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Those Dollar DVDs; Or, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

by on April 1, 2008

Walk into Wal-Mart (or any other large discount retailer), and you can’t miss them: rack upon rack of what can only be called “bulk entertainment.” DVDs-for-a-dollar—grade-Z movies; old episodes of almost-forgotten 50s sitcoms; public domain cartoons—seemingly any kind of entertainment that a bottom-feeding home video distributor thinks it can buy for a penny and sell by the pound.

Now, if you’ve never bought one of these discs, you might yet have caught yourself wondering how bad they could be. After all, fifteen bucks can get you a perfectly lousy brand-new movie down at Best Buy; for the retail price of a soda, how much worse could the stuff peddled by the discounters be?

Just such a thought it was that recently took me by the hand and led me down to Wal-Mart, where I exchanged seven small portraits of George Washington for a couple of cheap animated discs.

Oh, the things I do for you people.

Though I undertook this experiment in a spirit of scientific inquiry, I’ll confess I didn’t sample these things completely at random. I went instead for the “selective cross-section”: Assuming one exercises some discretion when buying DVDs from these racks, I wondered, is it possible to get one or more discs that are at least worth their purchase price?

The answer, I was astonished to discover, is: Maybe. Sort of. If you’re feeling exceptionally generous of spirit. Herewith, a summary of my findings:

The Sample
I bought three “Cartoon Craze” compilations, on the supposition that cartoons from the Golden Age—however faded and brutalized by time the prints might be—would be the most likely to pay dividends. I also chose two “animated features.” (I put the designation in scare quotes, since the two productions turned out to be barely feature-length and could be called “animated” only through the extension of an impulse of charity so magnificent that even Mother Theresa might balk.) Trying to think like a parent, I also picked up a quasi-educational series. And, finally, I purchased a public domain copy of a classic Japanese anime series.

My judgments, going in reverse order:

The Ugly: The Adventures of the Little Brown Bear was the educational disc I bought, and (paradoxically, given my classification of it) it is the only disc to look like it received professional care and diligence. That is surely due to its being of recent vintage: it simply hasn’t deteriorated so much as to look bad on the transfer. That being said, it is also a pointless and pedestrian release. The show itself is quite credible, if a “show” you can call it—each episode (with opening and closing credits) is only three minutes long. The “little brown bear” of the title is a child-equivalent of about five, and each story shows him getting into mild trouble or having a mild adventure: getting lost at the market; throwing snowballs with his friends; going on a picnic with his parents. Each story illustrates a minor point, such as, You shouldn’t let go of your parents’ hands when you’re out shopping, or You shouldn’t accuse your friends of bopping you on the head with a snowball when it’s really your own father plinking you from behind a tree. About the best you can say for the stories as that they manage to be high-minded without being heavy handed.

The deeper problem with this disc (and the reason I call it “ugly” and not “bad”) is that such a series makes no sense as a DVD release. It’s a compendium of short, flavorless moral lessons; and though each lesson might fit well as a bumper between longer programs, their cumulative tedium when watched back to back is overwhelming. The producers plainly mean well and have made a worthwhile product; but it is ill-served by being served up in this format.

The Bad: This would be The Man in the Iron Mask, an Australian production made in the mid-80s but looking for all the world like a lost Hanna-Barbera special made circa 1976. Not having read the Dumas classic, I can’t judge for certain how faithful it is to the original; in that regard I can only make three observations: (1) The Dumas summaries I’ve perused intimate that only three interesting things happen in the course of the story. (2) Only three interesting things happen in the course of this fifty-minute Iron Mask. And (3) such a degree of fidelity in the present instance ought to be considered a criminal offense. There isn’t even any horseplay to keep younger viewers watching. It is boring, stiff, awkward, and lacking in any character.

The Good: “Good” here must be taken in a modified sense: every disc I looked at (except for Little Brown Bear) was cheap and cruddy. But through some of them it was possible to glimpse a halfway decent production—a story that has its momentary points.

The most consistently good of the batch, not surprisingly, was Kimba, the White Lion (Vol. 3). I’d never seen this series, and only vaguely knew it by reputation. From the two episodes I saw here, I glean that it is very much a juvenile show, in style and spirit feeling not too dissimilar to Pokemon. But it doesn’t seem to have dated badly—if it amused small children forty years ago, it will probably amuse them today—and it has a blithe effervescence that is quite charming. I’m not sure what to say about its technical treatment on this disc (not having a baseline for comparison) but the picture seems clear enough and free of obvious defects or artifacts. There are a few spots where the picture fades out and over to a new scene even as characters are talking—these don’t feel like “edits,” though, and I can only speculate that they are spots where US broadcasters trimmed the prints so as to cut away earlier to commercials. Purists might be scandalized, but these places don’t hurt the flow or coherence of the story.

Volume 3 gives two episodes, so it’s not like the purchaser is going to get a lot of variety for his hundred pennies plus tax. The really dangerous thing about this DVD is that it might whet someone’s appetite for the rather more expensive box set.

If I wasn’t surprised by Kimba‘s holding up, I certainly was surprised by the relative success of Dot and the Whale. It certainly has every possible strike against it. It’s a mid-eighties production like The Man in the Iron Mask, but even cheaper, if that is possible: all the characters are animated over live-action backgrounds. The visuals are very hard on the eyes, with the ugly character designs being (badly) animated with more enthusiasm than talent. The plot is tedious: Dot, a precocious young girl, is taught by her dolphin friend how to live underwater, and then with some other kids undertakes to save a whale who has washed up on the beach. The songs are unspeakable, which doesn’t prevent them from being badly sung.

And yet, strangely, it works more often than it doesn’t. A lot of the credit should go to the voice cast, who, though eschewing subtlety, give their characters a degree of passion and energy that helps pull the viewer along. The story also makes a few unexpected but rewarding detours—Dot first tries a quasi-fabulist tactic to save the whale, but ends up disappointed. Even more surprisingly for this kind of ecological fable, it doesn’t settle for cardboard villains or pure-of-heart heroes. So, a seemingly rapacious businessman turns out to have more bark than bite; some of Dot’s friends are beachside bullies who find in her adventure a more constructive outlet for their undiminished energies; and the only real “villains” are played completely as comedy relief. I can easily see fairly young children getting caught up in the story; and even an adult trying to do something else in the room might be momentarily distracted by the video.

The “Cartoon Craze” Collection, as I guessed, returned the most value, though it was by no means unmixed. Unless you have an encyclopedic familiarity with Golden Age cartoons, you stand little chance of knowing what you will get when you purchase one of these discs. One consisted solely of Famous Studios “Singalong” cartoons (of “Follow the Bouncing Ball” fame). Another had five Looney Tunes (including “Yankee Doodle Daffy” and “Confusions of a Nutzy Spy”) mixed in with two Famous Studios, one Mighty Mouse, one Van Beuren Rainbow Parade, and one Mutt and Jeff. The third had the most eclectic mix of all: Three Famous Studios and one Walter Lantz, followed by one Zagreb Films, one UPA, one John and Faith Hubley, and one Stephen Bosustow. The latter (“Freedom River”) was an avowedly political cartoon made in 1971 (at the height of the Nixon Administration), written by a guy with a Ph.D., and narrated by Orson Welles. You can imagine how light and pleasant that one is!

Print quality varied wildly, with the most interesting cartoons, sadly, getting the worst treatment: “Land of the Lost Jewels,” a agreeable little fantasy-comedy from Famous Studios, was missing whole chunks, and in many places the sound went out altogether. “Confusions of a Nutzy Spy,” a Norm McCabe cartoon I’d never seen, was almost washed out, and some spots on Bill Tytla’s “The Lost Dream” seemed to have more scratches and blemishes than actual picture. On the other hand, the Van Beuren cartoon, “Molly Moo Cow and Rip van Winkle” looked very well preserved, as did most of the Famous Studios singalong cartoons.

As bad as some of the prints were, I was at least able to catch some cartoons I’d never before seen or even heard about. Besides “Confusions of a Nutzy Spy,” my purchases snagged me UPA’s “The Invisible Moustache of Raoul Dufy” and the Hubleys’ “The Tender Game.” I’m actually not much of a fan of this kind of thing—and a heavy atmosphere of “so what?” hangs over “Raoul Dufy,” no matter what one’s feelings about the painter might be—but probably anyone with an interest in the history of animation should see these things at least once.

I’m not likely to pull these discs out very often, but the chance to see their contents even once was certainly worth the dollar I paid for each, and they actually left me inclined to pick up more. Parents looking for kiddie entertainment might want to be more careful, though; besides the occasional “Arbeiter und Parasit”-type surprises lurking on some discs, the Golden Age-era cartoons will occasionally sport some highly un-PC imagery. And those with refined musical tastes may find in the Famous Studios singalongs disheartening evidence that many popular songs written in the forties were worth forgetting.

My quip at the top about “bulk entertainment” notwithstanding, you can’t really package entertainment and sell it at a discount; crap does not become less crappy just because it costs one dollar rather than ten. But that doesn’t mean you should automatically sneer when passing the discount bins. A few years back, Disney tried selling “disposable DVDs”: discs that would retail for the price of a rental but quickly degrade, rendering them inoperable. The idea had little merit as a way of selling quality entertainment, but something of that spirit can make it rational to occasionally pick up cheap DVDs like those I sampled. True, you likely won’t find a real keeper, but the cost is agreeably low, and the chance of finding something unexpected is not negligible.

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