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: 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: The Reluctant Dragon

All was not well in the Magic Kingdom in 1941. Just a few years earlier, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs had been a worldwide phenomenon. Its success had enabled Walt Disney to break ground on a new multi-acre studio in Burbank, a big step up from his old Hyperion Avenue studio in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. The Burbank lot officially opened in February of 1940, right around the same time that Disney’s second animated feature, Pinocchio, premiered.

Unfortunately, Pinocchio underperformed at the box office, leading to a million dollar loss for the studio. Its follow-up, Fantasia, premiered in November. By spring of 1941, it was on track to do even worse business than Pinocchio.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Walt was also facing dissent among his animators who were demanding that the studio be unionized. Disney was having none of that. In a speech to his employees in February of 1941, he essentially dismissed the pro-union faction as a bunch of grumbling whiners. Needless to say, this did not go over well. The next thing Walt knew, he had a full-fledged strike on his hands.

This could not have come at a worse time. The studio was hemorrhaging money and the strike effectively shut down production of Disney’s next planned feature, Dumbo. If the studio was going to survive, Walt needed to get something into theaters. So he made a movie showcasing the biggest asset he had on hand: his shiny new studio in Burbank.

The Reluctant Dragon is, by any definition, a strange film. The movie opens on what is presumably a typical day for noted humorist and occasional actor Robert Benchley (appearing as himself). Mrs. Benchley (played by character actress Nana Bryant, not the actual Mrs. Benchley) reads aloud from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Reluctant Dragon, while Robert lounges in the pool shooting darts at duck decoys. Mrs. Benchley is convinced that the story would make a great Walt Disney film. So she hectors her husband into dropping by the lot unannounced to somehow sell Walt the movie rights to this book (that, again, he did not write and presumably does not have any controlling interest in).

Once there, Robert is assigned a security guard escort named Humphrey (Buddy Pepper), an annoying little Poindexter who rattles off facts and data about the lot straight from the Disney Investors’ Prospectus. Robert understandably wants to shake Humphrey and, somewhat less understandably, avoid meeting Walt (perhaps to avoid being sued by the Kenneth Grahame estate), so he ducks into various rooms at random and ends up getting a lesson (more or less) in how cartoons get made.

As a documentary, The Reluctant Dragon is of dubious value. If you knew absolutely nothing about animation going into it, you would perhaps know slightly more than nothing coming out. Most of the Disney “employees” we meet are actors, including Alan Ladd as a story man who pitches Baby Weems to Benchley, Frank Faylen (who you’ll no doubt recognize as Ernie from It’s A Wonderful Life) as an orchestra leader, and Frances Gifford as Doris. We first meet Doris providing vocal effects for Casey Junior (soon to appear in Dumbo) and she ends up acting as a more attractive tour guide for Benchley but it’s never all that clear what her actual job is supposed to be.

Now as a Disney fan, some of these sequences are a lot of fun. We get to meet Clarence Nash and Florence Gill, the voices of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck. We get to see foley effects made, including the cool sonovox used by Doris. We get to see the massive multi-plane camera, the maquette department and a gorgeous Technicolor tour of the ink-and-paint department. And with the benefit of hindsight, we realize that 1941 audiences were treated to quite the preview of coming attractions. There are glimpses of Dumbo, Bambi and, if you’re really paying attention in the maquette department, models from such future films as Peter Pan and Lady And The Tramp.

But for anyone expecting a worthy successor to Disney’s first three films, this hodgepodge of animated scraps and live-action tour certainly wasn’t it. In 1941, the name Walt Disney was even more synonymous with animation than it is today and there is precious little animation to be found, including a few seconds of Donald Duck here and a few seconds of Bambi there. All told, there are four major animated sequences. The first is the black-and-white glimpse of Casey Junior, which is intercut with live-action looks at the sound effects team in action. The rest come one after the other at the tail end of the film and one of those isn’t even fully animated.

That would be the aforementioned Baby Weems sequence, told in the form of a stylized animatic. Even if this had been fleshed out, it isn’t much of a cartoon. It’s about a genius baby who becomes a worldwide sensation, gets sick, then reverts to being a normal baby after he recovers. As a means to recycle some rejected storyboards, it’s certainly cost-effective but that’s about the best you can say about it.

The next sequence, Goofy starring in How To Ride A Horse, is one of the film’s highlights. This was actually the first of Goofy’s long-running How-To shorts that would find our intrepid hero mastering everything from skiing (“pronounced shee-ing”) to hooking up a home theatre. These were some of the funniest cartoons Disney ever produced and the formula is established from the get-go here. And for Disney aficionados, it’s nice to see the animators in this sequence portrayed by actual animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson.

Finally, Benchley arrives at the Disney screening room where he comes face-to-face with Walt himself and watches his latest cartoon: The Reluctant Dragon. (I guess the fact that Walt has already made the movie Benchley wanted to sell him is meant to be a punchline of sorts but I couldn’t tell you what the joke’s supposed to be.) This is a pleasant little two-reeler about a boy who befriends a gentle, poetry-loving dragon. When the eccentric knight Sir Giles rides into town, the boy tries to arrange a battle between the two, only to discover that Sir Giles is a bit of a poet himself. So a mock battle is arranged, Sir Giles emerges triumphant and the dragon’s fearsome reputation is rehabilitated.

Kenneth Grahame’s original story works on a number of different levels but Disney seems content with just a surface reading. It’s silly, breezy fun but nothing more. Disney had proven himself capable of much more than this and not just in his features. He’d made Silly Symphonies and other short films with more ambition than is on display here. This feels exactly like the placeholder it was.

The Reluctant Dragon was hardly a blockbuster but it accomplished what it was designed to do: it turned a modest profit. Walt Disney did eventually (and begrudgingly) sign a union contract, ending the strike and getting the studio back to work. But the strike came at a heavy cost. Many of Disney’s best animators left the studio, some temporarily, others forever. Some went to MGM, others went to Warner Bros. A handful, including David Hilberman, Stephen Bosustow and John Hubley, struck out on their own, forming United Productions of America (UPA), a studio that would have a profound effect on animation in the 1940s and 50s.

This was also an important film in the burgeoning cult of personality that was beginning to surround Disney and persists to this day. Seriously, who else besides Walt Disney would even consider releasing a movie like this? The “peek-behind-the-curtain” premise is really just an excuse to show off the new Burbank digs. That’s a premise Walt would return to in the 1950s with the opening of Disneyland, both the theme park and the TV show of the same name.

More importantly, The Reluctant Dragon and its all-access tour of the Burbank studio sows the seeds that will eventually blossom into Disneyland’s moniker, “The Happiest Place on Earth”. Life on the Disney lot looks like a dream job. It’s unstructured, free-wheeling, and open to all. You don’t even need an appointment to get a meeting with Walt himself. Everyone who works on the lot is happy, smiling, and eager to stop whatever they’re doing and show off their work. It’s a magical place full of music and laughter where no one would ever even consider grabbing a picket sign and going on strike.

Of course, real life is a lot messier than a Disney movie, which is exactly why Walt went to such pains to ensure that his movies had as little to do with real life as possible. The Reluctant Dragon couldn’t make all of Disney’s problems go away. His real employees were still on strike and his studio still badly needed money. But it could hide them for a little while and make the rest of the world believe that Disney’s land was the happiest studio on Earth.

VERDICT: A split decision. For hardcore Disney buffs, it’s a Disney Plus. For the more casual fan, it’s a Disney Minus.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Pinocchio

After the phenomenal success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, a dream project that had taken years to bring to the screen, Walt Disney wasn’t entirely sure what to do for an encore. Snow White had been a meticulous demonstration of the capabilities of feature-length animation. For his next trick, Walt knew he had to push the envelope even further.

In spring of 1937, about 8 months before the premiere of Snow White, Walt bought the rights to Felix Salten’s novel Bambi, A Life In The Woods, intending it to be the studio’s second animated feature. A few months later, animator Norm Ferguson brought in a copy of the Italian children’s book The Adventures Of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Walt immediately saw its possibilities and put Pinocchio in line to become Movie #3.

But by 1938, the team had run into trouble with Bambi. The challenge of animating realistic deer had proven to be more difficult than anticipated. So Walt switched things up and moved Pinocchio to the head of the line.

In many ways, Disney simply stuck with what worked about Snow White. Both are based on classic works of children’s literature. Indeed, both films start with the literal opening of a book, a bit of cinematic shorthand for “based on a classic story” that the studio and countless other filmmakers still use to this day.

But there are some key differences in the source material. Snow White was based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Their version dated back about a century or so and different variations of the Snow White story had been around before the Grimms codified it. Pinocchio was based on an Italian novel that had originally been serialized in a children’s magazine beginning in 1881. Those stories were collected in 1883 and first translated into English in 1892. With astounding speed, it became one of the most translated and beloved children’s books of all time. So even though Pinocchio may have seemed like a tale as old as time (to borrow a phrase from a much later Disney fairy tale), it had really only been around for about 50 years.

The episodic nature of Collodi’s book leant itself to Disney’s gag-focused style of storytelling. But some of the darker elements of the book would need to be cut or changed to suit Walt’s taste.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Pinocchio is their favorite Disney movie. I’ve also known people who absolutely hated it as a child. More often than not, both of these groups cite the exact same reason for either loving or hating it: it’s too scary. Well, it’s nothing compared to Collodi’s book. In the original, Pinocchio is a horrible little brat and compulsive liar who immediately starts kicking Geppetto the second the old woodcarver finishes giving him feet. The book does have a talking cricket who tries to give Pinocchio some advice but the puppet kills it with a hammer. Talk about a grim fairy tale.

Disney’s first order of business was to make Pinocchio himself more likable. He softened and humanized the design of the character considerably. It’s a testament to the animators’ talent that you can even tell the difference when Pinocchio does eventually turn into a real boy. Apart from his exposed wooden arms and legs, his dominant feature is his head, with its expressive face and floppy shock of black hair. It’s very easy to forget that Pinocchio is a puppet.

Another key to that illusion is the casting of young Dickie Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. Jones would have been around 11 or 12 when he recorded the part, which I believe would have made this one of the first times an actual child provided the voice of an animated child. (There might be others…don’t @ me about this.) The other main juvenile role, the ill-fated Lampwick, was voiced by Frankie Darro, who was 10 years older than Dickie Jones.

Disney’s other brilliant idea was promoting the dead cricket to co-star status. Jiminy Cricket (voiced by popular singer/actor Cliff Edwards) became the prototype for a long line of Disney supporting characters voiced by celebrities. He starts the movie singing “When You Wish Upon A Star,” then breaks the fourth wall and comments on it (“Pretty, huh?”). He’s quick with a snappy comeback or an aside and speaks a modern American dialect. It is not a big leap to get from Jiminy Cricket to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Jiminy Cricket also became one of the few characters introduced in a feature that became a full-fledged, stand-alone star in his own right. Sure, Disney is happy to keep their characters active through little cameos and appearances in comics, games and merchandising. But Jiminy Cricket was able to join the Disney pantheon alongside such icons as Mickey, Donald and Goofy. His cheery, home-spun demeanor made him an ideal host for educational films and TV specials throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Dickie Jones and Cliff Edwards make a terrific pair as Pinocchio and Jiminy. Together, they provide a real feeling of innocence and optimism, which certainly helps the movie stay warm and inviting even when things get dark. And let’s face it, Pinocchio gets pretty darn dark even with Collodi’s sharpest edges filed down.

It’s clear from the get-go that characters like Honest John (a.k.a. J. Worthington Foulfellow), Gideon and the puppet-master Stromboli are up to no good. But it isn’t clear just how bad things are going to get until Stromboli tosses Pinocchio into a birdcage as Geppetto braves a torrential rainstorm to track him down. It’s right around the time the Blue Fairy demonstrates that lying causes Pinocchio’s nose to grow (something that only happens once in the movie, despite how indelible that image has become) that the movie really crosses over into nightmare territory.

Pinocchio’s next stop is Pleasure Island, where the sinister Coachman rounds up disobedient little boys, offers them every hedonistic delight a prepubescent mind could imagine, then sells them into slavery once they’ve made literal jackasses of themselves. This sequence alone is probably responsible for countless bad dreams. Pleasure Island itself is like a cross between Atlantic City, Coney Island and Thunderdome: one of the “attractions” is just a big tent where everybody beats each other up. And Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey is genuinely disturbing. A lot of it happens in shadow but you actually see his hands transform into hooves. No other movie, animated or live action, would come close to an effect like that for decades.

But I think one of the biggest reasons that the Pleasure Island sequence had such a big impact on kids is that it remains unresolved. Lampwick and the rest of the kids are not rescued. Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio consider themselves lucky to escape with their own lives. Of all the little details in Pinocchio that I think would be changed if Disney made this movie today (including all the smoking, drinking and the weird sexual tension between the obviously underage Pinocchio and the various female puppets during the “I’ve Got No Strings” number), this is one that stands out the most. Today’s play-it-safe filmmaking by committee would demand that Jiminy and Pinocchio go back to rescue those kids. It’d probably derail the rest of the movie but they’d still try to shoehorn it in somehow.

All of this brings us to Monstro the whale. If Pleasure Island didn’t give you nightmares as a kid, Monstro probably did. Monstro lives up to his name. He looks completely unlike any other character in the Disney canon. He looks less like a character and more like a background painting come to life. Monstro is a force of nature that dominates the screen. And the final showdown with Monstro offers some of the most stunning effects animation ever produced, every frame of which was produced by hand. It’s simply breathtaking.

To this day, Pinocchio remains a high-water mark for hand-drawn animation. Every single frame is rich with extraordinary detail, whether it’s Geppetto’s workshop, Pleasure Island or the belly of the whale. And the Disney animators took everything they learned from Snow White and kicked it to the next level. The characters are a fluid, seamless blend of realistic humans (ironically, the Blue Fairy is the most realistic character in the film), slightly caricatured figures (Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman), anthropomorphized animals (Jiminy Cricket and Honest John), regular animals (Cleo, Figaro and Monstro), and puppets, both living and otherwise. Somehow, this odd mix works. You never question why a fox and a cat are walking around, dressed in people-clothes and making shady deals with humans. The animators give each character weight and personality that establishes their place in this fantastic world.

Pinocchio would also make history as the first animated feature to win competitive Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. These days, Disney wins one or both of those categories more often than not but back then, it was very much the exception, not the rule. “When You Wish Upon A Star” was an instant classic that soon became the official theme of Walt Disney Studios. Today you hear it every time you watch a Disney movie.

Creatively, Pinocchio was a home run, at least as good if not better than Snow White. Financially, it was another story. Pinocchio had cost twice as much as Snow White but it didn’t come close to matching its spectacular box office success. At least part of this was due to the fact that European and Asian markets were closed off thanks to the outbreak of World War II. But even taking that into account, Pinocchio was a huge disappointment for both the studio and for Walt Disney personally.

Today, of course, Pinocchio is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Some even consider it to be Disney’s crowning achievement. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. It’d be kind of depressing to think that it’s all downhill from here when I’m only two columns in to this project. But Pinocchio has more than earned its reputation as one of the finest animated features of all time. It’s funny, touching, scary, dazzling to look at and impossible to forget.

VERDICT: Disney Plus