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Walt Disney Animation Collection DVDs:
Wave 1: Volume 1: Mickey and the Beanstalk Volume 2: Three Little Pigs Volume 3: The Prince and the Pauper
Wave 2: Volume 4: The Tortoise and the Hare Volume 5: The Wind in the Willows Volume 6: The Reluctant Dragon
Wave 3: Volume 7: Mickey's Christmas Carol

Walt Disney Animation Collection: Classic Short Films - Volume 7: Mickey's Christmas Carol DVD Review

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Volume 7: Mickey's Christmas Carol

DVD Details

Running Time: 64 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo/Mono (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; Closed Captioned

DVD Release Date: September 29, 2009
Originally Released Between 1932 and 1983
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase with Side Snaps in Reflective, Embossed Cardboard Slipcover

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The Walt Disney Company's 2009 holiday season entertainment slate includes both an adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and a featurette-length animated short. The last time the studio could boast unveiling those two things in the same season was 1983, when Mickey's Christmas Carol met both descriptions. This year's entities are separate. From director Robert Zemeckis and his now-preferred medium of motion capture animation, there is A Christmas Carol starring Jim Carrey in four roles. That is expected to do big business on the big screen when worldwide releases begin early November.
The featurette is Prep and Landing, a Walt Disney Animation Studios short (about elite North Pole elves) that was proposed for theaters but instead will debut as an ABC holiday special.

With the studio sensing the time is right for animated Christmas stories in cinemas and primetime television, it seems fitting that Mickey's Christmas Carol returns to DVD this month in anticipation of those kindred productions.

You wouldn't know it unless you're a serious Disney buff or DVD collector, but this actually marks the 1983 short's fourth appearance on DVD. It is the first time it claims the title of a release, something afforded by its status as the star attraction of the seventh volume in the Walt Disney Animation Collection: Classic Short Films series. Mickey's Christmas Carol first turned up as a segment in the partially-recycled 2001 direct-to-video feature Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse (which gets a new edition this November to bring Carol's DVD count to 5). A more complete presentation of the 25-minute short was later included on 2004's Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Volume Two Walt Disney Treasures tin and on Classic Holiday Stories, the ninth of twelve volumes in Disney's apparently-retired Classic Cartoon Favorites line.

The title screen for "Mickey's Christmas Carol" sets the mood for Disney's timeless retelling of Charles Dickens' classic tale. Mickey Mouse and Pluto decorate their boughs of holly with colorful balls and a gold star in 1952 short "Pluto's Christmas Tree."

Classic Holiday Stories actually offers the most direct comparison to this new set. As on that 2005 disc, Mickey's Christmas Carol is accompanied here by other distinctly Christmasy Disney shorts. In fact, the two other cartoons on Classic Holiday Stories (which is now out of print) resurface here: 1952 one-reeler Pluto's Christmas Tree and 1978 featurette The Small One. The Animation Collection DVD goes one step further and includes Santa's Workshop, a 1932 Silly Symphony.

That raises the comparable old disc's 58-minute runtime past the one-hour mark and up to 64 minutes. It is the biggest difference between this release and the 2005 one. There are also some variations between the lines that house them. Classic Cartoon Favorites marketed contents with generic themed titles and imagery of Disney's well-known "Sensational Six" characters. Walt Disney Animation Collection elevates one famous short to title and cover subject, making the majority of a disc's content a surprise discovery for store-browsers who flip over the case to see the back. The series makes some effort to emphasize the "collecting" part of its name. Each of its DVDs includes a stylish, embossed foil slipcover and a small cardboard lithograph print. Both of these touches are no doubt reflected in the line's $19.99 standard list price, $5 higher than the Classic Cartoon Favorites discs.

Despite these minor differences, both DVD series play largely to the same audience: fans of Disney animation who aren't zealous or extravagant enough to collect the vast amounts of shorts in their largely delightful and non-repetitive Walt Disney Treasures collections.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Scrooge McDuck) is surprised to see his deceased partner Jacob Marley in his door knocker. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Willie the Giant of "Fun and Fancy Free" segment "Mickey and the Beanstalk") holds Scrooge up with two fingers amidst a glowing banquet.

Even Disney fans who are devoted enough to have all 28 Treasures sets (and this fall's two pre-ordered) must take some notice of a release like Mickey's Christmas Carol. As reassuring as it is to know that you've got almost every existing animated Disney short ready to be viewed on your shelf, there is something appealing about the idea of having an hour of thematically related 'toons from different eras on one platter.
Plus, there is the fact that The Small One hasn't been released on any Treasures volume. Based on what has and hasn't been tapped in the series and the short's post-Walt origins, I don't think we should expect that to change anytime soon.

Now that you know all about Disney's three biggest animated shorts DVD lines, the various discs holding Mickey's Christmas Carol, and the most Christmasy of Disney's 2009 holiday fare, it is only right for me to fill you in on the four shorts of this new DVD and if they're any good. (If they're not, I've sure been wasting your time and mine.)

"Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1983) (25:40)

This short condenses Dickens' brilliant redemption tale and casts animated Disney characters in all the roles. Scrooge McDuck, then better known from his comics than his one 1967 cartoon, is the obvious choice for Ebenezer Scrooge, the wealthy penny-pinching lender who's down on mankind and Christmas. Visits from his deceased former partner Jacob Marley (Goofy) and ghosts showing him Christmases past, present, and future (Jiminy Cricket, Willie the Giant, and Pete) bring about the change of heart that's very much called for. Despite his title billing, Mickey plays the supporting role of worker Bob Cratchit. Donald is Scrooge's nephew Fred and Daisy is young lost love Isabelle.

It is no wonder why Disney fans adore this short; it is easily the one that's most in tune with the studio's past and future. Characters created up to fifty years earlier make tasteful appearances, including Mr. Toad, his friends Rat and Mole, his horse Cyril Proudbottom, and the Three Little Pigs. In the twenty-six years since this was released, many of these characters have remained in use. This foreshadowed the good things Disney would do with its classic characters in television animation in the years to come, like giving Scrooge and his nephews their own show, "DuckTales."

The short's wide reach among the Disney legacy is appropriately reflected in its human personnel. Having this among their earliest professional credits are Pixar/Disney head honcho John Lasseter, animators Randy Cartwright and Glen Keane, Chicken Little director Mark Dindal, and, Wayne Allwine, who voiced Mickey up until his death last spring. At the same time, these young talents were accompanied by accomplished veterans like Mary Poppins music supervisor Irwin Kostal, Eric Larson (one of Walt's legendary "Nine Old Men"), and, earning his first director's credit, Burny Mattinson. Mattinson was nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar, but wound up losing to Sundae in New York, a 3-minute claymation of Mayor Ed Koch making "New York, New York" his own.

The Judean boy cracks a smile at his donkey Small One's inability to hold his ears straight in Disney's 1978 Christmas short "The Small One." Dale's excitement over a Christmas ornament creates a brief setback for Chip inside "Pluto's Christmas Tree."

"The Small One" (1978) (25:26)

Far less known but no less charming than Mickey's Christmas Carol, this featurette shares a running time and production era with its two-time DVD company. This cartoon is set in Ancient Judea shortly before the very first Christmas. An unnamed boy (voiced by Sean Marshall, Pete of Pete's Dragon) has a special friendship with a donkey he calls Small One. The oldest and frailest of the family's asses, Small One isn't pulling his weight of late. The boy's father decides they can't afford to keep the kind donkey, so the boy offers to make the sale himself. In the city's marketplace, nobody seems willing to pay a silver coin for Small One, except for the tanner, that is. After encountering three shrewd merchants and a bombastic auctioneer, the boy finally meets someone willing and pleasant enough to become Small One's new owner. He is, we deduce, none other than Joseph, foster father-to-be of the Messiah in the womb of his pregnant virgin wife, who needs the donkey.

This heartwarming creation represents the full directorial debut of Don Bluth, who had spent the previous twenty years as an animator at Disney. Shortly after this opened alongside a Pinocchio reissue,
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Bluth left to build his own independent studio, where he would make The Secret of NIMH and Steven Spielberg-produced sequel-spawners An American Tail and The Land Before Time. Bluth also wrote two of the featurette's three great songs: poignant theme "Small One" and catchy jingle "The Merchant's Song". The third, "A Friendly Face", was written by assistant director Richard Rich, who went on to form Rich Animation Studios, which has produced historical and biblical half-hour videos for over twenty years now.

It's remarkable to find a mainstream animated work besides A Charlie Brown Christmas that pays homage, even loosely and indirectly, to the religious source behind the world's biggest commercial holiday. It's also remarkable in these politically correct times when many U.S. stores are uncomfortable with "Merry Christmas" that Disney dares to include such a sweet, earnest Middle East fable alongside the bright and snowy shorts more visually and thematically congruent with what's considered "holiday viewing."

There are rumors that The Small One was edited for its first DVD release. Such rumors appear as fact on Wikipedia, but I strongly doubt them. If song lyrics and the Star of Bethlehem's look were truly changed, it was done decades earlier for video release. There is almost no chance that the Disney of 2005 would invest in alterations on a little-known cartoon for a Classic Cartoon Favorites disc, nor would the studio be able to pull them off so smoothly and unnoticeably. A comment on Wiki's discussion page suggests the claims are bogus, although two Amazon customer reviews bemoan similar perceived edits.

"Pluto's Christmas Tree" (1952) (6:50)

By 1952, the animated short was on its way out at Disney and elsewhere, but that didn't mean there weren't any more cartoons destined for classic status. This inspired piece is one such cartoon, where dazzling visuals are paired with the medium's signature gag-driven storytelling. Mickey Mouse cuts down a Christmas tree that just so happens to be home to Chip and Dale. Pluto discovers this fact before Mickey and it drives him crazy as he tries to expose and evict the clever chipmunks. This is one of the best things on its four star characters' resumes, which hardly grew again until Mickey's Christmas Carol. Tellingly, the entertainment value of Pluto's Christmas Tree far surpasses its historical significance, although this is the DVD's strongest link to the Sensational Six's heyday.

"Santa's Workshop" (1932) (6:15)

This cartoon brings us back to yet another age, the height of Walt's Silly Symphony series. Here, we see the North Pole ongoings of Santa Claus and his elves, as they review the nice/naughty list and construct and test toys. On the More Silly Symphonies Walt Disney Treasures DVD, this earned "From the Vault" designation and a cautionary, contextual Leonard Maltin introduction. It gets neither here, but while Chinese, black, and Jewish caricatures remain intact, a 25-second "Mammy" gag involving Santa, a white doll, and a black doll has been cut.

In "Santa's Workshop", St. Nicholas holds his bag open for toy soldiers to march into. Typical for the Walt Disney Animation Collection, someone in the menu design department went a little crazy on holiday clip art.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Like the six previous volumes and every DVD in the Classic Cartoon Favorites line, Walt Disney Animation Collection: Volume 7 presents its contents in 1.33:1 fullscreen. That is almost always appropriate, since most Disney shorts were made in the 1.37:1 Academy Ratio that remained the standard until the mid-1950s. Two of the four shorts on this disc, however, are products of more modern times in which widescreen has been the norm.

Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Volume Two held Mickey's Christmas Carol in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. While that presentation offers a tiny bit of extra picture on the sides,
it mostly just mattes the 4:3 frame seen on this DVD, losing one-sixth of the height. There is no scam or conspiracy; that's simply how many of the widescreen versions of films, including Disney animated ones, were achieved at this time. The same thing would have been done for The Small One. Upon the 2005 DVD release, Gary Goldman, the short's directing animator, told me they animated for 1.33:1 and expected it to be mildly matted to 1.66:1.

It wouldn't make sense to work on edges that wouldn't ever be seen, so clearly the filmmakers had fullscreen presentations for TV and home video in mind during production. I wouldn't call the unmatted versions compromised or inferior. The differences are rather minor. That said, I see little reason not to offer the matted widescreen versions (particularly of Carol, since that's already been put on DVD) as well, especially since each passing day finds 16:9 closer to becoming the prevailing TV screen ratio.

With the aspect ratio issue out of the way, how do all of these shorts look? Unsurprisingly, quite a lot like past DVDs.

Mickey's Christmas Carol looks great, its clean, sharp picture similar to the Treasures' transfer (only in 1.33:1 instead of windowboxed 4:3). The Small One is identical to its only previous appearance on Region 1 DVD. It is watchable, but has some wear and looks grainy and murky in stretches. Colors seem a little drab as well. Pluto's Christmas Tree enjoys ample improvement over its Classic Holiday Stories appearance. Here, it makes use of its Mickey Mouse in Living Color V2 restoration and looks terrific, boasting lively and consistent colors. Santa's Workshop impresses, considering it has had nearly 80 years to deteriorate. That must mean its More Silly Symphonies presentation has been ported over (sans cut scene), although I was unable to compare and confirm.

The packaging claims a Dolby Surround experience is supplied, but all four of the shorts are encoded with only the front two channels of audio. I'm inclined to believe that the two newer featurettes are in stereo and the others are 2.0 Mono, as you would expect. Carol has the liveliest mix, although it is lacking the rear channel of its Treasures disc. The sparse dialogue of Santa's has the shrill, dated sound of other cartoons as old. Pluto's Christmas Tree and Small One fall somewhere in between, with the former satisfying more than the latter, despite their respective ages. On the whole, picture and sound shouldn't trouble the typical viewer who understands these aren't new cartoons.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

As usual for the Walt Disney Animation Collection, the only extra is a tangible one. The litho card is nearly as wide as a DVD case is tall. It features Mickey Mouse's Bob Cracthit and family decorating their modest home for Christmas with a popcorn garland. Also housed in the slipcovered keepcase is a booklet promoting Blu-ray and a Disney Movie Rewards code.

The menus live up to those of previous volumes with their odd blend of clip art, rudimentary computer graphics, and imagery from the shorts. All selection screens are accompanied by an instrumental excerpt of Carol's "Oh, What a Merry Christmas Day."

The disc loads with promos for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Princess and the Frog and Santa Buddies. Menu/post-feature with FastPlay ads tout Up, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, Disney Movie Rewards, Ponyo, G-Force, Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving 10th Anniversary Edition, "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse": Mickey's Choo-Choo Express, and Disney Parks.

Ebenezer Scrooge (McDuck) is excited to be shown a scene from his youth by the Ghost of Christmas Past (a.k.a. Jiminy Cricket) in "Mickey's Christmas Carol." The Star of Bethlehem shines brightly following Joseph's donkey acquisition in the conclusion to "The Small One."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

This new Mickey's Christmas Carol DVD provides about as delightful an hour of thematically related Disney animated shorts as you'll find. Three of the four shorts rank among the studio's all-time best. Together, all add up to a fun, festive experience.
This isn't the best presentation of the title short, but it's the best one now in print. Certainly, that featurette, the little-known gem The Small One, and the fantastic Pluto's Christmas Tree are all worth owning.

If you already own Classic Holiday Stories, I can't see you needing to buy this for the extra short and improved presentation of Pluto's Christmas Tree. If you don't and don't own the two Treasures that hold three of these cartoons, then this is worth picking up. Censorship watchdogs won't appreciate the slight and somewhat understandable albeit still objectionable cut on Santa's Workshop nor the unverifiable Small One edits. And the price is a little high for an hour of old shorts. But if you love Disney animation and Christmas, you're unlikely to ever get as winning a DVD combining the two.

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Reviewed September 22, 2009.