Dec 30, 2007


A scene from “People and Places: Disneyland U.S.A.,” a CinemaScope look at the amusement park in 1956, a year after it opened.

Last year at this time Walt Disney Studios announced that it would be discontinuing the limited-edition “Walt Disney Treasures” series, but thanks to a grass-roots write-in campaign, fans have been rewarded with a seventh group of three releases.

It’s a good crop, though there’s nothing as earthshaking here as the revelatory “Walt Disney: On the Front Lines” of 2004, which brought together a wide selection of the propaganda films that the studio produced during World War II. “The Chronological Donald, Volume 3” continues where the 2005 Volume 2 left off, with 30 Donald Duck shorts produced from 1947 to 1950, by which point this excitable bird had decisively surpassed the increasingly bland, corporate Mickey as the most popular character in the Disney stable.

Though Disney himself had largely lost interest in his studio’s short productions, the Donald cartoons continued to be a reliable source of revenue for the studio. (Disney was, according to Neal Gabler’s definitive biography, “Walt Disney,” also frustrated with the budgetary restrictions imposed on the studio’s features by his financial backers.) Mostly directed by Jack Hannah, these latter-day Donalds seem meant to compete with the manic energy of the Warner Brothers cartoons, though they seldom ascend to the same heights of anarchic humor. They remain essentially mild character comedies, related to the naturalistic situation comedy style that during this same period was migrating from radio to early television.

It looks as if Disney took considerably more care with the Volume 3 restorations than with those in Volume 2, or perhaps the negatives are in better shape. The colors are bright and vibrant, the image stable and speckle-free. There are even a couple of exercises in Warner Brothers-style show business self-reflexivity among them: the irresistible “Donald’s Dream Voice” (Jack King, 1948), in which Donald takes a pill that makes him sound like Ronald Colman, and “Donald’s Dilemma” (King, 1947), in which a crack on the head from an errant flowerpot turns him into a Sinatra-like crooner.

As in previous collections, those cartoons with ethnic caricatures have been sealed off in their own little purgatory as a separate chapter on the DVD, which may be patronizing but at least keeps them in circulation. (Warner Brothers has simply dropped the more controversial Looney Tunes from its collections.)

The bulk of “Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic” is given over to a disappointing, somewhat dated documentary with the same title, seemingly filmed for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2005. (Michael Eisner, the Disney chief executive deposed in September 2005, receives a surprising amount of screen time.)

The compensating factor is a newly restored 42-minute promotional film in the guise of a travelogue, “People and Places: Disneyland U.S.A.,” which offers a gorgeous CinemaScope and Technicolor look at the park in its second year of operation. A voice-of-God narrator announces, in tones that Thomas Jefferson might have admired: “Here in Southern California, a new land has come into being. Its purpose is enlightenment; its product, happiness,” and off we go into a detailed land-by-land tour of Disney’s radical reimagining of the old-fashioned amusement park.

Transcending tawdry thrill rides and dubious games of chance, Disney’s newfangled pleasure garden replaced carnival sleaze with cold war patriotism. Disneyland’s implied subject was the heroic past and glowing future of America, with side glances at Old Europe (the Fantasyland castle, inspired by King Ludwig of Bavaria’s) and Older Africa (the Adventureland boat ride, with its back lot hallucination of bobbing natives and menacing crocodiles).

Though much of the technology on display at this early point in the park’s development seems little more sophisticated than that of a department store Christmas window, the film presents Disneyland as another triumph of American ingenuity, and ends with Old Glory’s being hoisted over Main Street, U.S.A., as “America the Beautiful” swells on the soundtrack.

For animation buffs the highlight of the new series will be “The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” two discs containing the surviving 13 cartoons (of the 26 made) that the young Walt Disney created in 1927-28 for release through Universal. The Oswald cartoons were successful, but when Disney asked his producer, Charles Mintz, for a budget increase, Mintz reminded him that he, not Disney, owned the rights to the character. And as it turned out, Mintz had already secretly hired away much of Disney’s staff. So working with his old Kansas City, Mo., friend and colleague Ub Iwerks, Disney took Oswald, bobbed his long ears into black discs, and put him back on the market as Mickey Mouse.

Universal retained the rights to the Oswald character until 2006, when — as we learn in Leonard Maltin’s introduction on the disc — the Disney Studios made a deal that swapped the contract of Al Michaels, a sports commentator at Disney-owned ABC, for Oswald’s right of return.

Tracked down and restored, the long-unseen Oswald cartoons suggest that Disney and Mr. Iwerks were already far advanced in the innovative techniques that would soon make Mickey a worldwide phenomenon. Here in abundance are the shifting perspectives, depth composition and squash-and-stretch effects that made Disney’s work stand out, even against accomplished competitors like Max and Dave Fleischer. All that remained was for Disney to add sound — as he did with the 1928 “Steamboat Willie” — and the Mouse reigned supreme.

The “Oswald” collection features a second disc containing three of Disney’s even earlier “Alice in Cartoonland” shorts (which, in turn, were a blatant imitation of the Fleischers’ “Out of the Inkwell” series, combining live action and animation), as well as “Steamboat Willie” and two other significant early Disney efforts: “Plane Crazy” (the first, though still silent, Mickey Mouse cartoon) and the hugely influential “Skeleton Dance,” which took the synchronization of music and animation to a new level and played no small part in establishing the artistic credentials of the new sound cinema.

The “Oswald” set concludes with the excellent 1999 documentary “The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story,” directed by Leslie Iwerks, his granddaughter. Much like the recent “Ford at Fox” box, these releases are an example of a studio’s taking ownership of its past and preserving it for the future. (Disney DVD, $32.99 each, not rated)

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