Some time ago, I reviewed the direct-to-DVD movie Mickey’s House of Villains here in the Halloween Party, and while I liked it well enough, it did leave me kind of missing the far superior Disney Channel special of my youth, Disney’s Halloween Treat (or, to the layman, simply A Disney Halloween). It’s been years since they showed it and I’ve missed it quite a bit. Well, miraculously, someone managed to provide me with a digital rip of the show from an old VHS tape. Don’t ask me how I got it – I had to do some things I’m not proud of and I’ll never be able to look at string cheese the same way – but now that it’s in my possession, I knew I had to review it for you guys.
There have been several cuts of this special over the years at several lengths, the best being a 90-minute version that actually combined the original Halloween Treat with an older special, Disney’s Greatest Villains. When I started watching, I realized this was the network TV edit from the old Magical World of Disney TV series hosted by Michael Eisner. After a brief segment with Eisner and the crew getting ready for Halloween, we got into the real show. The version I remembered, see, was hosted by the Magic Mirror from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but this had a generic, faceless narrator. Curses. On the plus side, we still get the awesome opening song played over the old Silly Symphonies short, Skeleton Dance.
The special is essentially a clip show featuring segments from Disney cartoons and movies, and it gets right into it with the classic Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia. Considering how utterly sanitized Disney as a company has become, it’s hard to imagine a sequence about a giant demon summoning the spirits of the dead making it to the screen now. This, incidentally, is what makes it awesome.
Next is the “Wizard’s Duel” sequence from one of my favorite Disney flicks, The Sword in the Stone. The Halloween connection here is kind of strained – really, the only tenuous thread is the great witch character, Mad Madame Mim. It’s still fun to watch, though, as it’s been quite some time since I saw the movie (despite the fact that I bought the movie when the most recent special edition came out on DVD). This leads into one of Disney’s all-time greatest short cartoons, The Old Mill. This wordless film begins with a nice, serene look at a run-down windmill and all the animals that live there. When night comes, though, a storm rolls in and the mill is turned into a house of horrors. Purely from an artistic standpoint, this is one of the first pieces of animation that really elevated the art form – it’s amazing, and from what I understand, it created many of the techniques Disney would use in their first feature, Snow White.
There are two lighter shorts next – a very brief segment from a cartoon in which Mickey looks for a burglar in his house, and a much longer excerpt (almost the whole cartoon) from Donald Duck and the Gorilla. As the cartoon irises out over Don and the gorilla crying over a mound of onions, the narrator begins talking about the stuff of nightmares. By the time I realize he’s segueing into the “Heffalumps and Woozles” sequence from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, I realize he’s a much creepier host than I gave him credit for.
Next is Pluto’s Judgment Day: a kind of bland sequence about Pluto facing down Figaro the cat over some milk leads into a much better dream sequence in which Pluto imagines actually dying, then being judged by a demonic cat courtroom in the bowels of Hell! Let me stress that again: Mickey Mouse’s dog went to Hell!
Between the near-damnation of Pluto and the next cartoon, is now becoming clear to me why this special has been pulled from circulation. These days, Disney doesn’t want anything so intense to have Walt’s name on it, despite the fact that it’s awesome. This next cartoon is the only one I don’t remember from my youth (a quick search of Wikipedia explains it’s “The Truth About Cats” from an episode of the old Disney’s Wonderful World of Color TV series). It’s a great sequence about the history of cats, how they were believed to be familiars for witches, and the history of the Salem Witch Trials. Check it out: actual educational content. Plus, it’s just a great piece of animation. I wish I could watch the whole thing.
Next is the only segment in the special I don’t really care for: the “We Are Siamese” number from Lady and the Tramp. I don’t really have a reason why, I’ve just never liked that number. Does this make me a terrible person? Probably. I’m mentally checking out of the film when, all of a sudden…
…yes! He’s there! The magic mirror lives! I realize now he only hosted the part of this special cobbled together from the villain show, as he begins by shining the spotlight on Captain Hook and his epic battles with his two greatest foes: Peter Pan and Tick-Tock, the crocodile who ate Hook’s hand and, ever since, has wanted another taste. I’ve always loved this bit and always will.
(It’s also worth noting, here that both the mirror and Hook were voiced by the inimitable Hans Conreid. Nice little self-promotion there.)
Up next is a scene from one of the few Disney classics I’ve never seen in its entirety, The Aristocats. I really do need to watch this movie sooner or later, because the context of this segment is lost on me. I’m happy when Mickey Mouse takes center stage in our next cartoon, a long segment from Mickey and the Beanstalk. The Mirror actually makes a pretty compelling argument here. First of all, the hero in this story is interchangeable. Jack is replaced by Mickey, Donald, and Goofy without harming the story at all, but just try telling this story with no giant! What’s more the giant is kind of a victim here. He’s sitting in his castle, minding his own business, and these other three clowns burst in and start stealing his gold and eating his good. What’s up with that?
After the “Trust in Me” number from The Jungle Book, we go into Disney’s first true masterpiece: the transformation of the wicked queen from Snow White. This scene is really a testament to Disney’s early animators. It was the first ever full-length animated feature, and the animation holds up today even better than most contemporary stuff.
The next scene, from Sleeping Beauty, features Prince Phillip’s battle with Malificent – the only really memorable character from the film. The transformation scene, right up until her death, is great.
The Magic Mirror’s segment ends with a sort of montage of villainy, starring the evil stepmother from Cinderella, Cruella DeVil from 101 Dalmatians, the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland and Madame Medusa from The Rescuers. A hail of gunfire causes the mirror to flake out and run away, greatly diminishing his cool factor.
It’s just as well, though, as there’s only enough time left for two of the all-time great Disney Halloween bits. Lonesome Ghosts features Mickey, Donald, and Goofy opening a sort of Supernatural Investigation service. Or, as I like to put it, they’re the original Ghostbusters. A quartet of bored spooks call them in to clean out the very house they’re haunting, and chaos ensues.
Last, but most certainly not least, is the classic Trick or Treat. When Donald lays a trick on his nephews instead of a treat, they recruit a real live witch to help them serve up a little Halloween justice. Besides just being a really funny cartoon, there are two things that make this a classic. First up is Witch Hazel, voiced by the legendary June Foray. Foray is famous for dozens of classic cartoon characters – Rocky and Natasha from the old Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, Smurfette from the Smurfs, and from the Looney Tunes stable, Granny (Tweety and Sylvester’s owner) and their own version of Witch Hazel… plus others too numerous to count. She is perhaps second only to Mel Blanc on the list of all-time great cartoon voice artists.
The second thing that makes this cartoon a favorite of mine is the wonderful “Trick or Treat” song, which has become a Disney staple:
When ghosts and goblins by the score
Ring the bell on your front door
You better not be stingy or
Your nightmares will come true!
What grace! What poetry! This is a song that doesn’t even try to rhyme the fourth line, and why should it? What does it have to prove?
Watching this special brought back some great memories for me, and I know I’m not alone in wishing Disney would remaster it and give it an official DVD release. Or at least start showing it on the Disney Channel again. I mean, how many times a year can they rerun Halloweentown anyway?