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.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Dumbo

Original 1941 poster for Walt Disney's Dumbo.

Any retrospective project like this one runs the risk of viewing history as a straight line subject to cause-and-effect. First this happened, then this happened and so on and so forth. But history itself is rarely that neat and the nature of animation production emphasizes that fact.

After Snow White, many of Disney’s next films were all in various stages of production at the same time. Movies like Pinocchio and Bambi took years to make. Some of the films Disney was actively developing around this time, including Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland, wouldn’t come out for another decade or more.

Dumbo was a bit of an exception to the rule. The original story by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl was published in 1939 as a book/toy hybrid called a “Roll-A-Book”. Disney bought the rights almost immediately and story artists Dick Huemer and Joe Grant began developing it into a film in January of 1940. By the time it was ready to go into production, the studio was already losing money on Pinocchio and Fantasia.

Because of those losses, Disney badly needed a hit. If Dumbo was going to be made at all, it would have to be done quickly and economically. The film went into production in late 1940 or early 1941. And even with work interrupted by an animators’ strike in May, the movie was finished and released to theaters in October of 1941. Even by today’s standards, that’s a quick turnaround for an animated feature.

Of course, it helps that Dumbo barely qualifies as a feature. Clocking in at a brisk 64 minutes, it’s easily Disney’s shortest film. At the time, movies of that length weren’t exactly uncommon but they were usually B-pictures or cheapies turned out by such Poverty Row studios as Monogram or Republic. RKO, Disney’s distributor and a studio that knew a thing or two about B-movies, actually asked Walt to add about 10 minutes or so. Either out of artistic integrity or economic necessity, Walt declined.

This was absolutely the right choice. Part of what makes Dumbo so charming is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It fits squarely into the misfit underdog story template that resonates with everyone, regardless of age, gender or cultural background. But when we think about Dumbo, we don’t think about the plot. We think about individual moments and sequences. Dumbo isn’t really much more than a short sequence of vignettes. What’s magical about it is that any one of those vignettes would be another movie’s highlight. Dumbo is nothing but highlights.

Dumbo announces it’s different from its predecessors right from the get-go. This isn’t the fairy-tale world of Snow White or the cobblestone European streets of Pinocchio. This is America. Florida, to be exact. And it isn’t once upon a time. It’s 1941. The opening song, “Look Out For Mr. Stork”, makes a pop culture reference to the Dionne Quintuplets, who had fascinated the world since their birth in 1934. The tone, the style, the music, everything suggests that this is going to be a much looser, more casual movie.

But in spite of all that, Dumbo also has a reputation as one of Disney’s most emotional movies. If you watch Dumbo with a group of people and somebody doesn’t cry at least once, watch out because you’re hanging out with some cold-hearted sociopaths. The heart of the film is the relationship between mother and child, encapsulated beautifully in the “Baby Mine” sequence. It’s a testament to both the animators and to the Oscar-nominated song by Frank Churchill and Ned Washington that this sequence lands as powerfully as it does. This is character animation at its finest and the song is simple, lovely and perfect.

The animation has to be perfect in a sequence like this. It’s shouldering the entire storytelling burden. Dumbo has no dialogue throughout the film and Mrs. Jumbo’s only line comes when she christens her son Jumbo Jr. The lack of dialogue is another brilliant choice. It allows every single member of the audience to project their own identity and their own relationship with their mom onto Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. When Dumbo is mercilessly teased because of his big ears, we empathize because we’ve all been picked on for one thing or another. When Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo in her trunk, we all know that feeling. Dialogue would only get in the way.

Dumbo has a number of sequences built entirely on the interplay between music and animation. The movie starts with back-to-back songs, the aforementioned stork tune and “Casey Junior”. It’s little wonder that it won the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. But apart from “Baby Mine”, the most memorable song and sequence in the film is undoubtedly “Pink Elephants On Parade”.

Over 75 years later, this sequence remains one of the most startling and exciting animated sequences in Disney’s history. Walt’s interest in surrealism and abstract art had already been on display in Fantasia but “Pink Elephants” took it to a new level. The sequence is a hallucinatory masterpiece. A few years later, Walt would strike up a friendship with Salvador Dalí. One imagines the subject of Dumbo must have come up in conversation once or twice.

A surreal image from Pink Elephants On Parade.

Even though so much of Dumbo is unencumbered by dialogue, the characters who do speak manage to leave a big impression. Sterling Holloway makes his Disney debut as Mr. Stork. He, of course, would have a long association with the studio in everything from The Jungle Book to Winnie The Pooh, eventually becoming the first voice actor honored as a Disney Legend.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Edward Brophy as Dumbo’s friend and protector, Timothy Q. Mouse. Brophy had a lengthy career as a character actor, usually playing sidekicks and comic relief tough guys. He worked frequently in radio but this was his one and only foray into animation. It’s a standout character that could have been just a Jiminy Cricket knockoff. Brophy’s attitude and delivery gives Timothy a more contemporary edge.

Cliff Edwards, the voice of the actual Jiminy Cricket, also turns up as Dandy Crow (or, as he was originally called…ahem…Jim Crow). All right, let’s talk about the crows. These characters were in the news again recently after Disney+ felt the need to slap a disclaimer on Dumbo and its “outdated cultural depictions”. And sure, they are exaggerated African-American caricatures and their leader is voiced by a white guy (not that anybody would have known that at the time, since none of the voice actors were credited).

But animation, especially this particular cartoony style of animation, is built on caricature. What is the herd of gossiping elephants if not an exaggerated caricature of matronly women? Now, it would be disingenuous to claim that those two things are exactly the same. Jim Crow is too loaded to simply wave it away like that (and, to be fair, they did have the good sense to not actually refer to Edwards’ character as “Jim Crow” in the movie itself). But it would be equally wrong to ascribe any malicious intent to the characters and not acknowledge that this is simply what cartoonists and animators have done since the invention of the form.

Besides, the crows are by far the most fun characters in the movie. You empathize with Dumbo and his mom. You appreciate Timothy’s friendship and positive outlook. But you want to hang out with the crows. They get the catchiest song, the terrific “When I See An Elephant Fly”. And they’re not exactly making fun of Dumbo and Timothy in the same way that the movie’s other characters did. Finding a baby elephant and a mouse passed out in a tree gives them a pretty good reason to be incredulous at first. It doesn’t take long for them to change their tune and help Dumbo and Timothy out by providing the “Magic Feather”. They’re smart, they’re free, they’re funny. The crows are awesome and I find it hard to believe that anyone could be genuinely offended by them.

Dumbo went on to become a huge hit for Disney, almost single-handedly bringing the studio back from the brink of bankruptcy. Appropriately enough, the studio has continued to use it as a cash cow ever since. For years, Disney has floated Dumbo as a sort of test balloon for new technologies and formats. In 1955, Walt allowed it to be shown on television for the first time. At the dawn of the home video era, Disney was reluctant to embrace the VCR. But in 1981, Dumbo and Alice In Wonderland became the first Disney animated classics to be released on VHS and Betamax.

Dumbo VHS Clamshell release from 1981.

Since then, it’s become one of the studio’s most frequently re-released titles on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. Disney has worked hard to cultivate a mystique around certain titles, locking them away in the notorious Disney Vault for years at a time. But Dumbo is one of the few that you can grab a copy of pretty much any time you please. You can order it from Amazon right now for about 10 bucks, a bargain compared to most of the other movies we’ve looked at so far.

Perhaps because it’s so ubiquitous or perhaps because it’s so deceptively simple, even devoted Disney fans tend to overlook Dumbo. It’s definitely an unusual film. We all know it as a movie about a flying elephant but the movie ends moments after Dumbo masters the skill. It’s an abrupt but somehow still satisfying conclusion. After being bullied, ridiculed and traumatically separated from his mom, Dumbo’s been through enough. He’s earned his happy ending.

VERDICT: Disney Plus