Fun and Fancy Free
Jiminy Cricket, from the movie Pinocchio, returns to the big screen to host a couple of animated shorts. The first story, Bongo, is about a circus bear who escapes into the wilderness and falls in love with a girl bear he meets. It's based on a short story by Sinclair Lewis, and narrated by Dinah Shore, whom I assume was quite a celebrity in her day. The second short, Mickey and the Beanstalk, tells the story of the Jack and the Beanstalk with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy...Dog? It's always bothered me that Goofy doesn't have a 'last name' to match his two friends, but that's a tangent for another day. The interstitial scenes holding the film together include some of the creepiest moments in any Disney film...or any movie, in my opinion.
The film opens with some very 1940s singing a song about how music makes you happy and fancy free as the credits roll. At least, I think that's what the song is about. My brain drifted away to think about food, and focus didn't return until Jiminy Cricket came floating in on a leaf singing about how he's just a happy-go-lucky fellow. The only reason this sequence works is that Jiminy Cricket's is just so darn likeable, largely due to the vocal performance of Cliff Edwards. After a brief chat with Geppetto's goldfish and the cat, he wanders into a room with a sad-looking doll and bear. In order to cheer up the two inanimate objects, Jiminy turns to a record player and puts on a recording of Dinah Shore and Bongo begins.
The animation here definitely looks cheaper than Disney's previous productions. Oddly, Jiminy Cricket is no longer green; he is now flesh-colored. I know that money was tight at the studio around this time – an effect of World War II, I'm afraid – and these linking segments certainly didn't get the same attention as the two main features.
Bongo the Wonder Bear
Bongo was originally conceived as a sequel of sorts to Dumbo; several characters from the elephant's film were planned to reappear. In the trimmed down version of Fun and Fancy Free, they were cut out. Too bad. I thought that the short was painfully dull. Once Bongo leaves the circus, the story is more or less a series of visual gags lined up one after another. None of the characters speak, only pantomime to Shore's narration. There are four songs, but I couldn't name a single one or hum a few notes; they're all frightfully generic. Granted, I don't care for 1940s music at all, so this could simply be a matter of taste. The animation is also weak, though; Bongo has neither the cute, cuddly charm of that other famous animated bear, Winnie the Pooh, nor the strong personality that energizes Baloo in The Jungle Book. His love interest Lulubelle – talk about a crap name! - is equally uninteresting, with an ugly pink flower on her head detracting from what little personality she shows in her fits of coquettish flirting and huffy stormclouds. Honestly, in a year the only thing I'm going to remember about this cartoon is that bears show love by slapping each other – sorry if I just spoiled the ending for you.
Why, hello little girl... Creepy!
But if Bongo was boring, the next segment is just creepy. We go back to Jiminy Cricket, who is pleased that the story has cheered up the sad toys. He then spots a party invitation addressed to a little girl named Luana – I believe she was one of Disney's child stars? - at the “house across the way” with Edgar Bergen. Bergen was a popular ventriloquist back then, which seems terribly strange to my 21st century mind, but OK. Why not? So Jiminy Cricket hops over to the party, which consists of a middle-aged man using his hand as a puppet to talk to a little girl while two of his dummies move and talk independently. No parents or other party guests are in sight. It's like a scene out of a nightmare: the pedophile and his dolls possessed by the Devil, or something equally terrible! It's amazing to me that this guy was so popular, given that you can totally see his lips moving throughout the dummies' speech. According to Wiki, he gained his fame being a radio ventriloquist, so listeners couldn't even see his dummies. Man, entertainment in the forties was weird. Anyway...so throughout this scene, Jiminy Cricket is in the background, listening as Bergen tells the story of Happy Valley, a lovely land where everything's great until a giant steals the kingdom's magical singing harp. The Valley, where Mickey and Donald and Goofy all live, is struck by famine after the the harp disappears. Mickey goes off to sell their cow, and gets magic beans in return. You know the story from here. Beanstalk grows, they encounter a giant, the find the harp and rescue her.
It's funny; I remember seeing Mickey and the Beanstalk as a child several times, but for the life of me I could not remember the dummies. So I did some research, and it turns out this story's been re-edited several times for television. In one version, Bergen's narration is replaced by Ludwig von Drake, and instead of the child-star there's an odd little bug named Herman. You may have seen that version as a kid, too, so if you remember a different narrator you aren't crazy!
Poor Donald Duck...OK, that was funny.
This segment is much better than Bongo, both in the quality of the animation and the overall storytelling. There are some great sight gags, like when Mickey and Goofy are slicing a single bean and slice of bread into tiny slivers because there's no other food in their impoverished land. I liked it as a child, and for the most part it's held up pretty well, if one ignores the oddity of the ventriloquism.
This movie is a product of its era more than any other Disney flick I've encountered. It was made in 1947, and by golly there's no way you can possibly forget it. The use of celebrities that are largely forgotten today really dates the material; if you're a fan of that decade's pop culture this isn't a problem but for me it dragged the movie down. But it's an interesting, if also largely forgettable, moment in Disney history, at least.
All those stars are for Mickey and the Beanstalk. No stars for Bongo!!!