Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Anne: Hey, so, remember how we thought we were going to watch 52 Disney movies by Thanksgiving, and we’re still stuck in the package films of the 1940s with a month to go? Yeah, that happened.
But we managed to find a night when neither of us had rehearsal or work or other plans (one must maintain one’s social life, don’t you know) to watch Fun and Fancy Free, which to my mind is really less of a package film than two shorts linked by arbitrary connecting material. The first is the story of Bongo the circus bear–apparently based on a story by Sinclair Lewis!–and the second is Mickey and the Beanstalk, also featuring Donald Duck and Goofy.
You know, I found the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment really refreshing. Watching this fantastically inventive and charming short film, it occurred to me that the animators could stretch themselves more with a familiar story than they could if they were worrying about whether things were clear enough for the audience to follow the plot. Everybody knows Jack and the Beanstalk–I myself was sitting there going “FEE FI FO FUM! I SMELL THE BLOOD OF AN ENGLISHMAN!” (though as James pointed out, they were neither English nor men). The story takes care of itself; all that’s left for the animators to do is give it a fresh treatment. Mickey is of course a perfect central character for this particular story–plucky, smart but maybe not too wise (“Only a fool would exchange a cow for beans!”). He’s the Everyman. The Everymouse, if you will. Donald Duck and Goofy complement him–Goofy is, well, goofier, sillier, and Donald is more impulsive and violent.
The original story doesn’t paint the eponymous Jack in a very good light–he steals from the giant for no particular reason and when he is caught, he chops down the beanstalk and the giant is killed. (“Doesn’t anyone care that a giant has fallen from the sky?!” Okay, I’ll desist with the Into the Woods jokes now.) Not much of a hero, is Jack. But Mickey Mouse is a positive role model for kids, so the writers found a way into the fairytale that gave his stealing altruistic motives. Instead of climbing the beanstalk, our three friends are lifted off the ground by the aforementioned plant in a thrillingly clever bit of animation, and, finding themselves in the realm of the giants, they go ahead and explore. Natural curiosity, nothing more. Finding food and being hungry to the point of starvation (as we saw in earlier scenes of Donald trying to butcher the poor cow), they help themselves. And the only thing they “steal,” or rather, recover, is the magical harp that was responsible for the entire wellbeing of Happy Valley. A little hackneyed? Maybe. Easier to swallow than Mickey Mouse wantonly stealing money and a hen that lays golden eggs from a giant and then murdering said giant by chopping down the beanstalk? Absolutely. The overall result is charming, anyway.
(P.S. “I don’t believe that egg came from that hen. Where did you get that egg?” “From the kingdom of the giant. UP THERE.”
P.P.S. “But Anne, I thought you were going to stop making Into the Woods references.” Not completely. Do we ever?)
James: Mickey and the Beanstalk is a curious one. It was originally intended as a full feature, but it becomes apparent while watching that it wouldn’t have sustained the full run time. The story is too brief and too well known; taking too much time with story beats that everyone in the audience is already expecting would have been foolish. Instead they manage to get just the right number of twists on the story material to make it fresh without overwhelming the classic elements, and it all fits into about 20 minutes, not counting the framing story.
I wasn’t overly enamoured by the short as a whole, partly because the story is so familiar and partly because the twists didn’t always make that much sense. I loved the giant’s entrance (an imposing shadow wielding a mace is revealed to be a singing giant bouncing a beach ball), but his personality and abilities were rather inconsistent. His magic abilities featured in maybe two scenes, and then were entirely absent from the rest of the film, not even showing up in the climactic chase scene. His ridiculous geniality at the start faded almost instantly so he could be the villain the film needed (but not the one it deserves… If you’re going to make Into The Woods references, I reserve the right to reference Batman). Mickey, Goofy and Donald are an enjoyable trio, but they’re at their best when they’re bouncing off each other with dialogue, and a lot of the scenes in the castle involve them sneaking around, cutting down on their banter. Mickey makes a very good protagonist for this sort of story, cheeky enough to get into danger, but likable enough to be a real audience surrogate. I’m sure it wouldn’t have distanced him from the audience too much if he’d been more like the original, less noble Jack, but I understand the updates.
The short is surrounded by and integrated with a framing story of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen telling Mickey’s story to young actress Luana Patten, who we saw recently in Song of the South (and will apparently be in Melody Time as well… obviously the child star of the moment!), the man using his dummies to tell the tale for her birthday. In the 1940s this was perfectly innocent. Today… it’s a little creepy. No names are given to Bergen or Patten, so presumably they’re themselves, but one wonders where her friends and family are, and why she’s spending her birthday with a middle-aged man and two middle-aged puppets. Bergen is affable as always, but he’s no Uncle Remus, and Patten has no backstory to explain why she’s alone with him. These scenes were basically filler, with plenty of good one-liners from the puppets but with no real personalities or story to go with it. Bergen was familiar to me (along with his puppets) from a guest appearance on the Muppet Show, and so it was pleasant to see him crop up in another interest of mine.
Also, he was the father of Candice Bergen.
Anne: I really didn’t care that the giant had pointless magical powers or that the plot twists made no sense, I thought Mickey and the Beanstalk was just a rollicking good time. (In fact, I’m not sure that the fact that the plot twists made no sense would have occurred to me if I hadn’t been watching with you, but let that pass.)
Though I absolutely agree about the slight creepiness of Luana Patten’s “birthday party.” I thought the one-liners were brilliant (though again, it’s a story that barely needs narration, so those were just icing on the cake), but whaaaaaat?
Okay, moving backwards now to the beginning.
Our host is the always welcome if in this case pretty much superfluous Jiminy Cricket. The framing devices–I say “devices” because there were several and they segued into one another–were kind of unnecessary, to be honest. But I think if you’re going to connect two completely unrelated short films, might as well bring back one of the most charming characters in the whole canon (up to that point, and arguably ever).
Jiminy sings the catchy title tune, wins over the audience, then puts on a record and disappears for the next half hour as we watch the story of Bongo the Circus Bear, sung and narrated by Dinah Shore. When the title card said “sung by Dinah Shore,” I was hoping for something along the lines of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” (sung by Nelson Eddy). Obviously Shore is not the same kind of singer, and there also was not as much music in this film, but she was a very appealing narrator. Unlike some of the previous narrators (particularly Sterling Holloway), I never felt that the narration was overkill for the story.
This film also has the advantage of a very sweet plucky title character, the poorly treated star of the circus. Check him out–his act ends with him free-falling from the trapeze and landing ON ONE FOOT on a sponge.
(James: “Flap your ears, Bongo!”)
Anyway. Instantly likeable little guy who does not get nearly enough credit for his aerodynamically impossible circus act. One night, tired of his circus life, Bongo hears the call of the wild and escapes the circus train on his unicycle.
Bongo quickly realizes that life in the wild is harder than he thought it was going to be when he first got off the train. But romance is in the air, and we are introduced to Bongo’s MPDB (that’s Manic Pixie Dream Bear) who in turn introduces Bongo to the finer points of, erm, mating.
James: To be honest, I was fairly indifferent to Bongo for a long while. It covered much the same ground as Dumbo and Bambi before it in narrative terms, and had many sequences that merely seemed like echoes of previous Disney pieces: Fear of and friendliness of the forest and its creatures (Snow White), an extended dream sequence (Donald’s Surreal Reverie, Pink Elephants on Parade) and of course the love triangle between the protagonist, the girl and the brute, lifted straight out of Bambi. It all seemed a bit unoriginal… and then we found out how the bears court.
Bongo, having flirted with this female bear (Lulubelle, apparently), leans in for a kiss. Then, Lulubelle slaps him. He is confused, and she slaps him again. Heartbroken, he starts to leave, and she looks upset. She tries to slap him again, but misses and hits the brute, who sweeps her up into his arms, smitten. She and Bongo both look heartbroken. Confused? So were we… until…
I take back everything I said about it being unoriginal. I’m not sure there’s another song like this in the whole Disney canon. I was mesmerised. It’s a fun, lively, silly song about showing your love through physical abuse. The 1940s, amIright? (Carousel came out on the stage two years before, to put it into some context.)
Now, that’s an overly critical way of putting it. It’s a silly song emphasising a fun narrative twist, and little more. And it really is great fun, combining slapstick with the goofy grins of the smitten. I have no idea if any bears actually do slap each other to show affection, or if hitting the object of your affection is a typical courting ritual anywhere in the animal kingdom, but it’s a good twist and a fun opportunity for the animators to show bears dancing and beating each other up. Still, there’s pretty much no way a song like this would be made by Disney today.
Bongo ends, as all Disney films surely must, with a happy ending. Bongo takes on the brute (his name is Lumpjaw, apparently. That’s a good, brutish name. But I’ll still call him the brute.) and wins the paw of his love. They slap each other up a couple of trees, and nuzzle in the moonlight.
A fine closing image. But I’ll always remember Bongo for the romance.
Anne: Actually, the Bongo/Lulubelle/Lumpjaw triangle makes me think of The Pebble and the Penguin, a movie which also involves quaint mating rituals of the animal kingdom (penguins, apparently, give their chosen mates a pebble). For me it was the visual of the two small bears against the outsized bear–though in this case I think it’s weird for Bongo and Lulubelle to be so small compared to all of the other bears. The hilariously ripped villain in The Pebble and the Penguin (voiced by Tim Curry) is another story. He’s the Gaston of penguins.
Anyway, I think I’ve said all I had to say about Fun and Fancy Free. I’ll give it a 7/10, because I think I might be inclined to watch at least Mickey and the Beanstalk again sometime, and because I found both segments charming and entertaining, despite narrative flaws. Plus Jiminy Cricket.
James: You could have endless (alright, limited) fun trying to figure out Jiminy Cricket’s chronology. Was this after Pinocchio? If so, where was his badge? If it was before, why was he in smart clothes? Maybe it’s set years before Pinocchio, before his clothes got all tattered. Maybe that makes the cat and fish on display here the ancestors of those in Pinocchio? Who knows.
I’ll give it 6/10. It’s an interesting piece, with some fun moments, but it’s certainly less than coherent. Still, I’ve already recommended ‘Say it With a Slap’ to several people, so it’s got to have some value to it. Perhaps the simplest review is the title: this film is Fun and Fancy Free, no more and certainly no less.
Coming up next, Melody Time. We’re nearly out of the obscure ones, people! Just hold on a bit longer!