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|Kevin Krock, editor|
|Disruptive Ward - Vault Disney DVDs: Getting it Right|
Originally when I began work on this pieceit was to go a bit into more detail on the recent (and rather excellent) Vault Disney DVD series of releases - mainly to point out what the company had done right, and remind readers what an great value they were.
Kevin Krock, who edits the Home Theater section, had already done a wonderful recap of all the features on each release when they first shipped, but admitted he had a lot of ground to cover so all the detail he had hoped to put in wasn't there. This piece today was originally planned to have filled in things a bit for our readers.
Then day before yesterday the sad news hit that Ward Kimball had passed away, and it of course affected what we were working on. After reading the excellent Howard Green press release the Disney company offered, it was tough to figure out what else to say. We wanted to avoid the possible treacle a tribute to Kimball might engender - from the rather unique personality he presented to everyone it seemed he always wanted to avoid it too.
As you regulars know, MousePlanet is not a Disney "fan site" - everyone on staff works hard to provide an independent and more insightful view into the Mouse, which a fan site by its very definition is incapable of providing. As we go into our third year our readers have come to expect honest criticism of things that can be improved, as well as detailed reporting on what has been done well by the Disney company. The opinions expressed in this forum may differ from what a devotee may think, but our readership appreciates having an alternate voice that is consumer oriented and focused. We pay our way, and we tell you if it's worth the cost. Then you get to decide. :)
I never really got the chance to sit down and chat with Ward Kimball - although I regularly spotted him, if not at a Disneyland event, then some other presentation or gathering involving the Disney company in one way or the other. Two of those moments in particular stuck in my mind - the first was the rededication of the Disneyland Railroad upon the release of Michael Broggie's excellent Walt Disney's Railroad Story book on Friday, November 14th, 1997.
I observed that Kimball was impatient with more than a few things about the event that morning - it was readily apparent as he got on gamely with his part in it while the current park executives went about their scripted hoopla. In overhearing a few of his whispered remarks, it was clear the man had worked with *the* master showman - and wasn't too impressed with what passed for a ceremony under the current regime. As pleased as I personally was that the book was being made available at the park, and an effort was being made to promote it, I could also understand how Kimball felt, as it could have been done even better. (We should also remember that without Kimball's introducing the hobby of trains to Walt Disney, we may never have had a Disneyland.)
The second (and last) time I saw Kimball in person was at the Walt Disney 100th Birthday event at the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills last year (a link to an article I wrote detailing it is in the sidebar to the right). In just a few years he had gotten a lot more frail and a little slower, but he still was the iconoclast of the bunch on stage - trying to show up both Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson in his discussion of the animation work he did on Three Caballeros.
As I then mentioned in my article, all I could think of during the Academy presentation was that hopefully someone at the Disney company was archiving all the stories told that night, as time was growing shorter for who was left out of Walt's nine old men. Then, not too long afterwards, John Canemaker's excellent and rather insightful book on the Nine Old Men came out (a link to an article I wrote reviewing it is in the sidebar to the right) dedicating a chapter to Kimball, and revealing many more of his untold stories. Even if this was the last word for the few that were left, it was great this stuff was finally getting documented, and we all were a little richer in the knowledge about how this era for Disney all came together.
Well imagine my delight when I started to go through all the supplemental sections on the recent series of Vault Disney DVDs to find a charming chat with Kimball and director David Swift buried on the second disc in the Parent Trap set. Although the segment was saddled with a bit too much of the "shaky camera" syndrome (we can blame MTV for this, it's no longer considered "hip" to just point a camera at someone in an interview, it now has to jump around like a chicken on a hot plate) it was a nice interview with the two men - in the manner of the teacher (Kimball) and his student (Swift).
Lots of new stories come out of the chat (the Reluctant Dragon bellybutton story is priceless), Swift calls him "Disruptive Ward" and you get an overview of Kimball's career including rare film clips of the Firehouse Five plus Two jazz band. Already rendered poignant by the final title card noting Swift had died last year, the last scene where the two guys walk among Kimball's backyard railroad collection only became more so while watching it again for this review knowing Ward had also passed on.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this section, the idea behind this piece was to focus on what the Disney company had done right with this series of DVD releases - and the Kimball interview included on the Parent Trap disc is only one of the many wonderful supplemental items they have generously packed these editions with.
I think having Ward (and Swift also) documented in this manner, in a set priced as a real value to the consumer, is a terrific way to pay tribute to these guys. No treacle here - just a few more great moments with some folks whose work we admire so much.
So let's start our second look at these releases - in particular with one title, Pollyanna, that has caused quite a bit of controversy online with some of the choices made for its transfer...
Aspect ratios and 16x9 screens
This movie, as well as Parent Trap and Old Yeller were shot in a rather odd aspect ratio - mostly due to Walt Disney's concerns about future television use. (The one exception in this release, Swiss Family Robinson, was filmed in a wider screen format like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was - to further emphasize the spectacle of the story being told.)
While the three films were shot "safe" for TV with additional picture information in the frame - when shown in theaters they were slightly cropped to the wider 1:85 screens common to most movie houses to this day. What this does of course is play a little havoc with how it looks on current 4:3 TV setups, and in particular it causes a bit of grief on state of the art home theater widescreen systems.
Previous video releases of these movies, in particular Pollyanna, had minimal banding on their 4:3 letterboxed TV images. In transferring to the slightly more cropped dimensions of DVD 16x9 anamorphic widescreen, there is a bit less information from the film frame in the top and bottom of the shots now - which avoids having to "windowbox" the image by placing black bars on the sides.
Pollyanna in particular appears especially cramped, since David Swift was a television director first, and filmed the movie with that in mind. Old Yeller and Parent Trap on the other hand work better in the DVD 16x9 cropped format.
Ideally our television sets would adjust their screens, just as theaters can adjust their scrims, and we'd be able to sell every movie in it's optimal aspect ratio. But in the meantime, especially with the increased resolution and quality a widescreen home theater can now offer (with the proper DVD playback units that include features such as progressive scan) getting a film in an aspect ratio that approximates its original theatrical release is a good thing.
In my opinion, the added detail the DVD 16x9 anamorphic format now offers more than makes up for the slight amount of picture area lost - especially when this loss was planned for when the film was originally made.
Of special note in this release
The 8-minute "Preserving Pollyanna" segment is not listed in the packaging or any of the press releases for this title. Hosted by Disney restoration guru Scott McQueen it tells the fascinating story of how the movie's original negative faded, and how due to an error made in a preservation master a simple goof almost led to the loss of an entire reel of the film.
McQueen concisely explains the process involved in the restoration, and does so in such a manner that makes it easy to understand even if you have no technical knowledge of what is involved in film transfers. (You even get to see a strange, almost alien looking Hayley Mills.) This segment truly educates the viewer - it's not just another bit of PR fluff hyping the film. This quality approach in putting together this special edition helps make this DVD a true keepsake of a favorite film - and not just another bulky box set on your shelf.
Also fun to watch (and repeated on the Swiss Family Robinson disc, since the film was released in the same year) is the 1960 Disney Studio Album featurette. It is amazing to see just how much the Disney company had going on all at one time - all business areas are covered including the theme parks. A lot of the footage of Disneyland shown here is of special interest to collectors and fans.
(By the way, take a closer look at the two guys in the Nifty Nineties cartoon short - they are caricatures of animators Ward Kimball and Freddy Moore.)
Both the restored video and audio make this movie look and sound much better than before - in particular the restrained use of the 5.1 soundfield gives a very natural presentation to the soundtrack.
A two-disc set
Of special note in this release
Besides the Kimball / Swift interview I detailed at the beginning of this page, there are also two other very special featurettes included in this set - of interest because they together tell a story never heard before, which is what Hayley's on set double had to go through to make the movie. Especially touching is the story of a special gesture that Walt Disney made for the young girl who was on screen with Mills, but could not be revealed as such due to publicity purposes.
The Sherman Brothers video segment doesn't break any new ground, but it's always a pleasure to see the two guys chatting away about what they accomplished for the movie. (Who would have known that the Beatles were NOT the first to warble "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!" in a hit pop tune?)
"The Titlemakers" on the other hand (a segment of the Disneyland TV show promoting the movie) is one of the most bizarre productions ever to come out of the Disney studios. I won't give it away, but you do have to ask yourself if Walt had a bit of a God complex - and why is it that the voice of God sounds just like Paul (Haunted Mansion) Frees?
A two-disc set
Of special note in this release
Two featurettes stand out in this release. Although the "Ranch of the Golden Oak" tour comes across as a bit promotional, it really is interesting to see just how many film favorites have all been lensed at this one facility just outside of Los Angeles. (Finally, we get to find out where Pee Wee Herman hosted the Circus that dropped in on him!)
There is also a short TV news segment about the Old Yeller memorial put up in the home town of the book's author, a really nice extra touch. The "Dogs" film clip assembly is a hoot - it's a video roll call of the Disney dogs in just a few minutes.
This film has always been a particular favorite of mine - and I have to say it has never looked nor sounded better.
A two-disc set
Of special note in this release
OK you Disneyland fans - here is where it gets good. There is a "Swiss Family Treehouse" film that shows the park attraction before it opened - as it is being toured by the Mills family along with Walt Disney. The big thrill in this footage is seeing Walt the showman kidding around with everyone - he is in his element here, and enjoying all the features built into the treehouse. Hayley does a really sweet job narrating the soundless footage, and describes her special day climbing all around the various rooms and platforms. I'd never seen this before anywhere, and chances are you haven't either.
"Pirates!" is another video clip compilation in the same manner as the "Dogs!" one that is offered on the Old Yeller set - but again Disneyland fans will appreciate the various bits and pieces of footage from the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, both inside the ride and during the various ceremonies either opening it, or rededicating it over the years.
While this set is a very complete presentation of the film - you laserdisc collectors may want to hold on to your Exclusive Archive Editions of the movie. There are still a few bits and pieces in that set not included on the DVD.
The Swiss Family Robinson disc also features the one menu glitch in the whole series - when you try to return from the left supplemental screen back to the main supplemental screen you may have to repeat the process twice. This is a rather minor authoring error that some DVD units will gloss over, but more than a few may get caught on.
A two-disc set
In closing, I just want to yet again commend the folks at Disney Home Video for doing this series right. And what makes this release especially wonderful is that even though the sets all have rather high list prices of $29.98 each, they can be found at many retailers, and at Disney Stores, for only $19.98 each.
All four releases are well worth picking up even if you are the most causal fan of the movies, and I look forward to the next four titles, of which (as I understand) one will be 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Promotional photo © Disney
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Ward Kimball interview clips can also be found on the following video releases:
On DVD - Snow White, Fun & Fancy Free
On LaserDisc - The Disneyland Anthology includes what he considers his magnum opus Mars and Beyond, Pinocchio box set, Three Caballeros / Saludos Amigos box set, Alice in Wonderland box set
12/6/01 - Oscar™ salutes Walt - Al Lutz on the Academy Tribute in Beverly Hills, why the best stuff wasn't at the parks
3/20/02 - Penis - Al Lutz got your attention; now click on the link to find out what a new Disney animation book is all about
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