There are two possible approaches to Disney’s 10th animated feature film, Melody Time. One is that it is yet another lazy, poorly animated entry into the canon from the forties. The other is that it’s actually a clever satire on the role of myth in American history, and the concepts of masculinity that it contains. On the surface it may just appear to be a naff, forgettable compilation of musical shorts like Make Mine Music, but beneath that could be a subversive examination of American national identity. It’s difficult to tell so I’ll split the article exactly in two to try and decide which of these interpretations it is.
Melody Time is a lazy, dated, seen-it-all-before collection of shorts
Make Mine Music was a fun, if frivolous, compilation of musical shorts that used jazz and other contemporary music to tell stories of varying quality, and this is much the same but a lot less fun than its predecessor. The music isn’t as good, but there’s some interesting ideas here, such as a bumblebee trying to escape from a jazzed up version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ as the instruments come to life, attempting to chase and trap him. There’s a fluidity of animation and an inventiveness of ideas here that recalls the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence from Dumbo. It’s the stand-out scene, although you don’t find out what happens to the bumblebee, which is distressing.
Yet it also suffers from a case of over-narration, much like Fun and Fancy Free, only this time all the voice-over is sung. So every ballad has the story spelled out in very 1940s songs that quickly become repetitive. The story of a little tug-boat – ‘Little Toot’ – is the worst example of this, a short horribly reminiscent of the mail plane from Saludos Amigos. It’s so simplistic and childish that it holds no appeal for adults today. Even kids might find the constant singing a little tiresome. It’s also got a psychotic story line, as at one point the titular tug is responsible for the death of (presumably) thousands of people as he crashes a cruise liner into a city. Perhaps it’s meant to be a horror story, especially as Little Toot’s guilt is later expressed by some buoys howling “baaaaaad boooooooooy” at him.
Other things that don’t work well about Melody Time include the return of Donald Duck, that most irritating of characters, and José Carioca, as if people were crying out to revisit the glory days of Saludos Amigos. There’s also Disney’s curious insistence at this time to merge live action and animation, which makes the film irredeemably dated. One of the joys of animation is that it is timeless, because drawing and art can be from any time. As soon as you put in live action footage you immediately place it in a specific time and context, and when the costumes are as naff and clearly fake as they are here it guarantees that it won’t age well, whereas the Golden Age films are still watched today because although there are dated elements, there’s nothing as awkwardly of-its-time as the moment in this film where the creepy Aryan girl from Fun and Fancy Free is being sung to by a bunch of cowboys apparently fresh from a line dancing competition.
So there’s much about Melody Time that is uninspired and more than a little bit dull. But am I missing the point?
Melody Time is an intelligent examination of masculinity and the American myth
The overarching theme of Melody Time is clearly mythology, and its place in America. Two of the segments are very overt about this, namely ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘Pecos Bill’. The former is about a man who roams the American frontier planting apple trees and bringing the joy of apple pies and cider to settlers across the nation. It’s an epic tale of man vs. landscape, and how its only through embracing nature that you can succeed in the harsh world of the frontier. It’s the most simplistic version of the American dream, displaying success in the face of adversity. Yet there’s subversion here, as the eponymous hero displays none of the characteristic traits of American masculinity that you might expect. He’s weak, long haired and small; instead of hunting animals he pets them. Is it possible that Disney is changing concepts of the American man?
You also see this idea in opening story about two ice skaters, which is drawn, like ‘Johnny Appleseed’, in a simplistic, story book style that roots it in an American context. A young man and a boy rabbit simultaneously try to impress their sweethearts with ice skating tricks, but eventually end up almost killing them. Their frustration ends up with them in the snow and it is down to horses (a symbolic choice, I feel) to save their lady-loves whilst the men lie buried, both frigid and impotent. The Donald Duck segment sees him, once again, trying to impress a real life woman, but it just ends up with another bird setting fire to the piano and Donald’s romantic intentions are thwarted once more. Everywhere you look in Melody Time you see masculine endeavour frustrated by barriers of powerlessness and stupidity. Not for Disney, the successful, virile man of popular 50c pulp fiction.
The most telling story is that of Pecos Bill. It’s told to creepy Aryan child and a boy who we presume to be her brother. The young boy expresses his distaste at hearing stories about women; “ah, shucks, a woman in the story.” He is a man not interested in women, showing further subversion of gender tropes within Melody Time. The story of Bill himself is a tragic tale of your typical alpha male American hero. He grows up with coyotes (even suckling a mother coyote in one weird moment), and learns to survive in the Texan desert by outperforming all the animals of the wilderness. He and his horse, the Widowmaker, become famous in the land, constantly firing off his guns – read into his trigger happy nature any symbolism you wish. He does everything you can wish of a man, shaping the American landscape by creating the Rio Grande and giving the Lone Star State its nickname. Eventually the legends precede and exceed the man himself. Yet Pecos Bill becomes a tale of masculine hubris, the myths about his origins only serving to build up the pride before the fall.
He meets a cowgirl who he falls in love with, much to the jealousy of his horse. Suddenly the greatest cowboy in the west, the man of all men, is undone simply by a buxomly, Stetson wearing cowgirl. When it gets to the wedding day, Sweet Sue wants to ‘ride his horse’. She manages to stay on for a long time, but eventually the horse gets too violent and Sue bounces into the air. Pecos Bill tries to save her, but his lassoo ends up being a bit too short in a moment of symbolic fallibility. The beacon of masculinity that is Bill is found wanting at the most crucial moment, and eventually Sue lands on the moon, never to be seen again. On his wedding day Bill fails, his guns and lassoo – emblems of his masculinity – are no use to him. He is undone.
These tales of the frontier are rooted in American mythology, yet show the impotence of the American man to achieve their dreams and desires. Melody Time, therefore, could be the most cynical and satirical of all of Disney’s films.
On second thoughts, it’s probably just a bit rubbish.