1940's, Action-Adventure, adventure, animated, animated feature, animated movie, animated movie review, animated shorts, animation, beanstalk, bongo, Charlie McCarthy, Dinah Shore, Disney, disney animated, disney animated feature, disney animated movie, disney animation, disney review, Donald Duck, Edgar Bergen, Fantasy, fun and fancy free, goofy, Hollywood, Jack and the beanstalk, jiminy cricket, Luana Patten, Ludwig von drake, lulabelle, lumpjaw, magic, magic beans, magic harp, Mickey and the beanstalk, Mickey Mouse, Mortimer Snerd, movie review, musical, musical review, package feature, quest, Romance, short, shorts, singing harp, Von Drake, willie the giant
Sigh, poor package features, why does nobody like you? Why is it that internet reviewers and Disney critics and fans always seem to give you the shaft? Is it the minimized animation budget? The effort towards story and character that was forcibly driven towards wartime propaganda over actual films? The deviation of a traditional three-act structure in favor of a string of unrelated shorts woven together by a loosely connecting theme or narration? Well in a manner of speaking, it’s a combination of all three. For one thing most people I know prefer to sit down and enjoy a movie that has one uninterrupted story. And yes there are a good number of films, great ones, in fact, that play around with how the story is presented, but as of writing there’s yet to be an audience or even a filmmaker clamoring for an animated equivalent of something like Pulp Fiction.
And of course the major factor in all this is the time period in which these movies were made. I’ve already talked about this in my review of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad but for those not on the uptake, THERE WAS A FREAKING WORLD WAR WHILE THIS WAS GOING ON. Disney couldn’t afford to do something on the scale of Pinocchio or Fantasia or even Dumbo because his best animators were A, drafted out to fight, B, struggling to work with what little resources they had when the government was also pushing them to remind the public to buy bonds, or C, kicked out because of the disastrous animators’ strike of the early ’40’s. Projects with linear narratives that were considered big scale like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp were put on hold for virtually a decade. The best they could do was package a bunch of fun little shorts together because releasing them individually wouldn’t bring in as much desperately needed revenue as a full feature would.
And who says these shorts are bad? I don’t! At worst they’re fluffy little time fillers, but at their best they can hold their own with the big leagues of Disney animation. Again, going back to my Ichabod and Mr. Toad review, Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the first thing I and a good many others think of when the story comes to mind. I also have the advantage that a lot of people today sadly don’t in that I grew up with virtually all of the package feature shorts in one way or another, either through individual VHS releases or on the Disney Channel as part of shows like Mouse Tracks, Donald’s Quack Attack, or the DTV music videos. It would be years until I saw them all as they were meant to in order as one full film, but blame Disney themselves for that. It’s a Catch-22 situation when it comes to their forgotten films; Disney sees there’s not much public interest in these old movies and so holds out on releasing them for as long as possible, while the public notices Disney never getting around to releasing these movies and think it must be because they’re not worth their time. So nobody wins and we all get smothered under another avalanche of Frozen dvds.
As of writing there’s only two – count ’em, TWO – Walt Disney Animated Classics that have yet to be released fully on Blu-Ray, and they’re, you guessed it, package features. “Make Mine Music” and “Melody Time” to be precise. You wanna know how old the dvds for them are? The advertisements that play before the main menu are for The Tigger Movie and The Little Mermaid 2. That’s THE YEAR 2000. NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AGO. And the only reason why today’s feature “Fun and Fancy Free” got on blu-ray is because the higher ups at Disney decided to combine it with Ichabod & Mr. Toad. So now we have a package blu-ray of two package features (three if you count The Reluctant Dragon which is also on there). It’s Package-ception, if you will. BWOMP.
Back to the topic at hand, World War Two was finally winding down and the country was in a state of elation from having their boys return home after tearing the Axis powers a new one. Walt Disney had ideas for two full-length features, one inspired by a short story by Sinclair Lewis (I’d say based on but it barely resembles the tale that’s printed) and the other a take on Jack and the Beanstalk starring Mickey Mouse. Neither of them were able to get the treatment he wanted due to story issues and because the first thing to go during wars and Republican administrations is money for the arts. So he compromised by bringing them both into one movie with each of them sharing a half. Looking back I would have loved to have seen what an hour-length or even 75 minute version of Mickey and the Beanstalk would have been like because for all its flaws I enjoy it that much, and I’m tired of holding my breath waiting for Disney to do SOMETHING with “Gigantic”. Bongo on the other hand, I can’t see as anything other than a short, but that’s not a jab at its quality. Yet how do both stand up as a feature? Does it live up to what its title promises? Let’s find out.
After the main title song (which sounds like the opening theme of a variety show from that decade), we get Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio going about his merry way in somebody’s house singing “I’m a Happy Go Lucky Fellow”. This was actually a deleted song from Pinocchio meant to be sung by Jiminy, so it’s good to hear it sung here. It proves the old adage about ideas at Disney is true; things are never thrown away, just put aside for someone to find and use later.
After startling a goldfish who resembles Cleo from Pinocchio, Jiminy concludes the fish suffers from too much anxiety and tries to reassure her by showing her a newspaper full of headlines that amount to “doom imminent, we’re all gonna die” (ah, the New York Post never changes). He explains that everyone’s been playing Nostradamus for years saying the world is going to end tomorrow but you can’t go around thinking like that. Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, you get the idea. I get where Jiminy’s coming from, I truly do, but it’s hard to back up his philosophy when he’s using real current problems as examples to ignore.
Jiminy runs into a hungry cat and hides out in a child’s playroom where he bumps into a sad-looking doll and teddy bear. Assuming that all toys must be like his buddy Pinocchio he takes on the role of conscience yet again and tries to help them with their problems.
Jiminy’s prognosis is that these two depressed toys are in desperate need of some music and fun to cheer them up. So he whips out a record of Dinah Shore reading and singing the story of Bongo the Bear.
Dinah Shore was a popular big band singer of the 1940’s and one of the first female artists of her day to make a successful solo career for herself. She appeared on multiple popular radio shows, was a Chevrolet spokeswoman, won a total of nine Emmys for her various television shows and specials, and was romantically linked with stars ranging from Jimmy Stewart to Burt Reynolds. And remember Pee-Wee’s Christmas Special? She’s the woman who keeps popping in singing an endless rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas that goes over the end credits.
This wasn’t Dinah’s first contribution to a Disney package film as she had lent her pipes to the titular song of the “Two Silhouettes” segment in Make Mine Music the year prior. She does fine as the narrator of this section, though there’s one teensy problem I have which I’ll get to eventually.
The record begins with Dinah Shore saying this is a story about three bears.
No, Ms. Shore spells it out for us – a girl bear, a big mean bear who wants to be her mate, but mostly of Bongo, a bear born and raised in the circus who’s the star of the show. Had this story turned out the way Walt originally envisioned, it would have been something of a crossover-sequel of Dumbo with the titular elephant and the catty matriarchal troupe of pachyderms providing cameos. I assume this fell through due to Dumbo’s salary demands being a little too far out of Walt’s price range.
Bongo puts on his impressive act of juggling on a unicycle while on a high wire before making a spectacular dive. But we’re also privy to what happens when the show is over; no sooner does he back out of the tent from his curtain call than he’s manacled, hosed down, tossed into a cage and hauled off to the next state for a literal rinse and repeat. He’s the circus’ main draw, but he’s treated worse than, well, an animal.
In between shows the miserable Bongo dreams of a life of freedom out in nature. We’re supposed to feel immediate sympathy for Bongo based on what we see and because Dinah Shore tells us to, but the abuse is edited so quickly and played off almost comically. They’re aiming for Dumbo’s level of emotion but we had time to get to know Dumbo and develop a connection with him. We saw him be happy, we saw him bond with his mother, we saw him befriend Timothy; almost all of that happened before he was thrust into heart wrenching drama. We barely know anything about Bongo apart from he’s a talented circus performer who’s more like a prisoner than a celebrity. Did he have a good childhood? Was his family in the same line of circus work? Does he have a favorite color?
One day the call of the wild is too loud to ignore. He escapes thanks to a very flimsy lock on the door of his train car (you think between that and how the staff treats him they’re purposefully setting up an opportunity for him to vamoose) and soon he’s zooming down the mountain on his unicycle. For the next several minutes Bongo explores his new forest surroundings and befriends the usual bevy of Disney fauna. Dinah Shore underscores Bongo’s laid back euphoria with “Lazy Countryside”, an easygoing and pleasant tune.
Unfortunately after night falls Bongo is quick to learn that the bare necessities of life will not come to you, at least not right away. Between the incessant chatter of nocturnal animals and insects keeping him awake and a storm threatening to cut his newfound life short, Bongo spends the night and most of the following morning cold, alone, and starving. His attempt at fishing like a bear should doesn’t go as hoped, but it does catch the eye of our story’s love interest, Lulabelle.
I love Bongo’s reaction to seeing Lulabelle for the first time; an unmoving incredulous expression on his face as he tries to wake himself up from this vision, all the while Dinah Shore says “I must be dreaming! It’s too good to be true!” about three dozen times. The two flirt for a little while before we’re spun into the next musical number called, you guessed it, “Too Good To Be True”. It’s cute, but the floating on pink clouds, the hearts everywhere, the little cupid bears flying around, it all seems somehow familiar…
The song itself is nice, but there’s one that always springs to mind which I prefer. My introduction to the story of Bongo was not through a full viewing of Fun and Fancy Free or even a tape of this segment, but through DTV. See, the Disney Channel launched around the time MTV was a massive success, and wanting a little of that to rub off on them the company commissioned a series of interstitials comprised of clips from their shorts and animated films edited to classic pop, rock and blues hits and called it DTV. They basically predated the kind of fanmade music videos you see on YouTube. It was popular enough that there were even a few hour-long holiday specials built around them (mainly Valentine’s Day and Halloween). I bring this up because one of the first DTV videos I remember watching and am still fond of is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” set to a few mountain-climbing themed shorts but primarily scenes from Bongo. And darn it, it cuts through the corniness and simply works. The imagery and overall sappiness of “Too Good To Be True” evokes every single vapid and thoroughly unsubtle Valentines Day product that is churned out en masse that time of year. No, wait, it’s not Valentines Day level of beating you over the head with glamorized romance. It’s Defcon 5, people – it’s LOVE DAY.
So Bongo and Lulabelle are happily in love, but it would make for a pretty dull short if it ended right here. Looks like we’re gonna need some more conflict to get the ball rolling. Enter our third bear, Lumpjaw, whom Dinah Shore describes as “the roughest, toughest, meanest bear with murder in his eyes”.
Lumpjaw is jealous that this newcomer is making moves on “his” girl, and since Bongo doesn’t know how to fight like an ordinary bear he starts getting the crud kicked out of him until Lulabelle intervenes – and slaps him silly herself.
Bongo believes Lulabelle must hate him and is completely oblivious to her and the other bears watching the spectacle waiting for him to hit her back. You see in this movie, the law of the forest dictates that bears show love by hitting each other repeatedly.
And oh I can already hear the wailing of “this promotes abusive relationships” through my computer screen. First off, I KNOW firsthand what an abusive relationship is, and it is more than just physical violence. That doesn’t condone violence, not one iota, but emotional/psychological abuse play a part in it as well, and Bongo is at least quick enough to recognize the smacking as what it should be, an unwarranted act of aggression that is entirely the slapper’s own fault. Second, give the kids you put this on for some fucking credit. Children’s entertainment is not one size fits all. Some might internalize this backwards logic of “hitting means love”, but others may ignore it completely. If you’re concerned that they might act out this kind of violence after watching this, just sit them down and talk to them about it instead of assuming the worst and convincing your neighborhood to toss their dvds into the nearest dumpster fire. Even if you tell them something as basic as “this is only how bears show they love each other but not how people do” they’ll be more apt to listen. Speaking of, there is some truth to this fact as bears in the mating season can get territorial and violent, hence all emphasis on the slapping. As ridiculous and horribly dated as this whole concept of this plot point is, I’ll give the story men credit that they didn’t pull it entirely from their asses.
Lulabelle doesn’t understand why Bongo isn’t hitting her back and since they can’t talk it out because the only method of communication is the narrator providing inner monologues, the usual romantic misunderstanding ensues. You know how I feel about this blasted cliche, so there’s no point dwelling on it. She tries to give Bongo one more chance with another slap, but he ducks and she hits an eager Lumpjaw instead. The other bears congratulate the two on their forthcoming nuptials while Bongo sulks off.
Then comes our next musical number performed for the half-happy couple by the tribe of bears, “Say It With a Slap”. It sounds like something you’d hear in the Country Bear Jamboree, from the background yodeling to the square dancing bridge to the subject matter being hilarious for the time and for Southerners but awkward and uncomfortable by today’s modern sensibilities. Also as far as ritualistic courtship dances go I’m more fond of the Finnish Fish Shlapping Dance myself.
Watching the festivities from afar Bongo finally puts two and two together and races back to Lulabelle. Since Bongo can’t fight Lumpjaw on the big guy’s terms he faces him like a smarter than the average circus bear and pummels him good with his unicycle. I’ll give the sequence this, it’s the most entertaining thing in this half of the picture. Maybe if this story had focused more on Bongo learning to adapt to the wild bear lifestyle and finding a middle ground between that and his circus upbringing rather than dawdle on love montages and countryside imagery this could have been a more interesting short.
The two wind up on a log on a river, and since this is an animated movie they quickly find themselves at the edge of a waterfall. Lumpjaw goes over but oh no, Bongo’s gone too – oh wait, no he isn’t, yaaaay. The bears celebrate, Bongo becomes a willing participant in Lulabelle’s masochism tango, and they live slappily ever after.
The record ends and Jiminy is pleased to see the toys are now smiling. Thrilled that he’s got two inanimate objects buying into his well-intentioned dime store philosophy, Jiminy is about to go on his way when he spies a birthday party invitation lying about and uses that as an excuse to invite himself. I’d make a complaint here about Jiminy being a gate crasher but it’s something he’s done since Pinocchio; hell, that movie kicked off with him hopping into Gepetto’s workshop uninvited looking to spend the night and messing with some of the toys there as well so nothing has changed between then and this movie.
At the house across the way is the party in question being held for Luana Patten, a Disney child star who’s also appeared in Melody Time, So Dear to My Heart, and Song of the South, usually alongside future Peter Pan Bobby Driscoll. The host is a popular ventriloquist of the day, Edgar Bergen, and his two dummies, little wiseacre Charlie McCarthy and bumbling bumpkin Mortimer Snerd. In fact, they’re the ONLY ones there. Just tell yourself Luana’s parents had to go out for the night and Bergen’s a family friend who’s babysitting and it makes this scene slightly less questionable. When Jiminy shows up, Bergen is doing one of his ventriloquism tricks for little Luana with a literal hand puppet.
Now this scene is something that irks a lot of people, and I understand why. Bergen is often touted as the man who popularized ventriloquism but here you see his lips constantly moving. In this kind of act what impresses people is that you’re making your puppet appear to be talking WITHOUT making it obvious that you’re the one who’s doing it. The fact that his popularity got started on the radio, where NOBODY could see him pulling this off is especially baffling. I suppose what Bergen lacked in innate talent he made up for with a good sense of comic timing and his fairly likable if simple characters. Speaking of, Charlie and Mortimer are odd to be sure, and I see why some find them off-putting with their big unblinking eyes and noticeable slits around their large mouths, but personally speaking I’ve found certain Muppets to be much creepier than these dummies. Despite all this, I can’t hate the guy or his weird looking puppets or their questionable placement in this movie.
And you wanna know why?
Because if it wasn’t for Edgar Bergen, we wouldn’t have Jim Henson.
I kid you not.
Henson was a huge fan of Bergen as a child, and it led to him wanting to become a puppeteer. I think we all know how that turned out. It’s enough that as a way of showing his appreciation to Bergen he gave him and Charlie McCarthy a cameo in The Muppet Movie and dedicated it to him after his passing.
Bergen decides to regale the company with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. When you think about it, Jack and the Beanstalk is a hard tale to tell, not because it’s been done so many times before but because there’s so few good versions out there. Let’s get one fact straight, Jack is a TERRIBLE main character. He makes a stupid decision that nearly plunges his destitute family into further poverty, then cons and steals from an innocent housewife no less than three times and kills her husband in cold blood when he’s caught. It takes a lot to make you want to root for him, and lord knows people have tried. The Faerie Tale Theater version added a backstory where the giant was the one responsible for killing Jack’s father and stealing his family’s treasures in the first place. HBO’s Happily Ever After series and The Henson Company’s made for TV movie explored Jack’s morality by having him learn greed makes him as much of an all consuming monster as the giant. The Gene Kelly television special and the animated Japanese version both added a cursed princess in need of rescuing; the latter also went for straight out weirdness just for good measure. And then there’s the Sondheim musical Into The Woods, which told the story best by forcing Jack to face the consequences of his actions when the giant’s widow finds another beanstalk and climbs down for revenge.
So how does Disney make their version one with no questionable morals or character motives? By having their three main stars Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy star in it, of course (if you haven’t already gotten that before). There were tons, and I mean TONS of story ideas that were tossed around when this was being developed as a full-length feature which I would have loved to have seen in the final product. One version would have had Honest John and Gideon from Pinocchio be the ones who swindle Mickey into buying the magic beans. Another one had Minnie be the queen of Happy Valley (proving that not all animated queens who don’t have ice powers have to be evil) and had her give the beans to Mickey as a way to return the dried up Happy Valley to its former glory. There were lots of gags and and creative visual concepts about the land of the giants and what would happen when the main trio got there. For a time the hen that laid golden eggs, a staple of the original story, was a part of it, and she would have been played by the now relatively obscure character of Clara Cluck! Unfortunately everything had to go when the war started and the budget got slashed. And that’s not the only thing that went with it. This short would be the last time Walt Disney would provide Mickey’s voice as his smoking habit was beginning to affect his performance. After this he would pass the torch to the studio’s sound effects wizard Jimmy McDonald.
Bergen opens the tale in the magical land of Happy Valley and we see Luana imagining it in her mind as he builds on details like babbling brooks, lush farms and a splendorous castle overlooking it all. And in that castle lives the key to Happy Valley’s success, a magical singing harp (Anita Gordon). She sings the lovely “My What a Happy Day”. I really like this song; some have told me it’s the sound of blandness, but I can’t hear them over the innocent joy it infuses me with. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up with this particular short that makes me enjoy it so much. My VHS copy had the story narrated by beloved Wonderful World of Disney character Ludwig Von Drake with bookends featuring him and Herman the Bootle Beetle, and I watched it all the time. It was my childhood.
According to Bergen the song of the Harp casts a spell of prosperity and happiness over the land, which admittedly raises one potent question: The enchanted prosperity I can get but is the happiness a side effect, or is it enforced like that one Monty Python skit where everyone in that Happy Valley has to be happy all the time or else?
Of course the story would go nowhere if it was constantly this happy which leads into my favorite exchanges between Bergen and Charlie:
Bergen: It was too good to last –
Charlie: I knew there was a catch.
Bergen: For one day –
Charlie: They built a schoolhouse.
Out of the blue an enormous shadow creeps over the valley like a storm cloud (complete with actual thunder and lightning too) and snatches the Harp from the castle. Without the Harp’s music Happy Valley decays into a barren wasteland that no amount of song can salvage.
We check in on Mickey, Donald and Goofy, three starving farmers with nothing to their name but a dried up cow, a crust of bread they have to slice paper thin, and a solitary bean. It’s a darkly comic sight, one made even more tension-filled and humorous when it’s filtered through the narration…
…in the Von Drake version.
Yeah, while we’re on this topic I might as well go into why I prefer the one with Von Drake narrating over the original. The main problem I have with Bergen is the same I have with Dinah Shore’s voiceover in the Bongo section, yet by comparison Shore is barely a nuisance. You want to know what that is?
Everything he adds to the proceedings is already plain to see before us, and when he isn’t talking about the current action on screen or trading barbs with Charlie McCarthy he’s going into what the characters must be thinking or feeling at that moment. It’s not like film is a visual medium where we can draw our own conclusions based on what we’re viewing and our prior knowledge of the characters, oh no, we have to be told everything like we’re children. Oh wait, we don’t, because I watched the Von Drake one when I was a child and I knew what was going on without him telling me every five seconds! The Von Drake edition knows when to clam up and let what’s happening speak for itself. It allows this half of the movie to breathe and lets us take in some good atmosphere and music where there was once constant voiceover. On top of that, Von Drake’s delivery hits all the comic beats while Bergen’s is rather dry. The original Mickey and the Beanstalk from Fun and Fancy Free has cleaner scene transitions as well as moments that were edited from the Von Drake edition since that was taken from television, but half the charm comes from Von Drake and Herman; that and the previously mentioned amount of narration makes their take the superior version.
Anyway, caught between starvation pangs and an omnipotent voice incessantly stating the obvious, Donald finally snaps and attempts to make a sandwich out of the plates and cutlery. Goofy and Mickey bring him back to his senses, or so it would seem.
Mickey spies the axe conveniently hanging on the wall has gone missing nearly too late. Outside Donald is making his moves on the cow.
For many people this is one of the scariest moments in Disney cinema. While I’m not inclined to agree I can surely understand. His slow descent into madness is framed almost like a psychological thriller. Plus, we all know Donald’s had a temper before but we’ve never seen him flat-out attempt murder…almost.
I’d like to point out that in the picture on the left the gun is going off in a crowded theater. Unfortunately the timelessness of Disney’s films doesn’t always apply to their early shorts.
Mickey and Goofy intervene in the nick of time and the story fades back to the puppet party. Charlie is all up for Donald murdering the cow to survive and lists a number of increasingly gruesome ways to pull it off over Luana and Mortimer’s distressed protests. Ok, NOW I think I understand why everyone is terrified of Charlie McCarthy. The kid’s a little wooden sociopath.
After some more blathering, Bergen gets the story back on track and tells us Mickey went to go trade the cow for some much needed vittles. But Donald and Goofy’s dreams of a Be Our Guest style feast are dashed when he returns home with nothing but a handful of beans. Donald goes berserk even after Mickey says they’re supposed to be magic and smacks them out of his hand where they fall into a hole in the floor. Yet as everyone sleeps that night, light from the full moon shines into the house, which is the very thing needed for the beans to work their magic. The whole sequence where the beanstalk grows through the entire house and raises it up to the sky is a highlight. It begins with an almost sinister air, the beanstalk crawling its way upward and silently through the dark like a snake, and the wonder and music constantly builds as it climbs higher towards the heavens. Every action matches with the music, and the animation is the best in the whole movie. I must say it always amazed me that Mickey, Donald and Goofy are able to sleep as heavily as heavily as they do through the whole ordeal, especially since they get shaken around so much and come close to falling so many times. Were the hunger pains that bad that they took a heavy dose of Ambien before turning in?
The three wake up that morning in a land in the clouds where everything towers above them (and apparently they’re totally fine with their house being destroyed). They venture to a nearby castle where the only clue as to who lives there is a set of footprints each the size of a ditch. While crossing the moat Donald angers a formation of dragonflies and one dive bombs them. On the tape I had it was immediately swallowed by a jumping fish and the ensuing splash washed the friends to shore. So imagine my surprise the first time watching it in full and seeing this was a full-blown action sequence of sorts with the dragonfly going after them repeatedly and their little vessel nearly sinking. I’m guessing it was cut for time but it’s kind of a neat part.
Mickey and crew climb up the enormous stairs and sneak in the castle under the door, and all the while Bergen does not stop talking. I’m almost tempted to put it on mute when the animated characters aren’t the ones who are speaking. They come across a giant table laden with enormous food and gladly help themselves. Goofy in particular gets in plenty of shenanigans involving a bouncy jello mold. The gorging is cut short when they hear the voice of the Harp coming from a locked chest. She informs them that she was kidnapped by the giant Willie.
Twenty-eight years of watching this…how did I not realize… There is no way that name could have been chosen at random!
Bergen tells us Willie is “a heartless monster” who stole the Harp because “he was cruel and selfish and didn’t care what happened to Happy Valley”. And I…he…I…
Screw you, Bergen.
Screw you, screw your horrible narration skills, and especially screw your picking on my Willie!
Again, going back to the Von Drake edition, they painted Willie in a much kinder light, one that’s more true to his character. He’s not the crude, gluttonous, overly violent thug like past giants. He’s big enough to pose a threat but he’s silly and very endearing, almost childlike at times.
His goofy voice plays a part in it as well thanks to Billy Gilbert, the same actor who voiced Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At one point he even gets to do his trademark over-the-top sneeze. Willie does not seem at all like a cold-hearted brute who would leave an entire kingdom to rot for his own selfish pleasures. It’s highly likely he didn’t even know the Harp was needed for the land to thrive and was completely ignorant to the fact that Happy Valley was turning into Death Valley without her. That’s why it bugs me when he’s lumped into the group of Disney villains. Nearly every bad guy in the canon either openly embraces how evil they are or do what they do because they believe it is the right thing. Willie falls into neither category; most of his maliciousness is incidental rather than intentional. If you don’t believe me that he isn’t evil, look at how he’s portrayed beyond this movie. In a bout of perfect casting, he plays the friendly and jovial Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. He’s also made positive appearances in shows like House of Mouse and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Maybe it’s just because I’ve always had an affinity for big tough looking characters who are really enormous marshmallows (wait until you see who my favorite character is when we get around to reviewing the American Tail movies), but I can never see Willie as a true villain, and that’s a good thing. So back off, Bergen. He may be a big galoot, but he’s MY big galoot.
What also separates Willie from the giants in most other adaptations is that he has the ability to change himself into anything he wants provided he says or sings the magic words “Fee Fie Fo Fum”. A common complaint with this new feature is that it’s completely unnecessary; his superpower is that he’s already big and strong, so why give him magic? I disagree. I like his transformations and think it adds something special to him. Walt purposefully wanted to create a combination of the traditional beanstalk giant and the shape shifting ogre from the fairy tale Puss in Boots to add more danger and intrigue to the story (as well as eliminate the moral quandary of making a side character a widow). In fact one has to wonder if this means Walt ever planned on doing an animated take on Puss in Boots someday. My only wish is that Willie’s powers were utilized more as it was originally planned in both his song and the first draft of the ending, where he’s shrunk down to normal size and becomes a member of Queen Minnie’s court.
Willie discovers Mickey hiding out in his sandwich and snatches him. But clever Mickey has already seen Willie showcase his powers through his introductory number and pretends to learn and be impressed by that fact after reading Willie’s palm. Willie is eager to show off and Mickey, spying a flyswatter nearby, asks if he could transform himself into a housefly. Willie is of course suspicious and would rather be something like a pink bunny but goes along with it anyway. The friends prepare to attack, but Willie does the old switcheroo and exposes them.
I’m guessing Mickey never bothered to actually read the original Puss in Boots story; there Puss convinces the shapeshifting ogre to turn into gradual bigger and fiercer creatures and then taunt him into becoming something small and helpless so he can dispose him. Sweat the small stuff immediately and the one you’re trying to trick will be on to you right away.
Willie captures his would-be murderers though Mickey escapes before he can get locked up with Donald and Goofy. Luckily they have an ally in the Harp, who sings Willie to sleep with the sweet lullaby “My Favorite Dream”. Mickey is able to sneak the key out of his pocket after almost waking him with an upturned box of snuff and rescues his friends. Donald and Goofy start making their way back to the beanstalk with the harp, but Mickey tries to buy them more time by tying up Willie’s shoelaces in case he wakes up. Unfortunately doing this does cause Willie to wake up and attack. There’s a surprised “Oh!” from Luana at this part that was left in on the Von Drake tape so for the longest time I assumed it was the Harp crying out in terror despite the fact that they sound nothing alike. Oops.
Mickey manages to outsmart Willie at every turn, mainly because the giant is so furious he conveniently forgot he can become anything and catch and crush Mickey like an insect at any second. The story abruptly ends with the three friends cutting down the beanstalk and Willie crashing to his death. We don’t even get to see the harp returned or Happy Valley restored or Mickey, Donald and Goofy sharing a victory high five. Mortimer’s not satisfied mainly because he’s saddened by Willie’s murder, and I don’t blame him. As if I need to repeat it, they do too good a job of making him likable that you don’t want to see him die. Bergen responds by reminding Mortimer that Willie is only a fictional character and gives him a crash course in fantasy vs. reality – one that is completely thrown out the window when the real Willie looks in on them.
So, sentient crickets and puppets are accepted as normal as well as a living giant that everyone once believed to be fictional…
This whole movie took place near Gravity Falls.
There is no other possible explanation for this.
Bergen has the appropriate reaction and faints, Mortimer takes comfort in knowing reality is an illusion and the universe is a hologram, and Jiminy figures maybe now is a good time to get the heck out of dodge before this crossover gets any stranger. So our odd little film comes to a close as we follow Jiminy tailing Willie as he terrorizes the downtown Los Angeles area in search of the mouse who made him homeless.
Well…that was something. Maybe not as spectacular or fully underrated as I remember, but it was something. The host parts are disjointed and don’t gel very well, even in comparison to the other package features. But the main draw at the time was less about the animation and characters and more about the celebrities that would be playing a part in it. Fun and Fancy Free basically predates the Dreamworks formula by about fifty years. Food for thought, huh?
As for my summary of the individual segments, Bongo is perfectly fine. Not amazingly humorous or gorgeously animated, but not poorly scribbled out or annoying, at least for the most part. It’s middle of the road entertainment that I don’t have much to complain about or praise. The worst I can say is that it’s as padded as my high school brassiere. Mickey and the Beanstalk, though? Never fails to give me the nostalgic warm and fuzzies. It’s a big adventure with a boatful of lovable characters and great songs. By all means though, seek out the version that has Ludwig Von Drake narrating. It’s available on dvd, and last time I checked it’s on Netflix too. It even comes with some of my favorite Mickey shorts like “Mr. Mouse Steps Out” and “Brave Little Tailor”. I know I’m not the only one who feels some connection to this part of film; whereas nobody remembers or bothers to reference Bongo, even in Disney media, there’s one or two mentions of Mickey and the Beanstalk in the Disney parks, primarily in Fantasyland. Also, take a look at these stills from the Animaniacs parody of the fairytale and tell me it wasn’t influenced by the Disney one in any way.
Fun And Fancy Free performed decently at the box office, though it was overshadowed at the time by Walt Disney’s infamous testimony at the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Now it’s merely a footnote in Disney’s history. When interviewed about the film years later, the animators openly admitted they didn’t want to work on it. Even Walt barely had anything to say about it in his interviews and biographies. It was merely an assignment they had to do in order to keep the studio afloat, hold on to their jobs, and get their mascot Mickey back in a starring role (the last one he’d really hold until Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983). Truth be told, the making of Fun And Fancy Free, which was included on the original VHS and DVD release, is more interesting than the film itself as a whole.
But at the end of the day, do I dislike this movie?
No, not really. I can’t call it one of my favorites, yet there are things I like about it that I wish they were allowed to expand upon. It’s an uneven film that does the best it can to be simply light and entertaining like its title. And I guess that’s why people are quick to harp (ahem) on it. Disney is capable of making great art. But just because it can doesn’t mean we should diss it when they to do something lighter and fluffier. Sometimes you need that shallow, pleasant bit of pure escapism to bolster your spirits. Do you think the animation team would have been able to get by after Walt if they didn’t make The Aristocats? Or begin recovering from the failure from The Black Cauldron without The Great Mouse Detective (which I don’t think is merely shallow filler at all, but I’m saving my thoughts for the actual review of it). I admire Disney for being able to shift gears and go from deeper subject material to goofy comic fun when need be.
In other words, when watching this particular film, just repeat to yourself “It’s just a Disney movie, I should really just relax”.
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And a VERY special thank you to The Three CommentEARS for their insightful and entertaining commentary on this film which helped influence and inform this review. I’ve done some commentaries with them in the past for Pinocchio and the extended anniversary edition of Pocahontas, and they know their Disney stuff. Please go and check them out!
Artwork by Charles Moss.