Disney has one of the largest vaults of animated features in the world, and if you hadn't noticed by now they have a knack for repackaging and re-releasing their stuff endlessly. "Classic Holiday Stories" is a collection of three Disney animations, two of medium length--"The Small One" and "Mickey's Christmas Carol"--and one short subject, "Pluto's Christmas Tree." They are all fine examples of Disney art, although it is the two longer films that stand out.
"The Small One":
Walt Disney Pictures made "The Small One" in 1978, the first of many animated features directed by Don Bluth, most of them for other studios ("The Secret of NIMH," "An American Tail," "The Land Before Time," "All Dogs Go To Heaven," "Anastasia," "Titan A.E.").
The film tells a highly sentimental but assuredly heartwarming tale of a young boy (voiced by Sean Marshall) from Judea and his beloved little donkey, living about 2,000 years ago. Because the boy's family is poor and the donkey is small and getting old, the boy's father (Olan Soule) counsels him that the animal can no longer do his share of work and has to be sold. The boy must take the donkey to the city and find a proper new owner for him who will love him as he has. In the course of his adventures in the city, the boy finds any number of wicked people who would take advantage of the animal for his skin or ridicule the animal for his size. You can probably guess by now who eventually buys the donkey and for what purpose, but even knowing the outcome, the story is no less touching.
The movie begins slowly, but soon it's filled with action and characters aplenty and, of course, music. What would a Disney animation be without its complement of songs and tunes? "The Small One" is brief, only twenty-five minutes, but it is affecting and probably just the right length for its subject matter. Anything more would have been mere padding.
"Pluto's Christmas Tree":
This is more of a filler than anything else, a six-minute animated short directed by veteran Disney filmmaker Jack Hannah in 1952. In it, Mickey (James MacDonald) and Pluto (Pinto Colvig) bring home a Christmas tree they've just chopped down, not knowing that the chipmunks Chip 'n Dale (MacDonald and Dessie Flynn) are hiding within. Once home, it's Pluto who discovers them and tries his best to get rid of them, much to Mickey's displeasure, who doesn't understand what Pluto is going on about.
As always, I find Disney's cartoon characters more surreal than those from other studios. I mean, a giant rodent who can talk has a pet dog who can't talk? Incidentally, this was one of the first Mickey Mouse cartoons in which Disney himself didn't voice the central character, having done his last Mouse voice in 1947.
"Mickey's Christmas Carol":
While I found "The Small One" a sweet fable, it's "Mickey's Christmas Carol," directed by Burny Mattinson ("The Great Mouse Detective") in 1983, that I enjoyed the most. Maybe it's the source material; it's hard as the dickens to beat Dickens.
Just as the title suggests, "Mickey's Christmas Carol" retells the Dickens classic using all of the stock characters in the Disney stable. Not only is the story well told in its condensed, twenty-five-minute format, it is engaging from the first minute to the last.
Part of the fun is simply checking out which Disney character is playing which Dickens' character and, I might add, playing it straight. There is little in the story line that isn't in Dickens, with Mickey and the gang putting on a handsome show, and the Disney animators doing an extraordinarily good job with their old-fashioned, beautifully detailed artwork.
Mickey (Wayne Allwine) plays Bob Cratchit, the impoverished, downtrodden employee of skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge, played by who else but Scrooge McDuck (Alan Young). And just as you would suppose, Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) plays Ebenezer's nephew Fred. Ratty and Mole (Hal Smith and Will Ryan) from "The Wind in the Willows" play the two gentlemen collecting donations for the needy. When Ebenezer goes home Christmas Eve, he finds the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, there to greet him, and Marley is ably performed by Goofy (Hal Smith). The ghosts of past, present, and future are Jiminy Cricket (Eddie Carroll), Willie the giant (Will Ryan), and the usually villainous Pete (Will Ryan yet again). Daisy Duck (Patricia Parris) plays Ebenezer's long-lost sweetheart, Belle; and a younger Mickey-like mouse (Dick Billingsley) plays Tiny Tim.
They're a delightful crew of players, and by taking the Dickens story seriously, they make it come to life all over again in a new and fascinating way. If there was anything I missed, it was Tiny Tim's closing line, "God bless Us, Every One!" I suppose its exclusion was a nod to political correctness, but it doesn't make it right.
Because the three feature films were made at varying times, over thirty years apart, and differ somewhat in their animation styles, there are some small differences in picture quality, but not much. The Disney people take better care of their films than most any studio in the world, and the visual quality of their products, no matter how old, shows the benefits of their attention. These transfers may not be frame-by-frame restorations or anything like "Cinderella" or "Snow White," but they are very good in any case. Colors are vivid, grain is largely absent, definition is as sharp as one could want short of high definition, and age marks of any kind are few and far between. For the sake of consistency, Disney engineers offer all three films in a standard 1.33:1 screen size.
There is no mention on the keep case of the type of sound on the disc, beyond Dolby Digital, but my DVD player indicates it is DD 2.0. According to our own "DVD Details," it's in stereo, but for the all the world it most often sounds like a wide monaural. In any case, I had no difficultly appreciating it. There's a smoothness and clarity that does the midrange proud, and there really isn't much need for anything else.
Well, here we don't expect much and we don't get much. Basically, we have the three features, and that's it. The menu screen shows the films, which can be played independently or all in a row. In addition, there are Sneak Peeks at eight other Disney releases; English and French spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Oh, and there's that sneaky "Fast Play" that Disney keeps trying to pawn off on us. "Fast Play"? I mean, there are only three short movies here, with no scene selections. Why do we need "Fast Play"? You don't know what "Fast Play" is? At start-up, you're given the choice to click on "Menu" or "Fast Play." In "Menu" you can choose among various options, like going directly to the movies, the Sneak Peeks, or the setup screen. In "Fast Play" you're taken directly to...a series of Disney promos and trailers before the movies begin. Somebody explain to me what's "fast" about that? What it does do is force little ones to sit through the previews and advertisements (although the promos can be skipped, advanced, or fast-forwarded if you think to do it). I love Disney, but they can be more than a little devious sometimes.
Because "The Small One" and "Mickey's Christmas Carol" are so very good, I think we can excuse Disney for giving us short measure on this disc in terms of length. Sure, the studio could have combined everything on their "Classic Holiday Stories" with everything on its companion disc, "Holiday Celebration With Mickey & Pals," and still come in at well under two hours. But I have no objection to Disney's issuing the discs separately at a reduced price. Of the two releases, however, it's this one, "Classic Holiday Stories," I would consider first.