A Study in Disney: ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ (1947)

| November 30, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Fun and Fancy Free Premieres - D23
Of all the Disney animated features, Fun & Fancy Free might have the dullest title of them all.  It sounds like a cheaply-made DVD sold out of the discount basket at the drug store.  It is not only dull, but it is also a little misleading.  The movie is not really about having fun or being fancy free except in the opening musical number sung by Jiminy Cricket.  It is not even really all that original; the segments feel like leftovers from bigger projects.  And, lo and behold, that’s exactly what it is.  It is passionless and feels quickly put together.

While the previous film Make Mine Music was a concert arrangement that employed ten separate segments, this one only has two with the addition of a framework that loosely ties them together.  We are first introduced in the film to Jiminy Cricket who is sailing down a small river toward an old dark library while he sings an insipid tune called “I’m a happy-go-lucky fellow.”  Watching it you get the same feeling that you might get if you were having a bad day and someone was behind you giving you a bunch of greeting card advice (“Let a smile be your umbrella!”) The logic of Pixar’s Inside Out is much more palatable, that sadness is crucial to being happy.

After breaking into the library and having innocuous interactions with some melancholy dolls, Jiminy comes upon a record player that guides us into our first story:

* Bongo is based on a story by Sinclair Lewis and narrated by Dinah Shore about a celebrated circus bear whose very name draws thousands to see his wild antics like juggling during his high wire act while riding a unicycle.  Backstage, however, Bongo is treated like an old piece of furniture and thoughtlessly thrown in a cage every night.  With that, he yearns to get back to nature.  So, Bongo sneaks away one night to get back to his natural roots only to find that the life of a bear in the wild is a little more daunting than he might have imagined.  All the other bears either laugh at him or bully him around and he seems to think that returning to the wild may have been a mistake.  Then he meets Lulabelle, a pretty girl-bear and falls head over heels in love.  That nugget of joy is complicated when a mean bully bear named Lumpjaw comes to claim Lulabelle by beating the stuffing out of Bongo.

Where the story ends up is not all that surprising.  What is surprising are the twists and turns that the story takes.  When Bongo tries to kiss Lulabelle for the first time, he realizes that bears in the woods show affection by slapping each other – there’s even a cute song that goes along with this happy-go-lucky call for affectionate domestic violence.  That’s a very tricky plot device.  What is a kid to glean from that?

The segment as a whole is very cute. The idea of Bongo being trapped between the misery of the circus and the misery of living in the wild is a good one.  But that idea is kind of laid out and never really dealt with.  Once he meets Lulabelle, his struggle to survive in the wild narrows down to basically defeating the bully and then falling in love. It is hard to know how to feel about this segment.  It is very cute but either it needed to be a lot shorter or feature length with more characters and a bigger story.  As it is, it seems to run on a bit too long and again, the slapping bit is cringe-worthy.


The Bongo short ends and we move back to Jiminy Cricket who finds an invitation to a birthday party and decides to crash it (the movie doesn’t say this but it is heavily implied).  He goes to a stranger’s house where puppeteer Edgar Bergen is entertaining a little girl named Luana by doing a Señor Wences-style puppet act with his hand.  Actually, this bit is a lot of fun due to the running commentary by Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd who, in an odd move, are able to move around the room independently without Bergen’s help.  Everyone in attendance settles in while Bergen reads the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.

* Mickey and the Beanstalk is a lot more fun than Bongo mostly because it features Mickey, Donald and Goofy together for the first time in a feature film.  Bergen tells a rather expanded version of the classic fairytale in which Happy Valley falls on rough times following the theft of a magical singing harp by a dopey giant who lives in the clouds.  It is Mickey who goes into town to sell the cow but comes back with magic beans (though we are never privy to how he came to acquire them) and the trio have to climb the beanstalk to retrieve the harp.

This is a pretty straight-forward retelling without much that is different save for the giant.  He’s your classic dopey Disney villain but he’s a lot of fun.  The only real addition to the story is that the giant now has magical powers; he’s a transmorph who can change into anything.  Unfortunately, nothing is done with that development.  When the giant is chasing the trio at the end, he doesn’t use his magical power at all.  It is brought up and then forgotten.

The story ends with a cute bit in which the giant arrives at the birthday party looking for Mickey and Donald and Goofy before departing down Hollywood Boulevard and stopping briefly to put The Brown Derby on his head before wandering toward the hills.

Both Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk were ideas that Walt had in mind after completing Snow White.  The film had been so successful that he began to mine other fairytales to turn into features.  Bongo was a new idea, but Disney had his eye on “Jack and the Beanstalk” going all the way back to the silent era.  He had filmed the story before, first as a silent for his Laugh-O-Gram film company in 1920 and then again in a 1933 short called Giantland starring Mickey, then again in 1938 in a short called Brave Little Tailor.  The silent version is considered lost but the two later versions are still readily available.

Mickey and the Beanstalk began life as “The Legend of Happy Valley” and was prepped to be a feature, as was Bongo.  However, both projects were halted by the events of December 7, 1941.  The United States entered World War II and Walt went to work making propaganda films in return for government subsidies.  This put a hold on all non-military projects.  When the war ended, the studio was under budget constraints so both projects were scrapped as features.  When Disney decided to pair the two together in the same movie, cuts were made.  Bongo had been propped up as a pseudo-sequel to Dumbo and much of Mickey was cut, most especially the scene in which he receives the magic beans from Honest John, the swindler from Pinocchio.  This idea was changed to a scene in which he receives the beans from Queen Minnie, but later both ideas were scrapped.

The film’s bizarre framework involving Jiminy Cricket visiting a library and later a birthday party hosted by Edgar Bergen and his puppets was used to knit the two segments together because, in all honesty, they have nothing to do with each other.  The framework provides a flimsy excuse for the movie’s boring title, and frankly they’re just an excuse for Bergen to give the film a touch of star power.

So, how is the film as a whole?  Well, the two segments are fun but not essential.  They’re two lovable shorts knitted together haphazardly by a wobbly framework that doesn’t really connect them in any way.  That’s a 180-degree difference between this and the previous film Make Mine Music which employed 10 musical segments put together as a concert experience.  There the form and function made for an enjoyable movie, but here it feels slapped together.  It feels like Walt had two good ideas that he wanted to put together but was desperate to find some way to get them in the same movie.  Later in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which also had just two segments) he would clear up this problem by slimming down the framework and just letting the shorts run the show.  That’s a better approach.  Fun & Fancy Free is just okay.  Of all the package films from the 40s it is the one that doesn’t seem to be reaching for greater heights.  There is no sense that Disney and his crew really wanted to make this film.  It is mildly fun, but that’s about it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.