‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black & White Vol. 2’ shows the evolution of an animation icon

[rating=3]Starring: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto

Although I received this DVD set several weeks ago, I’m only now getting the review posted because I wanted to take my time in watching it. There are a good amount of short cartoons on this pair of DVDs, and it wasn’t easy getting through them all in a short period of time. Especially with the holidays.

Mickey mourns a robot in a short on 'Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black & White, Vol. 2'
Mickey mourns a robot in a short on ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black & White, Vol. 2’

Why did I want to make sure I watched them all? Because I really wanted to experience each of these classic cartoons before giving my thoughts on it. To be honest, some of them were a little difficult to sit through, and there is a certain level of racism apparent in a few. But I didn’t want to simply dismiss the earlier work, nor did I want to unfairly judge the characterizations of certain characters throughout.

This collection, dubbed “volume two,” features more of the Mickey Mouse shorts from 1928 to 1935. The animation is rudimentary, and for the most part plot is pretty nonexistent in the earlier ones. It isn’t until around 1933 when the shorts become a little more complex. There is some pretty obvious racial commentary here, much of it uncomplimentary. I think children today would probably have a difficult time sitting through many of the musical shorts, which are largely goofy and have little point to them.

With that said, what is fascinating about watching these shorts is how they reflect the time in which they were made, and how animation has grown and developed in the 70-plus years since.

My above comments are a bit dismissive, and if I left my thoughts on this DVD set there, it would be patently unfair. First and foremost, you need to have some understanding of the audience at the time. Film was still a relatively new and exciting medium, and animation was a rare art form. Disney successfully made animation successful, but at the time they were the only ones to really do so. Sure, there were other companies doing their own thing, but nothing that even came close to matching Disney in its cultural impact.

The stories in the earlier shorts are fairly simple, assuming the short bothers to really tell one. Many of them are just musical numbers with a lot of outlandish animation. All the characters move like their made of rubber, and the complexity of the animation is generally as simple as the story or characters themselves. “The Barnyard Concert” is a good example, which is largely just a musical in nature and representative of many of the shorts.

Another repeated theme in several of the Mickey Mouse shorts is the “rescue Minnie” concept, which gets played out several times, such as with “The Cactus Kid” and “Mickey in Arabia.”

There are some subtle changes to the Mickey Mouse character over the progression of these years. In “The Barn Dance”, Mickey’s eyes have the notches in them, his arms and legs are thin and long. But by the time we reach the early 30s, he has begun to look more like the character we know now, if still a little less refined.

But as the shorts get further into the 1930s, other differences begin to appear. The animation becomes much better, and the stories begin to show levels of complexity that was previously rare. One example would be “The Wayward Canary”, which is generally musical but has something of a plot that gives hints to the direction the Mickey Mouse cartoons are destined to take, especially the Pluto shorts.

There are three shorts that really serve as prime examples for how much these cartoons improve, starting with “The Mechanical Man”. It features more conventional plot elements than is found in many of the earlier works, and tells a story that is more advanced. The artwork of the mechanical man also, at least in my opinion, shows a significant move forward in complexity and style.

Another example was “Mickey’s Steam Roller”, which isn’t very complex, but is again more of a conventional story than the older films. The animation is also clearly far more refined.

“Mickey’s Good Deed” is another of my favorites. With a story that is more about the characters than a contrived scenario, it’s actually a heartwarming tale that probably signifies best what made Mickey Mouse such a iconic character. It’s also funny how the short so effectively serves as an homage to Charlie Chaplin.

One of the main issues with these older cartoons is the racial stereotypes that are so clearly put on display. Many of the barnyard shorts are indicative of clichéd images of blacks during that time. Other ethnic groups, such as Arabs and Asians, aren’t shown with much respect either. Some of the most questionable shorts are set aside in “From the Vault”, and it was good to see that the folks at Disney weren’t afraid to address this issue.

As the DVD points out, these cartoons were made in a time where certain attitudes towards non-whites were more publicly accepted. While it is fair to examine the racial tones of these shorts, whether or not you want to judge them for it is another issue. For example, “Mikey’s Mellerdrammer” would probably be considered the most offensive, as it makes fun of the famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

But not all of them have racial issues that make them questionable. In one, “The Moose Hunt”, Mickey is a gun-toting rifleman out to kill him a moose. During the hunt, he shoots what he thinks is a deer, only to discover that it is Pluto. While his loyal dog doesn’t die, the tone of the short is a tad dark, and I would be surprised if something like it would be made today.

Along with the shorts, these two DVDs include a few other interesting features. One of them is a look at the Mickey Mouse cartoon strips that appears in newspapers during this time period. “Mickey Mania: Collecting Mickey Merchandise” is also another notable feature, which serves as a tour of some of the rarest items of Mickey memorabilia from the golden day of Disney. “Mickey’s Portrait Artist: John Hench” explores the man who painted two of Mickey Mouse’s portraits, and helped define the logic that Mickey and his friends were real people, not just cartoon characters.

Overall, I found this collection of shorts to be an education of sorts. A peek into the past, not only of animation, but of the country in general. Disney has done a top-notch job with these Disney Treasures collections, and I look forward to seeing more.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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