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.