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.
It’s time to talk about the role of a voice-over in film. I’ve mentioned before my love of Terrence Malick, and I think his films are examples of how a non-diegetic narration can perfectly encapsulate the themes and mood of a film. The whispers of The New World and the naïve storytelling of Badlands are mesmerising, layered with meaning that takes several viewings to properly grasp. Yet it’s not just Malick that uses voice-overs in this way; most recently Beasts of the Southern Wild had a memorably precocious, philosophical narrator in the form of Hushpuppy. The problem is, this highly effective tool can be misused, simply employed as an editing technique when your story doesn’t make much sense without it. It can also, as in the case of Fun and Fancy Free as well as other early Disney films, be an intensely patronising device, spelling out the exact action that we can already see on screen. A classic rule of storytelling – show, don’t tell – is broken repeatedly by an overly intrusive voice-over.
A lot of what made Bambi a great film, for instance, was that the images largely spoke for themselves. Here, there seems to be a lack of confidence in the story, so the filmmakers rely on voice-over to add to it. It’s also a much cheaper option; much less synchronisation is required with a voice-over than with dialogue, so a lot less time is spent on the film and it ends up being a more cost efficient way of making it. The cheapness shows, and the stories lose any kind of impact because of it.
In Fun and Fancy Free, at least, there is more of a story than Saludos Amigos or The Three Caballeros which also suffered from constant, heavy handed narration. There are two separate stories, linked only by some Jiminy Cricket filler scenes (why did they bring him back? Hardly their greatest character). The first is called ‘Bongo’, about a bear who breaks out from his circus to live in the wild, where he falls in love. The second is Jack and the Beanstalk retold with Mickey Mouse (played for the last time by Walt Disney himself), Goofy and, sadly for everyone, Donald Duck. Neither are especially good, largely due to the terrible interference by the storytellers. It means the film as a whole is largely forgettable.
Forgettable except, that is, for its downright strangeness. Yes, Fun and Fancy Free could be the most bizarre Disney film yet, and not in a good way. It’s full of creative decisions that baffle the mind, and makes one wonder at what stage in the boardroom everyone just gave up and went nuts. Here are five of the strangest moments, four of which are from the Jack and the Beanstalk story. The bear one was a lot blander.
The giant’s desire to be a giant pink bunny rabbit
The crux of Disney’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk is that the three ‘heroes’ end up stealing from a mentally impaired giant who only stole the singing harp because of crippling insomnia. He’s a gentle soul, really, as demonstrated by this moment where he reveals his desire to use his magic to transform into a giant pink rabbit. No explanation given and, I think, no explanation needed.
Mortimer and Charlie are two puppets who, alongside an old man, appear to be the only guests invited by a very 1940s little blond American girl. Mortimer is apparently depressed and has limited imaginative capacities, Charlie is a hard bitten cynic who makes wisecracks during the story. Charlie’s suggestion as to how Mickey, Donald and Goofy should get of poverty is to eat their friend Daisy the cow. This raises all sorts of questions anyway – why are cows livestock, but mice, dogs and ducks are people who live in a house? Why is it ok to sell a cow but not Donald? Can someone please kill Donald? – but also reveals Charlie to be something of a sociopath. One quick glance at his dead eyes and wooden frame and you know this to be true.
A song that perhaps endorses domestic violence
How do bears express love? According to Disney, it’s by slapping their partners. This is demonstrated by a long dance, to a song telling us that ‘a bear likes to say it with a slap’. It’s immensely disconcerting to see one bear slap another, then hearts appear around their heads. The conclusion to this segment of the film is one man bear slapping a woman bear in the face, then the two of them ride off together on his unicycle.
This surprisingly meta moment at the end.
Mortimer the puppet is crying because he sympathises with the educationally challenged giant, who has apparently died. At this point the storyteller reassures him: “What you don’t understand is that the giant didn’t actually exist! He’s a metaphysical phenomenon of your subconscious mind; a phantasmagoria of your mental faculties. In other words, just a figment of your imagination!”
This doesn’t make any sense at the best of times, but the strangeness of the situation is promptly exacerbated by the giant tearing the roof off the house where the puppets and creepy blond child have just been told that said giant doesn’t exist. He then puts the roof down and walks off into the distance, and the film ends. Given how meta-narratives are very post-modern, such audacity seems ahead of it’s time. Perhaps Fun and Fancy Free is actual a pre-post-modern masterpiece.
A puppet’s moment of existential crisis
Charlie, the jokesome puppet who keeps chipping in his two cents on the story, gets a little too silly for the old man who is narrating. The old man is then surprisingly brutal, leading to this baffling exchange:
Old Man: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, Charlie? Why do you act like that?”
Charlie [folorn]: “I don’t know… I guess it’s just a stage I’m going through.”
Old Man: “Now take off this moustache and go and sit over there.”
Charlie: “Yes, sir. Everything I do is wrong…”
Reports say that the puppet hanged himself days later.
At the moment I’m working at Glasgow Film Festival, and time is limited. As such, I won’t be able to give much attention to this article about The Three Caballeros. But in a way that’s fitting, because it doesn’t appear as though Disney put much time into it, either. No, once more we have a lazy mish-mash of skits on the theme of South America, only this time it’s half an hour longer so it feels even more interminable. There’s nothing quite as naff as the story of the plane flying over the Andes, but then there’s nothing quite as good as the final section of Saludos Amigos, either. It’s just a retread of the same ground, with the same problems, and I find myself increasingly longing to watch Cinderella. So for the sake of time and your attention, I’ve broken it down into the biggest problems the film faces. Hopefully Make Mine Music will break this trend, and The Forgotten Forties might start picking up.
Problem #1 Donald Duck
The biggest problem of all, in fact. Has there ever been a more irritating character than Donald Duck? That noise he makes in place of speaking is worse than nails on a chalkboard; a rasping, throaty burble that is an assault on good taste. He reacts to everything with a grating ‘oh, boy!’ or a ‘gee whizz!’ and generally gives the film a sense of forced enthusiasm that is certainly not shared by the audience. And the big issue with The Three Caballeros is that he is our guide to the world. He receives a box full of presents from South America, including a Mexican cockerel (yeah, really), and a film about South American birds. Thankfully he isn’t the narrator, but that doesn’t stop him giving his two cents on everything, and his pratfalls increasingly become the focus of the film by the end. Perhaps he is popular with children, but as an adult watching it you quickly develop a hunger for some duck à l’orange.
Problem #2 The South American Setting
Supposedly Saludos Amigos was a trip to South America to get inspiration for their animation, but The Three Caballeros merely reinforces the suspicion that it didn’t especially work. Yet they choose to return here, and once more fail to capture the magic. If they had applied the same inventiveness that fuelled Fantasia to any of the sequences here, they would have struck animated gold. But as it is everything feels rather half hearted.
It’s also fitting, here, to address one of the categories on my check list. I’m talking, of course, about ‘Mild Racism.’ I add the ‘mild’ qualifier because there’s no real malice here, and it’s probably all unintentional. Disney’s infamous Song of the South is unavailable these days because of the ignorance in it, but traces of their cultural insensitivity can be found in a surprisingly large number of their films. Take the crows in Dumbo for instance. Whilst they are not villainous or cruel in any way – in fact, they are some of the most sympathetic supporting characters – they are undeniably reduced to lazy stereotypes of poor English and good dancing. The same is the case with both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros; South America becomes a place entirely of ponchos and maracas, removing any of the nuance or diversity of the continent. It’s like a whistle stop tour of all the cultural checkpoints, but without any of the heritage or rich culture that inform these surface details. That’s what I mean by mild racism, and The Three Caballeros certainly ticks that box.
Problem #3 The Storytelling
Or lack, thereof. Once more the skits are loosely thrown together, and have no impetus or direction. Whilst this criticism could be applied to Fantasia, that film works because of the craftsmanship that is just not evident here. Each of the stories in Fantasia are perfectly self contained, yet also contribute to an overall arc that celebrates art and music and beauty. There’s no such arc here, and instead we get rather uninformative, docu-style voiceover and extremely tenuous linking between the sequences. They all go on so long, as well, that any enjoyment that might be derived from the ideas is soon quashed by the fact that they never seem to end. For a film that is only 70 minutes long, it never seems to end.
The Redeeming Feature
If every skit was condensed to about half its length, this would have some really bright ideas executed with a lot of panache. There are moments here – brief, fleeting moments – that show Disney’s capabilities with animation. Even when the Three Caballeros mix with the live action people, which looks horribly dated now, it displays a bit of much needed flair. The problem is that this tiny flame of creativity is quickly put out by the hosepipe of indulgence. There’s also a running joke with a singing bird that genuinely made me laugh.
Faced with the box office flops of Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi, Disney needed to rethink their commercial strategy. All the time and effort they put into the Golden Age films was not paying off, and at some point they needed to start making money again. The solution, it seemed, was to make cheaper films with established characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy, hoping for a surefire commercial hit. The resulting films – Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun And Fancy Free and Melody Time – have largely been forgotten today, reduced to the status of animated curiosities for the dedicated Disney fan. I’ll call this period The Forgotten Forties, because once it ended (and with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad in between), Disney came back at full strength with classics such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. The Forgotten Forties are a blip in the canon, and whilst there are moments of brilliance hidden in the mediocrity, it seems as though there is a reason these films do not have the same status as the period that preceded it.
Saludos Amigos is an inauspicious start to the era, a series of shorts inspired by a group of animators travelling round South America that doesn’t amount to anything. If Fantasia drew inspiration from great music, Saludos Amigos is a tribute to great places. But whilst Fantasia is thematically rich, and beautifully drawn, the only thing unifying the shorts in Saludos Amigos is the setting. Apart from this tenuous connection, it all feels jumbled together, with an irritating voice over man spelling out, in detail, bits of information we don’t care about. The live action scenes that are interspersed with the animated sequences are painfully dull, the soporific drawl of voice over man incessantly relaying what we are seeing on screen. It’s an old school documentary with bits of animation thrown in because it’s Disney, but the tone is bafflingly mixed, unsure of whether it wants to entertain or to inform, and not really succeeding at either.
A skit about Donald Duck exploring Lake Titicaca opens up the film, where he tries (and fails) to blend in with the locals whilst remaining very much a tourist. There’s a couple of nice touches here, as Disney plays with self-aware characters (Donald interacts with the narrator), and there are some sly jabs at tourist culture which are even more relevant today. Yet most of the time it is nothing more than some uninspired slapstick that goes on for far too long and in no particular direction. The following story, about a plucky little mail plane, doesn’t even have the humour of the first sequence and fails to use the compact structure of a short to create any sense of emotional investment or threat. The instructional short about the life of a Gaucho, featuring Goofy, is more comedic but isn’t especially funny save for a nice joke about slow motion. None of these three shorts are memorable in any way, any drama or humour sapped out of them by stilted pacing and that infuriating narrator.
The worst crime of all is that South America – a vibrant, beautiful continent of diverse peoples and landscapes – is animated with a half-hearted approach that never properly captures the land. The shorts are all very bright, but sorely lacking in a sense of scale or detail. The thick lines and bright colours leave you longing for the subtle beauty of something like Bambi. There’s so little happening in the frame that it quickly becomes dull to watch. It’s a remarkably short film anyway, at only forty two minutes, but the really weak animation adds to an overall sensation of an apathetic, uninvolved Disney. In fact, its length, lack of ideas and hybrid between live action and animation makes me question whether this should be in the Disney canon at all.
However, the final section almost redeems the film, as Disney get their Fantasia groove back and go a little more abstract with their ideas. Aquarela de Brasil is a piece of music that the artists try to capture with some jazzy, colourful animation. It’s a tribute to the music and sensations of Rio de Janeiro, bursting with life and energy. At one point they insist on bringing back Donald Duck – surely the Mouse House’s most irritating character – but they also introduce José de Cariaco, a parrot who is a lot more fun (and thankfully returns for the next film The Three Caballeros), and the film ends on something of a high. What’s particularly enjoyable is the way the animator’s paintbrush invades the frame, creating new sights as the two characters walk along the streets of Rio. It’s a scene that showcases how inventive the team can be when they put their minds to it, making it even more frustrating that everything that preceded it was so uninspired.
Saludos Amigos opens with a narrator telling us that a team from Disney have decided to travel to South America on the hunt for ideas. Sadly with Saludos Amigos it appears as though they didn’t find any once there. Instead we get a series of half-baked vignettes that don’t amount to anything, the sophisticated story telling of Disney’s first five films lost in a childish, directionless mess of a film. There are a few redeeming features here, glimpses of the studio’s brilliance, but the film as a whole feels so inconsequential. It’s as though Disney just isn’t trying.