Saludos Amigos (1942)
Saludos Amigos is the first of a run of Disney films that have nowadays fallen into obscurity – and in all honestly, not unjustly. Between Bambi (1943) and Cinderella (1950) there were no full-length Disney films. During the Second World War Disney put out a series of compilation films, which divide quite neatly into sets of two: two collections of musical shorts in the vein of Fantasia (Make mine Music, 1946, and Melody Time, 1948), two films made up of two loosely linked shorts (Fun and Fancy Free, 1947, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, 1949), and two Latin American themed films: Saludos Amigos and its follow-up, The Three Caballeros.
If you’ll forgive the history lesson, Saludos Amigos is historically speaking one of Disney’s most important films. It was commissioned by the US government as part of the Good Neighbour Policy and was I gather quite successful in its aims. The unfortunate downside of this is that, like the other wartime compilation films, it lacks the timeless quality of the Disney films of the earlier 1940s.
The film is made up of four shorts, strung together with documentary footage of the Disney staff’s tour of South America. The documentary parts of the films make for an interesting – if likely staged – look into the inspiration for the film. The shorts themselves are for the most part fun and reasonably educational – the one outstanding exception being the final short, Aquarela do Brasil.
Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolor of Brazil) is undoubtedly the highlight of the film: it has the best music, the best animation, and it has José Carioca, the dapper green Brazilian parrot who is by far the best-known element of the film. José is an absolute delight and the only bad thing about Aquarela do Brasil is that he’s not in it enough – but he was popular enough to get two more film outings in the 1940s, so really, one can’t complain.
The Three Caballeros (1944)
On the one hand – or wing, perhaps – this is a tighter and all-round more enjoyable film than its precursor. On the other hand, structurally it’s downright baffling.
The story, if one can call it that, is about Donald Duck. It’s his birthday and his Latin American friends have sent him a present that seems to be a box full of trippy animation. There’s a few distinct shorts, including one about a penguin who hates cold weather, but for the most part the action stays with Donald, José Carioca, and Panchito the Mexican rooster as they have strange, surreal, adventures.
It’s an odd film – an odd duck, one might say. But the visuals are interesting, it has more José, and more of the Aracuan Bird from Saludos Amigos – though sadly not enough. It just tends to run together into a confusing mess in one’s memory.
Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
As Disney films go, Fun and Fancy Free is downright paradoxical. The shorts that make it up are not bad: one is decent, the other is actually very good. Yet the overall product might just be the worst Disney film I’ve seen to date – and yes, I have watched the entire animated canon.
The framing story is a confusing mess of Jiminy Cricket, children’s toys, and awkward live action/animated fusion. It doesn’t hurt the first half of the film too much, but in the second half it becomes seriously intrusive. Jiminy Cricket is invited – or rather, invites himself – to a little girl’s birthday party. The film transitions to live action, and the ‘party’ turns out to be just the one little girl, a grown man who is clearly not related to her, and a gaggle of eerie talking ventriloquist’s dummies. It’s an unnerving reminder of how old this film is that anyone at Disney thought this would be perceived as charming rather than creepy.
The second short cuts back to the ‘party’ over and over, and, were that not enough, the dummies join in narrating the story, talking over every part of the short with no dialogue. This is intensely annoying; animation is, by nature, a very visual medium, and is often very sparse on dialogue for a reason. Someone at Disney in the forties seems to have failed to understand this. I’m told a lot of the dummies’ jokes are topical references that are actually very funny, but honestly, it doesn’t help matters.
Moving onto the shorts themselves!
The first is Bongo, the story of a circus bear who breaks out of his cage to live in the wild. The bulk of the short is actually a romance, focusing on Bongo trying to win the paw of a lady-bear. It’s cute, regrettably bordering on saccharine in places, and unfortunately not as harmless as it should be; there’s a whole song about expressing your love for people by slapping them (Say It With a Slap), apparently a bear custom, but not a very nice message for children.
This is followed by the best-known part of the film: Jack and the Beanstalk, starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and it doesn’t really need much more explanation. The story is classic, the visuals are great, the three leads are all on form – particularly Donald, who has a brilliant freak-out scene near the beginning – and all in all, it’s probably the best bit of animation Disney put out during the war years.
Unfortunately, those damn dummies nearly manage to ruin it. I’d recommend watching a version with the alternative, sparser, dummy-free narration; otherwise Fun and Fancy Free isn’t really worth the effort.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Now there’s a baffling title. It seems Disney learned a lesson from Fun and Fancy Free: Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a much more streamlined film. The framing device is unobtrusive. The narration – by none other than Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby – is clever and enjoyable. There’s no attempt to work in awkward live-action footage.
The downside is that the quality of the shorts themselves is party. The Mr. Toad short is not particularly memorable and manages to miss the point of its source material not once but twice: first by implying that Mr. Toad is the lead character, and then again in having him be innocent of vehicle theft. On top of that it has all the issues that come with adapting The Wind in the Willows; namely, how on earth a toad-sized toad can drive a car, let alone be put on trial for stealing one. The other characters are pushed into the background. Still, the character designs are cute, and the narration is very slick.
The second short falls into two halves. The first half, setting up the rivalry between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones is enjoyable enough but somewhat bland. But then the Headless Horseman sequence begins – and it is without doubt the highly of the film. The build-up to the Horseman’s entrance is genuinely frightening, but the chase itself is comic, leading to some real tension and a real feeling of catharsis.
My main issue with the short is the treatment of Katrina, Ichabod and Brom’s love interest. She is alternately a passive prize to be won by whichever man has her by the arm, and a tease stringing both suitors along – and just to top it off, there’s an ‘ugly girl’ both men palm off on each other as a sort of punishment. I suspect this is partly down to the source material, but nonetheless it’s some of the most blatant sexism I’ve seen in a Disney film. This coupled with the fact that no women have speaking parts in the entire film makes for an uncomfortable experience; at least Fun and Fancy Free had one female narrator.
Home on the Range (2004)
And not for something completely different! Home on the Range was Disney’s last traditionally animated film until The Princess and the Frog and the last to be released on VHS. It’s really not much of a milestone: it sank into obscurity almost immediately and remains, together with Brother Bear (2003), one of Disney’s least popular films.
I’m not sure I quite understand why. Home on the Range isn’t as horrible as I was led to believe. I actually quite enjoyed it. There’s a lot wrong with it: the animation is occasionally unnerving (the cows have prehensile tails! Why do the cows have prehensile tails?), the music didn’t do much for me, the constant modern slang is jarring, and the premise is downright weird. I gather this film was originally going to be The Pied Piper of Hamlin but for some reason the story was reworked… to be set in the Old West… with cows instead of children. I think that says a lot about the film industry, really.
But it has one big upside: this right here is a Disney film with not one but three female leads, and – if you ignore the obligatory hook-ups at the end – it’s an adventure story, not a romance. It focuses on the relationships between the three cow-heroines in a big way. Home on the Range might just be unique in that regard in the entire Disney canon. I can’t help but enjoy it just for that; maybe I’ll even buy it on DVD.