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Like most everyone in the entertainment news space and millions of Star Wars fans, I've been waking up early on Friday mornings to watch the latest episode of The Mandalorian (and come up with good tweets about Baby Yoda) on Disney+. The first live-action Star Wars series has received deservedly rave reviews, and I'm having a ton of fun with it, but right now, it's less the new stuff on the streaming service that has me hooked on the streamer than it is the vast archive that the Walt Disney Company has uploaded to its city of servers.
The Mandalorian serves as the flagship show of Disney+'s first batch of new programs, which are sprinkled throughout the massive library that was made available at launch. That library, supplemented by the acquisition of 20th Century Fox and National Geographic, is the reason the platform could launch with only so many originals; at least at first, Disney+ is as much a nostalgia machine as it is an entrant into the new content war. And while there are many more originals on the way, from Marvel and other brands, the old stuff more than stands on its own right now, especially given the company's history of releasing its back catalog to the public.
Film Twitter can breathe easy — I'm a fan of physical media and own as many Blu-rays as is feasible in a small Manhattan apartment. But Disney+ isn't so much a replacement for physical media as it is a supplement, as it's hosting a treasure trove of films, shorts, and TV episodes that aren't readily available elsewhere. Disney has always been deliberate about the way it releases its old classics, both because so many of them were committed to film stock that requires significant care and restoration, and because the company was careful about preserving the value of revival theater runs and limited edition home video releases.
Nearly all of Disney's feature films are now available on Disney+, marking the first time that you've been able to stream them all in one place for a single subscription fee. The list includes the Renaissance classics (think The Lion King and Aladdin) and the Golden Age stuff (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.), as well as the old movies that starred Mickey Mouse and is OG friends instead of princesses and their square-jawed heroes.
It's an impressive collection, boasting classics such as Fun & Fancy Free, The Three Caballeros, and other significant features that were made during heady times and represent cultural and animation milestones. You can watch the development of the company's business and even the evolution of Walt Disney's personal interests; Caballeros and Saludos Amigos were inspired by the founder's tour of Latin America in the early '40s, while Fun & Fancy Free was an omnibus of shorts that did enough business to finance some of the early feature-length classics.
The ease of access to those feature films is a strong selling point, but it's the plethora of individual short films that represent the true cinematic gold mine. Disney+ offers what seems to be the single largest publicly accessible assembly of the cartoon shorts that began with 1928's "Steamboat Willie" and ran through the 1960s, establishing Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and the rest of the gang as international icons and setting industry standards.
The company has, over the years, put out different assortments of these seven and eight-minute shorts on DVD and aired them on the Disney Channel, most recently as part of its "Have a Laugh!" series. In that iteration, though, they were frequently edited down and sometimes remixed to fit in as interstitials between TV episodes of different lengths, and it's the shortened versions that populate the series' YouTube playlist. A few full-length shorts (like the one above) are on YouTube, while some are scattered throughout Disney's website — but, until now, they've existed without any obvious central hub.
It's not immediately obvious how many of these shorts are on Disney+ because even with a homepage for Mickey Mouse shorts, there are more suggested by the algorithm at the bottom of different pages. Plus, the platform is host to shorts starring other classic characters — like a proto-MCU, they had solo adventures, team-ups, and crossovers. But they certainly outnumber anything (legally) on YouTube, and each short is rendered in the highest quality HD I've seen, clearly a step or two up from the versions available on free video sites.
A new series of shorts launched in 2013 have been aimed at introducing Mickey to a new generation of fans, and while the four-minute shorts, with their modern animation and throwback antics, are definitely very fun, the old shorts are just as effective at making it clear why these characters became so globally beloved. Shorts like "Ye Olden Days" (1933), "Lonesome Ghost" (1937), and "Boat Builders" (1938) are effortlessly charming, with a vital mix of slapstick, sight gags, and smartly drawn personalities driving more elevated jokes; I'm sure there are also some nods and winks to era-specific trends and news stories that now go above the heads of most viewers (myself included).
Throughout the shorts, Mickey, in particular, is depicted as a quintessential Everyman, defying arrogant rivals and outdated social norms to ultimately win the day after any number of frustrations and silly setbacks. It's clear that he is a product of the Great Depression, a stand-in for an audience that could use some relatable inspiration and some against-the-odds victories.
"Lonesome Ghost," meanwhile, seems like it could have been a subconscious inspiration for Ghostbusters — Goofy even says "I ain't a-scared of no ghosts" — and "The Band Concert," which marks the first Disney cartoon produced in color, is still considered a seminal animated accomplishment.
Beyond early Easter eggs and trivia answers, the animated shorts, now revived and assembled, are a kind of living history lesson. Yes, there are moments that would no longer be culturally acceptable, and the company has some warning labels on applicable cartoons to make that clear. But their historic value is undeniable. Disney was the first studio to sync up sound and picture to an animated film and the first to use full color. Walt put together a writing department to develop the pathos of the stories, and throughout the '30s, other studios followed suit, leading to Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, as well as Fleischer's Popeye cartoons, among others.
As you watch these colorful, fast-paced shorts, it's impossible to not appreciate the artistry involved, especially given the fact that everything was hand-made, including the animation process itself, which was developed in real-time along with new technologies over the course of the decades that these pieces were produced. Viewing them in even a roughly chronological order reveals the leaps and bounds that were made over the course of four decades. Plus, if you watch with closed captions, you can get a transcript of what Donald Duck is saying, which unearths some lines that seemed lost to time, at least to casual viewers.
Disney has recognized the power of shorts as both an entertaining medium and proving ground for filmmakers. Pixar, in particular, is focused on the form, with episodes of a new Forky series (starring the Toy Story 4 character) and its Spark Shorts, which feature shorts made by up-and-coming animators at the company. Streaming allows Disney to both open its archive and create new sections of it all at once, providing viewers with a view to the past and look to the future, four to eight minutes at a time.