Wednesday, October 5, 2011

DATE Night: Fun and Fancy Free

Even they can't find anything
exciting to say about it.
Here we are with our second DATE Night this week, owing to my being sick into last weekend. Of course, that means no tonsil hockey after it's over. Sorry bout it. But to be terribly honest, I don't think you're going to want to kiss up on me after I make you sit through our fourth package film in a row. And this one was kind of a clinker, I'm not gonna lie. I beg of you to stay with me through the next films. It gets better, I swear. In fact, it gets pretty much amazeballs!

The Background:

The same issues that forced Disney to create the last few package films are still present here. World War II had taken European Markets out of play, had put celluloid at a premium, and had taken the talents of the artists and applied them to war related projects. These package films that make up most of the studio's output in the Forties were a way to keep the artists creatively engaged so that when they were able to really commit to an animated feature again, their creative muscles wouldn't have atrophied. No one claims that they are great triumphs for Disney, and some may have their champions, but there is no doubt that despite their shaky artistic merit, they served an important purpose in the evolution of the studio and paved the way for greater things. This time around they took two stories that were in development, a story about a circus bear based on a Sinclair Lewis story ("Bongo") and an adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk" starring Mickey Mouse ("Mickey and the Beanstalk"), added framing devices to glue them together and released it as Fun and Fancy Free. The film performed ok and was reviewed lukewarmly. The consensus seemed to be that the studio was not living up to its potential. 

The First Impression:

Once again, I wasn't able to track this sucker down for the Disney Project first time around, so these are my first thoughts seeing this movie all the way through. I feel like I've seen "Mickey and the Beanstalk" at some point, but everything else is brand spankin' new to me.

The Art:
That Tylenol PM is strong stuff, yo.
5/10. There is nothing shoddy about the craftsmanship on display here. Even if the Disney magic, that something extra that separates their films from the rest, is in short supply. There are even some genuine artistically impressive moments. They are just few and far between and separated by stretches of film that are proficiently done but not terribly special. A few that come to mind are the shadows from the bars on Bongo's window turning his pajamas into a prison uniform, the yawning trees, the trees bending in to form a heart shape, the intricate vines of the growing beanstalk, and Donald's little duck butt looking like an onion. But even at their most pedestrian, Disney artists are better artistically than most anyone else.

The Story:

More fun per minute?
According to who?
4/10. This is where the real problems lie. I don't even know where to start. The most glaring problem is that both segments seem bloated. Tom commented on "Bongo" that they could have told the whole story in five minutes. Both suffer from a lot of business and filler to pad the story. The story will lurch forward and then come to a standstill while a song or dance or chase or series of gags happen before the story can pick up again.  (The same can be said of "Mickey and the Beanstalk", but to a much lesser extent. It feels a bit long, but i wasn't actively annoyed watching it since it had the built in charm of the three protagonists going for it.) It gives me an even greater appreciation for the artful and effective way they expanded Dumbo, which was originally a comic book style story with, I believe, eight panels into a feature length film, albeit a short one.

Then there is the matter of this film feeling like recycled bits from here and there tossed together from other places. Nothing feels fresh. "Bongo" was originally intended to be a sort of sequel to Dumbo, but ended up  feeling like a halfhearted riff on it. But the circus and the train feel like leftovers. Other reused elements are Jiminy Cricket and a goldfish that looks suspiciously like Cleo from Pinocchio (sans Figaro), woodland creatures that came straight out of Snow White or Bambi, a love dream sequence from The Three Caballeros,  Mickey, Donald and Goofy. It all feels very warmed over.

Hold onto your butt Jiminy. It's gonna get ugly.
"Mickey and the Beanstalk" is a decently constructed but bloated short, but the story in "Bongo" itself is very odd. I'm specifically talking about the hit-you-to-say-I-love-you love plot. When Lulubelle hit Bongo I literally said "What was that?" out loud. That's when the story jumped the shark and I lost my patience with it. I've never heard of a long-standing theory or even myth that bears smack each other across the face to express love, so that twist in the tale really caught me off guard. I didn't know that the moral of the story would be that it's OK to hit the people you care about as long as you intend it to mean that you love them. The segment never recovered for me.

Nice hat, Bergen.
The other story problem are the introductory pieces. At the time they were there to draw audiences. It was a commerce before art kind of thing. Now that the live actors no longer have the same cache, they do nothing but call attention to the fact that the stories have nothing to do with each other and date the film. The one with Jiminy is charming, certainly, but the party concept that frames "Mickey and the Beanstalk" is lamer than lame. That is the weirdest party I've ever seen. One little girl, one grown man, two puppets and an insect does not a soiree make. It's vaguely creepy and completely busted.

Beyond that, as much as I love Bergen, McCarthy and Snerd (Being a big old time radio enthusiast back in the day, I do think they are exceptional. You should make an effort to track down some of their radio performances.), they are not a good fit for this film. Their snarky comments, though sometimes clever, funny and spot-on ("Why didn't you just say that and save a lot of time?" Indeed.), completely bring you out of the world of the story. It figures that they were replaced in later incarnations of the segment by Ludwig von Drake and Sterling Holloway.

Finally, the giant coming in at the end further blurs the lines between framing device and story and confuses things, though it is fun. Once again, it seems that decisions were not being made in service to the story, but rather to whim or cleverness or desire to pack in an audience. When the story takes a backseat to even one of these kinds of problems, things can go off track. When it takes a backseat to all of them, you end up with a story that lies there like a dead fish. Sorry, Willie the Whale. Too soon?

The Characters:

Culinary hijinks!
4/10. It's a sad state of affairs when the best characters in the film are visiting from other films and shorts and others are visiting from Hollywood at large. There is no doubt that Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Jiminy Cricket are fine characters. But they are not used to their best advantage here. Especially poor Jiminy, voiced with feels-like-home goodness once again by Ukelele Ike himself, Cliff Edwards. He has an opening song, sets up "Bongo", and wanders over to that janky party where he pretty much stays out of sight. The Big Three are used more thoughtfully, but it is still the same hijinks you would see in any classic Disney short. You expect something extra from a feature film. Fantasia and The Three Caballeros gave me new perspective on the characters of Mickey and Donald. That's not the case here at all, which is especially sad since this is the last time that Walt Disney ever voiced Mickey himself.

The live characters of Edgar Bergen with his puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd and child star Luana Patten seem to be there for no other reason than for their "star power", which was not insignificant in the 40's. Bergen may now be best known for being Candice Bergen's dad, but back then he was a huge radio star and Patten was an up-and-comer from the Disney stable, having starred in So Dear To My Heart. This means that all of them, talented or charming or cute or funny as they may be, are not from the world of the stories. They purposefully stand on the outside of the action and are rendered not only superfluous, but flat out annoying sometimes.

You guys look so familiar...
This leaves us with the original characters, which means all the characters in "Bongo", the Magic Harp, and the giant from "Mickey and the Beanstalk". The best that can be said about the characters in "Bongo" is that they are pleasant enough. Unfortunately, they have none of the distinction or personality of the best Disney characters. I never hear even the most obscure enthusiast profess their affection for Bongo and his ursine friends. And the reason is that they really don't register much. They are well-drawn and Bongo especially has some lovely moments, like when he is first enjoying his newfound freedom from the circus. The giant and harp are fine but undistinguished. None of these new characters stick with you after the film is over.

The Music:

Lulubelle makes Bongo feel like he's
livin' in a teenage dream. 
4/10. The music is fine but unmemorable. Are we starting to see a pattern here? Dinah Shore narrated the "Bongo" segment in rhyme and contributed some lovely vocals. Especially good is the song "Too Good To Be True" as the bears fall in love. But none of the songs really lodges itself in your brain. The songs are all innocuous, forties era ballads. Jiminy also has a song in the beginning that was apparently a cut song from Pinocchio. I always love to hear Cliff Edwards sing and it's certainly a bouncy little number. The Magic Harp has a lovely ditty in the second segment. Nothing here is offensively bad, but there certainly aren't any classics in the handful of songs here.

The Gay Scale:

Girlfriend looks fabulous.
3/10. This is possibly the least queer of all the Disney films. How much of a correlation between that and the blah-ness of the whole affair is up for debate. Here are the queer elements I could cull together. First off, there is a segment full of bears. In some circles, I guess that gives the film standing, though Brother Bear is far sexier. The love sequence from "Bongo" looks like a Katy Perry video. I dunno if that really counts or not. The Magic Harp is pretty fabulous, singing about how all the world is gay. There is a suspiciously phallic cloud formation as the beanstalk rises. And when asked to transform, the giant offers to change into a fly with pink wings. Or a pink bunny. Lastly, it is still a Disney cartoon after all, which means that Mousekequeers like me are poring over it to find gay interpretations, which in and of itself is a little bit gay. Sigh. And I thought I was really reaching last week. This week I had to have go go gadget arms.

The Bottom Line:

How about we have Mickey bang a drum?
That'll make it look super fun right? Right?!?!
4/10. And strike two. I was patient through the weak Saludos Amigos and was rewarded with the brashly odd and fabulous The Three Caballeros. This led me to believe that if I was patient through the middling Make Mine Music, that things would right themselves with Fun and Fancy Free. Fail. Things, in fact, got much worse. I think that this may be the low point of the Disney animated features. That is not to discount all the hard work and skill that went into the making of the film, of course, but in every aspect nothing rises above mildly amusing or pretty good. It is the combined product of Disney coming out of the gate so strongly with 5 ambitious classics and package film fatigue setting in. I can't make any more excuses for the fact that the film is just plain kind of boring, artistically pedestrian, shoddily constructed, and is in no way forward-thinking. Others in the canon suffer from one or more of these flaws here and there, but none all at once and so flagrantly.

My roommate was wise when she didn't even try to crack this one with us at all. She pretends that she had "grad school homework", but I like to chalk it up to the fact that she is, in fact, psychic and knew the tragedy that would have befallen her had she stayed. Tom suffered through "Bongo", but after that the poor thing threw in the towel. A movie that teaches you to say "I love you" by smacking your partner in the head wasn't exactly the most romantical choice for a pair of newlyweds, anyhoo. As far as I'm concerned, though I can find things to love in pretty much all things Disney, I can't help but just be disappointed. Fun and Fancy Free just doesn't hold up to the standards of quality of an animated classic. Sorry if I've been a bit of a Debbie Downer for this DATE Night. It won't happen very often. And we have nowhere to go but up!

The Miscellanea:

I just have to point out that this DVD included a remake of "Mambo #5" by Lou Bega with a Disney theme. It did not enhance my enjoyment of either the film of my life. It's kind of a hot mess and is a shining example of Disney needlessly reaching for cultural relevance and in turn embarrassing themselves a bit. I mean, really. "A Little bit of Pluto in the sun"? That's the best they've got? I can appreciate the fact that they do this kind of thing a bit for the camp value, because otherwise we wouldn't have gems like "Mickey Mouse Disco", but I don't think piggybacking on a one hit wonder is the best way to endear your brand to the masses. Just sayin'...

Fun and Fancy Free wasn't the first time that Mickey climbed up a beanstalk. He tangled with a giant in the classic black & white short "Giant Land" as well. It's a charming short with a fantastic sequence with Mickey in the giant's mouth, a pun-tastic headline on the newspaper, Mickey getting cheeky and calling the giant "big boy", many fun visual gags, and a great reaction shot from the baby mouse at the end. I enjoyed this short as much if not more than the "Mickey and the Beanstalk" segment, which is a problem when you have almost 15 years of technical, artistic, and storytelling advancements between the two.

So, here's where you come in. Was I unduly harsh on this scrappy lil' number? Or do you agree that, whether by necessity or not, Disney was kind of coasting on this one? Most importantly, when he hits you does it feel like a kiss? Or was that whole thing as wildly off-color as it seemed to me to be? Bears. Weird.

Like I've kept on saying, things get better from here on out, I promise. Next week we will take a look at another package film called Melody Time. I know, I know. But the optimist in me holds out hope that this one will be the start of the upswing. I know for a fact that there is some super-rad Mary Blair styling to be seen. And we know how I feel about her! Speaking of Mary Blair, later this week I will continue posting pics from the Colors of Mary Blair exhibit in the Disneyland Gallery I took on my trip last month. Woot woot!

1 comment:

  1. Oh! I'm so sad that you don't love that "package films!" I don't know what it is about them...but I think they're super charming! -andrew