The slow return of Walt Disney’s claim as an artist.
Fun & Fancy Free maintain’s the studio’s post-war struggle to produce feature content, packaging shorts together and marketing them as features. Lacking the funds to develop “Bongo” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” — the two components of “Fun & Fancy Free” — into separate films, the studio packaged them together.
Jiminy Cricket, voiced by Cliff Edwards just as in Pinocchio, hosts both films and introduces the audiences to each of the stories. “Bongo”, the story of a circus bear who escapes to live in the wild and is disappointed with his choice until he wins the affections of a lady bear, leads the two films. “Bongo” demonstrates that Disney was fascinated with the circus, but doesn’t seem to have thought very highly of it.
The travelling circus had been part of the American identity since the laying of the railroad, and in 1919 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined efforts to produce the greatest show on earth. Walt Disney, perennially portraying an idyllic version of American life, could hardly afford to ignore the circus. But that doesn’t mean he saw it as a positive influence. Bongo escapes the circus. Dumbo’s mother is imprisoned by the circus, while Dumbo escapes. Pinocchio is taken hostage by Stromboli, a travelling impressario not dissimilar to a circus director. Throughout his work, Disney portrays circuses as places of desperation, imprisonment and chaos.
Bongo, in escaping to the wilderness, fulfills his true animal destiny be reconnected with nature and others of his own kind. Disney’s message about animal rights and their treatment in captivity is not subtle.
Bongo is confused on his first encounter with others of his kind when the girl he likes slaps him upside the head. Then this musical number “A bear likes to say it with a slap” plays out and he understand his culture again.
The lyrics to the song include:
Grab your bears and swing ’em wide
Shake their fur and scratch their hide
Give her a slap, give her a cuff
Go ’round that floor and strut your stuff
With conversations around domestic violence and bullying far more prominent today than they were in the 1940s, it is unlikely that this song would have ever been green-lit in the 21st century. Another example of some of Disney’s less-classic pieces of work becoming outdated rather quickly. Not to be completely relegated to the dustbins of history, though, two of today’s most popular characters make their silver screen debut in “Bongo”. Chip and Dale, featured once with Pluto in a war short in 1943, the unmistakable chipmunk pair mock Bongo as he attempts to climb a tree.
As “Bongo” comes to happy ending, Jiminy receives an invitation to attend a party and finds two of the creepiest dummies ever to be featured on screen being voiced by a ventriloquist who seems intent on keeping a little girl entertained with cake and stories. This ventriloquist then tells the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, as acted out by Mickey, Goofy and Donald. This is one of the lasting shorts that Disney produced, and one that is still viewed often enough today. Indeed, Danielle and I had seen it more than once before this, but never knew the short originated here.
The short is unmistakeably Disney. Mickey is heroic. Donald is angry and spastic. Goofy is kind-hearted and wins without trying. The pieces that make Disney tick begin to fall back into place. In fact, in a curious twist, this is the last time that Walt Disney himself voices Mickey Mouse. The last time Walt actually lent Mickey his voice was Fantasia, but “Mickey and the Beanstalk” was actually recorded before that, and production of “Mickey and the Beanstalk” was put on hold due to the war. As as result, though, it is not the last time Walt voiced Mickey, it is the last time Mickey carries Walt’s voice.
The only major departure from the classic fairy tale is that Disney inexplicably gives the giant the ability to change into whatever shape and size he pleases. This is especially curious since the giant seems to regard it as a parlour trick and not something that could be useful when he’s, say, falling from the clouds to his certain doom near the end of the story.
But, this being a Disney film, the giant does not die. In fact, in another odd move, the film ends with the giant wandering through downtown Los Angeles picking the rooftops off of houses looking for Mickey. In any other film, this would be the climax, not the adorable conclusion.
For all of its quirks and odd narration choices, though, Fun & Fancy Free marks the turning point in post-war Disney where art began to matter again, and Disney is clearly and eagerly clambering back up to his podium, building up his studio’s coffers so he can once again wow audiences with some of the most finely crafted stories in the world.