Walt Disney Productions (1937-2007), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (October 26 2010), single discs sold separately, 73 and 63 mins respectively, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio (with one 1.78:1 exception), Dolby Digital, Rated TV-G, Retail: $19.99 each


Two volumes of classic Disney cartoons get “remastered, restored and remixed”…

The Sweatbox Review:

What a delightful surprise! Far from being the “remixed” degradations of classic Disney animated shorts that these packages might initially suggest, both volumes of the Studio’s new Have A Laugh! series provide a shocking bombshell for any discerning Disney fan. We’ll get to the good stuff in a bit, but up front let’s clear the way for it…

Little more than a year ago, around the run up to The Princess And The Frog’s release when Disney was at pains to remind us how great traditional Disney animation of the old-school was, I began to notice some odd variations on some of the Studio’s original cartoons start to pop up as television program filler and online content on the Disney website under a new brand name, Have A Laugh! It seemed that the Studio had taken a selection of their animated shorts and cut them down to three-minute bite-sized chunks, remixing the musical scores and – whoa! – recording new vocals for Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the gang using the current vocalists.

It took me a few minutes to puzzle out what was going on: the cartoons sported a rubber stamp “Short Version” logo on their title cards, and they weren’t quite as I remembered them. They were quicker and zippier than before, not “sped up” as such, but faster paced, edited down from their original six and eight minutes to less than half those lengths, the music expertly shortened and the new voices providing such a perfect recreation that I wondered how they had achieved such a clean audio restoration before logic told me they must be new recordings. But, most of all, the images looked brand new, totally remastered and restored to near the quality of the exceptional current Blu-ray editions of Walt’s theatrical features.

Despite how great they looked, I was initially disappointed: why cut down what were only short films to begin with? And wasn’t it a shame that the original cartoons would probably never enjoy this kind of digital cleanup due to time and the budgets no doubt needed? Well, color me very pleased, because the big surprise here is that on top of the (totally redundant, it has to be said) cut-downs, the original, full-length cartoon shorts have been restored to better than they’ve ever been seen before, and they’re all included here!

Split into two volumes, the caveat is that the selections aren’t always the very best that the Disney Studios have to offer in the way of classic cartoons. Disney’s was never really the place to go for the all-out knockabout humor of the hysterical kind that was a stock-in trade across town at Warner Bros’ Termite Terrace or Tex Avery’s unit at MGM, choosing instead to place a narrative structure over character routines and blackout gags. This didn’t mean the Disney cartoons couldn’t be fun: there are plenty that feature terrifically amusing scenarios and gags as well as the lush backgrounds and expert animation that we expect from the Studio, but it’s a pretty mixed up and random selection that we find here.

On Volume One, the stand-outs are the excellent 1938 ghostbusting precursor Lonesome Ghosts and – another surprise – the recent return to the big screen for Goofy, How To Hook Up Your Home Theater, perfectly produced in the style of The Goof’s classic demonstration films of the 1940s and 50s. Each cartoon is presented in either its “Original” version or an “Edited” edition, marked “Short Version” on the cartoons’ actual title card. Although there’s a Play All option, this turns out to be fairly redundant, since it’ll cycle through the full-length cartoon and then its cut-down: interesting to compare, but ultimately you’re not, essentially, going to want to watch the same cartoon twice right after one another!

The disc itself kicks off with Mickey And The Seal, a sweet but ultimately uneventful cartoon that comes from the Mouse’s late 1940s downturn in popularity, resting more on the antics of Pluto to raise some of the laughs, though it was Oscar nominated for best animated short in 1948. The cut-down, which comes with newly produced Have A Laugh! branding and recreations of the title credits now placed on the end, doesn’t really achieve its aim on increasing the laughs, but then again it’s pretty subdued to begin with (I should point out that all the full-length shorts’ titles remain intact as they were originally produced).

Next up is Lonesome Ghosts, which has always been one of my all-time favorites for its terrific grouping of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, here beating Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis to the ghost hunting game, and I’m so pleased it’s included among the titles picked to benefit from these restorations, especially for the lavish haunted house backgrounds and spectral apparition effects. As a packed cartoon to begin with, the Short Version makes a good job of cutting it in half, though it misses out several of the best gags. Winter Storage is next, with Donald facing off against an acorn hording Chip ‘n’ Dale, funny in both original and cut-down editions, though running such a cartoon back to back only reveals the subtleties between Clarence Nash and Tony Anselmo’s takes on the Duck.

How To Hook Up Your Home Theater is the welcome surprise in the first volume, in more ways than one (more on that below, in the Ink & Paint aspects), and does a good job of restoring the comical feel of the original Goofy shorts, from Michael Giacchino’s use of the second theatrical Goofy theme, to the artists depiction of the vintage character design. The intention was to make a “lost” Goofy cartoon that could have come right out of the vault, but dealing with a modern day topic, and they pull it off well.

The cut-down loses mostly the middle of the short, and actually doesn’t seem to miss it that much, though in either version watching The Goof trying to set up his multi-cabled high-tech home theater will strike a chord with anyone who has attempted to do the same thing! Finally on this first volume, Pluto gets his fill of Chip ‘n’ Dale’s antics in Food For Feudin’, a so-so outing for the pub from 1950, which otherwise plays out like Winter Storage and so doesn’t really add anything different to this collection, the cut-down basically lopping the front end off and deleting some later sequences.

Volume Two’s cartoon selection kicks off with another all-time great. In the Mickey, Donald, Goofy style of Lonesome Ghosts, Clock Cleaners is another grouping of the trio, again featuring some spectacular backgrounds and comic timing. Also of interest is that Donald’s original “Says you!” line – cut from previous releases for stupid reasons – has been reinstated here! Not only that, but it’s possibly the absolute best looking of the classic cartoons on both volumes, which is good news. The cut-down, too, while I’m not sure I agree with their use, does an extremely good job of whizzing through the short, showcasing the wonderful music, with emphasis predictably placed on Goofy’s hair-raising, high-flying hi-jinks!

Mr Mouse Takes A Trip, though extremely well animated, is an otherwise routine outing for Mickey and Pluto, though many will recognise this one as the cartoon being recorded in the footage of Walt performing as the Mouse that has surfaced as supplemental material on some collectors’ sets. Though it’s referenced elsewhere on both volumes, it’s nice to have the original version of The Art Of Skiing included, which with its dry narration and slow build-up, leads to some typical Goofy shenanigans, the cut-down playing out the more physical aspects.

Although Early To Bed isn’t the best “Donald can’t get to sleep” shorts, it contains a few chuckles, and the cut-down is again slightly mystifying in what it drops as a way to break the length in half, since it keeps some slow moments and loses some of the funnier gags. Finally, Pluto’s Sweater is a pick from the short-lived series of Pluto, Minnie and Figaro the kitten cartoons, and unfortunately, typically well observed Pluto characterization and animation aside, it’s ultimately not a particularly hilarious outing, though the cut-down shows just how spot on Russi Taylor is as Minnie’s current vocalist.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Though not actually designated bonus material, and selectable from the Cartoon Selection menu, both volumes of Have A Laugh! come with a series of Blams! and one Re-Micks (see what they did there?) apiece. On Volume One, scenes from How To Play Football, Double Dribble and How To Play Baseball are mixed together to form a Sports compilation of body slams, smashes and whacks…all emphasized, through audio effects, freeze framing and slo-mo replays, to sound as if maximum pain has been inflicted.

I’m not sure what the point of them are: Disney’s cartoons were never the most violent and yet here they are re-cut and showing our favorite characters getting all kinds of stuffing kicked out of them. The Art Of Skiing and The Hockey Champ are reduced to Skiing and Ice Skating Blams respectively, though if anything the constant messing around with the original cartoons makes these 90 second filler clips even more tedious to sit through. Volume Two’s Blams! feature more from The Art Of Skiing in Skiing 2, an Arctic Adventure derived from Polar Trappers, and Clock Cleaning – using (pre-restored) footage from Clock Cleaners, natch!

The Re-Micks are little better, basically serving up scenes from a cartoon matched to a track from Disney’s vast music library. Volume One gets Touchdown Mickey running to a two-minute cut-down of Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust (though the track is almost buried under the new sound effects), and for Volume Two Disney moppet Hannah Montana sings He Could Be The One over a montage of Mickey and Minnie moments, although with the footage for both in black and white, I’m not sure how attractive either clip will be to the no doubt aimed-for audience, no matter how rocked up they may be.

An option to “Improve Your View” merely promotes the benefits of Blu-ray, while Sneak Peeks are included on both volumes, with a Blu-ray spot, Bambi: Diamond Edition, Tangled and Phineas And Ferb: A Very Perry Christmas playing on start-up and, from the menu option, previews for the Movie Reward program, DisneyParks, The Lion King Diamond Edition, Toy Story 3, A Christmas Carol and the Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 double feature set.

Case Study:

It’s the packaging descriptions that truly lets down both Have A Laugh! volumes, boasting “5 Full-Length Original Shorts” and “5 Restored Versions” not really making mention that the “original shorts” are restored as well, and that the “restored versions” are actually the half-length cut-downs. In fact, if the purpose of the edited titles was to put a fun new spin on Mickey and Co’s adventures, then the packaging has uniquely failed, since it just looks like a repackaging of shorts, drawing some attention to the freshness with the repeated proclamation they have been “remixed, remastered, restored” without further detail. But, those shortcomings aside, the sleeve art, replicated on a shiny embossed slipcover, is actually bright, colorful and funky, and while it’s not quite true that these are “the funniest toons”, they certainly are “like you’ve never seen them before”, both in their newly mixed editions and the fantastic original length restorations.

Ink And Paint:

If I haven’t gushed profusely over the image quality enough yet, let me clarify: these classic Disney shorts now look almost as brand-spanking clean as the likes of Snow White and Pinocchio’s recent reissues. I say almost because they haven’t been quite as scrubbed clean to the point where the backgrounds look completely static: there’s a very nice, very fine layer of grain that keeps the toons looking authentically like film, but they’re miles ahead in terms of freshness and clarity than Warners’ Looney Tunes remasters or Disney’s own work on the Disney Treasures restorations, with nary a print mark in sight (except a couple of very faint tramlines reoccurring throughout Food For Feudin’, which suggests a problem with the original element).

In fact it’s ironic that most of them look better than Volume One’s How To Hook Up Your Home Theater, which provides yet another surprise: both the short Have A Laugh! version and the full-length original will fill your own home theater setups with an unexpected (and unannounced on the packaging) 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer! The only note of caution here is that for some reason, the full-length edition has been sourced from a film print as opposed to a direct digital conversion (like the cut-down), meaning that some heavier grain and not an unnoticeable amount of gate weave somewhat diminish the excitement of owning the cartoon (though only a bit).

Scratch Tracks:

While the re-recorded shorter editions predictably come loaded with 5.1 surround tracks (themselves not bursting from the speakers but still wider than usual for this vintage), the original full-length soundtracks are pretty dynamic too. Disney Studios was always careful to provide separate dubs for foreign markets, meaning that music and dialogue stems even for the shorts were preserved and can now be remixed for releases such as these. Any previous background or signal noise is now history, and the music scores have a nice warmth to them. Whatever else, when these (and hopefully others) make it to Blu-ray, they’re going to be benchmark quality for other classic cartoon releases to match. English, French and Spanish dubs and subs are all bundled in.

Final Cut:

If fudging around with the classic Disney shorts is what the Studio has to do in order to fund these terrific restorations, then I’m all for it, leaving the cut-downs to play as television filler (with the knock-on effect of introducing these cartoons to new audiences) while the originals look and sound better than ever before, inevitably destined for collector’s editions and high-definition. My only grumble would be that these aren’t the greatest or funniest Disney cartoons in the catalog, and at little more than an hour each (the total of all the content on the disc, not just the original toons), $20 for each is steep for what is reissued footage, new transfers or not.

$15 would be more reasonable, though there’s no reason why Disney couldn’t be smart and combine both volumes for a super-value two-hour disc that I think could sell at $25. As it is, the first volume’s anamorphic inclusion of Goofy’s Home Theater short makes it a no-brainer purchase, and if there are other cartoons that appeal then you can be rest assured they look and sound great, but wait for a price drop or deal on picking up both together: a combined retail of near $40 for both just isn’t going to put a smile on your anyone’s face, whatever the quality.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?