Melody Time, 1948, 75 minutes
Melody Time finishes what Make Mine Music started. It is another collection of music-based short films, but again instead of the classical music of Fantasia, the film uses pop and jazz music, some pieces preexisting, most of it written for the film.
The film opens with a wintery segment that may be the studio’s finest animation since Bambi. It has a late-era Chuck Jones feeling to it, almost reminiscent of later Bugs Bunny shorts, such as What’s Opera, Doc?, but with a bit more rigidity. Everything is very flat and colorful, with little shading and detail. Even so, it’s the most success we’ve seen the studio have thus far when trying to streamline its animation. It is a delightful love story between a young man and his main squeeze, with a parallel love story between two stowaway rabbits, who accompany them on their journey. I remember seeing parts of this animation reused on an old Disney Christmas sing-along tape that we had growing up, but seeing it in its original context makes it much better than a simple music video for Jingle Bells. The short is wonderful, and tells a great story, the way the best segments from Fantasia do.
The centerpiece of the film’s first half is an extended short on the life of John Chapman, better known by his folktale name, Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed is a well-known Disney piece because it was released as a standalone short film later, and was later included in a popular home video release, Disney’s American Legends.
Johnny gets jealous of the “real” pioneers, and decides to set out and become one himself, planting apples everywhere. The segment is long, but not boring. Johnny’s journey is meaningful, and his transformation from simple apple farmer, to apple pioneer is quite a good little story. This segment is probably the most interesting story the studio has told since Bambi. This segment shows his entire adult life, from older adolescence to death, and it is a much more affecting scene than one might expect, given the film is only about 17 minutes long. His refusal to accept his fate is played for laughs, but there is also some genuine emotion in it as well. Some may be annoyed at his ever-cheerful demeanor, but it is Disney storytelling at its quickest and most sleek, even if it is not the most emotionally engaging, or memorable.
The Andrews Sisters sing the next segment, Little Toot, about a small tugboat boy. Little Toot is essentially a much improved and fleshed out version of Pedro, the Saludos Amigos segment about the airplane. Its improvement over the former segment is due to many reasons, a more pleasing design, more sophisticated animation, but ultimately, the Andrews Sisters are simply a much more engaging soundtrack to the short than the narrator in Amigos. Little Toot screws up over and over again, never seeming to catch a break. Later, he must see that his once glamorous tugboat father, Big Toot, has been reduced to a garbage-hauling vessel. Little Toot then gets caught in a beautifully animated storm, and because he is the closest tugboat to a crashed ocean liner, he must prove himself brave, truthful and unselfish to free the crashed ship. It is a cute little story, with a killer soundtrack.
One of the quicker segments is Bumble Boogie, set to a very interesting boogie-woogie take on Flight of the Bumblebee. In stark contrast to the beautiful, almost placid introduction to the film, this segment is frenetic and very exciting, but also fleeting and forgettable.
The most beautiful segment in the film is Trees. A short “cartoon essay” that plays over a sung version of Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. The segment has the most sophisticated, and luxurious animation of the film, and really, since Bambi. Starting with a beautiful sunset landscape, then focuses on trees in a forest, and how the animals interact with it. In a way, this scene echoes Snow White and Bambi’s forest scenes, but with an emphasis on the forest itself, as opposed to the creatures running through it. It is gorgeous, and like Bambi uses changing weather patterns to show the passage of time, and the circle of life.
A short reprise of Donald and José Carioca comes in Blame it on the Samba, a short that does more with Latin American-inspired animation and music than either Amigos or Caballeros accomplished in two feature films. This short is funnier, livelier and much better looking than the Donald and José segments of both earlier films, and while neither character gets to speak, perhaps that is a blessing.
Blame it on the Samba is also notable for using some great “cartoony” effects, such as hammerspace, (When a cartoon character pulls out an object from nowhere, usually a hammer,) the “black hole,” made famous for its use in Roger Rabbit, and many more. It is weirdly refreshing to see something so incredibly zany and weird after the film’s more grounded pieces earlier on.
The last segment in the film is Pecos Bill, narrated and sung by the King of the Cowboys himself, Roy Rodgers. The segment’s intro is not as beautiful as Trees, though it is close. It is the longest short in the feature, and it feels like it. The dreamy opening through the desert, complete with tumbleweeds, and adorable little creatures, starts us off beautifully.
And then we see Roy Rodgers with his cowboy gang in live-action. He introduces us to our hero, Pecos Bill, raised by coyotes. This live-action framing device is not my favorite, but it is done to a much greater, and more charming effect than the obnoxious Edgar Bergen scenes in Fun and Fancy Free. In fact, I was taken by Roy, his band, and the kids much more than I expected to be. The movie could have been a bit shorter had his scenes been cut, and I would not miss it, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.
When we get back into the animated segment, we see Bill fall off a covered wagon and adopted by a coyote family, all narrated, entertainingly, by Roy Rodgers. Bill, a precursor to Disney’s version of Mowgli from Jungle Book, tries to be just as “coyote-like” as the biological coyotes, but it is not until he saves his pony that he really becomes a true cowboy. Once Bill is grown up, the short loses much of its mystique, and becomes a much more conventional cowboy story. Both Bill and his horse have much less appealing designs when grown up, and it goes from a great finale, to merely a good one. The short has a good ending, but ultimately never lives up to the promise of its beautiful introduction.
Melody Time is a good film, Disney’s best in a while. Its segments are much more ambitious and rewarding than Amigos, and it is a bit more refined than Make Mine Music, There is something here for everyone between the seven segments, and while none of them quite reach the heights of Mickey and the Beanstalk (No pun intended,) the film is, overall, a more consistent experience than Fun and Fancy Free, and the live-action segments during the film’s finale are much better than those in the earlier film. It is quite a fun time, and one of the highlights of a tough era in the company’s history. It is a thoroughly entertaining film throughout its 75-minute runtime, which is more than can be said of Three Caballeros or Fun and Fancy Free.
Up next: The Adventures of Ichabod And Mr. Toad