Sunday, September 23, 2012

Disney Canon: Make Mine Music

During the year of War, as you might have known from previous posts, the Disney studio wasn't exactly in the best situation. They had had problems making a profit out of their previous animated features, a lot of animators were going off to the war and the rest was mostly working on making propaganda films for the American government. In order to keep releasing feature-length films, Disney took stories that hadn't been developed enough to become features on their own and presented them alongside other shorts in what are called his "package films".

'Make Mine Music' is the first of these "package films". And it seems like every short on this film (except for one obvious exception showcased in the image above) reflects some aspect of American popular culture and music of the time. Upon its initial release it featured 10 original shorts set to a musical background. (In later releases, including the ones available today, the 'Martins and the Coys' segment, that featured a Hatfields and McCoys-style feud, has been cut due to comic gunplay). Like many of the films of this era, 'Make Mine Music' is seldom remembered as a unit. Most modern audiences are only familiar (it at all) with some of the shorts that have been broadcast or released on their own. 

I am one of those modern audiences, never having seen the movie on its entirety before. I decided to take a look at the shorts that make up the movie one by one. 

Blue Bayou
This first segment is presented as a 'Lone Poem' sung by the Ken Darby Chorus. With the opening long take of the moon-lit sky seamlessly transforming into a swamp we know these "minor films" still have beautiful animation to boost. This one feels a lot like 'Fantasia', showcasing the beauty of the flora and fauna of the nightly bayou landscape. It features beautiful images, but the absence of classical music make it a rather dull short. It's a very short, which helps to answer why it's been forgotten all these years later.

All the Cats Join In
Is presented as a Jazz Interlude featuring Benny Goodman and his Orchestra and me makes me wonder why I haven't seen this segment as a short before. It has a meta style to it, with an animator's pencil drawing what is needed to tell the story of teenagers hanging out in the late 1940s. The jazzy score and the playful animation make it a very amusing short and one that I would have enjoyed as a kid, so as I said, I wonder why it wasn't paired up in some of the short packages I watched back then when other segments from this films were. 

Without You
Is a Ballad in Blue with Andy Russell singing "Without You". This one goes back to 'Blue Bayou' territory, featuring some abstract, yet beautiful animation to accompany the songs. I just don't know if a song about heartbreak and abstract animation is what people like to see in a Disney movie. The good thing is it doesn't go on for too long. 

Casey at the Bat
A musical recitation by Jerry Colonna. The subtitle is fitting, since it is a more traditional short, with a narrator shifting from singing the titular song to outright tell what is going on. I have to say I just don't get this one. It's not the baseball-setting, since I understand the game's historic position as the all-american sport. I love a lot of movies about baseball and Ken Burns' documentary on the subject, so it's not that. There's something about the characters in the short, there's just no one to sympathise with. Usually I wouldn't mind that so much, but for some reason I do here. I guess this baseball humor just isn't for me. 

Two Silhouettes
Features Tania Riabouchinska and David Lichine dancing and Lina Shore singing. At this point I have officially decoded the structure of this movie, interspersing funny cartoons and more romantic ones. This one is pretty self explaniatory, it has the two dancers featured as sillhouttes in a cartoon background. I guess the technology to do such a thing might have been rather impressive back in in the day. Today, it's just an ok segment that foreshadows the great work the studio would do making actors interact with animated characters in films like 'Mary Poppins' and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'. Actually, the studio had some of that in 'Song of the South', a movie released the same year as 'Make Mine Music'. 

Peter and the Wolf
Is presented as a fairy tale with music by Serge Prokofieff told by Sterling Holloway and is by far the most famous segment of the film. It has been released packaged with other musically-themed shorts and has been broadcast on television many times. It's the first of the segments in this movie that I have seen before and one that I remember having liked very much as a child. It is also the longest of the segments and the one that doesn't blend as well with the rest of the film's shorts. It maybe was planned as a stand-alone longer feature whose production was interrupted by the war. 

With its interactive, every-character-has-a-different-instrument composition, Peter and the Wolf is an incredibly effective approach for introducing young children to classical music. I do sometimes wish there were less narration in this segment, to just focus on the music and the animation. I guess uncle Walt was still a little pissed off by the failure of 'Fantasia'. As it is, Peter and the Wolf is still a very good short. I know the original composition is kid-friendly enough to be presented on its own, but this cartoon is a worthy companion. 

After You've Gone
Presented by The Goodman Quartet, 'After You've Gone' features surrealistic jazzy animation depicting a group of marching musical instruments that dance and morph into different shapes including a boxing match between a clarinet and a bass and a pair of piano playing hands turning into ballerinas. I bet many people will appreciate the surreal quality of this cartoon, as well as the very good music.


Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet
Now this one is sung by the Andrew Sisters and that is, at least for me, reason enough for excitement. Sadly, it doesn't feature the trio's full vocal talent except for a little bit at the very end. It is however a charming story about two hats falling in love. It sounds very safe and 1940s, but Johnny Fedora does go to some pretty dark places in the search for his beloved Alice.

The Whale That Wanted to Sing at the Met
Nelson Eddy does all the voices to this tragic story, which is the second best part of the movie. The premise is pretty wacky, but whales do sing or emit some kind of musical sound, don't they? The operatic lyrics to the story are also pretty clever and the story to Willie the Whale is an incredibly effective one with a tragic ending fitting to the story of an opera singer, but a little downbeat for the last segment of the movie.

Well, as you can see, every package film, because of their very nature, is rather hit and miss in its shorts. Some are wonderul (Peter, the Whale), some are forgettable (Blue Bayou) and some are just not that good (Casey). Still, I do think this is will be a good watch for kids. They'll surely find something to like here. You see, the film works pretty well because no segment goes on for too long, like it was the case in some parts of 'Fantasia', which granted was a much more ambitious film than this charming but silly collection of shorts.

'Make Mine Music' is posted on YouTube on its entirety as of this writing, so go ahead and take a look if you're interested. 

Next Time: A feature made out of two rather popular cartoons in 'Fun and Fancy Free'. For the meantime, here's the Whale that wanted to sing at the Met. 

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