Last week, Disney+ released a collection of newly restored animated shorts from early in the studio’s run, and finally, we can say something nice about a major studio for a change. While Warner Bros. Discovery seems to be burning as many bridges to its past as it can, Disney is at least taking care of some of their older films by giving them special attention so that new generations of viewers can still enjoy them.
You’d be right to be skeptical about a few things. Sometimes, restorations of older cartoons also mean scraping away some of the tangible elements of the work that went into them. I remember seeing a special screening of “Sleeping Beauty” in 70mm at the Music Box Theater a few years ago, and it was obvious that the film was the result of months or years of animators painting each cell, one at a time. You could see the brushstrokes perfectly. That sense often gets lost when it comes to digital restorations of these films, even if they look sharper and cleaner.
Disney has also been guilty of rendering their cartoons and features to fit more modern theatrical and television screens. This cropping technique happened with many of their theatrical re-releases in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the films were presented incorrectly. Sadly, this also happens with their video releases and streaming options. Are consumers really complaining about black bars on the sides of the screens? Sometimes, they put fancy, illustrated borders in place of the black bars while maintaining the film’s original aspect ratio (also known as “Disney View”), which I suppose is better. But sometimes, it’s stretched or cropped to fit the screen, resulting in an eyesore (the short “Casey Bats Again” on the “Melody Time” Blu-ray is an example).
Thankfully, that’s not the case here, but the success of these restorations will depend on your personal presentation preference. Look at the side-by-side comparison of “Bath Day,” and you’ll see what I mean. The more faded of the two comes from the version seen on the “The Aristocats” Blu-ray. The sharper, cleaner one is the newly restored version. While it’s easy to see which one looks superior, some will miss seeing the original version’s slight flicker and heavy film grain. Granted, when Disney transferred “Bath Day” to Blu-ray, it was not to restore it but merely transfer from the version they already had for television and DVD. Still, one wishes there could be a happy medium between the two.
Nevertheless, much thought and care clearly went into this restoration process, and the colors and contrasts have never looked better. The Walt Disney Studios Restoration and Preservation team deserve praise for putting the same effort into these shorts as they would for any usually celebrated classic. I only wish that for this first round, we had at least one Donald Duck cartoon, but they’re on the way.
Disney+ will release 22 more of these shorts over the next few months, concluding on October 6th and leading up to its 100th anniversary on October 16th. Here’s hoping Disney+ doesn’t stop here and that the elementary school classroom favorite “Donald In Mathmagic Land” has a restoration somewhere on the horizon.
“Aquamania” (1961) – A Goofy short in which he and his son end up in a championship boat race and end up in a tug-of-war with an octopus and a roller coaster. This one looks especially beautiful since it employed the same animation technique used so eloquently in “One-hundred-and-one Dalmatians” (one that Walt did not favor in the slightest but begrudgingly let his artists enjoy). The roughness of the line drawings remains intact here, with the restoration giving an extra punch to the colors that exist just outside the lines in many of the backgrounds. I love this period of Disney, and there aren’t many cartoons that have this aesthetic.
“Bath Day” (1946) – Minnie Mouse bathes Figaro, but Figaro gets out and meets a group of unkempt, much bigger alley cats. This cute short echoes Dumbo meeting the crows (and dozens of other instances of an innocent hero joining up a group of societal outcasts that would come in the ensuing decades). It fits well in the “The Aristocats” bonus feature discs, so hopefully, this newer version will end up on a 4K release of that film at some point.
“Building A Building” (1933) – One of two black-and-white cartoons to get an update. This Mickey and Minnie Mouse adventure on a construction site (with Mickey’s feline nemesis, Pete) comes the closest to looking like a sharp and pristine restoration while still having some tangible elements intact. It still looks hand-made and not overly digitized. The brushstrokes are still there, and the contrast is stunning to look at now. The sight of Mickey getting clobbered by the large cat is really something in the film’s big climax.
“Figaro and Frankie” (1947) – Again, why two Figaro cartoons and no Donald Duck? This typical cat-and-bird cartoon would be much funnier later (and from a different studio) when Sylvester tries to devour Tweety. Still, it’s fun to see Figaro with his feline instincts intact as he tries to brush away his conscience in favor of devouring a cute little bird.
“Goofy Gymnastics” (1949) – As seen in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Yup, nobody takes a foul-up like Goofy. What timing! What finesse! Goofy tries his hand at weightlifting and gymnastics, and the results are, of course, catastrophic.
“The Skeleton Dance” (1929) – As with “Building A Building,” it looks both sharper and more vivid with its hand-drawn qualities that remain present. This is another one I could compare with the DVD release (the “Silly Symphonies Collection, Vol. 1”). The side-by-side comparison above speaks for itself. For some reason, the music in the opening title cards has been completely removed, but “The Skeleton Dance” remains an innovative and joyous favorite among many. This newer version will greatly interest those who study the art form.
The next batch of cartoons will arrive on August 11th: “Barnyard Olympics” (1932), “Donald’s Cousin Gus” (1939), “Donald’s Nephews” (1938), “The Flying Jalopy” (1943), “Goofy and Wilbur” (1939), “Mickey’s Steam Roller” (1934)
September 5-8: “All Wet” (1927), “Trolley Troubles” (1927), “Bone Trouble” (1940), “Merbabies” (1938), “Mickey’s Kangaroo” (1935), “Playful Pluto (1934), “Pluto, Junior” (1942), “The Barn Dance” (1929)
October 6: “Camping Out” (1934), “Chips Ahoy” (1956), “Fiddling Around” (1930), “Inferior Decorator” (1948), “Old MacDonald Duck” (1941), “When The Cat’s Away” (1929), “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” (1938)