Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Funny Valentine: Disney’s “Fun and Fancy Free”

Disney’s Ninth Animated Feature – 1947
Fun and Fancy Free  is another post-war package film, made up of two short narrative films—Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk—that were originally planned as separate feature films. Bongo, based on an original short story by Sinclair Lewis (of all people) follows a circus bear who wants to live free in the wild. Mickey and the Beanstalk is (big surprise) based on Jack and the Beanstalk, and stars Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy as peasants who discover temperamental Willie the Giant’s castle in the sky through the use of some magic beans. This Mickey represents the last time Walt Disney would voice the character. He was getting a little busy, what with being Walt Disney and all.

Not to gush, but this film is wonderful. Both segments are filled with many adorable and thought-provoking moments and most importantly, virtually nothing that a modern parent needs to qualify, excuse, or explain before sharing it with their child. I even love the bouncy theme song to the film that transitions nicely to Jiminy Cricket singing the adorable, “I’m a Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow,” the framing device used for the Bongo sequence. (I want to learn that song by heart.) Yes, this film brings back the supporting cast of Pinocchio: Jiminy, Cleo the goldfish, and Figaro the cat. Jiminy is always a welcome sight. You can hear the opening theme and Jiminy's song in this clip:

Jiminy strolls across a bookshelf, looking for a story to share with the viewer. I like the way he pauses for a moment at a book titled, “Misery for the Masses,” and takes a pass, rubbing his forehead at the very idea. Jiminy happens upon a doll, a teddy bear, a record player, and a set of records titled, “Bongo, a musical story sung by Dinah Shore.” (Guess it sure beats the “boring” music of Beethoven and Bach seen on the shelf, as Disney realized after the failure of Fantasia.) Jiminy puts on the record and we’re off.

Bongo the circus bear is the star of the circus. Bongo performs amazing stunts of acrobatics, high wire, juggling, and even high dive, only to have a locked collar clicked around his neck the moment he steps offstage. Fate takes a hand in the form of a faulty lock on his circus train cage, enabling Bongo’s escape. But hilariously, he’s an urban bear who rides his unicycle to freedom, still wearing his circus uniform.

He experiments with growling and tree climbing, causing hilarity among the woodland creatures. He makes friends with the animals, much like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. As he hunkers down to sleep for the night, he can’t believe how noisy nature can be. He’s menaced by mosquitoes, bats, and a thunderstorm. He wakes up discouraged and realizes he can’t fish, either.

But then he meets a cute girl bear and is immediately smitten. As Dinah Shore sings, “Is This a Dream,” we see a Valentine of a film within the film, as little bear cherubs put a pair of rose-tinted glasses on Bongo, and he and Lulabelle dance in the sky. But not unlike Bambi, where Bambi had to fight for the right to be with Faline, Bongo’s dream is soon shattered by the appearance of the enormous, tough bear Lockjaw who wants Lulabelle for himself.

Bongo takes out his press clippings as way of introduction as Lockjaw stomps him. At this key moment, Lulabelle slaps Bongo, who doesn’t seem to understand that this is wild bears’ love ritual. When she accidentally slaps Lockjaw when Bongo ducks, it’s too late. Lockjaw readily accepts her proposal. A very funny song and dance number among the bears, “A Bear Likes To Say It With a Slap,” is surreal and hilarious. You can see it here:

The male bears give their ladies a gentle tap on the cheek and the ladies counter with a full-on slug to the jaw. Eventually, Bongo catches on and he’s able to use his circus skills to defeat Lockjaw and wins the gal and the respect of his bear peers, and that’s a great little story.

Part two, Mickey and the Beanstalk has its own clever framing device: a birthday party invitation for child actress Luana Patten featuring (then) huge star Edgar Berger and his even more famous ventriloquist dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. (That's Luana, Edgar, and Mortimer at left.) In this live-action sequence, Charlie and Mortimer have been propped up on a couch and speak as if they’re real people. Edgar tells the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk accompanied by Charlie and Mortimer’s sarcastic asides.

A lot of the jokes still hold up. It’s easy to understand why Bergen/McCarthy/Snerd were such huge stars. Bergen’s talent—that of ventriloquism—seems quaint, but that man was a mega-talent and this footage testifies to that. But unless you’re a fan of vintage radio and cinema, you might not appreciate the significance of Edgar Bergen and his creations. And Bergen was an “old school” ventriloquist. When he passed away, his puppets did as well.

The Beanstalk story begins as a golden harp sings a merry tune,“My What a Happy Day,” and at this point I’m thinking that this score contains the most “up,” singable, chirpy tunes of any Disney film. The giant steals the harp, and desolation covers the land. Three poor farmers you’ll surely recognize suffer through it all: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy.

They decide to sell their cow but Mickey comes home with magic beans. The beanstalk grows, the lads climb up, and they’re happy to find food on the giant’s table. This giant is magic, but Mickey fails at trying to trick him into turning himself into a fly (so the lads can swat him). They’re captured but are set free with the harp’s help. They scurry down the beanstalk with her, restoring happiness and prosperity to the Valley.

In a return to the framing device, Mortimer Snerd gets upset when he thinks the nice giant’s been killed, and Edgar consoles Mortimer that the giant is just a figment of their imaginations. At that moment, the animated giant rips the roof off of their home, pre-supposing any number of modern animation techniques combining live action and animation.

This film doesn’t exactly pass for a modern piece of cinema, but it doesn’t have whiskers, either. It would fit very nicely on your dvd shelf.

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