Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 27, 2006)
What makes a Disney cartoon a “rarity”? That’s a good question, one that doesn’t get answered anywhere in the new package called Disney Rarities. Subtitled “Celebrated Shorts 1920s to 1960s”, that moniker makes more sense, as the set covers a mix of notable “one-shot” cartoons. That mostly means shorts which didn’t feature running characters like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. Except for the “Alice” comedies from the 1920s, these were stand-alone cartoons not connected to other elements.
So while not “rare”, they’re unified in this way. Disney Rarities packs an extensive roster of cartoons. It presents 31 shorts, and these span a period of only four years. We start with 1923’s “Alice’s Wonderland” and progress through 1962’s “A Symposium on Popular Songs”.
Note that some of these have popped up on other Disney DVDs. For each short, I’ll offer the following information: the year in which it was produced and its director. I’ll also provide a quick synopsis of the cartoon plus my number grade for each one done on a scale of 1 to 10.
DVD One (two hours, 50 minutes, 10 seconds)
Alice’s Wonderland (1923, Walt Disney): Disney made his first dent on the industry with these silent combinations of live action and animation. This short presents a 21-year-old Walt with actress Virginia Davis as she sees artists create animation and then dreams about similar escapades. It’s not very entertaining 80 years later, but it’s a great historical element to see. 5/10.
Alice’s Wild West Show (1924, Walt Disney): Alice puts on a stage production for her friends but has to contend with a pack of punks who try to ruin the fun. The animation comes in when she tells her fantasy stories about the west; she gets attacked by Indians and has other adventures. The novelty value of “Wonderland” and the presence of Disney on camera allowed it to earn a “5/10”. “West” still has some historical merit but it sure isn’t very interesting to watch. 2/10.
Alice Gets in Dutch (1924, Walt Disney): While being punished by her teacher, Alice dreams that she parties with animals and uses them to escape her wrath. This one seems more inventive than “West”, but it’s still not particularly entertaining. 3/10.
Alice’s Egg Plant (1925, Walt Disney): I thought this one would be about the fruit, but instead, “egg plant” refers to a factory that pumps out eggs. We watch as a Commie bird infiltrates the plant and raises a ruckus. In a twist, this one uses Anne Shirley as Alice. In another twist, “Plant” is actually pretty entertaining. It’s a bizarre short that works much better than the other simplistic “Alice” cartoons. 7/10.
Alice in the Jungle (1925, Walt Disney): Alice and her cat friend meet exotic animals and harass them. This one turns pretty surreal, especially when the cat uses a strange method to get a barber pole. It doesn’t work as well as “Plant” but it’s better than the earlier “Alice” shorts. 5/10.
Alice’s Mysterious Mystery (1926, Walt Disney): Alice tries to track some stolen dogs. Margie Gay shows up as Alice here. We get a dark tale, at least for those of us who love dogs. This one puts then in a scary situation and even strongly implies one got turned into sausages! It’s creepy but oddly entertaining. 6/10.
Alice the Whaler (1927, Walt Disney): For our final “Alice” short, we get a fourth actress in the role: Lois Hardwick. Alice goes on the high seas and tries to kill a whale. Geez, some of these old cartoons were violent! They’re much rougher than later shorts if just because they seem so sadistic at times. This one lacks much to make it interesting since most of it shows life on the boat; the whale attack occurs at the very end. Actually, I suspect there’s missing material here since the short concludes awfully abruptly. 4/10.
Ferdinand the Bull (1938, Dick Rickard): Finally – a non-“Alice” short! While other bulls like to fight, Ferdie prefers to sit against a tree and smell flowers. He remains a pacifist even when forced into the bullring. Disney always liked to tout characters who remain true to themselves, but “Ferdinand” offers an especially subtle glimpse of that theme. 8/10.
Chicken Little (1943, Clyde Geronimi): Foxy Loxy threatens a community of fowl and tricks Chicken Little into upsetting the community. 62 years before Disney’s big CG edition of the story, this “Little” offered a more satisfying version. Its message about avoiding gossip aims at the WWII environment, but it remains useful and educational – and it sports a surprisingly dark ending. 8/10.
The Pelican and the Snipe (1944, Hamilton Luske): Set in Uruguay, Monte the pelican flies in his sleep and gets into danger. Little Vidi the snipe protects him, a thankless job as Monte never becomes aware of his small pal’s intervention. This leads to anger and misunderstandings. “Snipe” is entertaining and cute, but I don’t understand why Vidi doesn’t tell Monte about his condition. Wouldn’t that solve lots of problems? 6/10.
The Brave Engineer (1950, Jack Kinney): Casey Jones leads his train through all sorts of obstacles. This cartoon offers more of a musical bent than most, and that makes it less appealing to me. I also don’t usually care for Disney shorts with human protagonists, and this one doesn’t change that feeling. 4/10.
Morris the Midget Moose (1950, Charles A. Nichols): The normal-sized moose think shrimpy Morris isn’t good for much, but he eventually proves them wrong. To call this a worn-out plot would not be an exaggeration, bit “Morris” offers an entertaining take. 6/10.
Lambert the Sheepish Lion (1952, Jack Hannah): The Stork misdelivers a lion to a mother lamb. She raises him as her own despite complications. Sweet and charming, this one takes another often-used theme to good effect. 8/10.
The Little House (1952, Wilfred Jackson): We watch a small cottage as it goes through ups and downs across the decades. Disney always anthropomorphized inanimate objects well, and that holds true for “House”. We really feel for the abode as we see it cope with change and disuse. 7/10.
Adventures In Music: Melody (1953, Ward Kimball and Charles A. Nichols): Disney’s first attempt at 3-D animation, this one stars Professor Owl, a character who would only appear once more. Here we learn about melody, as you’d infer from the title. We see birds go through various musical numbers in this lively but not especially entertaining short. 5/10.
Football Now and Then (1953, Jack Kinney): A discussion between a kid and his grandpa leads to this battle between the old football players and the modern behemoths. The short attempts to address the incessant arguments over which eras are best, but it does so in a comedic way. It feels a lot like one of the Goofy “How to…” cartoons in the end, and it doesn’t do much to amuse. 5/10.
Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953, Ward Kimball and Charles A. Nichols): Disney’s initial stab at Cinemascope cartoons, we find Professor Owl’s second – and final – appearance. “Boom” studies musical instruments. As with “Melody”, this one is neat for historical purposes but it’s not especially interesting beyond that.
Ben and Me (1953, Hamilton Luske): We see the accomplishments of Ben Franklin from the point of view of his mouse pal Amos – who takes credit for all of them. This becomes a clever way to offer an educational piece. 8/10.
DVD Two (two hours, 35 minutes, 42 seconds)
Pigs Is Pigs (1954, Jack Kinney): Rule obsessed railroad employee Flannery gets into a battle about some guinea pigs. Clever and funny, this one spoofs idiotic bureaucracy and unthinking allegiance to rules. It tosses out understated commentary and entertains at the same time. 9/10.
Social Lion (1954, Jack Kinney): When captured by a safari, a lion happily leaves the jungle so he can scare new prey. However, the king of beasts doesn’t intimidate city folks. Another clever spoof of then-modern society, it shows the indignities the lion suffers in inhospitable society. It makes its point well and provides a cool piece of work. 9/10.
Hooked Bear (1956, Jack Hannah): Humphrey the Bear tries to gather all the fish Ranger Woodlore pours into a lake. A wacky slapstick effort, this one offers decent laughs but doesn’t dazzle. 7/10.
Jack and Old Mac (1956, Bill Justice): This one splits into two musical nursery rhymes: “The House That Jack Built” and “Old McDonald Had a Band”. The first uses very stylized animation that turns written words into characters, while “Band” offers a jazzy riff on the old “E-I-E-I-O” tune. Both are moderately clever, though “Jack” holds up better due to its unusual animation format. “Band” feels more like a forced attempt to be hip, and it also wears out its welcome as it runs way too long. 6/10.
In the Bag (1956, Jack Hannah): Ranger Woodlore recruits Humphrey and his pals to clean up litter in the park. Expect more silly shenanigans ala “Hooked” – and a clever cameo from a more famous bear - in this funny adventure. 7/10.
A Cowboy Needs a Horse (1956, Bill Justice): A little boy dreams about adventures as a cowboy. “Horse” pours on the cute but lacks much else to make it work. 4/10.
The Story of Anyburg, USA (1957, Clyde Geronimi): When traffic becomes terrible, people blame the cars but not the drivers and a trial ensues. “Anyburg” makes it points but not with much subtlety. It feels too much like a public service announcement and less like a Disney cartoon. 5/10.
The Truth About Mother Goose (1957, Bill Justice and Wolfgang Reitherman): We learn the origins of nursery rhymes like Jack Horner, Mary Mary Quite Contrary, and London Bridge. Educational but fun and charming, this solid short gives us a truthful look at these nursery rhymes. It acts as a delightful way to dispense information. 8/10.
Paul Bunyan (1958, Les Clark): Lumberjacks Cal McNab, Chris Crosshaul and Shot Gunderson tell the legend of Paul Bunyan. Even as a kid, I found Bunyan to be a dull character, and this short doesn’t make him more interesting to me. It presents the usual fanciful tales without much to make them fresh.
Noah’s Ark (1959, Bill Justice): This musical story shows the building and deployment of Noah’s ark. An unusual short due to its animation, “Ark” uses quirky stop-motion. It creates something different from Disney, and the content makes it reasonably entertaining as well. 6/10.
Goliath II (1960, Wolfgang Reitherman): Tiny elephant Goliath II contends with his mammoth father’s disdain and a hungry feline’s attempts to eat him. When he runs away, he shames his clan, but eventually he redeems himself. Unfocused and not very interesting, “Goliath II” lacks much point and doesn’t offer many laughs either. 4/10.
The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961, Charles A. Nichols): The titular character roars his way through the old west via this series of fanciful tales. Reminiscent of stuff like “Paul Bunyan”, this short does little for me. I guess I just don’t care for this kind of “tall tales” material, and the cartoon doesn’t add enough spark to make it work. 4/10.
A Symposium on Popular Songs (1962, Bill Justice): Ludwig von Drake hosts this look at modern music. It follows ragtime through then-current rock. Ludwig takes credit for pioneering the forms in this peppy and entertaining piece chock full of fun parodies. (Don’t expect political correctness, though; one celebrates an “Oriental fortune cookie bakery man” while “Puppy Love” celebrates a romance between a 14-year-old and a 10-year-old. Ick!) 7/10.