Fun and Fancy Free, 1947, 73 minutes
OH MY GOODNESS.
This is Disney’s first big boneheaded move. This is, without a doubt, the worst we’ve seen from the company yet. There’s nothing wrong with these cartoons, in fact, one of them is quite good. The animation is fantastic throughout this film, and honestly, the introduction of the film, with Jiminy Cricket, is not bad. What, then, can I be talking about? What is the worst thing the company did? Well, they used a popular ventriloquist, and his two insufferable puppets, to introduce the film’s second segment. We’ll get to that in a bit.
First up is Bongo. Jiminy Cricket makes an interesting appearance as the MC of the first short, and he even sings a song! It’s too bad this film went back to a clunky framing device after the elegant title cards used by Make Mine Music, which stayed out of the way and kept the focus on the segments themselves, but at least Jiminy Cricket is a clever enough tour guide. After a few minutes of intro, he gets out a record, Bongo, sung by Dinah Shore.
Bongo was not just a circus bear, and he was the star of the circus. As one could imagine, many of the gags and visual motifs explored in Bongo’s introduction echo Dumbo’s circus scenes. Bongo is a prisoner much the way the characters in Dumbo were, and he wishes he was instead out in nature, with other animals, able to relax in the grass.
The short film is well-animated, looking more like Dumbo and some of the prestige short films from Disney more than most of the shorts in Make Mine Music, which, have a simpler, more stylized look to it. Bongo himself has a very expressive, cute face, and it helps us identify immediately with him.
Bongo escapes the circus train and lazes around in a field not far from a lake. He makes many friends with the other animals as a Dinah Shore song starts. Bongo, as he watches his friends say goodnight to each of their mates, realizes he does not like nature as much as he originally thought, no surprise there, and must sleep through a cacophony of crazy sounds. As it happens, the noises are all caused by insects simply moving around, but it leads our adorable protagonist to chase around his new forest home and attempt to gain comfort.
Due to the segment’s extended length, and lack of dialogue (save for Shore’s mostly solid narration,) the storytelling here is a bit slower than in the Make Mine Music or Three Caballeros shorts, but that’s not really to its advantage. Instead of being a nuanced film like Bambi, we are given a pretty silly, unremarkable short film. It is good-looking, and has a good soundtrack with a couple songs that fit well. But is that enough? Not really. If the film was shorter than 15 minutes, it might hold a bit more water, but one of the advantages of Make Mine Music is that each main segment is limited to under 10 minutes, save for its finale, and the film is much breezier as a result.
Bongo is a lengthy, almost boring piece, that is beautiful yet forgettable. Certainly good, by any technical measure, but it lacks any punch, simply because by the time there is a climax, it feels as if we already know the whole story. He falls in love halfway through the short, and the rest of the story feels inorganic and contrived.
This is the second (and last) main feature to star Mickey Mouse, and heavily use him in advertising. More importantly, this is the only time in the entire feature animation canon that contains a speaking role for Mickey, voiced by Walt himself. Mickey and the Beanstalk, the film’s brilliant second act, features the last Walt Disney performance of the iconic character, and it is a fitting conclusion for the iconic voice. (Note: Mickey does have one scene where he briefly chats with Leopold Stokowski in Fantasia, but it is not a part of the main feature, only in an interstitial segment)
But before we dive much further into Mickey, there’s a bit of unpleasantness, to put it lightly, in the film between Bongo and Beanstalk. That unpleasantness is the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, father of Candace Bergen, whose appearance here is surprising, and overall, terrible. Now I know that Bergen was a big star at the time, and his HORRIFYING Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd puppets were hugely popular, but Disney’s hiring of the man to introduce, narrate, and constantly interrupt the featurette, in live-action, with his puppets, and with that kid around, is entirely inexplicable to me. The animated bumper around Bongo with Jiminy is not particularly great, but at least it is animated, with a well-known Disney character, and it is all very pleasant. The puppets and their puppeteer, however, are straight out of a horror film.
Onto Mickey and the Beanstalk. It is a great short, though I grew up seeing the home-video version of it, narrated much more effectively by Donald’s uncle Ludwig von Drake. It is the preferable version of the film, by a huge margin, and after watching it and the Edgar Bergen version back-to-back, I recommend watching either it, or the Sterling Holloway version, (even more preferable to Bergen’s than von Drake) because the interruption of Bergen’s puppet characters and the little girl ends up pretty grating after a while. The script of the narration, weirdly enough, is almost identical between the two versions of the film, but von Drake and Herman the cricket talking is much more pleasant than Bergen, his puppets and some little girl. Regardless, we’re here to talk about Fun and Fancy Free, and the version of Mickey and the Beanstalk contained within.
The cartoon itself features Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. The three biggest stars of the studio at the time, voiced here by their three original actors, Walt Disney, Clarence Nash, and Pinto Colvig. All three do a good job, but the real star is Donald, who goes on a couple murderous rampages early in the short. The three live in Happy Valley, whose drought has caused the entire land’s crops to dry up, and our three farmer heroes have nothing left but an old milk cow, whom is sold by Mickey for some magic beans. His two friends tell him it was a terrible idea, and chastise him for it, but as they wake up, their house is in the sky! The beans grew into the world’s most absurdly large beanstalk and it leads them to infiltrate a castle.
Much like Johnny Appleseed, and Peter and the Wolf, this film has much more popularity than its source material. Beanstalk is really the crown jewel of the studio’s output since Bambi. Maybe it’s just because I have a soft spot for Mickey, but this cartoon is quite entertaining. It is too bad that Bergen, his characters, and the little girl keep interrupting, because it is a great short film that is simply framed poorly.
The film’s climax is something, as Mickey must save the spirit that will bring joy back to Happy Valley. She takes the form of a beautiful harp, and she manages to divert the giant’s attention just long enough for our hero to save his friends and the harp and escape the clutches of Willie. The magical harp brings peace back to the land, and of course, everyone lives happily ever after. Except for Edgar Bergen, who is only remembered as being an absolutely terrible fit for the film.
Fun and Fancy Free attempts something larger than its predecessors in the package era. Instead of several shorts tied together by a common theme the way we’ve seen, there are two disparate, 30-minute featurettes. Unfortunately, the framing device gets in the way of the better half of the picture, and what we’re left with is a bigger mess than anything we’ve already seen. The von Drake-narrated version of Beanstalk is currently streaming on Netflix, and it is all one needs to see from this film. Bongo is a mediocre, though beautifully animated, short film, but Mickey is quite good, and even better since you can avoid Edgar Bergen altogether. If you can find the Sterling Holloway-narrated version, even better, but for the sake of its availability, the von Drake version will be more than adequate.
Only two more films in the 1940s before we start over with Cinderella, Disney’s triumphant return to form. While I have enjoyed this strange dive into the company’s dark ages, getting into the 1950s will be a welcome change. The films in the meantime, however, are the two best package films, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad. Melody Time is mostly a refinement of Make Mine Music, and Ichabod and Mister Toad is quite good.
This was gonna be a C+, maybe even a B-, based on the merit of Mickey and the Beanstalk, and the general adorableness of Bongo, but the puppet stuff bumped it down, that’s how much I hate it.
Up next: Melody Time.