Reviews

Zorro: The Complete First and Second Seasons

Thanks to Disney's desire to preserve its heritage for future generations to enjoy, these limited edition box sets are like stepping back in time and witnessing the series premiere as it originally aired.


Zorro

Distributor: Walt Disney Home Video
Cast: Guy Williams, George J. Lewis, Gene Sheldon, Henry Calvin, Don Diamond
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: ABC
US Release Date: 2009-11-03
Website
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People like to complain that Disney - or better yet, the mega-multimedia side of the 2009 version of the company - owns the world. What with video, television, movies, music, theatrical productions, theme parks, networks, cable subsidiaries, all manner of merchandising, and a creative catalog that includes such divergent elements as The Muppets and Marvel Comics, the House of Mouse does seem like an omniscient entertainment enterprise.

But back before there was such a thing as DSL, digital delivery, the satellite dish, and the coaxial connection, the world that Walt built was an equally influential amusement giant. During the '50s, Disney practically owned the fledgling novelty known as TV. Between The Mickey Mouse Club, the various Disneyland anthologies, and Guy Williams action-packed take on famous pulp character created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, Disney was as well known then as now.

For many a sullen pre-teen suburbanite, growing up in the conservative afterglow of two terms with Eisenhower, Zorro was the original superhero, a Robin Hood of the Southwest combining a cavalier attitude with dashing good looks and a full blown mastery of the sword. Along with his mute sidekick Bernardo, Zorro - aka Don Diego de la Vega - protects the people of colonial California from shady cattle barons, corrupt bandits, mean-spirited members of the military, and all others who would take advantage of the poor and disenfranchised for their own immoral gains. So, too with his well-meaning nobleman father, Don Alejandro de la Vega, and a fat, friendly magistrate Sergeant Demetrio López García, the local legend rides out into the wilderness, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight.

Like the Lone Ranger, Daniel Boone, and any other number of Wild West folk heroes, Zorro tapped directly into the post-war zeitgeist that saw young people, raised on tales of grandpa and dad's GI derring-do, yearning for their own place at the champion's table. While too immature to achieve it themselves, regular TV serials like this gave kids an escape, a way of seeing the triumphant acts they'd only heard about realized in a simple, moralistic manner.

While Zorro was fond of a black cape and mask, his actions were indicative of the old school 'white hat' sense of justice. As a result, almost every villain was hyper-evil, given over to the kind of hand wringing and moustache twirling that the silent films fostered nearly 50 years earlier. While TV was still nothing more than radio in motion, the chance to move the visual from one's imagination to "reality" was a great leap forward for many fledgling fans.

Now Disney is offering an opportunity for post-modern munchkins to dig on what the older members of the clan clamored for back five decades ago. As part of the company's exclusive metal box Walt Disney Treasures collection, Zorro: The Complete First Season (1957-58) and Complete Second Season (1958 - 59) arrive completely remastered, restored, and presented over 12 separate DVDs.

In addition, the set also includes the four one hour specials created when rights issues halted production during the height of the series' popularity.As nostalgia, it's a knock-out, a wholesome slice of pre-cynic spectacle where the House of Mouse's patented production value is draped onto a collection of continuing story arcs involving cautionary tale tenets like greed, disloyalty, and underhandedness.

One of the best things about Zorro was its decision to mimic the antiquated matinee serial style that was waning toward the start of the '60s. By giving each initial 13 episode span a legitimate linking story, the show guaranteed to have audiences coming back each week for another exciting chapter in the tale.

The first narrative dealt with Don Diego de la Vega's arrival and his ongoing battles with the cruel Commandant Captain Monastario. The next focused on a conspiracy by Magistrado Galindo to rule all of California.

The final story in Season One revolved around the identity, and defeat, of The Eagle, a member of the aforementioned criminal cabal. Season Two found the hero falling in love with the lovely Ana Maria and then competing for her favors with an old rival named Ricardo del Amo. Several smaller plotlines involved an attempted assassination on the Governor of California, a visit from Cesar Romero as Diego's ne'er-do-well uncle, and more backdoor power plays and politics.

As the star, Guy Williams was a perfect choice. Italian by heritage (his real name was Armand Joseph Catalano), his rugged good looks landed him limited work in Hollywood before the chance at playing Zorro came along. Personally interviewed by Walt himself, Williams stepped into shoes previously filled by Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power and more or less made the part his own.

With a noticeable twinkle in his eye and the physical prowess to pull off the many high energy fencing scenes (he trained with an Olympic champion), he made both parts of the developing superhero dynamic - champion and chump - into likeable, identifiable figures. Though set many decades before the then modern tenure of the '50s, Williams seemed to represent the domineering new male of the era, a well turned out icon that offered up grace, machismo, and a sense of ethics and fairness.

Sure, some of the storylines seem dated, especially when placed alongside the uneven updates featuring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But for all their high tech Tinseltown scope, there is something far more fun about Williams and his merry band of recognizable Disney character actors.

Another intriguing aspect of this collection is watching the supposed guest stars wander in and out of Diego's life, including the fetching Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, Everett Sloane (of Citizen Kane fame) and TV stalwart Richard Anderson. They add an element of familiarity for those of us old enough to remember when Mickey and the Gang's returned to TV stations in the late '60s/early '70s.

There, show-within-shows like Spin and Marty continued the familiar boy's adventure tale style that Zorro utilized throughout its run. Fifty-two years later, it all comes across as rather fake and freakishly wholesome, but when held up against contemporary examples of same, these terrific tales of frontier justice hold up quite well.

Thanks to Disney's attention to detail, the desire to preserve its heritage for future generations to enjoy, these limited edition box sets are like stepping back in time and witnessing the series premiere as it originally aired. Film critic and company expert Leonard Maltin is on hand to guide us through the experience (does this man ever age?) and the hour long specials, while padded in places, are solid attempts to keep the Zorro franchise moving forward.

Williams would go on to yet another iconic series when Irwin Allen hired him to play John Robinson in his sensational sci-fi schlock-fest Lost in Space. But this is where the actor first found major mainstream success - and for a couple of years, America was indeed mesmerized by his character's combination of swashbuckling and savoir-faire.

Slice a "Z" into a piece of paper (or some other object) nowadays and you're bound to get more than a few dumbfounded looks. In 1957, however, everyone knew the mark of Zorro. Thankfully, the House of Mouse is giving us a chance to experience this hero's magic all over again.

8
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