When The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad Blu-ray was announced, there was no mention of Fun and Fancy Free being paired with it, much less the entire The Reluctant Dragon feature (not just the animated segment). But this Tuesday all three features will be available in one set on both Blu-ray and DVD.
Each film is a touchpoint in the Disney Studios’ journey through the 1940’s, starting with The Reluctant Dragon (tucked away on the disc as a Bonus Feature). Like a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, this film takes humorist Robert Benchley and the viewing audience on a factual/fanciful tour of the inner workings of the mystical, magical animation factory. Previously released on its own DVD in 2007 (through the Disney Movie Club) it was later released in the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set, Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio.
The black-and-white section of the film glows in the new high definition transfer. It’s akin to watching a remastered film print on TCM. What a thrill to see when the movie changes to rich, saturated Technicolor! This may not have been the elaborate, high-budget kind of movie audiences had come to expect from Disney in 1941, but it’s a handsome production nevertheless, very much locked in the styles, acting and (let’s face it) hokum of ‘40s light comedies and musicals.
That attachment to its bygone period may reason the Blu-ray box gives The Reluctant Dragon short shrift. For modern audiences it may seem quaint. But it’s a treasure trove of Disney Studio lore and it lived and breathed, and despite its inaccuracies about the animation process, the whole film makes it seem so clear, even the youngest child can get the picture.
To Disney fans and historians, The Reluctant Dragon is not just the first predominately live-action Disney feature, it’s also a production steeped in stormy events affecting the studio—a bitter strike that saw some artists picketing theaters showing the film—and World War II. Both changed the company and its founder forever.
On to one of the film’s flashes of pure brilliance. The “Baby Weems” sequence (introduced by a brink-of-stardom Alan Ladd as a Story Artist) is presented in mock storyboard form, with occasional animation and a constant barrage of ingenious visual gags. (In addition to actors like “Dobie Gillis’” Frank Faylen and radio’s “Phillip Marlowe,” Gerald Mohr, actual Disney staffers also appear in the movie, including Ward Kimball, Pinto Colvig and animator-turned-actor John Dehner). Baby Weems is a searing satire on rampant mass media and the callous disposability of “the latest thing.” Despite the changes in technology from 1941 today, this little film still packs a pungent punch. This was pretty cynical stuff for Disney cartoons, often branded as overly nice-nice.
As a narrative, The Reluctant Dragon is a series of comic vignettes and cartoons with the thread of Benchley’s mission to show Kenneth Grahame’s book to Walt Disney. The threads loosened in the three “package” features that followed - Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free and Melody Time - though Fancy Free had the benefit of Jiminy Cricket as a “host” to provide transition between the segments.
Fun and Fancy Free opens with Jiminy entering a house and plays a record. We don’t know who lives in the house, but they must have good taste—they’re Disney record collectors who own the 78 RPM Columbia album of Bongo featuring Dinah Shore. (How wonderful to watch Jiminy roll the shellac disc onto the turntable.) The cartoon materializes as the record plays. Bongo is a modest, nicely executed diversion, with a slim, not especially memorable story. That may have been one reason that it was often separated over the years from its companion cartoon, Mickey and the Beanstalk.
After Bongo, Jiminy leaves the home of “Occupant” and finds himself at the home of the legendary ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen (be sure to note all the clever hand-painted connections between the houses). Bergen reached superstar status because he did with the irascible “Charlie McCarthy” in the ‘40s what Burr Tillstrom did with Kukla and Ollie in the ‘50s and the Muppet performers have done ever since: evoke such vivid personalities with their characters that they become living beings, even when you can see the puppeteers. The same might be said of great animation—it becomes more than drawings or wireframes.
The new Blu-ray release does not include the documentary short about Fun and Fancy Free, which included a sequence created when Mickey and the Beanstalk was intended to be a feature. But at its final length, Beanstalk seems just right; free of padding with highly rewatchable gems like the beanstalk growing sequence.
Fun and Fancy Free had ties to NBC’s popular Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy radio show (which regularly trounced CBS’ Mercury Theatre series with Orson Welles, except on that night in 1938 when “aliens” landed). Walt himself guested on the Bergen show on September 21, 1947, just days before the film opened. Bergen’s musical director, Ray Noble co-wrote several Beanstalk songs, which appeared on various Disney records through the ‘80s.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is made up of two seemingly disparate segments, but they somehow fit together into a cohesive feature. By its release in 1948, Disney was inching back to the full-length animated form, and these mini-features show a bump up in sheen and polish generally missing from the wartime package films.
The Wind in the Willows (based on the book by Reluctant Dragon author Kenneth Grahame) is splendid, foreshadowing the stolid-yet-unglued personalities as well as some of the design of 1951’s Alice in Wonderland (the “real world” parts, not the surreal ones). Brisk but not rushed, the film establishes the beloved characters and their adventures very well within the time frame. Like Mickey and the Beanstalk, Disney’s version of Willows works better in a shorter form than it might have as a feature. And having the voice of Basil Rathbone as narrator is a gift to animation. Sheer perfection.
The Wind in the Willows provides a great warm-up for the more ambitious Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which as a lone segment played constantly in schoolrooms and on TV sets at Halloween time.
To the audiences in the 1940’s, having Bing Crosby narrate Sleepy Hollow was akin to hearing a star like Johnny Depp in The Corpse Bride. Crosby remains one of the most popular performers of all time, with record and film receipts that are staggering when converted to 2014 dollars. Amenable to poking fun at his persona, Crosby does a bit of the signature “boo-boo-boo-boo” shtick that kept impressionists busy for most of the 20th century (Even Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers had some good-natured fun with it in 1962's Symposium on Popular Songs.).
Many have rightly pointed to the Headless Horseman sequence as the film’s high point. Indeed, it gives a “grand finale” feeling to the two-film package. But just as laudable is the musical party scene in which Brom Bones (also Crosby) sings about the legend. The physicality of Bones’ performance results in the mounting terror in Ichabod, while Katrina, oblivious to Ichabod’s reaction, laughingly reacts to it as the kind of silly “scary story” antics common to Halloween parties. All of this—character dynamics, light and shadow, rhythmic patterns, musical performance and of course, animation—is exemplary.
The DVD included with this Blu-ray release also includes all three films. You might want to hold onto your earlier DVD releases if you want to keep the deleted bonus features—the Fun and Fancy Free short doc (mentioned above), Lonesome Ghosts, “Merrily On Our Way” Sing Along, read-along storybooks and trivia games. Your call.