August 1st, 2020

Take It

The Elusive Bear and the Vine to Clouds

Who remembers Bongo the Bear? Who remembers 1947's Fun and Fancy Free, Disney's ninth animated feature? Keeping it in my brain is kind of a struggle. It's a struggle to remember when it was first released on DVD in 2000 and I remember at the time a lot of people saying, "What is this thing?" No-one remembered it. Forgetting Bongo is understandable. More surprising is that most people don't remember the other half of the movie, Mickey and the Beanstalk, which stars Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. There are a few reasons this film slides through the cracks in one's brain. Though one of the 1940s' series of anthology films, its two parts were too long to be put in regular rotation like the shorts from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. And unlike The Three Caballeros and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, it's just plain dull. To say why exactly may be to examine the eternal mystery of storytelling but I think there are some clear explanations, too.

Bongo has a lot in common with Dumbo, being about a mistreated circus animal who doesn't speak, in fact there was some initial thought about making it a sequel or spin-off. But the similarities make it very easy to see why Bongo falls short of Dumbo's greatness; Bongo the Bear isn't as vulnerable as Dumbo, for one thing.

He looks like a cub but he behaves like an adult, having the wherewithal to abscond from the circus when he takes it into his head to go back to nature. His story also lacks characters to be his friends and foes in the circus--the only voice we hear throughout is Dinah Shore who narrates and occasionally voices the characters' thoughts, much like Bing Crosby in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow segment of Ichabod and Mr. Toad or Nelson Eddy in The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. Those shorts show you can have a range of characters in this format, though they may not be as filled out as the supporting characters in Dumbo or Bambi. But it's perfectly adequate if it's the kind of story to support it but, despite Dinah Shore's talent, Bongo isn't that kind of story.

Bongo himself is just too ill-defined. Mickey and Donald can be childlike but we know, at the end of the day, they're adults. The ambiguity is a problem for Bongo as we try to get a grasp on just how ready he is for this adventure he sets out on. We worry about Snow White running frightened through the woods because we know she's a teenager being cast out of everything she knows. We know Bongo didn't like life in the circus but we have no concept of his social group, his family and his friends. Considering how important family is in Disney's normal features, this is a particularly surprising omission.

He meets a female bear and the two have an extended, surreal love sequence where they fly about in clouds and swim through floating waterfalls accompanied by bear cherubs. In terms of design it's fascinating to watch though I wonder if at this point Disney was starting to realise this kind of thing doesn't connect with children as well as it does adults. But Bongo's love interest is even less substantial than himself. When a rival is introduced and the idea of bears slapping each other to show affection, the tension brings the story some life but never quite enough to support the whole.

Another problem with Fun and Fancy Free is that its two framing devices collide and start to make the movie feel cluttered. Bongo is introduced by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), amusingly fiddling with a record player and talking to a doll and teddy bear. But after Bongo, Jiminy hops over to the live action neighbour's house where Edgar Bergen is entertaining Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and a little girl (Luana Patten). Jiminy is relegated to an occasional sight gag as he tries to remain hidden while the four live action characters narrate Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Bergen's pretty funny and Charlie McCarthy in particular gets some good cracks in. Bergen's voice for Mortimer Snerd is distractingly similar to Goofy, voiced by Pinto Colvig. Both are based on the same vaudevillian stock character of the placid, dumb white southerner, but Goofy has a pretty small role in the film.

But the cluttered narration of four characters, three voiced by the same guy, almost dominate the story. Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) breaks through in a few spots, especially when he loses his cool at the dinner table, but the film fails well short of its intended goal of rejuvenating Mickey (voiced by Walt Disney) as a star. The animation is good and the trademark Disney fairy tale design is there but the only lasting impression is made by Willie the Giant (Billy Gilbert), who's much more familiar to audiences as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Mickey's Christmas Carol.

There's not much space for tension to build as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy rescue a magic singing harp (Anita Gordon) from the giant's clutches. There's more substance here than in Bongo but by the end you're still left with a feeling like you were served pizza without any toppings, including cheese and tomato sauce.

Fun and Fancy Free is available on Disney+.