For the most part, only huge Disney buffs bother to see the films produced and released during WWII. They are not what people think of when they think of the Disney feature film; rather than one cohesive narrative, these films were collections of shorts. The Disney studios were coping with some rather difficult circumstances: Many of their animators had been drafted, and these films had much lower budgets. Even after the war ended, Uncle Walt was so deeply in debt that he had to continue releasing package films until Disney could afford to produce more ambitious projects like Cinderella. Although several of the films released during this age are similar to Fantasia, for the most part the Disney studios released films that could all be called “Silly Symphonies: The Movie.”
Saludos Amigos (1942)
I had previously seen clips from this “feature” presented as individual short subjects, and I had a picture book that included a retelling of the Pedro short. The basic history of this and The Three Caballeros is this: WWII had made trade and contact with Europe practically impossible, so FDR devised a “Good Neighbour” strategy where the US would show goodwill to the South American countries and exchange trade and culture with them. Latin American culture then became trendy [cue the Tumblrite shrieking about cultural appropriation!], and the Walt Disney studios staff went to South America to research and produce a pair of films about its culture as a “goodwill gesture.” And although I generally enjoyed watching this, it’s kind of baffling that this film is considered part of the Animated Canon, whereas proper feature length narrative films like The Brave Little Toaster and The Nightmare Before Christmas are not. (Yes, I know both of those films were only distributed by Disney and were animated at separate studios) For starters, it’s barely feature length at just over 40 minutes long. Second, around 1/3rd of the film is a live action documentary of the Disney animators’ vacation in South America. It’s really just a travelogue with a few animated shorts in it.
- The Aquarela do Brasil sequence worked quite well. The visuals were wonderful; I really enjoyed seeing the rainforest, flowers, trees, birds, fruit, etc depicted in watercolour (which has always been one of my favourite art styles). Jose Carioca is a decent character, though it’s kind of funny seeing how Disney expected him to be a huge new cartoon star (notice he gets a special introduction on the poster) and he’s mostly forgotten now (at least in the English-speaking world). I did wish that his babbling in Portuguese was subtitled, but I guess that ruins the joke of Donald trying to follow along with the huge pile of dictionaries.
- The Pedro sequence was pretty crappy, all things considered. It didn’t really explore Chile’s culture at all (just that it’s next to Argentina!). This short could have been transported to a mountainous US location (and have Pedro renamed to Peter), and practically nothing in the plot would have changed. I also was rather annoyed that the animators decided to gender airplanes: Pedro has a “Large male airplane” father and a “Medium sized female airplane” mother. Siiigh. Planes did the same stupid thing 70 years later, and the character designs are almost the same! Can we please stop assigning genders to things that aren’t even alive? Lastly, the narrative in this short is really lazy. Pedro runs out of gas a considerable distance away from home, his family thinks he’s crashed and died, and…he somehow makes it home. Without any explanation at all. What were the scriptwriters thinking here? “So how does he get home?” “He just does.” “Great. Let’s film it.”
The Three Caballeros (1944)
It’s Disney’s first sequel! And Uncle Walt, I am glaring at you. This is a bizarre incoherent sexist lowest-common-denominator mess. Saludos Amigos had a great deal of time given to exploring the history, artistry, culture, food, flora and fauna of Latin America. This film’s message is basically just “Latin music is great and Latina girls are hot! Let’s dance!” over and over again. I’ve never been able to like Latin music (Sorry, I’ve tried) and the musical performances went on and on and on and on and on and on and I wanted to die. Am I just too cerebral for this film? I don’t mind showing off the music of the culture, but I hardly think it deserved as much emphasis/attention as it got in this film. How did its predecessor cover so much more of Latin American culture than this one did, when The Three Caballeros is an entire half hour longer?
- Eugh. Let me see here. Well, this film decided to include Mexico in its coverage this time, and for the most part I enjoyed when Mexican Rooster (Sorry, I don’t think his name was ever mentioned?) discussed Mexico City, and the children’s ritual re-enacting of Mary and Joseph trying to seek shelter on Christmas Eve. The artwork is stunning in that scene, and I really wished there was more time devoted to expressing knowledge. I did find it surprising that Donald didn’t know what a piñata was. I thought that was common knowledge, but I guess not back in 1944?
- For my whole life I considered Donald Duck to be my favourite character of the classic Disney gang, but this film made me seriously question that. No, scratch that, it made me hate him. Every single time a woman was shown onscreen (and she was always live action), Donald would turn into a mindless, pushy horndog. He didn’t even talk to the women before pursuing them, he’d just literally throw himself at them and try to kiss them without their consent. When one of them (Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora) DID willingly kiss him, Donald practically made orgasm noises! Literally the only thing that an audience would learn about Latina women in this “feature” is that A) They’re hot and Donald just can’t control himself and B) They sing and dance but do not express any thoughts or opinions. Yeah, I’m gettin’ up on the Feminist Soapbox. It might have been okay if it had just been one instance of Donald getting a ducky boner, but it was EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Seriously, screw this movie.
Make Mine Music (1946)
I would have to say that this is the best of the wartime films (not that that’s saying much). The musical sequences are generally charming and well-animated, though there’s still the problem of them all looking like Silly Symphony shorts. I liked the musical selections a lot more this time as well, though I still feel like it was a poor choice to go with contemporary musicians (though I know it was a choice made for financial reasons). The 40s-style music dated the package films a lot more than the classical music in Fantasia did. Speaking of which, although I did not end up choosing it as my favourite aspect of the film (though it was a close second), the Blue Bayou sequence was originally intended to be set to Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune (notice all the shots of the moon). I am very sad that it wasn’t included in Fantasia in its original form, as Clair De Lune is one of my favourite classical pieces and the animation in that sequence (with the herons and so on) was incredible.
- Very tough decision (in a good way!) but I decided to go with The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met. MY GOD Nelson Eddy had an incredible range! The story itself is cute enough (tragic ending notwithstanding – if I’d seen this as a little girl I would have bawled my eyes out), but it’s Nelson Eddy’s vocal performance that absolutely blows me away. I really loved all the snippets of various operatic compositions (“Je suiiiiiiiis Mephiiiistoooooo!”). I do have one little complaint – there’s a reference to ichthyologists (scientists who study fish) being unable to come to a consensus on whether it was possible for a whale to be able to sing or not. Well, of COURSE they couldn’t agree on anything, whales are mammals. Surely that bit of biology was known even back in the 40s. Tsk tsk.
- I am going to be shocking here and say Peter and the Wolf, which is by far Make Mine Music‘s most famous sequence. NOT because of the music, which is iconic, and a perfect childhood introduction to the concept of the leitmotif, nor because of the animation. No, it’s because of the choice of Sterling Holloway to narrate the sequence. It is a minor pet peeve of mine that Disney repeatedly used him to voice characters for something like 25 years, and Holloway used the exact same voice every time. I like voice actors who have a little range, thank you very much. His narration took me right out of the story, especially when a Brooklyn accent would slip through and distract me from the sheer Russian-ness of the music and story. Couldn’t they have gotten a Russian actor to narrate this? The Cold War wasn’t really in full swing yet. I also have to complain about the contrived reveal that Sonja wasn’t eaten by the wolf. I know it’s a Disney cliche that they’ll make you think a character has died when they haven’t, but they show her entering the Pearly Gates! In the original story, you are supposed to be able to hear her quacking inside the wolf’s belly as he swallowed her alive. In the same movie where an opera-singing whale is harpooned, we can’t have a wolf eating a duck?
Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
This film is dated in so many ways. For one thing, “fancy free” is not a phrase used in colloquial language anymore. It also proves that celebrity cameos/voiceovers in animated films aren’t a recent thing. I fortunately knew who Dinah Shore was, but I was incredibly confused by the presence of Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummies (and I’m generally someone who is good at absorbing cultural knowledge). For the most part, radio stars are not discussed or remembered much, but this film expects me to already know who Bergen was and what his characters were. This is one major issue with celebrity presence in animated films – if they’re just performing a character, it’s one thing, but if the filmmakers are counting on the audience knowing references to these celebrities’ careers, you’re going to have a very confused audience in a few decades. As I mentioned on Twitter, while Tom Hanks is likely to remain a household name for decades to come, Tim Allen’s star has faded. Robin Williams might be remembered, but his impressions in Aladdin are already dated (I mean, Arsenio Hall?). [Williams died after this review was written – but I think the outpouring of grief has proven that he will be remembered] It’s for this reason that I suspect that most of Dreamworks’ films will be forgotten because they rely too much on current pop culture references.
- The animation in this is generally lower quality (as most of the wartime & post-wartime package films were), and for the most part both Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk look more like Silly Symphonies shorts than parts of a feature film. That said, the backgrounds in both shorts are incredible. It’s almost always the character animators that get all the attention and accolades, but the people who designed and painted the backgrounds for these two shorts are masters at their craft. The forest, lake, mountains and other such things in Bongo look like they could be framed paintings, and the scenes set in Happy Valley or the Giant’s castle in Mickey and the Beanstalk look beautiful as well. It seems like the backgrounds were the only part of this “feature” that had any effort put into it.
- Narratively, Bongo is a mess. The framing scene with Jiminy Cricket presents this as a musical story recited on record by Dinah Shore, but by roughly 1/4 through the short, the narration started disappearing, and we get extended scenes with only non-diegetic music and non-descriptive sound effects – to the point that someone listening to a record would have had no idea what was going on. Very, very sloppy! At least with the Mickey and the Beanstalk sequence, the visuals are represented as thought bubbles, so that the people listening to the story are able to “see” what’s going on. I also don’t like that Bongo’s love interest Lulubelle is so incredibly empty as a character. The only time she acts independently is to determinedly slap Bongo (which is a bear’s way of saying “I love you”), but when she accidentally slaps the Pegleg Pete knockoff Lockjaw, he claims her, she doesn’t even try to free herself from him or tell him it was accidental, and then we get the boring cliche of two men fighting over a passive woman. NO THANK YOU.
Melody Time (1948)
Okay, I really did not like this compilation film. It has dated rather poorly because of the choice to use contemporary music & performers, and it’s got a distinctly “This was made for Americans and no one else” flavour to it. Nevertheless, because it tells distinct stories in different musical and animated styles, there are a few decent shorts mixed in with all the…disappointment. It’s a very good thing that the war was over at this point and there’s just one more package film to go, because I don’t know if I could bear any more of these cheap-o “features.”
- Compared to how safe and predictable the other shorts were in this film, Bumble Boogie is fascinatingly daring. It dramatically changes Flight of the Bumblebee to a very contemporary sound and rhythm (for the 40s, anyway), the visuals are abstract, psychedelic and nightmareish, and the narrative is about a poor little bee trapped in a world of music that is trying to kill him. And he doesn’t escape it. That’s just nuts. The rhythmic piano soloist is really talented, and this sequence’s music is actually kind of an earworm for me now.
- Pecos Bill was the finale short, and the one that got the most advertising from Disney themselves. This was probably because they got Roy Rogers and co. to narrate and sing the story. But unfortunately for them, I have only enjoyed two Western films in my lifetime, and they’re Back to the Future III and Dances With Wolves. I may have mentioned before that Americana really irritates me, and I associate the whole Wild West culture with that. I was thoroughly irritated by the boy child who whined about a woman being included in a story, and jokingly tweeted “You’re probably old and dead now but SCREW YOU KID.” Then I found out that the kid was Bobby Driscoll, and then I felt bad. The story itself is rather politically incorrect, including a sequence where Pecos Bill shoots at some “redskins” putting on war paint. And, uh, his horse Widow-Maker basically murders his fiancee and gets away with it. Wow. (Maybe he should be renamed Widower-Maker.) Finally, this sequence is overlong – it’s about 3 times the length of your average short subject. It’s not THAT great a story, Disney. Honestly speaking though, I had trouble choosing which part of the film I liked the least. Johnny Appleseed was close because of how sappy and idealized the depiction of him was, but I decided to give it a pass because its visuals are great, whereas Pecos Bill looks like every other cartoon set in the Western era.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
So here we are at the literal end of an era, and THANK GOD. There’s a reason most of these films are forgettable. I would rank TAOIAMT (I am not writing the entire title over and over) at around 2nd best out of all of the package films, but once again, that’s not saying much. The celebrity guests this time are Basil Rathbone, one of the most famous actors to portray Sherlock Holmes, and Bing Crosby, who I really don’t need to give an introduction for. I generally dislike Crosby as a person and don’t care for his singing style, but he wasn’t terrible in this. I’ll grant him that the guy could act. Neither of the two halves of this film have much in common besides being adapted from literature – Mr. Toad is from a British children’s novel with anthropomorphic animals and whimsy, and Ichabod is from an early American short story with romantic intrigue, horror, and morally ambiguous protagonists. Also: I swear that the animators of Beauty and the Beast took influence from this film, because not only is Brom Bones a slightly nicer version of Gaston, the short opens with the townspeople singing about how odd Ichabod is while he’s obliviously reading a book!
- Absolutely no contest here, it’s the scene with the Headless Horseman. It’s beautifully animated (with lots of fun interplay of light and shadow), the tension is built up really well without being exhausting or contrived, the music sets the mood really well, and the Horseman’s evil laugh is fantastic. There is an interesting twist on my appreciation of this scene, however; the first time I watched it, it was included in a Disney Channel special called Disney’s Halloween Treat. It was heavily edited and truncated, and most notably, it left out the ending scene where the audience is meant to think that maybe Ichabod just left town rather than having been “spirited away” by the Headless Horseman. This changed my perception of the scene tremendously. It was far more effective and scary to not know or to have any ideas of what happened to Mr. Crane, and I was convinced that he’d been murdered. Being presented an explicit alternate outcome was almost a letdown!
- If anyone tries to tell you that the 40s/50s were the “Good Old Days,” kick ’em in the crotch, because goddamn is this movie sexist. First off, no female character ever speaks. At all. Second, the two female characters that are shown in this movie (in the Ichabod half) are two rather offensive stereotypes of womanhood. The first, Katrina, has a waist almost as small as her wrist, while still having a heaving bosom. And as the richest girl in the village, she is pursued by men relentlessly. Not only does she encourage them to do this by acting like a coquette, she actually encourages them to fight over her! Women are faithless bitches, amirite? The other woman is plump, ugly, and actively presented as the inferior option to Katrina. Brom Bones actually makes a disgusted face at her when she hopefully looks at him as a possible dance partner. She’s actually shown to have hurt feelings here, but when she does dance with Brom Bones, she’s overly clingy and clumsy, because how dare fat homely women want attention from men, right? Fuck you, Uncle Walt.
All that glitters is not just the Gold in