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There is an audio version of this review HERE.
By 1947 the war was over and the Disney studio was beginning the slow and often painful process of reconstruction. The animators were back from the front, and the US military had ended their four-year long virtual occupation of the studio. But it would be another three years before the they were ready to get back to “real” Disney movies, big full-length animated features. In the meantime, they soldiered on with “package” films, what I like to call the “Never Heard Of ‘Ems” as they tend to be the most obscure movies in the whole canon. Fun and Fancy Free is in many ways even scrappier and more thrown together than Make Mine Music or the two Caballeros movies. Whereas they were at least unified by subject (music and Latin America, respectively) Fun and Fancy Free is essentially the studio saying “Yeah. Here’s two short movies we didn’t have the time or money to make into full features. You don’t like it? Sorry. We were a little busy fighting for your freedom.”
Cost saving was the driving force of this movie, and the next two that followed. Simply put, the market had not yet recovered to the point that Disney could spend the kind of money a new Bambi or Pinocchio would require. Europe, the movie industry’s second most important market, was no longer at war. But it was still in a very bad way.
(To anyone new to the blog, I apologise for that extremely confusing wrapping up of a long running joke.)
Anyway, given this need for thrift it’s little wonder that the movie opens the way it does, with a recycled character (Jiminy Cricket) singing a recycled song (“I’m a Happy Go Lucky Fellow”, a song that was written for Pinocchio but cut for time.) He’s doing his usual breaking and entering and singing about how he never lets his troubles get him down. This really sets the tone for this movie which is basically; nothing too serious. This is quite literally supposed to be Fun and Fancy Free, a little bit of fluff to take everyone’s mind off the recent unpleasantness. As he explores the house he also meets…oh godammit…
Yes, Cleo, who burns like hellfire in my soul, is back for a cameo. Jiminy tells her that she worries too much, (isn’t that what the talking bugs always say when you’re coming down?) and shows her a newspaper full of doom and gloom stories that apparently we shouldn’t be worrying about.
He then goes into the next room and sees a doll and a stuffed bear who seem unhappy, and Jiminy attempts to spread the gospel of Not Givin’ a Crap to these inanimate objects by sticking on a record. The record, as it happens, is the story of Bongo narrated by Dinah Shore. Bongo is a star circus attraction, a small bear who rides a unicycle.
So…what can I say about Bongo? This was originally going to be a feature-length and all I can say to that is…really? I don’t mean it’s bad, exactly, but I honestly don’t see how this could have been stretched out to an hour and change. I mean, as it is, the Bongo segment is around half an hour, give or take and this thing is more padded than my bra the time I went undercover as Aretha Franklin.
The story is basically this: Bongo is sick of his life in the circus. He escapes from the circus train (the original concept was that this was going to be Dumbo’s circus with guest appearances by some of the Dumbo cast.) and finds himself wandering around the woods on a unicycle. Then there is just ten minutes, a full third of the sequence, of Bongo just wandering around the forest like a lost animator in the Amazon, meeting the obligatory Disney Adorable Woodland Critters ®* and learning to live in the wild. But there’s no story, and a cartoon with little to no story has to compensate with some good gags or interesting visuals and Bongo…well it doesn’t exactly fail but…
Ugh. You know what? Fuck you, Bongo.
I’ll tell you what you did. You are a critic’s worst nightmare. You’re not excellent. You’re not terrible. You’re not even particularly mediocre. You’re not weird. You are just a perfectly decent, utterly unremarkable cartoon. You are like reviewing my breakfast this morning. It was fine. It was fucking cereal. What do you want from me Bongo, what more can I give you? It was cereal in a bowl with milk! How do I make that funny, Bongo? You tell me. You tell me, you adorable little asshole. You’re the one who unicycled in here and you’re giving me nothing. I have got nothing to work with here. I will take Three Caballeros’ mad voyage into the heart of the Mexican Rooster Devil’s kingdom over you any day. I will take Song of the Frickin’ South smashing history in the mouth with a goddamn wooden mallet over you. Just…just…sit in the corner and shut up.
Bongo meets his equally generic love interest, Lulu-Belle, and the two fall instantly in love. Dinah Shore croons a love song and we get a fantasy sequence of the two bears flying around in the sky on pink clouds with heart shapes everywhere you look and wait just a damn minute here…
This goes on for about the length of the average German opera and then, mercifully, plot happens.
Lockjaw, the biggest, meanest bear in the forest, sees Bongo making time with his special lady, gets a case of green-eye and decides to kick Bongo’s ass.
Lulu-Belle steps in to protect her man…and then smacks Bongo right in the fucking face.
Heartbroken, Bongo leaves. But here’s the thing. Apparently, bears tell each other they are in love by smacking each other in the face.
This is explained in a song where Bongo sees all the bears of the forest whaling on each other and then pairing off.
Bongo finally realises that Lulu-Belle only hurt him because she loved him…
…and goes to win her back from Lockjaw. So we get to see a huge bear get the crap beaten out of him by a little bear on a unicycle. So yes, this movie does have that in its favour. Lulu-Belle and Bongo live happily after and blah blah blah…
Well that was a big disappointment. I hope the second segment is…oh my God! Mickey and the Beanstalk! I had this on VHS as a kid! I love Mickey and the Beanstalk! It’s this brilliant retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story with Micky, Donald and Goofy. Oh yeah, and the story is narrated by Professor Ludwig Von Drake. Remember him? I love that guy!
Hello Professor! I can’t wait to see this cartoon again!
Oh, that’s a shame. So, who narrates Mickey and the Beanstalk in this version?
Hm. Odd. Okay, well, moving on. Jiminy Cricket, having managed to stay awake during Bongo, stumbles across an invitation to a birthday party in the house across the street. The birthday party, as it turns out, is for Luana Patten (Ginny in Song of the South). And this party is being thrown by…
AAAAAAAHHHHH!! AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!
PUPPETS!!! PUPPETS!!! PUPPETS!!!!
NO! NO! LET ME OUTTA HERE!
Oh no…oh no…I, really, really, wouldn’t want to intrude. So, you just carry on with your…party. And I’ll just be in the corner saying the rosary.
Oh God. You know, future generations will look at the cultural fads of today and wonder what we were thinking. What could have possessed us to lavish such adoration on dreck like Jersey Snooki, Here Comes Honey Bow Wow or Keeping up with the Cardassians?
In the same way, I look back on the thirties and forties and want to grab that whole benighted period and shake it by the lapels screaming “YOU BASTARDS MADE A STAR OUT OF EDGAR BERGEN! WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU!?” Bergen was the first ventriloquist to achieve success on the radio. Does that sound impressive? It’s not. It is not impressive to be a successful ventriloquist on the only medium where no one can see your lips move. I mean…okay, say what you want about Jeff Dunham…
…but he is a technically phenomenal ventriloquist. Bergen is a ventriloquist whose lips move all the damn time, which is why I can only attribute his baffling success to the agency of Satan.
In exchange for Mammon, Bergen was tasked with stewarding two puppets, carved from the wood of the Forest of Suicides in the seventh circle. The first was Mortimer Snerd, who masked his satanic nature behind a veneer of dim-witted idiocy.
And the second was Charlie McCarthy, who believed that masking was for pussies and what’s the point of being a demonic hell-toy of fathomless terror if people don’t know it?
And through various sorceries and dark acts, Bergen became close friends with the only Dark Prince more powerful than Satan, Walt Disney hisself. Which is why Bergen and his toybox of horrors are here, in this movie titled Fun and Fancy Free, which in a more honest world would be called Terrified and Shitting Your Pants.
Bergen serves the role of narrator that Ludwig Von Drake and Sterling Holloway served in later, far less horrifying cuts of the film. He tells Luana the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk, and begins by asking her to imagine “Happy Valley” (not Uncanny Valley where his associates have their home addresses.)
Mickey and the Beanstalk, like Bongo, was originally going to be a full length feature. According to Wikipedia, two of Walt’s animators named Bill Cottrell and T. Hee…
T. Hee? Really? That was his name? Come on Wikipedia, it’s late, I’m tired and my soul is about to be eaten by puppets. I am NOT in the mood.
Okay IMDB is backing up Wikipedia here so I am going to proceed on the assumption that T. Hee was actually a real person.
So. Bill Cottrell and T. Hee (sigh) approached Walt with a pitch for doing a version of Jack and the Beanstalk with Mickey, Donald and Goofy:
“When they pitched it to Walt, he “burst out laughing with tears rolling down his cheeks with joy”, as Cottrell and Hee later recalled. Walt enjoyed it so much he invited other employees to listen to it. However he said as much as he enjoyed it, the film would never be put into production because as Walt claimed that they “murdered [his] characters“.
Well. That doesn’t make Walt sound like an insane manic-depressive at all, does it?
Anyway, Walt eventually got over the whole “murdering his characters” thing, and the story ultimately made it into Fun and Fancy Free in a truncated form. This was the last time that Walt voiced Mickey, as his workload was becoming too heavy and also playing the high-pitched character was putting too much strain on his voice.
After this movie, Mickey Mouse would be voiced by sound effects artist Jimmy MacDonald.
Anyway. Happy Valley is a wonderful place thanks to the magical singing of a sexy, sexy harp.
But then one night a mysterious shadow snatches the harp away and Happy Valley decays into a dry parched hellscape. The only ones left are three impoverished peasants, Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and their cow. We get a wonderfully dark scene where the three share their last crust of bread and a single bean, slicing the bread so thinly that it floats translucently onto the plate like a piece of crepe paper. I also have to bring up how superior the later Ludwig Von Drake narration is to Bergen’s. In the Von Drake reading he gets the funniest line in either version: “But…are their spirits broken? Have they lost hope? You bet they have, ‘cos they are facing starvation!”
Then the scene abruptly shifts from funny dark to just dark as Donald goes berserk from hunger and starts eating his plate and cutlery. Goofy and Mickey restrain him and finally get him to throw up the broken crockery and Donald insists that he’s okay. Then, he glances at the axe on the wall and makes this face.
Donald then attempts to…axe murder the cow.
Mickey and Goofy manage to stop him but this incident raises some interesting questions. This is a world with multiple sentient animal species living together in supposed harmony. But they are still animals. And when the food is gone? Well, I think “T. Hee” put it best.
Luana and Charlie debate the ethics of Donald attempting to kill the cow and I’m just going to show you the dialogue word for word in case you think I’m exaggerating Charlie’s sheer maniacal evil.
CHARLIE: He’s got the right idea. Kill the cow!
LUANA: Oh no, Charlie! The cow was their best friend!
CHARLIE: Well, a friend in need is a friend indeed.
BERGEN: So what?
CHARLIE: So, they need some steak. She wouldn’t have to know. They could just sneak up on her and surprise her. Yeah, that’s what we’ll do, we’ll kill the cow!
LUANA: Oh no Charlie, you mustn’t!
CHARLIE: Yeah, we’ll get a stranglehold on her while she sleeps and then push her off a cliff, hahaha!
That sensation you’re feeling? That’s your soul thrashing inside you like a panicked rabbit in a sack. Anyway, Mickey decides to sell the cow and Goofy and Donald celebrate the coming feast they’ll buy with the proceeds of selling their best friend.
Mickey comes home from selling the cow and shows them what he got for her, a box of magic beans (interesting tidbit, in the full length movie that never was, Mickey was to have gotten the beans either from Honest John and Gideon or from Minnie Mouse). Donald predictably loses his shit and throws the beans away, but that night the light of the full moon shines on them and they grow into a massive beanstalk. The scene where the beanstalk grows through the house is the highpoint of the film. It’s beautifully animated and there’s some lovely visual moments as Mickey, Donald and Goofy sleep through their house being taken apart and carried miles into the air. The animation is also coordinated wonderfully with the music, and the whole sequence is a joy to watch.
The three find themselves in the Land of the Giants.
Mickey, Donald and Goofy find the magic harp, who’s being held prisoner by a giant named Willie.
Meanwhile, at the Birthday Party of the Damned, Luana and Mortimer are shocked to hear that there’s actually a giant in this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. At this point Charlie McCarthy scares them by leaping out from behind the sofa growling “I’m a giant!”
Edgar reprimands Charlie and tells him to go sit in the corner, to which Charlie mutters “Yes sir, everything I do is wrong.”
Wrong. Evil. Synonyms are fun.
Anyway, Donald and Goofy get captured but Mickey escapes. The harp sings a song that puts the giant to sleep, allowing Mickey to steal his key, free Donald and Goofy and rescue the harp. They’re about to leave the giant’s castle when he wakes up and they get chased back to the beanstalk by the giant Willie.
The story resolves pretty much the same as the fairy tale, with Micky, Donald and Goofy cutting down the beanstalk as Willie climbs down, killing him.
Back at Luana’s party, Mortimer is upset by this ending, as it shows that evil is not always triumphant. Edgar tries to comfort him by explaining that the story was simply dark fancy, conjured from the ether, and that Willie is not really dead because he never actually existed. And then, Willie pulls the roof up and peers down at them and Edgar Bergen finally sees the price of his pact with the powers of darkness. The walls between the real world and the world of dreams has been rent asunder.
Final analysis? Bongo is dull, and the mouldy old antics of Edgar Bergen are pretty creepy. But Mickey and the Beanstalk is a real gem, probably my favorite cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse. It also makes good use of Goofy and Donald, and shows just why those three characters were such a good fit together. But to be honest, I would definitely recommend the sixties version with Ludwig Von Drake over this one. It’s funnier, leaner, and most importantly it has no puppets.
*A division of CuteCorp Industries Incorporated.
Retains the standard of the Post-War era movies.
The Leads: 12/20
Mickey, Donald and Goofy. What’s not to love? Bongo. Bongo is not to love.
The Villain: 06/20
Lockjaw and Willie are just big dumb galoots. Also, they gave Willie magic powers that have no purpose to the plot. He’s a giant. His power is being big enough to benchpress a mountain. That should be enough
Supporting Characters: 02/20
I am not a fan of Edgar Bergen. I may not have made that clear.
Some good music, particularly in the beanstalk scene. But for every good song like “My what a lovely Day” there’s two Dinah Shore snorefests.
FINAL SCORE: 42%
NEXT WEEK: What do we want? Another obscure Disney package film consisting of a series of animated vignettes set to music! When do we want it? Next week! It’s Melody Time.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!