Disneyland has to be more fun than watching five and a half hours worth of people talking about how great it is.
The marketing geniuses at Disney’s home entertainment division have set upon a dynamite way to unload the essentially promotional material often found on Walt Disney’s television programme that first aired during the 1950s and 1960s: Issue collectible and individually numbered tins containing a few nostalgia-infused shows mixed with a recent, also promotional documentary and alternate the tins with similar releases containing the classic Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other famous Disney character cartoons. Using this formula, the Walt Disney Treasures line is now in its seventh wave after earning a last-minute reprieve in 2007. The series continues, but so does the insistence on trotting out whatever piece of Disney detritus that floats to the top alongside the more marketable animated shorts. This time around, we have yet another salute to Walt’s “Happiest Place on Earth” with the release of Walt Disney Treasures – Disneyland: Secrets, Stories & Magic.
The 2-disc set consists of a feature-length documentary commissioned for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary in 2005, a full colour CinemaScope look at the park from 1956, and 3 Disneyland-related episodes of Walt’s television show. Southern Californians and others of a certain age who grew up with Disneyland and those who truly love everything Disney-related will most likely enjoy this release and needn’t be worried about a dissent from someone who’s never set foot at a Disney theme park. More casual observers, however, may find much of the material here dull, self-congratulatory and poorly presented. For a company that too often seems content to exploit its rich history, be it via Broadway musicals, superfluous direct-to-video sequels, or “limited-time only” DVDs containing largely unwanted versions of songs by disposable, mouse-approved pop stars, this tired instance of throwing together rather ordinary and uninteresting content in a pretty box feels predictable, if no less disappointing.
Leonard Maltin, bearded guide of the Walt Disney Treasures series, gets things started on the first disc with an introduction (2:12) summarising what to expect from disc one. It begins playing when the DVD is inserted, after a trailer for the Pixar Short Films Collection – Vol. 1, and is accessible from the menu as well. The feature-length 50th anniversary documentary Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic of the Happiest Place on Earth, running 81 minutes, lends its name to the set and covers a good deal of the park’s early history. Starting with the origins of Disneyland, the piece discusses the escalating costs of its construction and the early problems that plagued opening day. It’s hosted by Julie Andrews and features interviews with many of the behind-the-scenes people who’ve witnessed and contributed to the park’s impressive history, as well as more familiar faces like George Lucas and John Lasseter. Though the documentary still feels like a promotional video disguised as a tribute, it provides a decent history of the early days and the evolution of America’s first theme park. After three years of build-up since the initial announcement, however, such an unenlightening and slapdash production may seem disappointing especially to the biggest of Disneyland enthusiasts.
Situated next on the disc 1 menu is the “Wonderful World of Disneyland Trivia Game,” designed to challenge, entertain, and inform the viewer about the park. I normally skip over these interactive games completely when watching Disney DVDs, but this one’s actually not bad. You can compete either as a beginner or in the advanced mode, answering questions that deal with each of the 7 lands in the park. After correctly guessing the right choice for each category, you’re able to view land-specific “prizes” that consist of short video clips about specific attractions in the park. Several different prize options provide encouragement to play the game over and over and there are multiple questions for each of the lands to keep you honest.
Finally, disc 1 concludes with the splendid “People and Places: Disneyland, U.S.A.” (41:50). The colours here are vibrant and the CinemaScope production looks gorgeous. Made in 1956, just after the park opened, this apparently played in theatres at the time and features some beautiful aerial views of Disneyland and its then-five lands. Narrated and written by Winston Hibler, with special day for night processing by Ub Iwerks, this little documentary is the highlight of the set and serves both as a mostly entertaining overview of the park and a loving time capsule of an era long since gone. Even better than watching the special by itself is viewing it with the commentary from Leonard Maltin and Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter. Maltin provides little, but Baxter has a plethora of knowledge about the park and the documentary and his enthusiasm is contagious. I think the entire set would have been better with Baxter’s commentary on everything included. A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is all that’s offered for the “People and Places” special, but it can be played either with the original narration or as a music-only track.
Regarding the video presentation on this first disc, things look mostly good with only a few minor quibbles. The Secrets, Stories and Magic documentary is presented in full-frame with many of the interviews and a few clips letterboxed. The source material comes from a variety of origins so it’s not surprising that the quality varies. Scenes from the opening day at Disneyland in July 1955 look understandably rough while the new interviews conducted for the feature present no problems. My biggest complaint is that the documentary is interlaced and exhibits the usual combing and ghosting symptomatic of a non-progressive transfer. Audio is clear and adequate on a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, with yellow English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The CinemaScope “People and Places” episode has a very good, progressive transfer and is presented in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. Restoration work has obviously been done here and the image is exceedingly clean, with eye-catching colours. Detail is reasonably strong for video from this era and I didn’t see anything at all worthy of complaint. As mentioned above, audio is only presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and an isolated music track has been included as well. Sounds are mostly limited to narration and the score and really don’t require a lot of use of the surround channels, but the track still does a nice job of accentuating the many Disney-related songs found in the special. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are included here as well, both for the commentary and the main feature, and are the usual yellow colour.
Maltin once again provides an intro (3:29) to kick off the second disc. He explains that the first item here “Operation Disneyland” was made by ABC television for its local affiliates and never intended for public consumption. Nevertheless, the black and white 14-minute piece detailing the specifics and preparation behind airing the opening day of the park is here and ready to bore viewers with bland, technical information that plays more like some sadistic instructional video than a supposedly entertaining addition to a DVD set. It’s followed on the disc by “The Golden Horseshoe Revue,” an equally bad 1962 episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
Painfully terrible, these 50 minutes are full of forced “entertainment” courtesy of Disneyland’s Wild West-themed saloon show. The family-friendly act features Betty Taylor singing trite favourites like “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey,” veteran actor and vaudevillian Ed Wynn performing an unfunny skit with Taylor, and Mickey Mouse Clubber Annette Funicello showing up twice – first in a racially insensitive Native American musical number and then scantily clad to sing and dance to the song “Mr. Piano Man.” Faring better is funnyman Wally Boag, who I actually enjoyed a great deal for his lightning-paced comedy act and lack of modesty. Boag seemed to be an energetic performer whose career maybe should’ve had a steeper trajectory. A young Disneyland worker named Steve Martin apparently modeled part of his act after the talented comedian. Boag’s participation here is easily the highlight of the special and makes it at least worth watching once, if only for his portions. Otherwise, this is a cringeworthy entry with either downright bad or uncomfortably stereotypical content that provides little value.
The “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair” episode (50:01) up next is an improvement. As with all three of the Wonderful World of Color episodes on disc 2, Walt Disney hosts and his gentle, grandfatherly presence is always a plus. This concerns the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City and the various contributions from Disney that all ended up at Disneyland following the event. We see the beginning of the audio animatronics take shape in the form of everything from Abraham Lincoln and the brontosaurus to the popular “It’s a Small World” inhabitants. Of the three full-length episodes on this disc, I found this to be the most entertaining by a wide margin and it’s greatly helped by Walt’s frequent appearances. Some of the content is then repeated on the following entry.
“Disneyland Around the Seasons” (50:05) premiered only three days after Walt Disney’s death, but he’s still here as the show host. Roughly one quarter of the running time is spent on the exact same footage, shot-for-shot, of “It’s a Small World” from the World’s Fair episode. This is especially disappointing because not only is it an excuse to pound the insipid theme song into your head, but the entire idea of the exhibit/ride seems to focus on how alike we all are by demonstrating our cultural differences. It may be overly politically correct to point out the stereotypical aspects of showing Mexican children in sombreros, the Irish dressed as leprechauns, Scots with bagpipes, and Arabs on flying carpets, but I can’t help but see the unsettling sociological identifications built up through the decades. I don’t blame Disney for including these on the DVD, but I hope that viewers are sophisticated enough to recognise the sheer wrongheadedness in identifying a nation’s people by some of their most prejudicial features.
The “Around the Seasons” title of the episode also seems a little misleading, as the majority doesn’t concern any specific time of the year and instead takes a peek at Disneyland features like New Orleans Square, the dinosaurs at the park, and the Abraham Lincoln exhibit. The latter merits several minutes of time awkwardly spent on an animatronic Lincoln giving a speech to a captive audience. Most of the children are clearly anxious to step foot on a more interactive ride and I’d much prefer to join them than hear a creepy moving robot recite a speech in a fake voice. The Fantasy on Parade segment concludes the show and features many Disney characters like Snow White and her Dwarfs, Winnie the Pooh, and Alice and the Wonderland denizens in a Christmas parade that leads up to Santa Claus himself. Aside from the frustratingly repetitive aspect of the episode, I found it to be plain and uninteresting with little worth watching unless someone has an incredibly strong predilection for Disneyland.
Bonus features on disc 2 are dominated by “Building Walt’s Dream: Disneyland Under Construction,” a feature in 6 parts that shows the construction of Disneyland through several time-lapse cameras. Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter returns for commentary on the footage, and is joined by Ed Hobelman and Walter Magnuson. Baxter once again provides lots of good information and makes things at least bearable as he sails through the separately playable Introduction (3:16) and on to segments on each of the original areas of the park – Main Street (9:44), Tomorrowland (3:29), Fantasyland (5:59), Frontierland (4:14), and Adventureland (11:02). The novelty of seeing the fast-forward building of such an American institution does wear off rather quickly, but the amazing achievement of everyone involved in taking $17 million and 160 acres and turning it all into something so extraordinary and magical isn’t lost. In many ways, this little feature puts the massive nature of such an accomplishment into perspective more than the hours of material found elsewhere in the set.
A gallery featuring 58 sketches related to the theme park is also found in the bonus features section.
Things get tricky in the video area of disc 2. The only progressive transfer appears to on the “Operation Disneyland” piece, which is especially odd considering it’s full frame, black and white and rife with dirt and grain. Given its background and the limited expectations of where it would be seen, there’s no reason to be alarmed that it looks less than stellar. Much more disappointing are the three Wonderful World of Color episodes, all full frame and in brilliant colour, but also dreadfully interlaced. The good news is that they look clean, free from significant damage, and with varying, but mostly excellent detail and sharpness. However, the interlacing has apparently caused harsh combing and a very unstable image that gives the appearance of flickering when there’s movement on the screen. It’s horribly distracting, though shouldn’t be as noticeable on non-progressive displays. I read numerous reviews of the set and none mentioned this embarrassing problem, but it certainly plagues my disc quite severely. The “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair” episode shows less of the combing and shakiness than the other two, and the “Disneyland Under Construction” supplement is interlaced but more watchable as well.
All audio tracks are Dolby Digital 2.0, with optional yellow subtitles in English for the hearing impaired. Levels are fine and everything sounds as clear as can be expected given the television origins of the selections. “Operation Disneyland,” again, is the most problematic due to its modest production and the episodes mostly consist of Walt Disney’s narration and park sounds mixed with a few songs, none of which give rise to any concern.
Back in 2001 when the Walt Disney Treasures line began, collectors were treated to a very special presentation of a nice metal tin with unique, embossed numbers on the outside, printed-on descriptions on the back of the case, and a cardboard band wrapped around the set. Inside, a double-thick keepcase safely housed the two discs. Over the years, Disney has seemingly cut some corners and eliminated the embossed numbers and the cardboard band and stopped printing the back label directly on the case in favour of an info card with a couple of glue blotches. For the last few waves, the case inside has been a weird and unwieldy contraption that’s still thick, but now lighter weight and with a disc tray facing backwards. Thankfully, the visually appealing disc art and inclusion of a collectible art postcard and an 8-page booklet remain, as does the usually fascinating content on the DVDs themselves. A certificate of authenticity detailing the exact number of your set (out of an all-time low 50,000 here) is an always exciting discovery as well, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the higher quality releases of the first couple of waves.
A replica of the vintage Disneyland E Ticket booklet is included inside as well and is sure to delight those with memories of visiting the park when similar pamphlets were used.
As an alternative to the well-known and popular animation entries in the Walt Disney Treasures series, a few of the tinned 2-disc sets have instead put the emphasis on the nostalgic history of the company and, specifically, its world famous theme park located in Anaheim, California. Previous sets like Disneyland, U.S.A. and Tomorrowland are complemented by the new release Disneyland: Secrets, Stories & Magic. Unfortunately, the heavily promotional content can become tiresome very quickly and may make the audience feel like it’s paid to watch lengthy commercials. The trouble in reviewing a set like Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic comes from trying to balance the wildly different reactions viewers may have. In the end, the material’s failure to transcend its already built-in audience seems like reason enough to prevent a full recommendation.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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