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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 12/20/02

Walt Disney Treasures:
Mickey Mouse in Black and White

1928-1935 (2002) - Disney (Buena Vista)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White Program Rating: B

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

Specs and Features

Disc One: 1928-1932
Approx. 140 mins (20 shorts at 7 mins each), NR, full-frame (1.33:1), Amaray dual disc keep case packaging in limited edition tin, 8-page booklet, Steamboat Willie poster lithograph, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), video introductions by film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, Frank and Ollie... and Mickey featurette, 2 story scripts (for Steamboat Willie and Mickey Steps Out), 7 story sketch sequences (for Blue Rhythm, Mickey Cuts Up, Mickey's Orphans, Mickey's Nightmare, The Whoopee Party, Touchdown Mickey and The Klondike Kid), animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: 1933-1935
Approx. 98 mins (14 shorts at 7 mins each), NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), video introductions by Leonard Maltin, pencil test for The Mail Pilot, 12 story sketch sequences (for Building a Building, The Mad Doctor, Ye Olden Days, Puppy Love, The Pet Store, Giantland, Camping Out, Gulliver Mickey, Orphan's Benefit, The Dognapper, Two-Gun Mickey and Mickey's Service Station), poster gallery, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

One of the most famous images in all of animation adorns the front cover of Mickey Mouse in Black and White, part of the second wave of the Walt Disney Treasures collector's releases. It's Mickey at the wheel of Steamboat Willie, smiling as usual, moving his hips in rhythm to the jaunty tune he's whistling. So ingrained into the mass consciousness is this image that I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the people who think they've seen Steamboat Willie, the landmark cartoon that brought synchronized sound to animation, probably haven't. There's an easy way to tell. If you think Mickey plays a steamboat captain in this short, then you've only seen the first few seconds.

Let me say right off the bat that Mickey Mouse in Black and White is an extremely important DVD release. Mickey is the single most recognizable cartoon character in history, so to be able to trace his birth and evolution on DVD is a treat. This is the kind of historical package that DVD is the ideal format for. The short films included on this two-disc set are:

Disc One

Steamboat Willie, The Gallopin' Gaucho, Plane Crazy, The Karnival Kid, Mickey's Follies, The Fire Fighters, The Chain Gang, The Gorilla Mystery, Pioneer Days, The Birthday Party, Mickey Steps Out, Blue Rhythm, Mickey Cuts Up, Mickey's Orphans, The Duck Hunt, Mickey's Revue, Mickey's Nightmare, The Whoopee Party, Touchdown Mickey, The Klondike Kid

Disc Two

Building a Building, The Mad Doctor, Ye Olden Days, The Mail Pilot, Mickey's Gala Premiere, Puppy Love, The Pet Store, Giantland, Camping Out, Gulliver Mickey, Orphan's Benefit, The Dognapper, Two-Gun Mickey, Mickey's Service Station

I think even the most casual Disney fan will recognize at least a couple of the titles listed as real classics, like Gulliver Mickey and The Klondike Kid. On the other hand, I think only the most studied Disney scholar will have seen every one of the cartoons here. If you're a hardcore Disney collector or a student of animation, you'll definitely want to raise my program rating to an A+.

However, casual fans and parents looking for good children's entertainment will likely find it difficult to make it all the way through Mickey Mouse in Black and White. If you know anything about early animation, you have a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about. Expect to see a lot of smiling barnyard animals and more singing and dancing than in a Fred Astaire movie. The stories are frequently nothing more than thinly veiled excuses for seven-minute musical numbers. Nobody would accuse most animated shorts of having intricate plots but at least they have some sort of dramatic conflict. You won't see much of that here. Many of the cartoons, especially on the first disc, are nothing but music, particularly Blue Rhythm, Mickey's Follies, and any cartoon with the word "party" in the title.

As talkies became more sophisticated, so too did the Mickey cartoons. That's reflected on disc two with cartoons that boast more imaginative animation, less reliance on song and dance, and some semblance of a story. Highlights of the second disc include the beautifully animated The Mad Doctor; Giantland, the first of several cartoons that put Mickey into Jack and the Beanstalk; and the polar opposite of Giantland, Gulliver Mickey, which strands the mouse in Jonathan Swift's land of Lilliput.

None of these cartoons are less than 67 years old and, sad to say, they look it. All of them are damaged in some way. Some are worse than others but all suffer from nicks, scratches and additional evidence of wear and tear. However, as is the norm for the Walt Disney Treasures line, the digital transfer is beyond reproach. There are no artifacts or artificial enhancements to be seen. While the blacks are truly jet black, whites often appear dingy, though this is no doubt due to the age of the cartoons themselves. All of the shorts are presented in full-frame, except for Steamboat Willie, which is window-boxed to preserve its true aspect ratio. Even if you like this style of cartoony 1930's music, you'll likely find it difficult to listen to the sound on these discs. The soundtracks are all plagued with pops, drop-outs, and hissing that makes it sound as if you're listening to an ancient gramophone instead of a 21st century DVD. As expected, the problems are worse on the older cartoons and I frequently had to turn on the optional subtitles just to figure out what was being said (or sung).

Once again, Leonard Maltin proves to be an affable host, though for the first time, I felt the set needed more of his critical and historical perspective. I would have liked to hear about the evolution of Mickey's voice, the introduction of Pluto, and reaction to the first teaming of Mickey and Donald Duck in Orphan's Benefit. And while Maltin does identify a few of the Hollywood figures caricatured in Mickey's Gala Premiere, there are many more that the average viewer will not be able to recognize. I also would have liked to see more credit given to Ub Iwerks, the animation pioneer who drew so many of the early Mickey shorts. He's mentioned in passing but a brief biographical featurette, similar to the one given to Pinto Colvig on The Complete Goofy, was really in order.

The extras that actually are included are, for the most part, real treasures. On disc one, Maltin conducts an 18-minute interview with legendary Disney vets Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. It's always a pleasure to hear from these two greats, even though their actual contribution to the shorts in this package was pretty much limited to seeing them theatrically. Elsewhere, the evolution of Walt Disney's storytelling methods can be traced through the inclusion of two story scripts and over a dozen storyboard sequences from individual shorts. Disney worked from fully illustrated scripts early on, then abandoned that technique for his shorts with the development of what were then called "story sketches". The Story Sketch Sequences presented here play automatically, no clicking through galleries required, with appropriate music for each cartoon. These are of great interest and a testament to the wealth of documents stored in the vast Disney Archives. A real rarity is the pencil test footage for The Mail Pilot, the oldest surviving pencil animation for any cartoon. Finally, a poster gallery gives insight into Mickey's enormous popularity during the 1930's.

Mickey Mouse in Black and White is a valuable addition to the top-notch Walt Disney Treasures series. I'm extremely impressed that Disney has lavished such care on a collection whose entertainment value for kids is negligible. But for animation buffs, this set is a must-have. Now that Mickey and Goofy have been covered, bring on Donald Duck in Wave Three!

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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