06 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: GET A HAPPY-GO-LUCKY FEELING

It's all on display right there in the title: Fun and Fancy Free. I do not know but that I catch a slight whisper of defiant desperation in those words, but then, Make Mine Music is still fresh in my memory, and that is enough to make it clear that things at Disney were not much fun, nor free of fancy, in 1947 when this picture was being animated.

In 1940, Disney had begun developing Sinclair Lewis's 1936 short story "Little Bear Bongo" into a feature, but these plans were aborted by World War II, and the studio's subsequent jump into propaganda shorts and money-saving efforts, and the treatment lay collecting dust in the story offices. Around the same time, the company was also trying to flesh out the classic fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk" into a feature, and it likewise was derailed by the war. In 1946, those two concept were taken back out of mothballs, and I do not know if the immediate plan was to continue working on the both of them as individual feature-length projects; but there was no hope for a movie on the scale of a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or a Bambi - hell, not even a Dumbo - at that point. Money was just too damn tight, and the box office under-performance of Make Mine Music did nothing to alleviate that situation. So it was that somebody - one assumes that it would have been Walt Disney himself, but who can say for certain who was driving things in those days? - hit upon the idea of scrapping the more ambitious plans for those two stories, and making them a double feature. This despite the seemingly critical fact that they had very little in common, meaning that any such portmanteau would be even more transparently a marketing effort than the other package films.

But it was the case anyway that they were put together, under the title Fun and Fancy Free linked by a weak framework narrative that attempt to advance an ethos which combined the two shorts, more or less, according to the idea that there's enough trouble in the world, and the right thing to do is to let your troubles roll off you, don't sit around grousing about stuff you can't control, and life is bound to turn out all right in the end, because darn it, nothing is as serious as all that. On the most basic level, this is just quintessential Disney cheerleading for optimism and happiness, the studio's watchword since the earliest days when the devil-may-care Mickey Mouse was first terrorising farm animals with his chipper antics. Dig a little deeper, and we find it may be an attempt to give comfort to an America - and, one may imagine, a whole world - that was reeling from the end of the war, and which was struggling to find its identity in the bold new order of things just then coming to pass. A brand new culture was being birthed, not always without some level of discomfort especially to traditionalists and conservatives (both of which apply to the Disney Studios), and the message "be fun - be fancy-free" would have had added weight. No matter how much things are changing, goes the idea, they'll turn out for the best.

The third level is that it was nothing less than a morale boost for the Disney Company itself. "We're going to make it through, money will come again, we won't always be making these stupid, cheap package films" - in that sense, the film's message is as much a prayer of hope born out of desperation, as it is a suggestion to the audience. I mention this because, as I said, Fun and Fancy Free is itself not a fun and fancy free movie. The two pieces of the movie hang together not at all well, and taken as a whole, it feels pushed out more than created from love. As with Saludos Amigos, some of the best parts of the movie are the live action snippets, which doesn't reflect terribly well on the state of Disney animation. If it wasn't already obvious from glancing at the studio's other work from around the same period, Fun and Fancy Free would be proof enough that the steam was starting to go out of Disney's art, which had after all been locked in a holding pattern for five years now - exactly as long as the distance separating the release of Snow White from Bambi separated Bambi from this film. It is plainly a movie that could only have been made by people stuck in a rut.

I can think of no finer evidence for what I'm arguing than the film presents in its first moments. Here to present the two stories is one of Disney's most enduring stars: Jiminy Cricket, from Pinocchio - the first time a character from a Disney feature would make a cameo appearance in another feature, though movie characters appeared in shorts somewhat often - comes paddling up on a little leaf raft, through what turns out to be a fancy plant display in a suburban home. As before, Jiminy's lead animator was Ward Kimball, and not a blessed thing about his design has changed - but you needn't be an animation expert, just someone with eyesight, to see that something isn't right. The colors are simpler, and he feels "flatter", more like a bit of celluloid than the wonderfully rounded and textured character that taught Pinocchio right from wrong. He looks like a cheaper version of the "real" Jiminy, and if you've seen any of the direct-to-video sequels animated by DisneyToons Studios instead of Disney Feature Animation, then you know exactly what I am referring to, for the disconnect in quality is precisely the same, and for the same reason. Less time, less money, and worst of all, less motivated artists.

So, this strange faux-Jiminy finds his way into a little girl's bedroom, and observing the apparent sad expressions on her teddy bear and doll, decides that this is a place in need of some fun and fancy free happiness (god, how the phrase "fun and fancy free" gets used and used and used in the first five minutes of the movie - another sign of creative desperation, methinks), the kind he talks about in his song "I'm a Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow", which was originally written for Pinocchio and cut, for the evident reason that it is not remotely as good as the rest of the Pinocchio soundtrack. To perk up the mood, he puts on a record of Dinah Shore performing Bongo, the story of a depressed little circus bear named Bongo who wants nothing more than to be a free animal in the wild. He gets his chance mostly by accident, and celebrates by rushing through the woods, seeing all the other animals and enjoying the smells of nature. One night sleeping on the ground is enough to cure him of his enthusiasm, but it starts to return when he finds a clutch of bears, and one pretty little bear named Lulubelle in particular. They fall head over heels in love, naturally, though he must first fight off a big, mean bear named Lockjaw who thinks he ought to be Lulubelle's boyfriend. Bongo's depression returns when the girl slaps him hard across the face, and he goes off to be miserable and alone, but observes that in the wild, slaps are how bears show affection. Back he goes to Lulubelle, where they will slap to their hearts' delight forever after.

By my count there are three problems with this animated musical love story: the music, the story, and the animation. Of course, complaining that Dinah Shore sounds like Dinah Shore is mostly just a matter of taste, and you can't blame a 1947 movie for employing a 1947 pop star. But still, not one of the four songs are especially memorable, and the love ballad "My Favorite Dream" is nothing but an endurance test, slow and moody and exceedingly dull. I might also add that Shore has all of the storytelling duties to herself: in what I assume was part of the attempt to keep Bongo compact enough to be half of a feature long, it is told entirely in pantomime, song, and recitative. Dinah Shore alone ensures that two of those three are not terribly pleasant to experience.

The pantomime works, basically: it's a whole lot of gags that you've probably seen in a handful of other places if you have seen much of any of Disney's shorts from the 1940s, and it is unlikely in the extreme, I think, that someone would hunt out Fun and Fancy Free if they were not a fairly large Disney animation buff, though it bears mentioning that the most obvious comparison to Bongo , the Humphrey the Bear cartoons, weren't produced until the 1950s. This comes to be a problem in that the story is thus nothing but a bunch of comic setpieces strung together, with a couple sentimental interludes thrown in for flavor, and the whole effect is that of watching one of Disney's six-minute comic bits stretched out to 40 minutes with wall-to-wall Dinah Shore. Even as a Disney booster, I can't countenance asking the shorts from the 1940s to be any longer than they already were; unlike Warner's Looney Tunes, most Disney shorts are already quite as long as the need to be.

It is as a work of animation that Bongo is the most depressing to me, though. Bongo himself is an absolutely failure of Disney artistry: he is not tremendously interesting to look at, and his animation is frequently choppy and messy. Even the random bears who just bump around a bit in the dance numbers look better than the lead. For anyone at Disney to drop the ball on character animation like that is virtually impossible to imagine, especially during Walt's life; once again the specter of not giving a damn rears its head. The only thing in Bongo that is of particular visual merit is the backgrounds, and especially the effects animation; you can always count on Disney's classic-era effects team to give 100% of what they had in all situations.

Other than that thin comfort, all that Bongo has to offer is the warped spectacle of bears slapping each other in a love ritual; the closest Disney ever came (or, I image, will ever come) to encouraging kids to try BDSM when they grow up, or more pessimistically, domestic abuse. All snideness aside, it is peculiar enough to be memorable, and that is more than I can say for the rest of the piece.

Jiminy likes Bongo much more than I did, and it seems to have cheered up the toys pretty well. So he takes a peak at a party invite on the girl's nightstand, and discovers that she's gone just across the street, to have cake with Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and Edgar Bergen. He's never head of the last fellow, but Jiminy loves the other two, so he runs there as fast as he can, and arrives to find what looks like a fun night out: it seems that Bergen has been entertaining the little girl, Luana (played by Luana Patten, one of Disney's contract child actors), with stories of one sort or another.

I'm a bit ashamed to say that this was probably for me the most consistently entertaining part of the movie. It's a cartoon! The animation should be the best part. But I've enjoyed Bergen's ventriloquism, ever since seeing Charlie square off with W. C. Fields in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man at a young, impressionable age. Part of the appeal is the cheesy vaudeville-ness of Bergen's routines - and my God, but if there was ever a more technically incompetent ventriloquist to ever make money off of it, I've never heard of him - and the whole sequence (which assumes that the audience already is familiar with the wooden men's personalities) shrieks that this is the '40s in a way that is not at all healthy for the film. But it amused me.

It also boasts some nifty combined live-action and animation, as Jiminy wanders around Bergen's home. The technology had come quite a long way in the scant three years since The Three Caballeros (I cannot of course compare Fun and Fancy Free to Song of the South, which I last saw when I was four), and while it still looks a bit like Jiminy is hovering over the rest of the film, there is some well-designed interplay between him and the environment that is even now a bit effective yet.

Bergen gets to telling the story of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, all living together as farmers in Happy Valley, which has become a blasted hellhole since the magic singing harp that made everybody happy was stolen. It seems that one day, the three agreed to sell their cow for food, but when Mickey returned, it was with naught but a handful of beans - "magic" beans, the seller said. A beanstalk appears in short order, and in the clouds the trio finds the harp and Willie the Giant, a lumbering shape-shifter who represents a major leap forward in personality from his forebears in the shorts "Giantland" (an early Jack and the Beanstalk riff) and "Brave Little Tailor".

This much is true at least, thankfully: Mickey and the Beanstalk was put together with a great deal more care than Bongo, presumably because Walt took an interest in it himself, as he always paid attention to new attempts to burnish the fading profile of his favorite character. In fact, this was the very last time that Walt provided Mickey's voice, a task he had performed since "Steamboat Willie", 19 years prior (business concerns, plus Walt's increasingly raspy, cigar-wracked voice, led to his retirement from the role; he was replaced, even on part of this project, by soundman James MacDonald). It goes without saying that Mickey, Donald, and Goofy were too valuable to throw them at any random project; care had to be taken to make sure that the characters' personalities were maintained, that the situations were worthy of their presence. And this was largely achieved here, although Mickey and the Beanstalk is by no means one of Mickey's finest moments. He is quite overshadowed by Donald, as usual, who gets the one truly great bit of character animation in Fun and Fancy Free, thanks to Ward Kimball, when he goes insane over his sliced-bean and tissue-thin bread sandwich, and attempts to kill the family cow.

The backgrounds are better here than they have been in any of the package films thus far; by "better" I mean, more detailed with fuller colors; you can tell here more than anywhere else that money was to be spent on this segment, precious money that the company had little of. No cheap knock-off of Disney animation for Mickey Mouse! And the result is a sequence that is actually rather pretty to look at, prettier indeed than it is entertaining: for though the film is quite honorable to its characters personae, it doesn't give any of them a chance to do anything very interesting: the most imaginative parts of the short all involve animation and design, whether it's the beautiful evocation of the beanstalk growing, or the wonderland that is Willie's dinner table, home to a great many sight gags involving over-sized food, and you get the feeling that this sequence alone could have been trebled in length before the filmmakers started to run out of ideas.

Mickey and the Beanstalk is definitely good - not great, but good. It is a pity that it should be buried in the back half of a feature that has so little of interest for such a long stretch, but I am glad it was made in any context, not least because I think it observes the animators turning a corner: the two-film slump would be largely ended with the next package film, and after that it was just a matter of patience until the Disney Studios returned to its true calling, making feature-length movies that explored the state of the art in realistic animation. There was a good way to go first, but as of the final moments of Fun and Fancy Free, one could spot the light at the end of the tunnel.

2 comments:

GeoX said...

I'm loving these write-ups--I'm learning about Disney movies of whose existence I was wholly unaware.

Tom said...

Fascinating. I didn't realize so much could be written about these package films.