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Swiss Family Robinson

The "Vault Disney" Collection on DVD

By Jim Bray

Be a kid again with this bunch of DVD's that - at least so far - bring some of the Walt Disney Studio's best family classics to new life.

Disney's distributors sent TechnoFILE four of these classics, all of which are 2 disc sets featuring THX certified mastering and enough extras to keep the family cuddled around the electronic fireplace for hours at a time.

The picture quality isn't consistent, which could be due to the condition of the original source material, but it's still pretty good and all four of the titles we got were transferred in anamorphic widescreen, which will make owners of 16x9 TV's happy, and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, though that doesn't mean there's any surround.

My favorites of the four are Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller. Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, the other two titles, have never had much appeal to me but that's fine; it makes for a good cross section of titles.

Old Yeller

Swiss Family Robinson stars John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran and Janet Munro as the castaways and the apparent waif they save from the evil pirates. It's a wonderful story, charmingly directed and performed, and the new DVD does it justice.

The picture is 2.35:1 anamorphic and for the most part it's very good. The movie has indeed been given a new lease on life with this transfer, with its rich colors and sharp images. Despite the THX treatment the video quality isn't truly great, but it's very good.

Despite the Dolby Digital 5.1 label, the audio seems more or less monaural and like most films of this era the original sound didn't get as much attention as it does today, and this shows through. It's good, about as good as it can be, and that's okay.

Then there are the extras! Read on, McDuck!

Old Yeller, I'm embarrassed to say, still made me cry. Actually, the last time I saw it was when it first came out, at about five years of age, and I don't remember if I cried - but I remembered the pivotal scene and that it was very sad.

I hadn't realized just how powerful it is, though, and was glad to see the movie again some "X" number of years later. It really is a great flick, and you'd have to be made of stone not to be affected by it.

The story revolves around a pioneering Texas family whose father (Fess Parker) has left on business, leaving his wife (Dorothy McGuire) and kids (Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran) to run the ranch. Mom and Travis (Kirk) rise magnificently to the occasion while little Arliss (Corcoran) runs amok around them as a little boy would.

PollyannaYeller's the dawg, of course, a big old mutt who's irreverent in stealing eggs but loyal and strong when the plot needs it most. He wriggles his way into Travis' heart slowly, but by the "waah!" scene the two are tightly bonded.

The picture isn't nearly as good on "Yeller" as it is on "Robinson," and that's a shame. It's anamorphic widescreen, which is good, but it's also very grainy and looks like an old movie which, of course, it is. The audio is comparable to that on "Robinson," which is okay.

Fortunately, it's as great a 2 disc set as "Robinson." This means that disc one includes a running commentary by the surviving cast and/or director and others, as well as an animated short to accompany the film in grand moviehouse tradition.

In fact, when you hit "play" to start the movie, you're told they've set the discs up in their original theatrical form, which has the cartoon playing first and leading into the movie. If you continue, that's what you get (and it's a pretty neat way to release a DVD) - and you can always hit the chapter skip button to dump out of the cartoon if you prefer; and you can return to it from the menu later, if you like.

Neither cartoon is particularly funny, unfortunately.

Both Discs Two are gold mines. They each feature a good documentary/retrospective featuring cast and crew recollections and clips, and a conversation with James MacArthur (Robinson) or Tommy Kirk (Yeller). There are also shorter features including "Lost Treasures," which feature a quick but loving look at a particular aspect of each film (in Robinson's case it's the treehouse, while Yeller features the ranch on which the film was shot).

The Parent TrapAnd that's only the beginning. A "production archives" with each disc is a whole filing cabinet worth of looks at a variety of things Disney and "movie magic," including a demonstration of Foley artistry. There's a "Disney Studio Album" for the year of each film and a couple of other tidbits.

Pollyanna and The Parent Trap have similar features, changed to fit the subject matter of course. For instance, their audio commentaries feature Hayley Mills and director David Swift, for obvious reasons. And they also feature documentaries and other extras on the second disc that are similar in concept to the more "guy flick" titles.

Despite my disappointment with Yeller's picture quality, I was very impressed with these new Disney titles. I hope they keep up the good work, and put the same effort into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Poppins, Toby Tyler, and many more.

Disney is off to a good start in releasing what should be a lovingly assembled collection that's perfect for boomers who grew up on this stuff and probably forced it down our kids' throats a generation later.

And now that we have this restored collection we can make our grandkids sit through it with us (so we can see it again), too!


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Updated May 13, 2006