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
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
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
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,
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.