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

Fantasia Review

Fantasia

Disney’s third animated feature film, Fantasia, was never intended to be a film at all. After production costs for a new Mickey Mouse short, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, went much higher than expected, it was decided to be added to a compilation of animated shorts accompanying classical music. This compilation was also not intended to be a definitive film, but instead a showcase of different animated shorts that would be replaced and reissued with more musical shorts through the years.

In the end though, Fantasia greatly benefitted for remaining its own film. Though it was initially met with a mixed reception, the decades since its 1940 release have proven it to be a classic in the Disney canon, and it’s most certainly the most artistically ambitious film the studio made during Walt Disney’s lifetime.

FantasiaFantasia is a much different film than most other Disney offerings. It’s a lot more like a concert than it is a movie. It features a “master of ceremonies” in Deems Taylor, who introduces each animated segment during live-action intermissions. We get to see the orchestra, and conductor Leopold Stokowski, prepare the instruments and music before each of the film’s eight animated shorts (with the live-action bits being displayed in half-light-half-shadow, further playing into the film’s visual mystique).

Deems Taylor informs the audience from the get-go that Fantasia is comprised of three types of segments: those that tell a definitive story, those that have definitive images but don’t follow a direct narrative, and those that are simply abstract visuals, with no narrative whatsoever. These differing styles help give each segment a distinct personality and tone, not to mention variety.

It goes without saying that the music is great. With featured compositions from the likes of Beethoven and Bach, it really couldn’t go wrong. Each piece is accompanied by some rather glorious animation, which remain some of the best and most imaginative in the Disney canon.

Each segment has a visual distinction from the others in both style and character designs, and it’s actually surprising how well the visuals compliment the classical music. If any of the Disney features from the studio’s early years showcased the talent they had to offer at the time, surely it’s this one. A number of the segments even come across as dreamlike, thanks to the often haunting visuals.

Unfortunately, not all is perfect with Fantasia. With so many different and distinct segments, it only makes sense that not all of them are equals. Despite the great Beethoven composition and the fun Greek mythology visuals, the Pastoral Symphony segment feels like it drags on a bit, and the “Meet the Soundtrack” segment that plays after the intermission seems to just kind of be there. But when Fantasia is great, it’s really great. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remains one of the best Mickey Mouse shorts (and oddly, it remains Mickey’s only real role in a feature film from the studio), and the Rite of Spring short, which displays “the first billions of years of Earth’s history” is a definite highlight in both the visuals and how they coexist with the music.

FantasiaFantasia is also wise to save it’s best segment for last. Night on Bald Mountain, which sees the demonic creature Chernabog summoning monsters and ghouls for his own amusement, still provides some of the most powerful and darkest imagery in Disney’s history.

Fantasia remains a Disney classic for its unique approach to filmmaking. It goes without saying that music and animation go hand-in-hand with each other, and Disney’s decision to marry the two mediums into one entity is as striking now as it was in its day. It’s true, Fantasia does drag a little bit at times, and if you’re looking for a more “fun” Disney movie, it’s probably not the best choice. But Fantasia remains a unique entity unto itself. Even its 60-years later sequel couldn’t match up to it.

More of a cinematic concert than a traditional Disney film, Fantasia is, if nothing else, a delight of sights and sounds.

 

8

The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey and Minnie Review

The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey and Minnie

Disney properties have produced a higher number of quality video games than most other licensed franchises. At least they did back in the day. The colorful worlds of Disney animated films and cartoons make for a fitting translation into video games, and during the 80s and 90s, Disney often got high profile developers such as Capcom to create their games. Along with nostalgic favorites like Ducktales and Darkwing Duck titles on the NES, Capcom also produced a trilogy of Mickey Mouse video games for 16-bit consoles, known as the Disney’s Magical Quest series. Though each game in the series played similarly to each other, it seems the second entry in the trilogy, The Great Circus Mystery, is often the most fondly remembered.

In The Great Circus Mystery, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are on their way to a circus, when a disheartened Goofy informs them that everything in the circus has run amok. It turns out that Pete – this time going by the monicker of Baron Pete – has taken over a haunted house, and has used an army of ghosts to wreak havoc across the land, including the circus. Naturally, it’s up to Mickey and Minnie to set things right.

In regards to gameplay, it’s a pretty straightforward platformer, albeit with some fun twists. Players take control of either Mickey or Minnie, with the game allowing for a second player to join in at any time. Both of the iconic mice can jump on enemies to stun them, and can then pick up said enemies, as well as blocks, to toss them at other foes Super Mario Bros. 2 style.

The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey and MinnieThe big hook of the Magical Quest series, however, was the characters’ ability to find different costumes, which alter the gameplay in fun ways. Here, Mickey and Minnie pick up a cleaner outfit, a safari gettup, and a cowboy costume. The cleaner allows Mickie and Minnie to suck up enemies with a vacuum, while the safari costume gives them hooks to climb up walls, swing on chains, and slide down ropes and vines. The cowboy outfit may be the most useful, however, as it not only gives players the ability to jump higher with its accompanying pogo stick horse, but also gives them a pop gun, allowing for a projectile attack that can be used anytime so long as you have ammo.

What’s interesting is how the level design later gives players the chance to get through levels in slightly different ways, depending on which costume they use. Admittedly, this is more true for the safari and cowboy outfits, as the cleaner costume doesn’t come into play nearly as much.

Though the gameplay is fun, The Great Circus Mystery is definitely on the short side, with only six levels to speak of: a circus, a jungle, a haunted house, a cave, an icy mountain, and Pete’s castle. Each level is separated into two acts, with each act ending with a boss.

Another downside is that the game is incredibly easy. You’ll find that you’ll rarely be having much of a challenge in the enemies or levels. Making things even more of a cakewalk is how getting a game over doesn’t deter you much, since you still come back at the last checkpoint and have unlimited continues. Even the bosses, though creative and varied, aren’t particularly challenging (with the exception of the second boss of the ice world, which is one of the few times you’ll be breaking out the cleaner costume after its introduction).

The only real problem that arrives upon getting a game over is that you lose all of the coins you collected. The coins are used to purchase upgrades to the costumes and extra health late in the game, and the items can get a little pricey, so chances are you won’t be able to get anything when you finally make it to the shop. Still, with how easy the game is it hardly feels like a big loss to miss out on the upgrades and such. Some hearts that increase Mickey and Minnie’s health are found hidden in some of the levels anyway, so by the point you even make it to the shops, you’ll probably have more than enough health to get by.

Visually, the game looks pretty impressive. Though it doesn’t have the same fluid animations of Mickey Mania, The Great Circus Mystery still catches the eye with sharp, colorful visuals that capture the look of Mickey’s animated shorts. The music, while not particularly memorable, is also upbeat and fun, and suits the nature of the game.

The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey and Minnie serves as a fun platformer that’s made all the better with two players. Though it may not hold much depth due to the short length and easy difficulty, it does showcase a good amount of Disney and Capcom charm.

 

5

Mickey Mania Review

Mickey Mania

Though licensed video games have a pretty bad reputation in this day and age, during the 16-bit era, video games based on existing franchises of other media were a little more hit or miss, with quality titles balancing out the cash-grabs. This was notably true for Disney games, which produced a few memorable sidescrollers, and some not-so memorable ones. Unfortunately for Mickey Mania, it leans a little more in the latter category.

Mickey Mania is a 2D platformer that stars none other than Mickey Mouse. Mickey travels through six of his classic cartoons, which have all gone awry, leaving the iconic mouse to set them straight.

It’s actually a pretty great premise for a game based on Mickey Mouse, made all the better by the fact that each game world replicates the look of different classic Mickey Mouse shorts through the decades. Naturally, the game starts with the monochromatic Steamboat Willie, and works its way up to The Prince and the Pauper which, at the time, was the most recent Mickey short. Better still, the animations for each character, whether it be Mickey Mouse or his enemies, are all incredibly detailed. For a 16-bit game, it mimics the fluidity of traditional animation surprisingly well.

If only the rest of the game were as enticing. In terms of gameplay, Mickey Mania is a pretty straightforward platformer. Mickey runs around, jumps on enemies, and can collect marbles to use as projectile weapons. It’s not bad, but nothing special.

What really ruins the game’s potential is the level design. While the visuals of each world may be great, the worlds themselves suffer from a great lack of substance. Many stages really are as simple as continuing to go right until you reach the end of a stage, while maybe avoiding or defeating an enemy or two. The level design is just too bland, and just too easy…except when it isn’t.

Mickey ManiaWhile most of the stages are a cakewalk, the few that aren’t stack up some unfair challenges, making the difficulty spikes feeling inconsistent and poorly thought-out. The second world features skeleton enemies who, when defeated, explode into bones that bounce around the place, damaging Mickey whenever they come into contact with him. During one segment, Mickey is trapped in a compact elevator, and needs to defeat a skeleton on the outside in order to go up each floor. But every time Mickey defeats one of the aforementioned skeletons, their bones fly everywhere in the elevator, and Mickey has barely any space to avoid them. You may get lucky and avoid the bones of one or two skeletons, but you are guaranteed to get hit a few times, so you better be sure you’re at full health at this point.

Another segment (once again in the second world) suddenly drops Mickey onto an on-rail cart without warning. Unlike the sublime mine cart sections of Donkey Kong Country, the physics here feel clunky and awkward. Combine that with how rapidly the level starts without any kind of proper introduction, and this whole level becomes needlessly frustrating.

Mickey ManiaIt’s this stop-and-go style of difficulty that make Mickey Mania’s inconsistency a jarring experience. This is felt even in some of the game’s mechanics, making things that much worse. Jumping on enemies, for example, rarely seems worth it, since your jumping has to be completely centered in order for Mickey to take out the bad guys. If your jump is even slightly more to the side of the enemy instead of dead center, Mickey will take damage instead. This can happen annoyingly often when enemies are constantly moving.

There were a good number of quality Disney games back in the day. Sadly, Mickey Mania cannot boast to be among them. While it features some fantastic visuals that manage to replicate Mickey’s animated outings quite well despite the technical limitations of the SNES, and even manages to capture some of the humor and charm of Mickey’s classic cartoons, the execution is just too lacking. Mickey Mania may have some good intentions, but as a game in its own right, it’s just too unpolished.

 

4