variety of sources around the globe -- each is attributed after its end title card -- but only a few are rough-looking (Rival Romeos and Oh What a Knight being the two best examples). Maybe the simple animation and backgrounds help things in this department or maybe it's just that restoration work has improved so dramatically, but there's little to complain about here. Despite Leonard Maltin's warnings that these are not up to the standard Disney DVD quality, these shorts even compare favorably to later creations that were presented in the early waves of Treasures.
All products of the 1.37:1 Academy Ratio era, the shorts are presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen, with only one (Tall Timber) being noticeably windowboxed.

Being silent films, there is no original audio for us. So, we get newly-created scores by Robert Israel offered in Dolby Surround. Israel is considered an authority on silent film scores and his samples of recognizable classical tunes qualifies as clever (if also a bit distracting). Naturally, the music sounds fresh and clear, as new recordings should.

The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story appears in its apparently intended aspect ratio of 1.33:1 fullscreen. It is given a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which occasionally distributes mechanical sounds (conveying Iwerks' innovative sound and picture work) to the rear channels. For the most part, as an interview-based documentary, it's low-key in picture and sound, but while neither seems like present-day high-definition technology, the 8-year-old feature unsurprisingly holds up well.

This lady gets stretched out by her two competing suitors. This screencap is one pizza place shy of ABC sitcom potential. Oswald shows off his end at the humorous conclusion of each of his shorts.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

For having the most historical value, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is one of the lightest Treasures sets and also one of the least likely to generally please. On the one hand, you do get half of the fabled Disney Oswald shorts and maybe all the surviving ones. On the other hand, they're really not so much and essentially were remade during Mickey Mouse's heyday.

A slight letdown, the DVD's featured attraction feels like a baker's dozen worth of lost, less polished Mickey Mouse cartoons. While it's definitely a real treat to see a long-forgotten formative chapter in Walt Disney's animation career and some of it remains witty, entertainment value isn't too high on the whole. On the plus side, the shorts look very good for their age and their fine accompaniment shows thought, effort and care. Disc 2's stellar Ub Iwerks documentary stands as the best thing on the set and is perhaps enough to push those on the fence towards getting this collection. Just know that if you're buying this, the soaring historical and educational value are the greater selling points than entertainment and as such, you probably won't revisit this compilation as frequently as other Treasures.

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Mickey Mouse in Black & White • Mickey Mouse in Black & White, Volume Two
Silly Symphonies • More Silly Symphonies • The Chronological Donald, Volume 1
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REVIEW CONTENTS

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

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Review posted December 20, 2007.