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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 12/9/02

Walt Disney Treasures:
Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios

1937-1957 (2002) - Disney (Buena Vista)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios Program Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/A-

Specs and Features

Disc One
Approx. 130 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), Amaray dual disc keep case packaging in limited edition tin, 8-page booklet, Reluctant Dragon poster lithograph, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), video introductions by film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios (with optional informational subtitle track), The Reluctant Dragon, How Walt Disney Cartoons Are Made, Leonard Maltin's Studio Tour featurette, Behind the Boards on Baby Weems featurette, The Reluctant Dragon gallery, Walt Disney Studios gallery, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Disc Two
Approx. 155 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), video introductions by Leonard Maltin, The Story of the Animated Drawing, The Plausible Impossible, Tricks of Our Trade, Kem Weber gallery, Tour of the Disney Studio 1946 radio program, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

There seems to be little doubt today that Walt Disney was truly a man ahead of his time. In film, of course, he was a pioneer in the art of animation. He created the first sound cartoon with 1928's Steamboat Willie. He forged ahead with the feature-length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs even when everyone in Hollywood said he was insane to do so. One could even argue that he invented (or at least, popularized) the "art film" with the unappreciated-at-the-time Fantasia. Even though these achievements are well documented, you may be surprised to see just how forward thinking Disney was in Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios, one of three new releases in the impressive Walt Disney Treasures series.

Back in the heyday of Hollywood, movie making was considered to be the height of glamour. Most people conjured images of gala premieres and red carpets when they thought about what went on behind the scenes, if indeed they thought about it at all. Movies were magic and most studio executives were content to let people harbor that illusion. But Disney was different. He wasn't afraid to pull back the curtain and let people see how things were done. The programs in this collection show just how willing Disney was to reveal his secrets, through short films, episodes of his Disneyland TV series, even a feature film. They include:

A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios - A short film commissioned by Disney's then-distributor RKO to drum up theatre owners' excitement for the upcoming Snow White. We see rare footage of Disney's original Silver Lake studio (which has long since been demolished) and many veteran animators at work.

How Walt Disney Cartoons Are Made - Theatre owners reacted so positively to the Trip short that RKO re-edited it into this short for the general public. Much of the footage is the same, but the narration now has more sensational ballyhoo. The short concludes with footage from the Snow White premiere (also found on the Snow White Platinum Edition DVD).

The Reluctant Dragon - The highlight of the set and possibly one of the strangest films to ever come out of the Disney studios. A disclaimer at the beginning of the film reads, "Any similarity to an actual motion picture is purely coincidental," and a more honest warning you'll never see. Humorist Robert Benchley tours Disney's new Burbank studio, seeing step-by-step how cartoons are made. But even though Benchley is actually on the real studio grounds and the information is generally accurate, this isn't a documentary. Some Disney employees are played by actors (including a young Alan Ladd), some are the real deal. The tour is punctuated by brief animated segments, including a Goofy cartoon (How to Ride a Horse), the title story, and the extremely unusual Baby Weems, in which storyboards seem to come to life. The animation is extremely limited but impressionistic and, at times, quite beautiful. The Reluctant Dragon is an extremely interesting curio and I could certainly understand why audiences in 1941 didn't quite know what to make of it. Even today, there hasn't been another movie quite like it.

The Story of the Animated Drawing - The first of three Disneyland episodes devoted to Disney's backstage workings. For the first half, Walt gives a brief but remarkably fair overview of the history of animation, from cave paintings (that's right, cave paintings) to turn-of-the-century novelties like the zoetrope, on up to Steamboat Willie. Mention is made of pre-Disney pioneers like Winsor McKay (whose Gertie the Dinosaur vaudeville act is faithfully recreated) and Max Fleischer. The program loses steam in the second half, particularly as we see the complete Nutcracker Suite segment from Fantasia. It's startling to see this familiar scene in black and white and it doesn't take long to realize how much of the film's impact comes from its color. But the first half is terrific, lively and informative, making this another of this set's strongest programs.

The Plausible Impossible - In a nutshell, this is a primer on cartoon physics. Why doesn't Mickey Mouse fall off a cliff until he looks down and realizes he's standing on thin air? This episode is less compelling than its immediate predecessor, but is still worth watching for a funny segment with Walt using Donald Duck as an unwilling model for a demonstration of some violent gags.

Tricks of Our Trade - Another high point. When first broadcast, the highlight of this Disneyland episode would have been the premiere of the pencil animated dinner scene that was deleted from Snow White. Now, of course, anybody with the Snow White DVD has already seen this bit but it's still fascinating to see it in this context. Back in 1957, audiences simply did not see deleted scenes, much less unfinished animation. DVD collectors kind of take it for granted today. This episode helps to recapture the sense of excitement that must have accompanied this rare footage. This episode also features an in-depth look at Disney's innovative multi-plane camera, as well as an interesting segment demonstrating how music can set a tone for a piece. Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain is matched to the forest fire scene from Bambi and The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Rite of Spring segments from Fantasia, before we see, in its entirety, its actual use in Fantasia.

As with other entries in the Walt Disney Treasures line, Leonard Maltin serves as host. This set benefits from his presence more than most. Maltin definitely knows his Disney and helps to identify the various actors and Disney animators on screen. He also helps to differentiate between what is staged but generally accurate and what is simply fanciful showmanship in action.

Video and audio quality on the set is, as you might expect, somewhat variable. But keep in mind that a lot of what we're seeing, particularly those early short films, were never really intended to be carried on from generation to generation. Given these limitations, the programs look remarkably good. Wear and tear is evident throughout, but the digital transfers are top-notch, free from edge enhancement and digital artifacting of any kind. The Reluctant Dragon looks particularly good. Starting in black and white before transforming to vibrant Technicolor, the feature is crisp and detailed. The entire sequence in the ink and paint department is simply gorgeous, with swirls of color creating almost abstract images on screen. Presented in 2.0 mono, the audio is occasionally muffled but is basically free of overt flaws like hisses and pops.

Ordinarily, bonus materials are designed to go behind the scenes, so what can you expect from a two-disc set of nothing but behind the scenes material? More than you might think. One of the best features is an optional subtitle track on A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios, providing more information, trivia and history. There's a lot of info here, so keep your thumb hovering above the pause button on your remote to catch it all. Leonard Maltin's Studio Tour goes deeper into Disney's Burbank studio, showing some of the changes on the lot over the years and culminating in a vintage first-person camera tour from another Disneyland episode, Back Stage Party. Legendary Disney animator Joe Grant begrudgingly sits down for an on-camera interview with Maltin to discuss the innovative Baby Weems segment of The Reluctant Dragon. A rare Australian radio program from 1946 interviews more key Disney personnel, and while some of the information is getting repetitive by this point it's still interesting to hear it come from directly from those responsible. We also get to hear Walt himself make some interesting comments on future projects, including Alice In Wonderland and Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Finally, three galleries provide a wealth of production photos from The Reluctant Dragon, more studio photos, and even architect Kem Weber's original designs for the Burbank studio.

As great as this set is, there are still a few things missing. The informational subtitle track on the first film is a great idea that I would have liked to see carried over to the other programs. A bigger problem is the complete lack of individual scene access for the various programs. This isn't such a big deal on the short films but if you just want to see Baby Weems or the Casey Jr. segments of The Reluctant Dragon, the only way to get to them is to fast forward through the whole movie.

The Walt Disney Treasures line has been a feast for collectors from its initiation. Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios may well be the best entry to date. It's a real treasure trove of fascinating, forgotten Disney lore. For Disney collectors, adding this to your library is a no-brainer. But anyone who's seriously interested in animation or Hollywood history should grab this set immediately. It's a very modern look at films of the past.

Adam Jahnke
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