Throughout his career, Walt Disney threw money at artists and technicians in hopes of cashing in on or co-opting the cinematic trends of the day, be they sound, color, widescreen, 3D, or even surrealism. But he and his hirelings also made art all their own. Consider Disney's first hit cartoon series: the "Alice" shorts, which combined live action and animation. The technique had been pioneered by Winsor McKay and the Fleischer brothers, but amid the polish Disney put on the concept, he held onto the sense of childlike delight in making a drawing come to life. The Alice shorts retain the natural wonder of handicraft.
A handful of Alice shorts lead off the double-disc collection Disney Rarities, which assembles scattered short films that don't feature the studio's anchor characters and don't fit under the "Silly Symphonies" umbrella. These one-off experiments and picture-book adaptations filled the gaps between more significant Disney projects, and in a lot of cases said more about their times than the Disney perennials. This past year, people have read covert anti-war messages into every movie outside of Chicken Little, but in 1943, there was no mistaking the message in Disney's short-form "Chicken Little," which spoke directly to its wartime audience, urging them not to heed gossip-mongers. Similarly, 1944's "The Pelican And The Snipe" explains why we sometimes make strange allies, and the 1952 adaptation of Virginia Lee Burton's cutesy urban nightmare "The Little House" makes an unmistakable case for post-war "white flight."
Disney Rarities contains only a few real classics, some of which are well-known (like the music-theory primer "Toot Whistle Plunk And Boom") and some unjustly forgotten (like the social satire "Football Now And Then," which gently mocks the strategic sports innovations of the '50s). But even the set's relative duds hold some fascination. The 1959 effort "Noah's Ark" and 1962's "A Symposium On Popular Songs" are both hit-and-miss—the latter hitting more than the former—but they also both represent rare Disney forays into stop-motion animation, using commonplace objects as a design foundation. Both shorts are connected to Disney's early days in the way they revel in the sheer pleasure of making vegetables dance.
Key features: An interview with the first woman to play Alice and a brief, informative documentary overview of Walt Disney's silent-era beginnings join the usual Leonard Maltin shillery.