2001 was quite a contrasting year for Disney and America. We had to endure the profound tragedies of 9/11…while Disney was busy kicking off a decade-long series of 2-disc special editions for their animated features (the Platinum Editions)…and, in December of that year, rolling out Wave One of a new and different DVD series: Disney Treasures. While some might have found the ironic timing in releasing the innocence of the amazingly-restored “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (as that first Platinum release) right after the horrors of 9/11…the Disney Treasures were going to cater to the true Disney collector who were interested in more obscure material only known previously through essays and urban legends. When adding respected film critic (and Disney historian) Leonard Maltin to compile and host the different volumes–it truly became an event for those interested in Disney film and TV history. Once those interested heard Disney would only be releasing limited copies of around 100,000-200,000 per each set…the thought of getting pre-orders out early so you wouldn’t miss out became a major thing to do on one’s holiday shopping list.
And so Wave One was released on December 4, 2001 with four sets packed in attractive tin trays, individually numbered and in all-around high-end packaging. The first four in the series were “Mickey Mouse in Living Color (Vol. 1)”, “Silly Symphonies (Vol. 1)”, “Disneyland, USA” and “The Complete Davy Crockett.” I, personally (and being a retro Disney fan), became hooked on these from the start and particularly purchased all the ones detailing Disney’s early animation efforts. While perhaps I’m more lenient on what they offered from the beginning, many diehard fans and critics criticized some parts of the first wave…particularly the “Disneyland, USA” set. The biggest controversy on that one was the set showing an awful print (and cutting out some segments) of the live telecast showcasing Disneyland’s opening day in 1955. Many of you probably remember the Disney Channel broadcasting that for years every July 17, which is the date Disneyland opened. Some fans griped that the rebroadcast version aired previously on Disney Channel looked much better…and that version kept in a segment featuring the very first appearance of the Mouseketeers several months before “The Mickey Mouse Club” debuted. On the Disney Treasures set, the Mouseketeers segment was excised for unexplained reasons (well, everybody figured it was so Disney wouldn’t have to compensate the former Mouseketeers who are all still alive)–and the print looked considerably fuzzier than people remembered. I noticed the differences myself from seeing it on the Disney Channel before.
Then, others griped that other segments were taken out of some of the 1950’s-60’s “Walt Disney Presents”/”Wonderful World of Color” episodes also featured on the “Disneyland, USA” set. Picky fans were also annoyed at host Leonard Maltin’s needless apologetics for some politically incorrect aspects to many of the early Disney animated shorts. This was the most noticeable on the “Mickey Mouse in Living Color” and “Silly Symphonies” collections.
By the time the collectors out there gobbled up the limited-edition copies of Wave One…it turned out that the first volumes of “Mickey Mouse in Living Color” and “Silly Symphonies” were the most popular. Both of those were stunning in every way–especially with DVD bringing out the purity of the artwork and overall being able to see various animated shorts not seen in many years. These sets went out of print fast and still go for fairly high prices on the used market. “Disneyland, USA” unfortunately became the least popular of the four–and the “Davy Crockett” set (of main interest to Baby Boomers) did well enough. That one also goes for a hefty price on places like eBay where people auction the older copies of the Disney Treasures sets all the time.
Lessons were learned from Wave One…and everybody assumed the next wave would be perfect without any cuts. Well, fans had to realize that nothing can be perfect when presenting older material like this, especially from Disney who works hard at maintaining their traditional image. When Wave Two came out on December 3, 2002–we were presented with limited edition releases of “Mickey Mouse in Black and White (Vol. 1)”, “The Complete Goofy” and “Behind the Scenes at Disney Studios.” All three of those were excellent, but with many of the cartoons having plenty of racial stereotypes and other surprising things you wouldn’t expect from Disney (especially in the Mickey B&W set). Again, Leonard Maltin had little introductions before some of the politically incorrect cartoons that you couldn’t skip over. Those intros have never bothered me, but people complained once again about being subjected to something the collectors didn’t need to be lectured about when it was merely historical context. The argument was that the intros were done for kids who would undoubtedly be seeing some of these animated shorts for the first time.
In my opinion, the Mickey Mouse B&W sets (covering 1928-1935) are some of the most fascinating in the entire series…mainly with the interest of seeing Mickey being a cantankerous and violent type of person (or, ok, mouse) before he became extremely benign in the color years. There were a lot of suggestive things in those B&W cartoons that you should take a look at it if you can find a copy of these and Volume 2. As you might expect, all three sets in Wave Two went out of print fast…particularly the Mickey and Goofy sets. The “Behind the Scenes at Disney Studios” set featured the rare 1941 feature documentary “The Reluctant Dragon” and is also loaded with some fascinating material covering the inner workings of the studio during its golden age.
Fast-forward to December of 2003…and the word got out to the set’s collectors that some unknown issues had occurred and Wave Three would be delayed until the following May. The rumor circulated right away that it was because some of the material on the expected “Disney on the Front Lines” collection (a long-awaited and amazing set detailing Disney’s WWII propaganda films) had to be cleared with the military before being released. That’s right, some of those military training films were still being used by the military and had to be given a clearance for security reasons. Whether that was true or not, nobody really knows…but others said it was just a manufacturing error that couldn’t be amended for the holiday buying season. So, a new release date was set for May 18 in 2004. The wait was worth it, because it was (in my estimation, anyway) the best of the waves so far. Four sets were released: “Mickey Mouse in Living Color (Vol. 2)”, “The Chronological Donald”, “Disney on the Front Lines” and “Tomorrow Land.”
Disney put these out in even fewer numbers, which meant “Chronological Donald” went fast. That was easily the most popular (Donald was always more popular than Mickey), but it’s worth every American’s time to sit through the “Disney on the Front Lines” set to see Disney’s WWII material. These are a hugely treasured part of American film history. The haunting (yet still funny) propaganda films the Disney studio made starting in 1941 are fascinating with plenty of animated caricatures of Adolph Hitler and the usual bumbling Nazis. “Donald (Duck) in Nazi Land” has been a part of urban legend for years and years, so finally seeing it here in its entirety is a revelation. With all the comedic uses of swastikas in many of these pieces–this set might be considered only for adults, despite kids being able to learn about history with this if done in the right context.
Also a favorite in Wave Three: “Tomorrow Land” featuring the mid-50’s “Man in Space” animated series produced by legendary Disney animator Ward Kimball that showcased the possible technology used in future space travel or planetary visits. These are stunning–especially when some of the technology was used later during the space program…while quite interesting seeing what wasn’t ultimately used.
Wave Four of these sets were reset back to a December release schedule by having them come out the following December of 2004. In that set were only three this time: “Mickey Mouse in Black and White (Vol. 2)”, “The Complete Pluto” and “The Mickey Mouse Club.” All of those are highly recommended…particularly the second volume of the Mickey Mouse black and white cartoons as I mentioned earlier. Many rare (and surprisingly ribald) cartoons are on this that shouldn’t be missed by Disney history buffs. The Pluto set is wonderful too. With the “Mickey Mouse Club” set–you get a chance to see the complete kinescoped episodes of the first week of the show in the fall of 1955. The bonus features on these (as with all the sets) are packed full of endless historical material.
By Wave Five in December of 2005, Disney decided to dip into their archives of live-action serials done on ABC’s “Walt Disney Presents” and NBC’s “Wonderful World of Color” shows during the 50’s and 60’s. The reruns of these aired considerably on the Disney Channel late at night (as part of Vault Disney)–until dropping that format apparently forever a few years prior to these releases. I didn’t personally buy the live-action serials, but many who grew up with them loved having these on DVD finally. If you’re from later generations as I am…they may not mean as much to you. Even so, they’re still recommended if you’ve never seen them before. They were great entertainment if quite pure compared to TV today. The historical serials (“Davy Crockett” and “Elfego Baca and Swamp Fox”) were just as entertaining, though not necessarily historically accurate.
What was released in Wave Five: “The Chronological Donald (Vol. 2)”, “Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts (1920’s-1960’s)”, “The Adventures of Spin & Marty”, “Elfego Baca and Swamp Fox: Legendary Heroes.” My favorites were the second Donald set and the “Disney Rarities” collection where you could see a lot of animated shorts through the decades using miscellaneous characters Disney used only once or not for very long. Many of those are classics (“Paul Bunyan”, “Ben and Me”, etc.) yet haven’t been seen in many years…including the 1920’s “Alice” silent live action/animated shorts.
Wave Six arrived in December of 2006 with the long-awaited second volume of the “Silly Symphonies.” The first volume released in Wave One only compiled half of them, and many people were frustrated that perhaps the other half would never be released. It was worth the wait as it usually is. “The Complete Pluto (Vol. 2)” completed the series on Pluto’s hilarious cartoons. Another live-action serial “The Hardy Boys: The Applegate Mystery” was also released in this wave. Again, that was of interest to people who remembered seeing it originally in the late 1950’s. “Your Host, Walt Disney” may not have interested everybody…but this was one of the best within the four released. Two lost TV specials that hadn’t been seen in close to fifty years were on this set–including a “Disneyland ’59” special produced by Kodak shown in its entirety. This is a true time capsule and will make you think you’re watching a live broadcast from Disneyland in 1959. The other is a film produced at Radio City Music Hall in 1962 featuring a Disney stage show and an appearance by Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse live on stage.
In early 2007, some rumors started that Disney may not continue the Treasures line because of its limited market. That rumor was shot down later with reports Disney plans many more of these collections in future years. Wave Seven will be released (as of this writing) on December 11, 2007 with several titles that actually may be the most intriguing of all. Volume Three of the “Chronological Donald” series will be released. What’s interesting is that the very rare “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts will finally be made available after the character had been owned by Universal for years. When Disney bought NBC Universal in 2006–a trade involving sportscaster Al Michaels from ABC to NBC helped Disney acquire the rights to the character again. This was the character Walt used just prior to creating Mickey in the 1920’s and a major piece of Disney history…despite being silent films.
The one title in Wave Seven everybody’s looking forward to more than any: “Disneyland: The Secrets, The Stories and Magic.” This monumental documentary was originally prepared as part of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary in 2005 and intended to be released only in Disneyland. Then, it was going to be released to DVD later that year…but was shelved due to mysterious delays. The delays went on and on and on for more than a year with Disney fans speculating all over the internet what was going on. Nobody really knows the details of what caused its delays…other than the logical conclusion of making sure all the extensive information in the documentary was accurate. This is reportedly going to be the most thorough documentary ever done on the history of Disneyland.
Of note: A box set of Waves 1 and 2 in the Treasures series was released in 2003 (sans the tin cans they came in prior). Even that box set is hard to find now…but it could be possible Disney will release another box set soon featuring some of the later waves that are out of print.
Some of these sets go for $50 or more on the used market now, which may make them unattainable for some families. Nevertheless, you can still find copies that sell for much cheaper if you look around websites that sell used DVD’s. The material here will probably never be released again, so it’s worth the effort to obtain these and share them with everybody in your family. Putting the history of Disney’s output in context is important for those who only grew up starting with “The Little Mermaid”, “The Lion King”…or even (gasp) “High School Musical!”