Since 1999, the Walt Disney company has been opening its vaults and releasing some of its older materials in limited edition two-disc sets. The four most recent releases cover some of Disney’s work from the 1930s though the 1950s. Mickey Mouse in Living Color, The Chronological Donald, On the Front Lines and Tomorrowland have films that aren’t as well known these days and also give a look at American popular culture from those years.
Conquest of Tomorrow
- Behind-the-scenes interviews
- Drawings, storyboards, publicity materials
- Collectible tin
- Limited edition lithograph
The most interesting of the new DVD sets is Tomorrowland. Most of the films on these two discs were shown on the 1950s television series, Disneyland, which would later become The Wonderful World of Disney. The subjects include space travel, Mars and atomic energy. The science presented is solid and is given credibility by the participation of scientists like Wehrner Von Braun and Heinz Haber. The explanations of science are easy to understand and never condescending.
These episodes all follow a similar format. Man and the Moon, which originally aired in 1955, begins with a humorous, animated segment about the history of ideas about the moon in science and in popular culture. The episode then shifts to real-life rocket scientist Von Braun, who discusses how a future manned orbit of the moon might be accomplished. His narration is accompanied by dramatic paintings and a live-action enactment of a lunar orbit.
What stands out in these episodes are a supreme optimism and self-confidence in man’s ability to use science for a brighter future. Voice-over narration refers to the “conquest” of space and of the moon. Eye in the Sky, originally made as a short feature for movie theaters, envisions a time when people at a futuristic weather control center will be able to divert a hurricane away from a heavily populated area.
Pass the Ammo
Like many Hollywood studios, Disney provided ammunition, metaphorically anyway, for the U.S. government during World War II. On the Front Lines gives a sampling of Disney’s output from that era. The first batch of cartoons mostly feature Donald Duck coping with the indignities of life in the army. After that, the shorts take a more propagandistic tone. Der Fuehrer’s Face has Donald living in the hellish “Naziland.” The most powerful and frightening of these films is Education for Death, which shows a nice, young German boy being molded over the years into a hateful killer.
On disc two is Victory Through Air Power, a 1943 65-minute feature based on a book by Major Alexander de Seversky, a retired military aviator. The movie begins with a humorous, animated history of aviation, with an emphasis on military aviation, then shifts to Seversky, making a convincing case for the use of air power to win the war.
The Disney studio’s biggest client at that time was the government. In addition to the propaganda, Disney made many educational films. Disc one has shorts touting the importance of vaccination, eating right and cleanliness. Disc two has a sample a few of the more than 200 training films. Four Methods of Flush Riveting, made for Lockheed, is dry and technical, and demonstrates just what the title says.
Mouse and Duck
By the late-1930s, Mickey Mouse had lost his edge. He had evolved over the years from a feisty and violent rascal, to nice guy. Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Volume Two follows Mickey’s screen appearances from 1939 to the present. The cartoons on the first disc aren’t as fast-paced or edgy as Warner Bros. cartoons of the same era, but they are charming. Disc two features some of Mickey’s work since the 1980s, but the best parts of this disc are in the bonus materials section, such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey and the Beanstalk and some cameo appearances on the Disneyland television show.
The 1930s saw Donald Duck’s rise to popularity. The Chronological Donald, Volume One features his shorts from 1934-1941, beginning with his first screen appearance in the barnyard fable, The Wise Little Hen. Donald and his explosive temper are funny in many situations, whether he’s wandering through a museum of modern inventions or trying to trap wild animals in the arctic with Goofy. But many of the cartoons on these two discs seem the same after awhile. They are probably better enjoyed over multiple viewings.
Of the four DVDs, the best bonus features are on the Mickey Mouse set, which aims to give a comprehensive look at the mouse’s career. Included is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia and Mickey and the Beanstalk, a 30-minute cartoon that has a live-action lead-in with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies. Some short segments from the Disneyland television series are included in this section: one uses Mickey to illustrate principles of physics, another segment has Mickey helping to show the animation process.
On all the discs, there are many interviews with people who worked behind the scenes as well as friends of Walt Disney. Many of them shed some light on the process of making an animated film. Other interviewees, like science fiction writer Ray Bradbury on Tomorrowland, give a few insights into Walt Disney and his personal vision. All of the DVDs also have extensive art and publicity materials.
All of the discs, and many of the films on the discs, begin with introductions by film critic and historian, Leonard Maltin. Some of these provide some interesting background, others seem more fawning and merely explain what is good about the following segment. On the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck discs, several of the shorts are preceded by Maltin mentioning some of the racial and ethnic stereotypes that could be offensive to today’s audiences. Although the makers of these DVDs surely meant well by acknowledging these elements, it becomes tedious to hear Maltin apologize for every single instance of politically incorrect humor. A single mention in his introductions at the beginning of the discs probably would have sufficed.
Picture and Sound
The quality of the picture and sound have been given all the care of other recent Disney releases. Most of the material was originally recorded in mono, and sound very good on the new digitally-mastered soundtracks. The picture quality is very high as well, though some graininess occasionally shows up in the cartoons. The color films on Tomorrowland, which were originally broadcast in black and white, particularly stand out.
That’s All, Folks
These DVD sets are a great opportunity for Disney fans to see films that haven’t been readily available. But what is most interesting about them is the look they give into the American culture – the comfortable sameness of the cartoons, the push to get people to support the Second World War, the post-war optimism. As both an influence on, and a reflection of, popular culture these discs make interesting viewing.