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— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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The Walt Disney Company once again reaches into its vaults for another batch of the Disney Treasures series. As with previous releases of these limited edition sets, their preferred subjects are animation (More Silly Symphonies, Volume 2 and The Complete Pluto, Volume 2) and 1950s television (The Hardy Boys and Your Host, Walt Disney). All are introduced by the ultimate Disney fan, Leonard Maltin.

Fans of Disney animation will get a chance to watch some rarely-seen cartoons, supplemented with a good bunch of bonus features. The television-oriented DVDs are either nostalgic or a curiosity, depending on one’s age group, and they have less substantial extras.

Sillier Symphonies

Walt Disney became a television personality as the host of Disney’s own television show
Walt Disney became a television personality as the host of Disney’s own television show

When Disney animators weren’t working on Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck cartoons in the 1930s, they were making Silly Symphonies. More Silly Symphonies, Volume 2 has 37 of the 75 films in this series (the other Silly Symphonies were released on DVD in 2001). The one thing these shorts have in common is that there are no recurring characters. Many of the stories come from fairy tales (Mother Goose Goes Hollywood) and mythology (The Goddess of the Spring). El Terrible Toreador condenses the opera Carmen into a six-minute cartoon. Other films simply pick a setting (a toy store, the jungle, hell) and let the denizens do their thing.

One thing that the characters do best is move. The earliest films on disc one offer great examples of “Mickey Mousing,” in which the characters are always moving in synchronization with the music. The cartoons on disc two are in color and show how far the animators had come in terms of visual sophistication in just a few years. The simple, rounded forms of frolicking animals of the black-and-white era have given way to a more natural look, without the constant gyrations. Also notable on the newer cartoons are more realistic human forms. The work on these films was intended to give Disney’s animators practice for the studio’s big feature debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

As in previous Disney Treasures releases, both discs in this set contain a section entitled “From the Vault.” Cartoons were put in this section because of offensive racial and ethnic caricatures and sexual content. One that stands out is King Neptune, made in 1932, before the production code was implemented, it has a large cast of topless mermaids (oddly, without nipples). One of them is kidnaped by sailors, with obvious lustful intent. Maltin introduces these sections, explaining the context, and reminding viewers that there was no meanness intended in the imagery.

Plutopia

The Complete Pluto, Volume 2 has 25 cartoons made from 1947–1951 starring Disney’s famous dog. Compared to Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy, who are essentially humans in animal costumes, Pluto is a real dog. Because he has no wacky voice or even any dialogue, animators had to give extra attention to his movements. As Maltin points out, even though Pluto can’t talk, viewers always know what he is thinking, thanks to the expressiveness of the character animation.

Body language aside, there isn’t a whole lot to say about Pluto cartoons. All of the ones on this DVD follow a formula which has Pluto bedeviled by other animals or objects: a relentlessly playful seal, a bone-stealing gopher, a sweater knitted by Minnie. Frustrated as he gets, he usually manages to make peace with the source of his annoyance by the end of the picture. These cartoons are fun, but are best watched over several sittings, since they all run together.

As with the Silly Symphonies DVD set, The Complete Pluto has a “From the Vault” section. There’s nothing terribly offensive there, but consider yourself warned. This DVD set also has three bonus cartoons starring Figaro, the cat who originally appeared as a supporting character in Pinocchio and was also a foil to Pluto in some of his cartoons.

Mystery!

In 2005, Disney released a DVD of The Adventures of Spin and Marty, a serial about some boys spending the summer at a dude ranch, that ran during the first season of Mickey Mouse Club. For the show’s second season, there was a new serial starring those ever-popular teen detectives, the Hardy Boys in “The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure.” Frank (Tim Considine) and his younger brother Joe (Tommy Kirk) live in Bayport with their Aunt Gertrude (Sarah Selby), but long to solve real mysteries with their dad, Fenton (Russ Conway), a private detective who works in The City (this differs from the books, in which the boys have a traditional two-parent family).

They meet Perry (Donald MacDonald), a kid who’s spending the summer working for Mr. Applegate (Florenz Ames), a cranky old guy who lives in a creepy mansion that just happens to be in their neighborhood. Turns out old man Applegate used to have a chest of gold that his great-grandfather captured from a pirate in the War of 1812. It was stolen ten years ago, but the boys find out that the treasure might still be nearby. There is a revelation or two in each 11-minute episode (19 in all), along with a little bit of action and a little bit of danger. A satisfying ending to the adventure wraps things up neatly.

I found this series to be more engaging than Spin and Marty. Perhaps it’s because I prefer mysteries to westerns. Perhaps it’s because the entire serial revolved around one story rather than various adventures. An interesting part of this DVD set is an entire episode of Mickey Mouse Club, which includes a segment introducing the series. The best part is at the end of the episode, in which Jimmie Dodd, the grown-up Mouseketeer, exhorts the viewing audience to be good citizens, “someday, one of you will be president of our great United States.” I can only wonder if a ten-year-old Bill Clinton or George W. Bush happened to be watching that day.

Walt Who?

In the 1950s, Walt Disney became a television personality as the host of Disney’s own television show, (called at various times, Disneyland, The Wonderful World of Color and The Wonderful World of Disney). Your Host, Walt Disney features some of his television appearances.

In a segment from 1957 on disc one, he reenacts a meeting with composer Sergei Prokofiev, who plays parts of Peter and the Wolf for him. This is followed by the cartoon in color, a striking contrast to the black and white show. A 1959 segment, “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns,” has Walt playing himself traveling to Ireland to meet King Brian, of the leprechauns and convincing him to appear in his new film Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

These segments are entertaining, but what stands out is the relentless plugging of Disney’s products. The leprechaun episode includes lengthy sequences from Darby O’Gill. On these discs are TV specials celebrating the fourth and tenth anniversaries of Disney’s southern California theme park. The folks at Disney put together some very impressive spectacles, but they failed to capture my imagination. Perhaps I was born 20 years too late to truly appreciate this DVD set.

DVD Extras

On More Silly Symphonies, the most interesting of the extras are the commentary tracks for 22 of the cartoons. Some of the speakers are animation historians, others are composers. Maltin joins in on some of the tracks, mostly to remind us that we shouldn’t be offended by the occasional crudeness or caricatures (we get it, Leonard!). David Gerstein, author and editor of several books about animation, points out which animator drew the monkeys at various points in Monkey Melodies. He and the other speakers seem to be enjoying themselves and mostly have interesting things to say.

Pluto, Volume 2 features a look at the animation from a different perspective. The bonus section has two cartoons, Bone Trouble and Hawaiian Holiday, with commentary by animators Randy Cartwright and Andreas Deja, respectively. They analyze the action and discuss how the original animators developed Pluto’s body language. For Pluto’s Judgment Day, there is a picture-in-picture comparison of the original drawings, pencil animation and finished product.

On the Hardy Boys set, “From Dixon to Disney,” gives some good background into the series without going on too long. In “The Hardy Boys Unmasked,” Maltin interviews Considine and Kirk, who are enthusiastic subjects. The interviewees on Your Host, Walt Disney are equally enthusiastic, though they don’t have much to say; Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller gives a more substantive interview. “Working with Walt,” has Maltin talking to former Mouseketeers and other young actors in the Disney stable. Turns out they didn’t actually have much contact with Disney, aside from the occasional greeting on the studio lot, but he seemed like a really nice guy (if you want depth, try the new book instead).

Picture and Sound

The quality of each segment depends on the condition of the source material. Some of the oldest Silly Symphonies have some scratches and a slight hiss on their soundtracks. But for the most part, the picture quality is excellent. The Technicolor, used to good effect in the later Silly Symphonies, is particularly striking. The sound was originally recorded monaurally. Aside form the oldest cartoons, it is good, but unremarkable.

How to Use these DVDs

If you purchased these DVDs, you probably spent around $40 per set. Watch them a little bit at a time. The cartoons, in particular, are best watched a few at a time. Check out all of the extras. Some of them may be fluffy and insubstantial, but none of them are boring.