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"Disneyland: Stories, Secrets and Magic" Is Another Disney Treasure

by on February 18, 2008

Disney continues to roll out its impressive Treasures collection, now in its seventh wave, with this two-disc set about the vision, planning, building and opening of Disneyland in 1955. As with all of the Disney Treasures sets, Disneyland: Stories, Secrets and Magic is very stylishly presented, coming in a silver double-DVD case that is itself enclosed in a silver tin box. It comes with a replica book of Disneyland tickets circa 1955; a postcard of a drawing by Herb Ryman of Sleeping Beauty’s castle during its design phase; a Certificate of Authenticity signed by Roy Disney and Leonard Maltin specifying that it is a limited edition set (mine was 32,885 out of 50,000); and a silver introduction booklet with some brief words from Maltin and a list of the features. As far as DVD box sets go, this is five-star treatment.

There’s a ton of stuff beyond the fancy packaging: a nearly overwhelming six hours of features, including an original documentary, unearthed archive footage, and old episodes of The Wonderful World of Color. If you are a Disneyana enthusiast, or are just particularly interested in the history of Disneyland itself, you should probably order a copy right now. The more-casual fan will find rewards in this set as well, but to appreciate it you will probably need at least some sort of interest in Disney, or animation, or theme parks, or American history, or just in great visionaries.

Each disc comes with some gushing introductory remarks by Leonard Maltin. There’s also a little trivia game on the first disc, which pops up before you get to the main menu, and which features annoyingly long introductions before it lets you answer any questions. Given that this set is aimed at collectors, it seems strange to include a quiz at all. Disc two has a gallery of still frames, mainly design drawings and whatnot, which are great if you’re into that sort of thing.

The main feature on the first disc, and the ostensible introduction to the set’s treasures, is the original documentary Disneyland: Stories, Secrets and Magic. For no apparent reason, it has Julie Andrews on hand with a few introductory and closing words—a bit odd really, but harmless enough. This documentary itself tells three intertwined stories. First, there’s the story of Walt Disney’s personal vision and drive in making his dream a reality, which comes packed with all the usual clichés you’d expect to hear: “They all said it couldn’t be done!”, “They called him a madman!”, “He almost bankrupted the studio!”, “Even Disney employees called it ‘Walt’s folly’,” and so on. However, this does not make the story itself any less remarkable. It is difficult to imagine the leap of faith that must have been required in the early 1950s to build a fantasy world of rivers and castles in the middle of a desert! But that is exactly what Disney did. Second, there’s the story of the opening day, and the trials and tribulations involved in making it happen. And finally, there’s the story of the park’s on-going life, its constant changes and renewal—the mantra that “Disneyland is never finished.”

The narrative is carried mainly by talking heads, which include many former Imagineers and Disney employees (including one-time CEO Michael Eisner), current corporate types, Diane Disney Miller, Roy Disney, George Lucas (who seems a little out of place), longtime Imagineer and general Disneyland head honcho Tony Baxter, and Pixar’s John Lasseter. The film flits between these and archive footage (which, disappointingly, is taken almost exclusively from the other features found in this set). There are lots of anecdotes and, as you’d expect, warm words about Disney (both the man and the company). Whilst it is never saccharine, you do get the distinct impression it’s being tightly stage-managed. No two interviewees ever contradict each other, and there is never any doubt at any given moment about what the message is. Okay, it might be a bit much to ask Disney to produce an objective documentary about itself, but the film’s heavy-handedness starts to gall after about twenty minutes. Someone will make a point—that change is important for the park, for example—to be followed by another twelve people making the same point in slightly different words. The emphasis on “change,” by the way, is hammered at in a way that left my head slightly sore. In fact, the last twenty or so minutes, which take us from Walt’s death to the present, are taken up almost exclusively by various Imagineers smugly noting the innumerable changes they’ve made to the park.

There are also problems with its pacing. It’s quite clumsy at transitioning from one clear message to another clear message. For example, there’s an awkward moment in the film when, after at least twenty people have talked about Disney’s death and how devastating it was, and how the company’s soul died that day, it pauses briefly with the caption 1901-1966, as though drawing to an end. In virtually the next breath, though, the tone shifts to “The show must go on! Change, yes, CHANGE is important! Look what we’ve done here and here! CHANGE!” It’s the sort of thing that makes Michael Moore look subtle.

Despite these problems, Stories, Secrets and Magic is surprisingly candid in places. The people at Disney seem able to recognise their mistakes. Disneyland’s opening day (July 17, 1955) is presented as an unmitigated disaster, badly organized with the park barely finished and saved only by its friendly staff. That said, there is the overriding sense that because these things happened fifty years ago it is now safe to laugh about them; the implication is that, of course, now they know better and no such mistakes would be made today. This documentary is probably the least essential item on these discs, but it serves its function well enough, albeit in a ham-fisted fashion.

The first disc also includes People and Places: Disneyland USA, a 42-minute feature made by Disney in 1956 and audaciously shot in Cinemascope. The film takes a languid tour around Disneyland as it was in 1956. Arguably, it is one of the longest commercials ever made. But it’s also like opening up and examining a time capsule. I was struck, for instance, by how bare Disneyland was in 1956. Frontierland, which had vast stretches of wilderness and scrubland, made up at least a third of the park. It is also fascinating to see everyday Americans from the 1950s, bubblegum innocence radiating with every movement, exploring this fantasyland.

Such novelties don’t last, however, and even the beautifully shot and lovingly restored images become tedious, thanks to the stiff, functional, colourless, and joyless narration of Winston Hibler. If this man’s voice was a type of food, it’d be a single biscuit of Weetabix eaten dry without any sugar or milk. Hibler makes tedium an art form. Mercifully, there is an option to turn off his narration and watch the images with only the music. Better still, there’s an alternate audio commentary with Leonard Maltin and Tony Baxter. Baxter’s anecdotes, facts and incidental details are probably the best things on the entire set. For example, he tells us that for the first five years after Disneyland’s opening Walt had a blanket ban on Disney characters in the park. So there was no Mickey or Donald or any other Disney character in the park until 1960! Elsewhere, he tells us that Walt had believed strongly that “you can’t have a fantasy inside a fantasy,” which is why there are no circus acts at Disneyland. He wanted Frontierland to be populated with cowboys, Tomorrowland to be populated by spacemen, and so on. It is genuinely fascinating viewing and all by itself worth the price of the set.

The second disc features five shorter special features. “Operation Disneyland” is a film Disney made for industry insiders about the organization and planning that went into the filming of the opening day telecast. It is in black and white and, obviously, has no production values to speak of at all. We see huge amounts of cable and dozens of camera crews (they set up five separate TV bases in each of Disneyland’s four lands and in Main St. USA). The narrator tells us that there were enough personnel and equipment used that day to run six television networks! What’s more interesting is the revelation, with all the hundreds of things to organise and prepare during the opening week, Walt Disney still thought to make this mini-documentary. I’m not sure if it demonstrates vanity or tremendous foresight. Either way, he still had this fourteen-minute film to show for it.

“The Golden Horseshoe Revue” is the first of three episodes, presented unedited, from The Wonderful World of Color. We’re Walt’s personal guests, and this a 50-minute ‘best seat in the house’ look at the famous Golden Horseshow Revue. It’s another time capsule piece, as Betty Taylor, Annette Funicello, Gene Sheldon, Wally Boag and special guest star Ed Wynn, sing, dance and tell jokes in that time-honoured vaudeville tradition. The camera work is particularly good at capturing a certain intimacy—you could almost be in the room. Some of the material (I’m thinking especially of the piece featuring dancing Native Americans) is dated in the worst possible sense of the word, and most of it seems tired, even by 1950s standards—it’s amazing how the crowd lap it all up. Willy Boag is probably the highlight of the show. His material is markedly more risqué than the rest of the show, his timing is impeccable, and his balloon tricks are fairly impressive (as balloon tricks go).

Then it’s 1964 and we’re off to the New York World Fair with our Uncle Walt in “Disneyland Goes to the World Fair.” Clad in a cosy blue cardigan, Walt starts by telling us about the history of world fairs from cave men (yes, cave men) to the present day. I’ll admit it, I love these old World of Color shows precisely because Walt has a penchant for giving us the complete history of things from inappropriately ancient starting points. But they are also genuinely informative. Did you know that the Greeks had fairs in which they’d show off the latest inventions, or that the fairs of London during the Middle Ages took place on ice? I didn’t! Walt also, fairly inexplicably, gives us the low-down on the history of cameras and film (to explain why we’ve only seen still photos of fairs so far), complete with archive footage from the 1920s. After that, we get an extensive look at the inner workings of “audio animatronics” and the various figures he featured at the fair. “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and “It’s a Small World” are given the most time. At the end, we get a glimpse of the World Fair itself, where Disney, ever the showman, treats us to a magnificent display of fireworks, water fountains, and light.

“Disneyland Around the Seasons” is similar. We get to see some of the talking birds from the Enchanted Tiki room; Abraham Lincoln is back, and Walt delves a bit deeper into the great man’s history (Walt calls him “the great man” at least eight times, that I counted). My favourite part in this episode is when Walt, back in his history-teacher mode with a map behind him, tells us that “the Louisiana Purchase was probably the greatest real estate deal of all time,” and explains that the white paddle steamer (the “Mark Twain”) is important to him for that very reason. This is the least focused of the three episodes of The Wonderful World of Color and probably the most shamelessly self-promoting, but it is a special show because it originally aired about three days before Walt Disney’s death. His last words on it are: “But even now we’re thinking ahead and creating new attractions for months and years to come … and, speaking of the very near future, we’ll be back in one minute to tell you about our very next programme.”

Finally, buried in a Bonus Features section alongside the gallery of stills, is “Building Walt’s Dream: Disneyland Under Construction,” thirty-seven minutes of amazing archive footage showing Disneyland being built from scratch using time-lapse photography and more traditional means. Every last minute of the building process is documented and filmed, and shown here speeded up. What’s truly astonishing is that Walt had towers built to put these cameras on in order to ensure that everything was recorded for posterity. Again, I don’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed, but the fact this footage is here and on these discs is nothing short of unbelievable. Tony Baxter is on hand again with superb insights. Ed Hobleman and Walter Magnusson, who do little more than sit in awe of Baxter’s knowledge of all things Disney and Disneyland, join him in the commentary booth. I think this DVD set is at its best in the combination of watching authentic footage while listening to Baxter.

This is an exhaustive and informative DVD set full of museum pieces that should be of genuine interest to Disney fans and students of Americana alike. What shines through most in this collection is Walt Disney’s personal vision and determination not only in dreaming up and building Disneyland but also in his borderline obsessive desire to film and document every part of that process. It makes you wonder whether he had something like this box set in mind all along.

Correction: An earlier version of this review said that Disneyland: Stories, Secrets, and Magic was part of the sixth wave of “Disney Treasures” DVD releases. It is part of the seventh wave.

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