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WALT DISNEY TREASURES:
ON THE FRONT LINES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  Various
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  210 Minutes
Release Date:  May 18, 2004

"Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!!"

Film ****

After initially reviewing the limited edition "Treasures" tins for Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse: In Living Color, I thought that would be enough...Disney fans and animation buffs could get the gist of what these collector's items offered; they could therefore pick and choose which sets meant the most to them personally and get a good idea of what to expect.

But when I watched Walt Disney: On the Front Lines, I was so blown away that I couldn't resist adding one more piece to the others.  This is probably both the best and most important collection the studio has come out with so far, for many reasons.  Mostly, because it documents a critical time both in American history and the history of the Disney studios, but also because it includes a wealth of material many die hard fans have been clamoring for over the years, but have been denied up until now.

The true highlight is arguably the long missing classic Victory Through Air Power, a stunning full length animated achievement based on the book by Major Alexander de Seversky, who also appears in a few linking live action sequences.  This 1943 gem starts off entertainingly with a history of aviation, chronicling the major developments in air travel up to that point, and even humorously outlining how the airplane grew from a novelty to an instrument of warfare.

The Major's book was a plea for America to develop a full fledged and independent Air Force, and the Disney animators outlined his arguments brilliantly by bringing his analysis to life.  It's a spectacular offering that ranks amongst the studio's finest works.  In its day, it was popular with both civilians and the armed services.  Winston Churchill loved it, and even introduced it to Franklin Roosevelt.  But once the war had been won, Disney felt the picture was no longer topical, and it remained in their vaults unseen (except for the opening segment) for far too long.  Now, modern buffs have a chance to see what a remarkable piece of work it was and still is.

But there's a lot more in this collection, and it ranges from the hilarious to the strikingly somber.  Walt Disney led Hollywood in the effort to win the war and drum up popular support here at home.  The output of production during those years included everything from lighthearted romps to educational pictures, even to stark propaganda shorts.  To see them all together in one set is to really marvel at the way the studio's patriotism was a stronger motivating force than even profit (Disney didn't make much off of these efforts; they were mostly a labor of love for his country).

The most entertaining bits are the Donald Duck short films.  Donald got drafted, as you may remember, and served in the Army as a private, getting into all kinds of trouble with his gruff drill sergeant Pete while dreaming of flying.  The best bits are "The Vanishing Private" and "Sky Trooper", where Donald's dream of flying comes true, even if he wasn't expecting to be in a paratrooper drill!  There are also a couple of classic Pluto shorts, including "Private Pluto" and "The Army Mascot".

But perhaps the most striking sub-collection of shorts are the ones categorized as "The Vault".  It starts with "Der Fuehrer's Face", an Oscar winning short that had been unseen for far too long...even Disney's earlier collections of award winning shorts and Donald's Army pictures failed to produce this piece, to the dismay of fans.  Now, it can be seen in all its funny and disturbing glory, as our favorite duck has a nightmare of being in a Nazi munitions factory...the classic song as performed by Spike Jonze even became a hit in its day!

"Education for Death" has to be one of the most disturbing films Disney ever produced.  It's a dark, unsettling look at how an innocent boy in Germany grows up brainwashed by Hitler's vision until he becomes an unthinking machine, fit only for death on the battlefield.  A bit of comedy showing Hitler as Prince Charming rescuing a fat sleeping beauty (Germany) from the wicked witch (Democracy) is welcome, but doesn't offset the potency of the message.

However, the film that struck me the most was "Chicken Little".  Sound like one of Disney's lovable Silly Symphonies?  Think again.  Here was a tale that seems just as applicable to our situation today as it did to World War II, if not more so.  It shows a society where the chickens, ducks and geese live protected by fences and the wise leadership of their rooster.  The fox wants to snack, but how can he possibly penetrate such a well structured society?  By slowly rotting it from the inside out.

As he reads from a psychology book (it was originally supposed to be Mein Kampf, but Disney changed it with the possible intuition that we might one day need to learn the lesson again), he preys on the fear of the most gullible in the society (Chicken Little).  Then, with a whispering campaign, he gets all the fowls to start doubting their leader's ability to keep them safe.  Eventually, they give up on the one who could protect them and follow the emotional, unreasonable, and power-hungry Chicken Little, who thinks he's leading his 'people' to safety, but instead, they end up as somber rows of wishbones laid out like tombstones after the fox has his feast.

Talk about a shake-up...as host Leonard Maltin remarks, this is one parents may want to peruse before letting their children see it.  But even more than the stark imagery is the fact that Disney depicted in the early 40s something that's equally apropos today:  we're once again facing a war with a brutal enemy bent on our destruction, but the whispering campaign of the media and political opportunists are undermining our resolve and our ability to steer the straight course. 

Those we battle today would like nothing more than to weaken us from the inside out, so this film suggests we need to think about that and pose the question:  do we maintain our resolve, or do we boot the rooster out of the coop and follow Chicken Little right into the fox hole?

BONUS TRIVIA:  In the 80s, Donald Duck was officially given an honorable discharge from the Army and a ceremony to recognize his service to his country.  On hand to receive the honors was the legendary late Clarence "Ducky" Nash, who provided the voice for the plucky duck!

Video ***1/2

Disney has preserved their precious catalog of titles better than most studios, so even despite their age and the fact that so many of these films have been out of circulation for so long, the DVD results are delightful.  Colors are still rich and vivid, detail level still striking...only an occasional mark or spot here and there, or a touch of flicker every now and then belie the picture's ages (well, okay, that and the subject matter).  I was especially pleased to see how well Victory Through Air Power translated to DVD.  Modern audiences are in for a treat with this collection.

Audio **

I believe everything on these discs are presented in two channel mono.  The sound has held up pretty well; there are still bits of noticeable background hiss and scratchiness from time to time, but nothing terribly distracting. 

Features ***

Disc two boasts the extras, starting with a trailer and an on-the-set featurette for Victory Through Air Power.  There are also a couple of art galleries, and interviews with Roy Disney and two of Disney's pioneering artists, Joe Grant and John Hench.

Summary:

Combine some rarely seen provocative shorts with a wealth of classic Disney comedy and one of the studio's grandest feature length achievements, and you've got a collection that will appeal to animation fans, history buffs and Disney collector's alike.  Walt Disney: On the Front Lines is the best and most important offering yet in their limited edition "Treasures" series...this is something no home should be without.  But act fast, because these discs disappear quickly.