Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 5, 2014)
Between 1943 and 1949, Disney released six primarily animated films plus Song of the South, a mostly live action that included a strong cartoon component. That era's So Dear to My Heart also tossed in some animation with the live action but did so to a rather negligible degree.
All of these primarily animated movies were what they called "package" pictures. That means that none of them maintained a single narrative ala most of Disney's other animated films such as Pinocchio or
Instead, these pictures combined a variety of pieces into one feature-length film. Most of them tossed in a whole bunch of short cartoons, but two exceptions exist: 1947's Fun and Fancy Free and 1949's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Those efforts split their running times down the middle with two different stories per movie, so instead of a slew of brief cartoons, we get two reasonably long ones.
While I generally enjoy these “package” films, they're clearly some of the weakest work that's emanated from Disney animation studios. Actually, if you examine Disney's first 30-plus years of feature films, they are the worst projects to appear in that time frame. Only the malaise that affected the studio after Walt's death in 1966 - and which wouldn't lift until the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 - prevents these pictures from representing the nadir of the studio's output. Although I'm not wild about offerings such as Melody Time or Saludos Amigos, I definitely prefer them to relative clunkers like The Fox and the Hound or The Rescuers.
Of all the package films, Fun and Fancy Free may be the best. Neither of its pieces can be considered a classic, but both are quite enjoyable in their own right.
The first - "Bongo" – tells of a circus bear who dreams of living the free life in the country with others of his kind. The short lacks any dialogue from its characters. Instead, Dinah Shore tells the tale and actually sings much of it. The result is a thoroughly charming and occasionally amusing little piece. (Oddly enough, it's adapted from a story by Sinclair Lewis, an author not known for cute bear epics.)
"Bongo" suffers from some padding. The plot itself stays quite
simple: we see a little of Bongo's circus life - mainly to understand why he wants to leave - and then we observe his adjustment to forest living and his problems interacting with other bears. Bongo quickly falls in love and much of the cartoon concerns his travails in that department.
That's not much of a story to take up roughly a half an hour of space, so Bongo's romance with Lulubelle gets stretched to its limits. A musical interlude accompanies their initial infatuation, and it just seems to go on and on without end. "Bongo" features a couple of other musical pieces as well, but none appear quite as interminable as this one - it really slows the momentum of an otherwise strong tale.
Still, "Bongo" remains a lot of fun nonetheless. The cartoon possesses a great deal of charm and even can be quite amusing as well. I particularly enjoy the segment in which the country sounds new to Bongo freak him out.
Called "Mickey and the Beanstalk", the second is roughly on a par with "Bongo" in regard to quality, but it's a much more famous cartoon.
That's probably due to the presence of Disney original three superstars: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.
Actually, without the package features, those characters never would have made it together into a feature-length film back during Walt’s lifetime. Mickey appeared in 1940's Fantasia, Goofy showed up in Saludos Amigos, while Donald could be found in Saludos, Three Caballeros, and Melody Time as well.
In any case, this effort offers a fun retelling of the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" in which our heroes fill Jack's shoes. Actually, Mickey's the real replacement for Jack, with the other two more or less along for the ride.
And I'm happy they are, or at least that Donald's there. Goofy has little to do in the story, but Don provides some of the cartoon's funniest moments. Neither Mickey nor Goofy ever did much for me, but the Duck always could be counted upon to spice up a story, and he doesn't fail to do so here. The scene in which he goes nuts from hunger is terrific.
The rest of the program doesn't quite live up to that, though a few other scenes of Don's are pretty good, such as when he sees the dragonflies. Mickey's just so darned dull; he makes a decent hero, but his dreariness almost leads us to root for the much more colorful giant. In any case, "Beanstalk" has some slow spots, but it's generally a pretty entertaining piece.
Although "Beanstalk" features dialogue, it resembles "Bongo" in that it also is supposed to be told by a narrator. In this case, Edgar Bergen leads the story. He’s accompanied by his "friends" Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd while they attend a "party" for child actress Luana Patten. (Ah, such innocent times! Why is it I think that a celebration thrown by a grown man who plays with puppets for a very young girl would look rather creepy these days?)
Bergen's narration runs over the cartoon, plus we also hear occasional interjections from the other three. The cartoon is also preceded by a brief live action scene that introduces those four - and includes Jiminy Cricket, the overall guide to Fun - and gets the show rolling. An additional live action portion ends the movie. The Bergen segments are actually surprisingly entertaining; he could be quite clever and witty through McCarthy and Snerd, and what might have been dull transitional scenes become fairly entertaining in their own right.
"Fairly entertaining" remains a pretty good description for Fun and Fancy Free as a whole. It's not classic Disney animation, but it's a cute and charming piece overall. It works well when you're in the mood for some quick and light Disney.