Monday, February 27, 2012

There’s No “Me” in “Melody Time” … Oh, Wait …

Disney’s Tenth Animated Feature – 1948
Melody Time is a package film in the style of Make Mine Music: seven different shorts that rely on songs and rhyme to tell their tales. Like the package films before it, the shorts of Melody Time vary in appeal. It’s fair to say that the Disney name brings with it a level of quality, even excellence that’s undeniable. Any complaints or criticisms are more a reflection of changing tastes, attitudes, and cultural shifts. And like other older package films, Melody Time inspires its share of smiles, adoring glances, and quizzical, sidelong looks.

Once Upon A Wintertime is described in its narration as the story of love’s young dream. A cute couple goes for a snowy sleigh ride and ice skating, inscribing hearts into the ice with their skates. This leads to a thin ice rescue of the gal (and her female bunny counterpart) by the men folk (both human and rabbit). It’s slightly sexist, but in the way most media created in 1948 was. I’d savor this one for the beautiful Mary Blair-directed imagery.

Two of the shorts, Trees and Johnny Appleseed invoke God about as much as all previous Disney films put together. Most of today’s media is very secular by comparison, but Disney’s work up to 1948 (and after) leaned toward the secular as well. Trees is the Joyce Kilmer poem of the same name set to music. The poem mentions God and as if to underscore its point, ends on an image of a tree that fades to a silhouette, and in so doing assumes a striking resemblance to the old rugged cross. The segment “Night on Bald Mountain” from Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia has a similar reference to religion in its suggestion that goodness and God comes with the light of the dawn, even suggesting people in the distance marching toward church. The sound of what could easily be taken for a church choir in both pieces underscores the reference. The lush animation style suggests both Fantasia and the “April Showers” scene in Bambi.

Johnny Appleseed tells the story of pioneer and apple tree planter John Chapman. This story is narrated and sung by the then-popular tenor Dennis Day who sings, “The lord is good to me, and so I thank the lord.” Johnny Appleseed grows to be a very old man, passes away, and his spirit goes on to plant apple trees in heaven. It seems curious to have God virtually absent from Disney’s work to date, then to see it figure prominently in two pieces, but it seems more coincidence than trend. There’s an obvious comfort level here amounting to a taking for granted that nobody would ever take offence at these references. But that’s one difference between then and now: in the past, there’s an assumption that the consumer is most likely associated with a Christian religious tradition; today, a media creator would make no such assumption.

Bumble Boogie sets a boogie-woogie version of “Flight of the Bumble Bee” to animation starring—you guessed it—a bee. It’s clever and imaginative, very much in the same vein as the short piece “After You’ve Gone” from Make Mine Music, with the little bee escaping “attacks” by flowers, piano keys, and piano hammers. It’s a fanciful non-narrative bit of fun for its own sake.

The story of Little Toot the “baby” tugboat is sung by the Andrews Sisters, whose lively close harmonies do an admirable job of selling this story. Little Toot is the mischievous son of the serious, grownup tugboat, Big Toot. Even when Little Toot tries to help, he causes disasters, such as beaching an ocean liner on a New York City avenue. Disgraced, Little Toot is abandoned outside 12-mile markers in the ocean. Before you can wonder if this seems a harsh punishment for a “child,” Little Toot saves an ocean liner in distress and pulls it safely into New York Harbor, but didn’t you just figure he might?

Blame it on the Samba, starring Donald Duck, Joe Carioca, Ethel Smith and the Dinning Sisters is an obvious leftover from The Three Caballeros, but so what? It’s charming and wonderfully bizarre, featuring the very real organist Ethel Smith who plays one mean samba organ, and how many of us can claim that? The scene begins as a cocktail, a concoction created in a snifter, so the scene is (rather absurdly) set underwater. Ethel Smith just plays away, as a few animated bubbles float by. Joe Carioca and Donald Duck dance, then are spirited away to a painted jungle for more surreal imagery as Ethel plays animated congas. It’s a wonderful and wacky interlude, but honestly, nothing you haven’t seen already in The Three Caballeros. In its own way, it’s as politically incorrect by today’s standards as the references to religion in Trees and Johnny Appleseed. Can you imagine Pixar creating a cartoon where characters get drunk and hallucinate? Me neither.

Pecos Bill is narrated by Roy Rogers (and his horse Trigger!) accompanied by the tuneful Sons of the Pioneers. It’s a charming campfire story, creating an all-encompassing origin story that “explains” the old west, from the Painted Desert to the Rio Grande (Pecos Bill is responsible for both, of course!).

At the end of the day, Melody Time is a better time capsule of 1948 than transferable, modern entertainment. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it’s not especially inspired, either. Those moments that soar—like Bumble Boogie and Blame it on the Samba—were better handled in earlier films. Not everything can be a home run. But cheer up. The 1950’s are almost here. They’ll begin with Cinderella, end with Sleeping Beauty, and feature a slate of winners in between; and not a moment too soon.

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