DVD Reviews: Walt Disney Treasures Wave IX -- Zorro: The First Complete Season; Zorro: The Second Complete Season (1957-1959)

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Walt Disney didn’t do pilots, focus groups or test screenings; what he did do was commit. By the late '50s and with only three networks to compete for audience attention spans, television had usurped the box office in popularity so much that over a half dozen movie studios scrambled to create new processes to try to recoup lost revenue.

Yet while logically Walt Disney Studios began to embrace widescreen as well and cut extra costs by ceasing production on all animated character shorts with the exception of Donald Duck, the head of the Mouse House decided to do the unthinkable by embracing the new medium to apply filmmaking techniques to American television.

A true home theatre pioneer in every sense of the word-- it wasn’t ego but enthusiasm that caused Walt Disney to balk at ABC’s suggestion that for his studio’s first foray into thirty minute primetime programming, he may want to produce a pilot for Zorro. Instead and thirty years before it became a catchphrase, Disney theorized that if he built it, they would come.

Eager to relay his vision for the series with the standard of excellence which his company demanded, he built the largest and most expensive set in the history of his studio and the audience kept up their half of the bargain as well. This occurred when 16.8 million viewers tuned in to see Guy Williams battle injustice as the masked swashbuckler out to conquer governmental corruption, capitalistic greed and general crime in 1880s Los Angeles. Garnering more viewers in its two season history than the number of individuals watching television in 2008-2009, Disney's action packed take on the original 1919 character benefited from the show's dynamic storytelling structure.

Similar to the reason that most cable series just feel fresher than a wide variety of network shows that deliver anywhere from twenty-two to twenty-six episodes per year, Zorro's writing team took the contemporary style cable TV approach of building a solid storyline that would typically unveil over thirteen episodes in each thirty-nine week season.

With music from the Sherman brothers who would later contribute to Mary Poppins and other Disney pictures, the premiere season of Zorro was especially popular among children who were caught up by the scale of the realistic sets with master painting backgrounds and first rate action including roof and horse dives as well as the famous swashbuckling.

Although a stuntman was used for some of the most dangerous choreographed sequences that necessitated the alteration of capes for safety sake, the authenticity of the action was heightened by the fact that the relatively unknown and charismatic leading man completed most of his own sword work.

Ironically, the former model and bit player who had been dropped by his contract at Universal because of a riding accident that left him injured had actually taken up fencing in order to mend his shoulder and strengthen his upper body. To today's audiences, this seems like a strange choice for Guy Williams to have made but most likely this decision was influenced by the fact that Errol Flynn movies were in vogue at the time which paid off immensely when Disney began casting Zorro.

While admittedly it's dated by today's standards, the epic scale of the production that delivered a mini-movie every single week still holds up well to contemporary viewers. It's further addictive thanks to that memorable theme song, which somehow begins playing on repeat in your brain after you've only watched a few episodes in this stunning collectible Walt Disney Treasures limited edition tin set.

However, I must confess that I found that this set was unfortunately lacking in the bonus feature department with several extras clocking in at less than ten minutes which was in stark contrast to last year's trio of Treasures. Still, the packaging and presentation as usual is top notch in offering the series to fans which has been broken down by season into two six-disc sets. Going against the tradition of Disney's gray film reel color boxes with a cool, series-fitting Zorro black shade, the two Treasures tins I received for review contained the studio's set staples of numbered and signed certificates along with a lithograph and collectible pin in each box.

Obviously going in more than fifty years later and having never seen the series before, I initially feared that seventy-eight episodes would become fairly monotonous. Yet fortunately, I was impressed by how watchable the series is today due to some breathtaking sequences that are sure to dazzle on a purely pop culture level when you realize how ahead of the game Disney was in presentation and style even on the small screen.

In the opening multiple week arc, our hero is called to California from academic study in Spain, wherein we discover that Don Diego de la Vega lives a life of dual identities while masquerading both with and without the mask. By using sharp-tongued wit in his pose as a slacker intellectual by day and adopting a cape, mask and employing a sword at night, Zorro takes the law into his own hands to right the wrongs for the underprivileged and mistreated residents of California.

Featuring terrific work by the main ensemble cast including Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, Zorro was also a landmark series in the casting of so many talented Latino actors including guest turns by Cesar Romero and Rita Moreno. Likewise, it remained fresh with the use of well-developed multiple episode arcs which again gave the series a longer, more well-planned film like feel that contemporary cable shows utilize to their great advantage.

Despite the fact that Zorro may have struggled to bridge the generational gap in creating as big of a phenomenon with adults as it did with children, it nonetheless remains a celebratory joy for the kid in all of us regardless of age, creed, race, gender or generation. Additionally its release couldn't come at a better time since right now we're especially in the mood to see the man who inspired Batman and the Lone Ranger get even with crooked authority figures and the wickedly wealthy who go after those who cannot fight back. And just as fittingly with audiences more reluctant to go to the multiplex more out of financial hardship than the TV boom of the Golden Age, once again we realize that just as he and the studio did in 1957, Walt Disney (along with Pixar) continue to release solid titles that bring the cinematic experience right to your living room... this time with even better technology.


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