Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony shorts shaped the future of animation forever and Disneyland Records just rolled out all the stops with the ultimate tribute to the series. If you can justify its hefty price tag, the new set is (almost) everything a fan could dream of.
The Silly Symphony Collection compiles all 75 shorts into 16 vinyl records, with each short accompanied by notes from historians J.B. Kaufman and Russell Merritt. One could spend many an afternoon sliding on the records and sifting through Kaufman and Merritt’s commentary. The set (and its medium) gives the complete picture of a special moment in history not just for Disney, but for the history of entertainment itself.
The Silly Symphony series is nearly as old as Mickey Mouse, as it debuted in 1929 with The Skeleton Dance. The shorts were produced by Disney artists parallel to the Mickey shorts through 1939, meaning they are an accurate look into the Disney Studio’s formative years: a decade filled with innovation, excitement, experiments, hardships, and triumphs. Almost every Silly Symphony is inspired by a familiar fairy tale or fable, setting the stage for the full-length projects Disney would later tackle. Each short, as its series title implies, keeps music at its center with the score driving the story. With this idea in mind, experiencing the entire series strictly aurally, without its visual accompaniment, is a testament to the success of composers Frank Churchill, Carl Stalling, and Leigh Harline as they clearly weaved the shorts’ stories through their music.
Over the course of the collection, there are plenty of unique tones from the versatile series. These shorts jump from being as cartoony at The Tortoise and the Hare to as artistic as The Old Mill to as dark as Hell’s Bells to as expressive as four shorts representing each of the seasons. Music follows these tones with diversity and expertise. Sometimes there is a concrete plot and other times not, but there is always an emphasis on music as a storyteller. It’s has that distinct sound that just oozes vintage Disney in the best way… the kind of music that accentuates a visit to Toontown in Disneyland and immediately relays the message that you are transported to a different time. Each track has been fully restored and sounds better than ever, while still retaining its distinctly bygone-era feel.
The presentation of the entire collection is gorgeous. Just look at it! From the barrage of images chosen to the bright, popping colors to the texture of the keepsake box, this is truly a treasure.
While surely there was never a more comprehensive salute to the Silly Symphony series than this, one has to wonder why this specific format was selected. Yes, vinyls are currently making a comeback, are indicative of a time from the past, and mirror the subject matter (even if vinyls didn’t really hit it off until the ’50s). And there is certainly merit in enjoying these tracks with the easy-going listening experience that a vinyl record player provides. However, in a age when “digital” and “portable” are the names of the game, it is perplexing Disney didn’t just take the next logical step if it was going to go as far as to restore all this music. Those who purchase The Silly Symphony Collection vinyl set also get a digital music download for all 75 tracks, which is a great bonus. Unfortunately, though, there is no digital stand-alone option for those who do not want to purchase the vinyls.
Additionally, while the series is in the spotlight, why not simultaneously release the shorts with their visual component to Blu-ray and digital HD video? The shorts have never received high-definition video treatment, and are not available for official download anywhere digitally. (They were released to DVD in two separate volumes in 2001 and 2006 through the Walt Disney Treasures line, though those are long out of print for fans who missed their chance.) While what’s presented in this new set is fantastic, it seems to miss an opportunity to go the extra mile.
There is also the matter of the set’s hefty price tag. At $399.98, The Silly Symphony Collection is isolated as an elite item for a hardcore collector. It’s a serious purchase. For someone who loves the series, there likely isn’t going to be as good a treatment as this collection for a long time and there never has been before. But is it worth $400? That’s the question, and the answer changes on a person-to-person basis.
The Silly Symphony Collection is the definitive audio tribute to the short film series whose importance to the Disney pantheon cannot be expressed enough, and is often overlooked. Without the pioneering pursuit by Walt and his animators through the Silly Symphony era, feature animation would have been out of the question. This set gives us the chance to be re-acquainted with the shorts we can perhaps recite by heart, like The Three Little Pigs, but also surfaces some we might not have even heard of before (and with 75 shorts across the 16 vinyls, those unknowns add up quite a bit). This is a totally unique style of music that audiences just don’t hear much of today, and it is completely indicative of this point in animation history: wildly inventive, intensely cartoony, and quintessentially Disney. The trouble comes in justifying the set’s astounding price vs. holding out hope for a less expensive digital or video option becoming available later.
This review was written from a 10-track digital sampler provided by Disney.
The Silly Symphony Collection is available December 18, 2015.
What’s your favorite Silly Symphony? Will you purchase this set?
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes