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Walt Disney Animation Collection, Vols. 1, 5 & 6: Classic Shorts on a Budget

Many of Disney’s short animated films are classics of the medium, but Disney has, at best, had an inconsistent attitude about releasing them to home video. Some have been released in the collector-oriented Treasures tin boxes or as bonus features with full-length movies, but shorts-only releases have been a bit harder to come by. Disney seems to be taking another shot at getting this material out to the public with their “Animation Collection” line of DVDs, each of which package about an hour’s worth of classic short films in a budget-priced package. The end results aren’t the archival-quality releases of the Treasures editions, but they do collect some wonderful material that would otherwise go unseen. If nothing else, they’re a fascinating window on a bygone era of animation, well before the age of computers, when absolutely everything was done by hand.

Mickey's Staircase to HeavenThe first volume in this collection is Mickey and the Beanstalk, a half-hour presentation that puts Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. It comes with four additional animated shorts, half of them giant-themed, and all of them starring Mickey Mouse.

“Mickey and the Beanstalk”, from 1947, was originally released as part of the compilation feature Fun and Fancy Free. The version on this DVD, though, comes from 1963, when Ludwig von Drake replaced Edgar Bergen as a narrator in a TV broadcast of the short. This introduction, which features short clips from such Disney features as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Cinderella, has von Drake dismissing the beliefs of a small bug named Herman, who thinks that fairy tales are real. The pair also appear at the conclusion and wind up experiencing some amusing, literal fourth-wall breaking.

The actual story of Jack and the Beanstalk is more about fun and fantasy than complex storytelling, so re-imagining it with Disney’s most famous trio in the lead roles is an easy translation that gives the original story a new life and humor. Mickey, Donald, and Goofy begin as poor farmers in a land made barren by the disappearance of a golden harp. After a few gags involving the gang trying to solve their hunger problems, Mickey acquires certain magic beans, and the adventure begins. They find that the missing harp is being held captive by a shape-shifting giant named Willie, who is the textbook definition of oafish, and have to thwart him to get the harp back. It’s a timeless classic, with a gorgeous environment, good humor, and the same eternal feeling as the fairy tale it’s adapted from.

The companion shorts are equally charming. In “The Brave Little Tailor”, Mickey is a tailor whose story about vanquishing a group of flies, when misinterpreted, convinces the king that this tailor can rid the land of a menacing giant. It’s a cute story with a clever ending. In “Gulliver Mickey,” on the other hand, Mickey is the giant that a group of small villagers fear. The fantasy theme continues in the vibrant “Thru The Mirror”, which has Mickey falling asleep and dreaming himself through his bedroom mirror, where living household objects either dance with him or attack him.

The final short, though, has no discernable thematic tie to giants or to fantasy. “Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip” is about Mickey trying to smuggle Pluto aboard a train that doesn’t allow dogs while evading Pete, the suspicious ticket taker.

Mr. Toad Goes Straight to HellVolume 5 of the series is one of the fuller DVDs in the set, with 6 shorts clocking in at nearly 74 minutes.

The title cartoon of Volume 5 is 1949’s “The Wind in the Willows,” a delightful adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It starts well with Basil Rathbone’s dryly witty narration, and continuing through its memorable cast of characters, with the amiable but dim Mr. Toad being one of the great British upper-class twits of cinema history. The pacing seems a bit slow by modern standards, with a 30-minute running time that feels a bit padded out by trivialities, but the artistry of the short just can’t be beat. If nothing else, one can marvel at the gorgeous watercolor backgrounds. This short was originally released alongside an adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and was the last of the animated features which combined multiple, often unrelated shorts rather than telling a single continuous narrative.

The fifth volume comes with five additional shorts, giving it a running time of nearly 74 minutes. Animal tales seem to be the unstated theme of this DVD.

“The Ugly Duckling,” from 1938, adapts the famous Hans Christen Andersen fable, but without narration or words of any kind. The whole thing stands as testament to the Disney studio’s skill at character animation, since the entire thing is as endearing as its title character (who eventually seems to have reappeared more than 60 years later in Lilo & Stitch, of all places). If anything, the lead is a little bit too endearing, to the point of making the title inaccurate. This film deservedly won the 1939 Academy Award for Best Animated Short.

“The Grasshopper and the Ants” (1934) is a presentiment of Disney adaptations to come, as it gives Aesop’s fable about the value of hard work a happier ending. The animation style is a bit more old-school than the other shorts on this disc, with the same sort of jittery movement you see in shorts like “Steamboat Willie,” but it’s still quite effective. It also happened to introduce the song “The World Owes Me a Living,” which would eventually become Goofy’s theme song.

The ancient Greek myth of King Midas is retold in 1935’s “The Golden Touch,” albeit after a mysterious translation to a medieval European setting. It’s effective enough for what it is, although this short seems to suffer even more than the others at the demands of modern pacing. Even at a trim 10 minutes, it seems a bit padded out, especially when we know exactly where it’s going.

“The Robber Kitten” (1935) is probably the weakest of the shorts on the disc, mostly because it has ultimately has very little point: a youthful kitten brags and boasts of his thefts, unaware that his companion is a real brigand. It’s cute, but rather lightweight.

Finally, 1934’s “The Wise Little Hen” is a quick trifle that’s done mostly through song, with a hen and her brood of chicks planting and harvesting a corn crop with no help from and a very early Donald Duck. The punch line is visible from a mile off, but it’s still amusing enough to watch.

Tea and cake?Volume 6 contains four more shorts, winners all:

The headline feature is 1941’s “The Reluctant Dragon,” another Kenneth Grahame adaptation, this time from his children’s book about a dragon who would rather hold tea parties and recite poetry than battle knights and eat princesses. Luckily, he meets his perfect match in Sir Giles; with the help of an initially skeptical child, the trio manage to pull the wool over eyes of a town that is expecting a battle royale. It’s delightful from start to finish, even though it also underscores the difference in pacing between then and now. This short was originally released as part of a larger film, which took audiences behind the scenes at the Disney studios.

Other shorts on the DVD include “Ferdinand the Bull” (1938), an adaptation of the children’s classic by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson. The one is more faithful in spirit to its original than some Disney adaptations have been, even though the visual style is radically different from Lawson’s intricate drawings. This short is also a textbook case on how to make changes to adapt a book to film (and animation specifically), and on the strengths of one medium vs. another. The “bullfight” that forms the centerpiece of this short is a wonderful piece of animation that’s just a page in the book. This was another Oscar winner, for Best Animated Short in 1938.

“Goliath II” (1959) is an adorable fable about a 6-inch tall elephant who learns his value to the larger herd, with wonderful narration by the inimitable Sterling Holloway. It’s not too special as a story, but extremely interesting as a bit of animation history. The movie sits between Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians, and forms a neat bridge between the two. The beautiful backgrounds are highly reminiscent of Walt Peregoy’s unforgettable work on the former film, but the characters are animated using the Xerox process of the latter film, complete with scratchy lines and occasional guide pencil work visible in the finished product. Unfortunately, this is also the worst-restored short on the disc, with noticeable color flickering for most of the movie.

“Johnny Appleseed” (1948) is a short about the classic figure of American folklore, which is probably more interesting now for the many things that Disney wouldn’t do today. It’s a showcase for the talents of radio star Dennis Day (second banana to Jack Benny for decades), it makes many explicit references to Johnny’s Christian faith that just wouldn’t make it into a contemporary film. This is something of a shame, since the movie is charming and is a perfect example of how to integrate faith into a short without making it feel like cheap proselytizing.

Many of these shorts have appeared on earlier Treasures editions or other Disney DVDs (like the now-defunct “It’s a Small World of Fun” line). As noted, many aren’t in particularly good shape, with some showing washed out colors and all exhibiting noticeable film grain. However, none are in such bad shape as to be unwatchable, with the possible exception of “Goliath II” on Vol. 6. All the shorts are in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, and the “Dolby Digital Surround Sound” advertised on the packaging sounds suspiciously like plain stereo, if not mono. There are no chapter stops within any of the shorts, which is not a problem for the shorter ones but can be a bit annoying for those clocking in at over 20 minutes. As budget-oriented DVDs, these releases have no extras other than trailers, although current volumes are shipping with “collectible litho prints,” which are mostly large stills from the title short. The price is definitely right for these entertaining little collections of short films.

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