Tuesday, October 11, 2011

DATE Night: Melody Time

Make it pink! Make it blue!
You came back! I had a feeling you would. And it was so worth it, huh? I know you were probably a little bit annoyed that I would take you out for yet another night of music. They have been kind of hit-or-miss, but I pretty much feel like this time it was a hit. I told you that your patience would pay off. Still, I know we're both feeling a bit of package film fatigue, but there's only one more before we get back to one story per movie again. So let's dive into our tenth DATE Night! That means we've been at it now for two and a half months. Impressive, right? If I were the lesbian that my Lilith Fair musical tastes indicate, we would have reserved the U-Haul already!

The Background:

Yet another package film. If you need to be filled in on what that exactly means, please see Exhibit A, or B or C. If that doesn't give you enough background, then I certainly don't know how to help you. On its own, Melody Time was not abysmally received when it was initially released, but it seems that people were waiting for Disney to live up to the promise of those first five pictures and their patience was wearing a bit thin at this point. The studio had spent almost a decade making package films and live action/animated hybrids where the animation was seen as the star of the show (So Dear To My Heart, Song of the South). Folks were certainly chomping at the bit for another full-fledged animated feature in the tradition of the earlier films by this time.

The First Impression:

Once again, this is one of the films that I didn't watch in its entirety the first go-round. There are segments that I am familiar with for one reason or another, but this was the first time that I watched the entire movie in one sitting beginning to end.

The Art:

Mary Blair's amazing inspirational art for
7/10. This would score highly in my book if for no other reason than it has Mary Blair's handprints all over it. "Once Upon a Wintertime" most closely represents her art, with very stylized figures against stylized backgrounds. It's like a piece of her work come to life and is absolutely one of my favorite pieces of Disney animation. It's interesting to contrast that with "Johnny Appleseed", where her influence is all over the backgrounds but the characters are much more in a traditional, rounded Disney style. She also returns to the Latin American milieu where she found her voice as an artist during the making of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros in "Blame it on the Samba". In all, her bold lines, representational styling and powerful use of color really help to shape their unique look. A few favorite moments are when the characters literally turn blue with sadness and red with anger in "Wintertime", the gorgeous waterfall in "Johnny Appleseed", and the pastel jungle of "Samba", but to be honest, I'm hard pressed to pick favorite moments artistically here when they are all so strong.

Yup. Lots of trees in "Trees". 
Even outside of Mary Blair's work, there is much to admire here. "Bumble Boogie" recalls the frenzied, weird amazingness of the final minutes of The Three Caballeros and "Pink Elephants on Parade" with its saturated colors and psychedelic feel. "Trees" is an artistic tone poem, recalling a more stylized "The Old Mill". There is a stunning moment showing a gorgeous landscape that pulls back so that we see that we are actually looking at the landscape's reflection in a drop of water on a branch. The use of light is amazing. I must say, though, that I could live without the overt religious symbology at the end. It felt a bit out of place."Pecos Bill" also has some fantastic artwork throughout, but especially during the opening song. On the whole, there is a sense of experimentation and of continuing to push out the edges of what they have been able to do successfully before, which adds a sense of excitement to watching from moment to moment, waiting to see what they will come up with next.

The Story:

I'm unclear as to how I would order this in a bar.
6/10. Vast improvements here as well. Of course, this being a package film, they are pretty much not going to be able to solve the problem of giving the whole thing a sense of flow, but when each segment flows so well within itself, it's hard to quibble. There is a focus and clarity to the way each story is told, even when methods are varied. They take the forms of a musical ("Johnny Appleseed"), visual poem ("Trees"), campfire tall tale ("Pecos Bill"), hallucination ("Bumble Boogie"), storybook ("Little Toot"), memory ("Wintertime"), or alcohol-fueled party ("Samba"). Each commits to its method of conveyance and does it economically and well.

Mr. Not-Too-Creepy Mask.
Especially impressive in this area to me is "Johnny Appleseed", which manages to pack a whole life story in a traditional musical theatre format into a few minutes and do it more successfully that some two-plus hour debacles I've seen on Broadway recently. (Yes, Baby It's You. I just called you out. Deal with it.)

The opening moments of the film are charming, if not special, with paintbrushes creating our mask hosts before our eyes. (The fact that they could use animated masks and not make me want to turn the movie off immediately tells me that they were doing something right. Cuz masks are creepy, y'all. I hate them. And clowns.) The tiny bits or narration between the pieces is enough of a thread for me to follow where I am being taken to. I also like the fact that they nod to the classic convention of starting the story by opening a storybook when they begin the film by opening a book of music on a music stand. Nice touch.

The Characters:

Why so blue, fellas?
How bout I make you a drink?
6/10. A few of the characters are recycled for "Samba", but considering how well they work, it feels like running into old friends at a great party when you're meeting all these awesome new people too. It makes sense, being that the aracuan bird literally makes Donald and Jose a drink during the segment. Though none of the characters have entered the upper echelon of great Disney characters, they are all well done across the board. I must say, though, that I'm not all too fond of petulant Little Toot. He seems like an unsympathetic troublemaker to me. In fact, that is the only short that seems rather inert and derivative, with shades of Pedro from Saludos Amigos and Casey Jr. (with "Try. Do or die." replacing "I think I can.") in a rather predictable underdog narrative. The other characters, from the bee in "Bumble Boogie" to the charming humans and animals in "Wintertime" to the legendary Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill are both beautifully drawn and animated and dimensionally portrayed in short periods of time. I think that the reason they aren't as integral a part of Disney's canon is purely due to the fact that with only a few minutes to register in a little seen film, they are overlooked. All are worthy additions.

The Music:

Sing it, yummy cowboy.
6/10. Good stuff here! The Andrews Sisters are back for "Little Toot" and they are always a welcome addition. Ethel Smith is the sassiest organ player I've ever seen and the "Samba" is another fine use of Latin sounds. "Wintertime" is set to a lovely tune which has become a seasonal classic for me if for no one else. The jazzy arrangement of "Flight of the Bumblebee" is the driving force behind "Bumble Boogie". The musical setting of "Trees" is a bit boring but appropriately reverent for the feeling of the art. The music is "Pecos Bill" is evocative and works like gangbusters. Most impressive to me, though, is the music in "Johnny Appleseed", which is in the form of a mini-musical, with the songs not only beautifully integrated, but also catchy as all get-out. I had music from it stuck in my head for the whole day after I saw it. I also love the fact that each of these songs is in a different genre, which means that it comes much closer to the goal of being a more popular-music-leaning Fantasia than Make Mine Music did.

The Gay Scale:

Hot young Johnny.
Hot older Johnny.
Queersome Angel.
6/10. Finally they throw the gays a bone again! There are tiny gay touches here and there, like the rainbow of hammers hitting a piano strong in "Bumble Boogie" and Jose's insistence on dancing with Donald. (Why, oh, why won't he insist on dancing with me? That green bird was built to continually break my heart with his effortless sexiness.) There are also underdog narratives in "Little Toot" and "Pecos Bill", which features a young man who is abandoned by his real family and flourishes after he is embraced by a family of his own choosing. Plus Roy Rogers and his singing friends are all lookers. There's something about a man in a cowboy hat, ya know? The strongest gay interpretation for me, however, is "Johnny Appleseed", which is the story of a kind and non-violent man (who is quite a dish, by the way, and even more so when he is older confirmed bachelor with a beard) who makes a difference in the world without compromising his beliefs or trying to be someone that he is not. In being true to himself, he affects positive change. What a great message for a young gay person to hear. Plus, the angel who visits him is referenced as "mighty queersome" and the apple field turns pink when he arrives. There is a good chunk here for a queer audience.

The Bottom Line:

Yeah. Not the best posters for
these package films, huh?
6/10. I'm not gonna lie. I totes dig this movie. True to the 40's package film pattern, they faltered a bit once with Make Mine Music, learned from it, strengthened the formula, and came back with a far superior film in Melody Time. It's the same as what happened with Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. The art is more exciting. The storytelling within the segments is crisper. The music is more memorable. Whereas large chunks of Make Mine Music felt like a chore to make it through, Melody Time briskly flew by and my interest never waned. The film is an enjoyable diversion with segments that easily hold their own against any of the classic Disney shorts from this era. You can see that the artists who worked on this film were actively pushing their imaginations into new and/or far-out areas, saving this film from any strong sense of Disney resting on their laurels. This and The Three Caballeros are definitely at the top of the package film heap, though still not in the top tier of animated classics.

The Miscellanea:

During the package film years Disney produced many pieces based on classic American folk tales, legends and literature. Most of them inspired greatness in their artists, resulting in such classics as "Pecos Bill", "Johnny Appleseed", and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". Many years later, in 2000, animator Mark Henn (Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana) directed a short based on the story of "John Henry". Apparently it was intended to accompany a re-release of Song of the South, but a small but mighty uproar stopped the release of both because they were seen as racially insensitive, which really chaps my behind. Contextualize Song of the South. Pretending it doesn't exist does no one any good. "John Henry", however, has nothing to contextualize or apologize for. It is a gorgeously done short which pays homage to Mary Blair, 101 Dalmations, Grandma Moses, African-American culture and folk arts such as quilting. I finally saw it for the first time not too long ago and was frankly stunned at how wonderful it was. Do yourself a favor and give it a whirl.

More censorship! Yay! Once again with the smoking. Because we all know that, starting in the late 90's, not only did people completely stop smoking, but a magical machine was able to go back into history and erase all tobacco use up until that point! So, really Disney was just mirroring that by editing their film output. Bah. Come on guys. Add the creepy "green-faced Pinocchio smoking is bad" warning at the beginning and trust parents to do their job in letting children know that nothing good comes from smoking. I just don't like the idea of us reaching back into the work of those in the past and diddling with it, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Slippery slope, y'all. They digitally erased Pecos Bill's cigarette and cut the bit at around the 2:00 mark where he rolls a cigarette with his tongue and lights it with a lightning bolt. (I guess I can see how children would want to mimic that. When I was young, I tried to light cigarettes with lightning bolts that I caught while riding a tornado all the time. Makes sense.)

There we have it! The upswing begins! I told you that you'd be rewarded for your patience. I know that you are ready for something different, so next week on our DATE Night I will be taking you on a bit of a wild ride (Mind out of the gutter. Nothing dirty. I'm a married man, remember.) with Mr. Toad (See? Not dirty). Then, if you're up for it, which I'm sure you will be, we'll go somewhere a bit creepy and maybe run into The Headless Horseman. It is almost Halloween, after all. We are a fifth of the way through all of Disney's animated classics, the Forties are coming to a close and the studio is about to enter into it's second golden age. Exciting stuff, y'all! Gird your loins!

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