Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Directed by Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and Hamilton Luske (animation) and William Morgan (live-action segments)
Another week, another package film. This time there’s just two longer segments, with some connective tissue involving Jiminy Cricket and a live-action sequence with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppets. The first, “Bongo”, is the story of a popular circus bear who is nevertheless abused by his masters. He escapes to the forest, where he attempts to fit into nature and woo a female bear without any knowledge of how wild bears act. The second is a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy (the first time all three have been present at once so far, and as far as I’m aware the only time in a Disney feature film).
These two segments are each way longer than any previous segment in the package films so far, both clocking in at about 30 minutes. That’s because they were initially intended to be separate, full-length features. “Bongo” was originally going to be a sort of semi-sequel to Dumbo, being set in the same circus and having cameos from several of the Dumbo supporting characters. Bongo’s script had been just about completed when WWII broke out, forcing the radical shift in Disney’s production that we’ve already discussed once or twice. Bongo got shelved, as did another Disney feature that was in production at the same time, The Legend of Happy Valley.
Happy Valley was farther along in production than Bongo, and had almost fifty minutes of animation completed. However, the onset of the war also coincided with an animator’s strike, and Disney didn’t think that he could justify finishing it given the company’s perilous finances. So it sat on the shelf, half-completed, until someone got the bright idea to pair the two projects into a package film for release. They trimmed a couple of minutes off the completed Happy Valley footage (now renamed “Mickey and the Beanstalk”) to make it roughly the same length as “Bongo”, and enlisted Bergen and Dinah Shore to provide audience appeal (a ventriloquist might not sound like much of a draw, but Bergen, along with his puppet Charlie McCarthy, was actually one of the most popular entertainers of the 40s).
This one is a tale of two halves for me. I have very strong childhood memories of the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” half of the movie, despite never having actually seen the film in its entirety. This is due to the short’s airings on TV in the 80s, albeit with an entirely different framing device. “Bongo,” on the other hand, I’d never seen before this. I’ll admit that I spent a good portion of the first half of the film just biding my time until the part that I knew I’d recognize kicked in.
Now, that isn’t to say that “Bongo” is a waste of time or anything. It’s actually quite charming in its own way. However, it feels oddly out of place, both too drawn out for a short and yet not long enough for a feature. The animation is also a little cruder than I’m used to from Disney of the time period, especially when compared to Bambi from just a few years earlier. The characters don’t speak at all over the course of the short, a choice I understand as being made so as to highlight the voice of then-major recording star Dinah Shore as narrator. Having zero nostalgia for Shore herself, I found the narration to be pleasant, but I think the short might have more personality if the characters had been allowed to speak for themselves.
There’s also the major stumbling block of the messaging of the sequence. Bongo, having been raised by humans, is entirely ignorant of wild bear society. As such, he doesn’t recognize the facial slap of a female bear as a sign of affection, leading to much conflict between him and a massive bully of a bear named Lumpjaw. Now, a charitable reading of this would be one of Bongo as a trans-racial adoptee, attempting to awkwardly readjust to a culture that he would outwardly appear to belong to without having any real working knowledge of its customs and mores. However, I just can’t get past the cheerful song urging the audience to “say it with a slap.” Not in 2020, at least. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was one scene, that was quickly moved past. But no, it’s actually the main plot of the entire second half of the short.
Fortunately, the second part of the feature is much better than the first. Initially, however, it doesn’t appear like it’s going to be. After the “Bongo” segment wraps up, the framing device moves Jiminy Cricket next door, into live-action footage of Edgar Bergen throwing a birthday party, apparently unaccompanied, for a six year old girl. Granted, one of the movie’s conceits is that Bergen’s famous puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd are separate individuals, but it still seems very strange to me that the child’s parents are nowhere to be seen, even in a movie made in the 40s.
Anyway, the second story, “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” is framed as a story that Bergen is telling his young companion. His narration is interrupted, Princess Bride-style, by the girl’s commentary on what’s going on. There are also numerous interjections from Charlie McCarthy, generally mocking everything and dropping numerous mid-40s pop culture references. It was a very unexpectedly modern way of telling the story, akin to MST3K four decades early.
In addition to the unexpectedly enjoyable narration, I found the animation itself to be better than in “Bongo.” It probably helps that it’s a short that features Disney’s flagship characters of Mickey, Donald and Goofy. As such, they’re going to put a bit more effort into making sure that they’re well-represented. The story itself doesn’t deviate much from the standard Jack and the Beanstalk story, though we never actually get to see Mickey procuring the magic beans themselves (there was originally a scene where he got them from Honest John from Pinocchio, but it was one of those that were cut when it was converted from a feature film). With Donald and Goofy present, there are of course a lot of sight gag, many of which I remembered: the single slice of bread and bean, cut so thin that Donald can see through it; Donald’s ensuing explosion when the narrator pokes him a little too much; and the enormous peas at the giant’s dinner table that are so large that they bounce off of Goofy’s head instead of sliding into his mouth, to name a few.
Overall, I think there’s a reason that “Mickey and the Beanstalk” has been frequently aired on TV and packaged in front of other movies, while “Bongo” hasn’t. It’s just a much more enjoyable short overall, no matter who’s giving the narration. I would have been quite interested in seeing the full-length version. However, it was not to be. In fact, we still have two more package films to get through before there’ll be another feature-length Disney story. Next up: Melody Time.
Animation: B- (Great animation for “Mickey and the Beanstalk” and sub-par for “Bongo” averages out)
Main Characters: B- (Again, Mickey et al cancel out the relative non-entity of Bongo)
Supporting Characters: C- (Puppets, man. Puppets)
Villains: D+ (The giant could have been threatening, but he gave me strong vibes of the abominable snowman from the Looney Tunes short – “I will hug him and pet him and call him George” – and I just couldn’t take him seriously. And Lumpjaw sucks)
Music: C (There’s a song or two, mostly by Dinah Shore. Do I remember them at all? No)