Sunday, March 4, 2012

1947 - Fun and Fancy Free

Before I begin, a few corrections from last time: First of all, ‘Blue Lagoon’ was by the Ken Darby Chorus, not the Kim Darby Chorus. Kim Darby was the terrible actress from the old version of True Grit. Second, I neglected to include my usual meal choice, so in honor of the Martins and the Coys, have some ‘possum stew and a jug of white lightning. 

Say, here’s a quick clue for you, Walt. If your latest anthology film is made of two shorts that were supposed to be full-length films until you couldn’t figure out how to develop them, the audience may have some reservations going in. They may expect the shorts to be tight and well-plotted in their brief length. After all, you chose the short format to tell the story best, so surely they won‘t be draggy at all - right? Do you think I’m foreshadowing? So do I, and I should know. So make two small portions of anything you don’t know how to cook, and let’s talk about Fun and Fancy-Free.


I really don’t think I made it clear in the Pinocchio review how much Jiminy Cricket annoys me. He’s just so pointlessly chipper to the point where it’s detrimental, and he’s a total failure as a conscience. And the “talking to dolls like they’re alive” bit is annoying. And he’s a bad influence! He shows up here singing a song about how if you ignore your problems and never plan for the future, everything will work out fine. Between that and “wishing on a star will make your dreams come true”, I’m starting to suspect he’s deliberately trying to give bad morals to kids. Anyway, he wanders around a house that isn‘t his, finds a record of Dinah Shore telling a story about a bear, and listens to it. Here we go.

This is the news Jiminy Cricket wants you to ignore


This first of the two feature stories, conceived as a spiritual sequel to Dumbo, is about a circus bear that pulls a daring train escape and flees to the woods. There, he is initially ill-prepared for life in the wilderness, but goes at it with renewed vigor when he meets a pretty lady-bear. He is initially put off by an aggressive rival, but uses his circus skills to show the guy up, and gets the girl. And… That’s pretty much it.

Yeah, it's pretty cutesy.

There’s a problem my compatriots at the Post Atomic Horror podcast run into on occasion, where an episode summary runs short because said episode is mostly padding, and nothing really happens in it. That’s what’s going on here, and what makes that so weird is that it would make such a good full-length movie. The animation’s really good, and the idea is a winner. Just give the characters actual dialogue instead of Dinah Shore narration, throw in a lovable chipmunk sidekick for Bongo. Sterling Holloway could play the inevitable owl. But as it is, there’s just nothing there. I had this on VHS as a solo release when I was a kid, and even then I found it incredibly draggy. Plus, the narration was by Jiminy Cricket instead of Dinah Shore, which didn’t help. I enjoyed it more as an adult, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t turn it up to double speed once or twice.


We go back to the dang cricket, who finds an invitation to a birthday party, and decides to go. Yeah, reading an invitation in the bedroom of the stranger whose house you’ve broken into is just like being invited. I hate you, Cricket. When he gets there, it turns out the guests, apart from the little girl whose invitation it was, are three middle-aged men. And that’s it. No parents or anything. To be fair, the men are Edgar Bergen and his puppets, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. It’s still weird. The girl is Disney star Luana Patten, and she’s a good enough actor in that creepily mature child star way, though I can’t help but wondering why someone had to invite her to her own birthday. Well, if Bergen’s the kind of guy who hangs out with puppets, he can’t have that many friends. And if she’s the kind of guy who hangs out with Edgar Bergen, neither can she.

Ventriloquy! For when you want your kid's party to be creepy and off-putting.

Bergen and the puppets banter, demonstrating as usual that Bergen is a clever and talented comedian and a flat-out terrible ventriloquist. What’s weird is that when he’s using one dummy, or neither, the other is done as a regular puppet, with Bergen’s voice dubbed in. I have no idea why they didn’t just keep this up. It could only make him look better. I mean, he’s a funny guy, but there’s a reason he found fame as a radio ventriloquist. Anyway, he decides to tell Luana a story, because hey, it’s a party, and we get our second feature…


Okay, first let’s go into the reasons this was made in the first place. I mentioned in the Fantasia review that Mickey hasn’t been funny since 1930, and that’s actually by design.  In his first handful of shorts, Mickey was sort of a weird little sociopath. As the shorts increased in popularity, his personality got blander and blander, until he was nothing but a generic “everyman”, and that’s how Walt wanted it. By the mid-30s, newcomers Donald, Goofy, and Pluto had vastly outstripped Mickey in popularity, and more importantly, so had Fleischer Studios’ Popeye cartoons. This confounded Walt, whose hatred for the Fleischers burned with the heat of a thousand suns, and he started a ceaseless string of comeback attempts for Mickey. Teamups with Donald and Goofy were most common, as were his featured roles in Fantasia and here. But what Walt failed to realize is that the problem was that MICKEY IS BORING.


People didn’t flock to Mickey films because they loved his character, they did because the films had sound, and then color. When the novelty wore off, and better cartoons came along, they went to them. But Walt steadfastly refused to allow Mickey to have a personality. Walt was to Mickey what Gene Roddenberry was to Star Trek. Got it started and then heaped it with insane demands that it remain free of conflict or anything resembling interesting writing, while better writers did their best to make it work. But unlike Trek, which booted Gene upstairs and got on with its own business, it continues to this day with Mickey.

Mickey and the Beanstalk is more of the same. It takes the same old story, which was thin to begin with, puts Mickey in it, and lets Donald and Goofy do all the heavy lifting. There’s some funny gags here and there, especially with the giant food, but it’s just so bland. The only real zest is the narration, which is frequently interrupted by Charlie McCarthy making fun of Bergen and doing oblique references to the New Deal. The giant is the worst villain ever. Bergen keeps telling us how cruel and vicious he is, but all we see is a lovable goof who wants to turn into a pink bunny and bounce his ball. His only villainous act was the offscreen theft of a harp. Both shorts were underdeveloped and draggy, but well-animated enough. Still, Bongo’s definitely the one that makes this worth the price of admission.


* Mickey and the Beanstalk was directed by T. Hee. AWESOME.

* It’s also the last time the classic trio would have their original voices, Walt as Mickey, Pinto Colvig as Goofy, and Clarence Nash as Donald. Walt retired from acting just after.

This also happened.
* The script for Bongo was completed the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. Later that same day, the Army literally marched in and took over Disney’s production studios to make propaganda films. Good times.

* As mentioned, the video release of Bongo was narrated by the stupid cricket. The home release of M.a.t.B was narrated by Paul Frees as Ludvig Von Drake. I’m not sure what a German mad scientist would be doing narrating a fairy tale, and I feel like losing Bergen might be a bad thing, but I’m a fan of Paul Frees, so I’ll check it out. Who knows, maybe it’ll help.

* There were two storyboarded and deleted scenes showing how Mickey got the beans. In the first, he was swindled by Foulfellow and Gideon from Pinocchio. This was allegedly cut because Pinocchio flopped at the box office, but if that’s true, why do I have to put up with Jiminy Cricket, that’s what I want to know. The second had Minnie as the queen, giving Mickey the beans from the royal treasure room. I actually like that, because it gives him an actual sensible reason to give up a cow for them. Treasure beans, yo!

* Mickey remains boring to this day. While Trek got people like Nick Myer, Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Ron Moore saving it from Gene’s vision of a drama-free future, Mickey did not. The closest was Floyd Gottfredson, who was responsible for the Mickey Mouse comics, and was, in quite an unusual move by the company, left more or less to his own devices. For 50 years, he wrote a scrappy, adventurous Mickey quite at odds with the animated portrayal.

*As for more recent comeback attempts, a mid-90s effort called “Runaway Brain” was the first Mickey cartoon in like 40 years, and tried to use the more adventurous Mickey of the Gottfredson comics. The Disney Company barely admits that cartoon exists today. There was also the recent video game Epic Mickey, which would allow you to act more like the 1920s Mickey. That idea was sadly watered down to almost nothingness by the time the game was released. And here we all hoped Warren Spector would be Mickey’s JJ Abrams.

* I really like Star Trek, you guys.
And in related news, people on the internet are still insane.

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