Fun and Fancy Free Review

Fun and Fancy Free is the fourth film in Walt Disney Animation’s first dark age, better known as the “Package film era.” In the wake of World War II, with resources and staff dwindling (some even drafted), the Walt Disney Company was forced to cut corners with their animated features. Unable to create something of the same scale, scope and detail as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Pinocchio, Disney instead opted to emphasize short films,  package them together, and release them as a ‘feature film.’ Though the circumstances couldn’t be helped, suffice to say this era of Disney is often forgotten for a reason.

Following Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros and Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free continued the package film trend, and didn’t exactly improve on it. Fun and Fancy Free cuts down the number of featured shorts to two, and while that does make for a more focused film than its predecessors, it also means it has less chances to win the audience over to this format. Not to mention the segments in between the two shorts are the most padded yet.

The two featured shorts are Bongo, the tale of a circus bear who escapes into the forest and falls in love with a girl bear, invoking the wrath of a brutish villain bear, and Mickey and the Beanstalk, the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, but with Mickey, Donald and Goofy in the lead roles.

The film begins with Jiminy Cricket – yes, Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio – wandering around a random house, singing a happy song while encountering a goldfish and a black cat (who are not Cleo and Figaro from Pinocchio, by the way), before stumbling on a porcelain doll and a teddy bear next to a record player. Among these records is Bongo, the aforementioned bear romance story, which happens to be narrated by actress Dinah Shore (this movie was released in 1947, so you’d be forgiven for not being familiar with who that is). Inspired by the perceived love of the (quite inanimate) doll and teddy bear, Jiminy Cricket decides to play the Bongo record, which is where the first short begins.

After Bongo finishes, Jiminy Cricket happens upon a birthday invitation, with said party just so happening to be going on at that time. So Jiminy makes his way to the party to get some free cake, and this is where the filler segments get weird. It turns out the birthday party is for child actress Luana Patten, and takes place in the very much live-action world. Patten is being entertained at her party by famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, as well as his two then very famous (now just plain creepy) ventriloquist dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Bergen then tells the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk, with Charlie and Mortimer giving their own commentary with annoying frequency.

This just blows my mind on so many levels. First of all, the fact that Jiminy Cricket is in this movie just feels so strange. I know he’s one of Disney’s most iconic characters, but unlike Mickey, Donald or Goofy, who were “cartoon stars” who would be cast in different roles while retaining their core personalities, Jiminy Cricket was a character in an animated feature film. He was a key character in a defined narrative. So while the characters of the Mickey Mouse universe make sense to be used in package films like this, it just seems so weird to have a character like Jiminy Cricket show up in something that has no actual connection to Pinocchio.

“Ummm… No.”

Second, if you’re going to have Jiminy Cricket serve as the segue between the shorts, why not have Jiminy Cricket narrate the shorts himself? At least then his presence would make more sense. Instead, we have actors and entertainers from the late 1940s narrate the stories while Jiminy just kind of listens. It’s pretty transparent that Disney was in some desperate times that they had to utilize star power and resurrect a character from a previous and infinitely better movie in order to sell this movie. Sure, celebrities are a big part of animated features today, but they actually voice characters in the movies, they don’t just show up as themselves in live-action segments like some kind of guest star.

With all due respect to Edgar Bergen and Dinah Shore, watching this movie in 2020 feels like unearthing some kind of time capsule by their presence. I mean, part of the allure of animation is its timeless appeal. So it just seems so weird to have a Disney movie so overtly (if unintentionally) date itself. Had Bergen and Shore voiced some of the actual characters in the shorts, that’d be fine, but the fact that the movie feels the need to tell (and show) the audience which stars from decades ago are narrating the shorts is just so strange.

Enough with the filler segments. What about the shorts themselves? Well, like the previous package films, there’s really nothing too special about them. I suppose Mickey and the Beanstalk has the appeal of being one of the rare instances of Mickey, Donald and Goofy sharing the screen together, and it also has the little bit of trivia as being the last time Walt Disney himself voiced Mickey Mouse. Mickey and the Beanstalk is decently entertaining enough, and introduced audiences to Willie the Giant (the dude  what played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, in case you always wondered who the hell that was), but it’s nothing spectacular. And whenever Mickey and the Beanstalk starts to pick up some steam, it’s either interrupted by the constant nagging of those ventriloquist dummies, or flat-out cuts away back to said live-action segments.

It’s just kind of weird how the characters of the Mickey Mouse universe – Disney’s supposed ‘signature characters’ – were only put into Disney’s animated features when they needed to sell one of these package films. Is asking for a proper Disney movie starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy really asking for too much?

As for Bongo, well, it’s probably best that Fun and Fancy Free gets this one out of the way first. Because it honestly feels like it could be any Disney short from the time, but stretched unnecessarily long. This short in itself is around a half hour, but it feels longer than that. It’s the definition of a mediocre short, which may have been more charming if it were all the shorter.

There are moments of enjoyment in Fun and Fancy Free (namely those that involve Mickey, Donald and Goofy with as little interruptions as possible), but like the package films before it, it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the official Disney canon of animated films. Films like The Nightmare Before Christmas (one of the most beloved animated films from the 1990s) aren’t part of the primary Disney canon, so why are these shoddily made time-savers from the Package Film Era? Granted, I don’t think any of these package films holds the distinction of being the worst Disney movie ever, but none of them are particularly good, and they aren’t even much in the way of movies themselves.

The Mickey short is decent enough, but Bongo is kind of a slog, and the filler segments feel more padded and pointless than ever.

Three Caballeros was probably the highlight of this era, if for no other reason than its utter insanity and surrealism. But Fun and Fancy Free has none of that. But it does have ventriloquist dummies!

Jiminy Crickets…

 

3

Saludos Amigos Review

The history of Walt Disney Animation Studios has seen many highs and lows. Though things started off well for America’s premiere animation studio, with their first five features still being regarded as classics to this day, it soon found its first extended slump after the release of Bambi. In many ways it couldn’t be helped, with World War II affecting the Walt Disney Company as it did everyone. A lack of resources and dwindling staff resulted in what could be called the “Package Film Era” of Disney. Being unable to create films of the same scale and spectacle as their initial five features, Disney resorted to making more cost effective short films, and packaging them together (hence “package film”).

The 1940s saw no less than six such package films by Disney. Though these package films aren’t total busts, they definitely represent one of the lower points in the studio’s creativity. The first movie of Disney’s Package Film Era was Saludos Amigos which, with a runtime of only 42 minutes, is the shortest “film” in the Disney Animation canon.

Though Saludos Amigos predates America’s involvement in WWII, the war still played a large role in its production. With fears of Nazi Germany’s possible influence on Latin American governments, the United States Department of States commissioned a goodwill tour for the Walt Disney Company in Latin America. The Walt Disney Company would get to make a feature while traveling abroad, in hopes of strengthening friendship between the U.S. and Latin America.

As if the background of its production weren’t odd enough, Saludos Amigos is one of the stranger Disney movies. Not that its story is particularly bizarre (though its quasi-sequel, The Three Caballeros, might just take the crown in that regard), but because its four animated shorts are interspersed with documentary footage of the Disney animators’ tour of Latin America. It’s just so weird to see a Disney movie open up showing the animators and having a narrator explain how they’re heading to Latin America for research on the movie you’re currently watching…

As for the shorts themselves, they can be fun, but are unspectacular. The first and last shorts feature Donald Duck, the second revolves around an anthropomorphic airplane named Pedro, and the third focuses on Goofy.

The first short sees Donald Duck as an American tourist visiting Lake Titicaca. Though Disney’s early depictions of other cultures are, let’s just say “poorly aged” for the time being, the fun of this short is that the joke is on American tourists as opposed to the cultures Donald is visiting. There’s even a good piece of physical comedy with Donald trying to guide a llama over a bridge (a scene which I can’t help but feel Disney revisited with The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000).

The second short, aptly named Pedro after its aerodynamic protagonist, is unfortunately the low point of the film. It’s just a basic story of a small plane braving tall mountains and rough weather to deliver the mail. The short is supposed to take place in Chile, but it doesn’t exactly make much of an effort to showcase the culture. On the plus side, Chilean cartoonist René Ríos Boettiger was so disappointed with the representation of his country in the short, that he created the character Condorito to be a better cartoon representation of his country, with that character going on to become one of the most iconic cartoon characters in Latin America. So that’s something.

El Gaucho Goofy sees the best character of the Mickey Mouse universe cast (Goofy, obviously) first presented as an American cowboy, before being transported to the Argentinian pampas and becomes a Gaucho. It’s certainly not the best Goofy short, but the character’s usual bumbling antics are a nice refresher after the boring Pedro.

The final short is Aquarela do Brasil, and brings Donald Duck back into the film while also introducing the character José Carioca the parrot, who would have a bigger role in Three Caballeros. This short is more about fun visuals than it is gags like the first Donald short or the Goofy one, being presented with the meta-reference of a paintbrush painting the characters and backgrounds as the short goes on, making for crazy transformations and such. It’s fun, but again, it’s nothing special.

Sadly, that feeling of “fun but nothing special” kind of sums up the entirety of Saludos Amigos. Three of the four shorts are decently entertaining enough, but are far from the best Disney shorts. And the remaining one is just bland. The fact that these four shorts and the live-action documentary segments combined only amount to forty-two minutes is kind of telling of the place Disney Animation was in at the time (funnily enough, the short runtime wouldn’t even qualify as a feature-length film under the modern definition, meaning that this compilation of short films is in itself a short film).

Saludos Amigos isn’t a terrible movie per se, it’s just not much of a movie at all. It’s a collection of shorts that are alright at best, with very brief glimpses at the animators in between. It’s just kind of weird that such a movie is actually considered an official part of Disney’s official animated canon (notably being the sixth film in the Disney Animation lineup, so it’s not even buried somewhere obscure in the middle of the studio’s history).

I admit it’s not the worst film in the Disney canon, but because it isn’t much of a movie, it’s just weird to even call Saludos Amigos a Disney movie…

 

4

Kingdom Hearts 3 Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

Is it possible to love half a game? Or to half-love a game? Because I think that might describe my feelings for Kingdom Hearts 3. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game had me grinning from ear to ear and feeling like a kid on Christmas one minute, and then leave me aggravated and annoyed like an adult at the DMV the next. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel so emotionally polarized.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is the long-awaited “third” installment in the main Kingdom Hearts series, arriving thirteen years after Kingdom Hearts 2. Of course, considering how every handheld “spinoff” entry in the series that was supposedly intended to whet the appetite of fans in the interim between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3 are all part of the main story, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3 at all. It’s more like Kingdom Hearts 9. And that kind of takes away a little something from the long-awaited experience.

Even from the game’s opening moments, it doesn’t feel like the thirteen-years in the making trilogy capper it should be, but just another random episode in a series. In fact, if it weren’t for the game’s final stage (which somehow simultaneously rushes plot resolutions and drags things out at the same time), you’d probably never even think Kingdom Hearts 3 was serving as the end to the storyline that began with the series’ first entry.

Kingdom Hearts is, of course, Square-Enix’s crossover franchise which sees original characters created by Final Fantasy alumni Tetsuya Nomura travel across the different worlds of classic Disney films. The series also used to boast the occasional Final Fantasy character, but that aspect has been dropped  almost entirely for this ‘third’ entry (sans for the Moogle shop, and a few cameos via constellations in the stars. No, not even Sephiroth returns as a super boss).

It’s the Disney half of the game which is the half I love. As a particular fan of Disney’s recent animated films and those of the Pixar brand, Kingdom Hearts 3 is especially enticing in this regard, as Disney’s recent animated output and Pixar films are what Kingdom Hearts 3 really emphasizes this time around with its Disney-themed worlds.

There are seven primary Disney worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3 (plus the traditional, optional Winnie the Pooh world, which focuses on mini-games), five of which fall into the modern Disney and Pixar categories: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. The additional two Disney worlds are based on Hercules (which has been present in all three ‘main’ Kingdom Hearts titles) and Pirates of the Caribbean (specifically At World’s End, a movie I actually very much enjoy despite its general reception). Additionally, the game’s best side quest involves Sora and company seeking out ingredients and making new recipes for Remy from Ratatouille.

Even though it’s a smaller lineup of Disney worlds than some of the previous games, Square was clearly aiming for quality over quantity. And in that sense, they nailed it. This is the best lineup of Disney films the series has represented. And it’s within this Disney fan service that Kingdom Hearts 3 is at its very best.

There’s an inescapable delight every time you enter a new Disney world and Sora, Donald and Goofy interact with characters and events from the films. Many of these characters even have their original voice actors from their respective movies (the cast of Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, James Woods as Hades, and the perennial John Ratzenberger as Hamm are particular highlights). Of course, this also means when a character doesn’t have their original actor, it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking your way, Pirates of the Caribbean world).

If you’re a Disney fan – particularly a fan of modern Disney, such as myself – it’s impossible not to have a smile beaming across your face during many of the game’s Disney-centric moments. Naturally, seeing Frozen’s Let It Go recreated for the game stands out as my favorite, but you also get the lantern scene from Tangled, get to ride on the endless door conveyor belt from Monsters, Inc., and fly around San Fransokyo atop of Baymax. It’s moments like this when Kingdom Hearts 3’s many flaws wash away and you can simply bask in the charm of the Disney worlds.

With that said, the game often bungles what should be easy fan service. In both the Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds, their unique party members (Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, Jack Sparrow in Pirates) seem to repeatedly leave your party at every other turn, leaving them feeling underutilized (particularly in Tangled’s case, as Rapunzel no longer joins you if you revisit the stage after its story is done).

In perhaps the game’s most dumbfounding (or hilarious) creative hiccup, the Frozen world doesn’t see Elsa or Anna join Sora’s party, but Marshmallow the snowman (geez, they couldn’t even make it Olaf). Some might say they were trying to do something unexpected, but that seems like the wrong place to do it. Wouldn’t getting an unexpected party member in a returning world like Hercules or Pirates make more sense? They have access to the most popular animated film in history, and don’t fully utilize the main characters? Is it a joke? Especially seeing as Rapunzel – who barely seems to join your team at all – is the only female party member you get in the game, it makes Elsa and Anna’s omission even more baffling still.

Another disappointment with the utilization of the Disney brands is in the boss fights. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, you would at least battle against a fair amount of Disney villains. In Kingdom Hearts 3 there are only three boss fights against Disney characters: The Titans in the Hercules world, Marshmallow in Frozen (they’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of Marshmallow, it seems), and Davy Jones in Pirates. You can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have added a few more.

The non-Disney half of the equation is as clunky as ever. What’s even worse is how the game seems to reinforce the idea that the Disney stuff isn’t important, and only Tetsuya Nomura’s characters actually mean anything in the grand scheme of the Kingdom Hearts mythos. Nomura’s original creations simply don’t have any of the likability of the Disney characters with whom they often share the screen.

Even after all these years, Sora remains the atypical “anime boy doofus” character you’ve probably seen a thousand times over in other sources. The villainous Organization XIII consists of one-note, entirely interchangeable bad guys (with the game almost self-awarely reinforcing this when the Organization starts swapping out some members for other characters). Sora’s love interest, Kairi, still amounts to little more than a damsel in distress. Riku is the archetypal ‘rival’ who flirted with the dark side. There are other Keyblade wielders thrown into the mix without any real purpose to be in the story at this point. There are clones of characters. Clones of clones. Characters who aren’t clones but look exactly like other characters. There are even characters who share the same name as other characters!

Yes, it’s sad to admit that instead of learning from past mistakes, Nomura has instead doubled-down on them (whether through stubborn arrogance or blissful ignorance, I’m not sure). Instead of developing the core set of main characters, Nomura just kept adding more and more players throughout the series. This has left his original characters with about as much depth as a shallow puddle.

As stated, the Disney element has also suffered from this abundance of characters, with the different Disney casts being shoved to the side as the game constantly reminds us how unimportant they are. In one telling moment, an Organization XIII member discovers that the Dead Man’s Chest from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not the macguffin he’s after, and immediately disregards it. Yep, that key item from the second and third Pirates movies is merely scoffed at by just another one of the original villains. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts is now embarrassed of its crossover element at times.

The plot of the game and its characters would feel infinitely smoother if it made the Disney characters feel important to the narrative. Organization XIII alone would be a far more memorable villain group if some Disney and Final Fantasy villains were in its ranks (seeing as they’re established characters, you wouldn’t have to take time with introductions and getting to learn their personalities, thus leaving room to flesh out the original characters that are present). It seems like it should be obvious. You have a big crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, why not make those aspects of this mythology feel like they mean something? But one is (admittedly delicious) dressing, and the other is barely existent anymore.

Suffice to say, the narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit of a mess, with its only real charm stemming from the Disney characters and moments it borrows. But how is Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game?

For the most part, it’s pretty fun. The gameplay is primarily separated into two halves. The first half sees players control Sora, with Donald and Goofy serving as permanent teammates, and each Disney world coming with one or two teammates of their own (for a nice change, you no longer have to swap Donald or Goofy out of the party to make room for the new guys). The gameplay is predominantly a hack-N-slash RPG, with Sora and company hacking away at hordes of Heartless and Nobodies. The D-pad cycles through quick menus, allowing you to use items, cast spells and other such actions. In terms of control, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it’s quick to get into if you’re familiar with the series, but also means some of the controls feel stuck in the PS2 era.

Sora’s jumps still feel a bit clunky, and cycling through those “quick menus” may not be as quick as one might hope once you start unlocking more abilities and options. If you found the combat of the past games to be a little repetitive, you may find that to be the case here as well. But there are a few new additions to the gameplay that may win you over.

Some may lament that Sora can no longer change into different forms like in Kingdom Hearts 2, but there’s been a fair trade in that the different Keyblades you acquire can change forms instead. By chaining together combos, your currently equipped Keyblade can temporarily transform into a new weapon, giving Sora new moves, altering spells, and boasting a powerful finisher.

Other abilities can be utilized by performing combos as well. Do enough moves when standing next to a teammate, and you can perform a special move with them. Chain together enough spells, and you can perform more powerful versions of said spells. And in one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s best new additions, defeating certain marked enemies during a combo will allow you to summon an “Attraction.” As the name implies, Attractions are vehicles based on Disneyland rides that work like transformations for all three main heroes.

The only issue I have with these different abilities is that they’re all used by pressing the same button (Triangle on PS4). You can cycle through the temporary abilities you currently have available (L2 on PS4), but in the heat of battle it can get confusing and you’ll often use a different ability than the one you wanted. But they do help keep combat fresh.

The other half of the gameplay are the Gummi Ship sections, and this is where Kingdom Hearts 3 has greatly improved on its predecessors.

Players travel between worlds aboard their Gummi Ships (and can do so freely, should they so choose). Whereas past entries placed the Gummi Ships in fixed rail stages that, frankly, weren’t very good, Kingdom Hearts 3 instead boasts three different sandbox worlds set in outer space.

Players are free to fly about the galaxy at their leisure, can fight enemies and bosses, and find hidden treasures. Most treasures consist of more Gummi Ship parts, as players can create their own vessels, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts style. The more you do in space, the stronger your Gummi Ship becomes, and the more options you have available when creating new ships.

For a nice change of pace for the series, the Gummi Ship sections actually feel like a worthy and complimentary alternative to the main game. I found myself willingly spending entire play sessions just in the Gummi Ship portion of things.

“The A113 gag is a nice touch.”

In addition, there are more than a few side quests in Kingdom Hearts 3 that will keep players occupied outside of the main story. Along with helping Remmy create fine cuisine, the Disney themed stages all host a myriad of Hidden Mickeys (referred to as “Lucky Emblems” in the game). By taking photographs of these Lucky Emblems, the player can unlock secret items and abilities (naturally, the camera can also just be used to goof off as well). And a number of worlds feature their own mini-games where the player can once again unlock bonuses and earn high scores.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful game to look at. As usual, Square-Enix provides some of the cleanest looking cut scenes in gaming. But the real visual delight of the game is how accurately the developers have captured the look and feel of each different Disney world and the styles unique to them.

Perhaps Kingdom Hearts 3’s most consistently great element is its music. Once again composed by Yoko Shinomura, Kingdom Hearts 3 combines her unmistakeable style with renditions of classic Disney themes in addition to original compositions. Even when other aspects of the game seem to be pushing the Disney element to the sidelines, Shinomura’s terrific score brings it to the forefront, while also creating its own identity.

In the end, it’s hard to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 lived up to the thirteen year buildup. And if you weren’t a fan before, it may leave you wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with. The story aims for emotion but never resonates, due to the lack of substance in the characters (an obvious product of the fact that there’s just too damn many of them). The gameplay is decent, but lacks polish in a number of areas. And despite the franchise’s biggest selling point being its status as a Disney crossover, Kingdom Hearts 3 often comes across as dumbfounded as to how to make that crossover mean anything.

“Why can the loading screen give me what the game itself can’t?”

Yet, despite all the complaints, I’m still happy I played it. The gameplay is solid enough in its own right, complimented by the vastly improved Gummi Ship segments. Best of all are the Disney worlds themselves. Though they could have (and should have) been better implemented, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a persistent glee in my heart simply by running through these worlds, meeting the characters, and seeing iconic scenes recreated. Some might say I’m just a Disney fan who fell for Nomura’s bait and switch. But hey, when the bait is this enticing, can you blame me?

But seriously, next time have Elsa join my team.

 

5