Saturday, August 16, 2014

FUN AND FANCY FREE/THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (Walt Disney 1947-49) Disney Home Video

By the mid-1940’s Walt Disney’s cartoon kingdom was in a bad way. His weighty investments in Fantasia and Pinocchio (both released in 1940) and Bambi (1942) had put a severe strain on the studio’s coffers. Many today forget none of the aforementioned was financially successful upon their initial release. Despite the formidable artistry on display, Fantasia was even considered a critical and artistic flop. Naiveté aside (we all know better today), the Disney empire was also teetering on the cusp of foreclosure thanks to an ill-timed and highly publicized strike in 1941 that did much to tarnish Walt’s reputation in the industry, and, in fact, sincerely wounded his pride.
At the same time, the government all but commandeered the studio’s resources as part of their wartime PR effort to make propaganda and training films for the U.S. military. Like the rest of Hollywood, Walt did his part to promote the selling of war bonds; a sort of slavishly patriotic tribute to stir America from its isolationism and into the conflict by 1943. Also, he became proactive in Hollywood’s ‘good neighbor’ policy towards Latin America with the release of Saludos Amigos (1942) and Three Caballeros (1944). Finally, Walt devoted himself to charming slices of America-proper; Song of the South (1946) and So Dear To My Heart (1948); arguably, two projects more dear to his own than anything else on his pending slate.
The creative genius expended on all of the aforementioned was monumental and taxing. Alas, Walt was not a pragmatist when it came to managing the finances of his company. He demanded quality and this, indeed, came at a very high cost to his personal and professional investments of time, money and willpower; Walt’s brother, Roy chronically having to reign in the dynamo from forcing the whole company into chapter eleven. By 1947, the struggle as to which side would ultimately command the future of the studio seems to have ended. Walt lost this proverbial ‘coin toss’; the movies that followed, representing a decided shift away from pushing the envelope in artistic achievement to concentrate on more glossy and lucrative money-making pop-u-tainments.
Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) are oddities in the Disney canon; each, delightful and charming in their own way and easily condensable for re-issue as Disney shorts, preceding other features in years yet to follow. Alas, coming as they did after such a lengthy dry spell, the high level or technical proficiency so mind-bogglingly on display in Walt’s earliest efforts; from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) to Bambi is decidedly lacking herein. Economy of animation is only partly to blame – if, at all. Moreover, it is the episodic nature of the storytelling that intrudes; the narratives overly simplified; the characterizations one-dimensional at best. Arguably, the old Disney magic would not resurface until 1950’s Cinderella, given its full – and final flourish in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty – another weighty investment that would prove financially disappointing for the old master.
The re-marketing of each movie as shorts Fun and Fancy Free, and, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is, alas, woefully transparent; Disney continuing with this profitable formula through two more features; Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948). In hindsight, one might consider these features as extended Silly Symphonies; their top-heavy reliance on songs Walt hoped would become standard pop tunes (though too few ever did), and sung by radio and film personages, Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby, were basically Walt’s way of hedging his bets. In retrospect, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the more interesting of these two features; Walt handpicking two time-honored stories; Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows. There was, perhaps some regret for Walt that ‘Toad’ never evolved into its own separate feature.
The vocalizations in the Mr. Toad sequence are among the finest culled for any Disney short: courtly Basil Rathbone to narrate; ebullient Eric Blore as our avuncular and eccentric, J. Thaddeus Toad; J. Pat O’Malley, his clodhopper-ish Lancashire, Cyril Proudbottom; Campbell Grant as Toad’s harried overseer, Angus MacBadger, and, Claude Allister and Colin Campbell as Toad’s ever-devoted friends, Rat and Mole; an obvious visual pun on Rathbone’s own serialized Sherlock Holmes adventures with Nigel Bruce. There are some wonderful sight gags too, including a destructive jaunt through the countryside and the penultimate rugby-styled skirmish between the aforementioned good friends and the oily fraud, Mr. Winky (Oliver Wallace) and his motley pack of contemptible weasels in their mad dash to reacquire the deed to Toad Hall. Walt was to have considerable difficulty capturing the essential English flavor of the piece; or rather, finding just the right balance to ease American audiences into this decidedly British literary classic. Arguably, Walt never did discover it, nor would he come any closer in his adaptations of Alice In Wonderland (1951) or Peter Pan (1953).
On the whole, Mr. Toad just seems very much like a rush job; the animation extremely loose and uncharacteristically cartoony; the background paintings veering dangerously close toward that generic Saturday morning variety yet to populate kiddie TV nearly four decades later. Herein, such simplicity is not in service to the story, but an obvious cost-cutting measure meant to expedite the process of churning out a feature in under two years. Even the poster art to promote Ichabod and Mr. Toad minimizes the latter’s inclusion; almost all illustrations heavily promoting the Washington Irving story with silhouettes of the headless horseman and only passing references to Thaddeus and his pals.
One might argue Walt broke his own golden rule as the standard bearer of feature animation on Mr. Toad; talking down to his audience. Toad is strictly for the toddler set, its plot moving along at breakneck speed, the charismatic, and more than slightly unhinged J. Thaddeus a frenetic fiasco, later to inspire the ‘wild ride’ attraction at Disneyland and the Disney World theme parks. Indeed, the Ichabod Crane vignette is an altogether more satisfying and cohesive retelling of Washington Irving’s spooky legend about a goony, gluttonous, but utterly charming Dutchman/schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane in desperate need of the proverbial Charles Atlas makeover, and soon to meet with a most untimely and mysterious end. The animators just seem more at home in this Tarrytown tale of terror than the English fairytale. The animation is still extremely loose; Crane and his arch nemesis, Brom Bones – a brawny backwoods oaf - cut from the broadest of masculine clichés and placed in what, essentially, evolves into a prosaic pop opera; Bing Crosby’s voiceover narration (half spoken/half sung) requiring no further vocal characterizations; a device similarly exploited in Fun and Fancy Free with Dinah Shore for the Bongo – the circus bear sequence.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is refreshing in that it makes no apology or even the attempt to be anything more than two separate stories unceremoniously thrust together. Fun and Fancy Free is a different animal altogether. Its’ first sequence – Bongo - is based on an original story concept by noted literary giant, Sinclair Lewis. Its other sketch, ‘Happy Valley’ (later rechristened as Mickey and the Beanstalk) is superficially based on Benjamin Tabart’s time-honored fairytale, Jack and the Beanstalk, and features three of Walt’s most stalwart alumni; Mickey Mouse (voiced by James McDonald), Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) and Goofy (Pinto Colvig). The impetus for Bongo – begun as a rather oracular anecdote about the double-edged sword of celebrity (the public image at the mercy of a more personal enslavement behind closed doors – or, in Bongo’s case, inside a locked cage) is commendable, though quickly defeated.
After Bongo manages his escape into the wilderness he also quickly comes to realize freedom is not free. These are boldly progressive ideas, deftly dealt with in a fairly adult manner. Alas, the story soon devolves into a series of slapstick moments, before settling into its atypically rank and sentimental Disney treacle; a cute ‘romance’ of celluloid between Bongo and a female bear, Lulubelle who expresses her love with a slap. I’m surprised no one inside Disney’s current regime, responsible for denying us all the release of Song of the South, didn’t equally prevent Fun and Fancy Free from circulation – or, at least, heavily edit the Bongo sequence on the misguided basis it promotes spousal abuse. After all, as a penultimate affirmation of his love, Bongo wallops Lulubelle back. But I digress…and, I suppose, I shouldn’t give the little race Nazis any more suggestions on how to further censor the studio’s illustrious past.
Fun and Fancy Free is an awkward amalgam of Disneyana; Walt exploiting his beloved Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) as the movie’s emissary to move his story along. There’s too much exposition, however, Jiminy singing a refrain and chorus of the main titles – evidently to stave off the fact there’s no plot to tell (also to promote the song – which is catchy enough), casually traversing the tranquil waters of what appears to be a sleepy lagoon, using a leaf as his rowboat. Momentarily, we discover the jungle terrain is actually plastic foliage in a terrarium inside an atypically posh, Hollywoodized version of 40’s American domesticity; all chic good taste with a decided affinity for the plush shag carpet and roaring hearth. The cricket regards a forlorn doll and teddy bear lying on the floor, electing to put on a record to cheer them up; Dinah Shore’s silken-smooth vocals seguing into the Bongo the Bear sequence. Fun and Fancy Free could have easily done without these seven and a half minutes of tedium; the Sinclair Lewis story removed from the context of everything gone before it. Afterward, we return to this living room milieu, Jiminy spying an invitation to Luana Patten’s house party (Patten, a child star Walt was momentarily grooming for stardom – alas, short-lived and never to endure beyond childhood for this precocious lass).
We crash the party with Jiminy, who takes refuge on a piece of chocolate cake; Luana dressed in pink frills, at present amused by puppeteer/ventriloquist, Edgar Bergan and his dummies; Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. The jokes are forced; the acting more so, Bergan looking utterly uncomfortable in his grotesquely colorful party hat as he relays the story of ‘Happy Valley’. Interestingly, when this sequence was re-cut as the short subject, Mickey and the Beanstalk, Bergan’s narration was replaced with one from Sterling Holloway.  For decades, having only seen the truncated short and not this feature, I came to know, love and admire Holloway’s forlorn narration for this vignette; concentrating more on the characters and the story. Bergan’s running commentary carries over from the aforementioned live action sequence; but it decidedly seems less sincere, with Charlie McCarthy’s snide and chronic interruptions repeatedly taking the audience out of the story.
We briefly meet the Singing Harp (Anita Gordon); stolen from her perch atop a castle window overlooking a bounteous valley; her absence responsible for everything turning to dreck and despair shortly thereafter. Next, we are introduced to three farmers, Mickey, Goofy and Donald, on the cusp of starvation and/or losing their sanity. Mickey elects to sell their cow – Bossy (after Donald tries to kill it) – for money to buy food. But he returns only a few hours later with only a handful of beans. Told they have magical properties, Donald refuses to believe such rubbish and casts the lot down a knot hole in their floor boards. However, later that night, while the three sleep in the modest shack they share, moonlight filters through an open window, causing the beans to magically morph into a towering beanstalk, carrying the house and its inhabitants far up into the sky.
It’s a magical sequence, the animators imbuing it with clever visual touches, the robust and thickening stalk calmly tearing apart the house and leaving Mickey, Goofy and Donald stranded on a plateau suspended in the clouds. At dawn, the trio discovers their perilous elevation. They are in the midst of a wondrous neverland but tiny specs upon this larger-than-life landscape. It isn’t long before they stumble upon a castle (always one in a Disney movie, it seems) and Willie – the giant (Billy Gilbert); a daft, lumbering and inarticulate ogre who has captured the Singing Harp to add to his collection, entirely unaware of the devastation he has wrought below. Rescuing the harp from her captor by stealing a key from Willie’s pocket, Mickey, Donald and Goofy survive the giant’s fee-fi-fo-fum wrath; the simple-minded ox instead turning up at Luana’s house party in the final moments in search of his treasure, informed by an unenlightened Mortimer – unafraid no less – to seek out Edgar Bergan in Hollywood. In his search, the giant stumbles upon the famed ‘Brown Derby’ restaurant, stealing it for his own – as a hat – as he continues to aimlessly wander off.
It took five writers (Homer Brightman, Harry Reeves , Ted Sears, Lance Nolley, Eldon Dedini and Tom Oreb) to concoct this thimble of a plot; the pieces blending about as competently as oil and water. Fun and Fancy Free is, at best, a diversion; Walt’s desperate attempt to keep the studio alive with some badly needed capital and relying on his reputation almost single-handedly to sell the picture; also the considerable box office drawing power of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; heavily promoted in the poster art. But the film is clumsily put together, even uninspiring in spots – unusual for any Disney feature of this period. The ‘Happy Valley’ sequence is bright and breezy. But it lacks the initiative to be different than its source material; always a hallmark of Walt’s adaptations. Instead, we pretty much get ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ with the exception that the giant lives in the end; Walt using his trifecta of Mickey, Donald and Goofy as he had done to great success previously in Clock Cleaners and Lonesome Ghost (two shorts made in 1937).
By 1949, Disney Inc. was definitely ready for a return to form. The war years had been active – suggesting purpose. Alas, they had hardly been profitable or, in some cases, memorable; Walt finally assuming control over his studio at war’s end after being released from his commitments to the U.S. Military propaganda machine. The war had put a strain on Hollywood in totem; though perhaps nowhere more prominently felt than at the Disney Studios, emerging gaunt and frisky as a bear newly stirred from hibernation. Now, Walt needed either a miracle or the blind faith of a non-creative to salvage his company from foreclosure. In the early years he had borrowed heavily against his own life insurance policy to will Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into a reality. Now, Walt redoubled his efforts to convince Bank of America to reinvest with him on a new animated feature he insisted would guarantee big box office returns. Thankfully, Walt’s timing and convictions were well-placed; the resultant release of Cinderella (1950) reinvigorating not only the studio’s coffers but also audience’s devotion to the Disney brand, with Walt as its éminence grise of our cherished childhood memories.
Disney Home Video has released Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad on Blu-ray with a third – slightly forgotten – oddity from 1941 long overdue for its debut in complete form; The Reluctant Dragon. Dragon is perhaps the most bizarre live action/animated feature ever concocted at Disney. The penultimate animated sequence, about an effete dragon uninspired to behave like the fire-breathing brute of folklore, and pursued by the equally disenchanted, though loveable knight, Sir Giles (Claude Allister); the pair playing the petrified villagers for utter fools until general acceptance – rather than death for the dragon – is embraced, is quaintly amusing and, in fact, was frequently excised and revived as a short preceding other Disney feature-length cartoons.
The film equally provides a fascinating back stage pass to Walt’s Burbank Studios; its bustling college campus-styled layout exploited by the joyous comedy muckraking of cynical, Robert Benchley – playing himself – and Nana Bryant (as a derivative of the stuffy matron that was her bread and butter as an actress) herein, pretending to be Benchley’s wife. Mrs. Benchley gets the idea poolside that Kenneth Grahame’s children’s fable ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ would make a wonderful cartoon and goads her husband into attending Walt at the studio to pitch the idea. Alas, Walt and Benchley never quite meet until it’s too late, Walt already having had his own epiphany and made the picture without Benchley’s coaxing or input, much to his chagrin.
Beginning in B&W and moving into Technicolor half way through, The Reluctant Dragon is a mind-boggling cacophony of studio-sanction PR, mildly amusing cartoon sequences and hilarious repartee between Benchley and various members of Walt’s staff, including animators Norm Ferguson, Fred Moore and Ward Kimball.  In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where reality leaves off and the fantasy begins; the studio becoming its own Disneyland long before Walt had any notions about creating the happiest place on earth.
The good news herein is that Disney Home Video has taken painstaking care to archive all three movies; the debut of Fun and Fancy Free, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and The Reluctant Dragon on Blu-ray looking about as fine as anyone could expect. Prepare yourself for a rare treat; because all three features are housed on a single Blu-ray. I’m not entirely certain how the compression ratio for this disc is possible without obvious loss of fidelity, but suffice it to say none of the movies suffer undue visual distractions because of it. All three look fairly perfect with minor caveats. The Technicolor is robust and hearty; the B&W elements sporting exquisite tonality and a gorgeous amount of indigenous grain accurately reproduced. We’re seeing fine detail in the original artwork never before made possible on home video; minus the obtrusive age-related anomalies that have repeatedly plagued previous releases of these movies to DVD.
The image is razor sharp on The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – less so on Fun and Fancy Free. I’ve read reviews claiming undue tampering with DNR as the culprit, but I have to say Fun and Fancy Free has never looked razor sharp in any of the theatrical presentations. Is this Blu-ray a competent rendering of what the film looked like back in 1947? Oh, decidedly that. Is it exceptional? Hmmm. It’s better than I expected, so let’s just leave it at that. I think the level of expectation for this release to look as good as, say, Disney’s Tarzan (1999) is a bit optimistic to downright foolhardy. It gave me a fairly accurate presentation I’m thoroughly satisfied with – minor warts and all.
The live-action sequences sport ever so slight pinkish flesh tones; Edgar Bergan, for example, looks as though he’s just run up a flight of stairs; while Benchley and Bryant equally appear with rosy flesh that, in spots looks unhealthy and unnatural. Here’s the wrinkle; I don’t really think this is a flaw in this remastering effort, but rather an inherent characteristic of the studio’s use of vintage 3-strip Technicolor; not quite knowing how to light its living subjects to give them a more natural appearance. The live action sequences, in fact, have a faintly cartoony look to them.
We really do have to commend Disney Inc. for this jam-packed offering of nostalgia. The 3 movies housed in this collection may not represent top-tier product of its time, but they’re still a heck of a lot of fun to muddle through at a glance. The DTS audio remixes are equally a revelation; solid and sonically robust; the music sounding rich; Dinah Shore’s lyric soprano and Bing Crosby’s deep baritone coming across with gorgeous depth and clarity.  Bottom line: this release is billed as a two movie set, but it’s actually a three movie set; The Reluctant Dragon coming in a close third. I’ve no complaints here and don’t think the discerning home enthusiast should have them either. If you’re a fan of Walt’s – and who among us isn’t – then you’ll want to snatch up this compendium without reservations.  Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Fun and Fancy Free – 3
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – 3.5
The Reluctant Dragon – 3
VIDEO/AUDIO
Overall – 4
EXTRAS

Since we’re not counting The Reluctant Dragon as an extra, but a feature, the score herein is ‘0’.

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