Mickey Mouse may well be the world’s most distinct icon, which makes it so odd that so many have so little experience with his work. Regarded as a film star, Mickey’s hey-day occurred in the Thirties, as he became a huge hit with worldwide audiences. However, his loose and light-hearted personality meant it was tough for the good folks at Disney to create new and amusing situations into which they could place the Mouse. As such, supplemental characters like Donald Duck and Goofy eventually took over the house. After the Thirties, Mickey appeared in few cartoons; he long ago became a corporate symbol more than anything else.
However, Disney would like to change that status through the release of Mickey Mouse In Living Color, a fine collection of some of Mickey’s finest work. Though the Mouse first appeared on screen in 1928 with the landmark “Steamboat Willie”, he remained monochrome until 1935. Actually, as we’ll learn during the supplemental area in this package, Mickey did make one color appearance prior to 1935 in a special Academy Awards program, but that clip wasn’t for general public consumption.
As such, his first official color presentation didn’t occur until 1935’s “The Band Concert”. Living Color covers some of Mickey’s Technicolor glory years, as it includes 26 shorts from 1935 through 1938. It features virtually all of his color work from that era; it omits a pair from 1935, but those were black and white affairs, so they didn’t fit this package’s theme.
Technically, we consider Mickey to be the star of Living Color, but much of the time, he takes the lead only in name. As noted, the gag writers had started to run out of ways to make the Mouse interesting to audiences. His popularity inhibited his opportunities; folks loved him so that they didn’t accept him when he behaved in provocative or moronic ways. Mickey’d showed some feistiness earlier in his career, but by the mid-Thirties, he’d turned pretty bland and generic.
As such, he operates somewhat like a master of ceremonies for many of the clips. “The Band Concert” sets the stage clearly in this regard. For this short, Mickey leads a concert presentation, but others steal the show, especially interloper Donald, who consistently attempts to steer the performance astray with his versions of “Turkey in the Straw”. “Band” stands as one of the better cartoons in this set, mainly due to the Duck’s sneaky presence.
While Donald and others provide the major antics of “Band”, Mickey takes it all in and struggles to maintain control. That tone is pretty consistent with many of the other shorts. On occasion, Mickey can be seen as the main character of his cartoons. He takes the lead in 1938’s “Brave Little Tailor” and 1936’s “Thru the Mirror”, but otherwise, he largely remains part of the gang.
This takes two forms. Many of the shorts go along the tri-pronged assault, as they feature storylines that concentrate on Mickey, Donald and Goofy. Sometimes these show combined interaction, but usually each character goes down his own path that relates to one overall theme. For example, 1937’s “Lonesome Ghosts” casts the guys as ghostbusters, and they have individual encounters with the spooks. 1937s “Clock Cleaners” operates along the same lines; Mickey, Donald and Goofy each complete their part of some janitorial work in a huge timepiece.
The other basic scenario resembles that of “The Band Concert”. In that case, Mickey has an overall capacity while a roster of others cause havoc. In addition to “Band”, 1937’s “Magician Mickey”, 1937’s “The Worm Turns” and 1936’s “Mickey’s Polo Team” work along these lines.
Actually, another format also appears. In these cartoons, Mickey exists as a very minor component, and other characters take the lead. 1935’s “Pluto’s Judgment Day” is strongly in that category, as is “Mickey’s Elephant”; both really star Pluto, and Mickey has little to do.
Whatever the case may be for Mickey’s involvement in the shorts, across the board they maintain a pretty high level of quality. With Disney’s cartoons, you pretty much always have some idea of what you’ll get. On the positive side, that means that you’re largely guaranteed a reasonably entertaining and satisfying experience. However, it also results in very few stellar pieces. As I watched these shorts, I gave them individual scores. The highest earned 8 out of 10, while the worst fell to 5 out of 10. The vast majority landed in the range of 6 or 7. I enjoyed virtually all of the clips, as even the worst seemed reasonably entertaining, but few of them stood out from the crowd.
Somewhat surprisingly, the best of the bunch are the ones that focus mainly on Mickey. I didn’t anticipate this for a number of reasons. For one, Mickey really is a pretty boring character much of the time, so it seemed less likely he’d offer such vibrant experiences. In addition, I love Donald Duck and find him to be the most lively and entertaining Disney personality. As such, I probably should have liked the shorts that involved him best of all.
To be sure, some of the Duck’s cartoons land on my list of top picks. His presence enlivens “Magician Mickey”, “The Band Concert” and 1936’s “Mickey’s Grand Opera”; almost single-handedly, Donald makes these shorts terrific. He also adds enough to lesser pieces like 1938’s “The Whalers” to knock them up a peg.
Still, he doesn’t appear at all in some of the better cartoons. I think the reason some of the solo Mickey tales are among the best is because they are so unusual. As I noted earlier, Disney writers shied away from those scenarios much of the time, as it was much easier to think up gags for the supporting characters. As such, if a lone Mickey program made the editorial cut, it had to be absolutely outstanding. I’m sure many drab Mickey ideas fell by the wayside, so only the best of the best emerged with him firmly as a star.
In any case, Living Color provides a nice mix of cartoons. Admittedly, after a while they seem a bit redundant. As I mentioned, the various themes can be broken down into a few different concepts, and some of them come across as awfully similar. Nonetheless, I think they never fall below a certain level of quality; even the worst shorts still appear watchable and entertaining, as I think this package offers no genuine clunkers.
Happily, the cartoons appear to be uncut and uncensored. Honestly, I don’t know the shorts well enough to detect any possible changes, but I did see some elements that probably wouldn’t appear in edited pieces. For instance, in “Magician Mickey”, Donald repeatedly - and unsuccessfully - tries to recite “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”; he always gets stuck after the first line. Midway through the short, he goes, “How I… how I… kill!” He then pulls out a machine gun and blasts away at the audience! Considering that Disney cut shots of smoking from other features, I’d imagine this kind of footage would have gotten the boot had they edited Living Color.
As a whole, I’m very pleased with Mickey Mouse In Living Color. This package reminds us of the glory days during which the world’s most prominent rodent earned his keep as a working movie star, and it does so with a series of entertaining cartoons. While few seem really terrific, all are compelling and enjoyable. This set is a real boon for animation fans.
Mickey Mouse In Living Color appears in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on these single-sided, single-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The cartoons have been mildly windowboxed to retain the original 1.37:1 presentation. While not up to the highs of other Disney animation like Snow White, these shorts still offered quite satisfying visuals across the board.
Sharpness generally appeared quite good. At times, some softness interfered with the presentation; periodically, sequences looked a bit blurry or out of focus. However, those instances seemed infrequent, as the cartoons largely were nicely crisp and clear. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, but some light edge enhancement did seem visible on occasion.
Print flaws varied but generally stayed minor for material of this vintage. Overall, the most significant issues related to light dust along with some occasional marks, speckles, grit and blotches. A few examples of debris and spots occurred as well as a periodic flickering quality on the right side of the frame. Some shorts looked worse than others. “Brave Little Tailor” showed some odd floating speckles that covered much of the image, and “Mickey’s Trailer” also looked fairly rough at times. Still, I’ve seen much worse in regard to other flicks from the Thirties, and the defects remained quite modest as a whole.
Colors consistently seemed strong. The tones were bright and vivid throughout the shorts, with very few exceptions on display. The cartoons stuck largely with primary colors, and these looked quite distinct and vibrant at virtually all times. Black levels also appeared nicely deep and rich, while shadow detail was clear and accurate throughout the shorts. Overall, I was quite pleased with the quality of Living Color; it seemed hard to believe that these cartoons have passed their 60th birthdays.
The monaural audio of Mickey Mouse In Living Color also showed some age-related concerns, but the sound seemed fine considering its vintage. Dialogue sounded a little edgy at times, but for the most part, the lines were acceptably clear and accurate. Effects showed a bit of distortion and harshness, but they stayed fairly clean and distinct through the shorts. Music also demonstrated variable levels of shrill and rough tones, but this wasn’t unexpected, and the score seemed reasonably solid. Decent depth accompanied some effects, such as stomping of large characters, but the track was pretty thin and tinny as a whole.
Varying levels of background concerns appeared throughout the shorts. I heard modest pops, clicks, hiss and hum at times during the cartoons. However, the tracks seemed pretty clean for audio of this era. Overall, the sound heard during Living Color won’t win any awards, but I found the mixes to come across as pretty clear and accurate for their age.
Mickey Mouse In Living Color includes a few decent extras. DVD One starts with an introduction from film critic Leonard Maltin. He discusses a few aspects of Mickey’s career and offers a nice little overview of the collection during this 110-second piece.
In addition, DVD One provides Mickey’s first color appearance. I alluded to this earlier. While Mickey’s first official color short was “The Band Concert”, he previously showed up in the Parade of Award Nominees. This three-minute and 22-second cartoon opens with a 50-second intro from Maltin, and then we see the clip itself. Created for the 1932 Oscars, the piece shows Mickey and some other Disney stars as they conduct a procession in which that year’s acting nominees appear. It’s a lot of fun, though it would have been nice to get some sort of annotation; I didn’t recognize all of the actors, so additional information would have been useful.
That ends the official materials on DVD One. However, it also includes an “Easter egg”. If you highlight “1936” on the main menu and click to the right, you’ll land on Mickey’s head. Click “enter” and you’ll find a two-minute and 35-second snippets from “The Disneyland Story” off of Disneyland USA. If you already have the latter package, this piece is useless, but others may want to give it a look.
DVD Two also features a few small extras. Most prominent is Mickey In Living Color With Leonard Maltin. This eight-minute and 40-second program takes a general look at Mickey’s career. Maltin leads us through his black and white origins, the move to color, and some design shifts along the way. In addition, we get a little information from famed animator Ward Kimball. It’s not a stellar piece, but it seems like an interesting overview.
A nice Gallery provides some interesting stills. Mostly the 52-image collection offers a nice mix of movie posters, pencil drawings and other materials from the Disney archive. Of course, all correspond to the Mickey shorts. It’s a nice little package that adds some historical value.
We also get another “Easter egg” on the second disc. Click to the top of the main menu screen and you’ll see a little Mickey-head icon. Press “enter” and you’ll get to see a rare short. Created for the 1939 World’s Fair, “Mickey’s Surprise Party” is little more than an ad for sponsor Nabisco, but it’s cool to find nonetheless. The cartoon lasts five minutes and 10 seconds, and it follows a 35-second intro from Maltin.
For the record, a few of the shorts found on Living Color have also appeared on other Disney DVDs. “The Band Concert” popped up on Make Mine Music, while “Brave Little Tailor” made the cut on The Sword In the Stone. We found “The Worm Turns” on Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and “Lonesome Ghosts” showed up in a complete color version on The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad as well as in a black and white rendering on Disneyland USA.
Not that I’m complaining about the repetition. When those shorts showed up on the various other discs, they were nice treats, and that doesn’t make their inclusion here seem like a rip-off. Instead, they just ensure a fairly complete presentation of some nice cartoons. For those too young to remember Mickey Mouse when he was a working movie star - and that’d be most of us - Mickey Mouse In Living Color provides a solid look at that period with a fine collection of consistently entertaining material. The DVDs feature very nice picture along with reasonably positive sound and a smattering of decent extras. All in all, Mickey Mouse In Living Color is a fine set that should be welcomed by fans of classic animation.