The Plausible Impossible Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

It’s impossible to comprehend exactly how popular the Walt Disney anthology TV series was back in its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, in part because it’s still somewhat baffling to ponder what the anthology TV series was to begin with. Now, the phrase “anthology series” calls to mind images of shows like Fargo, True Detective, or American Horror Story. But anthology series that existed back in the nascent years of the televisual medium were drastically different from the splashy, star-driven cable shows of the last decade. The Walt Disney program, which has had multiple names in its decades of existence, shook things up on a weekly basis.

Such is the case with one of the two currently available episodes of the anthology show that you can stream, right now, on Disney+. (If you’re wondering, “Josh, are you ever going to use this column to talk about the other episode I can stream right now?”, don’t you worry. We’ll get there soon enough.) For anyone who loves animation, The Plausible Impossible is a genuine must-watch, because in just the span of 52 minutes, you get a glimpse at how Disney animators of the Golden Age would approach the art of animation. Now, it might seem like an hourlong description of how animation works might do well only on a niche network. At the time, The Plausible Impossible was one of the top-rated hours on television the week it aired.

The Pitch

Each episode of Disneyland, as it was called when The Plausible Impossible aired in 1956, had an opening-title sequence that was intended to ground the overall program in one of four sections. Just as the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California had four themed lands when it first opened, so too were there four possible areas in which the show would indulge: Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland. 

The Adventureland episodes would often be nature documentaries from Disney’s True-Life Adventures unit: explorations into the world of beavers, of seals, and more were part of the anthology show’s first season. The Tomorrowland episodes were fewer and further between, but among the most remarkable hours ever broadcast on television as they encapsulated the optimistic futurism Walt Disney embodied. (As much as any work NASA did, you can thank episodes like “Man in Space” and “Man on the Moon” for helping out in the space race of the late 1950s and 1960s. I sincerely hope they arrive on Disney+ soon.) The Frontierland episodes were those featuring characters like Davy Crockett and Elfego Baca. The episodes featuring Crockett, a real-life American figure, were revised into feature-length films in 1955 and 1956; you can stream those films now on Disney+.

And then, there were the Fantasyland episodes, which could be anything from rebroadcasts of Disney’s first animated features to intelligent and compelling explanations of the principles of hand-drawn animation. The Plausible Impossible wasn’t the first such episode embodying that latter idea: in the fall of 1955, Disneyland aired an episode entitled “The Story of the Animated Drawing”. In this hour, Walt Disney (who served as the host of the anthology show until his death in 1966) walked viewers through the history of animation, from cave paintings to seminal short films such as Gertie the Dinosaur, and eventually showing clips of Disney shorts and features, including the “Nutcracker Suite” segment from Fantasia.

The Plausible Impossible, arriving on Halloween night 1956, doubled down on exploring the techniques of animation, starting with its title. The core concept of the “plausible impossible” is that animation — both of the age in which the episode aired and as far back as the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt — often has impossible objects or actions that are drawn in such a way as to be plausible.

The Movie

The era of 1950s television had far fewer ads than network TV does now. That’s why The Plausible Impossible, technically an episode of TV, well surpasses the basic definition of a feature film, clocking in at 52 minutes. Throughout those 52 minutes, The Plausible Impossible (which you can find on Disney+ if you look in their Movies tab, an interesting choice considering its origins) somewhat mimics the style of the package films of the 1940s. The basic premise remains the same throughout, as Disney offers up examples of how the concept of the plausible impossible has been visualized over time. But Disney’s clarification on the concept is broken up by segments and clips.

Some of those segments are pretty familiar, such as the terrifying climax of Fantasia themed to “Night on Bald Mountain”, in which we see impossible demonic figures doing things that somehow seem plausible, from dancing to flying. Perhaps the most remarkable segment of The Plausible Impossible emanates from an unlikely source: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The 1937 classic is, of course, the film that started it all for Disney feature animation, and it’s available for you to stream right now on Disney+.

The Plausible Impossible, however, features something you cannot currently stream on Disney+: a deleted scene from the film in which the seven dwarves, after first encountering Snow White, get into more slapsticky scrapes. Specifically, the scene is all about when Dopey swallows a bar of soap after the beautiful and winsome princess exhorts the little men who live in the house deep in the forest to wash their hands, before the dwarves then slurp their soup loudly to her disdain. You’ve seen the dwarves wash their hands, but the soap (and soup) swallowing is all new.

That scene is available on the most recent Blu-ray release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but when the sequence aired in 1956, it was something of a first. The film had been re-released twice in between its initial release in 1937 and when The Plausible Impossible hit the airwaves. But this was a rare case: it’s one of the first times (if not the first time) when a deleted scene was presented to the masses, both as a sign of what could have been and as proof that most deleted scenes are deleted for a reason. (The soup-swallowing bit is a fine example of the plausible impossible, while also dragging down the pacing of the scene in which it originally appeared.)

The episode surrounding this deleted scene is mostly a fascinating treatise on what animation can be. Though Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are maybe not thought of as violent or wild as cartoon creations such as Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, Disney is able to boil down the concept of the plausible impossible by showing Mickey — already an impossibility as a walking, talking mouse — running off a cliff, realizing it, and then trying to turn tail and get back to solid ground. Each movement the character makes, and how the natural world around him reacts to his movements, is meant to communicate how the impossible can always be made real in animation. Though hand-drawn animation is scarcer to find now than in 1956, the principles are much the same with modern styles.

The Legacy

If you watch The Plausible Impossible in the year 2019, it’s impossible to divorce yourself from the reality of thinking about the show in context with modern television. In the era where there were only a few channels on any television set, and television sets were boxier, some in black-and-white, The Plausible Impossible was the kind of show that Disney could make to keep audiences entertained between serialized adventures of American figures like Davy Crockett.

The Walt Disney anthology TV series is an almost literal mixed bag. Over more than 50 years, there have been over one thousand episodes aired on a lot of different networks. (That’s because the program you may know now as The Wonderful World of Disney got its start as the Walt Disney anthology TV series.) Disneyland began airing on ABC in 1954, before shifting to NBC in 1961 for two decades. Then, it shifted to CBS for two seasons, before making a permanent home at ABC (now that Disney owns that network). If you look through the massive list of episodes, though, some of them are just rebroadcasts of Disney feature films, both live-action and animated. Others are original films, some of which you can stream right now on Disney+, just without the guise of being part of the anthology show itself. (Justin Morgan Had A Horse? Mr. Boogedy? Fuzzbucket? All were part of this anthology TV show.)

Yet most of the episodes that weren’t rebroadcasts haven’t had much of a home in the world of home media. Anyone who owned the right sets of Walt Disney Treasures DVD collections in the early 2000s could find a smattering of episodes of the show for the first time on disc. But The Plausible Impossible is available in HD for the first time with Disney+. The value of this hourlong glimpse into what animation was like back in the 1950s isn’t just to provide historical context for what the men and women (though, unfortunately, it was mostly men) who worked at Walt Disney Studios perceived as the plausible impossible. It’s to serve as a shock to the system, of what Disney on TV could do.

For now, there are just the two episodes of the Walt Disney anthology TV series to stream. I hope that changes soon — I have little doubt that most of the episodes in question are available to stream in HD. It’s just a matter of Disney+ making them available. (Maybe I’m wrong, but that raises a separate question: why would Disney make this episode available now? If you’re going to add anything, why this episode?) If you’re a fan of Disney and you have an hour to spare, don’t watch The Mandalorian just yet. Take some time out of your day to watch The Plausible Impossible — it’s the kind of thing Disney legitimately does not make anymore, and a fascinating look back at the studio as it existed in a bygone era. It’s not entirely nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, but a compelling reminder of how far animation has come.

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