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Timeless Tales: Volume One DVD Review

Buy Timeless Tales: Volume 1 from Amazon.com Timeless Tales: Volume One
DVD Details

Running Time: 59 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen, Dolby Digital Surround Sound (English, French)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned

DVD Release Date: August 16, 2005
Originally Released Between 1933 and 1990
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase


Though it is only seven and a half months into the year, 2005 has so far been, as much as anything else in the world of Disney DVDs, the year of the animated short compilation. From the studio's first releases in January, which gave us a new Classic Cartoon Favorites line with four colorful volumes, through last month's standalone Vintage Mickey, a disc with nine noteworthy cartoons from the Mouse's black and white days, Buena Vista Home Entertainment has repackaged and recycled Disney short films from the late 1920s through the mid-1950s in nearly a dozen ways. These discs, which together comprise more than one-seventh of the 2005 Disney DVD output, may highlight a particular character or theme, but they serve more or less the same purpose. That purpose is for the studio to present their vintage cartoons in new, reasonably-priced editions to appeal to families and animation fans who want hour-long samplings or, for one reason or another, have eschewed Disney's limited edition, collector-friendly Treasures line.

This month, Disney unveils another new line of cartoon compilations entitled Walt Disney's Timeless Tales with two hour-long volumes. While this series is entirely new to the United States, it emulates in design a similar but non-identical "Walt Disney's Fables" line which has been available in the United Kingdom for some time now and has accrued six entries to date. Anyone looking to find a prevalent theme in the Timeless Tales line will easily recognize a trait common to the cartoons featured: they are all adapted from well-known literary/oral sources. The five short stories presented in this Volume One DVD should be mostly familiar to some degree to many children around the world. That such folktales were chosen creates an effect which distinguishes this new brand from the Classic Cartoon Favorites: the animated shorts represent some of Disney's most popular and acclaimed contributions to the animated short format.

Timeless Tales: Volume One delivers a winning and even collection of early Disney shorts...plus the 1990 featurette The Prince and the Pauper. That piece, an adaptation of Mark Twain's novel showcasing Mickey Mouse in the two title roles, is the odd man out when categorizing by production era, author, or running time (at 25 minutes, it's roughly three times as long as any of the other shorts included). Nonetheless, it too provides high quality animated entertainment throughout like its fellow selected cartoons.

The real prince stands up to captain of the guard Pete in Disney's enjoyable 1990 Mickey Mouse featurette "The Prince and the Pauper." The Grasshopper's fiddling doesn't really do it for the Queen Ant.

Like Pauper, three of the remaining four shorts display personified animals. Unlike Pauper, they do not feature any of Disney's long-running and instantly-recognizable iconic characters. These four cartoons are particularly similar in look, style, and length, which is not surprising since they were released to theaters in a span of just three years (1933-1935) and all embody Disney's "Silly Symphonies" format. Furthermore, they stem from just two commonly-attributed sources, names which are readily conjured upon hearing the word "fable." From Aesop, the 6th century BC slave who is credited with so many stories woven with moral lessons, are The Tortoise and the Hare and The Grasshopper and the Ants. From the Brothers Grimm, the early 19th century German siblings renowned for their collection of fairy tales, are Three Little Pigs and The Pied Piper.

While this DVD is undoubtedly brand new, its contents are not at all new to DVD. Three of the four Silly Symphonies cartoons (Grasshopper, Pigs, and Tortoise) were among the 31 presented on the long-out-of-print 2001 Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies tin. The Prince and the Pauper appeared on Disc 2 of last year's Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Volume Two set, where, unlike here, it was presented in widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. That set can still be ordered from Amazon and tracked down without too much difficulty. The Pied Piper, on the other hand, is making its proper debut on the format, though it did appear (in black-and-white and with much room for improvement) on an episode of "The Mickey Mouse Club" on last month's "Best Of" DVD.

Even more so than the Classic Cartoon Favorites, the intended audience for the Timeless Tales series appears to be young children. This explains the family-oriented back cover write-up, the presence of a "storybook" inside the case, and the parent tips for viewing and talking with little ones which appear on the back of the enclosed insert. That's all well and fine, but these cartoons do just as fine a job at entertaining older viewers as they do at babysitting tots. In fact, the 70-year-old Silly Symphonies require a bit more patience and might garner more appreciation from audience members who have lived more than a few years and maybe know a few things about animation history or at least Disney's past in the medium. With a little more effort (such as presenting widescreen cartoons in widescreen), Disney easily could have hooked in a demographic more likely to read this review, the fan of the studio's animation with only a casual leaning towards the vintage shorts.

We conclude this section with a closer look at the DVD's five shorts:

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? I can think of two sons of sausage... Toby Tortoise becomes the very first victim of the classic handshake fakeout.

"Three Little Pigs" (1933) (8:40)
Two pigs build houses out of straw and sticks, respectively, which leaves them plenty of time to have fun with fiddle and fife. A third, more practical pig toils away on his house of brick in spite of his fellow porcine's mocking. When the Big Bad Wolf shows up, the straw and stick houses are no match for his potent huffing and puffing, but the brick house poses a challenge to his respiratory powers.

This Disney film was as popular as any to come before it, which enabled a lengthy marquee-topping theatrical engagement and some successful tie-in merchandise in the face of America's Great Depression, most notably the album of the pigs' catchy song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?". The short also earned Walt Disney his second Academy Award. Despite Walt's opposition to sequels and his much-quoted belief that "you can't top pigs with pigs", three follow-up shorts were made featuring the pleasantly plump protagonists: The Big Bad Wolf (1934), Three Little Wolves (1936), and The Practical Pig (1939). In 1941, the film was even redone to support World War II efforts, with the villainous wolf transformed into a Nazi and the sturdy house's bricks becoming Canadian war bonds. Shortly thereafter, the Big Bad Wolf's brief impression of a Jewish peddler was toned down to lessen offensiveness, and this edit has remained present in most modern broadcasts and home video releases, including this one.

"The Tortoise and the Hare" (1935) (8:42)
In the most famous race in all of Aesop's fables, the fast favorite Max Hare (a showoff brown bunny) squares off against a slightly off-center Toby Tortoise. While Max caters to his adoring female following, Toby chugs on with little support. The mismatched challenge proves, of course, that slow and steady does win in the end; at least that's what happens here. This cartoon also led to a sequel (1936's boxing-themed showdown Toby Tortoise Returns) and another Best Short Subject - Cartoons Oscar for Uncle Walt. Though it's particularly predictable and features jokes that have long since been run into the ground, one can still appreciate this spirited adaptation.

I guess gathering food all fall wasn't too silly after all, eh, Mr. Grasshopper? With a magical flute at his side, not even a persistent rat is a problem for the Pied Piper.

"The Grasshopper and the Ants" (1934) (8:23)
There are two paths one can take: the easy life of luxury the fiddling grasshopper in this short opts for, or the toil and trouble the ants choose in stocking up food for the rough times ahead. The grasshopper seems to have a good time, playing what would become Goofy's theme song "The World Owes Me a Living", but when winter arrives, being cold and hungry isn't too much fun. The grasshopper is more like the Goof than Hopper from A Bug's Life, in part because he too is voiced by Pinto Colvig and also because he learns his lesson (as does the viewer) without looking down a bird's throat.

"The Pied Piper" (1933) (7:30)
The mayor of a town overrun by rats enlists the services of a potent piper, who skillfully whisks the pests away with his magical flute. When the mayor tries to stiff the lanky chap on the bill, he gladly leads the town's children away to a toyland. This short is somewhat enchanting, albeit possessing a disturbing conclusion. Interestingly enough, the Brothers Grimm folktale supposedly has its roots in a disputable real event that occurred in 13th century Germany.

"The Prince and the Pauper" (1990) (25:25)
Mickey Mouse does double duty in this featurette-length cartoon which played theatrically in front of The Rescuers Down Under. The real Mickey is the unaccented pauper, who can only dream of bountiful food and warm shelter to keep happy while braving the snowy cold with Pluto and Goofy. When he encounters the prince who looks just like him, they agree to switch places. This allows the prince, weary of constant scheduling and schooling, to go out and explore his principality amidst his future subjects and Mickey to revel in royalty. But with the King of England ill, captain of the guard Pete is plundering the people in his name. Adventure, comedy, Mark Twain's classic wit, and a dab of drama add up to one great time, making me wish that Disney's icon could enjoy similarly cinematic fare once again.

Shots like this have a bit of their cinematic power robbed in the pan-and-scan process. Max Hare chats up the lady spectators.

VIDEO and AUDIO

All five shorts are presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. That is appropriate enough for the first four shorts, which were produced in the 1.37:1 Academy Ratio, but it's a sacrifice for The Prince and the Pauper which was animated for 1.66:1 and is cropped for standard TV dimensions here, unlike its previous DVD release in the Walt Disney Treasures line. There's a clear loss of picture width when compared side-by-side and as it probably would have been just as easy for Disney to use the digital file employed for the Treasures DVD, the pan-and-scan treatment of the disc's most substantial cartoon is disappointing. Pauper, nonetheless, looks the best out of the five, which isn't surprising since it was made more than fifty years after the rest.

The Silly Symphonies previously on DVD exhibit some issues, such as shimmering and color inconsistency on Three Little Pigs, excessive grain on The Tortoise and the Hare, and occasional loss of focus on The Grasshopper and the Ants. That's not entirely unexpected based upon their age and the primitive Technicolor processes used on them. To their benefit, the prints are remarkably clean to the point where you have to strain to detect and scratches or artifacts. The Pied Piper, which has never before been seen on DVD on its own, is noticeably lacking in polish when following the previous three. It doesn't have the same sharpness as its fellow Silly Symphonies and the colors look unnatural. One passing boy's hair even fluctuates between three colors, which I'm not sure was an effect intended by the animators. Two of the four Silly Symphonies feature boxed-in title screens to avoid overscan, but none of the shorts themselves are windowboxed.

All in all, considering the age of the content and the nonchalant nature of the DVD, the picture quality is not too disappointing, since three of the shorts have been adequately remastered for Treasures treatment and one is only fifteen years old. Pied Piper could use a bit of work, but it still loses fewer points than Pauper does, on account of the cropped transfer missing 20% of its picture and some of the cinematic pizzazz of its visual presentation.

In the audio department, Timeless Tales: Volume One packs a punch that will surely rock your house. Of course, I'm joking. The package lists a Dolby Surround track and indeed, everything is encoded as two-channel, but the four Silly Symphonies offer straightforward monaural as they always have since theatrical release. Prince and the Pauper actually does deliver a pretty rousing sonic experience, with its terrifically cinematic score and appropriately engulfing soundfield. While Pauper clearly provides the most pleasing audio presentation, the simple mixes of the '30s cartoons have not aged too terribly. There's a bit of distortion and their tracks lack the clarity of modern animation's dialogue, music, and effects, but seventy-year-old cartoons could fare far worse without such decent treatment. The disc also offers a French dub and English subtitles.

A randomly-arranged castle which makes up the "Timeless Tales: Volume One" Main Menu. The underwhelming minature "collectible" Prince and the Pauper "storybook." Cat not included. The Pied Piper leads the children of Hamelin away in a conclusion with Jacksonian overtones.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, and DESIGN

The only bonus feature is a full-color, 16-page miniature "collectible storybook" of The Prince and the Pauper. Don't expect an actual book in the traditional sense; it's the size of a coupon booklet and has a glossy softcover front and back. The story and artwork are taken directly from the Disney featurette that's provided on the disc, so you're getting an abridged version (just 12 pages feature text) of an abridged/reimagined version of Mark Twain's story, rather than the actual book in question. While it's certainly not an unwelcome inclusion, it hardly seems to justify a price tag $5 higher than the Classic Cartoon Favorites.

As you probably would expect assuming you keep your finger atop the Disney DVD beat, this volume offers Disney's FastPlay, a playback method which requires no interaction from the viewer whatsoever after inserting the disc. That's nice for little ones and the severely lazy, but probably not worthy of front and back cover mentions or the copyright, particularly since I remember a time when all Disney releases offered such a swell service. It was called VHS.

Of course, even with FastPlay, you won't get to play the featured content too fast. First, you are asked to sit through trailers for the Cinderella Platinum Edition DVD, Chicken Little's theatrical engagement, and rapidly-approaching direct-to-video Lilo & Stitch 2. As usual, these can be skipped individually or altogether. The Sneak Peeks menu houses additional promos for Kronk's New Groove, The Parent Trap: 2-Movie Collection (with actual footage of the debuting attraction, The Parent Trap II), Pooh's Heffalump Movie and Kermit's 50th Anniversary edition reissues of four Muppet films. To access those last four spots, though, you'll have to press buttons on your remote and such, so Disney must not be counting on you seeing them.

The 4x3 menus are about as neat as you could hope for from a fairly basic disc. The Main Menu is introduced by a compelling 3-D forest tour which stops at a castle, where the five shorts are arranged in seemingly random order. Selecting any short plays just that single cartoon; the "Play All" option runs through all five in the order reviewed above. You'll notice no separate sections for "Cartoon Selection" or "Bonus Features" and even the Set Up options are all housed on one page, making this set of menus among Disney's most barren. The Main Menu is accompanied by regal-sounding instrumentation, but outside of its inspired intro, it is not animated.

Mickey and Mickey laugh it up in "The Prince and the Pauper"'s inevitably happy ending. The Fuller Brush Man seems overly pushy today!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Timeless Tales: Volume One delivers a solid hour of animated entertainment via four Silly Symphonies from the early 1930s and the 1990 Mickey Mouse featurette The Prince and the Pauper. All five cartoons boast clever storylines which have kept their sources in circulation for well over a hundred years (Pauper, published in 1881, is also the youngest of the lot in this regard) and fine Disney-style adaptation from two different periods. Whether or not these shorts merit the phrase "timeless" depends on how you feel about this once-thriving and now mostly-dead short film format. The Silly Symphonies, while clearly dated, have endured seven decades and though Pauper has yet to stand such a test of time, it hasn't lost any of its cinematic luster.

While the selected cartoons deliver high quality, the child-oriented DVD presentation will leave most Disney enthusiasts with something to be desired, chiefly a lower price tag or more cartoons. There's also the troubling pan-and-scan treatment given to Pauper, the short which comprises nearly half the total running time. If you take offense to none of these three claims and haven't already bought the two Walt Disney Treasures tins that hold four of these five shorts, then this compilation wouldn't be a bad investment for you. For those who want the optimal audio/video treatment, much more bang for more buck, and all the bells and whistles, you'll have to begin or continue to look towards the Treasures, where hopefully The Pied Piper will show up one year.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Related Review:
Timeless Tales: Volume Two

Other DVDs Featuring the Shorts from Timeless Tales, Volume One
Three Little Pigs, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Grasshopper and the Ants: Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies
The Prince and the Pauper: Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Volume 2 (Review)
The Pied Piper: The Best of The Mickey Mouse Club (Review)

Timeless Tales, Volume One ... in Book Form
The Tortoise and the Hare, The Grasshopper and the Ants: The Classic Treasury of Aesop's Fables
Three Little Pigs (a.k.a. The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids): The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales
The Pied Piper (of Hamelin) by Robert Browning
The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

Additional DVD Reviews of Interest
Classic Cartoon Favorites: Volume 7 - Extreme Adventure Fun
Classic Cartoon Favorites: Volume 6 - Extreme Music Fun
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Platinum Edition)

UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | Upcoming Disney DVDs | Direct-to-Video Page | Walt Disney Treasures Page | August 2005's Disney DVDs

Reviewed August 13, 2005.

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