Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Walt Disney Treasures - Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic
DVD review by Sombrero Grande
Disneyland U.S.A. was one of the initial releases of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD series back in 2001. The two-disc set contained "special historical broadcasts," such as "The Disneyland Story," the first episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland TV show that introduced the idea of the park to the public in 1954; "Dateline Disneyland," the recorded-live opening day festivities at the park in 1955; "Disneyland After Dark," a 1962 broadcast of various live acts performing at the park; and "The Tenth Anniversary Show," wherein Walt Disney celebrated the 10th anniversary of the opening of Disneyland by giving viewers a sneak peek into some of what was to come at Disneyland in its second decade, including Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic is, in a way, a follow-up to Disneyland U.S.A., and at the same time a near-perfect companion disc set to it. Secrets, Stories and Magic comprises two more DVDs (packed with even more material than in Disneyland U.S.A.) that add onto the material presented in the first Walt Disney Treasures release, taking viewers from behind-the-scenes of the park's live opening broadcast, right up to its 50th anniversary in 2005.
As with all Walt Disney Treasures DVDs, both discs comprising Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic start off with an introduction by film historian Leonard Maltin. These are great for providing context to the content of the discs, since the features that follow are not re-edited or otherwise "reframed" from their original 1950s-'60s broadcasts.
The first feature is the documentary that the entire DVD set gains its name from: Disneyland: Secrets, Stories And Magic Of The Happiest Place On Earth. This is a feature-length documentary originally made for the park's 50th anniversary in 2005, so you'll hear a lot of the marketing slogans from the 50th's promotion scattered around within. However, this is the first time that this documentary is seeing the light of day, right here on this DVD release. A few comments throughout are already dated, such as one interviewee remarking about the "two" Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but they aren't too distracting.
While the documentary has a nice feeling of polish to it, and it rounds up an impressive cast of interviewees (from some of the original Imagineers who built the park to those folks who have more recently left their creative marks on it--George Lucas, John Lasseter, Michael Eisner and Matt Ouimet), it ends up being one of the less interesting features of the whole set (which actually says more about the discs' other features than it does about this documentary).
The stories recounted in Disneyland: SSaMotHPoE will already be familiar to most Disneyland fans, to the point where I felt that having the word "Secrets" in the title of this documentary was really rather misleading. I learned very little watching it, and, though Leonard Maltin initially claims that all of the features on these discs could be considered "commercials for Disneyland," Disneyland: SSaMotHPoE is the only feature that really felt like such for me. The older episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color that appear on these discs, and the People And Places short film, are framed as entertainment pieces unto themselves and provide a much more intriguing "time-capsule"-like peek into Disneyland's history than this MTV-style-edited marketing piece.
While the documentary spans the time from before Disneyland's construction began up through 2005, it doesn't go into the level of detail I had hoped for along the way. Individual rides, like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Star Tours, and the Indiana Jones Adventure all seem like they're going to be getting little mini-features about their development, yet their portions of the documentary are wrapped up very quickly and without getting into any sort of depth about them.
That said, there are some very nice moments in the documentary, particularly when the usually frantic editing occasionally allows the viewer to focus on one of the "old-timers" who actually knew and worked with Walt. There's a particularly touching moment when X. Atencio, the man who wrote "Yo Ho, Yo Ho" for Pirates of the Caribbean and "Grim Grinning Ghosts" for the Haunted Mansion, talks about the day that Walt Disney died and Atencio's hand can be seen trembling as he recalls the emotional impact of that day.
The "Wonderful World of Disneyland Trivia Game" is the second feature on the first disc. In it, viewers (or, in this case, players) choose from either "Beginner" or "Advanced" levels of questioning and answer one trivia question from each of Disneyland's themed "lands." Answering them all correctly awards players a "nifty prize."
I have a few issues with this Trivia Game in that 1) the programming itself feels very buggy. On my regular (read: "hooked up to the TV") DVD player, this feature wouldn't work at all. On the Game screen, I couldn't select "Beginner" or "Advanced" to get the game started. Pressing "Select" on my remote did nothing, and pressing "Start" actually "paused" the menu itself! I had to pop the disc into my computer to start the Trivia Game, and even then I still ran into problems when 2) the disc would hesitate for so long after an answer that I kept wondering if the disc had stopped running altogether. Also 3) the "nifty prize" one wins at the end of the game is a very brief feature on a selected attraction. Like the Disneyland: SSaMotHPoE documentary, these little features never really went into as much detail as I would have liked, nor did they present anything new or novel.
The real "gold" of this DVD set begins with People And Places: Disneyland, U.S.A., a 1956 Cinemascope film--originally double-billed into theaters alongside Westward Ho the Wagons!--that gave movie-goers a wide-screen tour of the brand-new park in Anaheim and really showed it off as a startlingly unique place. As the feature begins with a fascinating helicopter view encircling the park, Disneyland-philes will delight in seeing the then year-old park from above and spotting the undeveloped locations of future attractions like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Alice in Wonderland, Splash Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
People and Places is presented with three audio options; the first is the original narration by Winston Hibler; the second is an audio commentary supplied by Maltin and legendary Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter; the third option allows the viewer to watch the cinematography with a beautiful music-only track. Baxter's comments on the feature are utterly fascinating as he recalls new information and the kind of behind-the-scenes secret stories that should have made up the Secrets, Stories and Magic documentary. This is one of the true highlights of this DVD set and is not to missed by any Disneyland fan or anyone with any sense of nostalgia for the 1950s.
Leading off disc two is "Operation Disneyland," a companion piece to "Dateline Disneyland." This short film was never meant to be seen by the public as is. It's a behind-the-scenes documentation made by/for the ABC network to show how enormous an undertaking it was broadcasting the live opening of Disneyland. It was the most complicated, biggest live production ever attempted at that time, and "Operation Disneyland" details how cameras and miles of cords had to be borrowed from all over California (many from other, competing networks), how cameramen had to ride on the front of forklifts (this was before the days of handheld cameras), how a crane was built on-the-spot for aerial shots, and how cords were strung all across Main Street, in and out of windows, to hook up to all the cameras to get the needed shots. It's a fascinating albeit dry presentation, as it was never meant to meet the public's eyes, but still a great chronicling of a giant undertaking.
Next up is "The Golden Horseshoe Revue," a 1962 episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color that takes viewers inside Frontierland's Golden Horseshoe Saloon for a special, 10,000th presentation of the long-running live stage show. It's called an "augmented" presentation because this is a special, extended version of the show, featuring guest stars performing added songs, dances and skits, such as Ed Wynn and Annette Funicello. For me, the highlight of the show was seeing Wally Boag, Walt's favorite comedian and the voice of Jose in the Enchanted Tiki Room, performing his physical comedy routines, but the rest just dragged. It's literally "entertainment from another era," as the slow-paced, song-laden show feels right at home on a 1950s western stage but doesn't fare quite as well playing on a modern television set.
Another of the great features on this DVD set is "Disneyland Goes to World's Fair," a fascinating look at the four attractions Disney was preparing for the 1964-'65 World's Fair: It's a Small World, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, Magic Skyway, and the Carousel of Progress. Particularly interesting to see here is the preparation work with Audio-Animatronic cavemen being done for Magic Skyway, the one attraction out of the four that did not make it in its entirety to Disneyland after the close of the Fair.
Also intriguing, though it does duplicate a few segments from the previous episode, is "Disneyland Around the Seasons," which serves as a kind of "year-in-review" for Disneyland at the close of 1966. Here we see It's a Small World and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln opening at Disneyland, along with a jet-packing spaceman in Tomorrowland, the opening of New Orleans Square, the integrating of the dinosaurs from Magic Skyway into the Disneyland Railroad's "Primeval World" diorama, and also Disneyland's Christmas Parade and Candlelight Processional. This episode has the distinction of being broadcast only a few days after the death of Walt Disney. In the episode, there's a rather touching shot of Walt playfully driving a buggy around on Main Street, the elderly man in the last year of his life, excitedly grinning and looking like a big kid playing with his favorite toy. Though it wasn't meant to be any kind of "goodbye, Walt" moment, it's touching in the context of the date it was first broadcast.
A final, wonderful addition to this DVD set is the "bonus feature" on disc two, entitled "Building Walt's Dream: Disneyland Under Construction." Walt had the foresight during the construction of his park to build temporary towers so that time-lapse cameras would be able to record the progress. The resulting footage was recently discovered and is presented here, again with an enlightening and mesmerizing commentary by Tony Baxter. Baxter regales viewers with intriguing tales as they witness the buildings of Main Street, Tomorrowland, Frontierland and even Sleeping Beauty's Castle rise up before their eyes. The surprising fact that many of these structures were completed mere days before Disneyland's grand opening seems to stress-out Baxter who compares all that he's seeing to the way Disney theme parks are built today. Like his commentary for People and Places, this is another outstanding highlight of a great two-DVD compilation.
As if all this wasn't enough, Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic comes packaged with a replica of an old Disneyland ticket book, which is alone nearly worth the purchase price for Disney dweebs like myself.
If you own the first Walt Disney Treasures release of Disneyland U.S.A. or know someone who does, Disneyland: SSM is a great companion disc, offering up much more of the same type of intriguing, time-capsule-like content that's well worth owning. Here's hoping Disney continues to release more two-DVD sets just like this one in the future, for as long as Disneyland continues to grow, change and adapt in the future, there will be more and more demand for entertaining, archival materials such as these for the Happiest Place on Earth.