02 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 9: Fun and Fancy Free

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Still reeling from the effects the war had wrought on the studio, Walt Disney was adrift by the middle of the 1940s. With several story ideas in various states of production but nothing resembling a full length feature, he decided to use the package film as a piecemeal dumping ground for films that would not otherwise see the light of day. He hoped that the revenue from these somewhat ramshackle releases would provide the necessary production costs to once again mount a true narrative feature in the spirit and style of the studio's early triumphs. Two such orphaned projects, both begun in 1941: a tale of a circus bear who escapes captivity and relocates to the forest, and a retelling of "Jack and the Beanstalk" with Mickey Mouse in the title role; were deemed worthwhile enough to splice together and be projected as Fun and Fancy Free.

Fun and Fancy Free begins with a chorus singing the titular song over the title card and credits. It is an innocuous and rather unmemorable tune that espouses the sentiment that life may be sad, difficult, and lonesome but you would be a fool not to be happy despite it all. Following the credits the song bleeds into the tune "Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow", a similar number originally written for - but ultimately cut - from Pinocchio, and lo and behold, we see that film's conscience Jiminy Cricket paddling a leaf through a stream. Jiminy will be serving as our guide in these wraparound segments tying the otherwise disparate short films together. Disney really lays on the gaiety in these opening few minutes but for once it doesn't really stick. The emotions feel labored. It is as if Walt was trying to convince himself that he was happy. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but knowing the troubled state of the studio during this time, the mantras oozing out of these songs feels like forms of personal positive reinforcement. It is easy to see the legion of Disney detractors showing the opening of Fun and Fancy Free as an example of Disney's hollow promises of happy endings, all saccharine and empty. 

Admittedly there are some funny little touches in this opening sequence, which follows Jiminy out of his leaf and onto dry land, which it turns out is not a densely forested marsh but simply a houseplant sitting on a table. He climbs a nearby bookcase as the song and dance routine plays on, passing tomes with such austere and scholarly titles as Misery for the Masses. Jiminy then swoops in on a goldfish that bears an awfully close resemblance to his Pinocchio co-star Cleo. But this can't be Cleo can it? If so, did Geppetto move the family from Italy to a suburb of 1940s Hollywood? Is Geppetto the reader of Misery for the Masses? Is the sleepy grey feline that chases Jiminy into an adolescent girl's bedroom a replacement for Figaro? Did Figaro die? And who is this little girl anyway? So many questions!

Before we have time to ponder such tantalizing puzzles, Jiminy leads us into the film's first short as he attempts to teach two of the little girl's forlorn dolls to lose their blues and laugh at life by playing a recording of the story of the circus bear "Bongo" read by Dinah Shore. Shore, whom we last heard singing in Make Mine Music's least successful segment, "Two Silhouettes", plays the dual role of narrator and songstress as she punctuates her telling of the Sinclair Lewis tale with more forgettable b-side melodies cranked out by the Disney studio. Oh how Frank Churchill or the yet-to-be-discovered Sherman brothers could have livened up these song breaks!

With its circus setting "Bongo" was originally conceived as a sequel of sorts to the rousing box-office success Dumbo, and had it been deemed worthy of a full theatrical release, would have included several of the same characters. In the story Bongo is the star of the circus, riding his unicycle, juggling while standing on his head, and surviving death-defying leaps. The crowds clamor and cheer but once the lights go down, Bongo is chained and imprisoned by his faceless masters. The emotions wrung from Bongo's captivity are expertly handled and prove Disney's narrative bite is still intact as the bear looks out from behind his train car's bars and dreams of freedom. One would be hard pressed to turn a blind eye to Ringling Brothers' practices after witnessing poor Bongo's plight.

One day Bongo manages to escape from the moving train, using his unicycle to make a safe getaway. He ends up in the forest where he meets all manner of creatures who laugh as the domesticated bear tries to assimilate into the wild. Two of these animals are the early incarnations of Chip and Dale who were introduced as Pluto's antagonists just a few years prior and would not receive either their names or distinctive characteristics until a Donald Duck short released the same year as Fun and Fancy Free. Regardless, the duo's sped-up voices and rascally nature are readily apparent even at this early stage. Echoes of a Disney feature different than Dumbo take over at this juncture as Bongo's crash course in forest life recalls the early years of the burgeoning prince Bambi some five years before. 

Following this early introduction to the forest is a terrifying night where rain and lightning expose the harsh realities of life in the wild. There are some great gags and animation in this sequence. The mounting hysteria caused by a whimsically drawn slug munching on a leaf is perfectly timed and executed. In fact the more overtly cartoonish quality of all of the nocturnal creatures in this brief scene is uniformly excellent. At the end of a sleepless night and stressful dawn, Bongo stumbles upon a fetching female named Lulubelle who immediately sends him into a glassy-eyed reverie more than faintly reminiscent of a certain twitterpating. This is followed by an airborne daydream echoing Donald Duck's insane exuberance following his kiss at the end of the Three Caballeros. Two adorable cupid bears pluck bows, build clouds, and send Bongo and his paramour through Roman columns on heavenly plains.

Once the lovers get back down to earth, there is a misunderstanding as Lulubelle gives Bongo a slap, which all of the wild bears know is a true sign of affection but Bongo mistakes as hostility (I'm with you Bongo). Conflict ensues when the biggest brute of a bear appears and steals away Bongo's love. To reclaim his girl Bongo must use his circus skills to taunt, thwart and ultimately defeat his rival. From here on out the story pretty much follows the template of most any early Mickey short. The villain is even modeled on Pegleg Pete's ample frame. That's not to say that the story of Bongo is unenjoyable, in fact it is on the whole the better of the two shorts comprising the feature. There are some great comical moments and the titular character, although a far cry from his mute circus counterpart Dumbo, wins our sympathy with his pluck and vivacity. 

As the tale of Bongo draws to a close, we return to the little girl's bedroom and Jiminy Cricket who espies on the girl's desk an invitation to a party hosted by Edgar Bergen and his puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Being the unrepentant freeloader that he is, Jiminy decides to crash said shindig which is happening just down the street. Here we get a truly terrible bit of live action as Bergen and his dolls entertain this poor little girl, who it turns out is the only one that showed up for the party or maybe even worse, was the only one invited. Why would a grown man who lives alone save for his puppets, invite a little girl over for a late night party? Whose parents would let that one slide? 

I had no idea how awful Edgar Bergen is at his stock and trade. Whether voicing Charlie, Mortimer, or the hastily drawn "Ophelia" on his hand (what's up with that?), one can always see his lips moving with what appears to be almost no effort to hide it. How did this guy get famous? The cavalcade of questions continue to mount. Meanwhile after tedious, stultifying dialogues with his wooden companion, Edgar begins telling the little girl, Luana (I checked the invitation) the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Most of us that are familiar with the Mickey-starring version of Jack and the Beanstalk might be surprised that in Fun and Fancy Free the story is narrated by Bergen, with intermittent snide remarks from the unfunny Charlie McCarthy. The short has been released many times in the ensuing decades, as a standalone story both on television and home video. For these releases the narration was re-dubbed first by the great Ludwig Von Drake and later by the now omnipresent Sterling Holloway. Both subsequent versions are significant improvements, as the Bergen version does nothing but detract from the onscreen action. This is a shame because "Mickey and the Beanstalk" is a great showcase for Mickey and his co-stars Donald and Goofy. It would be the last time Walt himself would voice the mouse for a theatrical release and the story as it stands is well-constructed and a genuine joy to watch. 

Mickey, Donald and Goofy all live together in a pitiful state of squalor, hungry and desperate. After Mickey sells their friend the cow for some magic beans (Two more questions: One, if the cow is their friend why can't he hang out in the house with the dog, duck, and mouse instead of being left outside in the barren wasteland? Two, Mickey stops a famished Donald from slaughtering the cow because again, they are "friends" but then he turns around and sells the cow to what we can only believe is a total stranger who plans to do god-knows-what with the bovine, maybe even eat him.) That night the magic beans sprout into a giant stalk that carries the three stars up into the clouds. The two minute sequence of unconscious ballet is the film's best. As Mickey, Donald, and Goofy sleep soundly, oblivious to the movement of the house and their beds, they are flung hither and thither by the sinuous stalk. The effortless display of physics displayed as the unconscious bodies sway to and fro is a splendid achievement. It is nothing new - how many Goofy shorts were predicated on an unconscious Goof staggering around unforeseen peril? - but it is executed exquisitely.

At dawn the trio find themselves at a gigantic kingdom outfitted with an abundance of oversized food. Still famished, the guys feast on cheese, peas and Jell-o before Mickey discovers the singing harp - whose absence in their town led to the drought and decay - imprisoned in a box. At this moment of heightened drama what do we do? Cut to the live action Edgar Bergen party for some reason! I for one could sure use more antics from that rapscallion Chas McCarthy! Oh boy! After that intolerable interlude we return to the safe confines of animation and are introduced to the man of the castle, Willie the Giant, who is drawn and portrayed wonderfully as an indignant galoot. Once he finds our three heroes, he imprisons them in the box but Mickey escapes and with the help of the singing harp who serenades Willie to sleep, frees Goofy and Donald. A chase ensues and Willie is defeated once the beanstalk is chopped down. The less said about the return of Edgar Bergen at the conclusion the better. 

Fun and Fancy Free for all of its shortcoming is a generally entertaining film. Both disparate halves amply display the merit that warranted their production in the first place, while giving us solid proof that they were far from strong enough to carry their own features. Subpar songs and misguided celebrity cameos are offset by the occasional flight of fancy and the efficient, streamlined mode of storytelling that the Disney studios built its name upon. The package film was an economic necessity at the time and while it never completely tarnished the studio's image, rarely did it ever improve upon it. 

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