Once upon a time there was a little mouse named Mickey…
You can get no more Americana than cartoon legend Mickey Mouse. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be released was the 1928 classic "Steamboat Willie." This 'toon was a milestone for many reasons, not the least of which was that it introduced the world to Mickey, who would fast become Walt Disney's icon for his theme parks and filmed entertainment. On what would have been Walt Disney's 100th birthday (2002), the Disney studio has decided to release the "Walt Disney Treasures" collection. From the early TV shorts to behind-the-scenes workings of the studio, these two-disc archival sets offer Disney fans a unique glimpse into the world of all things Walt. Hosted by film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White is now available in a limited edition numbered set for Disney Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Follow along as we delve into Mickey's past and find out just where everyone's favorite mouse originated! From his popular turn in the first ever 1928 cartoon "Steamboat Willie" to the frozen tundra in "Klondike Kid," Mickey and his buddies will show you the true meaning of laughter! The complete list of shorts included on this disc is as follows:
• Steamboat Willie (1928)
I'm not going to pretend to be a Walt Disney/Mickey Mouse scholar. The fact of the matter is that I had never seen "Steamboat Willie," AKA "The One That Started It All," before reviewing this set. I also have missed a few of the classic Disney films (though I have seen most of them, so no hate mail please!). I'm glad to have had the chance to sit down and watch the early misadventures of Mickey and Co. in this collection of classic black and white cartoons.
The nice thing about these discs is that it's not just a replay of Mickey's early career. Host Leonard Maltin shares with us a wealth of history about Walt Disney and his vision for his films and characters. In the early days of filmed entertainment it seems that cartoons were often regarded as "disposable" There were only a handful of characters that stuck out from the pack, most notably Felix the Cat. Though Walt tried to produce a solid hit with a rabbit character, he didn't hit pay dirt until the advent of Mickey Mouse. "Steamboat Willie" was a milestone not only for being Mickey's first film, but also the first cartoon to include synchronized sound (in 1928 this was still a very new technology in movies). Though the shorts often carry obvious sight gags in them (at least by today's standards), you almost have to watch them with the forethought that these were all very new and cool during their time period. Some of the shorts (as pointed out by Maltin) contain racial gags and stereotypes that would not be accepted in today's PC age. Once again, fans must watch in the context of its creation and mindset. If we are to learn about our future, we must learn to look objectively at the past. Though blackface and tobacco spitting wouldn't be accepted in children's movies today, back in the '20s and '30s it seemed to be commonplace. It's interesting to watch Mickey evolve from stick mouse to full fledged star—even his buddies Donald Duck, Carrabelle the Cow, and Goofy show up during the final cartoon of the set. This would be a precursor of what was to come—Disney was glad to have newer, more humorous characters to play with (as Maltin notes, Mickey was never the funniest of the group).
Of these cartoons, I really enjoyed "The Mad Doctor" (Universal horror movies were all the rage when it was released) and the nutty "Birthday Party" with Mickey and Minnie asking each other "how are you" over and over again. One of my personal favorites was "Mickey's Gala Premiere," a funny spoof on Mickey's newfound celebrity. As Mickey arrives as the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood for his newest flick, he's joined by the (caricatured) likes of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durant, The Keystone Cops, The Marx Brothers, Marlene Dietrich, and a host of other of-the-day superstars. For those of you who are movie buffs (especially classics), there is a wealth of funny, can-you-name-'em-all folks in this cartoon short.
This set is a truly a treasure for anyone looking to learn more about Disney's history. Seeing as I don't have kids of my own I can't really say whether children will enjoy these as much as the flashy programs of today. Is Mickey Mouse as viable a commodity as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to kids? I'd have to guess that the answer will always be "yes." Recommended.
Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White are all presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in—surprise, surprise—black and white. For their age these transfer all look very good. True, there is a fair amount of dirt, grain, scratches, and other imperfections to be found in these images. However, considering their time period (well over 70 years ago), all of these cartoons are in pretty fair shape. As usual, the further away the date, the more worn the cartoon appears. Even so, this collection of cartoons is a dream for any true Disney/Mickey Mouse fan or collector.
The soundtrack for each short is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono in English (though the bulk of them are made up of sound effects and music only). The fact is that none of these mixes sound great—they are very limited due to the original source materials. The music sometimes sounds a bit wobbly, and pops and crackles are heard throughout the mixes. Even so, these sound better than I expected—none of these tracks required a 5.1 remix. The monophonic sound of each mix gives the viewer a real sense of what it must have been like to have experienced these shorts for the first time in the 1920s and 1930s. English captions for the hard of hearing are also included on this set.
Though I wouldn't consider this set to be jam-packed with bonus materials, it does include its fair share of extras by way of rough drawings and fascinating storyboards (as well as multiple introductions by Mr. Maltin). Many of these extra features give fans a look into how these cartoon shorts came into being. Here is a rundown of what's on the disc:
Frank and Ollie…and Mickey: This is a very interesting featurette that sports host Leonard Maltin interviewing original Disney artists Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson about their lives, their history at the Disney animation studio, their work with Walt, and what Mickey Mouse means to them. I'm really happy that Disney decided to interview these two elderly legends about their work. This feature is a good 18 minutes long and is well worth the time of any Mickey fanatic, be it casual or rabid.
Story Scripts: "Steamboat Willie" and "Mickey Steps Out" are included under this section. Basically fans are able to read along to the written script of each of these shorts and see rough preliminary drawings from the conception stages.
Pencil Test: The Mail Pilot: With a short intro by Maltin, this supplement is a glimpse at what a specific short looked like in its roughest form. Before it went to the ink and paint show, cartoons were often viewed in pencil drawings to see how the storyline played out. This was a pretty cool look into how Walk put together many of his classic 'toons.
Story Sketch Sequences: This is otherwise known as storyboarding. Disney has put together various cartoon shorts ("Blue Rhythm," "Mickey Cuts Up," "Building a Building," "The Mad Doctor," "Ye Olden Days," "Puppy Love," "The Pet Store," "Giantland" and more) in their original storyboard designs, each set to music. 13 of these story sketches are included in all, some with intros by Maltin.
Poster Gallery: A brief image gallery featuring posters of the various Mickey Mouse cartoons available on this disc. Some of these also have audio introductions by host Leonard Maltin.
Though these discs are a little pricey, I think that this Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White is well worth the money if you're a diehard completes of all things Disney. The folks at the Mouse House have done right by releasing on DVD these historically fun cartoons for a new generation of children and adults to enjoy.
How could I live with myself if I locked up Mickey Mouse? Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• "Frank and Ollie...and Mickey" Featurette
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