Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse In Living Color (DVD)
Say this for Disney: It may have merchandised its animated characters into oblivion, but it's been extremely cautious with the films in which those characters appear. The Warner Brothers cartoon library has been chopped up, repackaged, and rebroadcast so many times that its comic beats are part of the soundtrack to modern life, but following the saturation of their initial theatrical runs, Disney's animated shorts and features get locked away for as much as a decade at a time, slipping away like dreams. The dream effect is even more powerful now that the company has opened up its vaults and issued nearly 60 '30s-era animated shorts on DVD, as part of its Walt Disney Treasures series. Divided into two double-disc DVD sets, the eight-plus hours of cartoons are like transmissions from the subconscious of the Great Depression. The shorts sport rounded, luminous pastels and overt kid appeal, but with a wrinkly, often menacing sense of design which persists in contemporary art in the subversive nostalgia of underground-comics stalwarts like Kim Deitch and the Crumb brothers. The set with more immediate historical import is Silly Symphonies, which gathers a decade's worth of music-heavy adaptations of fairy tales and surreal bedtime romps. A few early black-and-white films like "The Skeleton Dance" and "The China Plate" employ the clockwork, gags-repeat-until-everyone-in-the-audience-spots-them method common to early animation, but by the mid-'30s, as the studio worked toward the development of its debut feature (Snow White), the animators began experimenting with effects and moods for their own sake, and largely left aside the hipster japes and pop-culture references which the Warner crew would later do better. There's a genuine feeling of wonder and discovery to the stream-of-consciousness lullabies "Wynken, Blynken & Nod" and "Lullaby Land," and to the inanimate-objects-come-to-life fantasies "The Cookie Carnival" and "Music Land." (The latter is especially imaginative in its use of musical tones as dialogue, in place of words.) The companion set Mickey Mouse In Living Color is less revelatory, but more conventionally entertaining. Covering the first four years of color Mickey Mouse shorts from 1935 to '38a period during which the studio cranked out an astonishing 26 eight-minute Mickey cartoons, in addition to working on Snow White pre-production and wrapping a slew of Silly Symphoniesthe mini-films on Mickey Mouse In Living Color have the comfortable feel of a slapstick small-town sitcom. The stories typically revolve around Mickey and some combination of Donald, Goofy, Pluto, or Minnie in some exotic locale or plying some unusual trade; they have a spark of the same adventurous fire that would later ignite Disney's best comic-book creators, Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson, in their own duck-and-mouse tales. Taken together, the two DVD sets make an essential package for animation buffs or for families with small children, who could literally spend all day watching such classics as "The Three Little Pigs" and "The Brave Little Tailor" alongside the more obscure productions. (Be warned: Too many of the shorts in a row can overwhelm the senses.) The few extras include pencil tests, scattered appreciations, introductions, and interviews conducted by Leonard Maltin, and a handful of hidden cartoons that are fairly easy to find. The picture and sound are generally good, although flaws mar a few soundtracks, and here and there the colors pulse, flare, or go out of register. In a way, the signs of age are more appealing than the digitally scrubbed, at times unnatural-looking new transfer of Snow White that recently hit DVD. The unrestored Silly Symphonies and Mickey cartoons have a certain humanity, and it's marvelous to see them unearthed after so many years in which they only seemed to pop up at elementary-school parties, at church lock-ins, and on rare Sunday nights on The Wonderful World Of Disney.