Each week, THN takes a look back at one of the Walt Disney Animated Classics. The ones that the Walt Disney Company showed in cinemas, the ones they’re most proud of, the ones that still cost a bloody fortune no matter how old they are. The really good ones get through more re-editions than a Spielberg movie, and that’s saying something.
This week it’s FUN AND FANCY FREE
Directed by Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske and William Morgan.
1947/ 73 Minutes
After the grab-bag nature of MAKE MINE MUSIC, FUN AND FANCY FREE feels a much tighter return to form for the Disney studios. Both shorts, Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk were started on almost a decade earlier.
Bongo, based on a short story by Sinclair Lewis of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1930, was originally suggested to be a prequel to DUMBO, setting it in the same circus and bringing back a few choice members of the cast. That didn’t come to pass, nor did Bongo’s chimp valet Beverley (later renamed ‘Chimpy’ before being dumped entirely). As the picture progressed, the decision was made to cut back on the realism of the character designs, simplifying them and making them appear more cartoony.
In the meantime, Mickey had fallen on hard times, as it were, dropping in popularity behind his “siblings” Donald, Goofy and Pluto, and rival studio’s Popeye (whoever heard of him, eh?)
In any case, in early 1940, animators Bill Cottrell and Thornton ‘T’ Hee pitched the idea of Mickey and the Beanstalk to Walt. While Uncle Walt loved the idea, he said it would never be put into to production; Walt claimed they ‘murdered [his] characters’. Eventually he relented, and story development of ‘The Legend of Happy Valley’ began in May 1940.
If you’ve been reading these features up to this point, you’ll know what comes next, but just in case: On December 7, 1941, the US Navy base at Pearl Harbour was attacked, bringing the United States into the Second World War. Controversy and conspiracy theories aside, this meant that half the Disney workforce was drafted by the military into making propaganda films, while the other half was drafted into the military. The War had also cut off the lucrative European market, accounting for the relatively poor box-office for many of Disney’s early films.
With BONGO and THE LEGEND OF HAPPY VALLEY put on hold, along with ALICE IN WONDERLAND, PETER PAN, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS and SONG OF THE SOUTH, Disney compromised by creating cheap-and-cheerful short films and packaging them together to make them a feature. It would take some years for them to get back to making a full length animated movie with 1950’s CINDERELLA.
SYNOPSIS: Jiminy Cricket introduces, much as he did with PINOCCHIO, by wandering through an empty house and talking in awkward rhyme about how people overthink things and get depressed. In an effort to cheer up a pair of sullen children’s toys, Jiminy plays a record, of radio star Dinah Shore narrating the tale of Bongo.
Bongo is the star attraction of a travelling circus. He can juggle, he can walk a tightrope, usually at the same time, and his showstopper is diving 300 feet into a wet sponge. While he’s loved and adored in the centre ring, behind the curtain it’s not so rosy; in a surprisingly candid portrayal of animals in the circus, he’s treated quite roughly by his handlers, who just want him to sit down and shut up in his (admittedly comfortable) cage until his next performance.
As the circus train passes a wide open mountain vista, the call of the wild urges Bongo to break free of his gilded prison and that he does, escaping into the wild. Once there however, he realises he doesn’t know the first thing about being a wild bear. He can’t climb a tree, he can’t hunt for fish, and his first night slept alone in the forest is a less than peaceful affair. As he mopes about his lot in life, he stumbles upon a cutesy female bear, Lulubelle. You can tell she’s female cos of the flower on the top of her head. They’re both positively smitten with each other at first sight. However, Lulubelle is also coveted by Lumpjaw, the Bluto to Bongo’s Popeye. After a crisis of confidence and a misunderstanding about bears showing affection (with a slap, apparently), Bongo takes on the hulking brute for Lulubelle’s affections.
(In a later re-release of Bongo, Jiminy himself does the narrating. Presumably because by then nobody knew who Dinah Shore was.)
Back at the house, Jiminy sneaks off to gatecrash a party across the way, and that’s where it gets a bit surreal. For this is a real party at a real house, with real people. Specifically, actor and radio performer Edgar Bergen, and child actress Luana Patten, whose birthday they’re celebrating.
Now, some of you may know that Edgar Bergen was a ventriloquist of some repute, and two of his dummies, Mortimer Sneed and the (im)famous Charlie McCarthy are enjoying the party as well. The really clever thing is, to preserve the illusion, the dummies are being operated by someone else- presumably hiding in or behind the furniture- while Bergen paces back and forth around the room and occasionally seems to take control. He’s still providing all the voices (sorry, but you can tell) and is a quite endearing if awkward host.
What follows is a pretty straight adaptation of the original story, except with Disney’s ‘big three’ in the leads. Mickey and the Beanstalk opens in Happy Valley, a gorgeous, fertile landscape. It’s beauty is maintained by a singing Magic Harp; when it’s stolen, the Valley begins to wither and die; the river dries up, the crops turn to dust, and Mickey and his friends are down to their last slice of bread, and their very last bean. Naturally, Donald loses it, snapping at the narrator and trying to eat almost anything, including the farm’s one and only cow. In desperation, and to save the poor cow’s life, Mickey takes her into town to trade her for food, and comes back with some ‘magic beans’.
INTERESTING INTERLUDE: Originally, Mickey was scripted to trade with Honest John and Gideon from PINOCCHIO, which would have been pretty darn cool. Then it was rewritten to have Mickey visit the Queen, played by Minnie Mouse- who for once doesn’t immediately fall in love with Mickey- and it’s she that gives him the beans. The whole thing was then dropped for time.
From there you can guess the rest; the beans are dropped under the floorboards, and the beanstalk grows up under the house. Waking up in the Giant’s land, the three heroes break into his house to raid his dinner table and steal back the harp. Bergen and his ‘co-stars’ narrate the tale. Well, Bergen narrates and the others butt in with bad jokes and insults. (In a later re-release narrating duties were handed over to Ludwig Von Drake, likely for the same reason.)
Jiminy takes a back seat, helping himself to cake and a drink. Some really clever technical stuff here, as Jiminy is seen to drink a whole glass of something or other through a straw.
Back at the house, Mortimer laments the death of the giant in the story. As the others try to convince him he wasn’t real but just a figment of the imagination, the giant appears, tearing off the roof to peer inside and ask if anyone’s seen a mouse. The giant then wanders off into Hollywood, sneaking past buildings and uprooting one or two in his search for Mickey.
1. Don’t get between a bear and his sow.
2. Jiminy Cricket is a bit of a crook; he breaks into two houses and steals food.
3. Literally anything can happen in a Disney movie.
Let’s get Jiminy out of the way first. He’s the one we follow through the bookends of the stories, but he doesn’t do much more than set up the next short, via petty crime.
Bongo, on the other hand, is a sweet, endearing sort, very much in the spirit of the great silent characters Disney made his name with; Dopey, Gideon, Yen Sid Dumbo… once he gets his head screwed on right, Bongo is more than a match for Lumpjaw.
As for Mickey, what can you say. He’s Mickey freaking Mouse, you can’t get much better. Well, not in this context.
Lulubelle actually takes charge in a few scenes, giving Bongo his chance to win her heart (which he blows). She’s also a bit of a tease around Bongo. The little girl is little more than that, a cute little star of the time having fun with a rather creepy guy and his “living” dolls. The Harp on the other hand is an interesting character; unable to affect things directly, she is however able to help Mickey save his friends, and herself, by lulling the giant to sleep and hinting where he left the key in song.
Neither are much by way of villains. They’re both big lumping idjits who have an eye for the ladies and are bested by weedy little guys smarter than they are. Classic David and Goliath stuff. The giant, Willie, earns a bonus point for being quite funny and somewhat sweet, and there’s a rather smart use of the old “Fe Fi Fo Fum” routine.
Donald and Goofy are brilliant characters independently, but together with the Guvnor Mickey they can be a real tour de force. Unfortunately, in this they’re rather given the back seat, providing support for Mickey who gets all the heroic stuff.
Bonus point for Bongo’s Cute Woodland Animals, but it’s very much a three-hander.
The bookends are pretty light on plotting; we’re merely eavesdropping on events mostly. Bongo’s is a rather sweet tale of overcoming hardships and following your dreams, while Mickey’s is a rather standard adventure yarn. The meta-fiction, almost fourth-wall breaking stuff is pretty good, and set things up nicely for future features such as SONG OF THE SOUTH, MARY POPPINS and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT.
A good few actually. With Goofy and Donald you can’t really expect less. Each of them does their thing while Mickey does his, and there are a few surprises. Unfortunately the Charlie McCarthy stuff falls rather flat.
Just a few, but blimey they’re good ones. Lumpjaw’s fight with Bongo gets pretty hairy at times, and the old recycled “mountain lion” roar still has its effect. But for me the real scare comes when
MORAL/ EDUCATIONAL VALUE
Apparently, bears really do slap each other as a show of affection. I wouldn’t try it on your significant other, at least until they’ve seen the picture or get the reference.
There’s also an interesting moral dilemma for Mickey and co; Donald has the right idea; eat the cow. It’s the only food left. But because she’s ‘family’, Mickey and Goofy can’t bear the thought, and would rather trade it for a total stranger… who would probably kill and eat her anyway. Considering the world was at war, it’s quite interesting that they would have this little conundrum in the middle of a Disney movie.
It’s nice. It doesn’t rock the boat and none of it really sticks in the mind. Jiminy’s opening number, Fun and Fancy Free, was actually cut from PINOCCHIO, and you can kinda see why.
Both segments saw numerous re-releases, and each is well worth your time, whoever you have narrating it. Either could have been dragged out to a full feature, but as they are, neither outstays its welcome.
FINAL SCORE 38/53
A couple more and we can start with a scoreboard. Sneak peek: at the moment, BAMBI is in second place.
Anything to add? Be our guest!
“Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination”, Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York City