Plus or Minus is a series detailing and analyzing every feature film now streaming on Disney+. It combines the unique history all these films share, their cultural impacts, and their qualities, or lack thereof. From timeless classics, to acquired hits, to DCOMs, no stone will be left unturned.
Part of the fun of making this series is crafting a narrative around the Disney company as a whole. For a studio, all films, whether big or small, have an impact. Sometimes they’re so impactful they change the entire direction for a company. Other times they become so successful they earn numerous accolades and define the studio’s legacy. And other times, they’re just a product made to fill in space and get a little extra revenue. This Plus or Minus, we look at Fun and Fancy Free, the latter of this scenario.
The climate of Walt Disney Studios during production of Fun and Fancy Free is more interesting than the film itself. This anthology collection was during a time of tragic woes for the company. Far from the days when they were the most powerful media entity, Fun and Fancy Free was essentially made to create a quick buck.
The Struggles of World War II
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves did wonders for Walt Disney. However, things quickly went south, mainly due to World War II. Pinocchio and Bambi were box office failures due to the closure of overseas markets, and many animators were either drafted or taking part in the animators’ strike, which killed a lot of morale. The United States government did commission several propaganda pieces, including a film promoting goodwill towards Latin America. However, it wasn’t enough. The company was bleeding money, at a time when Disney wasn’t one of the biggest media companies in history.
Therefore, a lot of thrifty changes were made in terms of film production. Live-action movies like the infamous Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart were produced. Live-action is cheaper to make, and Walt gave his animation crew just enough of a budget to add in a few cartoons to these movies.
Feature-length animated movies were a non-starter. There just wasn’t enough money. But Disney had to get movies out there if he wanted to get some revenue. So a compromise was made. Every couple of months, animators would work on an animated short. And once Walt had enough, he would package these shorts together into a theatrical release. They were never box office hits, but they were so inexpensive they almost always turned a profit, and helped keep the lights on over at the studio.
The first of these, excluding the Latin America propaganda pieces, is 1946’s Make Mine Music. However, that movie isn’t on Disney+ for whatever reason. So for the time being, Fun and Fancy Free is where we shall begin this era for The Walt Disney Company. The film took two ideas for planned feature films and combined them together into cheap half-hour pieces with wraparound segments.
The one thing that makes Fun and Fancy Free such an odd duck is its framing device. For whatever reason, Jiminy Cricket of Pinocchio fame is the host of the movie. He introduces the first segment and appears in the introduction for the second segment. Reportdely, the only reason Jiminy is even in this movie is because he sings a deleted song from the first Pinocchio movie. It was the era before special features, so I guess he had to throw it in somewhere. I guess Disney also wanted one more marquee character to sell the film, despite Mickey, Donald, and Goofy already being in this feature. Regardless, Jiminy’s presence really doesn’t add much. If anything, it’s surprising he’s even in this. But with a nice little song and a couple comedy bits with some dolls, we finally transition to one of two major segments.
A young bear cub named Bongo works for a circus troupe, traveling across the country. Fed up by the abuse he suffers from the staff, he runs away and tries to live in the wild. And it’s here he finds love and fights off against a brutish bear for the bear woman’s affections.
On paper, it seems like it could be a cute little short. And there are a few nice pieces of animation that hold up okay. The biggest problem here is the length. The segment drags with pointless song sequences and forgettable slapstick. All the while, Bongo has little to no character. His story is a generic and forgettable one, and fails to justify a half-hour narrative. This probably could have worked as a 5-minute short. Maybe even a feature film if they gave Bongo and the supporting cast more depth. But as a 30-minute featurette? There’s nothing to grasp here.
After Bongo ends, Jiminy is invited to a birthday party for Song of the South actress Luana Patten. You have to love corporate synergy! And wouldn’t you know it, famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen is hosting the event. Bergen, a radio mainstay on The Chase and Sanborn Hour, was essentially the big celebrity here to get butts into seats.
And after a few comedy bits with Bergen and two of his most famous puppets, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, it leads to the final segment, Mickey and the Beanstalk. It’s…fine enough I suppose. The dynamic of the puppets is an easy one to follow, and I guess it appeals to Bergen’s fanbase. But none of the jokes did much for me. Especially when it comes to the comedy in Mickey and the Beanstalk.
Mickey and the Beanstalk
In the land of Happy Valley, the luscious greens and vibrant food is kept alive by the vocals of a singing harp. However, when the harp is taken by a giant, Happy Valley is in ruins. And three farmers, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, are left poor and hungry. At this point, you probably know how the Jack and the Beanstalk story goes. Mickey finds some beans, they grow into a magnificent stalk overnight, they meet a giant in the clouds. It’s easy to figure out from there.
This is the main event of the whole film, and it shows. The trio have a fun dynamic as you would expect, and there’s plenty of memorable sequences, with the growth of the beanstalk being a particular highlight. Another great standout element is Willie the Giant, an immature doofus with magic powers. His reactions and delivery are pretty funny, and the animators do have fun with his character. Of course, there’s nothing truly cinematic or memorable, and the story isn’t that compelling. And surprisingly, the chemistry Mickey, Donald, and Goofy have is somewhat limited.
However, the one issue that holds the film back has to do with its framing device. Bergen and his two dummies narrate the piece. Bergen tells the whole thing straight, while Charlie and Mortimer add witty commentary that mocks the piece. It is beyond grating. The mocking commentary adds nothing and fails to generate any laughs. All the while, it kind of diminishes both the fun and stakes of the story itself. At least, what stakes there are in a Mickey Mouse short.
But even without Bergen and his dummies, there’s not much to talk about here. It’s not awful, but it’s too basic and safe of a time to really leave an impact.
Plus or Minus?
In a way, that’s the biggest flaw of Fun and Fancy Free. It’s not awful, but there’s nothing here that really makes it good either. The framing device is contrived and bizarre, the actual shorts are forgettable and overlong, and the connection between everything feels nonexistent. I wasn’t a fan of Saludos Amigos, but that at least depicted the beauties of Central and South America, and brought us the joy that is Jose Carioca. Fun and Fancy Free has nothing to latch on to. It’s the equivalent of an “in one ear, out the other” film that only seems to exist to get some cash flow in for a dying studio before they actually made an interesting film three years later.
Even for hardcore Disney fans, there’s little to really intrigue in terms of history and background like Saludos Amigos. Not offensively awful, but there’s literally no reason to watch it. So yeah, between Plus or Minus, for Fun and Fancy Free, it’s a pretty clear Minus.
NEXT TIME: This package series continues with Melody Time. Can this be the one to take this sub-series to greatness?