Walt Disney Treasures - The Chronological Donald Volume Four: 1951-1961 Review
Despite, or maybe because of, being prone to barely provoked fits of anger, Donald Duck is quite the likable cartoon character. I watch these cartoons and my allegiance always rests with our feathery star. Maybe he's a reminder that it's natural to become frustrated when things turn the opposite direction, that many of us are vengeance-filled creatures with a short fuse. If you'll notice, Donald almost always starts off more happy go lucky than enraged and it's some external force, admittedly a consequence of his own selfishness at times, that triggers his flare-ups. You just know that ol' Don tries to suppress his rage, but he can't help himself. Part of it, surely, is the company he keeps in these animated shorts. The pair of chipmunk hooligans, Chip 'n Dale, seem to find him wherever he is. Don's in the suburbs trying to make a nice life for himself and the glorified rodents invade his space and steal his popcorn. He moves out to be an apple farmer and the little bastards somehow crash the party there also.
It's troublesome, really, and who can blame Mr. Duck for having a quick temper when he's dealing with constant pests like these and other repeat customers. For the bright-eyed viewer, it's equally frustrating to witness the supposed protagonist fall victim to annoying secondary characters over and over again. Only slightly better than Chip 'n Dale, Donald's nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie seem less grating in this batch of cartoons than in Volume 3, but they nonetheless become the focal point of the plot instead of their more interesting uncle each time out. Similarly, the recurring bee and bear characters are harmless enough when not elbowing Donald aside for screen time. My main complaint in this final installment, officially labeled Walt Disney Treasures - The Chronological Donald Volume Four: 1951-1961, is the same as in the previous one - the predictability of the stories involving Donald being harassed by his co-stars. It's no surprise, then, that the director of the least inspired shorts from Volume 3, Jack Hannah, is the very same one responsible for the cookie cutter outings here. The unfortunate truth is that Hannah is credited with the vast majority of cartoons in this set.
Indeed, Jack Hannah directed all of the fifteen Donald shorts found on the first disc. While there are moments of sweet, if still bland, humour like the Chip 'n Dale jaunt "Out of Scale" where the chipmunks move into a house from Don's model train set, too many bits are blatantly derivative, even recycled at times. Not to harp too loudly, but the Chip 'n Dale stories are frequently interchangeable and equally mired in the idea that the fat-cheeked rodents are somehow cute enough to support. They're not. They're destructive little devils intent on ruining Donald's domesticity, and they do the same basic thing in every cartoon, five of which are on this disc.
The one outing that most stands out here, aside from the 3-D (which isn't in 3-D) "Working for Peanuts," is "Trick or Treat" and it truly feels like a short film instead of merely a perfunctory excuse to keep animators employed. It's the longest, clocking in at 8:19, and it has an opening that varies from the usual Donald Duck welcome. The plot involves Huey, Dewey, and Louie meeting a witch at Halloween and playing a trick on their Uncle Donald. The animation, even more so than the typically excellent offerings, is beautiful and the attempt to try something more than the protagonist versus antagonist formula is appreciated.
Though it's not completely without some charm, the "Let's Stick Together" short is heavily reminiscent of "Sea Salts," which is found on the preceding volume and features Bootle Beetle instead of the bee. I'm sure the realities of the era were far different than they are now and the shorts weren't viewable one after another, but the fact remains that many of these cartoons border on tedious. This is especially frustrating when you look at a winner like "Trick or Treat" or even "The New Neighbor," which provides a much-needed change of pace by inserting Peewee Pete as Donald's difficult neighbor. Any time the Chip 'n Dale/Huey, Dewey, and Louie comfort zone is abandoned here, there's cause for a small celebration as they collectively occupy nine of the thirteen main shorts.
All of the shorts on disc one are progressively transferred, a step up from the interlaced versions often found on the third volume, and presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The colours are rich and vivid, indicative of perhaps the most impressive animation of the era. Though the disc is dual-layered there are frequent instances of digital noise, so much so that it becomes distracting at times. Furthermore, some of the shorts exhibit slightly jagged lines. "Working for Peanuts," which was originally intended to be shown in 3-D but isn't available in that format here, looks noticeably worse than the others, and the colours are obviously more faded. There isn't any major damage on the cartoons and only a few speckles can be spotted.
Audio is the original mono, presented here in English Dolby Digital two-channel. There's some light crackle at times, but nothing out of the ordinary. Subtitles are provided in English for the hearing impaired, yellow in colour.
Like all of the Disney Treasures, the disc starts off with an introduction (3:29) from Leonard Maltin. He also provides a commentary, along with Jerry Beck, on "Working for Peanuts" that discusses the process and the short's 3-D ambitions.
Maltin's then heard on the From the Vault intro (0:26) warning everyone from the political incorrectness of "Uncle Donald's Ants" and "Rugged Bear," two shorts which feature some apparently questionable content in the form of racial stereotypes and gun play, respectively.
A featurette entitled "Donald Goes to Press" (12:48) looks at the history of Donald Duck in comic books across the globe, including his strong popularity in Europe. Lastly, an unproduced Donald cartoon is explored in "The Unseen Donald: Trouble Shooters" (10:13). The rejected short involving Donald versus a woodpecker was conceived in 1939, fully storyboarded in 1946, but never made. Animator Eric Goldberg acts out the entirety of what would have been while highlighting the existing storyboards.
The batch of sixteen cartoons that make up the primary content on the second disc frequently improves on the earlier offerings. "Donald's Diary" starts things off and the Jack Kinney-directed short is the only one to feature Daisy, neatly segueing from a courtship to a nightmare. It's more Jack Hannah and more foils for Donald from there, but the good news is that Chip 'n Dale only torment him three times this disc. Another three shorts feature the bear, all set in a park. Donald is a ranger in one, but plays a visitor in another and a neighbouring beekeeper in the third. I did like the addition of the J.J. Fate character, who narrates two similar cartoons, both directed by C. August Nichols/Charles A. Nichols. "How to Have an Accident in the Home" plays a tad more like a usual short whereas "How to Have an Accident at Work" resembles more of an actual safety film and even becomes preachy at times.
The latter is in the usual standard aspect ratio, but the former, despite being made three years earlier, was given CinemaScope treatment. In all, there are half a dozen of the 2.40:1 cartoons, beginning with "Grand Canyonscope" in 1954. There's no universal switch to widescreen, however, and the main difference aside from the wider format often seems to be the richer backgrounds. There is a novelty in the Scope cartoons, but I wouldn't say they're necessarily superior to the others. Most of them are set around parks and seem primarily interested in showcasing the natural settings. Only the Hannah-directed "No Hunting" really stands out on its own merits. It is, almost surprisingly, very funny and features a more cynical and biting sense of humour than the other Donald shorts Hannah supervised. Bambi even makes a cameo.
If the CinemaScope shorts alone aren't enough to elicit a healthy recommendation of disc two, a couple of extended cartoons certainly help to pick up the slack. The long-clamoured for "Donald in Mathmagic Land," from 1959, runs nearly half an hour and finds our favourite duck learning that mathematics can somehow be fun. There hadn't been any Donald cartoons for three years at that point and the shorts were fading away as anachronisms so it's perhaps unsurprising that this last handful differs from the usual plots. The follow-up, two years later, was "Donald and the Wheel," and it too is quite lengthy, at eighteen minutes. The wheel plays a much more important role than Donald in that one, which has an educational feel like its predecessor. Both cartoons, along with Donald's last theatrical short, "The Litterbug," returned to Academy aspect ratio.
To recap, that's six cartoons in CinemaScope 2.40:1, all enhanced for widescreen televisions, and ten more, including the From the Vault shorts deemed politically incorrect, in the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality is mostly consistent, with some digital noise still detectable and lines sometimes looking jagged. Damage is a non-issue in most of the cartoons. The last three seem to fare the worst for some reason. Parts of the live action footage of "Donald in Mathmagic Land," especially the billiards part, does suffer from a few stray speckles. "The Litterbug" looks possibly the least clean of all despite being the latest of the shorts. Consistently most impressive, though, are the colours, which just look sensational throughout the disc. Each short is also progressively transferred.
Audio is a similar story from disc one. The original mono track comes through clearly in two channels. Crackle can be heard from time to time. The Scope shorts do sound a touch crisper, though the stereophonic sound they originally used is limited here to the same two-channel mono as the rest of the shorts. Subtitles for the hearing impaired are available in English only, yellow in colour.
The usual Leonard Maltin introduction (3:13) opens the disc, and he also provides the same sober warning (0:26) before the From the Vault shorts. There are three of those, including the aforementioned "No Hunting" that I enjoyed a great deal. "Spare the Rod," which has cannibalism as a plot point, and "How to Have an Accident at Work" are the others. Maltin returns with Jerry Beck for an audio commentary on "Grand Canyonscope," Disney's first real jump into the wide format.
And finally, a collection of ten Donald cartoons from the 1990's Saturday morning television show Disney's Mickey Mouse-Works are on the disc. It's a little surprising to find these here. The idea seems to be that they catch the spirit of the classic shorts, but they simply don't. The animation is boring and soulless. The stories themselves are fair, but have no inertia. There's very little mischief in Donald. His co-stars, aside from Daisy who's featured prominently, again serve as foils. Nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, Chip 'n Dale, and even the Aracuan bird show up in a cartoon each. Most run six minutes, and the transfers are all interlaced.
I complained heavily about the devolving packaging of these releases while reviewing the last wave of Disney Treasures. It seems to change slightly every year and, guess what, it's a bit different again this go-around. The back card is still glued on to the back of the tin with two blobs of sticky gunk. Still no cardboard bands or embossed cases. The difference is with the DVD case itself, which is now a figure-eight style with the two discs overlapping one another. Criterion very briefly used this type of case just before switching to the most recent design, and it's a real pain to dislodge the discs. The case is still extra thick and comes with an eight-page booklet, individually numbered certificate of authenticity, and collectible art all tucked inside. The art this time is a replica of the poster for "Grin and Bear It," a Donald Duck short found on disc two of this set.
Each tin in this wave is limited to only 39,500 units, though the text of the certificate lists the print run at 35,000. Either way, that's the lowest of any in the Walt Disney Treasures series thus far. Since this review is a bit later than intended, you might have to be lucky to still snatch one up at this point.
The adventures of Donald Duck from 1934 to 1961 are now complete on these Walt Disney Treasures releases. All of his theatrical shorts are available to own on DVD, though the limited print run has made finding them sometimes a chore. This set has the smallest number available so there will be thousands of people who own the earlier volumes without also having the later releases. The content of this particular set - Volume 4 - can be a mixed bag, but there's more than enough to still recommend, especially if you enjoyed the previous volumes. If nothing else, the experiments in CinemaScope and the longer educational shorts "Donald in Mathmagic Land" and "Donald and the Wheel" make for interesting curiosities. The quality of the shorts is largely fine, though an increased bitrate might have eliminated some of the digital noise that pervades much of the set.