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.
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.
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.
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.