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Disney Draws On Young Talent For New Collection

"John Henry" uses a rough, unfinished look unique to Disney films of the late 1990s/early 2000s.

On my DVD shelf at home I have two volumes of Tom & Jerry cartoons, three sets of Looney Tunes, four packs of Donald Duck shorts, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Woody Woodpecker, not to mention various rarities from the Disney archives that have been released over the years. Most of the short films on those DVDs span the Golden Age of Animation, ushered in by Mickey Mouse in 1928 and lasting until roughly the 1960s, when television became a more lucrative option for producing animated shorts than theatrical distribution. Following Disney’s Academy Award for the 1969 short film “It’s Tough To Be A Bird,” the Mouse House wouldn’t return to the podium for a win until 2013’s delightful “Paperman,” which is one of 12 short films included on a new set that’s now available on Blu-ray and DVD, “The Walt Disney Short Films Collection.” 

Since the 1960s, theatrical shorts were produced irregularly by all of the major studios until roughly the late  1990s, after Pixar paved the way back to the creative use of the short film with “Tin Toy,” “Knick Knack,” and “Geri’s Game.” The success of those short films prompted the artists at Disney to start their own active shorts program. Those young artists, who idolized the classic animation techniques pioneered by the Disney studios in the 1930s and ‘40s, are now using short films as a way to experiment with new technological and storytelling techniques. That they now regularly premiere theatrically before new Pixar and Disney shorts is a nice bonus for families. Securing them for home viewing has been difficult, though, with their being scattered across either iTunes or various other DVD releases, so it's great to have a dozen shorts collected here.

Some of the resulting shorts on this new set are daring in their use of color and line. “John Henry,” a reworking of the classic American myth released in 2000, features bold colors and a sketchy, almost unfinished style—you can still see what looks like pencil tests or guide lines as the characters move. The film, accompanied by the gospel music of Sounds of Blackness, is far removed than anything else Disney was producing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Lorenzo (2004),” about a fat cat whose tail has a mind of its own, also uses new techniques to achieve a painterly look, as if brush strokes came to life onscreen. “Get A Horse” finds Mickey Mouse breaking the fourth wall to become a 3D character, and “Paperman” uses a unique hybrid of computer animation and traditional hand-drawn characters to create something so new and beautiful that the studio is reportedly considering a feature film based on the techniques developed for the short. “Paperman” also won Best Animated Short at the Oscars, one of two on this set to do so. It helps that it’s a sweet story as well, about a Meet Cute between a boy and girl, and his attempts to get her attention with a stack of paper airplanes.

One other use for the Disney short films, of course, is to keep a franchise going (and sell toys, let’s face it) in between features, and so from the megahits “Tangled” and “Frozen” come the shorts “Tangled Ever After” and “Frozen Fever.” The “Frozen” short offers an opportunity for Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to write another song that your 9-year-old daughter will sing for days on end (and I gotta admit it’s catchy), and “Tangled Ever After” is a laugh-out-loud chase through the streets of the kingdom to catch the runaway wedding rings of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider. The hijinks in that short are up to Looney Tunes-level lunacy.

In all, I'd say 9 out of the 12 cartoons on “The Walt Disney Short Films Collection” are fantastic little pieces of filmmaking. That’s not a bad batting average for a set like this.

The only disappointments I found for this set of modern shorts is that unlike similar collections of Pixar short films, there are no directors’ commentaries available as optional audio tracks. Instead, each of the shorts is preceded by brief introductions, which are just long enough to hook you into wanting to learn more about the animator’s motives behind the short. Secondly, there are three shorts from the past 15 years missing from this disc: “Glago’s Guest” and the Salvador Dali-inspired “Destino,” (which were presumably too weird to pair up with kiddie fare like “Frozen Fever”), and “One By One,” a short film based on a song originally written for “The Lion King” by Lebo M. If you’ve seen the stage production of “The Lion King,” then you know the tune—but the only way to see the short is to buy the DVD of “Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride.” 

Credit ©Disney

Incidentally, both “Destino” and “One By One,” like “Lorenzo” and “The Little Matchgirl,” were all on the shortlist for a third FANTASIA film that was never made. That last film, “The Little Matchgirl,” may be my favorite on this set. Using no sound effects or dialogue, director Roger Allers changes the setting of the Dutch writer Hans Christian Andersen’s story about a poor street urchin to Russia in the wintertime. Alexander Borodin’s “Nocturne” from the String Quartet No. 2 matches the emotion of the images on screen as a girl, alone in a snowy alley, strikes match after match in the hopes of being carried away by their warmth, and a fantasy she can only dream of. “The Little Matchgirl” has never failed to leave me in tears.

The Blu-ray comes with a code to unlock the shorts for online viewing via mobile app; that’s a neat trick and perfect for enjoying one or two stories at a time on your smart phone. 

The Walt Disney Short Films Collection” is a great set for families and collectors alike.