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Silly Symphonies: The Historic Musical Animated Classics DVD Review

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Disc 1: 19 Cartoons - (Click title to view that portion of the review)
1931: Mother Goose Melodies; 1932: Babes in the Woods;
1933: Lullaby Land, Three Little Pigs
1934: The Wise Little Hen, The Big Bad Wolf, The Flying Mouse, Three Little Wolves, The Grasshopper and the Ants;
1935: The Golden Touch, The Robber Kitten, The Tortoise and the Hare, Water Babies, Who Killed Cock Robin?;
1936: Elmer Elephant, The Country Cousin, Toby Tortoise Returns;
1938: Wynken, Blynken and Nod; 1939: The Practical Pig

Disc 2: 18 Cartoons - (Click title to view that portion of the review)
1929: The Skeleton Dance; 1931: The China Plate, Egyptian Melodies, Birds of a Feather, The Busy Beavers, The Ugly Duckling
1932: Flowers and Trees, Just Dogs; 1933: Father Noah's Ark;
1934: Funny Little Bunnies, Peculiar Penguins;
1935: The Cookie Carnival, Music Land; 1936: Mother Pluto;
1937: The Old Mill, Woodland Café; 1938: Farmyard Symphony; 1939: Ugly Duckling

Video and Audio; Bonus Material: "The Song of the Silly Symphonies", "Silly Symphonies Souvenirs", Galleries, "Leonard's Picks"; Easter Eggs; Closing Thoughts

Running Time: 342 Minutes (5 hours, 42 minutes) / Rating: Not Rated
Disc Two: 177 minutes (141 - shorts, 7 - introductions, 29 - extras)
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Academy Ratio) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Originally Released between 1929 and 1939
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned / DVD Release Date: December 4, 2001
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, Easter Eggs and Closing Thoughts

DISC 2

On this second disc, shorts are offered in a flora-and-fauna themed "Nature On Screen" menu, or the rhythmic "Accent On Music," which features shorts that are more musically influenced and Fantasia-like than other Symphonies. Interestingly, from the evidence shown on the menu images and the "Galleries" section of disc 2, it seems there may have been other shorts planned for inclusion on the set but, but inexplicably dropped - most notably The Goddess of Spring, which did show up earlier on the Platinum Edition of Snow White. Others include Cock of the Walk, Merbabies, and The Pied Piper. There is little worry that these shorts will make it to the eventual second volume of the Silly Symphonies.

Apparently this skeleton wants to emulate Mickey Mouse from "Steamboat Willie." In "The China Plate," a peasant boy cheers up a nobleman's daughter. Hieroglyphs dance and race their way through "Egyptian Melodies."

THE SHORTS

The Skeleton Dance (1929) (5:32)
Disney's landmark first Silly Symphony, this morbidly humorous short featuring four dancing skeletons was the first of its kind then to not showcase any known character, i.e. Mickey Mouse. Walt's distributor at the time did not like the idea of the short, and sent him a telegram demanding "MORE MICE." Nevertheless, Walt managed to have Skeleton Dance screened - and needless to say, it became a huge hit. Animated entirely by Ub Iwerks, the short is still quite entertaining today, and its shorter length gives it a concise and appropriate pace.

The China Plate (1931) (9:33)
A Symphony taking place in pseudo-ancient China (or apparently on a decorated china plate, as the title would imply), a Chinese nobleman's daughter chases after a butterfly and finds herself in trouble before long. A peasant boy comes to her aid,
but soon her angry father chases after them, and many hijinks ensue. The couple gets into even more trouble when they run smack into a grouchy dragon. Though mildly entertaining, the short is replete with Chinese stereotypes, which were of course to be expected in the early days of cinema.

Egyptian Melodies (1931) (6:20)
This quirky little short experiments with new techniques and borrows from old ones. Set inside an ancient Egyptian tomb, a little spider character leads us down the shaft in an almost 3-dimensional, video game-like manner. It succeeds at its intended effect of feeling quite creepy. Thereafter, four mummies do a dance number similar to The Skeleton Dance short, and Egyptian hieroglyphs and painted characters come to life to march, dance, and race their way across the wall.

Birds of a Feather (1931) (8:05)
Visual gags dominate three-fourths of this short as the animators have fun with the design idiosyncrasies of various species of birds. The last two minutes or so follow the travails of a mother hen as her misfit chick is snatched by a hawk, who is then attacked by a volley of blackbirds that are apparently on the hen’s side.

A team of beavers whittle a dam pole in "Busy Beavers." An angry mother hen screeches at a hapless duckling in the 1931 "Ugly Duckling." A proto-Pluto is less than amiable to this spunky Boston Terrier in "Just Dogs."

The Busy Beavers (1931) (7:06)
A rather banal and straightforward short starring beavers... being busy. The short is a bit want for any sort of plot, being little more than a series of visual gags culminating in a huge thunderstorm and flood of the beavers colony's river.

The Ugly Duckling (1931) (6:44)
This early Disney take on the classic fable apparently misses the whole point of the original story. Here, instead of a family of ducks, the title character hatches among a flock of chicks, with one rather nasty mother. After a series of misadventures and a harrowing rescue of his “siblings” from a raging river current, the duckling is still ugly... but accepted by his adoptive family. A happy ending, at least?

Flowers and Trees (1932) (7:49)
Disney's famous first use of Technicolor, this tells a fairly simple tale of romance between two trees, and the jealous old stump that gets in their way. The stump starts a raging fire, but poetic justice prevails as he is consumed by his own flames. Many visual gags abound, as well as an impressive first bow for the Technicolor process.

Just Dogs (1932) (7:13)
The first of two shorts on this set that star Pluto from his earlier years - neither of which have been available on other Treasure sets. As with many of his other shorts, Pluto finds himself harried by a tenacious-yet-darn-cute sidekick of sorts - this time in the form of a clever Boston Terrier cellmate when Pluto finds himself in the pound. The terrier frees Pluto and the rest of the dogs, then finds a giant (and soon much-coveted) buried bone. Though Pluto is less than receptive to his eager friend at first, the short of course has a Disney ending like any other.

The animals in "Noah's Ark" suffer a bad case of sea sickness in the hull of the tumultuous ship. The "Funny Little Bunnies" get ready - all year long - for the coming of Easter. A bashful penguin offers a snow cone to his lurve in "Peculiar Penguins."

Father Noah's Ark (1933) (8:25)
Another early color Symphony, this short shows its stuff with nuanced and detailed animation, as well as a variety of colors utilized for the many animal couples that appear throughout the story. A musical take on the Old Testament tale of Noah, his family, and the ark they built to survive the Great Flood, the short features several sequences of cycled animation, but is mildly entertaining nonetheless.

Funny Little Bunnies (1934) (7:09)
Released just before Palm Sunday, this endearing and very colorful short tales a simple tale of Funny Bunny Land, where hordes of cloyingly cute rabbits dressed in human clothes spend all of their waking hours preparing Easter baskets for the holiday, melting and sculpting chocolate figurines, boiling eggs, and scattering jellybeans ‘round. I doubt their delectable results were common of Depression-era Easters, but I personally wouldn’t mind receiving a funny bunny basket, myself!

Peculiar Penguins (1934) (9:34)
Love is in the air on Penguin Island, where a young penguin couple woo each other set to a jingle-like tune. A fair portion of the short is devoted to the suitor trying to out-maneuver a shark to distract him from the innocent young maiden penguin; and curiously, all underwater scenery is quite tropical in appearance, despite an Antarctic-looking setting. But of course, one must remember this was an innocent, pre-Cousteausan era!

A kind-hearted hobo helps this cookie girl prepare for her entry into the "Cookie Carnival." Rival royal families stubbornly feud in "Music Land." Pluto suffers under the task of "accidental parenthood" in "Mother Pluto."

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Cookie Carnival (1935) (8:01)
Set in a land composed entirely of cookies and sweets (including its inhabitants), a grand ceremony called the Cookie Carnival has just gone underway. Pageant-like entries parade down the street in hopes of becoming the Cookie Queen. One forlorn figure is spotted by a friendly hobo cookie (voiced by Pinto Colvig, naturally), and with his help and a bit of savvy, she gets into the parade and is enthusiastically deemed the new queen. One of my childhood favorites, this short boasts a brilliant palette of colors and wonderful art design.

Music Land (1935) (9:34)
A fun, and most certainly musical, Symphony about two kingdoms - the Land of Symphony and the Isle of Jazz - separated by the Sea of Discord and mutual misunderstanding. Another Romeo & Juliet spin, the two kingdoms' respective heirs - a violin princess and a saxophone prince - have a forbidden love for one another. Unlike Shakespeare's tale, however, this one has a happy ending - as colossal feuding between the cello queen and the saxophone king gives way to luuuurve. The story's origins come from the genuine discord and dilemma the public faced in the 1930s between classic orchestral music and the new upstart genre of jazz. One very entertaining feature of the short is the use of musical instruments - mostly the violin and saxophone - to mimic human speech and inflection. Only makes sense, as the characters are musical instruments, after all!

Mother Pluto (1936) (8:36)
The second of the two Pluto-starring shorts on this set, this Symphony finds our canine hero accidentally imprinting a flock of chicks. Though he only sees them as an annoyance at first, the innocent baby birds soon grow on him and grows fiercely protective of them - even from the chicks' actual mother.

The Old Mill (1936) (8:56)
A short famous for its "field testing" of the multiplane camera effect shortly before use on Snow White, this Symphony about a stormy night at an abandoned windmill (and the effects it has on the mill's various wild inhabitants) exhibits several impressive special effects animation shots, as well as proficient use of multiplane technology.

A jazzy bug drummer jams to the big band music in "Woodland Café." The pompous cock Chanticleer woos a fair young pullet in "Farmyard Symphony." A bashful penguin offers a snow cone to his lurve in "Peculiar Penguins."

Woodland Café (1936) (7:38)
A jazzy, thoroughly musical Symphony that features hordes of insects, arachnids, and other "bugs" flocking to a popular nightclub called - what else? - the Woodland Café. Charming sequences of visual gags ensue as Disney animators play off the design of various species; not unlike Birds of a Feather, although these jokes are a tad more "refined" and entertaining in nature.

Farmyard Symphony (1938) (8:06)
Another childhood favorite of mine, and one of the most charming Symphonies, this short sets the bar a bit higher for the series by adopting a Fantasia-like tone: dialogue-free with a soundtrack consisting of classic Beethoven, Rossini and Wagner. Following the daily goings-on at a family farm, various livestock cluck, moo, and neigh their way to the music. Two subplots follow the misadventures of a hungry piglet runt, as well as a cock's attempts to woo the prettiest pullet in the yard.

Ugly Duckling (1939) (8:59)
Doing an enormous 180 from its 1931 predecessor of the same name, the last Silly Symphony ever produced exhibits great leaps in animation talent that had developed at the studios over the previous 10 years. This time being true to the original tale, an "ugly duckling" finds himself the source of conflict amongst a family of ducks. Despite several naïve attempts to fit in, the hatchling is rejected at every turn. At the point of despair, he is discovered and happily adopted by a flock of young birds that... look like him! Interestingly enough, their mother is slightly more elegant in appearance than the mallard siblings he was born with...

Two lyrebirds "play" each other's tails in "Birds of a Feather." The buxom Jenny Wren makes for a killer Mae West caricature.

VIDEO & AUDIO

Early on, the Walt Disney Treasures content received a deluxe treatment in their restoration and presentation. Silly Symphonies illustrates that; for 70-year-old content, all of the shorts look "durn good!" All are presented in their original Academy ratio, and though typical print artifacts remain on many shorts (small scratches, grain, etc.), the overall sharpness and clarity of colors is wonderful to behold. A good thing, too - many of the Symphonies were produced in the early days of the 3-strip Technicolor process, and for that reason several experiment with the lush color combinations that the technique offered. The results were brilliant, vivid color shorts that retained their beauty well on the DVD.

The sound on the shorts is understandably less "wowing" than the colors, but even though they are basic mono mixes, they sound just as good as their visual counterparts are brilliant. They do justice to their musical scores, and the mono mix somehow fits with the simplicity of the shorts. Overall, a very just and satisfactory physical presentation.

Leonard Maltin discusses music technique with Richard Sherman in "The Song of the Silly Symphonies." Dave Smith and Leonard Maltin talk about early merchandising of the Silly Symphonies in "Silly Symphonies Souvenirs." A "Galleries" menu on disc 2.

BONUS FEATURES

The Song of the Silly Symphonies (11:42) is an insightful interview between Leonard Maltin and famous Disney songwriter Richard Sherman; the two discuss the tone and simplicity of the music used and composed for the Symphony shorts. Sherman gives us an impression of Walt Disney's ear for music; though Disney wasn't a musician himself, he knew what kind of emotion he wanted conveyed, and through creative description he would induce inspiration in his composers. Sherman also reveals the key to memorable and popular songs - sincerity, simplicity, and "singability." He, as well as his song-writing brother Robert, almost always implemented these principles into their own work, which included the score for Mary Poppins.

Silly Symphonies Souvenirs (17:24) is a second Leonard Maltin interview featurette; this time with Walt Disney Archive founder Dave Smith. The two discuss at length the various early merchandising pieces that were produced for several of the Symphony shorts. While often ephemeral in local theatres, the shorts still garnered enough attention to make them (especially a chosen few, like Three Little Pigs) popular and memorable in the public's mind. Everything from figurines and books to toothbrush holders and Christmas lights were produced to both raise awareness of the Symphonies and to capitalize off of their success; often this was done after the fact of a short's release, rather than the large and carefully-planned marketing blitz that often precedes film releases today. Having a flavor of PBS' Antiques Roadshow to it, the featurette is quite educational and entertaining, especially for film paraphernalia enthusiasts and collectors.

The "Galleries" is a sampling of concept art, pencil tests, and promotional material for the Silly Symphonies; the latter is the most interesting since, through posters and comics and full-page magazine ads, this was the only formal method to gain awareness of a new Symphony short. More often, of course, you would just have to walk by the local theatre yourself and see what was displayed on the marquee.

Leonard Maltin opines lovingly on his favorite Symphony shorts in "Leonard's Picks." The original appearance of the wolf's Jewish peddler disguise in "The Three Little Pigs."

Both discs also feature a separate menu called Leonard's Picks, which are a select handful (5 to 6) of the disc's listed shorts that are noteworthy, landmarks, or just personal favorites of his. These are just fun introductions that last 30 seconds to a minute and a half, and are not similar to his intros in later waves of the Walt Disney Treasures, which are more often contemporary disclaimers to set the short's "objectionable" content in historical context. In fact, one might joke that this was the more innocent, naïve time of the Walt Disney Treasures line, as the sets lacked any kind of "From The Vaults" section, and possibly offensive shorts were listed right along with the virtuous ones in blissful harmony. Maltin's introduction for Three Little Pigs is the sole exception - though he speak of the short and its history as lightly as the others, one section about the wolf dressed as a Jewish peddler is covered in a slightly graver tone. Ironically, though a clip of the original unedited wolf appears in Maltin's intro, the short itself is the alternate wolf, who was reanimated several years later to look less offensive. Thus the claim on the Silly Symphonies insert that all shorts are uncensored is false, and rather troubling. Perhaps there is a slim chance we could see the unedited version included on the planned second volume of Symphonies, but that is probably quite a far-reaching hope.

Aside from the wolf, many racial stereotypes slip by undiscussed on the set. A brief blackface gag appears in Funny Little Bunnies, "mammy" impressions are seen in Birds of a Feather and Egyptian Melodies, and black stereotypes (or equivalent representations thereof) appear in Who Killed Cock Robin?, Woodland Café, and The Cookie Carnival. Cock Robin features a slow and rather inarticulate blackbird suspect, as well as a very obviously stereotyped homosexual in the Cupid character; in addition, there's a fair amount of cartoony police brutality - beating suspects with batons and whatnot. Lastly, The China Plate is a string of various Chinese stereotypes, seen throughout the entire short from beginning to end. One wonders whether it was this lack of disclaimer treatment on this initial Walt Disney Treasure wave that sparked complaints and warranted well-categorized shorts; with them such irritating features as unskippable introductions - just to make sure you know how "evil" the short is before you watch it, every single time!

A NOTE ON "EASTER EGGS"

Probably the most glaring flaw in this otherwise stellar release is the confusing misuse of the "Easter egg" feature commonly found on DVDs. Under normal circumstances, an Easter egg is a hidden feature on a DVD menu that takes a bit of finagling with the remote control to find and play. Often this will be a short, silly clip of cast and crew fooling around, or an alternate scene, or any other of a myriad number of things. They are characteristically just negligible bits of entertainment, and not intrinsic to the overall content of the DVD.

However, it seems a rather confused (or maybe just plain mean) menu designer fiddled with the Silly Symphonies Treasure set a little too much, as the Easter egg content is a bit convoluted; it even fully cloaks three of the 37 shorts! The layout and repetitive content of the menus is rather odd, as well. From here, I will walk you through the eggs and overall content of both discs, and give you a sort of "guide" to the tricky layout of this set. If you honestly would rather skip this section, so you may, but as these eggs are sometimes hiding standard content rather than fun goodies, it is recommended you go through this section carefully.

Of its 19 total Symphonies, Disc 1 features 14 directly listed shorts - that is, they are featured in the themed index menu pages of "Fables and Fairy Tales" and "Favorite Characters." The other "missing" five are The Grasshopper and the Ants, Who Killed Cock Robin?, Water Babies, The Practical Pig, and Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. The "play all" feature plays back 17 shorts - all except Who Killed Cock Robin?. "Leonard's Picks" offers access to The Grasshopper and the Ants and Wynken, Blynken, and Nod - with skippable introduction speeches attached. Otherwise, menu hunting is in order to locate these shorts.

The "S" of the word "Symphonies" on disc 1's main menu plays a clip from Walt's long-running anthology series "Disneyland" - a standard for all of the eggs. In these intros, which can be skipped to access the short itself, Walt often reads a letter from a viewer asking to see the relevant short once again and then obliges, often giving some history on the Symphony's story origins beforehand. This first clip shows a short animated sequence illustrating a brief history of moral fables, from ancient China to the papyruses of Egypt, right up to the Greek storyteller Aesop himself. Playing immediately afterward is The Grasshopper and the Ants in its entirety.

Disc 1's main menu. Disc 2's main menu. Walt Disney himself introduces and discusses several separate Symphony shorts in the "Disneyland" Easter eggs.

Highlighting the sword of the robber kitten image on the second page of the "Fables and Fairy Tales" menu will yield another "Disneyland" clip, which features an animated sequence of English writer Charles Kingsley making up a whimsical tale off the cuff for his son as they fish. Walt reveals that this author wrote the original story of the Water Babies that the studio adapted into a Silly Symphony in 1935. The short plays upon the finish of the intro's animated sequence.

The topmost chick image on the "Favorite Characters" menu plays a rather lengthy clip from
"Disneyland" wherein Walt gives a real history lesson on the origins of the nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin? - complete with woodcut illustrations. The short plays after this; note that this is the only way to access this short on the disc. If you don't remember where and how to find it, you're deprived of viewing one of the best shorts on disc one, in my humble opinion!

Highlighting the name "Leonard" in the "Leonard's Picks" title on that menu yields a look at the life of Chicago children's author Eugene Field, who penned Dutch Lullaby, better known as Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. And of course, the latter's Silly Symphony adaptation plays afterward.

The last Easter egg on Disc 1 can be found by selecting the little lone water baby image on the left margin of the captions menu. Walt again appears to give a brief history on the success of the Three Little Pigs short and its subsequent spinoffs. The last canon short produced was The Practical Pig in 1939, which plays immediately following.

Disc 2 directly lists 17 of its 18 shorts - all but Farmyard Symphony. Curiously, the "play all" feature plays only 16 shorts - apparently Woodland Café was mistakenly left out of the list when the disc was authored; this trend was verified on 2 separate copies of the set. After the shorts, the two extra featurettes also play automatically.

The first of two Easter eggs on this disc can be found by highlighting the faces of the two little girl bunnies on the first page of the "Nature on Screen" menu; a star will appear, and if you press enter you'll once again be treated to the cocked eyebrows of Walt Disney, as he relates the history of experimenting with special effects animation (such as wind, rain, lightning, etc.) on the Silly Symphony short The Old Mill, before trying such techniques on their in-production, first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Following this intro is, of course, The Old Mill itself.

The disc's second, and last overall, Easter egg is found on the "Accent on Music" menu by highlighting the saxophone prince's hat. Walt appears to give us some insight on the popular mythic character of the cock, Chanticleer - a pompous figure who believes it is his crowing that brings the sun up every morning. He is featured in a more generic, nameless form in the Silly Symphony Farmyard Symphony, which plays afterward. Like Who Killed Cock Robin? on disc 1, this is the only method of accessing this short, and requires a fairly good memory to find again and again. Also like the aforementioned, this is one of the best and most entertaining shorts found on disc 2 - though that may just be my childhood nostalgia giving me a bit of a bias again!

The trio of brothers celebrates their victory over the wolf with - what else? - music! Pluto suffers under the task of "accidental parenthood" in "Mother Pluto."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Being that Disney's animated content - whether shorts, features, or TV series - is my favorite by far, and also given that I grew up watching a tape of nine random Symphonies over and over, I have a bit of a penchant for these shorts, above much of the other "cartoons" that the Disney studios produced in their day. Not only do they represent great innovations in animation techniques, they're just darn fun to watch, too! Even after so many decades have gone by, these shorts retain their charm and entertainment quality, and even tend to make one a bit nostalgic for the way animation used to be. Short films are virtually a thing of the past, much less themed series of shorts like the Symphonies were. As a Treasures set, this one is hard to beat, especially in light of the (unfortunately) lesser-quality releases like the recent Disney Rarities set. Though out of print and a bit expensive to find, I highly recommend the effort in looking for this set; you will not be disappointed!

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REVIEW CONTENTS

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

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Disney On the Front LinesTomorrowlandThe Mickey Mouse Club: Week One
The Chronological Donald, Volume OneBehind the Scenes at the Disney StudioDisneyland U.S.A.
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Other DVDs with Silly Symphonies:
Walt Disney's Timeless Tales: Volume ThreeClassic Cartoon Favorites: Volume 6 - Extreme Music Fun
Walt Disney's Timeless Tales: Volume OneWalt Disney's Timeless Tales: Volume Two
Disney Princess: A Christmas of EnchantmentDumbo: 60th Anniversary EditionMake Mine Music

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Review posted March 18, 2006.