In March 2005, Disneyphiles everywhere breathed a sigh of relief when Michael Eisner announced that he would be stepping down from his position as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. The man that Roy Disney said had turned the Walt Disney Co. into a “rapacious, soulless” corporation had been held responsible for many of the company’s poor decisions since the 1980s, decisions that had more to do with pleasing stockholders than with delivering the Disney experience.

Arguably the most egregious and offensive of these Eisner-dictated moves was cost-cutting at various Disney theme parks, especially Disneyland. As a result, the park’s legendary perfection started to show its cracks due to parsimonious maintenance, and the beloved ’50s iconography lost out to shortsighted attempts at modernization. Ultimately, Disneyland turned from the jewel in the company’s crown into something of an embarrassment.

Although changes had been afoot at Disneyland since 2003 in an attempt to reverse the park’s decline, Eisner’s departure provided fans the most relief, for it was he who most represented what had gone wrong. That elation coincided with the summer 2005 announcement of a documentary titled Disneyland: Secrets, Stories & Magic of the Happiest Place on Earth. Timed to be a part of the 50th anniversary of the park’s opening in July 1955, the documentary was to be one of the first in-depth, insider looks at Disneyland’s origins. However, it only finally appeared as part of the most recent addition to the Walt Disney Treasures line of archival Disney material.

Expanded from a single DVD to a double-disc set, Disneyland: Secrets, Stories & Magic (as it’s now called) is a rather disappointing entry into Disney’s repertoire of corporate propaganda. For a company so well-known for manufacturing and maintaining its own internal mythology, the 81-minute documentary fails to capture the imagination. While it’s interesting enough to hear about short-lived attractions that came and went, as well as those that never made it at all, the story line of “Walt’s folly” being willed into success by a team of dreamers and doers is too dominant – not that anyone would expect the studio-sanctioned footage to cover allegations of Walt’s anti-Semitism, or whether or not he was a union-busting FBI spy. For credibility, though, couldn’t they show us at least one former Imagineer confessing that his boss’ persnicketiness occasionally got annoying? In keeping with the historical whitewashing, two-pack-a-day-smoker Walt is never shown with a cigarette in his hand.

Discussions about and footage from the shambolic disaster that was the park’s opening day are amusing, and are as much of a deviation as we see from the fairy tale that dominates the film. Ironically, the period-produced publicity piece included in the set, People and Places: Disneyland U.S.A., is far more engaging due to the strictly vintage footage that takes you on a riveting 40-minute voyage through the park. Remastered with 5.1 surround sound and with gorgeous CinemaScope visuals, it’s a revelatory look at how Disneyland must have appeared to park-goers in 1955. Designed to fit the format of the People and Places series of theatrical films, the combination of gravitas and amazement in longtime Disney narrator Winston Hibler’s voice doesn’t lift the theme park to the exploratory level of the series’ other entrants, but it does make the piece feel more like an adventure than an advertisement.

Another byproduct of the end of the Eisner era had to do with a handful of cartoons featuring a rabbit named Oswald. As the first real character in Walt Disney’s animation stable – pre–Mickey Mouse – Oswald was lost in a rare Disney negotiation-gone-bad. Produced for Universal Pictures in the late 1920s, the Oswald shorts had been the only Disney works not owned by the company that bore his name and, until the release of this double-DVD set, were unavailable for viewing. It took years to break through corporate obstacles, but suffice it to say that new Disney CEO Bob Iger was finally able to negotiate for the return of this piece of history to its rightful place.

This Treasures release is notable mostly for archival purposes – it’s the ultimate completists’ item. Though remastered, many of the shorts are irreparably damaged; even those in good condition aren’t notable beyond their curiosity value. Most rely on forced-perspective tricks and repeated gags, rather than story development. While certainly a function of the fact that originally these were silent cartoons – here, they’re accompanied by freshly recorded soundtracks – they’re still not all that interesting to watch.

What does make this set stand out is the inclusion of the 1999 documentary The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story, focusing on the animator behind most of Disney’s early successes. Directed by Iwerks’ granddaughter, the film is understandably hagiographic, but still an enlightening look at the man whose artistic power combined with Disney’s marketing prowess to create the entertainment behemoth that even Michael Eisner couldn’t implode.



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