Mickey Mouse may have been Walt Disney’s trademark, but five years before the animator introduced the world to his round-eared rodent, the studio’s success lay in the hands of a girl named Alice. Of the 18 double-disc Walt Disney Treasures tins released to date, the “Disney Rarities” collection best lives up to its “treasure” title. Set assembles 31 classic Disney shorts, including five of the original Alice comedies, 10 Oscar nominees (two of them winners) and a handful of by-popular-demand favorites. Extras include two new interviews (one with the original Alice and “Walt’s first star,” Virginia Davis) and a quick history lesson.
What makes the Alice adventures so unique isn’t the animation, which is primitive by Disney standards, but the fact that Alice herself appears as a live-action element in a cartoon environment. Mixing media allowed Disney to produce longer short subjects, and as the series’ popularity grew, so did the amount of animated material within each segment.
The “Disney Rarities” set contains seven of the 56 Alice shorts, from her 1922 debut in “Alice’s Wonderland” through later installments in which other young girls took Davis’ place.
By 1927’s “Alice the Whaler,” the title character appeared onscreen for less than 30 seconds. Meanwhile, the short foretold Disney’s most popular character with an extended sequence featuring a pre-Mickey mouse in short pants.
The only place Mickey actually appears on these discs is in the helpful “From Kansas City to Hollywood” featurette, the closest thing to some much-needed historical context in this collection. Each disc opens with an introduction by Treasures series host Leonard Maltin, who explains that such stand-alone shorts “served as a kind of research and development lab where new ideas could be tried out.” Unfortunately, Maltin does not explain how or why these particular examples were chosen.
Like a mix tape of Maltin’s favorites, the contents span four decades of oddities and one-offs that wouldn’t fit with any other collection, from 1953’s Oscar-nominated “Ben and Me” — featuring another beloved Disney mouse, this one the brains behind Ben Franklin’s inventions — to stop-motion experiments like “Noah’s Ark” (1959) and “A Symposium on Popular Songs” (1962). Such an all-encompassing survey provides a well-deserved home for the varied characters who star in “Ferdinand the Bull” (1938), “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion” (1952) and “Paul Bunyan” (1958).
Collection is the gem in the latest wave of limited-edition Treasures sets. Other releases include “Mickey Mouse Show” spinoff “The Adventures of Spin & Marty”; select episodes from Disney’s “Elfego Baca” and “The Swamp Fox” series; and 32 more golden-era Donald shorts.