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Walt Disney Treasures:

Maybe the Scarlet Pimpernel predates him, but there's no question that Zorro really stands as the most influential of masked adventurers. Even wise writers on Batman had to acknowledge the debt directly; in the comics, at least, Bruce Wayne and his parents had attended The Mark of Zorro the night everything changed.

From silent film to modern cinema, Zorro has managed to survive every change in tastes. With the release today of Disney's version, a two season series from 1957, you could make the case that no matter what the era, just being Zorro makes him watchable.

The DVD release is nothing short of loving. Long-time Disney fan and movie critic Leonard Maltin opens the first season set with an enthusiastic tribute to his boyhood fandom, and watching the episodes only makes that gushing infectious. Tightly written with production values that raised the bar for weekly television, Zorro still works.

With stand-alone episodes that still string together in long arcs, it seems no wonder this was once the most popular show on television. Economically told, each episode packs in a healthy balance of (watered down) political intrigue, slapstick hijinks, villainy, and of course, dashing heroics on the part of Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams). From time to time, an episode will include a bit of dialogue getting new audiences up to speed about certain elements, but it doesn't ever grind down the storytelling.

Holding the center is, of course, Williams. If your only exposure to him has been through Lost In Space, this is quite a surprise. Charismatic and bold, he portrays a nobility of spirit that shines through both Zorro and his bookish alter-ego of Don Diego. Underneath it, you also get a sense that he enjoys the heck out of his double life, but that enjoyment never gets in the way of his various crusades against injustice.

Most importantly, he never winks at the audience. In one of the included documentaries, an actress on the series describes Williams as showing us the best of what a person could be, a true role model. And unlike later masked avengers, Williams' Zorro isn't actually an avenger. He sees injustice, and sees the opportunity to fight it. Though it occasionally pains him to let his father think he's a coward (though even that aspect of the character seems to fade over time), he knows he has to do it to protect him. Zorro has no extraordinary weapons, though he does have a Wonder Horse.

He's just the right guy doing the right thing at the right time. Sure, the character inspired Batman, and loaned him a lot of his schtick, but in many ways Zorro is the light to Batman's dark.

Though shot on the Disney back lot, it only rarely feels stage-bound. For the most part, it also stands up because of its setting in 1820's California - the dialogue isn't exactly stilted, but it's constructed to make it sound of a different time, and that still works.

The show does, however, have a somewhat paternalistic attitude towards the native Californians that might be jarring. Yet it's clear that in Zorro's eyes, everyone is equal, and he'll fight injustice no matter what form it takes. Maybe it's a black and white view, and that may also be why this got packaged as a "Walt Disney Treasure" from the Vaults instead of getting a major multi-media push - the show is completely shot in black and white.

In fact, the only reason the show stopped production was over that very issue - Walt Disney wanted to move it to color, and ABC didn't. So they stopped and sued each other for a couple of years. Is there something strange about Disney now owning ABC?

But for a lower print run DVD, this "Treasure" is well worth it. Released in two separate collections (Season 1 and Season 2), the episodes are in near pristine condition. Now that I've begun converting to Blu-ray, it's a shame that Disney didn't do that upgrade for this.

The collections each include an extra documentary. On Season One, a featurette covers the history of the character, though leaving out everything after Disney's version. (For the record, that would be Isabel Allende's novel, Culture Clash's play, two animated series of varying quality, George Hamilton's Zorro the Gay Blade and of course Antonio Banderas' two outings as the character. Wait -- I think there's more!.) Four one hour episodes used for Disneyland are parsed across the two collections; those four hours would have begun season three.

This one goes on the gift guide. It's a series meant for the whole family from a time when, mysteriously, studios (or at least one) actually understood how to make a series for the whole family.

Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro - The Complete First Season

Derek McCaw

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