November 29, 2013

Make Mine Music (1946)

In 1946 Walt Disney released its eighth full-length animated feature, the portanteau film (portmanteau meaning it's assembled from a group of short films rather than comprising a single narrative all of its own) Make Mine Music. It followed in the footsteps of Fantasia in that, for the most part, it comprises musical sequences with animation. In the case of Make Mine Music, however, the musical segments were contemporary in nature. A string of popular singers and performers contributed to the soundtrack, including Nelson Eddy, the Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman and Dinah Shore.

These kinds of portmanteau pictures were very popular within the Walt Disney Company: many of the studio's best animators and artists were fighting in World War II, and to keep the business ticking over it was easy to task the remaining talent with creating several short pieces than having them collaborate on a single feature-length film. The last proper animated feature released had been Bambi in 1942. The studio had already received federal funding to produce Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, and Make Mine Music would be followed by Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. It wouldn't be until 1950 that Disney would produce another full feature: Cinderella. Until then, portmanteau films was all audiences would get.

Make Mine Music has the odd distinction of being the only one out of 52 Walt Disney animated films to never receive a home video release in Australia. As a result, this is the first time I've seen the whole movie. I was very keen to find out what it was like.

Oh boy. This is very possibly the worst animated feature film that Walt Disney Pictures ever produced. The portmanteau pictures are haphazard at best, but in this case the quality ratio simply isn't high enough to bother. Certainly "Peter and the Wolf" is a fondly regarded classic, and it probably deserves to be, but there's a good reason that it's been seen by millions of children over the decades whereas the rest of the film languishes in obscurity. Make Mine Music's faults can basically be boiled down to two key problems: firstly, it is for the most part relatively boring, and secondly, the animation is of a startlingly low quality. To get something else this poorly animated out of Disney you need to go to some of their later direct-to-DVD sequels like The Hunchback of Notre Dame II.

It's probably easiest to just run through the film segment by segment. The first, "The Martins and the Coys", isn't even on the DVD. It was controversially violent at the time, and when preparing the film for a DVD release Disney simply excised the segment completely. You can still track it down on Youtube, and it is indeed surprisingly violent for a children's cartoon. It's also not very well animated. It feels about 15 years out of date for when it was made, and doesn't get the film off to a very good start.

"Blue Bayou" is a fairly abstract piece originally animated for Fantasia and then dropped. Had it remained in Fantasia it would easily have been the least interesting part of that film, so we're not exactly getting a hidden gem here.

"All the Cats Join In", however, is genuinely good. Benny Goodman provides the musical backing to a jazzy sequence of teenagers heading out to dance, with the animator's pencil barely managing to stay ahead of them. It's an innovative sequence that foreshadows some similar but more famous animation such as Chuck Jones' classic Looney Tunes short Duck Amok.

"Without You" is crushingly dull, as is "Two Silhuettes" - which uses rotoscoped animation to present the silhuettes of two ballet dancers in a duet. Given how close the imagery is to the live-action dancers, I'd rather they'd just dump the animation and let me watch them dance. Wedged in between is the baseball comedy "Casey at the Bat", which is just shockingly animated. It's hard to believe that the studio that, five years earlier, was giving the world Dumbo had been reduced to this level of quality.

"Peter and the Wolf" is an iconic standout, and far and away the most famous segment of the film. Sterling Holloway does a wonderful job narrating the story, and the animation matches Prokofiev's noted score very well.

I've often joked that all Walt Disney animated features have an obligatory "on-drugs" freak-out sequence. This started with "Pink Elephants on Parade" in Dumbo and has continued on and off every since. The freak-out sequence here is the colourful and abstract "After You've Gone", which is populated with anthropomorphic musical instruments. It's wonderful, silly stuff.

"Johnnie Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet" is a love ballad about two hats, which is quite a challenging thing to pull off and is only partially successful. It's not bad by any stretch, but after the pace and fun of the previous two segments it's a bit of a comedown.

The film wraps up with "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met", which is wonderfully animated, very strange and ultimately gut-wrenching and depressing. I can't wrap my head around it: the climax of this entire feature film is a sperm whale being harpooned to death. This is, according to its own theatrical poster, "Walt Disney's happy comedy musical", yet it ends with a violent murder.

I suppose one can't judge Make Mine Music too harshly; it was produced to the best of the studio's ability during a time when its best simply wasn't particularly good. The bottom line, however, is that historical context only takes you so far. Given that watching the film in Australia takes a little time and effort, it's difficult to recommend that anyone bothers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.