Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Make Mine Music

Original theatrical release poster for Make Mine Music

Fantasia had been a costly failure for Walt Disney but he still believed the idea of marrying music to animation had merit. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Walt believed the unused animation from Fantasia still had merit. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the motto around the Disney studio was “Waste not, want not.” Absolutely nothing was thrown away if there was even the slightest chance of repurposing it.

One of the abandoned Fantasia sequences was Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, depicting herons flying gracefully through the Everglades by night. There’s no real context for it. It’s simply an elegant piece of animation that was too good to waste. But Walt knew that Fantasia II would be another financial disaster. Instead of classical music, which had been expensive to produce and had limited appeal, Walt decided to focus on popular, contemporary sounds. Debussy was out, the Ken Darby Singers’ Blue Bayou (no relation to the later Roy Orbison song) was in and Make Mine Music was born.

Make Mine Music makes its intentions clear from the get-go. For the first time in an animated feature, the opening credits feature above-the-title celebrity names. Nelson Eddy! Dinah Shore! The Andrews Sisters! Benny Goodman! No stuffed shirts like Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor here. These are musicians you already know and love, so sit back and have a good time.

Unfortunately, that proves easier said than done. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the individual segments in Make Mine Music were slapped together. They don’t flow seamlessly from one to the next. There’s no attempt at a framing device to connect them. You could hit “shuffle” and watch the segments in any random order and have pretty much the same experience. In fact, the segments are so independent of one another that you could cut one out entirely and not affect the rest of the movie at all. We know this because that’s exactly what Disney did.

This is not the first time censorship has reared its head in this column and it won’t be the last. The studio altered Fantasia to remove some outmoded racial caricatures and removed shots of Goofy smoking cigarettes from Saludos Amigos. When the studio released Make Mine Music on DVD back in 2000, they eliminated the opening segment, The Martins And The Coys, in a ham-fisted attempt at protecting children from overtly cartoonish gun violence. The edited version is still the only one available on disc in the US. Ironically, the uncut version is available on DVD in the UK and a couple of other territories that don’t have nearly as much of a problem with real guns as we do. As of this writing, it’s one of the only animated features you can’t watch on Disney+.

Now, I’m not going to make the case that The Martins And The Coys is some great piece of suppressed art. It’s a cute, mildly funny cartoon and its inclusion would certainly help get Make Mine Music off to a more energetic start than the pretty but sleepy Blue Bayou. But getting rid of it because you’re afraid that kids are going to mimic these goofball hillbillies is ridiculous. It’s an overreaction to a problem that probably didn’t exist in the first place. Make Mine Music doesn’t get screened all that often, so I find it hard to believe that concerned parents were complaining to the studio about it.

The Martins And The Coys isn’t the only censored piece in Make Mine Music. All The Cats Join In is a vibrantly animated piece with swing-loving teens dancing to a Benny Goodman tune. At one point, a young woman jumps out of a shower and some tame (but still surprising by Disney standards) nudity has been eliminated. It’s about as edgy and controversial as a vintage Archie comic.

Disney loves to operate under the mistaken belief that everything the studio has ever produced is a cherished evergreen passed on from generation to generation. But movies like Make Mine Music are simply not going to have enormous appeal for modern kids. The only people who really want to see it are adult Disney fans who have an interest in the studio’s history. Releasing a bowdlerized version like this doesn’t do anyone any favors.

As with Disney’s other package films, some of the individual segments in Make Mine Music are probably more familiar to fans than the movie as a whole. Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf, narrated by Disney favorite Sterling Holloway, was probably the first to break out. It was released as a stand-alone short in 1947 and subsequently became a staple in a lot of kids’ record collections.

Peter And The Wolf album cover

Radio star Jerry Colonna narrates Casey At The Bat, based on the immortal baseball poem by Ernest Thayer. Everyone knows at least a few lines from the poem and everyone seems to have a passing familiarity with Disney’s version of it. It was popular enough on its own to warrant a short sequel, Casey Bats Again, in 1954. Both of these segments are fine but nothing special. Peter And The Wolf has a slight edge with its character design and Holloway’s familiar voice. Casey At The Bat is okay but there are dozens of other baseball-themed cartoons just like it.

Like Fantasia, Make Mine Music tries to strike a balance between story-based cartoons like these and more abstract animations. But unlike Fantasia, the abstract sequences of Make Mine Music are easily the weakest. Two Silhouettes, performed by Dinah Shore over images of rotoscoped ballet dancers, is pleasant but overstays its welcome. The two Benny Goodman numbers, All The Cats Join In and After You’ve Gone, are fast-paced fun but nothing new. And both the animation and the music of Without You, sung by Andy Russell, are so forgettable that I literally couldn’t remember what this segment was without looking it up and I just watched this thing a couple days ago.

The final two segments are certainly memorable but that’s not necessarily a compliment. Johnny Fedora And Alice Blue Bonnet is a romance between two sentient hats performed by the Andrews Sisters. This is meant to be cute and charming. For my money, there’s nothing more cloying than something that’s trying to be cute and this segment tries very hard. As for the music, I love the Andrews Sisters most of the time but this is not a good song. I’m already wishing it’s over before they’ve even finished singing the lengthy title.

The grand finale is the 15-minute oddity The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met (later re-released on its own under the title Willie The Operatic Whale). It’s the only segment not based around one specific song or piece of music, instead telling an original story incorporating various operatic motifs with Nelson Eddy providing all the voices.

After hearing reports of an operatic singing whale, impresario Tetti-Tatti becomes convinced that the whale has swallowed a great opera singer and sets out to rescue him. Willie the Whale finds out that Tetti-Tatti is looking for him and goes to meet him, assuming he’ll get an audition. He gives a magnificent performance, amazing the crew with his ability to sing in three different registers simultaneously. This only convinces Tetti-Tatti that Willie has swallowed three opera singers. The crew tries to stop Tetti-Tatti but it’s too late. Tetti-Tatti shoots Willie with a harpoon, sending him to a watery grave.

Let me just repeat that. Make Mine Music, a light-hearted animated anthology advertised on the poster as “Walt Disney’s Happy Comedy Musical”, ends with a miraculous singing whale shot dead by a crazed lunatic. What the hell, Walt?

Before it takes its sudden left turn into tragedy, The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met is one of the most purely enjoyable segments. Willie is an engaging new character, the animation is lively and genuinely funny, and Nelson Eddy’s vocal prowess is no joke. But that ending leaves the movie on a sour note. Granted, as another great opera singer, Signore Bugs Bunny, once said, “What do you expect in an opera, a happy ending?” Still, this feels like a misstep.

Even with its bummer of an ending, Make Mine Music proved to be a solid money-earner for the studio. Its original theatrical release did well and the individual segments continued to generate income on their own for years afterward. But it was the first Disney release in quite some time that failed to earn a single Oscar nomination, possibly because the Academy had finally begun limiting the music categories to a reasonable number. Even Victory Through Air Power had managed to nab a Best Original Score nod.

But despite its relative popularity, Disney has never treated Make Mine Music with much respect. It was never re-released theatrically in its original form. Video releases have been few, far between, sometimes edited and not always in great shape. Knowing how carefully the Disney Archivists treat the material in their vault, I find it unlikely that the studio hasn’t protected the elements for this movie. So what gives?

It seems possible that the studio is simply trying to generate demand for Make Mine Music by making it hard to find. Taken on its own merits, this is not a great movie or even a particularly interesting one. What you have here is Disney and his team treading water, just trying to keep the studio afloat. They met that modest goal and moved on to bigger and better things.

Today, the studio could once again use Make Mine Music to generate some quick cash by releasing a fully restored version on Blu-ray and Disney+. There are countless fans who would buy a copy in a heartbeat simply because they haven’t been allowed to for so long. Scarcity generates interest. In this case, that can only help to develop a fanbase that the movie itself doesn’t really earn or deserve.

VERDICT: It’s a Disney Minus with a handful of moments that rise up to a Plus.

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