A glimpse behind the studio magic
Never before has there been such a strong connection between a Hollywood studio, its chief executive, and the general public. From Steamboat Willie through the feature film release of Snow White to the Disneyland television series of the 1950s, Walt Disney had managed to become everyone's favorite uncle. Make no mistake—this love affair was no accident or mere twist of fate. Walt was an artistic pioneer and strategic marketing genius. This latest entry in the Disney Treasures series returns us to the early days of the Disney Studios, when animation was in the midst of a renaissance and Walt was laying the groundwork for an entertainment empire.
Facts of the Case
This two-disc set, hosted by the effervescent and knowledgeable Leonard Maltin, focuses on the inner workings of the Disney Studios and the process of animation—well, a simplified version of the process really. In order to make the material accessible to a diverse audience, Walt and company made sure to include a healthy dose of humor and boil down the more technical details of how an animated feature is created. As always, he does so with style and flair, never talking down to or over the heads of anyone who may be watching or listening. The Disney team, even in the early days, were consummate professionals who loved their work—and it shows.
The Reluctant Dragon
How Walt Disney Cartoons are Made
Leonard Maltin's Studio Tour
Behind the Boards on Baby Weems
Reluctant Dragon Gallery
Walt Disney Studios Gallery
The Plausible Impossible
Tricks of Our Trade
Kem Webber Gallery
Tour of the Disney Studios—Radio Program
Much like our host on this journey, Leonard Maltin, I have been a Disney fan for as long as I can remember. The fascination grew stronger with each Disney film release and family vacation spent at Disney World and Disneyland. Even today, no trip to Walt Disney World would be complete without a stop at Disney Studios for the Animation Tour. Needless to say, this limited edition Walt Disney Treasures release held tremendous interest for me—and the presentation did not disappoint.
Having studied Walt's life and the studio's history, I was not expecting to find an abundance of new material. However, the Disney folks continue to surprise and delight. The two short films A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios (1937) and How Walt Disney Cartoons are Made (1938) were completely new to me. The former was a hurriedly assembled training film for the RKO Sales Staff. RKO was Walt's distributor at the time and the studio brass had no idea how to pitch a project like Snow White to theatre owners. The brief but fascinating film, shot at the old Hyperion Studios as Snow White was nearing the end of production, shows how the animation process works—from outline and storyboards to animation pencil tests and cleanup ink/paint through music and sound effects. The film was such a hit with the sales team that RKO had it repackaged as a promotional tool for movie audiences. What some might call the first infomercial, How Walt Disney Cartoons are Made used the same basic footage with new, flashier narration and included glimpses of Snow White and its Hollywood premier, building excitement for its nationwide release. By fluke or fate, these two films would serve as a springboard for another Disney project to debut several years later.
The Reluctant Dragon, the studio's fourth feature length project, is the cornerstone of Disc One and an evolutionary step in Hollywood marketing. Following the success of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, Walt had two new films in production—Dumbo scheduled for release in late 1941 and Bambi set for summer the following year. With the outbreak of WWII in Europe, overseas ticket sales for Pinocchio and domestic receipts for Fantasia were falling substantially below expectations. Running low on cash, Walt needed to come up with something quick and inexpensive to provide a much needed revenue boost. The resulting brainstorm, borrowing from the success of the two RKO promotional shorts, was an anthology, tying together several smaller projects with a comedic narrative on how Disney animated films were made. The storyline focuses on noted writer and character actor Robert Benchley, whose wife sends him off on a mission to pitch a children's story The Reluctant Dragon to Walt as a new feature film. Played for laughs, the journey takes Benchley through the Burbank studios and a Hollywood-ized version of the animation process. While attempting to escape an overzealous studio assistant, Mr. Benchley embarks on various adventures through the art, music, sound effects, camera, and paint departments with glimpses at the upcoming releases of Dumbo, Bambi, Old MacDonald Duck, and even Peter Pan, which was still 12 years from completion. However, it isn't until Benchley stumbles upon a storyboard room that we are treated to the legendary short Baby Weems—a satirical look at America's obsession with fads. This short is noted for its brilliant illustrative look and minimal use of animation, creating a unique style—as if a storybook somehow came to life for mere brief moments in time. Benchley's next stop is the other high point, taking him to the office of legendary Disney animator Ward Kimball, as he works on How to Ride a Horse—what would become the first of a long line of wildly popular Goofy short films (see Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy). The finale and namesake for the film, The Reluctant Dragon, is pretty much a disappointment. There is nothing memorable about either the characters or the story. The Reluctant Dragon is a quick 78 minutes and worth seeing, if only for Weems and Goofy.
Rounding out Disc One are four so-called Bonus Features. (To be honest, this entire package is one giant collection of bonus features.) First up is a Leonard Maltin guided tour of the Studio's history, including insights into Walt's flair for marketing, and a clip of the Disneyland TV episode Backstage Party giving viewers a look at the Burbank backlot. Next, an uncomfortable interview with legendary Disney staffer Joe Grant, co-writer of Baby Weems. Maltin does his best to delve into the rich knowledge of Grant's history with Walt but manages to end up with very little. This is surprising, as Grant was much more talkative during the documentary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth. Two less than impressive galleries (The Reluctant Dragon and Walt Disney Studios) cap the first disc, which you can skip.
If Disc One was the main course, Disc Two is certainly the dessert for die-hard Disney fans. Three episodes of Walt's Disneyland Television series are featured here, with the emphasis on the art of animation. In fact, Walt's use of the large coffee table book—Walt Disney Studio's Art of Animation—was merely a prop created for the show. Two later published releases The Art of Walt Disney and Disney's Art of Animation draw on this inspiration and can still be purchased today.
The Story of Animation utilizes Disney's patented take on history to explain the genesis of animation from early cave drawings and Egyptian hieroglyphics to turn-of-the-century vaudeville attractions and animated shorts by some of Walt's early competitors. The episode also features the beautiful Silly Symphonies short Skeleton Dance and clips from Fantasia.
The Plausible Impossible was shown a year later and delves deeper into the art of animation, focusing on the reality-bending rules of life within the animated world. The episode is heavy on clips, featuring Ward Kimball's penciled soup eating sequence from Snow White (cut from the film early in production), highlights from Mickey Through the Looking Glass, new Mickey animation discussing the effects of gravity, and a mix of live action and animation as Walt coerces Donald into helping him with a desktop demonstration. The show closes with the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia illustrating the significance music plays in an animated film.
Tricks of the Trade gets even more technical, as Walt guides viewers deep into the heart of the animation process. The episode is blatantly scripted and stiff, with several staffers (including four of Walt's Nine Old Men—Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, and Milt Kahl) trying hard to make the jokes work with little success. Segments include human and animal action analysis in the classroom, slow motion cameras used to enhance effects animation, a look at the multi-plane camera, the use of dialogue to establish character, and the power of caricature and satire. More clips from Disney projects include Snow White, Bambi, and Dance of the Hours from Fantasia.
Rounding out Disc Two are one interesting and one throwaway feature. Tour of the Disney Studio is a unique September 1946 radio broadcast from Australia featuring interviews with writer Homer Brightman, layout artist Ken O'Connor, and Walt Disney himself discussing the studio's revolutionary work with the animated medium. The Kem Weber Gallery may be interesting to some architecture students, but I was quickly bored looking at sketch after sketch of the new Burbank studios.
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame format, the transfer quality varies from exceptional to good. The older pieces such as the RKO training film and promotional short are understandably aged and exhibit a fair amount of dirt. However, the restoration of The Reluctant Dragon print is beautiful, especially as the film moves from black and white into full Technicolor when Robert Benchley enters the camera department. The Disneyland television episodes are also well preserved. Originally broadcast in black and white, the show was shot in color and Disney does its best to include available color segments. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is serviceable and appropriate for the material at hand. Given the subject matter, there are only a handful of pieces (e.g. The Reluctant Dragon) that would have benefited from a more robust soundtrack. As previously mentioned, the so-called bonus features are a seamless part of the presentation and shouldn't be called out as anything more. All in all, Disney and Maltin deliver a bounty of history and enjoyment.
Let me state once again, this material is not for the casual observer. Students of animation, film historians, and Disney-philes will revel in the opportunity to press their noses against glass of this rare window in time. However, parents and kids who love today's Disney family entertainment will likely find themselves bored very quickly. At a retail price of $32.99, the diehard Disney fanatic in your life will thrill to have this gem added their collection. Others fascinated by Walt Disney and the art of animation will want to rent it. Everyone else is probably better off rewatching Lilo and Stitch or waiting for the release of Treasure Plant to DVD.
This court sincerely thanks the Walt Disney Studios and host Leonard Maltin for the love and dedication behind the incredible Walt Disney Treasures series and this release in particular. We hope you continue to dig through the archives and put together more collections of the vast and varied entertainment Walt and his team generated over the years. Perhaps some of Walt's True-Life Adventures or the Jiminy Cricket I'm No Fool shorts? Regardless of what lies waiting in the wings, keep up the good work. Case dismissed!
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