Melody Time (1948)
Directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson (supervisors)
Our tour of Disney’s 1940s package films continues. This time, we have a follow-up to Make Mine Music, with another seven shorts set to various popular and folk songs. Unlike the earlier package film, this one has Fantasia-style introductions for each short, as well as two that feature live-action mixed with the animation.
Not too much to note this time around, as Melody Time pretty much follows the same pattern as the last handful of films I’ve looked at. Disney’s still recovering financially from the war years, and needs cash to be able to get back to producing full-length narrative features. Fortunately, the light was visible at the end of the tunnel by now, and Melody Time brought in enough money to really ramp up production on Cinderella. While audiences still turned out, the critics are definitely starting to sour on the concept by now, giving the film mixed reviews at best.
Are we done with these damn package films yet? No? Well, shit.
This time around, we have six shorts of about ten minutes, plus one extra-long one that goes about twenty. And I’m sorry to say that most of them suck. There’s definitely been diminishing returns at play with the concept over the past few movies, and it’s hit this one in particular pretty hard. When over half of the runtime of your movie bores me to tears, I’m going to struggle to say anything positive about it.
The film opens with a short about two couples, one human and one rabbit, skating on a frozen pond. There’s some business with thin ice and a rescue at the end, but most of it is cute and entirely forgettable once it’s finished. Oh, and that rescue I mentioned? It turns out that the human boy is entirely ineffectual and incapable of rescuing the girl from an impending waterfall, and instead has to rely on a random group of squirrels who show up from nowhere to do the deed. Way to go, hero!
In fact, you could say that a major theme for this movie is “Nice job breaking things, hero.” The “Little Toot” short is rather explicit about it, being about a mischievous little tugboat that causes problems for his parents, and then causes a major disaster when he attempts to make up for his previous misdeeds. He ends up getting led off in chains by police boats, something I definitely didn’t expect to see in a Disney short, but also something that was wholly earned by the character. Of course, there’s a big redemption scene at the end, but it doesn’t really make up for the fact that Little Toot is an asshole for most of the short.
Like in Make Mine Music, there are shorts that were Fantasia rejects (“Bumble Boogie”) and shorts that are poem narrations (“Trees”). Both are very short, and while “Bumble Boogie” has some nice surreal imagery going for it, it’s over way too fast for it to leave any sort of lasting impression. That leaves us with three actually decent shorts, and I’ll admit that two of them were probably just nostalgia hits for me.
The first of these is the “Johnny Appleseed” sequence. I had very strong memories of this one from when I was a kid, to the point that I actually teared up a little the first time I heard the refrain to “The Lord is Good to Me” (an actual 19th century hymn that the real Johnny Appleseed was known to have popularized). I still enjoyed it quite a bit this time around, but this time I was struck a bit by how much explicitly Christian imagery was in the short that I didn’t remember. Like the real John Chapman, Disney’s Johnny Appleseed is just as concerned with spreading the Gospel as he is the apple. It’s the first time I can recall Christian imagery being used in such a way outside of the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia. Disney movies tend to be aggressively secular except when they’re forced into it by the source material (hard to have Robin Hood without Friar Tuck), so I found it to be an odd choice here.
Before talking about my other nostalgic sequence, the movie’s climactic short of “Pecos Bill”, I first want to talk about the third good short, the one I didn’t remember at all. “Blame It On the Samba” is a direct follow-up to Three Caballeros, Aracuan Bird and all, with all of its anarchic spirit intact. This time around, the Aracuan Bird plays bartender, attempting to cheer up a depressed Donald Duck and Jose Carioca (they’re literally blue) through alcohol and music. He mixes them into a giant drink, where they are reinvigorated by the musical stylings of live-action organist Ethel Smith. They dance around on her organ, which blows apart and reforms in a mix of live-action and animation that won’t be seen again until Mary Poppins two decades later, or even maybe not until Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s a shame that this is the last appearance for Jose Carioca on film, as I’ve actually grown quite fond of him by now (he’ll be a reoccurring character in the Donald Duck comic books for a couple years, but won’t really show up again much outside of that. He DOES seem to have a presence at Walt Disney World, though, as I saw a character actor of him several times when we went back in October).
So, “Pecos Bill.” When I was a kid, we had a VHS tape that had a collection of Disney’s Americana shorts on it. They didn’t correspond exactly to any collection I’ve been able to find – it had Johnny Appleseed, but it also had the Casey Jones and Paul Bunyan shorts, which weren’t part of any of the package films – but it also ended with “Pecos Bill.” I don’t remember the framing device with Roy Rogers at all, but I do remember most of the short itself. That’s how I was able to recognize that this version is edited from the one I grew up with. Specifically, they’ve gone and digitally removed all instances of him smoking. This unfortunately means that they pretty much took out the entire twister sequence, one of the parts I remember the most. I don’t mind the editing in theory, but it was clumsily done, and detracts from the short. If they were going to remove something, I much would have preferred that they take out the rather racist depiction of Native Americans and their “war paint,” which was left completely intact.
Overall, the package films have been going downhill for a while, and I think this one represents the low point. There’s only about two and a half good shorts here, which isn’t enough to make a full movie out of it. Fortunately, we only have one more to go before we get back into actual features again.
Animation: C- (It gets credit for the inventiveness of “Blame It On the Samba”, but loses major points for the lackluster animation elsewhere and the poor editing on “Pecos Bill”)
Main Characters: B- (Donald Duck and Jose Carioca are always welcome, and I liked the characterizations of Appleseed and Pecos Bill)
Supporting Characters: D+ (Not too much to write about here. I guess Pecos Bill’s horse is fun)
Villains: N/A (Does Little Toot count as both a hero and a villain? Otherwise, there really isn’t one here)
Songs: C (and that’s only due to nostalgia for the Johnny Appleseed songs)