Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Who Was That Bear?

When people hear the words “Disney animation,” what immediately comes to mind? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Beauty and the Beast? The Lion King? Peter Pan? Most folks will usually speak the names of their favorite Disney animated feature films.

When you mention Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy or Pluto, people think mainly of cultural icons and theme park characters, and not much more. Yet the very films that gave birth to these characters, who are arguably more well known than any celebrities living or dead, go largely unnoticed and unappreciated by the general public, and by even many people who consider themselves die-hard Disney fans.

Animated short subjects are truly the foundation of Disney. They were both the creative and financial backbones of the company during its first thirty years. They made possible everything that came after. But sadly, they have existed in the shadows of the feature films for the past fifty years.

It’s funny. There are so many Disney enthusiasts out there. They proudly proclaim themselves as hardcore Disney fans. They build websites devoted to the theme parks and the movies. They host podcasts that supposedly discuss all things Disney. Yet many would not be able to tell you who Jack Hannah or Jack Kinney was. They’ve never heard of The Lonesome Ghosts nor The Band Concert. Or that a Disney-made Chicken Little predated the current CG feature by some fifty-plus years. Ironically, many of them buy high-priced collectibles inspired by films they have never ever seen. At the Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World, people still constantly ask, “Who’s the bear at the bottom of the totem pole?” Duffers the world over have framed animation art of Mickey Mouse playing golf, but could not name the film the scene originated in.

I love the feature films; most are hallmarks, not only in animation, but in the history of film as well. But my real passion is for the shorts. They are amazing in so many ways, and important on so many levels. They were the birthplace of numerous Disney icons. They were the testing grounds for innovations such as sound and color. They were schools of learning for the company’s legendary “Nine Old Men,” and many other talented professionals. And very often, they were windows into the popular culture of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

The good news is, that for the first time in the history of the company, nearly all these films are accessible, or on their way to becoming available. The Disney Treasures DVDs now include all the Mickey Mouse and Goofy shorts. Volumes arriving this December will complete the Pluto and Silly Symphony collections. The Rarities set includes numerous stand-alone films and the two Humphrey Bear shorts (he was the guy at the bottom of the totem pole). The On the Front Lines set includes the company’s World War II themed cartoons, public service shorts and propaganda pieces. Upcoming releases should add more rarities, and complete the Donald Duck series, which has had two sets already released.

Needless to say, I plan on discussing and celebrating these films here frequently, and in some fun and different ways.

Stay tuned.