Of all the Disney animated features, Fun & Fancy Free might have the dullest title of them all. It sounds like something drummed quickly up for a marquee. It is not only dull, but it is also a little misleading. The movie is not really about having fun or being fancy free except in the opening musical number which sung to raging irritation by Jiminy Cricket. It’s not even really all that original; it feels like leftovers from bigger projects. Lo and behold, come to find out in doing my research that’s exactly what it is. Of all the package films of the 1940s, this is probably my least favorite because the passion doesn’t seem to be present here. It feels quickly put together and for Disney that’s unusual.
While the previous film Make Mine Music was a concert arrangement that employed ten separate segments, this one only has two with the addition of a framework that loosely ties them together. We are first introduced in the film to Jiminy Cricket who is sailing down a small river toward an old dark library while he sings some treacle about bearing a smile in the face of adversity. The effect is tooth-grindingly obnoxious. Watching it you get the same feeling that you might get if you were having a bad day and someone was behind you giving you a bunch of greeting card advice (“Let a smile be your umbrella!”) I prefer the logic of Inside Out that sadness is crucial to being happy. But Jiminy is there to make you smile, so whatever.
After breaking into the library and having some innocuous interactions with some melancholy dolls, Jiminy comes upon a record player that guides us into our first story:
* Bongo is based on a story by Sinclair Lewis and narrated by Dinah Shore about a celebrated circus bear whose very name draws thousands to see his wild antics like juggling during his high wire act while riding a unicycle, but backstage Bongo is treated like an old piece of furniture and thoughtlessly thrown in a cage every night. With that, he yearns to get back to nature and feel the rhythms of being a real bear. So, Bongo sneaks away one night to get back to his natural roots only to find that the life of a bear in the wild is a little more daunting than he might have imagined. All the other bears either laugh at him or bully him around and he seems to think that returning to the wild may have been a mistake. Then he meets Lulabelle, a pretty girl-bear and falls head over heels in love. That nugget of joy is complicated when a mean bully bear named Lumpjaw comes to claim Lulabelle by beating the stuffing out of Bongo.
Where the story ends up is not all that surprising, what is surprising are the twists and turns that the story takes. When Bongo tries to kiss Lulabelle for the first time, he realizes that bears in the woods show affection by slapping each other – there’s even a cute song that goes along with this happy-go-lucky call for affectionate domestic violence. To this day I’m still not sure how to feel about this. I realize that this film was made at a time when cartoons weren’t made exclusively for children but this message seems particularly destructive. What is a kid to glean from that?
The segment as a whole is very cute. I like the idea of Bongo trapped between the two worlds of the misery of the circus and the misery of living in the wild. But that idea is kind of laid out and never really dealt with. Once he meets Lulabelle, his struggle to survive in the wild narrows down to basically defeating the bully and then falling in love. I wasn’t completely sure how to feel about this segment. It’s very cute but I thought that it either needed to be a lot shorter or feature length with more characters and a bigger story. As it is, it seems to run on a bit too long and again, the slapping bit makes me cringe.
The Bongo short ends and we move back to Jiminy Cricket who finds an invitation to a birthday party and decides to crash it (the movie doesn’t say this but it is heavily implied). He goes to a stranger’s house where puppeteer Edgar Bergen is entertaining an apparently parent-less little girl named Luana by doing a rather creepy bit of puppetry with his hand. Actually this bit is a lot of fun due to the running commentary by Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd who, in an odd move, are able to move around the room independently without Bergen’s help. All settle in while Bergen reads the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.
* Mickey and the Beanstalk is a lot more fun than Bongo mostly because it features Mickey, Donald and Goofy together for the first time in a feature film. Bergen tells a rather expanded version of the classic fairytale in which Happy Valley falls on rough times following the theft of a magical singing harp by a dopey giant who lives in the clouds. It is Mickey who goes into town to sell the cow but comes back with magic beans (though we are never privy to how he came to acquire them) and the trio have to climb the beanstalk to retrieve the harp.
This is a pretty straight-forward retelling without much that is different save for the giant. He’s your classic dopey Disney villain but he’s a lot of fun. The only real addition to the story is that the giant now has magical powers; he’s a transmorph who can change into anything. Unfortunately nothing is done with that development. When the giant is chasing the trio at the end, he doesn’t use his magical power at all. It is brought up and then forgotten.
The story ends with a cute bit in which the giant arrives at the birthday party looking for Mickey and Donald and Goofy before departing down Hollywood Boulevard and stopping briefly to put on The Brown Derby before wandering toward the hills.
Both Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk were ideas that Walt had in mind after completing Snow White. The film had been so successful that he began to mine other fairytales to turn into features. Bongo was a new idea, but Disney had his eye on “Jack and the Beanstalk” going all the way back to the silent era. He had filmed the story before, first as a silent for his Laugh-O-Gram film company in 1920 and then again in a 1933 short called Giantland starring Mickey, then again in 1938 in a short called Brave Little Tailor. The silent version is considered lost but the two later versions are still readily available (you can see them here and here).
Mickey and the Beanstalk began life as “The Legend of Happy Valley” and was prepped to be a feature, as was Bongo. However, both projects were halted by the events of December 7, 1941. The United States entered World War II and Walt went to work making propaganda films for the government. This put a hold on all non-military projects. When the war ended, the studio was under budget constraints so both projects were scrapped as features. When Disney decided to pair the two together in the same movie, cuts were made. Bongo had been propped up as a pseudo-sequel to Dumbo and much of Mickey was cut, most especially the scene in which he receives the magic beans from Honest John, the swindler from Pinocchio. This idea that was changed to a scene in which he receives the beans from Queen Minnie, but both ideas were scrapped.
The film’s bizarre framework involving Jiminy Cricket visiting a library and later a birthday party hosted by Edgar Bergen and his puppets was used to knit the two segments together because, in all honesty, they have nothing to do with each other. The framework provides a flimsy excuse for the movie’s lame title, and frankly they’re just an excuse for Bergen to give the film a touch of star power.
So, how is the film as a whole? Well, as I say, the two segments are fun but not essential. They’re two lovable shorts knitted together haphazardly by a wobbly framework that doesn’t really connect them in any way. That’s 180 degree difference between this and the previous film Make Mine Music which employed 10 musical segments put together as a concert experience. There the form and function made for an enjoyable movie, but here it feels slapped together. It feels like Walt had two good ideas that he wanted to put together but was desperate to find some way to get them in the same movie. Later in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which also had just two segments) he would clear up this problem by slimming down the framework and just letting the shorts run the show. That’s a better approach. Fun & Fancy Free is just okay, I suppose. Of all the package films from the 40s its probably my least favorite just because it doesn’t seem to be reaching for greater heights. There is no sense that Disney and his crew really wanted to make this film. It’s mildly fun, but that’s about it.