by Heath Holland
By 1942, Walt Disney had conquered both short-form animation with his Mickey, Donald, and Goofy cartoons, and the long-form animated film with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. His next classic film would be Cinderella in 1950, but between these films is a fertile period of experimentation dictated by necessity that yielded six very divisive anthology films.
First, a bit of history: 1941 had seen nearly 200 of Walt’s animators go on strike, citing unfair working conditions. With the United States’ involvement in World War II, Walt Disney’s animation department was facing more trouble under the threat of serious budget cuts. Box office returns were also down, and though we now laud the artistic merit of Fantasia, it was not the financial success the company needed. As a result, Walt Disney Animation Studios was very nearly shuttered in the early 1940s. Luckily (or not, depending on your perspective), a partnership with the US government yielded wartime propaganda opportunities, which kick-started the creation of those six package films throughout the rest of the decade. These six movies are almost like Disney secrets; unlike so many of the films before and after them, they never got theatrically re-released. Their home video versions came sporadically and with little fanfare, and the films saw themselves being chopped up for spare parts for other projects over the years, rather than attaining fame on their own. Still, they represent some of the most unusual, fantastic, and outright strange work from the studio that defined feature film animation.
1. Saludos Amigos (1942)
2. The Three Caballeros (1944)
3. Make Mine Music (1946)
4. Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
JB’s got you covered. Fun and Fancy Free thankfully finds the studio venturing back into safer, less controversial waters and much closer to the classic fare of their earlier years. We start with Bongo, the first of two segments in this package film. Bongo is an escaped circus bear looking for freedom in the wild. It’s narrated by Dinah Shore, and Bongo feels cut from the same cloth as characters like Dumbo and Bambi. Bongo has been largely forgotten, but there are folks who still love Bongo, and he sometimes still pops up in really unusual places (like the DTV Aladdin sequel Return of Jafar). The second and last segment in Fun and Fancy Free is Mickey and the Beanstalk. I have to imagine this is one of the most popular Mickey cartoons of all time, and one that seems to have had the longest life outside of the package film it debuted within. It’s the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, but with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy in the heroic roles defying the giant. It’s really great, guys. It’s also the last time Walt Disney provided the voice for Mickey. Single tear.
5. Melody Time (1948)
6. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
written before about how I appreciate this film and its refusal to back down from the scarier side of the story, but let me reiterate it here again. Headless horseman? Check. Late night ride in the spooky woods of rural New York State? Check. Flaming pumpkin hurled directly at the audience, comprised largely of children? Check. Ambiguous ending? Check. I LOVE the balls on this segment and I applaud the overall bizarre nature of this package film, because there just ain’t nothing else like it. Thankfully, there’s a Blu-ray on the market that contains both The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Fun and Fancy Free. Also included in the package is The Reluctant Dragon, another early oddity from Walt Disney Animation Studios, produced in 1941, and considered by some to be the very first Disney anthology film and a part of the cycle I’m spotlighting here.
And that’s the end. After The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the studio rediscovered its footing and cranked out one classic after another, becoming a staple of family entertainment for decades to come. I contend that there is no decade as important to Disney as the fifties. I mean, they not only changed pop culture during the decade, but they also shaped it. Patrick recently wrote about Treasure Island, the company’s first completely live-action feature film, which started the golden age with a bang. Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, DISNEYLAND…all that came in the fifties. But these movies from the forties linger on in the rearview, forgotten and sometimes deliberately suppressed. None of these films are -- or likely ever will be -- considered Disney classics, but I love them for being so unusual and outside of the traditional expectations that usually surround the brand. Flawed as the day is long, they’re still full of neat little beats and snapshots of a time when the world was a very different place. This is not Disney promoting family values, princesses, and fairy tale endings. This is Disney drinking and smoking, going to late night parties, telling creepy stories around a campfire, and trying (and failing) to embrace the world around it. This is perhaps Disney at its most flawed, but if you ask me, it’s also Disney at its most interesting.