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WALT DISNEY TREASURES:
SILLY SYMPHONIES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  305 Minutes
Release Date:  December 4, 2001

"Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?"

Film ****

What a year 2001 has been for the Disney Studios in terms of DVD.  They’ve managed to come a long way in a short time as far as digging themselves out of the dreadful early reputation they carved for themselves with their non-anamorphic transfers, features-bare discs, and support of the horrendous DIVX format.  Their recent release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the year’s best releases, and even their charming anniversary edition of Dumbo is a digital winner.

But it’s time to stop the presses…with the release of four VERY special limited edition Treasures series discs, Disney has pretty much outdone and outclassed everything they have done before in home video…including their VHS only days.  Two in particular are absolutely priceless collections of some of the best the studios have ever had to offer …“Mickey Mouse In Living Color”, and “Silly Symphonies”.  The Silly Symphonies disc, in particular, is as comprehensive an assembly as any cartoon fan could hope for…it’s a set that proves once and for all that the history of animation and the history of the Disney studios are inseparable.

35 classic shorts are including, many of them Oscar winners, and more than a few are out and out historical landmarks.  “Flowers and Trees”, for example, boasts a couple of firsts.  It was the first animated film to use the new three-strip Technicolor process, and it was the first short to win an Academy Award.  It began a long string of uninterrupted wins for Walt Disney and his imaginative team!

But go back further, and you’ll find one of the studios earliest and grandest experiments with music, the black and white “Skeleton Dance”.  No story or characters here, just a celebration of sounds with dancing bones perfectly synchronized to the score and endless sight gags.  This cartoon, incidentally, originally drew protests from movie goers for being too macabre! 

The evolution of the art of animation is apparent when looking at the only short the studio ever remade.  The black and white version of “The Ugly Duckling” from 1931 is charming, but see how much things had changed in less than a decade when a full color and better version emerged in 1939!

There are so many classics included here that it’s almost overwhelming…chances are, you’ll see many you remember, from “Who Killed Cock Robin?” with its Mae West-styled heroine Jenny Wren, “The Grasshopper and the Ants”. “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” (a beautiful piece), “Music Land”, “Father Noah’s Ark”, and much more.

Two in particular must be singled out:  “The Three Little Pigs” has been called the most popular cartoon ever made.  It won an Oscar, spawned a hit single in “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, and ran in some theatres longer than the features that accompanied it!  Even better is my personal favorite, “The Old Mill”.  This is a spellbinding piece of animation, and the first short to use the multi-plane camera.  It’s images of nature in all its calm and fury is one that I never get tired of.

Included at the bottom of this review is a complete list of all the cartoons included on this disc.  Needless to say, this is five-plus hours of classic animation at its very best.  What Walt Disney created with the Silly Symphonies was a treasure trove of ideas, characters and songs that inspired some of animation’s greatest artistic leaps in a short period of time.  From 1928 to 1939, the studios laid the groundwork for what would be decades and decades of indelible animated films.  This is one of the best short cartoon collections ever assembled…as historic as it is viable.

Video ***1/2

Given the range and age of these films, I was generally impressed with the quality offered here.  Colors were very good from start to finish, and I noticed no transfer flaws at all…the only picture blemishes come in the form of aging artifacts:  a spot here, a shimmer there, a streak or two along the way.  These are to be expected, and I didn’t find them distracting.  A few shorts, especially the black and white ones, could have used a touch of restoration, but they’re all still quite well-preserved, and make good use of DVD as a presentation medium.

Audio **

The mono sound is fine throughout, but I would have liked to have heard new mixes for these cartoons…not necessarily 5.1 mixes, mind you, but a little more dynamic range would have been welcome.  Everything plays at pretty much the same level…even my favorite, “The Old Mill”, doesn’t render loud when it should.  Overall, the tracks are fine and serviceable, just nothing to get excited about.

Features ***

The advertised features are on the second disc…they include Leonard Maltin-hosted featurettes on the merchandising of Silly Symphonies (a very nice look at some terrific antiques and collectibles as featured in the Disney Archives), and on the music of the cartoons, featuring composer Robert Sherman.  There is also a gallery of conceptual art and posters.

Scattered throughout both discs, though, are plenty of easy-to-find Easter eggs, featuring Walt Disney himself discussing several of the Silly Symphony cartoons…fascinating bits of history, as he explains that this series of shorts was really created for experimental purposes, so that he and his staff could incorporate their knowledge into later features!  To find the eggs, notice that all the menu screens on the discs are vertical (up-down to select)…go left and right on each screen and see what you find…happy hunting!

As a bonus, Leonard Maltin also introduces a select number of cartoons he deems his favorites himself, providing extra historical footnotes or just plain fun facts to go along with the shorts.  Plus, a limited edition lithograph…I don’t know if they’re all the same, but mine was of the “Flowers and Trees” movie poster…quite cool!

Summary:

Walt Disney Treasures:  Silly Symphonies is as comprehensive a collection as you could hope for of Walt Disney’s early musical experiments in animation…this beautiful limited edition set (in a stamped metal case) is simply a must have for anyone, be you a cartoon buff or a cinema student…these works are as important as they are enjoyable, but act quickly, because these sets are limited to 150,000 printings apiece!

THE COMPLETE LISTING:

DISC ONE:

Mother Goose Melodies
Babes in the Woods
Lullaby Land
The Tortoise and the Hare
The Flying Mouse
The Robber Kitten
The Golden Touch
The Country Cousin
Elmer Elephant
The Grasshopper and the Ants
Who Killed Cock Robin?
Water Babies
Wynken, Blynken and Nod
Three Little Pigs
The Big Bad Wolf
Three Little Wolves
The Wise Little Hen
Toby Tortoise Returns
Practical Pig

DISC TWO:

The Skeleton Dance
The China Plate
Egyptian Melodies
Flowers and Trees
The Cookie Carnival
Music Land
Woodland Café
Farmyard Symphony
Birds of a Feather
The Busy Beavers
Just Dogs
Father Noah’s Ark
Funny Little Bunnies
Peculiar Penguins
Mother Pluto
The Old Mill