Sunday, July 21, 2019

Walt Disney, part XII: What was the name of this movie again?


Breezy and likeable, Fun and Fancy Free is exactly what we needed as we move through the dark days of Disney during the late 1940s.

Directed by Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske, and William Morgan

Spoiler alert: moderate

I wouldn't even guess as to what the full tally is, but it must be close to a dozen, the number of features that Walt Disney gave at least a tentative "yes" to in the three years between the triumphant release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the cataclysmic release of Fantasia, but which were canceled, delayed, or, sometimes, cannibalized for parts.  You almost think that maybe his studio would've had marginally fewer money problems if he hadn't commissioned so much serious pre-production work on so many films only for the studio to deprioritize them into limbo: Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, Bambi, a Hans Christian Andersen anthology that included both The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen (i.e., Frozen, albeit many years later),  Reynard the Fox (i.e., somehow, eventually, Robin Hood), and—more relevantly to our purposes here—Little Bear Bongo, based on Sinclair Lewis's 1930 children's story, and The Legend of Happy Valley, an adaptation of the tale of Jack and the beanstalk, now starring Mickey Mouse.

Bambi was the only one that was produced in anything remotely resembling a timely fashion (and only remotely), but the last two would also pan out in the comparative near-term.  Of course, what they became in the reviving-but-still-cash-strapped reality of 1947 could, in the end, only be Fun and Fancy Free: a compilation that winnowed the projects down to their essential beats (or not—clearly, that's a matter of taste), and then lashed the two of them together as part of another Disney package film, the chronological fourth of the six package films that are today recognized as part of the so-called "Disney canon."

It therefore represented the last of the three basic types of Disney package film: the Good Neighbor Collections of animated amblings aimed at Latin American audiences, 1943's Saludos Amigos and 1945's The Three Caballeros; the pair of films that asked "what if Fantasia were half as expensive, and a quarter as good?", perhaps more objectively described as the Popular Music Anthologies, 1946's Make Mine Music and 1948's Melody Time; and, now, the Failed Feature Diptychs, born from projects that had initially been developed as unitary films, first 1947's Fun and Fancy Free and then, in 1949, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

(If we didn't stick to Disney's own canonization scheme, we'd have at least three more categories with which to divide the Package Film Era: the Idealized Disney Studio Fauxcumentary, in the form of 1941's proto-package film, The Reluctant Dragon; the Meddlesome Advocacy Documentary, in the form of 1943's Victory Through Air Power; and the Attempt at Black Representation That Immediately Backfired Due to Extreme Tone Deafness, in Live-Action and In Animation, in the form of 1946's Song of the South.  But for better or worse, Disney does not count them.)

As for the three bona fide species of package film, several general trends are apparent, but here's the big one: the Failed Features are better than all the rest, both as an aggregate (Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the only package film the average person in 2019 even mildly gives a shit about) as well as individually.  Which was a nice surprise, given that no one ever talks about Fancy Free as any particular success.  In fact, it's usually quite the opposite.

And, at the start, maybe it doesn't seem like one: solidifying the package film tradition of having what seem like willfully-arbitrary framing narratives, it begins with the return of that tiny home invader, Jiminy Cricket (still Cliff Edwards).  Presently, Jiminy wanders his way into a live-action home, singing "I'm a Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow," a song cut from Pinocchio because it was bad, or at least not very good, and pressed into service here in order for the title of the film to be repeated approximately aleph-null times.  Meanwhile, Jiminy messes around on a bookcase, declares philosophy to be dead, and generally embodies the immediate post-Depression, post-WWII American attitude of "can we get any enjoyment out of life yet?", which is why I do not dislike this opening, despite disliking most everything about it.  (In truth, I probably find Jiminy more appealing here than in his "real" movie, where he is fickle and useless.)  Anyway, Jiminy finds a 1940s sex doll and an upsetting teddy bear—the notion is that they're a child's toys, which is doubtless true but also very hard to believe—but I mention it mostly because it has absolutely no bearing on anything except that at the end of the first short, Jiminy has somehow arranged them in a creepy "romantic" tableau reminiscent (however anachronistically) of the ending of Midsommar.

It's only when he clumsily happens across a Dinah Shore record (in a really lovely gag that utilizes the hybrid of live-action and animation with more finesse than anything in The Three Caballeros) that the movie properly begins.  The record, it turns out, is Shore's lyrical rendition of "Bongo," and apparently no one noticed that for all of Jiminy's protestations of this being "free," and "fun," and "fancy free," and "free," and "fun," and "fancy free"—not to mention "free," and "fun," and "fancy free"!—"Bongo" at least starts as a tale of cruel animal slavery.

It's about a performing circus bear given a humiliating name, who yearns above all to be a wild animal out in the forest where he belongs.  This Bongo accomplishes, when he makes a daring escape from a moving train, and while we briefly saw him be very sad while in captivity, he is now very happy to be outside, at least until night comes, and he freezes and starts at every sound, and the next morning arrives, and he's very hungry, but cannot convince a dubious fish to jump into his mouth.  His ineptitude does not end, but is momentarily dragged out of focus, when he makes the acquaintance of a female bear, Lulubelle.  Unfortunately, while Lulubelle is instantly just as smitten as Bongo finds himself, the enormous Lumpjaw has staked a claim to her, and Bongo believes that Lulubelle does indeed prefer his company, for when the time comes for her to choose, she slaps Bongo clean across the muzzle.  Bongo slinks off, defeated, until Bongo's observation of the bear community, and a weird song, makes it understood that a slap is the way that a bear expresses affection.  And, accurate or not, this is how "Bongo" becomes the most overt argument in the Disney canon for the value and pleasure of consensual rough sex, which is underlined when Bongo, with renewed urgency, does battle with the rapey Lumpjaw for Lulubelle's freedom.

I've previously described other things in the Disney package films as "the most utterly square Disney animation you can imagine," but I hadn't seen "Bongo" yet, so I didn't know what I was talking about.  It's not a tremendous surprise that Disney's storymen had spent years expressing grave concerns that it could not possibly support a feature-length film.  Nor is it an accident that it's made up of prefabricated parts: it has half the plot of Dumbo, half the plot of Bambi, character designs that make both those plots frivolous, and the basic tenor of one of the many Popeye cartoons where Popeye fights Bluto for Olive Oyl, except Lulubelle is arguably more attractive and the Popeye cartoons don't extend the jokey fight scenes for quite as long.  There's several Snow White references, including a shot-for-shot recreation of a reflection of our protagonist upon a stream; and at one point "Bongo" was even to have taken place in Dumbo's universe, perhaps even in the same circus.

Yet its squareness is exactly what I kind of love about it.  It's maybe not trying terribly hard, but it's also half-assing it in smart ways, fashioning its new(ish) adventure comedy out of building blocks that had already been proven to work.  Hence my affection for it: in the midst of the package films, it's an enormous relief just to see an extended, relatively-straight narrative that does, in fact, work; and "Bongo" works in pretty much every moment from its first to its last, which was never true of any given half-hour of the package films to precede it.  I can also see why it might've resonated a little stronger in 1947; after all, Bongo's experience echoes that of the men and women returning to their home after years in service.  They too found it alienating and challenging, but also, in the end, still their home and still full of possibility.

It doesn't hurt that it's a pleasant piece of animation, too: while it's never once as cunning or exciting or glorious as the best bits of Saludos Amigos, Three Caballeros or Make Mine Music, it's nevertheless comforting to see a Disney cartoon that convinces in its illusion of life (even if the illusion is cast on behalf of bears so anthropomorphic there's hardly any point to it), and that looks like it maybe even got some real money thrown at it.  It's cute, is what I'm saying.  And it certainly does well with its purloined ideas, even adding several of its own invention: it'll never make your heart swell the same way that the analogous scene from Bambi does, but Bongo's subjective reverie in the clouds with Lulubelle proves to be an enjoyable remix of several great ideas we've already seen, plus I personally find it very funny when, ironically, it decides that lusting after a girl has turned Bongo into Elton John.

I even like the way Shore narrates the dialogue-free cartoon in verse and song—it's so much more successful than "Two Silhouettes," her segment in Music—and it prefigures "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" from Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which is an obvious point in its favor.

Best of all, though, are the backdrops—this is what I really mean when I say "Bongo" looks like somebody spent money on it—and "Bongo" serves up the most detailed background paintings in a long time, and even indulges in a tiny bit of multiplane.  It's a better showcase for the talents of Disney's background artists than even Dumbo was, and while it never has anything like the grand ideas behind it that helped make Bambi a masterpiece, it captures a certain quotidian idea of a North American forest and it doesn't have to be especially imaginative about that to make it pretty beautiful.  "Bongo" turns out to have been directed by Jack Kinney, and given that Kinney was also responsible for so many of the best things in Disney animation during this period, namely the atypical short "All the Cats Join In" from Make Mine Music and the aforementioned "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (plus some very iconic Goofy shorts, including "How to Ride a Horse" from Reluctant Dragon), I wonder if that's not a coincidence.  (7/10)

We return to Jiminy, who's now rifling through the family's mail, and finds that the girl who lives there, Luana (Luana Patten), is at a birthday party across the street.  This party (a rather sad party if you think about it in terms beyond "setting up the next short") consists of Luana, no other children, no parents, and her uncle Edgar Bergen, the ventriloquist, as well as a couple of his (wooden) friends, the snide Charlie McCarthy and the dopey Mortimer Snerd, all of whom would presumably be well-known to the audience of the time.  It's eventually charming.  At first, however, it's a reminder why, in 2019, ventriloquist's dummies are consigned exclusively to the horror genre.  Fancy Free even unintentionally plays that up, with the way the dummies move and talk of their own volition, and their detailed painting combined with their caricatured forms amounts to a grotesquerie that takes real getting used to.  But the personalities of the dummies, especially McCarthy (I say, like he's a real person who deserves the respectful distance provided by using his surname), are pretty fun, and as Bergen launches into the tale of Happy Valley—that is, "Mickey and the Beanstalk"—and McCarthy starts nitpicking his storytelling and interjecting little asides throughout, the overall sensation you get is of a little prototype MST3K.  I daresay it's the best thing "Beanstalk" has going for it.

Not that it's in any sense bad (though I prefer "Bongo," and assume it's only the popular preexisting characters here that have elevated "Beanstalk" in the public's memory).  But, no, it's good: indeed, the way Luana is invited to imagine the tale is very neat, manifesting as a big thought balloon containing the once-Happy Valley, which we see built in realtime as Bergen describes its history.  Sadly, it seems that ever since a giant stole a living magic harp from the castle, the valley has been blighted with drought and famine.  And we catch up with three hard-done peasants in particular: Mickey Mouse (Walt Disney, in his last turn in the role he originated, and not even quite all of it, for his cigarette-racked voice was decaying at a steady clip), Donald Duck (Clarence Nash), and Goofy (Pinto Colvig).  Make of that what you will: an uncle entertaining his niece in a naturalistic way by interpolating known corporate characters into a fairy tale so as to make it essentially fan fiction; or a corporate self-regard so enormous they didn't even see it.  I don't see why it can't be both.

Regardless: "Beanstalk" is possibly a better cartoon about Mickey, Donald, and Goofy starving to death than it is a cartoon about Mickey, Donald, and Goofy fighting a giant.  Ward Kimball's visualization of Donald's maniacal desperation is even funnier than any specific gag, and the gags (like the famous transluscently-thin slices of bread and bean) are pretty funny already.  The only thing that's missing to make it perfect is a moment where Donald attempts to take the cleaver to Mickey and Goofy.

But he does attempt to take it to the cow, and so Mickey takes the cow to sell it, only to be swindled by a peddler hawking magic beans.  His friends disbelieve, but after they find purchase in the soil under a full moon, they prove their stuff, lifting their house into the sky as our heroes sleep, in a funny yet rather graceful sequence that's easily the best piece of pure animation in Fancy Free.

Then they brave the giant's castle, have some fun with giant food, get captured, free themselves, do battle, all that.  It's still a pretty good adaptation of the story of Jack and the beanstalk, though it makes the mistake, typical to Disney animation for four decades running (it would soon show up in two films in a row, Alice and Peter Pan), of turning the villain into a sloppy comic figure.  The giant is still animated from some interesting and even distressing angles in his headlong pursuit of our heroes, though, and he remains essentially threatening, so it's not a total wash.  I don't suppose I mind his metafictional reprise in the close of the framing sequence, either.  I rather wish Disney had taken another bite at this apple with the canceled CG film Gigantic, once scheduled for this year; alas, we'll never know if they could've made it work as a more serious subject.  (7/10)

Fun and Fancy Free, for all that I've (mostly) praised it, is still Disney at a low ebb, that's true.  But in hindsight I prefer to think of it as a bright spot, maybe even the turning of the tide.  It looks good, it's extraordinarily nice, and if it doesn't earn the endless repetition of its title, it lives up to that name well enough.  The next package film would be worse, unfortunately; but Fancy Free showed Disney a way to do one well, and so the one after that would suggest a Silver Age was in the offing for the studio.  Now, Disney's Silver Age is at least as much of a mixed bag, but we'll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Score: 7/10

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