Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Alice In Wonderland

Original 1951 theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Alice In Wonderland

Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland did not come into this world quickly or easily. He had been trying for years to get a feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic books off the ground. By the time it was finally released to indifferent reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns in July of 1951, Walt found himself wondering if it had even been worth the effort. I’m here to tell you that it absolutely was.

Walt’s history with Alice dates all the way back to 1923 when he and Ub Iwerks made a ten-minute short called Alice’s Wonderland. Inspired more by Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland than Lewis Carroll, the short follows a live-action girl named Alice (played by Virginia Davis) who takes a train to cartoon-land after a visit to Walt’s fledgling Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City.

Laugh-O-Gram went out of business shortly after the film was made and Walt headed west to join his brother Roy in California. But the short caught the eye of cartoon distributor Margaret Winkler, who commissioned the Alice Comedies. Along with the later Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons, the Alice Comedies helped launch Disney’s animation career.

By 1933, Walt had begun to tinker with the idea of making a feature-length version of Carroll’s Alice using a hybrid process similar to the Alice Comedies. Mary Pickford was to play the live-action Alice. But when Paramount released their own all-star live-action Alice In Wonderland, Walt put his idea on the shelf. In 1936, Walt got a little bit of Wonderland out of his system with the Mickey Mouse cartoon Thru The Mirror.

After the release of Snow White, Walt secured the film rights to Carroll’s books, specifically the editions with the familiar John Tenniel illustrations. David Hall created some beautiful concept art based on Tenniel’s work but Walt rejected this version as too dark and difficult to animate. The outbreak of World War II resulted in all work on Alice and several other films being put on hold.

When Walt returned to the project, he still planned on a live-action/animation hybrid. British writer Aldous Huxley, then earning a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, was hired to work on the script. He looked at a number of different potential Alices, including thirtysomething Ginger Rogers, child star Margaret O’Brien, and contract player Luana Patten (from Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart). But Walt rejected Huxley’s script as “too literary” and began to have doubts about the hybrid format.

Enter artist Mary Blair, who had joined the studio in 1940. Blair had been a part of the Good Neighbor tour of South and Central America that had produced Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Her eye for color and design made her an invaluable part of the Disney team. She produced some Alice concept art that moved away from the Tenniel look in favor of bright colors and abstract shapes. Her work convinced Walt to move ahead with Alice as a feature-length cartoon. Using Blair’s paintings as a guide, the story and music departments took one last crack at shaping the project.

Alice In Wonderland concept art by Mary Blair
Mary Blair, Concept art for the Walt Disney animated feature “Alice in Wonderland,” c. 1950, gouache on board. (Photo Courtesy of the Hilbert Museum)

The music department played an even more important role than usual in dictating the movie’s tone. Walt wanted to maintain as much of Carroll’s language as possible, especially the verse, so songs were built around such passages as The Walrus And The Carpenter and Jabberwocky. Over two dozen songs were written for the film by such talents as Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, Oliver Wallace, and Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, who had just finished work on Cinderella.

A few songs were left on the cutting room floor. Jabberwocky was an early casualty. The only reference that remains is the Cheshire Cat’s song, “’Twas Brillig”. Two others were given new lyrics and used in Peter Pan. Even with these cuts, Alice In Wonderland still has more original songs than any other Disney film before or since.

Some of those songs have become so familiar, such as “I’m Late” and “The Un-birthday Song”, that we barely even register them as songs anymore. They’re more like common, everyday expressions that everyone just happens to say in a specific cadence. Others, like “All In A Golden Afternoon” and “Very Good Advice”, may not have become standards like other Disney songs. But they’re extremely effective in the context of the film.

Perhaps in an effort to ease concerns that he would Americanize Carroll’s book, Walt selected British actress Kathryn Beaumont to provide the voice and live-action reference modeling for Alice. While it certainly would have been interesting to see some of the other actresses Walt had considered, young Miss Beaumont turned out to be the right fit for the part. You can’t have an Alice who overreacts to the odd sights and characters she encounters. Kathryn Beaumont underplays the part beautifully, while the animators bring out subtle facial expressions and gestures from the reference footage. We relate to both her dreaminess and her eventual exasperation with Wonderland’s nonsense.

But the character of Alice was also a big part of what frustrated Disney about Carroll’s book. Unlike previous and future Disney heroes and heroines, Alice doesn’t have a story arc that touches the heart. She just wants to escape into a world of fantasy and nonsense. By design, Alice is something of an aloof blank slate. She’s reactive instead of active. Even Pinocchio is an active participant in his own downfall and redemption. Alice just pinballs from one wacky situation to the next.

But in the movie’s defense, those situations represent some absolutely first-class wackiness. Walt’s top animators all worked on Alice In Wonderland and you get the sense that they realized that, despite everyone’s best efforts, this was not going to be a particularly cohesive picture. Instead, to keep themselves engaged, they turned it into a thrilling game of one-upmanship. Each sequence is more colorful and imaginative than the last, with stunning design and kinetic movement.

In this way, Walt’s team managed to find a visual equivalent to Carroll’s brilliant use of language and wordplay. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass, are overflowing with puns, nonsense words and hidden meanings. Even the layout of the text on the page is significant.

None of that can ever be truly replicated in a movie. But the animation finds countless opportunities for visual gags and details that would be equally impossible in a book. Think of the March Hare’s request for just “half a cup” of tea, whereupon he slices the cup in half. Or the countless ways the animators find for the Cheshire Cat to disappear and reappear. Or the smoke letters blown by the Caterpillar.

The picture also benefits from its stellar vocal cast, one of the best ensembles Disney ever assembled. Vaudeville star Ed Wynn became forever linked to the Mad Hatter after this. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect match between actor and character. Shockingly, this was one of Wynn’s only vocal performances. It only seems like he did a million of them because so many other cartoon actors went on to do an “Ed Wynn voice”. But we’ll see him again in this column when he starts to appear in Disney’s live-action films.

Bill Thompson had become famous on radio, voicing a character named Wallace Wimple. That character helped inspire Tex Avery’s creation of Droopy for MGM, which Thompson also voiced for many years. The White Rabbit is basically just Thompson’s Wimple/Droopy voice on speed but it works like gangbusters. But he was no one-trick pony. Thompson also provides the voice of the Dodo. It adds a little something to the scene where the Dodo decides to burn down the White Rabbit’s house when you realize Thompson is doing both voices. We’ll hear the vocal stylings of Bill Thompson many more times in this column.

Richard Haydn, on the other hand, never did another cartoon voice after Alice In Wonderland but his one role for Disney was a keeper. As the Caterpillar, Haydn finds the exact note of haughty superiority. One of the few things Tim Burton’s live-action remake got right was casting Alan Rickman, who frequently seemed to be channeling Haydn’s Caterpillar in his performances anyway, in the role.

For many of the other roles, Disney stuck with actors he’d come to be familiar with. Sterling Holloway finds subtle layers of lunacy in his performance as the Cheshire Cat. Radio star Jerry Colonna, who had previously narrated Casey At The Bat in Make Mine Music, is perfectly paired with Wynn’s Mad Hatter as the March Hare. And Verna Felton, who had most recently provided the voice of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, goes to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum with her unhinged take on the Queen of Hearts.

Despite all this, Walt never felt like he had been able to crack Alice In Wonderland. At one point, he was so frustrated by the project that he was ready to cancel the whole thing. But Peter Pan wasn’t far enough along, so shelving Alice would have left the studio with nothing to release in 1951.

When audiences and critics alike failed to show much enthusiasm for Alice, Walt chalked it up as a disappointment. He never re-released the film theatrically in his lifetime. In 1954, he aired a severely truncated version on the television series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, then in its second season. Walt would continue to air it on TV for years.

1974 theatrical re-release poster for Alice In Wonderland

But in the early 1970s, a funny thing happened. Film societies on college campuses around the country, eager to program anything that could even remotely be described as “psychedelic”, started screening Alice In Wonderland. As it developed a cult following, Disney decided it might be worth giving it a general re-release. In 1974, Alice In Wonderland finally returned to theatres with a new marketing campaign that leaned into the whole trippy vibe, although they drew the line at featuring the hookah-puffing Caterpillar on the poster.

It was here that 5-year-old Adam Jahnke’s mother took him to see his very first movie. Because of that association, I have a very hard time looking at Alice In Wonderland objectively. To me, it was a magical, transformative experience. I can understand Walt Disney’s disappointment in the final product. I can sympathize with the Lewis Carroll purists who object to the liberties taken with the books. I can even acknowledge criticisms that the film is too episodic, too cold, and lacks a sympathetic main character.

But that’s not the way I view Alice In Wonderland. I just see a very funny, dazzlingly colorful entertainment that blew the eyes right out of my head as a child. It was my gateway drug to the wider world of cinema. It was as impossible to resist as a mysterious bottle labeled “Drink Me”. I drank every drop and I’ve never looked back.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Treasure Island

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Treasure Island

In the back of my mind, I had always assumed the story behind Treasure Island went something like this. As a boy, young Walter Elias Disney had read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and, like most boys, had fallen in love with it. He wanted to make it into a movie but not a cartoon. Walt wanted to live the adventure, to smell the sea air, feel the ship beneath his feet and assemble his own motley pirate crew.

There may well be some small element of truth to that idealistic tale but the real story behind how Treasure Island became Walt Disney’s first fully live-action feature is much more prosaic. In the years following World War II, the British government levied a steep import tax on American films. Monies earned by American studios were frozen with the condition that it must be put back into the ailing British economy. They’d also imposed a quota that mandated that 45 percent of all films shown in British cinemas had to be made in England.

Walt wasn’t about to build a new animation studio in London. But he could use the frozen assets to shoot a live-action feature using a mostly British cast and crew. And so it was the accounting department that decided Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island would become Walt Disney’s first live-action feature film.

While most of the below-the-line crew was British, including the great cinematographer Freddie Young and matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, the top guys were all Americans. Producer Perce Pearce had been with Disney for years, working on Fantasia and Bambi before moving over to live-action production with Song Of The South. Screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin had been hired by Disney a few years earlier to adapt Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill stories into a screenplay. Watkin would write several more films for Disney before that project was finally realized in 1959.

Director Byron Haskin had been a cinematographer and special effects man at Warner Bros. before becoming a full-time director with the 1947 film noir I Walk Alone. Treasure Island would be Haskin’s only film with Disney. He’d later collaborate with George Pal on such movies as The War Of The Worlds and Conquest Of Space, as well as directing the cult sci-fi film Robinson Crusoe On Mars.

Watkin’s screenplay condenses Stevenson’s novel down to a tight 96 minutes. Most of the iconic characters are represented, even if some, like Blind Pew, are nearly reduced to cameo appearances. Fortunately, the cast is strong enough to make an impression with even the smallest roles. Geoffrey Wilkinson, a stage actor with no other film roles to his credit, makes for an ideal Ben Gunn, the half-crazed pirate marooned on Treasure Island. The pompous Squire Trelawney is brought to life by Walter Fitzgerald and Denis O’Dea makes for a sympathetic and understanding Dr. Livesey. Both actors would later return to the Disney fold in Darby O’Gill And The Little People.

And then there’s Robert Newton, the living, breathing embodiment of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, as Long John Silver. Newton wasn’t the first actor to take on the role of the one-legged pirate but he made it his own like no one before or since. Newton sets the tone for the entire picture with a broad, caricatured performance straight out of a British pantomime. Subtle, it is not. But it is effective and impossible to forget.

There was really only one choice to play young Jim Hawkins. Bobby Driscoll had been the first actor signed to an exclusive contract with Disney. In the years since his debut in Song Of The South, he’d been kept busy in movies like Melody Time and won a special juvenile Academy Award for So Dear To My Heart and the RKO thriller The Window. Bobby’s all-American voice and demeanor makes him an odd fit for the West Coast of England in 1765. But he gets by on spirit and attitude and it helps that he and Newton have a fun, natural rapport.

Cover art for the Dell Four Color Comics adaptation of Treasure Island

Treasure Island would be the beginning of the end for Bobby Driscoll at Disney. Walt had planned on casting him as Tom Sawyer, which would have been a perfect fit, but couldn’t secure the film rights. Other potential live-action vehicles also fell by the wayside. Bobby’s next work for the studio would be as the voice of Goofy Junior in the shorts Fathers Are People and Father’s Lion. We’ll see him in this column one last time, in animated form.

One character who didn’t make it into the movie was Jim Hawkins’ mother. Mrs. Hawkins only appears briefly in the novel but in the film, she’s simply referred to in passing. We’re assured that a good word from Dr. Livesey will be all that’s needed to secure her permission for Jim’s sea voyage. Her presence isn’t really missed all that much but it does make Treasure Island a very testosterone-heavy movie. There isn’t a single female character in the entire picture.

Apart from Robert Newton, it’s Freddie Young and Peter Ellenshaw who emerge as the film’s MVPs. Young’s Technicolor cinematography is vibrant and colorful, ideally suited to a rousing boy’s adventure. This would be his only work for Disney but he of course went on to become one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, winning Oscars for his work on Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

For matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Treasure Island would be the beginning of a long association with Disney. When someone describes the look of a live-action Disney film, it’s often Ellenshaw’s beautiful background paintings that come to mind. He’d go on to win an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins and rack up additional nominations for Bedknobs And Broomsticks, The Island At The Top Of The World, and The Black Hole. We’ll be seeing a lot more of his work in this column.

Theatrical re-release poster for Treasure Island

Years later, Disney would submit Treasure Island to the MPAA ratings board prior to a theatrical re-release. The board slapped it with the dreaded PG. At the time, Disney had a strict policy of only releasing G-rated fare, so they cut about 9 minutes out of the film. By the early 1990s, that policy was gone and the movie was restored to its original length.

Even today, Treasure Island is a bit more violent than you might expect from Disney. Pirates are shot in the face at point blank range. Jim gets skewered by a sword and has to stagger back to shore alone. By the end, hardly anyone emerges unscathed. It certainly isn’t Peckinpah levels of blood and gore but the body count is pretty high for a kids’ movie.

Treasure Island was a solid hit at the box office and with critics, proving once and for all that Disney was capable of more than just animation. Despite its success, Walt decided not to pursue a sequel. But since Stevenson’s novel was in the public domain, there was nothing to stop others from cashing in on Disney’s success. In 1954, Robert Newton reprised the role in Long John Silver, directed once again by Byron Haskin. It did well enough that Newton and Haskin went on to a short-lived TV series, The Adventures Of Long John Silver. Twenty-six episodes were produced but most of the world didn’t get to see them until after Newton’s death in 1956 at the age of 50.

Even though Walt Disney himself didn’t produce a sequel, this was far from the last time he’d venture into pirate-infested waters. In 1967, Pirates Of The Caribbean would debut at Disneyland. The attraction was one of the last rides personally overseen by Walt himself. In 2003, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp would turn it into a surprise blockbuster, launching four sequels so far.

Pirates would also play key roles in Peter Pan, Swiss Family Robinson and Blackbeard’s Ghost. In 1986, the Disney Channel would air the miniseries Return To Treasure Island, with Brian Blessed starring as Long John Silver. Ten years after that, Muppet Treasure Island marked the second co-production between Disney and the Jim Henson Company. And in 2002, the studio would give the story a sci-fi makeover with the costly flop Treasure Planet.

The one-two punch of Cinderella and Treasure Island made 1950 Walt Disney’s most profitable year in nearly a decade. On Christmas Day, NBC aired Walt’s first foray into television. One Hour In Wonderland featured Walt himself, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont, the young star of his next feature, Alice In Wonderland. Walt was one of the few studio heads to grasp the potential of television. Within a few years, he would be a regular presence on the small screen.

The Disney empire was expanding into new mediums and new formats. Treasure Island was the opening salvo into the world of live-action production. It’s a world that, at its peak, will threaten to overshadow animation completely.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Cinderella

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Cinderella

The Disney Princess Collection is currently one of the most lucrative franchises in the highly lucrative Disney portfolio. There are clothes and costumes, toys and games, books and albums, dolls of every size and price-point. You can paint your walls with Disney Princess wall paint, decorate the room in Disney Princess furniture, walk down the aisle in a Disney Princess wedding dress and invite your friends to a Disney Princess-themed baby shower. After you’ve lived happily ever after, you can probably even have yourself entombed in a Disney Princess coffin just like Snow White.

(Note: To the best of my knowledge, Disney has not officially licensed the Princesses or anything else to the funerary industry but I’m sure you could find a guy.)

All told, the Disney Princess line has raked in over $45 billion. So it’s a little surprising that it took Walt Disney over a decade to figure out that that’s what audiences wanted to see. He launched his feature animation division in 1938 with the original princess, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. That movie had been a massive, blockbuster success. Nothing else he’d made in the subsequent years had even come close to repeating it. By the time Cinderella became the second Disney Princess in 1950, Walt was in desperate need of a hit.

By the late 1940s, Walt was so in debt that Cinderella came perilously close to never being made at all. After spending the better part of the decade chasing contract work and the diminishing returns of the package films, Walt was at a crossroads. His choice was to either risk a return to feature-length animation or sell the studio. According to some sources, he came very close to picking the latter option.

Even with its fairly obvious similarities to Snow White, Cinderella was by no means considered a sure thing. The story and music departments had been developing a few different projects and Walt wasn’t sure which one to prioritize. He called a studio meeting and presented two options to his employees: Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. He displayed the artwork, he played the songs, and left it up to a vote. Cinderella won. Even after all that, Walt still wasn’t 100% sold on the idea. He told the Alice team to keep working, kicking off a race to see which project would finish first.

On his earlier films, Walt had been involved in every step of production, leading daily meetings and agonizing over each detail. But now, his attention was elsewhere. He was devoting more time to live-action projects like So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island. And when he wasn’t on location, he was frequently at home tinkering with his latest obsession: the construction of a miniature backyard railroad. Walt had always loved trains. But to many people, it seemed that his trains were now more important to him than his cartoons.

Fortunately, Walt had left Cinderella in excellent hands. Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson oversaw an all-star team of animators, including all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. The animators reportedly felt a bit creatively hamstrung by Walt’s insistence on filming live-action reference footage for virtually the entire movie. Even so, their exquisite draftsmanship shines through. The human characters are rendered even more believably and subtly than in Snow White.

Since Walt couldn’t afford to lavish the same amount of time and money on the animation, the team utilized some subtle cost-cutting methods that served the story. Cinderella’s coach seems to float on air, partly because it’s a magical night but mostly to avoid having to animate wheels. When they dance, Cinderella and Prince Charming only have eyes for each other. They’re the only people on the dance floor. That’s highly romantic, considering everyone in the kingdom has been invited to the ball. It also saves a lot of time and money if you don’t have to animate dozens of other dancers.

1973 re-release poster for Cinderella

The blend of character design and shifting perspective between the humans and the animals is absolutely seamless. The parallel world of the animals is arguably Disney’s biggest contribution to the Cinderella story. There are many, many variations on the original folk tale, spanning centuries and different cultures. But Disney is primarily jumping off from Charles Perrault’s version from 1697. Perrault added many of the elements we now associate with Cinderella, including the Fairy Godmother, the glass slippers and the pumpkin-coach with mice transformed into horses.

Disney took that idea and ran with it, transforming the mice (and, to a lesser extent, the other animals) into full-on supporting characters. The animals add some much needed color to what would otherwise be an unrelentingly dark story. It’s Disney who introduced the idea of the animals coming together to make Cinderella’s dress to repay her for her kindness to them. This does a couple of things. First, it tells us a lot about Cinderella’s character, her genuine kindness, and how horribly she’s been mistreated by her stepmother. Even the animals can see how hard a time she’s had.

Significantly, it also helps justify the Fairy Godmother’s gift to Cinderella. She isn’t just sitting around wishing for someone to rescue her. She wants to go to that ball and is more than willing to put in the work it takes to get there. But with her stepfamily plotting against her, her friends are there to help without her even having to ask. And after the dress is ruined, she still isn’t looking for a handout. She doesn’t even know her Fairy Godmother exists. She appears because Cinderella has earned a break.

Let’s talk for a second about that dress-ruining sequence. Lady Tremaine, perhaps the iciest and most disturbing of all Disney villains, points out her daughters’ discarded scraps in the dress and watches with a sneer as Drizella and Anastasia attack, tearing the dress to shreds. This is all done very quickly and very savagely, leaving Cinderella looking very small, alone and vulnerable. It’s a shocking and heartbreaking sequence that carries all the impact of a rape. Up until now, Drizella and Anastasia have been played primarily for laughs. Once it’s over, you feel like the entire family is in league with the devil. After all, they do have a cat named Lucifer.

Cinderella is certainly a more interesting and complex heroine than Snow White. She’s seen tragedy and faces adversity every day but still manages to look on the bright side. The key to her character comes after the ball as she’s hiding in the bushes with Bruno the dog, Major the horse and the mice. The palace guards chase off into the night but she pays them no mind. She simply thanks her Fairy Godmother for giving her such a wonderful night, expecting nothing else to come of it. Cinderella fully expects to go back to her miserable life with her stepfamily with the memory of this one night to sustain her forever.

Now, it’d be a stretch to call Disney’s Cinderella some kind of feminist role model. I do think there have been very valid feminist tellings of the Cinderella story but this isn’t necessarily one of them. But considering the era and the medium, the character is progressive enough to be considered some kind of achievement. I mean, she’s at least slightly more involved in her own rescue than some of Disney’s other heroines. If nothing else, she was smart enough to hang on to that other glass slipper.

1987 re-release poster for Cinderella

But in other respects, the film is as retrogressive as you might suspect. The whole ball is just a setup to get Prince Charming married so the King can have some grandkids to dote on. We know very little about the Prince other than he seems bored by both his princely duties and women in general. We spend more time with the Grand Duke than we do with the Prince. If we assume that “charming” is an apt description of his demeanor and not just his name, it’s only because Cinderella sure seems charmed by him.

And then of course, there’s “The Work Song”, where the female mice actively reinforce their own stereotype by insisting, “Leave the sewing to the women! You go get some trimmin’!” Hey, Jaq and Gus were just trying to help, lady. Cool your jets.

The songs in Cinderella were written by Tin Pan Alley veterans Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston. As a trio, they’d been responsible for the song “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, which had been a big hit in 1947. They’d repeat that trick here with “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”. Lots of artists, including Perry Como and Disney vets Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, ended up having hit records with their versions of the song. It was one of three Academy Award nominations the film would receive.

Cover art for the 1950 release of Walt Disney's Cinderella Story Book Album

“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” lost the Best Original Song Oscar to “Mona Lisa” from the mostly forgotten Alan Ladd vehicle Captain Carey, U.S.A. That was a highly competitive category in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Seemingly every song that won is now considered a standard, even if many of the films they were originally written for have been overshadowed.

For whatever reason, Walt Disney never fully warmed up to Cinderella. He thought Cinderella’s transformation into her ball gown was one of the best individual pieces of animation his studio had ever produced. But he would also refer to the film dismissively as “just a picture”. Regardless, Cinderella turned out to be exactly the hit he needed. Both critics and audiences hailed it as a return to form. It was the fourth highest grossing film of 1950 in North America. Perhaps more importantly, it was also a huge hit overseas, particularly in England and France, territories that had been closed off for years.

Without Cinderella, the Walt Disney Studios we know today wouldn’t exist. There would have been no theme parks, no TV shows. If Cinderella had bombed, Walt would have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Instead, he started the 1950s on a high note. Its success would catapult Walt Disney into one of the most productive decades of his life. But animation would play a relatively small part of that decade. His attention would be increasingly spent on new ventures like Disneyland and live-action production. Obviously he would never completely abandon cartoons. But animation was no longer his first and only priority.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Original theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Walt Disney started the 1940s with two of the most ambitious creative gambles of his career: Pinocchio and Fantasia. Neither one paid off the way he had hoped. What followed was arguably the most tumultuous decade of his life. World War II, an animators strike, and too many expensive box office flops had forced him to scale back considerably. Walt had started the decade with high hopes and big dreams. By 1949, he just wanted to be done.

Walt’s lack of enthusiasm bled over into the last few package films of the decade. The connective tissue between the segments grew flimsier as time went on. The segments themselves betrayed their origins as scraps and leftovers from other projects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the behind-the-scenes drama on Disney’s final package film, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad.

Walt’s animators first pitched The Wind In The Willows as a potential feature back in 1938. Walt was lukewarm on the idea but bought the rights to Kenneth Grahame’s book anyway. Since the Disney coffers were stuffed with Snow White money, he was buying the rights to a lot of things at the time. Production officially began in 1941 with James Algar directing. But they didn’t get far before the strike and the war caused it to be abandoned.

A few years later, Walt turned his attention back to the project. He took a look at what had been done so far and didn’t care for it. He told Algar and Frank Thomas to take another crack at it but to cut it down to the bone. If they could get it under 25 minutes, Walt would pair it up with the Mickey Mouse mega-short The Legend Of Happy Valley (soon to be renamed Mickey And The Beanstalk) and release it under the truly abysmal title Two Fabulous Characters.

But it soon became apparent that The Wind In The Willows was going to take longer to finish than anyone had anticipated. Not wanting to delay the release of the Mickey cartoon any longer, Mickey And The Beanstalk got shuffled over to Fun & Fancy Free. In need of a fabulous replacement character, Walt settled on another project that didn’t seem worth expanding to feature-length, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Not because it made a better thematic match with The Wind In The Willows. That’s just what he had left.

At some point, Disney mercifully decided to drop the Two Fabulous Characters name, although not before the phrase crept into the narration. Instead, he gave the project the slightly-less generic title The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. That’s not even the order the stories appear in the film but whatever. At this point, I’m surprised Walt didn’t call the movie Fire Sale: Everything Must Go!

(For whatever reason, Walt seemed to have a thing for that original title. Later on, he’d air an episode of the Disneyland TV series called Four Fabulous Characters that had nothing to do with any of this. Instead, it featured The Martins And The Coys and Casey At The Bat segments from Make Mine Music, Johnny Appleseed from Melody Time and The Brave Engineer short. If nothing else, Walt Disney was a firm believer in recycling.)

To narrate the stories, Walt hired two of the biggest stars he’d worked with to date. Basil Rathbone was already a highly respected actor when his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on film and radio turned him into an icon. Bing Crosby was one of the most popular entertainers in the world. Having either one associated with a Disney production must have been a huge coup.

Even though the movie was assembled in such a lazy, slapdash manner, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad ironically emerges as one of Disney’s better package films. The only real problem with it, and it’s a fairly large problem, is that the two stories could not be more dissimilar. If you’re a fan of Ichabod, it’s a chore to sit through The Wind In The Willows. And if you loved Mr. Toad, Sleepy Hollow is a jarring change of tone. Even the flow from one story to the next seems off. The British Wind In The Willows ends up as a Christmas/New Years story. The American Sleepy Hollow is autumn leading up to Halloween. Everything about the film seems backwards.

Walt’s disinterest in The Wind In The Willows may have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether his mind was on other things or he simply didn’t get it, he really wasn’t the right choice to adapt Grahame’s gentle, deeply British novel. Like a lot of adaptations, Disney decides to focus on the fun-loving, adventure-seeking Toad, although Mole and Rat are really the main characters of the book. There’s nothing wrong with that choice but it does reduce the story to a series of madcap chases. At least Walt was able to get a fun Disneyland attraction out of it.

UK quad poster for The Wind In The Willows.

For what it is, Disney’s Wind In The Willows is perfectly fine. The animation is lively and the character design is memorable. Rathbone’s narration gives it an air of English authenticity that is otherwise wholly unearned. Eric Blore, a reliably hilarious presence in such films as Top Hat and Sullivan’s Travels, is an excellent choice to provide the voice of J. Thaddeus Toad. But it’s easier to appreciate the cartoon’s strengths when viewed on its own instead of as an opening act.

Make no mistake, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow is very much the headliner of this double feature. All these years later, I would argue that it remains the definitive screen version of Washington Irving’s classic story (sorry, Tim Burton). Even though it’s lighter and family-friendlier than Irving’s original, the cartoon’s images and sounds are so indelible that they’ve come to represent the tale in the popular imagination.

On the face of it, Bing Crosby may seem a counterintuitive choice to tell the tale but it’s actually an inspired choice. Crosby had been a hugely popular singer since the early 1930s. Since crossing over to film, he had become a top box office draw and won an Oscar for his work in Going My Way. Thanks to his work for the USO during the war, he had essentially become the voice of America. In 1948, he topped polls as “the most admired man alive”. Who better to take you by the hand and guide you through a quintessentially American ghost story?

Of course, you don’t hire Bing Crosby just to narrate. You want him to sing, so Disney hired songwriters Don Raye and Gene de Paul to come up with three original songs, one for each of the main characters, Ichabod, Katrina and the Headless Horseman. Raye and de Paul didn’t contribute all that much to the Disney songbook. They’d written the song “It’s Whatcha Do With Whatcha Got” for So Dear To My Heart and would later come up with “Beware The Jabberwock”, an unused song from Alice In Wonderland. But they’re best known for future standards like “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. Their pop sensibilities work well here, creating three instant earworms that suit Crosby’s style perfectly.

Album cover art for Walt Disney's Ichabod by Bing Crosby

As wonderful as the music and Crosby’s narration are, it’s the animation and design that makes Sleepy Hollow so unforgettable. Co-director Jack Kinney was the main director on the Goofy shorts and you can see the same lanky, graceful awkwardness in Ichabod Crane. Brom Bones is such an ideal caricature of a rugged he-man that the studio essentially recast him some 40 years later as Gaston in Beauty And The Beast.

And then there’s the Headless Horseman, a character who gets one of the top-five best entrances in Disney history. Only Maleficent and maybe Cruella De Vil come close to topping it. Every other character is exaggerated to some extent but the Horseman is played completely straight. This isn’t some cartoon monster. This is a demon who seriously means to cut your head clean off.

The chase sequence is a masterpiece of animation. Directors Kinney and Clyde Geronimi manage to pull off the difficult trick of making the scene both funny and frightening at the same time. Humor is a vital element in horror, helping to provide a release valve for tension. Without the business between Ichabod and his horse, this sequence would be unbearably tense for most kids.

Even with it, it’s still a lot to take. I’ve talked to plenty of people who say this movie gave them nightmares and it’s hardly surprising. This chase feels completely different from, say, the police pursuit of Mr. Toad in the previous segment. Even though bullets are flying, you’re never afraid that Toad is in danger of being picked off. You don’t have that same assurance with Ichabod and the Horseman. There’s real weight behind the Horseman’s sword.

The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad was released in October of 1949, in time for Halloween. It made some money but considering the fact that the studio had been working on it in some form or another for the better part of a decade, it wasn’t enough to recover its costs. After it completed its original theatrical engagement, the film wouldn’t be seen in its original form again for decades.

Instead, as had become common practice with the package films, the two halves were split up to air separately on TV, theatrically, and eventually on video. The Wind In The Willows debuted on television first, paired with Disney’s earlier adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. Years later, it was retitled The Madcap Adventures Of Mr. Toad and released in front of the live-action comedy western Hot Lead And Cold Feet.

Sleepy Hollow had a much bigger impact on its own. Its television debut was a Halloween episode of Disneyland, for which the studio produced an introductory prologue on the life of Washington Irving. Disney has never officially released that prologue on home video but YouTube is a thing, so here it is now:

The short was released to theatres in 1963 and I can personally vouch for the fact that it became a Halloween staple of elementary school teachers throughout the 1970s and 80s. It would continue to be a part of holiday specials like Halloween Hall O’ Fame (featuring a pumpkinhead Jonathan Winters) and Disney’s Halloween Treat for years. In the early 90s, Disney finally put the original film back together on laserdisc.

VHS cover art for Disney's Halloween Treat

For too long, you could only see these films individually. Today it’s the opposite problem: whether it’s on Blu-ray or streaming, you can only access them together. Why on earth is it so difficult for Disney to give audiences BOTH options? Believe it or not, most people don’t want to make The Wind In The Willows part of their Halloween traditions. To be clear, I don’t want them to erase the original version from existence. But when a studio repurposes material as drastically as Disney has done with the segments from its various package films, the ideal presentation would include all the different variations.

Disney ended the package film years on a high note, even if that wouldn’t become fully apparent until later. At the time, I’m sure that Walt didn’t even notice. The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad had never been a priority for him. As usual, his eyes were on the future. The 1950s would be a much different decade for Walt Disney.

VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus but it’d be a Disney Double Plus if they split the segments up again.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: So Dear To My Heart

Original theatrical poster for So Dear To My Heart

Walt Disney had not moved to Hollywood to work in animation. He’d already been making cartoons for a few years back in Kansas City. If he’d wanted to continue exclusively in that field, the place to go would have been New York, home of animation pioneers Winsor McCay and the Fleischer brothers. But Walt wanted to break into live-action. The dream was deferred while he built his animation studio but it never went away.

Throughout the 1940s, live-action slowly became a larger part of the Disney operation. Most of the reason for this had been economic. It was a lot cheaper to bridge the segments in package films like The Reluctant Dragon and Fun & Fancy Free with the likes of Robert Benchley and Edgar Bergen than to create full animation. Even Song Of The South had become a hybrid film out of necessity. The cartoon sequences simply didn’t have enough meat on the bone to carry an entire feature.

So Dear To My Heart was supposed to be different. It was intended to be Walt Disney’s first entirely live-action feature. It was based on the children’s book Midnight And Jeremiah by Sterling North. The story of a young boy who raises an unwanted black lamb in turn-of-the-century Indiana clearly meant a great deal to Walt personally. He had fond memories of his childhood years on a farm outside Marceline, Missouri, right around the same time as North’s book was set. Walt only spent a few years in Marceline but they made a huge impact. So Dear To My Heart would be one of Walt’s first attempts at capturing the idealized, nostalgic Americana of his youth but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Walt hired journeyman director Harold Schuster to helm the film based on the strength of his work on the boy-and-his-horse movie My Friend Flicka. One of Walt’s major changes to North’s book also involved a horse. As a child, Walt had been a great fan of the legendary racehorse Dan Patch. Now as an adult, he saw the horse as the perfect symbol of that idyllic time in his life. So he included a brief scene where Dan Patch himself makes a brief stop in Fulton Corners, later inspiring young Jeremiah to name the black lamb Danny rather than Midnight. Sterling North must have thought these changes were pretty good. He went back and revised his book, reissuing it under the movie’s title and incorporating most of Walt’s tweaks.

The movie was shot in 1946. Young Disney contract players Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were cast as Jeremiah and Tildy. Schuster recommended veteran character actress Beulah Bondi (best known for playing James Stewart’s mother more often than anyone other than his actual mother) as Granny Kincaid. As the amiable blacksmith, Uncle Hiram, Disney cast Burl Ives, a radio personality and folksinger who had just started appearing in films.

The shoot seemed to go smoothly enough. But when Walt got a look at the assembled footage, he thought it was missing something. So he brought in his cartoon team and had them create animated segments featuring a Wise Old Owl (voiced by Ken Carson) imparting greeting-card-style life lessons to Jeremiah and a cartoon version of Danny the sheep. Adding animation delayed the film’s release until late 1948. By the time it finally came out, Harry Carey, who appears as the Head Judge at the County Fair, had been dead over a year.

Ironically, those animated sequences really don’t add all that much to the film. So Dear To My Heart is a sweet, some might say saccharine amble through a nostalgic America that never really existed. The cartoon sequences, directed by Hamilton Luske, are mostly just little detours along the way. They’re cute and nicely designed but I don’t think you’d miss them much if they weren’t there.

The one exception is a sequence I presume was intended to be a big showstopper. “Stick-To-It-Ivity” has the Owl singing about the importance of persistence, which is all well and good, using elaborately designed stories about Christopher Columbus and Robert the Bruce to illustrate his point. Setting aside any issues one might have with historical inaccuracies (which certainly wouldn’t have bothered 1948 audiences anyway), this all feels a bit out of the blue. One minute we’re in the world of county fairs and quaint train depots, the next we’re seeing an animated version of Braveheart. It doesn’t exactly fit the movie’s genteel tone.

That tone is both the movie’s greatest strength and weakness. This is a completely harmless movie, suitable for all ages. As in Song Of The South, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten make a cute pair. If anything, they’ve relaxed a bit between films. Their performances aren’t quite as Child Actorly as they were in their first movie. It’s fun to see Beulah Bondi spout old-timey expressions like “full of ginger” and “tarnation” and Burl Ives is a warm, inviting presence. Disney and Schuster wisely keep him busy singing whenever the opportunity arises.

But So Dear To My Heart is also as lightweight as a dandelion on the wind and nearly as forgettable. It recaptures that summertime feeling in the country when the days are long, the air is warm and there’s nothing to do but watch the clouds pass by. That can be an awfully pleasant feeling while you’re experiencing it. It can also be quite dull. As soon as you move on to something else, you’ve forgotten all about that lazy summer day. And that’s exactly the case here.

Theatrical re-release poster for So Dear To My Heart

So Dear To My Heart did not end up being a huge hit for Disney, though not for lack of trying on Walt’s part. As the film premiered in various cities across the Midwest in 1949, Walt went with it, making personal appearances and trying to drum up business. But it only did so-so, got a brief re-release in 1964, and has only been intermittently available on home video.

There were at least a couple of things from the film that were unqualified successes. “Lavender Blue” was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar and became Burl Ives’ first hit record. It lost (to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) which is just as well, really. Not that it’s a bad tune. Songwriters Eliot Daniel and Larry Morey adapted a centuries-old English folk ballad, which made it a perfect fit for Burl Ives. But it also means it wasn’t a particularly original “original song”.

Burl Ives’ folksy charm is so perfectly in sync with Walt Disney’s golden-hued nostalgia that it’s somewhat surprising the two didn’t work together more often. Ives would, of course, make an indelible impression as a voice actor in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer but Walt never tapped him to do a cartoon voice. He released a few albums on Disneyland Records and, in 1974, provided the voice of the animatronic Sam the Eagle (no relation to the Muppet) for America Sings at Disneyland. But Burl Ives will only show up in this column once more, in another live-action role.

The other big winner to emerge from So Dear To My Heart was young Bobby Driscoll, who was enjoying the best year of his tragically brief career. In March 1950, Bobby was presented with a special Juvenile Award at the Oscars for his work in this and the RKO film noir The Window. We’ll see Bobby in this column again soon, so let’s let him enjoy his moment of glory and save the sad stuff for another time.

Luana Patten, on the other hand, was nearing the end of her association with Disney, at least as a child star. This was her fourth appearance in a Disney film, following Song Of The South, Fun & Fancy Free and Melody Time, and it would be her last for awhile. Luana quit acting for nearly a decade after So Dear To My Heart. Her next film appearance would be as a teenager opposite Sal Mineo and John Saxon in the 1956 rock & roll picture Rock, Pretty Baby! We’ll see her back in this column as a grownup eventually.

Even if So Dear To My Heart hasn’t left a lasting impression, it’s still a key moment in Walt Disney’s development as a filmmaker. Its failure to stand on its own without cartoon sequences gave Walt a clearer idea of the challenges of live-action filmmaking. It put him one step closer to his goal of producing movies without the crutch of animation, a goal he’d be achieving very soon.

But more importantly, it marked the beginning of an aesthetic that would continue for the rest of Walt’s career. He would return to the idealized small town in the heart of America again and again. We’ll be visiting it in this column in plenty of times. But perhaps the most concrete and lasting legacy of this vision lies in Main Street, USA, the hub that welcomes visitors to Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and now Disney theme parks around the world. It’s practically the set of So Dear To My Heart brought to life, with its quaint shops, horse-drawn carriages, and railroad depot. It’s no surprise that Walt kept an apartment above the firehouse in Disneyland. He had spent his entire life trying to get back to Marceline. In the end, he simply rebuilt it in his own image.

VERDICT: This is another one where Disney Minus seems too harsh but Disney Plus seems too enthusiastic. Let’s call it Baseline Disney.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Melody Time

Original teaser poster for Melody Time

Walt Disney was unquestionably one of the most imaginative figures of the twentieth century. His expansive vision went well beyond animation, transforming feature films, television and, of course, theme parks. So when he sat down to assemble Melody Time, Disney’s fifth package film of the decade, you’d think Walt could have come up with a more interesting theme than, “Let’s just do another music one.”

On the face of it, Walt’s commitment to musically themed package films is almost quixotic. He had hoped that Fantasia would be his crowning achievement and had taken its financial and critical disappointment personally. It seems as though he almost viewed it like a warning against letting his ambitions run away with him. He played it much safer on Make Mine Music. Most of the animation was done in the more traditional, cartoony style. The music was contemporary. And most of the segments could stand on their own as individually released short subjects in case the feature version tanked.

Walt’s compromises paid off. Make Mine Music was a modest success, at a time when the studio needed all the successes it could get. With their next full-length animated feature still on the horizon, Walt needed to release something to theaters in 1948. Another hodgepodge of contemporary songs must have seemed like as good an idea as any.

But Disney’s team had already had a more interesting idea. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Casey At The Bat segment in Make Mine Music, the animators were keen to develop an entire compilation of American folk heroes, tall tales and legends. Two segments were completed: The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill. But for whatever reason, Walt decided not to pursue the idea and instead filled the rest of the film with an odd assortment of completely unrelated cartoons.

Perhaps it was Johnny Appleseed that soured Walt on the project. Performed by radio star Dennis Day, the segment mines all the excitement it can from the story of the peace-loving gardener who roamed the countryside planting apple trees. Which is to say, not much. It’s pleasant enough but it is completely bereft of dramatic conflict. Johnny walks, plants, befriends animals, walks, plants, naps, walks, plants, dies peacefully beneath a tree, then is escorted to heaven where he presumably walks, plants, and so on.

But The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed is slightly unusual for Disney in that it’s one of the most explicitly Christian projects the studio ever produced. We’re introduced to Johnny singing “The Lord’s Been Good To Me” and he carries his Bible with him everywhere. It’s hardly radical but it may have been too much for Walt, who was never a churchgoer and tried to keep religion out of his creative work.

About ten years after Melody Time, Walt’s brother Roy came to him with a potential live-action project: a religious epic called The Big Fisherman based on the life of Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter. Walt wanted nothing to do with it but Roy backed it anyway, releasing the independent production through Buena Vista. Today, The Big Fisherman remains virtually impossible to see.

At any rate, it’s possible that Johnny Appleseed‘s fairly innocuous religious content, coupled with its overall sleepy tone, helped put the kibosh on the tall tales and legends concept, at least for the time being. Disney would eventually get back to it in short form. In 1950, Casey Jones starred in The Brave Engineer. The Oscar-nominated Paul Bunyan followed in 1958. Finally in 2002, the studio got around to compiling most of these, along with the new short John Henry, in the direct-to-video package film Disney’s American Legends.

DVD cover art for Disney's American Legends

Still, it’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t have enough faith in the idea at the time, especially since the second folk tale, Pecos Bill, is easily the film’s highlight. In the live-action framing sequence, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (and Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies, of course) tell the story to young Disney contract-buckaroos Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten (reunited after Song Of The South). It’s a classic Tall Tale of the Wild West, with a pioneer boy raised by coyotes and growing up to shape the Great State of Texas alongside his trusty horse, Widowmaker.

Pecos Bill is just a breezy, fun cartoon. It’s the longest segment in Melody Time but it’s never in danger of overstaying its welcome. The animation is a treat and the music is delightful, especially the cowboy classic “Blue Shadows On The Trail”. That song is not to be confused with Randy Newman’s similar “Blue Shadows” from Three Amigos!, although I’m guessing Newman wrote his song because Disney wouldn’t let them use the original. In fact, the original title of Three Amigos! was actually The Three Caballeros. Disney probably had a thing or two to say about that, too.

The rest of the segments run the usual gamut of highs and lows. Singer Frances Langford performs the charming and nostalgic Once Upon A Wintertime. This cartoon would find a more receptive audience later after it was released on its own and included in various Christmas-themed compilations.

Bumble Boogie is a jazzed-up version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee. A presumably more traditional performance of the piece had been considered as a potential Fantasia segment a few years earlier. The music, performed by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra with Jack Fina killing it on piano, is great but the animation is disappointing. An insect that frankly doesn’t look all that much like a bumblebee has to maneuver his way through various musical backgrounds. Compared to the more ambitious abstract segments in Fantasia and even Make Mine Music, this comes across as a little pedestrian. It feels like Disney wasn’t all that interested in challenging himself anymore.

The Andrews Sisters perform the epic story of Little Toot, which is essentially the same as Pedro from Saludos Amigos but with boats instead of planes. A little tugboat who wants to be a big tugboat saves the day after he gets in a world of trouble. There isn’t much to this and it goes on a bit too long but I like the Andrews Sisters, so at least the music’s good. If you don’t like the Andrews Sisters, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Just about everyone is gonna have a bad time with Trees, in which Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians perform Joyce Kilmer’s poem set to music by Oscar Rasbach. Trees is one of the most famous poems ever written and I don’t know a single person who likes it. It’s the kind of thuddingly obvious poem that gives poetry in general a bad name. It’s one of the easiest poems to parody but Disney plays it completely straight. But the animation is certainly pretty, so if you mute your television, you might be able to appreciate it.

The penultimate segment, arriving just before Pecos Bill, is the third and final entry in the Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros saga, Blame It On The Samba. Donald Duck and José Carioca are back, along with that damn Aracuan Bird, but Panchito Pistoles sits this one out. This time, Donald and José have lost their pep until the Aracuan Bird spices things up with the samba rhythms of the Dinning Sisters and organist Ethel Smith, who appears in live-action footage.

This segment only adds to the sense that Melody Time is primarily scraps and leftovers. Any pretense of introducing audiences to authentic Latin American music is out the window. Donald and José don’t even get a chance to speak. It all feels like half an abandoned idea from The Three Caballeros that nobody bothered to flesh out.

Walt Disney’s years of penny-pinching and piecemeal package films were finally drawing to a close but he wasn’t completely done with them yet. By the early 1950s, Disney’s relationship with long-time distributor RKO was coming to an acrimonious end. Roy didn’t feel RKO was doing enough to publicize the Disney films, while RKO had problems of its own with Disney. A particular bone of contention was the series of True-Life Adventures nature documentaries, which RKO had no interest in distributing. This column will get back to those soon enough.

In 1953, Roy decided to break from RKO and created his own distribution company, Buena Vista. But the studio was on the hook to deliver one more animated feature to RKO. So in 1955, Walt re-edited a handful of segments from both Make Mine Music and Melody Time, added the bare minimum of new introductory material, and delivered Music Land to RKO.

Original theatrical release poster for Music Land

Music Land is without question the rarest of all Disney features. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits album or a clip show. After it fulfilled Walt’s contractual obligation, it was locked up in the Disney Vault, never to be heard from again. I’m not advocating for its release. You could put together a YouTube playlist and have roughly the same experience. But it’s an interesting footnote to both the musical package films and Disney’s long relationship with RKO.

In the end, Melody Time didn’t do much for Disney. It failed to find much of an audience and critics received it with a shrug and a yawn. After years of package films and odd experiments, there were plenty of people who assumed that Walt Disney had lost his touch, perhaps for good. Unfortunately, it would be another few years before he’d prove them wrong.

VERDICT: Only Once Upon A Wintertime and Pecos Bill can really be considered winners here, so it’s another Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Fun & Fancy Free

Original theatrical release poster for Fun And Fancy Free

By the time 1947 rolled around, Walt and Roy Disney’s belt-tightening was beginning to pay off. The brothers had managed to keep the studio afloat through contract work, low-budget package films and re-releases of earlier favorites like Snow White and Pinocchio. Now that he had a little bit of money coming in, Walt went back to developing more ambitious features like Cinderella. But Walt held his animated features to a high standard, which meant that Cinderella wouldn’t be ready for a few years.

So Walt and his team went back to the discard pile in search of material for more of the profitable package films. They found a pair of stories that had both been in development as potential features until World War II ground everything to a halt. The Legend Of Happy Valley was an adaptation of Jack And The Beanstalk with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy taking on the giant. It had been almost completely finished before the war put it on hold.

Walt had never been all that crazy about Happy Valley. He thought the idea was hilarious but didn’t think the story was appropriate for the characters. When work picked up on the project, Walt decided to incorporate it into a package film instead of finishing it as a feature. His first instinct was to pair it with The Wind In The Willows but since that project still had a long way to go, he had to find something else.

Bongo, about a performing circus bear who longs to return to nature, was based on a children’s story by Sinclair Lewis. It had originally been developed as a semi-sequel to Dumbo, which makes sense. Both were about performing circus animals. But as work continued, Walt’s enthusiasm for the project waned.

The two stories had virtually nothing in common apart from the fact that Walt didn’t think either one was worth finishing as a stand-alone feature. But some new linking material would solve that problem and thus, Fun & Fancy Free was born.

Even the wraparound segments are built out of leftovers. Jiminy Cricket serves as host, a role he would continue to play on TV and in educational films. He first appears singing “I’m A Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow,” a song that had been cut from Pinocchio. Jiminy attempts to strike up a conversation with a morose-looking doll and teddy bear. The cricket has always had trouble discerning between sentient and inanimate creatures. Getting no response, he opts to play a record instead, selecting Bongo as performed by Make Mine Music alumna Dinah Shore.

VHS cover art for the Walt Disney Mini Classics release of Bongo

Even though all the crossover material between Bongo and Dumbo had been dropped, it’s easy to see how the two could have connected. It’s harder to understand how Bongo ever could have worked as a stand-alone feature. It’s only about half an hour long but even at that length, it feels padded and dull.

Longtime Disney animator Jack Kinney was in charge of Bongo and it’s clear that he was trying to recapture the simple pleasures of Dumbo. But there’s a difference between “simple” and “simplistic” and Bongo falls squarely on the wrong side of the equation. Bongo escapes the circus train, struggles to fit in with the other woodland creatures, falls in love with Lulubelle and has to challenge a much larger bear called Lumpjaw. Every story beat is punctuated with its own, seemingly endless song. Even if you’re the current president of the Dinah Shore Fan Club, it’s a bit much.

Bongo wouldn’t have been a particularly memorable cartoon even edited down to Silly Symphony length. There’s a reason you won’t find any Bongo plush toys at your local Disney Store. The bear’s cute enough but he doesn’t have much personality. Considering we actually see him being mistreated by his circus handlers, it’s weird that we have almost no sympathy for him. With little reason to care about its outcome, Bongo ends up as a shrug of a cartoon, a time-filler for a particularly gloomy afternoon.

After Bongo mercifully trudges to a conclusion, Jiminy Cricket decides to snoop around the house some more. Turns out he’s in the bedroom of beloved Hollywood child star Luana Patten! Luana has been invited to a party across the street thrown by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and friends, so Jiminy heads over to check it out.

Luana Patten was not exactly a beloved Hollywood child star at this point. But Disney had signed both her and her Song Of The South co-star Bobby Driscoll to multi-year contracts. So if nothing else, he had a vested interest in giving her the appearance of a beloved Hollywood child star. We’ll see her again in this column.

Now, I suppose we could simply acknowledge that the 1940s were a simpler, more innocent time, especially at the movies. And if we did so, there would be no need to comment on the inherent weirdness of a small, unaccompanied girl attending a party thrown by a middle-aged man and two wooden puppets. But come on…at what point in human history would this have ever been considered anything other than deeply uncomfortable?

The whole thing’s even weirder if you know much about Edgar Bergen’s life and act. Bergen keeps things wholesome here but Charlie McCarthy was not exactly G-rated. He’d become a sensation trading double entendres with Mae West and W.C. Fields. At this time, Bergen was also the father of a one-year-old daughter, Candice. In her memoir, Candice Bergen revealed the strange hold Charlie McCarthy had over her childhood, feeling that the dummy was more of a child to her father than she was. When Bergen died, he left Charlie $10,000 in his will. Candice got nothing. Luana Patten was lucky she was only visiting.

Bergen regales Luana, Charlie, sensitive yokel Mortimer Snerd and party crasher Jiminy Cricket with the tale formerly known as The Legend Of Happy Valley but now titled Mickey And The Beanstalk. You know the story and have probably seen the cartoon, so I won’t bother recapping it here.

VHS cover art for the Walt Disney Mini Classics release of Mickey And The Beanstalk

Odds are you remember this as a lively, funny cartoon with some unforgettable sequences. The Mickey/Donald/Goofy trio cartoons were always highlights of Disney’s short subjects, whether they were cleaning clocks or hunting ghosts. Their rapport is as reliably entertaining as ever here.

As it happened, this would be one of the last times Walt provided Mickey’s voice. After what sounds like a rather speedy audition process, he turned the job over to sound effects man Jimmy MacDonald. Walt would say that he simply didn’t have time to do it anymore but it’s not as though the studio was producing all that many Mickey Mouse cartoons at the time. It’s more likely that years of cigarette smoking had taken a toll on his voice, making it harder to reach Mickey’s falsetto.

Willie the Giant (voiced by Billy Gilbert, who had already worked for Disney as Sneezy in Snow White) is a terrific addition to the roster of Disney supporting characters. Almost 40 years later, the studio brought him back as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. But he makes such an indelible impression here in his first appearance that it’s easy to believe he must have turned up elsewhere over the years.

Even the music is better in this half. Anita Gordon’s songs as the Singing Harp are happy without being cloying. I don’t think the residents of Happy Valley would have been so joyous if they’d had Dinah Shore singing over them all the time. Willie gets a catchy, memorable entrance song. And to this day, the promise of a large meal will get me singing, “Turkey, lobster, sweet potater pie! Pancakes piled up till they reach the sky!”

So if you have fond memories of Mickey And The Beanstalk, I completely understand. I’m also willing to bet those memories are based on seeing the cartoon by itself, after it was rescued from the morass of Fun & Fancy Free. In its original context, the cartoon’s momentum is torpedoed every few minutes by interruptions from Bergen and his dummies. In the right context, I can appreciate and even enjoy Bergen’s act. Here, it just gets in the way. It also doesn’t help that his actual ventriloquism skills had deteriorated from years performing on the radio. You can see his lips moving throughout, which only adds to the sense that nobody’s bringing their “A” game here.

Mickey And The Beanstalk proved to be the gift that keeps on giving for the studio. In the 50s, it aired as an episode of Disney’s TV series with new narration by old standby Sterling Holloway. They revisited it again in the 60s, this time with a framing sequence featuring new animation and narration by Ludwig Von Drake. It’s been released on VHS and DVD several times, frequently by itself. It has had a much more lasting impact on its own than it ever had as part of Fun & Fancy Free.

As for poor Bongo, time has not been as kind to the little circus bear. It was also released on its own and aired on television but nowhere near as often. It seems to rank somewhere near the bottom of the middle of the Disney canon. Nobody really hates it but nobody much loves it, either.

Fun & Fancy Free did fairly well at the box office, especially considering it hadn’t cost all that much to make. But critics were unimpressed and nobody seemed to mind when it disappeared from theatres and went into TV rotation. Audiences would have to wait a little longer for Disney to recapture his past magic. The package film era was not yet over.

VERDICT: If you can catch Mickey And The Beanstalk on its own, do that. It’s a Disney Plus but Fun & Fancy Free is a Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Song Of The South

Song Of The South theatrical release poster

I’ll bet some of you thought I was going to skip Song Of The South, didn’t you? If anyone who actually works at Disney reads these columns, they were probably hoping I would. Song Of The South is the studio’s not-so-secret shame, the one movie above all others they wish would just go away. Whether or not it deserves this reputation is another story and, as far as Disney is concerned, kind of beside the point. They appear to have made their corporate mind up on the subject. In the process, they’ve given the film a horrible reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve but is now impossible to live down.

Song Of The South‘s journey to the screen was almost as turbulent and controversial as its journey away from it. After the success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney went on a bit of a spending spree, buying the film rights to a wide array of properties. One of these was Uncle Remus, a collection of black oral folktales codified, collected and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, a white journalist from Atlanta. Harris himself is a fascinating and divisive figure. But since the name of this column isn’t Harris Plus-Or-Minus, you’ll have to find his story another time.

At first, Walt wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do with Uncle Remus. He considered making a series of Br’er Rabbit shorts and even a full-length animated feature. But Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner, wasn’t convinced. He thought Harris’ original stories were too slight to justify the expense of a feature film. Roy successfully lobbied for a more limited use of animation.

Since the film would now be primarily live-action, Walt decided to find someone other than his usual team of cartoon story-men to write the script. He hired a writer named Dalton Reymond who had never written a screenplay before and never would again. His primary qualification seems to be that he was from the South. He had kicked around Hollywood for a few years, serving as “technical advisor” on such Tales of the Deep South as Jezebel and The Little Foxes.

Reymond’s treatment left a lot to be desired. For one thing, it wasn’t a shooting script. For another, it went a lot farther with its language and its racial stereotyping than the Hayes Office would allow. Walt knew Reymond needed help. His first choice was Clarence Muse, the distinguished African-American actor who had made a name for himself on vaudeville and Broadway. Muse was also a writer, having co-written the film Way Down South with the poet Langston Hughes.

Muse and Reymond did not get along and Muse quit the project in frustration over Reymond’s refusal to accept his suggestions. Muse then became an outspoken opponent of the film, writing against Disney and Reymond in the black press. Walt had another take on the subject, claiming it was all just sour grapes after Muse didn’t land the role of Uncle Remus. Whatever the case, Muse apparently got over it enough to appear in a couple of other Disney productions later in life.

After Muse’s departure, Walt hired screenwriter Maurice Rapf, a Jewish, pro-union liberal and card-carrying Communist, to help temper Reymond’s white southern sensibilities. The notoriously anti-union, anti-Communist Disney and Rapf sound like strange bedfellows but according to Rapf’s autobiography, they got along quite well.

After Reymond inevitably had another blow-up, Walt took Rapf off the project and assigned him to work on another feature in development, Cinderella. Unfortunately, Rapf was never credited for his work on that film. By the time Cinderella was released, his career was essentially over thanks to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. The screenplay for Uncle Remus, which would soon be retitled Song Of The South, was completed by journeyman screenwriter Morton Grant.

Disney considered several actors as Remus (including Paul Robeson, which is wild to think about) before settling on James Baskett, who had actually answered an ad looking for voice talent. Baskett also came out of the Broadway scene where he had appeared alongside the likes of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Louis Armstrong.

In Song Of The South, he gives the kind of instantly iconic performance that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. It’s a warm, folksy, magnetic appearance. It would also be his last. In 1948, James Baskett died of heart failure due to diabetes. He was just 44 years old.

Roy Disney had hoped that switching to live-action would help keep the costs of the film down. But so far, the studio had very little experience with live-action. Most everything they had shot was either limited to a soundstage (as in the musical performances in Fantasia and the documentary sequences of Victory Through Air Power) or just strolling around the Burbank lot (The Reluctant Dragon). This was their first time shooting on location, building period costumes and assembling a large cast of actors, so it was hardly a surprise when the project went over-budget.

But Disney was aware that audiences had been disappointed by the lack of animation in features like The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos. This time, he decided to get ahead of any possible complaints by playing up the live-action aspect in some of the initial advertising for the film. This original poster makes the movie look more like Gone With The Wind than any Disney movie to date.

Original 1946 theatrical release poster for Song Of The South

In the end, Walt contented himself with just three main animated sequences, less than half an hour of the 94 minute film. A few of these fully incorporate Uncle Remus into the animated world. Baskett’s entrance into that world at the beginning of the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” number is a great, unforgettable movie moment.

The mix of animation and live-action in Song Of The South is a huge step forward from what Disney had accomplished just a few years earlier in The Three Caballeros. MGM had already advanced the state-of-the-art by having Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh. For my money, the work in Song Of The South is even more impressive. One of the best examples finds Uncle Remus sitting down for a spot of fishing next to Br’er Frog. Bassett strikes a match, lights Br’er Frog’s pipe, then lights his own with the cartoon flame, and puffs out square animated smoke rings. The level of subtle detail in this simple action is extraordinary.

Of the three animated sequences, the most controversial is certainly the Tar Baby. For those of you who don’t know the story, Br’er Fox crafts a vaguely humanoid looking creature out of tar in an attempt to capture the gregarious Br’er Rabbit. Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit gets annoyed that the Tar Baby doesn’t respond to his friendly greetings and gets stuck. The more he struggles, the more stuck he gets. He frees himself by pleading with Br’er Fox not to throw him into the treacherous Briar Patch. Sadist that he is, Br’er Fox hurls him in, only to realize too late that Br’er Rabbit lives there. As fables go, it’s a pretty good one.

The problem is that the term “tar baby” has come to be used and taken as a racial slur. How this happened is absolutely beyond me. The story has roots in African folklore, specifically in stories of the trickster god Anansi. But at a certain point, “tar baby” came to be considered offensive mainly because it feels like it should be offensive. But there’s absolutely nothing racist or offensive about the actual Tar Baby story. Disney’s Tar Baby can’t even be considered a racial caricature. There are plenty of offensive African-American caricatures throughout animation and the Tar Baby shares none of their characteristics. But today, the expression is offensive because ignorant people decided to weaponize the phrase and people who should have known better didn’t fight to keep it.

1970s re-release poster for Song Of The South featuring the Tar Baby

In a way, this is the problem with Song Of The South in general. On the surface, it feels like it might be kind of racist. Therefore, it must be because digging any deeper might expose a minefield and nobody at Disney wants to deal with that. They aren’t in the business of building conversations. Their entire reputation is built around escapist fantasy. Anything that challenges that is considered taboo, even if the cause turns out to be relatively benign.

For example, take the songs performed by the plantation workers, all versions of traditionally African-American music from the Deep South. There’s the call-and-response of “That’s What Uncle Remus Said”, there’s “Let The Rain Pour Down” (based on the blues classic “Midnight Special”), and there’s a spiritual (“All I Want”). Every time I’ve seen this film, I’ve thought that these are some of the most white-bread, Lawrence-Welk-style versions of black music I’ve ever heard.

Imagine my surprise to discover that these songs were performed by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Hall Johnson himself was one of the most renowned arrangers of African-American spirituals in the world and an early inductee into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. By assuming these songs were performed by a white chorus, I was displaying my own ignorance and buying into a stereotypical idea of what “black music” should sound like. Be that as it may, it should also be pointed out that most if not all of the music was written by white songwriters. These songs could have been made a lot more authentic simply by hiring black musicians to write them.

At worst, Song Of The South is guilty of sending mixed messages and a lot of that is Walt Disney’s fault. To his credit, he was aware of how delicate this subject matter was, even in the pre-Civil Rights era, and clearly did not want to make a movie with an explicitly racist agenda. Granted, that’s a super low bar to set for yourself but still. The problem is that Walt was a lot more afraid of offending white Southern audiences than he was of what African-Americans might think.

Because of this, a lot of material that would have helped put the movie in context was dropped. For instance, it’s never explicitly stated when it even takes place, which has led a lot of people to assume that the plantation workers are slaves. They’re not. They’re sharecroppers. Song Of The South takes place during the Reconstruction Era after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War but the audience is left to figure that out for itself.

At one point, Uncle Remus leaves the plantation entirely. Eventually we come to realize that he went to Atlanta to bring back little Johnny’s absent father (more on this guy in a minute). The movie wants to build suspense and make us think he’s leaving for good and that something might happen to him. From a dramatic perspective, that makes sense. But if the filmmakers left in dialogue about Remus being a “free man”, able to come and go when he pleases, the intent would be clearer and Uncle Remus would come across as a stronger, more independent character.

The entire set-up of Song Of The South is unnecessarily shrouded in mystery. As the film begins, young Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, who will be back in this column several times) arrives at his grandmother’s plantation with his parents for what he assumes will be a short vacation. But something’s up between mom (Ruth Warrick) and dad (Erik Rolf). There’s tension between them and it turns out that they’ll be separating. Dad’s going back to Atlanta while Johnny and his mother stay with Grandmother (Lucile Watson) and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel).

Now, because the tension between the parents is so palpable and no other real reason for it is offered, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Father is going off to war. You need to pay attention to the opening dialogue to realize that John Senior is a newspaper editor in Atlanta and apparently the center of some controversy. Since Uncle Remus creator Joel Chandler Harris worked as an associate editor under Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution during the time the movie is set, it’s probably fair to assume that John Senior is based somewhat on one or both of them. Both Harris and Grady supported a vision of the “New South”, stressing industrialization and reconciliation. Of course in real life, their politics were more complicated. But for a Disney-fied version of the New South, sure…John Senior was a unifier. Not that you would know any of that from the information supplied by the film itself.

Song Of The South does itself no favors by playing coy with this material but there are some problems that are built in to the film itself. Uncle Remus is basically the template for every Magical Negro character that followed. With his ability to converse to cartoon animals, he is literally magical. But is that this movie’s fault? Or is it the fault of all the other filmmakers and storytellers who later decided to pick up the ball and run with it? Stereotypes don’t become stereotypes without repetition and the first example is rarely the worst.

Song Of The South‘s depiction of African-American stories and characters absolutely received some criticism at the time of its release from both black and white critics. Protests were organized by the National Negro Congress, while the NAACP expressed its frustration that such a technically well-made picture could incorporate so many objectionable elements. But the movie also had its champions on both sides. Herman Hill, writing in the respected black paper The Pittsburgh Courier, said that the movie would “prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations”. His response to the movie’s critics was essentially, “Lighten up.”

Perhaps what’s most objectionable about Disney’s treatment of Song Of The South is their apparent desire to pick and choose what elements of the movie they want to acknowledge. The Oscar-winning song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is still an integral part of the Disney Songbook. It has never not been included on one of their many compilation albums. It’s still used on Splash Mountain in the Disney theme parks, as are Br’er Rabbit and the rest. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been even a suggestion that the ride needs to be redesigned.

Also lost in Disney’s rush to disown the film is the fact that James Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award for it, becoming the first black male performer to win an Oscar. Walt Disney personally campaigned for the award, although why it was an honorary award instead of just a regular nomination for Best Actor, I’m not quite sure. The Academy certainly had a history of singling people out for individual achievements that didn’t fit their conception of what movies are supposed to be like. Regardless, Baskett’s untimely death prevented him from capitalizing on his win during his lifetime. Disney’s subsequent treatment of the film prevents his legacy from being celebrated or even acknowledged.

1980s theatrical re-release poster for Song Of The South

Even with the controversy, Song Of The South proved to be a sizable hit for Disney and not just in 1946. I’m old enough to remember seeing it during its re-release runs in the 1970s and 80s. It was back in theatres as recently as 1986, when it brought in over $17 million in basically free money for the studio.

The truth is that Disney’s moratorium on Song Of The South is entirely self-imposed. Nobody has actually banned the movie. Disney is simply afraid of how the film might be perceived by modern audiences and can’t be bothered to put it in any sort of context that would help explain it. Whoopi Goldberg, for one, has urged the studio to release the film in an edition with supplementary features for context. Ironically, one of the voices who argued stridently against the film ever being seen again was America’s disgraced former dad, Bill Cosby.

No one is going to argue that Song Of The South doesn’t have a complicated legacy. It is in no way a perfect film. Walt Disney could have done any number of things differently that would have made it better. But pretending it doesn’t exist does a disservice to both the filmmakers and their work. With no evidence to the contrary, an entire generation has grown up believing that Walt Disney was nothing short of a white supremacist who made an animated Birth Of A Nation. Walt’s politics and beliefs may not have entirely lined up with mine or yours but it’s unfair to characterize him in such a negative light.

For the animators and effects team, Song Of The South represented some of their very best work of the 1940s. The combination of live-action and animation is stunning. It wouldn’t be topped until Who Framed Roger Rabbit came along nearly 40 years later. This work deserves to be restored and seen by an appreciative audience.

Perhaps the biggest loser in all this is James Baskett. He’s a tremendous screen presence. It’s unfortunate that he never became a bigger star. It’s a tragedy that his most iconic performance has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over racial representation on screen. It’s a conversation that’s almost impossible to have when you can’t see what exactly you’re arguing over.

In a way, I think Disney even realizes that Song Of The South deserves to be seen. They just don’t want to be the ones who let you see it. It’s very, very easy to find bootleg DVDs, typically sourced from a Japanese laserdisc release, on eBay or other online sources. Disney has a long reach. If they wanted to, they could shut these unofficial operators down in a snap. The fact that they haven’t suggests to me that the studio doesn’t want to get rid of the movie altogether. They’ve just thrown it into the Briar Patch. Like Br’er Rabbit, you’re welcome to jump in after it.

VERDICT: It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. But in the end, the good outweighs the bad. Disney Plus.

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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.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Three Caballeros

The Three Caballeros original theatrical release poster

The war years were proving to be some of the hardest times Walt Disney had faced to date. His staff had been reduced, thanks to both an acrimonious labor strike and from men going off to fight overseas. The lucrative European markets had been closed off to him for years. The company was barely getting by on the strength of its contract work. Disney needed cash but he didn’t have a project ready to go. And even if he had, he didn’t have enough theaters to screen it.

But the government-sponsored goodwill tour of Latin America had opened up a new market for Disney’s work. Saludos Amigos had been a surprise hit, not just in America but south of the border as well. Since it was less than an hour long, Disney still had plenty of leftover live-action footage from the tour. He also had a couple of unfinished cartoon ideas that he could dust off. Walt padded this skeletal framework by focusing on Donald Duck, whose sequences had been the most popular parts of Saludos Amigos, and lo and behold, Disney’s first sorta-kinda sequel was born.

If Saludos Amigos seems like an unusual candidate for a sequel, The Three Caballeros itself is a most unusual sequel. This is one of the strangest movies Walt Disney ever produced. There’s a lot to unpack here, so you may want to get comfortable.

Unlike Saludos Amigos, which presented itself as a fairly straightforward travelogue, The Three Caballeros goes to the trouble of establishing a framing device excuse for its various bits and pieces. Donald’s birthday is coming up (on Friday the 13th…not that anything comes of the bad luck association) and his new friends from Latin America have sent him a bunch of presents! He excitedly tears into the first package and finds a projector and some “home movies”. This flimsy excuse provides the set-up for practically the entire first third of the movie.

These first segments all revolve around a rough theme: “Birds of South America”. First, “Professor” Sterling Holloway, already well on his way to becoming a Disney favorite, introduces us to Pablo, a little penguin who can’t stand the cold. So he contrives a way to leave Antarctica and settle on a tropical island. That’s it. The end. There’s no real story to speak of and the gags are pretty basic but at least the penguins are cute.

Donald’s next movie is all about rare and unique South American birds, including the most unusual of them all, the Aracuan Bird. The Aracuan Bird, who continues to pop up throughout the picture, has more in common with the dodo from the classic Looney Tunes short Porky In Wackyland than with any Disney character. The Aracuan Bird breaks multiple fourth walls, jumping out of Donald’s movie to introduce himself and later strolling right off the edge of the frame of our movie. The appearance of the Aracuan Bird is your first clue that this is not going to be your typical Disney movie.

In the third segment, Fred Shields, another familiar Disney voice thanks to Goofy’s How-To shorts, tells the story of a little boy in Uruguay and his winged, flying donkey, Burrito. They enter a horse race, which they manage to win despite some initial hiccups. The segment ends on an odd, ambiguous note when Burrito flies away, with the little Gauchito dangling from the leash, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cartoon was cut from Saludos Amigos because they couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion. They still couldn’t but I guess it didn’t matter so much anymore.

Donald’s second present is a pop-up book about Brazil sent by, and actually containing, his old amigo, José Carioca. Continuing his work as spokes-parrot for the Brazil Tourism Board, José is here to extol the many pleasures of Bahia (misspelled “Baia” in the film…whoops). The first part of this segment is actually one of the most tranquil and lovely sequences in the movie with a beautiful color palette and a great song. It’s a welcome moment of calm and serenity before the chaos to come.

After repeatedly asking Donald if he’s ever been to Bahia (he has not), José shrinks Donald down and brings him into the world of the pop-up book. After a quick train ride (which is almost derailed by that pesky Aracuan Bird), they arrive in Bahia. Donald immediately falls head over heels in love with a cookie seller played by Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s younger sister.

Yes, some 40 years before the arrival of Howard The Duck, Disney was a pioneer in the field of interspecies romance. Much of the movie’s second half revolves around Donald’s insatiable attraction to human women. There’s nothing remotely subtle about it but I guess you can’t blame a sailor on vacation for wanting to get lucky on his birthday.

Apart from the weird sexual tension between Donald and Aurora Miranda, the Bahia samba sequence is notable for its pioneering mix of live-action and animation. The technology was still developing but there’s something charming about the lo-fi version on display here. For the long shots, they simply projected the finished animation onto a screen and had Miranda dance in front of it. The illusion is far from seamless but it works.

After returning from Bahia, Donald has one present left to open. It contains the third caballero, Panchito Pistoles from Mexico. Panchito bursts into the movie with a rousing rendition of the title song before sharing a piñata and a Mexican Christmas tale called Las Posadas. This is the only Christmassy thing about The Three Caballeros but it was enough for Walt to later justify airing an edited version of the movie on his Disneyland TV series as A Present For Donald. All he had to do was switch the occasion from Donald’s birthday to Christmas and poof! Instant Christmas special.

Title card for the Disneyland episode A Present For Donald

Panchito’s magic serape then whisks the Caballeros off for an aerial tour of live-action Mexico, with special attention paid to its beaches and their lovely señoritas. Donald’s sexual frustration nears its peak here, so when Dora Luz appears singing “You Belong To My Heart,” it’s little wonder than he’s instantly smitten.

Donald’s obsession with Dora Luz takes us into the film’s madcap climax, Donald’s Surreal Reverie. The Disney animators really go for broke here. If some Disney Archivist discovered a missing scene that has Panchito, José and Donald heading into the Mexican desert to drop peyote, it would go a long way toward explaining this non-stop barrage of music, sound, color and visual trickery. There’s some genuinely cutting-edge work here, especially in the combination of animation with live-action. As a technical achievement and as a creative exercise, it’s all very impressive. As an entertainment, it’s more than a little exhausting.

Like all of Disney’s package films, The Three Caballeros is a mixed bag. The various segments sit uncomfortably alongside one another. The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito both play better on their own, which they did when they were re-released as individual short subjects a few years later. And while the character and effects animation are both up to Disney’s usual standards, Walt decided to save money on the backgrounds by essentially eliminating them entirely. Donald opens his presents in a formless void against bright, solid colors. After the lush backgrounds of Bambi, Pinocchio and others, The Three Caballeros feels like a low-rent, no-frills affair.

But the movie’s biggest problem is simply that it’s relentless. It wants to show you a good time so badly that it doesn’t know when to let up. Animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery were a lot better at pulling off this kind of sustained wackiness than anybody on the Disney lot. And they were smart enough to realize that audiences couldn’t really take much more than seven minutes of it. The Three Caballeros just won’t quit. It’ll pause occasionally to catch its breath but then it goes right back into the crazy. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Just calm down, Caballeros.

The Three Caballeros did OK business when it was released in February of 1945 (it had premiered in Mexico City the previous December). It received nominations in Disney’s usual Oscar categories (Best Sound and Best Original Score) but it didn’t win anything. Almost none of the songs were completely original compositions, so it failed to grab an Original Song nomination. Even the memorable title song was based on a popular Mexican ranchera song. Only the lyrics by Ray Gilbert were new and they had nothing whatsoever to do with the original words.

But The Three Caballeros proved less popular than Saludos Amigos, which probably explains why the Caballeros didn’t ride again for many years. José Carioca will make one last appearance in this column before long and both he and Panchito Pistoles went on to appear in Disney comics. But the trio effectively disbanded after their maiden adventure until the 21st century.

Recently, Disney has taken to using the Caballeros in shows like House Of Mouse and the current incarnation of DuckTales. In 2007, Disney opened the Gran Fiesta Tour ride at Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion and in 2008, they were added to the refurbished It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland. And in 2018, José, Panchito and Donald finally got their own show, Legend Of The Three Caballeros.

It makes complete sense that Disney would want to revitalize the Caballeros. With the Latino market more important than ever, why on Earth wouldn’t they? It’s not like they have an overabundance of minority characters. José has always remained popular in Brazil. And as a representative of Mexico, you could do a lot worse than Panchito. Just ask Speedy Gonzales.

But the Disney studio has always been hesitant to engage with The Three Caballeros. Its only theatrical reissue was a badly hacked-up version back in the 1970s. They haven’t exactly tried to hide it, like some movies I could mention, but it has never been a priority.

I suspect the reason for this has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity and everything to do with how utterly strange this movie is. In many ways, it’s Disney’s most off-brand release, a madcap, hyper-sexualized romp with nothing on its mind other than fun. That is both its greatest strength and weakness. The Three Caballeros provides a unique, exhilarating rush but it’s really easy to overdose on its manic energy. Use only as directed.

VERDICT: Any Disney movie that leaves you wondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” must be considered some kind of success, so Disney Plus but only just.