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Disney Animation Collections 2, 3, and 4: Old School Fun

In the long ago (well, not really) days of the theatrical short, companies like MGM and Warner Bros were making names for themselves by being outrageously funny. Disney has always lacked the sense of anarchic humor these companies specialized in, but it possessed other qualities to more or less make up for it. The first of these was story: Disney’s shorts had an attention to plot and character that was rarely found at other companies. The second was animation; during the heyday of the company’s shorts production, Walt insisted on near-perfection and often extravagance, so that his company’s shorts are a joy to behold for purely aesthetic reasons. And, finally, Disney’s third and oft-understated talent: the shorts had unspeakably catchy scores.

The recent Disney Animation Collection DVDs are not as thorough as some previous releases; they are, however, much easier to get ahold of and profoundly less expensive. Each one is made up of one “Headliner” short, accompanied by several lesser-known (but often just as good) ones.

Disney Animation Collection 2: The Three Little Pigs, for instance, comes with a total of seven shorts, all of which star animals and all of which are worth a look.

The headliner short was extremely popular upon release, and it’s not difficult to see why. It features some terrific animation (pay attention to each one of the Big Bad Wolf’s “Huff & Puff” sequences). The character designs could be better (the eyes, as John K. has noted, are a bit too small), but the artwork as a whole is sound, and the pigs are very endearing characters. It is hurt slightly by the fact that we know where the story is going. But it adds enough cartoony tomfoolery to be worthwhile.

Oh, and remember those catchy tunes I mentioned? “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, Big Bad Wolf, Big Bad Wolf…”

Its sequel, “The Big Bad Wolf,” shoehorns the Three Pigs into the story of Little Red Riding Hood; it’s not quite as good as its predecessor, but it’s still a lot of fun. The animation is still top-notch (though it lacks any spectacularly notable sequences) and many of its gags are very funny.

“The Three Little Wolves” effectively turns the story of The Three Little Pigs into a trilogy, and features the first appearance of The Big Bad Wolf’s bratty triplets (who would go on to have quite a career in comics). This trio, who are kind of like evil versions of Huey, Dewey & Louie, add much to the short in terms of atmosphere. It’s a good deal better than the second short in the series, and has more obviously over-the-top animated sequences as well, such as The Big Bad Wolf’s entrapment in the “Wolf Pacifier”.

“Lambert the Sheepish Lion,” sadly, is more typical of what your average over-protective parent thinks animation should be. It has the most archetypical of Disney plots (Animal is Shunned by Peers Until They Realize He’s Awesome), and the ever-amiable Sterling Holloway (who narrates) begins to grate by the end. It’s an okay short, but we are ever in mind that the same thing has been done (and better) countless times over.

In “Chicken Little” a clever fox uses sociological psychology to trick a bunch of birds into his cave. This short is easily the second best in the collection (coming in under the headliner); the fox’s scheme is one of the most hilariously conducted plots I’ve ever seen, and the characters themselves are disturbingly reminiscent of actual people.

“Three Blind Mousketeers” is exactly what it sounds like, actually. Three heroic blind mice go on a quest for cheese, while traps are set for them by the villainous Captain Cat. It is mostly made up of typical cartoon “business”, but its nice animation and head-invading theme song more than make up for it.

If you can get past the horrifyingly cute designs, “Elmer Elephant” is actually fairly enjoyable; the animation is fluid and there are several nice sequences, most notably the title elephant’s battle with a living fire near the end.

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Disney Animation Collection 3: The Prince & the Pauper, meanwhile, collects five shorts, each of which deals in some way with castles and kings. The collection as a whole is not as successful as Vol. 2, but it is still an admirable effort.

The headliner is an unmistakably 90s piece of work, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. The animation and characterizations are nice (Donald and Goofy are as lovably unlovable as ever), but the plot, and the way it is presented, is somewhat questionable; comparisons with the Twain novel are definitley not advised. This featurette also contains the unmistakably modern habit of treating the original Disney gang as if they are intended as entertainment for young children only, which they assuredly were not; some of the jokes, for instance, are gratingly juvenile. It will probably seem more impressive the younger you are, instead of the usual reverse. Still, there are worse ways to blow twenty minutes, and like most of Disney’s 90s productions the animation and dialogue is awe-inspiring.

“The Pied Piper” is a nice adaptation of Fairyland’s odd-man out. The biggest problem is the rather abrupt, climax-less way the short ends; though, actually, this problem was present in the original story as well. Other than that, it’s a funny and well-made production, particularly during the scenes involving the rats.

“Old King Cole” appears to have been made to show off the medium more than anything else. The eponymous character calls all of his Fairy-Tale Friends out from their books to dance at his hall; they present themselves one by one, we get a few pan shots of them dancing, and then they leave. The music isn’t as good as the typical Disney production either, and though the animation is decent, it is not likely to interest any historians. It is a wholly unremarkable affair.

In “Ye Olden Days” Princess Minnie Mouse of Kalapazoo is to be wed to Prince Dippy Dawg (that’s Goofy, for the uninitiated) of Foofoopaloo. Reluctant to wed the prince (for reasons too obvious to mention here), Minnie is locked in a castle tower until she is saved by Wandering Minstrel Mickey Mouse. This all culminates in a duel between Mickey and Goofy. As you probably guessed from that description, this is all uproariously funny and very well-written, though the animation is far from perfect (the short, in fact, is in black and white). In terms of humour and score, this short probably outdoes the similarily-themed headliner.

“A Knight for a Day” is a typical Goofy “how-to” short. That is to say, it’s full of hilarious gags and the usual amount of, well, goofiness from our favorite dog. These things pretty much always good, and there’s nothing here that you wouldn’t expect.

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Finally, Disney Animation Collection 4: The Tortoise & the Hare collects six rather mediocre shorts in one package. It will be of most interest to Disney aficionados, but it is worth a look nevertheless. The overall theme seems to be that each story is based on a fable, or a myth.

“The Tortoise & the Hare” is beautifully drawn and spectacularly animated, but it is nevertheless one of Disney’s weaker ones. There’s only so much you can do with this plot, although it’s pretty enough to be a worthwhile effort.

“Babes in the Woods” is a nice fantasy-type short, with fluid animation and a witch that almost certainly evolved into a certain other witch… The character designs are a bit off-putting, but this is definitely a nice piece of work.

“The Goddess of Spring” is of some interest as an early example of rotoscoping; other than that, it is largely a failure. This short explains the changing seasons by giving the story of Persephone’s kidnapping by Hades; there is a complete lack of climax or audience involvement. Also, historical importance aside for a moment, the rotoscoping makes the characters look a bit stupid.

“Toby Tortoise Returns” is a sequel to the headliner short. You would think that this short would improve on the first; a boxing match, after all, has a lot of fresh ground for comedy. But problems with pacing and lack of a satisfying moral conclusion largely make this one a failure.

“Paul Bunyan” has little to recommend, aside from a very nice theme song. The animation is decidedly more primitive than most of Disney’s efforts, and the plot quickly limits itself to repeating the “Paul is Big” joke over and over again.

“The Saga of Windwagon Smith” manages to carry itself along on the strength of its oddly touching story, despite some extremely limited animation. It’s main character is an interesting amalgam of cowboy and pirate (“Yippie Yi Yay and a Yo Ho Ho…”), and there are many nice bits involving a wagon/sailship; yet the short seems to suffer due to it’s length. It has a plot that was really deserving of a featurette treatment, and the few minutes it is given to not quite suffice; the audience is left feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

Overall grades:
Disney Animation Collection 2: The Three Little Pigs: A+
Disney Animation Collection 3: The Prince & the Pauper: B
Disney Animation Collection 4: The Tortoise & the Hare: C+

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