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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

“Here in this Wonderland, Romance is the Theme”

Here we are at the first landmark for Disney animation: their tenth animated feature film, another film done in the vein of Fantasia and serving as kind of a sequel to Make Mine Music, appropriately named Melody Time.  This is another one of those films that I have not seen since I was little, and I’m not even sure that I saw any portion of it as a whole film.  So once again, I am technically watching a Disney film for the first time.  Buddy Clark serves as our framework narrator and does an admirable job transitioning the audience between one short and the next, a quality that was significantly lacking in Make Mine Music.
            Right from the opening credits, I noticed something a bit different than what we’ve seen before.  Right after “Walt Disney Presents” instead of the big title card, we are immediately launched into the celebrity voice talent featured in this film - Roy Rogers, the Andrews Sisters, Fred Waring, Freddy Martin, Ethel Smith, Frances Langford, and Buddy Clark, as well as some familiar Disney kids like Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten- before finally displaying the film’s title.  Disney around was not famous for showing off the voice talent behind a film too much (I believe that was because they wanted the audience to focus on the quality of the film itself) so it surprises me that the voice cast is the very first thing they wanted to announce this time around.  I can’t help but hypothesize that this meant the studio was starting to feel the weight of what the war did to them financially in 1948.  They needed money and for that they needed audiences to buy tickets to their films.  I guess that they felt more people would go see a film that was sporting an impressive celebrity cast. 
            First up, we have “Once Upon a Wintertime” sung by Frances Langford.  Now Disney buffs know that this is a significant short because it was one of the few times that the artwork of legendary Disney concept artist, Mary Blair, was used unaltered as backgrounds for the short (another occurrence happens later on in this film). It’s rare when Disney lets just one artist take center stage in determining the look of the animation (Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, and Fantasia 2000 come to mind as well).  The horses that pull the carriage are especially “Blair-eutiful.”  Even the character designs resemble Mary Blair creations, stamping this short with Blair’s unique vision from start to finish. Even though there is a strong artistic influence in this short, the character animation is distinctly Disney.  I love the part where the heroine of the piece walks off the ice without skates on and her skirts fall back into place one by one.  The rabbit melting through the snow after receiving a kiss from his sweetheart is particularly charming.
            Next up is “Bumble Boogie,” which features Freddy Martin’s take on “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a piece of music originally considered for Fantasia.  Musically, it’s an interesting jazz piece, the piano solos (performed by Jack Fina) being what sells the reinterpretation of a very famous piece of music.  As far as animation goes, I’m sensing throwbacks and undertones from other scenes of particularly trippy animation like “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “You Belong to My Heart.”  I enjoyed the scene where the bee gets fed up with being tosses around and begins slamming into the piano key flowers only to witness the fallen keys transform in a bucking keyboard bronco of sorts.
            Next, Dennis Day delights the audience with a retelling of the completely (well, mostly) true story of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed.  Disney is no stranger to telling the tales of American legends like Paul Bunyan, Davy Crocket, John Henry, and Pecos Bill (who makes an appearance later on in this very film), but for a lot of these figures the myths surrounding them have been exaggerated to extremes.  Not so with John Chapman.  He really did go around the country planting apple seeds with little more than a Bible and a tin pot that he wore as a hat.  Interested in learning more about the man American children know as Johnny Appleseed?  Check out Alton Brown’s episode of Good Eats “Apple of my Pie.”

            This is the other short that features Mary Blair’s unaltered artwork as backgrounds.  Unlike “Once Upon a Wintertime” though, the characters are classically Disney, complete with the distinctive Disney eyes.  Whereas “Once Upon a Wintertime” was very much a showcase of the work of Mary Blair, “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed” is a bit of an oddity.  It’s kind of jarring to see these impressionist backgrounds against Disney style characters.
            That said I really do like the short.  I thought Dennis Day did a great job voicing all three of the main speaking characters and I like the songs featured.  I want to point out though that it seems very unlikely Disney would have made a short like this today due to the strong presence of Christian imagery.  I’m not trying to incur a theological debate and I’m not trying to offend or isolate any readers.  Which is exactly what Disney attempts to do today; not offend anybody.  It’s really amazing to me to see a short released on DVD today before Disney was held to being politically correct all the time.  Considering how important John Chapman’s faith was to him in real life, I can’t see another way of telling his story without reference to Christianity, so like I said, I’m not sure that this short could have been made with today’s easily offended audience sensibilities.
            My favorite scene was the part building up to the skunk potentially spraying the apple tree planter, but instead Johnny pets him.  The audience sees that Johnny is a different kind of hero who made a difference in our country not with great feats of strength, but with kindness.  The posse of woodland animals that travel alongside him further evidences this.  This short also marks one of the few times that a character actually dies on screen.  Most of the time when death is portrayed in a Disney film, it’s very bittersweet, but here it brings home the message of the piece and it would seem wrong to end the short any other way.  This scene is actually gorgeous to watch, especially the color composition, which I think is a testament to Mary Blair’s talent.

            The Andrews Sisters take us through the tale of “Little Toot,” probably their most famous work done with Disney and arguably the most famous short to come out of this film.  If there’s something Disney does better than almost all other animation houses, it’s giving real human emotions to objects and animals.  While this short shows off that ability beautifully (Little Toot himself is really cute while still managing to be relatable), it is also a massive effects animation tour de force.  Storms and oceans are always a chance for effects animators to show the world what they’re made of and “Little Toot” has both in abundance.  Though I have to wonder if they reused some of the water animation leftover from Pinocchio for the climactic scene of Little Toot saving the ship.
            “Trees” was a short based on the poem by Alfred Joyce Kilmer recited by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians.  It’s a lovely short to watch, definitely in the vein of Bambi, complete with photo realistic animals against impressionist and evocative backgrounds.  The animation where the tree suddenly goes from day to a rainy night was gorgeous; I especially loved the star like sparkles on the raindrops.  From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this is the probably the most gorgeous work of animation that I have seen out of the package films.  The halo like ring around the tree that appears at the end was a very nice visual to end the short on.
            Okay, I know that there are some José Carioca fans among my readers out there and he makes a triumphant return in “Blame It on the Samba.”  I do believe that Mr. Carioca was the true star that emerged during the package film era.  We also see the return of the Aracuan Bird who has adopted a squeeze toy like sound since the last time we saw him in The Three Caballeros.  I don’t know about everyone else, but I kind of preferred the little song that announced his presence in his first appearance. 
Though it is the Dinning Sisters who provide the vocals to the title song, it is the live action organist, Ethel Smith, who steals the show.  My God, what a talented woman; that shot of her fingers playing that organ was all it took to let the audience know that they were watching a true prodigy.  By this time, it had only been a few years since Disney attempted blending live action and animation in The Three Caballeros, but in this one moment with Donald and José interacting with Ethel on the organ, we can see how much they had improved in that time.  The bit where Ethel kicks Donald underneath the organ was seamless. 
The one and only Roy Rogers, as in country music and western film legend as well as the proprietor of fast food establishments Roy Rogers, appeared in “Pecos Bill.”  Which is kind of awesome and makes this film worth a viewing for that alone.  Even Trigger, the single most famous horse in Hollywood history, is in it.  Then, of course, there are the standard inquiring child figures required for many a Disney film, in the form of Peter Pan himself, Bobby Driscoll, and Luana Patten, who also appeared in Fun and Fancy Free with Edgar Bergen.
Is it just me or did American mythology borrow a bit from Roman mythology with Pecos Bill’s origins?  I mean how is Bill being raised by a mother coyote that different from Romulus and Remus being raised by a mother wolf?  Anyway, this was yet another short that was edited for home video release but the edits done to it kind of befuddle me.  They did not want Bill smoking a cigarette so all shots of the cigarette hanging from his lips were edited out.  The befuddlement comes from the fact that they took all this care to edit out a cigarette, but they kept in tact the excessive amounts of gunplay that Bill commits as well as a somewhat derogatory portrayal of Native Americans.  I’m amazed that they kept these things in when they’ve edited out things like that from home video releases before.
jon TK mentioned that it’s odd for films considered to be animated classics to contain a fair amount of live action.  As we near the end of the package film era, I have to say that I agree.  Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time all contained segments that prominently featured live action footage.  This is something that would never happen again in the films considered to be a part of the classic Disney Animation canon, so one has to wonder why this only occurred for these films.  The answer is obviously the reason the package films exist: money.  There was a shortage of animators and animation takes both a lot of time and money to do right.  So they buffed up the package films with some live action to make up for the fact that they were short on both.  Fortunately, this does not detract from the entertainment value of the package films.  Considering what was going at the time they were made, it’s a testament to the talent at the studio with what they were able to accomplish.


  1. It's hard to quite compare it with the more narrative package films like Fun and Fancy Free, and part of me holds Three Caballeros to a different standard, but I think Melody Time is the best of the package films. It's not overloaded, it has all the best elements of the others worked out, it's got some wonderful and varied animation, and good songs.

    Thanks for pointing out Mary Blair's work. It's good to see her name getting more recognition as the years go by. I like "Wintertime", though I am always baffled that the peaceful pond where they skate end up becoming a river with an enormous watefall at the end of it. ...this is the same body of water? Why do they let ANYONE skate there?

    The Johnny Appleseed bit is one of my favorites, and I love the songs in it. It's true that there's more seeming overt Christian influence in it. The only recent film that also has some is Hunchback. But even here it's get kind of oblique enough to reflect a good ol' American faith without getting to specific. There's a Lord, a "holy book" and a heaven when you die. That's the extent of it. I hadn't thought about Johnny being the first onscreen death, but that's true.

    There's also a rather odd moment of Christian imagery at the end of "Trees" when the one tree on a hill morphs to become like a cross. I have no idea what significance that's supposed to have. "Trees" is some really good animation in Bambi style, and I like that it's short enough that it doesn't bore or totally de-rail the film.

    I love Little Toot. It's a very good adaptation of the book, it's a catchy song, it's nicely designed.

    The Pecos Bill segment is pretty long, but I like it too. It's a shame about the seemingly unnecessary cigarette edit, but otherwise it's a solid segment.

    I think that Walt was also trying to ease the studio in the direction of live action, which he wouldn't get to do completely until Treasure Island in 1950. Reluctant Dragon is a primarily live action film framework with some animation dropped in. Same with Song of the South, and again later with So Dear to My Heart. So it's maybe understandable that he'd also drop some live action into his animated films. I think part of it may also have been the shameless self-promoter in Walt, using the Roy Rogers segment to keep awareness up about his young actors. This is the sort of thing he would use television for later.

  2. I love Melody Time. The music in it is superb.

    I have a hard time picking a favorite segment, but it's either Wintertime or Johnny Appleseed. I can't help but laugh at the little boy bunny who makes the whole pond turn into a white water rapid ride.

    The transitions in this are so much smoother from Make Mine Music. Probably because there are actually transitions.

    The Anderson Sisters song for Little Toot is really catchy. I had it stuck in my head for awhile afterwards.

    While Trees is beautiful, I'm really glad it wasn't any longer or I'd have become really bored. I kept trying to figure out the cross at the end as well.

    And yes, you gotta love Walt's shameless advertising.