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review added: 3/29/04

Three Disney DVD Reviews

reviews by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Three recent DVD releases by Disney provide a lot of valuable insight into the classical Disney animation approach and are richly entertaining at the same time. One deals with two of the studio's key animators, another with Walt Disney himself, and the last is the studio's 1951 animated take on the Alice in Wonderland story. All are recommended, the former two, highly.

Frank and Ollie: Special Edition

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Frank and Ollie: Special Edition (1995)
(released on DVD by Buena Vista Home Entertainment on November 18th, 2003)

This is simply an informative, entertaining, and warmly personal documentary reminiscence of the life and times of two of the Walt Disney studio's animation masters, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The film was the brainchild of Frank Thomas's son Theodore (Ted) Thomas, who both wrote and directed as well as co-produced (with Kuniko Okubo). Those unfamiliar with Frank and Ollie will find themselves amazed at and touched by the close professional and personal relationships that the two men and their families have had since the mid-1930s. These are virtually unique relationships that still persist 70 years later and almost 10 years since the film was made. A lot of love went into documenting all this and it shows throughout.

Frank and Ollie is equal parts straight documentary and carefully observed record of two men's almost symbiotic relationship. So we learn about how they first met as students at Stanford and later joined the Disney company as artists in the 1930s, the various cartoons and features they participated in, their families and home life including their side-by side homes, and their writing and lecturing activities after retiring from Disney. The approach involves plenty of historic and recent footage of Frank and Ollie themselves, with the two narrating much of the proceedings through interviews. Comments from film historians and current Disney animators provide some perspective to Frank and Ollie's lives and their accomplishments.

Disney's DVD presents Frank and Ollie in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The image is for the most part crisp, clear, and colourful with no edge effects to distract from one's enjoyment. The sound is unremarkable, but there is no call for an elaborate surround mix for such a presentation so its failure to deliver is no great detriment. There are no subtitles, but the disc is closed-captioned. The disc's bonus material extends one's enjoyment of the film substantially. It includes a featurette on the making-of the film, seven outtake sequences, featurettes on Ollie Johnston and his backyard trains and Frank Thomas and the Firehouse 5+2 jazz group, Frank and Ollie's debut animation scenes for The Brave Little Tailor and Mickey's Elephant respectively, and an extensive exploration of their art with expert commentary, storyboards, pencil sketches and character studies. The only thing lacking is some information updating viewers on what's happened to Frank and Ollie themselves over the eight years between the theatrical and DVD releases. Highly recommended.

Walt: The Man Behind the Myth

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Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (2001)
(released on DVD by Buena Vista Home Entertainment on March 2nd, 2004)

This is an in-depth documentary of the life and times of Walt Disney, narrated by Dick Van Dyke who co-starred in Mary Poppins, the last Disney live-action movie that Walt would be so deeply involved with before his untimely death in 1966. The film thoroughly traces Walt's career with the narration being well-illustrated by historical footage of Walt himself and the Disney studios, clips from various cartoons and features, and coverage of the development of Disneyland and the early planning for Epcot which had begun just before Walt's death. This is all amply supplemented by home movies, comments from historians and surviving members of the Disney Nine Old Men, and reminiscences by friends and family. The documentary succeeds in conveying the extent of Walt Disney's vision and the depth of genuine feeling that he engendered in friends, employees, and co-workers. Much of what we see of Walt's personal life and his family has never been made available to the public before and for that alone, the documentary is valuable.

The overall thrust of the film provides a rosy view of the man, but it does not avoid suggesting some of the darker sides, from the near bankruptcies associated with some of Disney's best-known titles, to charges of anti-Semitism, to his stern taskmaster side, to the strikes at the Disney studio, and to Walt's appearance before HUAC and his staunchly conservative politics. That many of these issues are even acknowledged is a significant step for the Disney company. And make no mistake, this is definitely a Disney project, produced for the Walt Disney Family Foundation with significant cooperation from all members of the Disney family.

The DVD presentation (1.66:1 widescreen, but not anamorphic) looks very crisp and clean, reflecting the quality of the HD source material of the newly-shot footage, but also most of the cleaned-up historical footage sequences. The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 surround, which provides the narration with clarity and also does justice to the very entrancing background music. Closed-captioning and French and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The disc shines in its supplementary material which for the most part extends many of the interview clips and home movie scenes incorporated in the film. There are almost 90 minutes of interviews and comments from co-workers and family, Disney legends (Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Hench, Ward Kimball, and Joe Grant), and Actors, Directors and Friends (Dick Van Dyke, Ray Bradbury, Art Linkletter, Richard Fleischer, Dean Jones, and Ken Annakin). A short making-of featurette gives modest insight into the intentions of the producers and director (Jean-Pierre Isbouts). Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller provides commentary for about 15 minutes of home movies (generally more extended versions of the sequences used in the film itself). Highly recommended. Note that the DVD's availability is mainly restricted to Disney stores and theme parks.

Alice in Wonderland: Masterpiece Edition

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Alice in Wonderland: Masterpiece Edition (1951)
(released on DVD by Buena Vista Home Entertainment on January 27th, 2004)

To be honest, Alice in Wonderland has never ranked among my top handful of Disney animated classics. I've always been partial to the classical style of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi and the transitionary nature of Alice as it began to hint at the less detailed and more stylized animation of the 1950s is a bit of a letdown. That's not to say that it isn't top-notch work, just that it's somewhat different and more to others' tastes than mine.

Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" story has been popular grist for the film industry since the silent era. Dating back to 1903, there have been at least 17 film or television versions. Disney himself used the Alice character for one of his earliest successes - a series of shorts in the 1920s combining animation with live action. So it was not surprising when he turned to the story as the basis for a new animated feature in 1951. What was surprising, however, was the film's lack of flow. Just one year previously, Disney's Cinderella had been a roaring success with its traditional story line and a fine blend of comedy and music. Comparatively, Alice in Wonderland seems to jerk along from episode to episode (some of which are admittedly quite imaginative) and while the comedy aspects aren't bad, the music is distinctly unmemorable except for the "I'm Late" number. The voicing of the characters is one of the film's distinctive audio strong points, on the other hand. Kathryn Beaumont is fine as Alice, but the real delights are such well-known character players as Ed Wynn (as Mad Hatter), Richard Haydn (Caterpillar), Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat), and Jerry Colonna (March Hare).

Disney has released Alice in Wonderland in a two-disc Masterpiece Edition, and a very fine package it is. Disc One presents the 75-minute Technicolor film full frame (as originally released) with a new digitally restored and remastered transfer. It looks excellent with incredibly clean, vibrant colours and is a definite improvement over the previously available version. Both the original mono audio track (with some noticeable hiss) and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track are included. The latter is very nice (clear dialogue, free of hiss), although it delivers limited use of the surrounds. Closed-captioning and French and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Most of the bonus materials on this disc are aimed at a young audience including a "Virtual Wonderland Party" which reveals various games, songs and a riddle; a couple of singalong songs; a game which relies upon knowledge of the film to proceed, a newly discovered Cheshire Cat song; and a Mickey mouse cartoon Thru the Mirror. The highlight of Disc Two is the hour-long television special from 1950 entitled One Hour in Wonderland. The show is effectively advertising for the film, but it contains many great sequences from Disney films including a generous segment of Song of the South. Featured guests include Kathryn Beaumont and Edgar Bergen with his pals Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Also on Disc Two are: one of Disney's early Alice adventures, Alice's Wonderland; various theatrical trailers and television introductions for the film; an episode of The Fred Waring Show (also advertising for the film); a 1951 behind-the-scenes featurette; various deleted concepts, and art galleries. The DVD container also includes an Alice in Wonderland card game. The package is recommended despite my personal lack of enthusiasm for the film itself.

Barrie Maxwell

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