The foundation for the Walt Disney Company is the short film. It’s easy to forget this simple fact–too often encapsulated in the quote from Disney himself that “it all started with a mouse”–because Disney now owns roughly 80% of our childhoods in the form of Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, ABC, ESPN, and more. But well before full-length animated features like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Fantasia, Disney relied on short films to keep the lights on, first with Mickey Mouse, then with characters like Goofy, Donald Duck, and Pluto as the leads. That era has, mostly, gone by the wayside–Mickey has appeared in a number of highly stylized shorts that air on the Disney Channel, but that’s it. However, the short film hasn’t died out at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Over the past 15 years, Disney’s released 12 shorts, all of which are now available on Blu-ray (some for the first time) in the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection.
The major selling point of this Blu-ray, as evidenced by its front-and-center placement on the cover, is Disney’s newest short, Frozen Fever. (Note: if you wait a month or two, you can get this short as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for this spring’s live-action version of Cinderella.) The true selling point should be the series of shorts that haven’t been as widely seen, even if they’re not all equally emotionally potent and visually lively. Get a Horse!, Feast, and Paperman are all enjoyable—Paperman being the true standout of the three—but anyone who saw Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Wreck-It Ralph in theaters knows these shorts already. How many people are as intimately familiar with the opening trio on this Blu-ray? Not nearly enough, even though they make up the absolute best Disney has to offer on the disc.
John Henry, Lorenzo, and The Little Matchgirl, the 1-2-3 punch that opens this Blu-ray, are not only the best shorts on the disc, they rival Disney’s feature output of the last 15 years as the best animation released from the studio. Comprising roughly 22 minutes, the three shorts display the power, dexterity, and complexity that animation can afford its creators as well as audiences. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, John Henry is the longest short on the entire Blu-ray, clocking in at just under 11 minutes, but it’s exceedingly colorful and snappily paced, even as the adaptation of this well-known folktale reaches its tragic conclusion. Lorenzo is a sleeker, jazzier short, depicting a black-comedy nightmare wherein a pampered (literally) fat cat is cursed by a black cat with a tail that comes to horrifying life. The color scheme is more in line with the neon nightscapes of something like Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” but director Mike Gabriel, working off an idea from the late Disney animator Joe Grant, does an excellent job of balancing the visual palette with a bevy of mordant sight gags.
The Little Matchgirl, based on the story by well-known purveyor of happiness and joy Hans Christian Andersen, will just about stomp on your heart, leaving you a crumpled mess. (Only a robot would react otherwise.) From The Lion King co-director Roger Allers, The Little Matchgirl is so visually bleak that it’s nearly black-and-white. The animation and character design is more straightforward and less experimental, leaving it to the story itself to pack a nasty gut-punch of a finale. It’s not shocking that this short was originally featured on a DVD release of The Little Mermaid, an Andersen adaptation that sidesteps the tragic finale, but that doesn’t make this short’s ending any less haunting or heartbreaking.
To be fair, none of the other shorts here is bad–movie tie-ins Tangled Ever After and Frozen Fever are fine, though the former is funnier thanks to its Rube Goldberg-esque series of obstacles to overcome to make sure that Rapunzel and Flynn Rider’s wedding rings aren’t lost. And, as mentioned above, Get a Horse!, Paperman, and Feast are all very strong, proof that the short film is thriving at Disney. (The four shorts in the middle of this Blu-ray, including a new Goofy short and The Ballad of Nessie, are cute enough, but fairly unmemorable.) Anyone who’s interested in this Blu-ray, though, should know that the first three shorts are worth the price and then some. It’s just a shame that these didn’t get more of a marquee release, placed in front of a massive hit like Frozen. At least wide audiences can watch them now.
As is now expected with Disney’s new home-media releases, the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection looks and sounds lovely. The earlier shorts, those primarily driven by hand-drawn animation instead of computer, particularly pop with vivid colors. Lorenzo is visually defined by only a few colors, taking place in front of a black background, but looks gorgeous on the small screen; John Henry is a particularly vibrant piece of pop art, with an almost mural-esque quality. The more recent shorts also look quite good–Get a Horse! balances black-and-white and color animation as well as hand-drawn and computer deftly–but it’s the early shorts that are most remarkably rendered on Blu-ray.
It comes as no surprise, considering how Disney has handled its other recent home-media releases, that there are barely any special features on this Blu-ray. Instead of featuring audio commentaries from the filmmakers on each short, the dozen films are preceded (unless you manually select the “Off” option) by brief introductions by the directors, producers, and sometimes other crew members who were involved in their respective creations. Seeing as these are all roughly 30 seconds long, there’s nothing remotely insightful about the shorts offered by the de facto presenters. The editing of these intros suggests, unsurprisingly, that the introductions could’ve been longer, but were cut down.
There’s also another entry in the burgeoning @DisneyAnimation series of bonus features that appear on Disney’s recent animation Blu-rays. This one, called “The Short Story About Shorts,” is indeed…well, short: it’s a brief roundtable hosted by comedian and Big Hero 6 co-star T.J. Miller, wherein he speaks to a handful of filmmakers, including Lauren MacMullan, Kevin Deters, and Stevie Wermers-Skelton, directors of Get a Horse! and Prep and Landing: Operation Secret Santa, respectively. They get to briefly open up about what attracts them to making shorts as well as commenting on the legacy of Disney shorts–and the painstaking care with which the older shorts are treated at the Disney Animation Research Library. But, as usual, the brevity of the extra leaves you wanting a lot more detail.
Animation junkies will be most intrigued by the shorts at the front of this Blu-ray, but if you’re curious to see how Disney animation functions in only a handful of minutes at a time, this one may be worth checking out.