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Featured TV on DVD Review: Disney Documentary Triple-Shot

November 29th, 2010

Disney Documentary Triple-Shot: The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story - Buy from Amazon, Waking Sleeping Beauty - Buy from Amazon, and Walt and El Grupo - Buy from Amazon

This week a trio of Disney documentaries are hitting the home market. While all three films earned reviews that ranged from good to great, none made any real impact at the box office. Are they worth checking out on DVD? Perhaps even buying?

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story

The first of the documentaries, chronologically and alphabetically, is a look at the Richard and Robert Sherman, who are the legendary composers / lyricists that helped build Walt Disney studio. To be blunt, calling them legendary is a bit of an insult. They helped to create a number of classic films, like Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, etc. Just hearing the names is likely enough to get some of the songs stuck in your head. However, while they are legends, this is not a hagiography and some of the darker elements of their relationship are explored. They are brothers, and while their creative collaborations produced some amazing songs, they didn't have the best of relationships. In fact, the movie starts out with the two directors, Gregory (son of Richard) and Jeffrey (son of Robert), saying how as kids they never really knew each other, despite living so close together, because their fathers didn't get along. Because this film isn't just filled with praise, it is arguably the best of the three that are coming out this week.

(Also, there's a very funny section with a few people that were interviewed talking about "It's a Small World" and how insidiously catchy it is.)

The Extras

There are numerous deleted / extended scenes on the DVD, on how they got their nickname, working at Disney, how they collaborated, specific songs, etc. While most are only a few minutes long, in total they add significant value to the DVD.

The Verdict

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story is arguably the best of the three films coming out this week, and while it has the weakest extras, the DVD is still worth buying.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

From 1937 and the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney was the undisputed king of animation for decades. However, by the 1980s, the animation department was at its lowest point in its history. When The Black Cauldron bombed at the box office (it was beat by The Care Bears Movie) there was even talk that the animation studio would be closed. This documentary looks at the history at of the studio, mostly the period from that low point, to the eventual resurgence with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, to The Lion King, etc.

Some have complained that this film is a little too self-congratulatory, or that it focuses too much on the behind-the-scenes, but I found this film to be the most intriguing of the three. Perhaps its because I grew up during this period. I remember looking forward to The Black Cauldron being made. I remember hearing about the turmoil after that film bombed. I remember hearing about the shake up at the top. I remember all of that, so hearing some first hand stories about what happened at the time was fascinating. Admittedly, it would have been equally fascinating to hear more about the animators and the animation process, but that's a different movie.

Also, I still think The Black Cauldron would have been a hit if they made the film darker and took a PG, or even a PG-13 rating.

The Extras

Extras start with an audio commentary track with Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, who not only made the movie, but are featured in the movie, as they were both involved in the studio at this time. Next up is a 9-minute making of featurette that discusses the origin of the story, editorial choices, etc. There are six deleted scenes, some of which could have been included in the movie, while others are more raw archival footage of which short clips were used in the movie. The Sailor, The Mountain Climber, The Artist, & The Poet is a 15-minute featurette on Roy Disney, who sadly died between the premiere of the film and the DVD release, as well as the three other major players in the story who have passed away: Frank Wells, Joe Ranft, and Howard Ashman. There are three studio tours starting with an intro. We see clips of these from these in the movie, but there's more context here. A Reunion is a short, two-minute interview with Kirk Wise and Rob Minkoff, who directed two of the biggest hits of the era, and who have known each other since high school. Finally, Walt is a six-minute featurette on Walt Disney, and what he would have thought of the movie.

The Verdict

Waking Sleeping Beauty tells the story of arguably the most tumultuous time in Disney's animation history. If you are a fan of the art form in general, and of Disney in particular, then the film is worth checking out. Meanwhile, the DVD has better than expected extras and it is worth picking up over just renting.

Walt and El Grupo

This film starts with a bit of background into what was happening at Disney studio and the world at large. The studio was stuck in a labor dispute and many of the animators had gone on strike. (Paying your inkers and painters $1000 a year, and you top artists $500 a week can cause strife.) And 1941 was also the year the United States entered World War II. Many South American nations were still neutral, but the Nazis were quite popular in the area. Because of this, the American government wanted Walt Disney to travel to the area as a cultural ambassador. Walt Disney wasn't interested in just being an ambassador, but if he could take a crew of creative staff with him, perhaps he could turn his trip into a few movies. And that is exactly what he did.

This movie is a recollection of that trip with interviews with people who were there, both as part of El Grupo, as the artists came to be known, as well as people who lived in the areas they visited. There are also letters sent by those who participated, archival footage and images, etc. It's an engrossing look at a very specific time in world history and Walt Disney's place within it, if you are a fan of the history of Disney, and not just a fan of the collected creative output. Some critics have complained that it is like watching someone's home movies of a family vacation. And admittedly, it doesn't spend a whole lot of time on why the trip was important, and this context could be important to some.

The Extras

Extras start with an audio commentary track with the director, Theodore Thomas, and film historian, J.R.Kaufman. Photos in Motion is a short three-minute featurette on the archival images seen in the movie, and some of the filmmaking techniques used to add style to otherwise static shots. There are a trio of deleted scenes that include title cards with introductions. The final special feature is the original 1943 cut of Saludos Amigos, which includes the scene of Goofy smoking, which has been cut from subsequent releases. ... I can imagine for a lot of people this is the reason to buy this DVD, while the feature documentary would be considered the special feature. The film presents four shorts, plus live-action sections cut in-between. Lake Titicaca features Donald Duck on vacation in the high Peru mountains dealing with altitude sickness, a lama with an attitude, and more. In Pedro, we look in on a young mail delivery plane making the dangerous trek from Chile to Argentina. El Gaucho Goofy is typical among the Goofy instructional cartoons that the character was famous for, this time he shows the life of the Gaucho, or the Argentine cowboy. In Aquarela do Brasil, or Watercolors of Brazil, José Carioca plays host to Donald Duck and he introduces him to the city of Rio de Janeiro.

The Verdict

Walt and El Grupo is in my mind the weakest of the three documentaries on this list, but paradoxically, the DVD has the best extras. In fact, the original cut of Saludos Amigos lifts the DVD to the purchase level for a lot of fans of Disney shorts.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, Walt and El Grupo, Waking Sleeping Beauty