Thursday, February 2, 2012

One of Our Dinosaurs Isn't All That's Missing

As most of you know, I have been watching all of the Disney animated classics chronologically and writing blog entries for each one in my DATE Night series. Most of the entries consist of my own highly subjective opinions, but I like to throw some history into the mix as well to give myself and readers some context. It adds a bit of richness to know some history on the creation of the movies and how they were received at the time before I launch into talking about art and music and storytelling and what characters could possibly be read as gay. I try to avoid using Wikipedia if at all possible since it is not always the most reliable of primary sources, so one of the cornerstones of my research has been The Disney Films by Leonard Maltin.

Buy this book. Now.
I don't have enough wonderful things to say about this book. Maltin starts by summarizing Disney's early output leading up to its first feature film. Starting with Snow White, he spends a few pages discussing every movie that was produced by the studio, including credits, critical analysis, a synopsis, and lots of historical information. He gives well informed opinions (which I don't always agree with, but always get me thinking) about each feature, both animated and live-action. He uses the films as the backbone to create a narrative of the studio's history, which is exactly how it should be done for a movie studio. His writing style is accessible but also authoritative. It is a fantastic book and essential to any Disney collection.

But then, something strange happens. Starting after The Happiest Millionaire, the book switches formats. All of a sudden instead of separate sections for each movie, each is given a few paragraphs and strung together into one long chapter of sorts. He touches down for a moment on each film and then swiftly moves to the next, separating credits into a different area later and leaving you with the sinking feeling that you've just skimmed the surface of everything past about 1968. I know that you can guess what the before and after moment was. All of the movies that got the short shrift are those that Walt Disney himself was not directly involved in.

Walt's death was a polarizing event for the studio and it changed everything, both for the good and the bad (I talk much more about this in a guest blog entry I wrote for my friends at This Happy Place Blog), but I am perplexed by the notion that Monkeys Go Home! should have a rather comprehensive analysis bestowed upon it (though it mostly consists of gently ridiculing its very existence), while an unquestionably great film like Bedknobs & Broomsticks is relatively glossed over. Why should Sword in the Stone get a sizable chunk of coverage while the films of Disney's third golden age, which are much more influential and important, are globbed together? Sadly, the fourth and last edition of the book was published in 2000, meaning that it only spans through a preview of the upcoming Dinosaur and that there is a whole decade of Disney film history that has not been given Maltin's invaluable attention.

I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. I think that we, as Disney fans, sometimes don't take the time to stop and be grateful for the fact that so much of the studio's work is meticulously preserved, catalogued and analyzed if you dig around just a bit. Our love runs so deep that we get frustrated by the things that remain out of our grasp. Maltin is one man who has done more for Walt Era Disney fans than almost anyone else in the world. Besides The Disney Films, he curated the incredible Walt Disney Treasures series, which got previously hard to find material into people's homes to enjoy on DVD. I can't begrudge him the fact that he chose to focus his energies on the studio's Walt era output because that's what was released during his childhood. It is what holds the most meaning and nostalgia for him.

Release him from the vault!
I love the older material. It makes me long for a period of time that I didn't experience firsthand and I would be terribly sad if I hadn't gotten the opportunity to see it for myself. Just ask Tom how many times we have watched the "Disneyland 10th Anniversary" special with Julie Reihms. Too many times to count. On all of our fingers and toes. We were lucky to have people like Maltin and Roy E. Disney (who was the driving force behind the True Life Adventure DVDs) fighting to get these films back out into the light of day. The fruits of their labor are younger folks like me who have been converted into ardent Disney fans who are apt to forgo that new action movie Blu-ray in favor of a Disney back-catalogue movie and who still patently await discs containing gems like the People & Places series, Ludwig Von Drake and The Horsemasters.

I'll watch anything with
Helen Hayes in it. Anything.
The problem becomes that there is an entire generation or two that has grown up without seeing their childhood revisited with the depth and care it deserves. Disney has done a pretty good job with releasing DVDs for a good chunk of the studio's films from the seventies, including live-action classics from the Jodie Foster and Kurt Russell canon and other assorted treats filled with hijinks and family-friendly silliness. Unfortunately, they have not been remastered, leaving them looking grainy, they are often pushed, pulled and chopped in order to fit screens in which they no longer need to fit, and there is often nary a special feature to be had. No commentaries, no retrospectives, and not even a trailer. (There are, of course, welcome exceptions such as the great interview with Jodie Foster on the Freaky Friday disc in which she discusses her Disney days.) Other films from this time have been neglected altogether, at least domestically, like One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, which was given a release overseas. Who doesn't want to see Helen Hayes traipsing about London in what the poster calls a "funky fossil frolic"?

The movies from when I was growing up in the eighties, a period before the advent of the DVD when home video was just becoming a thing, also have a spotty release history. Some of the DVD releases were through an agreement with a company called Anchor Bay and are now out of print and scarce. Once we hit the nineties, titles became available with more regularity, since home entertainment was becoming a cash cow. As far as the features are concerned, the vast majority are available, even if it is a chore to track them down. The issue here is in shoddy presentation. We are backed into a corner by the studio and forced to shell out money for discs that contain nothing but cruddy looking transfers of the movies that we love with an original trailer as a special feature if we're lucky. Commercials do not bonus features make, my fine folks. Sorry to break it to you, but y'all ain't foolin' no one. We buy them because we don't have any other choice, not because we know we'll be satisfied.

Snow White's never watched When Animals Attack.
The real holes are in the non-feature area. So much happened on television that has not seen the light of day. For a park fiend like me this is especially disheartening. I would love to have the episodes of the Wonderful World of Disney where the Osmonds visit Disneyland for the opening of The Haunted Mansion. Or where The Pirates of the Caribbean was unveiled. I would kill to have the later specials that cover Walt Disney World, the park of my (and many other's) childhood. With the Muppet renaissance in full bloom, would it have been so difficult to include "The Muppets at Disney World" on the upcoming Blu-ray release? What a great opportunity not only to make both Disney and Muppet fans happy, but for cross promotion as well. I know these items are locked in the vaults somewhere waiting to be set free. It makes me wonder what is keeping the studio from doing this when they know that they have an eager audience waiting for such material.

Triplet hijinks! Amazeballs!
This is where I am caught in a bit of a sticky wicket. I want Disney to keep making their films available and am thankful that they are genuinely making an effort to do so, but the way they are doing it makes it prohibitive for me to take a chance on something new. The Generations Collection, which are DVD on demand titles sold through Amazon, and the Disney Movie Club exclusives, which you have to commit to buy a certain number of DVDs per year at full price to have access to, sell for about twenty bucks a pop. Now, this means that when they release Back Home or Parent Trap: Hawaiian Honeymoon I'll be there with bells on and cash in hand. But that price point doesn't allow me to get adventurous and discover films that I've never seen. I can't spend my hard-earned dough on Fuzzbucket just because it looks interesting. The bare-bones, bad-transfer aspect of the discs do nothing to help spur me on. It's paying more and getting less and that's rarely an incentive to spend one's recession era cash unless they absolutely must.

I know that it's very hard to balance profitability with keeping the fans happy and giving them what they want, but, as much as I'd love to, I can't afford to reward Disney for throwing us crumbs and expecting us to lap them up so that they will throw us a few more. Rarely does it lead to them giving the films, and by extension us, the treatment that they deserve. I bought a Blu-ray player almost exclusively because Disney was only putting the good special features on that format. Then they have the gall to release Winnie the Pooh on Blu-ray with a meager slate of extras and release The Muppets so that the only way to get all of the extras is to buy a considerably more expensive version that includes a soundtrack download that any fan has already bought and a digital download that few ever use. Will I buy it? Yes. Will I feel good about buying it? Heck no. This, ladies and gentlemen, is pure greed, and we put up with it because we have no other choice. But I digress. That's a different blog entry.

What we need is someone who is advocating for this older, unreleased material, and period in Disney history, to be preserved in a fitting way. We need someone to do for the seventies and beyond what Leonard Maltin and Roy E. Disney did for the sixties and before. Someone who has clout and can steer the Disney in the direction of doing right by its historic back catalog. Someone who has both the access and the knowledge to continue the work of preserving the legacy of this studio's more recent past, which has been sadly neglected so far. Someone who can attack the project with the passion needed to make things happen. Now that Roy has passed and Maltin seems to have busied himself with other projects after the tragic dissolution of the Walt Disney Treasures line, the time is ripe for someone to step forward and take the lead filling in the historical gaps that the studio has left embarrassingly unattended.

After all it's a step in the right direction.
It's a step in the right direction after all.
I think that if they listen to the fans, Disney can use their deep catalog to their advantage. We don't ask for too much and the things that we ask for are not out of line. Transfers of the films that do not look like they were attacked by a sandpaper monster. A decent slate of bonus features when available. Just dig around a bit and give us original trailers or related TV programming. They don't necessarily have to be newly produced, but commentary tracks and interviews, however brief, are ridiculously appreciated. A steady release schedule so that we can feel like our support of the effort is not in vain. And a price point that makes it possible to be more of a completist and less selective. We want to spend our money with you, Disney. You just have to give us a reason to. Even if it's two or three of the above, it's better than what we are currently getting from you. The Generations Collection is a step in the right direction, if only they would put some real effort behind it.

Walt had the right idea on this front. He correctly felt that if you gave people something that they perceived as good value for their money, they would keep coming back willingly. He poured cash into his films and parks knowing that the money would come back to him ten fold, and it did when people felt like they got more than their money's worth. The problem now lies in people feeling like the prices rise, but the quality diminishes. This is a common denominator across many of the company's branches from the parks, to home entertainment, to feature films. I am less apt to have my wallet at the ready if I feel that I am more likely than not going to come away from the transaction feeling gypped and buyer's-remorseful. This is exactly the position I feel like I'm in with Disney. I no longer have faith that they will give me a product that is worth my money. I hope that they will and am often disappointed. When the trust is diminished, so is the brand loyalty, and with that so is the spending. Please, guys. Give us something that we can feel good about giving you our money for. It really is that simple.

I would love to hear thoughts from you guys on this. These are things that have been eating at me for a while. You know how much I love Disney and want to see them prosper, but I feel like they are getting in their own way and stepping on their most ardent fans in the process. What are some possible solutions to this dilemma? Is there anybody in the company (or otherwise) that you feel is trying to step up to the task? What would you most like to see finally get put on disc? Are you satisfied with the re-releases that Disney has been producing or do you feel like they should be putting a little more energy into them? Am I just being whiny, picky and ungrateful? What are your go-to sources for Disney historical information, especially relating to the seventies and beyond?

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