[20 August 2014]
It makes sense for Disney to offer Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad on one Blu-Ray. They’re both classic Disney animated films that are comprised of short segments and some wrap-around material. Both are short for feature films, hovering somewhere around the 70-minute mark. They were also released close together, with Fun and Fancy Free coming out in 1947, and Ichabod and Mr. Toad following in 1949. (Only 1948’s Melody Time comes between them; as of this writing, it is not available on Blu-Ray.)
The sources of the shorts that make up both movies are similar as well, coming from classic stories: “Little Bear Bongo” by Sinclair Lewis and the fairytale “Jack and the Beanstalk” make up the former, while the latter takes on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. And famous voices are pressed into service telling these tales, including Dinah Shore, Edgar Bergen (and his dummies), Basil Rathbone, and Bing Crosby.
With such obvious parallels between the two films, what’s perplexing about their Blu-ray pairing is how separate they remain, even as they are doubled up on the disc. An initial menu makes viewers immediately choose between Fun and Fancy Free and Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The only option is to watch one, then the other, in their original forms. Even an additional short that is advertised as a the sole bonus feature—“The Reluctant Dragon”, a live-action bit that has Robert Benchley wandering around Disney studios learning how the films get made—shows up twice, listed separately as a bonus feature for each film.
It would have been neat if the Blu-ray gave viewers a choice to either watch the movies as two distinct features in their original forms, or as a series of shorts that could be accessed separately and watched in any order. Yet if you want to go from “Sleepy Hollow” to “Bongo”, you have to stop Ichabod and Mr. Toad, head to the top menu, select Fun and Fancy Free, select play from that menu, and fast-forward through the overlong introductory material with Jiminey Cricket.
Format nitpicking aside—and I realize it is a lot to ask Disney to slice-and-dice its beloved feature films—this Blu-Ray two-movie collection has charm to spare. For the most part, the shorts are some of Disney’s strongest, and taken as a whole they offer a variety of animation styles, characters and tones.
It gets off to a rough start, though. Fun and Fancy Free begins with a jaunty tune from Jiminey Cricket that comes off as sort of an attempt to re-create the feel of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”. As it stretches into a few too many verses, it starts to feel less like an introduction to the film and more like padding to get the movie to (nearly) feature length. That goes into “Bongo”, a musical short narrated by Dinah Shore about a circus bear trying to make it in the wild. “Bongo” isn’t quite as funny as a short with Donald or Goofy, its animal-out-of-circus tale isn’t as emotional as Dumbo, and the songs nearly as catchy as Disney’s best. It comes off as neither here nor there.
After “Bongo”, the follows Jiminey Cricket into a live-action segment, where Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and a young girl are having a birthday party. There’s a pause for lackluster comic relief, and then (finally) Bergen tells the group the tale of “Mickey and the Beanstalk”. (Other versions of “Mickey and the Beanstalk” replaced Bergen’s narration with actor Sterling Holloway, or puppeteer Shari Lewis and puppet Lambchop.) Here, Disney’s knack for re-telling classic fairytales with its own characters is readily apparent. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy make for an unlikely trio going after a giant and his singing harp, but they’re delightful. The affection for the short is only deepened with the knowledge that this short is the last time Walt Disney provided the voice for Mickey Mouse.
The introductory material for Ichabod and Mr. Toad is (thankfully) far less elaborate; it comprises voiceover narration over an empty, live-action library. “The Wind in the Willows”, narrated by Basil Rathbone, changes gears once again, ditching some of the adventure of “Mickey and the Beanstalk” for all-out comedy. The jokes here land harder than Bergen’s quips, and it would be surprising if this short earned laughed from full-grown adults. The humor lies squarely in Mr. Toad’s gonzo character, who’s animated in every sense of the word, bouncing around the frames in his quest for a motorcar. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, as told by Bing Crosby, isn’t quite so lively. But the look of this short takes on a different, more painterly quality, evoking the poetry of Irving’s words. The parts with the Headless Horseman does evoke some suspense, and Crosby’s songs about Ichabod and the Horseman are the best songs of the two-movie set.
As a whole, these shorts give a sampling of everything Disney has to offer: adventure, suspense, and humor; beloved characters of Disney’s devising and great characters from literature; different musical styles; and a range of animation. Presenting the two films together, even disjointedly, only makes the collection stronger.