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Walt Disney Treasures:
Walt Disney on the Front Lines - The War Years

1941-1943 (2004) - Disney

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Walt Disney Treasures: Walt Disney on the Front Lines - The War Years

Program Rating: A

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

Specs and Features

Disc One
Approx. 218 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), dual-disc keep case packaging in limited edition tin, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), video introductions by film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, 11 Propaganda & Entertainment Shorts (see review text), 14 Educational Shorts (see review text), 4 From the Vault shorts (see review text), 6-page booklet, Fall Out... Fall In poster lithograph, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, feature access, languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Disc Two
Approx. 165 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), video introductions by Leonard Maltin, Victory Through Air Power short, On the Set of Victory Through Air Power featurette, VTAP trailer, 3 Training Shorts (see review text), 7 galleries (Production Art, Victory Through Air Power, Poster Gallery, Dispatches from Disney's, The Gremlins, Joe Grant's Sketchbook and Insignia Gallery), 3 featurettes (A Conversation with John Hench, A Conversation with Joe Grant and A Conversation with Roy Disney), animated program-themed menu screens with sound, feature access, languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

This review is being written on June 6, the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Nostalgia hangs heavy in the air today, naturally enough, but this is nothing new. Truth be told, World War II has been a subject of renewed interest for quite some time now. Whether it's in documentaries like Hitler's Secretary, feature films like Saving Private Ryan or television productions such as Band of Brothers, the public interest in this conflict seems to show no signs of abating. However, most of these projects focus on the war itself. The soldiers, the conflicts, and the unimaginable horrors of war will never stop making compelling subjects for dramatic interpretation. But what of the effect the war had here at home? For insight into that part of the story, you have to look at material from the era. For my money, nothing has conveyed the complete and total disruption of everyday life here in the States quite as well as Walt Disney on the Front Lines, one of the most recent and, so far, the best entry in the ambitious Walt Disney Treasures line.

After the U.S. entered the war in December of 1941, the movie industry's priorities changed. Top stars and directors entered the Armed Forces and patriotism and propaganda became Hollywood's biggest product. Perhaps no one put as much of their money and their resources where their mouth was as Walt Disney. Like many directors and studios, Disney contributed flag-waving propaganda films designed to foster American support for the war. But Disney also cooperated with the government, producing educational and training films for the troops, propaganda posters for use both at home and abroad, insignias for troops and aircraft, even a full-length feature educating the public about modern warfare.

The material on these discs is divided into separate categories, each one spotlighting a different aspect of Disney's wartime productions. The first, Propaganda and Entertainment Shorts, includes the following films: Donald Gets Drafted; The Army Mascot; Private Pluto; Fall Out... Fall In; The Old Army Game; Home Defense; How to Be a Sailor; Commando Duck; The Vanishing Private; Sky Trooper; Victory Vehicles.

In these shorts, Disney recruits familiar characters like Donald, Goofy and Pluto and places them in wartime situations. Donald Duck stars in the majority of them, a classic series of cartoons following the duck's misadventures in the Army (odd... I'd always assumed he was a Navy man). Pluto (apparently having run away from Mickey Mouse) appears in two, as does Goofy. Some of these shorts have appeared on DVD before, notably the Goofy cartoons on 2002's Treasures entry, The Complete Goofy. But seeing them again in this context gives you a deeper appreciation of the time in which they were produced, whereas their appearance on the Goofy disc allows you to focus on their contributions to Goofy's development as a character. All of these films are top-notch, ranking among Disney's very best shorts. Seeing them collected in one place gives an indication of how widespread the war's effect really was... and likely served a valuable purpose at the time. Children whose fathers had gone off to war could relax a bit, knowing that their dad was fighting alongside Donald Duck and Pluto.

The next category of short films, Educational Shorts, includes the following: The Thrifty Pig; Seven Wise Dwarfs; Donald's Decision; All Together; The New Spirit; The Spirit of '43; Food Will Win the War; Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line; The Grain That Built a Hemisphere; Defense Against Invasion; Cleanliness Brings Health; What is Disease?; Planning for Good Eating; The Winged Scourge.

Needless to say, the cartoons in this section aren't nearly as entertaining as in the preceding one but from an historical perspective, they are probably even more fascinating. Produced for a wide range of agencies, from the National Film Board of Canada to the IRS, these films use the Disney characters to encourage audiences to buy war bonds, pay their taxes on time, save cooking fat, and educate people about the dangers of malaria, poor personal hygiene, and a poorly rounded diet. As a cost-cutting technique, Disney occasionally re-purposes existing animation. For example, the Silly Symphonies short The Three Little Pigs is turned into The Thrifty Pig by adding a swastika to the Big Bad Wolf and building the third pig's house of Canadian war bonds. Subtle, they're not. But they are often beautifully designed and animated, very funny (as in the Donald Duck tax short The New Spirit), and clear and to the point. Disney's success using animation as a teaching tool in these films led directly to the production of such familiar educational shorts as Donald in Mathemagic Land in the 1950's. These films, while not consistently entertaining, remain fascinating artifacts and their inclusion here is a boon for Disney aficionados.

The last section on disc one is the best. Four extremely rare shorts are collected under the title From The Vault: Chicken Little, Reason and Emotion, Education for Death and the legendary Der Fuehrer's Face. No one ever thought these films would be released from the Disney vaults and their inclusion on this set alone makes the disc a must-buy. Der Fuehrer's Face is an extremely funny Donald Duck short, making good use of the startling image of Donald wearing a swastika and performing the Nazi salute. Reason and Emotion is another classic, showing how Nazis are overwhelmed by emotion and free-thinking, rational people must temper that with reason. Chicken Little is an allegorical retelling of the familiar fable, unusual today for its grim conclusion. But best of all is Education for Death, one of the very best animated short films of all time. Education for Death follows the development of young Hans, a German child indoctrinated into the Nazi ideology from birth. It's an incredible piece of animation with chillingly beautiful design work. It's one of Disney's crowning achievements in the field and certainly did not deserve to be locked away for so many years.

The centerpiece of disc two is the most unusual feature Walt Disney ever produced, Victory Through Air Power. Based on the non-fiction book by Major Alexander de Seversky, VTAP traces the history of aviation before delving into how modern air power can and should be used to win the war. Victory Through Air Power places World War II in a context that escapes most people by pointing out that it had been just forty years since Orville and Wilbur Wright had made their first flight at Kitty Hawk. Like the educational shorts on disc one, VTAP is a far cry from the most entertaining movie Walt Disney ever produced. But as a historical artifact, it's invaluable. Imagine a film like this being produced today by a major studio centering around the war on terror and receiving a mass release. Not so easy, eh?

Disc two also includes a selection of training films Disney produced for the Armed Forces. These are rather dry, boasting such action-packed titles as Four Methods of Flush Riveting. Fortunately, only two are presented in their entirety. The idea behind Disney's training films is more than adequately conveyed in a montage of excerpts accompanied by contextual narration by Leonard Maltin. Maltin pops up frequently throughout both discs, as he does on all Walt Disney Treasures releases. But his introductions and comments are particularly valuable on this release, providing context, background and information about the films' production. Maltin has continually proven himself to be the ideal guide for these releases and nowhere is his love and knowledge of the medium more evident than in this package.

Maltin's comments aside, there are still a number of valuable extras included in On the Front Lines. As with many of the Treasures releases, galleries of production art are included. The galleries on this set, however, are particularly extensive. We get to see production art from 18 of the included shorts, as well as four individual galleries devoted to different aspects of Victory Through Air Power. Galleries are also included for Disney's wartime propaganda posters and some of the hundreds of insignias the studio designed for use on aircraft and uniforms. We also get to see excerpts from legendary animator Joe Grant's sketchbook, the first and only issue of the wartime newsletter Dispatch from Disney's, and art from the never-realized Walt Disney/Roald Dahl collaboration The Gremlins. Maltin provides voice-over information throughout the galleries as well. My only disappointment, and it's a fairly minor one, is that since the art from The Gremlins is reproduced from an extremely rare edition of Dahl's book, it would have been nice to hear the story along with the images. Probably this was a rights issue and maybe this addition would have simply been gilding the lily but I, for one, would have enjoyed it.

Disc two also boasts the original theatrical trailer for Victory Through Air Power as well as three featurettes with Leonard Maltin interviewing Disney alumni John Hench, Joe Grant and Roy Disney. All three provide additional background, anecdotes, and memories of life on the Disney lot during wartime.

Technical qualities are on a par with other releases in the Treasures line. Once again, I was surprised at how good many of these films look. These do not look like films that have been sitting in a vault for half a century. Colors are vibrant and stable and the image is often close to pristine. Not all of the films are of the same quality, of course, but at its best, these are beautifully restored. Sound quality is fairly average, with some of the most problematic moments coming from Seversky's scenes in Victory Through Air Power. Still, there is little to complain about there, either. And while we hardly ever talk about menus anymore, the deco-designed screens on this release are very, very nice. Simple but elegant and accompanied by some great big band music.

Considering how eager many of us are to jump all over Disney when they do something we disagree with, it's only fair that we give them equal praise when they do something right. Certainly the Walt Disney Treasures line has been example of that from the beginning. Walt Disney on the Front Lines is the most surprising release to come from the studio in years and also one of the best. This is DVD as an archival medium at its finest, collecting rare and valuable material in the best quality with extras that inform, contextualize and entertain. Even if you're not particularly interested in Disney, On the Front Lines is the one Treasures release you should own.

Bye-bye... and buy bonds.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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