Here is our old friend Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards) floating down the river singing a song about learning how to lighten up. In a house nearby he finds a dour looking doll and a grumpy teddy bear whom he endeavours to cheer up by playing a record narrated by jazz singer Dinah Shore. She tells the story of Bongo the circus bear who runs away from the big top in search of a carefree life in the woods. He also finds a girlfriend though not before learning some surprising facts about how bears show love. Later, Jiminy heads off to a birthday party for child star Luana Patten where famed ventriloquist and radio star Edgar Bergen recounts “The Story of Happy Valley”, despite some heckling from his puppet pals Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Long ago a medieval kingdom fell into famine and despair when some sinister force from above stole the enchanted Singing Harp (Anita Gordon). Three plucky adventurers: Mickey Mouse (Walt Disney), Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) and Goofy (Pinto Colvig) happen upon some magic beans that sprout a giant beanstalk leading to an encounter with Willie the Giant (Billy Gilbert).
Fun and Fancy Free was the fifth of seven “package films” released by Walt Disney in the 1940s, so-called because they were comprised of several short cartoons tied together with surrounding material that was more often live action. Times were tough for the Disney studio in the war years and immediate post-war period. There were budgetry constraints as a result of the over-spend on ambitious early films, the animators strike sapped Disney of almost a third of his work force including many of his most gifted young artists and the American military more or less commandeered the studio to make wartime propaganda efforts including the controversial Victory Through Air Power (1943). Both “Bongo” and “The Story of Happy Valley” (later re-packaged as a short cartoon titled “Mickey and the Beanstalk”, which is pretty much what it is) were originally intended as animated feature films but packaged together as a more modest offering.
Although Disney’s new “crank ’em out” ethos took its toll on his reputation for artistic integrity, package films like Fun and Fancy Free did what they were supposed to do. Which is keep the Disney brand in the public eye without breaking the bank and turn a profit, thus paving the way for the studio’s renaissance in quality animated features post-Cinderella (1950). As a movie unto itself however, Fun and Fancy Free is undeniably flimsy. If there is a theme discernible under its whimsical stylings it is likely encapsulated in the opening number sung by Jiminy Cricket, a song excised from Pinocchio (1940). It is a song about learning how to stop dwelling on all the bad things going on in the world and just relax and look on the lighter side. For many Americans that was the defining ethos of the post-war period. Here, Bongo leaves the hectic rat race of circus life far behind to go back to his roots, so to speak, and revel in the simple joy of nature. Meanwhile the second story has Mickey Mouse, arguably the archetypal American hero of the pre-war era, ascend the beanstalk and braving danger to bring back the magic harp and good times back to the land. It is a potent allegory although somewhat constrained by the short film format that emphasizes punchy gags over emotional beats.
Fun and Fancy Free pairs one promising but sadly diminished storyline in the Mickey Mouse segment with another that for all its modest charms offers little in the way of substance. Based on “Little Bear Bongo”, a rare lighthearted short story from author Sinclair Lewis, Bongo takes a rather bizarre turn when the titular bruin is briefly spurned by his love interest because he won’t slap her. Apparently, as the song informs us, bears say I love you with a slap. Did this lead to an outbreak of lovestruck youngsters slapping each other about the playground? Maybe not but it is a pretty twisted notion to put in a children’s movie. Dinah Shore’s gorgeous honey-toned vocals and a few charming sequences (e.g. the dancing bear chorus) leave the Bongo segment watchable but overly cute and unambitious.
Mickey and the Beanstalk is undoubtedly the highlight of the movie, an inventive and often amusing fantasy adventure with three of Disney’s most enduring characters. Edgar Bergen was a close personal friend of Walt Disney but the sarcastic quips from the frankly creepy Charlie McCarthy too often distract from the images onscreen. Later abridged incarnations of the short replaced Bergen and McCarthy with new narrators beginning with the animated character Ludwig von Drake (voiced by Paul Frees in 1963), then ventriloquist and children’s television staple Shari Lewis and her lovable sock puppet Lambchop in 1974 and later Sterling Holloway in the version screened on the Disney Channel in the 1980s.
Mickey Mouse was already as seasoned giant slayer before Mickey and the Beanstalk came out having tangled with big oafs in Giant Land (1933) and The Brave Little Tailor (1938). However, Mickey and the Beanstalk marked the last time Disney animators upheld his plucky, resourceful little guy against the world persona before he devolved into a shallow corporate symbol. Happily he reverted back to form in The Prince and the Pauper (1992) while the 2013 television series Mickey Mouse truly revitalized the character for a new generation restoring much of the energy and irreverence that had lain dormant for decades. Mickey and the Beanstalk was also the last time Walt Disney performed as Mickey though he returned sporadically to voice the mouse in episodes of the Mickey Mouse club. Most claim Walt’s duties as studio chief left him too busy to continue his voice acting duties though given the sheer volume of cigarettes he smoked on a daily basis it is possible he had a hard time maintaining that falsetto.