Home Video Round-Up 4/17/2021

The Dig (3/24/2021)

The Dig was something of a surprise recipient of a lot of BAFTA awards and has been getting a lot of talk recently so I thought I’d give it a watch.  The film is a fairly subdued drama set in 1939, the onset of World War II, but the film looks at a fairly famous archeological excavation that occurred near a place called Sutton Hoo where there are these unusual burial mounts that had commonly been thought to have been Viking in origin but may predate them.  I can’t say that that’s a premise that inherently intrigued me and I’m not sure the film ever really won me over either.  The film stars Carey Mulligan as the owner of the excavated property and Ralph Fiennes as a self-taught excavator, so there’s definitely some good talent here but both are playing these repressed Brits who don’t show much of a range of emotion so they feel a bit wasted.  The film’s visual style is crisp and detailed but perhaps lacking a certain soulfulness, the movie feels very digital in nature and while it’s certainly crisp it feels impersonal, almost televisual.  There’s nothing wrong with the movie really and there are certainly a couple of standout scenes, but I was never really as interested by these archeological discoveries as the movie seems to think I should be nor did the characters interest me tremendously.  Frankly I found it to be kind of a snore, but not a poorly made one and I imagine that to someone who’s interests jive with it a bit more it could be rewarding.

**1/2 out of Five

Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (4/6/2021)

I hadn’t really heard much about this documentary but it was new to Netflix and it looked interesting so I gave it a watch and I’m glad I did because while it isn’t particularly stylistically sophisticated it does tell a pretty good story.  The focus here is on a scandal in the art world where it was discovered that the centuries old Knoedler gallery had been duped (or had they?) into selling $80 million dollars worth of forged paintings.  I don’t want to give too much more away but needless to say it’s a pretty nutty situation fueled by a lot of hubris and denial and one that’s pretty easy to enjoy since most of its victims are millionaires, oh and Armie Hammer’s father is in the middle of all of it.  The film looks at how this scam started and gets a full accounting of it from various participants and art experts, many of whom are rather… defensive.  As I said before the film’s visual style is nothing too special and some of the graphics it uses here and there looked a bit cheap, but the film does have a pretty good grasp of the playful tone it’s going for and it manages to talk with more of the relevant interview subjects than you might expect given the bruised egos that are more than likely inherent to the story.  It’s not the kind of documentary that takes over the world or necessarily feels “important” but it’s a nice breezy watch.

*** out of Five

Saint Maud(4/11/2021)

There have been a lot of unfortunate release strategies in the era of COVID but Saint Maud’s fate might have been the worst.  It opened to some fanfare in its native Britain but stateside it never played in a single theater as was dumped on some third-rate premium cable channel called “EPIX” that was in no position to give it even the slightest promotion.  Anyway it turns out I actually do get that channel (my financially stupid refusal to cut the cord pays off occasionally) so I was happy to finally give the film a watch.  The movie fits well into the “elevated horror” genre and was even supposed to be released by A24 before its cable-TV debut.  It concerns a woman who, working as a nurse failed to save a life and was so haunted by this that she converted to Christianity and is kind of losing her sanity through much of the movie.  It’s essentially one of those movies where the horror comes from a main character’s decent into homicidal madness like Repulsion or Darling.  I don’t want to give too much away except to say that it’s a movie that has a lot going for it but maybe doesn’t quite hold together entirely.  In some ways it kind of feels like the filmmakers came up with some fairly creepy images for the last ten minutes and kind of worked their way backwards from there.  It’s not quite the movie to get “elevated horror” back on track after a rather disappointing 2020 but there’s some good stuff in it and I’m excited to see what director Rose Glass does next.

***1/2 out of Five

Tina (4/13/2021)

A new Tina Turner documentary isn’t exactly something I thought I wanted.  Turner’s music has never been that big of a deal to me, the old “Ike and Tina” stuff is kind of forever tainted by the stories of abuse and doesn’t get much play on oldies radio anymore and her solo comeback stuff has always struck me as kind of over produced and dated, what’s more the bulk of her history was already chronicled in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It?  But I did find myself pretty interested in Tina even if it’s kind of lacking in a real hook to make it feel like a unique production.  It’s very much a straightforward “Behind the Music” biographical documentary told through archival footage and interviews with those who are still around to tell the story.  About an hour of the film recounts the old story of her abusive relationship with Ike Turner and the second hour goes into what it took for her to make her comeback in the 80s.  That second part of the film is probably the most valuable since it goes into material that What’s Love Got to Do with It? didn’t and gives you a much better idea of just how big of a star Turner was during that comeback (information the older biopic sort of assumed its 1993 audience would already know).  Not exactly a movie I’d say is a “must see,” especially if you’re not particularly interested in the subject matter, but it take the assignment it was given and delivers on it effectively.

*** out of Five

I Care a Lot (4/17/2021)

Ever notice that most people, myself included, tend to find Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street eminently more unlikable than Henry Hill from Goodfellas despite the fact that Hill is depicted as being an actual murderer (or at least accomplice to murder) while Belfort is a less overtly violent financial fraudster?  I think it’s partly because the audience can much more easily see themselves being victims of people like Belfort than people like Hill and also because people like Hill don’t necessarily exude immorality twenty foru hours a day.  Well, there’s a similar dynamic going on in the new film I Care A Lot, which pits a woman who defrauds senior citizens against a Russian mafia figure who has almost certainly murdered several people and I frankly found myself rooting for the killer for most of it.  Rosamund Pike plays a legal guardian for the estates of various old people who her paid for psychologist has ruled to be senile, she then gets the courts to assign her to their cases, at which point she tosses the old people into assisted living homes and strips and pockets their savings.  Needless to say, the title is ironic, she does not care a lot… at least not about her “clients.”  Unfortunately for her, her latest victim turns out to be the mother of a crime lord who decides to go to war with her, somewhat incompetently.  So, this is a movie with a deeply unsympathetic protagonist, which is bold and interesting but having people get behind a character they actively hate from the word “go” is a pretty high risk strategy and it takes a lot to make that work and I’m not sure this is quite the movie to pull it off. The aforementioned Jordan Belfort was similarly horrible person but that movie didn’t center on a fight between him and a potentially less sympathetic villain that on some level you’re implicitly supposed to root for her at a certain point, which is something I was decidedly not interested in doing.  That said there’s still plenty to like about the movie.  Pike is strong in her role and the film is generally well shot and paced.  It certainly makes me more interested in writer/director J Blakeson than I was before.

***1/2 out of Five


Godzilla Vs. Kong(4/4/2021)

If there’s any review from the last couple years I might want to revise it’s probably my 2019 review for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which I gave a pretty generous three stars to while the rest of the world pretty much hated it.  Should I have given it that passing grade?  Yes.  In fact if I was being honest I probably would have knocked it up to three and a half out of five, because if ever there was a movie that worked for me in spite of itself it was probably that one.  The parts of that movie where humans talked to one another were irredeemably stupid and clichéd, but the scenes with the humans have kind of always been stupid in Godzilla movies but the monsters themselves have rarely looked as amazing as they did in that movie and that made up for a lot.  Godzilla himself looked rad but so did his various sparring partners, Ghidorah in particular really just dominated the screen when he showed up and I also liked the movie’s take on Mothra and Rodan and the way the movie took this stupidity like a deadly serious disaster movie just kind of spoke to me.  It might have been garbage, but it was MY kind of garbage dammit!  That having been said I have not been terribly excited for its follow-up Godzilla Vs Kong, in part because seeing our boy fight a monkey just didn’t strike me as being terribly exciting after having already seen him go mano-a-mano with a giant tri-headed space dragon and also because Kong: Skull Island, while a fun movie unto itself, didn’t really set that version of Kong up as being someone I viewed as ever being a match for this version of Godzilla.  But as the film has rolled out as something of a surprise late pandemic hit I did have some interest in tuning into it on HBO Max to see where the franchise went.

The film is set about five years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and several decades after Kong: Skull Island.  Over the course of those years Skull Island has been locked down by Monarch, holding Kong on the island, which now has a high tech roof that mimics the sky but he’s clearly not happy.  He does seem to have established some communication via sign language with a deaf girl living on the island named Jia (Kaylee Hottle) but is far less trusting of the other Monarch staff like her adopted mother Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and fellow scientist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård).  The status quo around titans is, however, upended when Godzilla suddenly attacks a company called Apex Cybernetics off the Florida coast, which prompts the company’s CEO (Demián Bichir) to propose further exploration of “the hollow earth,” an expedition that will involve transporting Kong to Antarctica.  Meanwhile a staff member at Apex (Brian Tyree Henry), who is also something of a conspiracy theorist who suspects there’s some shady stuff happening at Apex and enlists the kid from Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Millie Bobby Brown) and her friend (Julian Dennison) to investigate it.

In 2019 Godzilla Vs. Kong found itself in sort of the same position as another recent Warner Brothers movie, the infamous Justice League, a movie whose post-production travails continue to reverberate to this day.  Like that movie Godzilla Vs. Kong was already deep in production when its predecessor movie came out and was rather poorly received.  Unlike that movie, Godzilla Vs. Kong was already going to be directed by a different director than the one who allegedly failed the franchise in the past and was always going to take it in a slightly different direction, but I can’t help but suspect that there was some panicked studio tampering nonetheless because the final film kind of feels like a cut down mess.  It’s a movie where way too much is happening all at once; there are a bunch of separate groups of people going through their own separate plotlines and it takes too long for their relevance to one another to become apparent and just too many uninteresting nondescript characters in general who are never really introduced.  Beyond that people seem to make really out there decisions (like transporting giant gorillas on ships) way too quickly and major concepts (like the existence of a hollow earth) are introduced way too quickly.  I’ve conceded that all the human stuff in Godzilla: King of the Monsters is clichéd clunky nonsense, but it was at the very least straightforward and understandable clichéd clunky nonsense, and while I certainly don’t think this needs some kind of four hour director’s cut but an extra twenty minutes might have done it some good.

Of course when the actual monsters do start fighting things do start to pick up a bit.  There’s a set-piece about half way into the film where Godzilla attacks a carrier group and Kong starts fighting back that definitely delivers on what audiences are looking for from a movie called Godzilla Vs. Kong and there are aspects of the film’s finale that also work pretty well, but it should be noted that the kaiju action here is a bit cartoonier than what we saw in the Legendary Godzilla films, which tried to emphasize the titular lizard’s mystery and majesty.  For better or worse this should probably be viewed more as a sequel to Kong: Skull Island, but it’s a bit awkward in that regard as well because that movie was set during the 1970s and it feels like we skipped over a sequel that would have brought Kong into the 21st century prior to his meeting with Godzilla and developments on Skull Island kind of get glossed over with brief lines of dialogue.  So, the movie has some problems and generally isn’t what I’m looking for out of these movies, but I can see how it’s closer to what some other people might be looking for.  It’s the kind of modern blockbuster that frequently shows its hand and winks to the audience to let them know that it knows it’s kind of stupid and there are a lot of people who are going to prefer that to the borderline pretentiousness of those other Godzilla movies, and there is generally enough cool stuff in the movie for me to not particularly dislike having seen it.  That’s probably how I feel about the “MonsterVerse” itself at this point, it’s kind of a mess, but I basically like that it exists.

**1/2 out of Five

Disneyology 201: The Package Films

When I did my “Disneyology 101” marathon I had one simple goal: see every one of Disney’s feature length animated films.  That was pretty ambitious, especially in the days before Disney+ when I had to track down all those movies (including some in “the vault”) mostly on physical media.  Though I did watch 42 movies for that I did make some concessions to keep things going, namely that I did not watch any of the “features” Disney made between 1942 and 1950, which were a collection of rather compromised works that are often dubbed “the package films.”  These movies were made at a difficult time for Disney when they were financially decimated by not being able to release their expensive post-Snow White features in Europe because of the war and also lost a lot of employees to the draft and on top of all that were just coming off rather demoralizing strike that left a lot of bitter feelings for all involved.  With all this going on they wouldn’t be able to make any more huge productions like Pinocchio, or Bambi, or even Dumbo.  Instead they focused on making short films which they could then “package” together into features which would at least keep the division alive.   When doing “Disneyology 101” I opted to skip these movies because they didn’t sound like true features and frankly watching them seemed like it would be a bit of a speed bump to getting to the more famous works that I really wanted to learn about.  However, most canonical lists of Disney’s features does include them so if I was going to say “I’ve seen every animated Disney feature” with true credibility I was going to have to watch them… and that’s what I intend to do with this installment of Disneyology 201

Saludos Amigos (1942)/ The Three Caballeros (1944)

During World War II Disney was widely involved in the making educational films for the armed forces as well as propaganda films for the general public.  Wartime propaganda efforts were also the genesis for the first two of Disney’s “package” films: 1942’s Saludos Amigos and 1944’s The Three Caballeros, two movies that have similar origins and can probably be talked about together.  These movies were the result of an attempt by the State Department to get Walt Disney involved in their “Good Neighbor” initiative, which was an attempt to increase soft power in Latin America (after years of being very bad neighbors, both before and after) so as to keep them on the side of the allies during a time when Nazi Germany was doing a lot of outreach themselves.  As part of this effort they had Walt Disney himself along with a cadre of other animators and Disney employees go on a good will tour of South America where he’d visit the sights, speak at schools, and generally act as a positive example of American culture.  This tour is said to have gone very well for most involved and while there they shot some documentary footage and took a lot of notes that would then be used for a film when they got back to Los Angeles which would also be aimed at encouraging Western hemisphere unity.

The first film they made when they got home was Saludos Amigos, which only runs about 43 minutes, which only barely qualifies it as a feature under Academy definitions and is the shortest “feature” the studio ever made.  The film uses Disney’s real life tour of Latin America as a sort of framing story and uses footage of their trip interspersed between the animated segments.  The whole film has kind of a faux documentary motif with a fairly deadpan narrator talking over most of the film and explaining the various cultural aspects that the film is riffing on.  There are four main sequences: The first features Donald Duck messing around with a lama near Lake Titicaca in Peru.  The next segment looks at the Chilean air mail service (which film fans may recognize from the 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings), which is depicted by these sentient airplanes (which are oddly similar to the cars from Cars) and in particular a junior plane named Pedro who goes on his first flight when his parents are “sick.”  Next we go to Argentina for a short where Goofy is playing a cowboy who is transported to South America and becomes a Gaucho.  Finally we end on a sequence in Brazil which introduces José Carioca, an anthropomorphized parrot  who dances through Rio de Janeiro with Donald Duck.

That last segment is almost certainly the most notable and incorporates some really nice looking watercolors and generally makes 1940s Rio look really cool.  The other segments have their charms as well; Pedro is a cute little story and the gaucho story does a good job of incorporating more traditional cartoon gags into this cultural milieu.  Having said that, this is a movie which is by its nature a bunch of white Americans depicting foreign countries and it’s not hard to see how that could go spectacularly wrong.  The film is certainly a tourist-eye view of these countries, something the film makes no bones about, and it generally looks for the aspects of these countries that are exotic and arguably stereotypical.  What’s more there is kind of something kind of condescending about the hole framing story of this thing in that the film essentially has American animators “mansplaining” these country’s cultures to them by a narrator.  On the other hand, they do seem to have done a decent amount of research while on their trip and get a lot of visual detail right and are careful to frame everything as positively as possible, this is after all a film that was commissioned by the state department to be as flattering to the Latin American world as possible and it reportedly proved to be fairly educational to American audiences who previously weren’t aware of how urban and developed parts of South America could be.

Personally I found Saludos Amigos to be an interesting, albeit rather inessential, curio.  It’s so short that it hardly really feels like you could call it a real feature film, but it also means that the film never really wears out its welcome.  The same cannot be said by the studio’s follow-up The Three Caballeros, which runs about 71 minutes and which I frankly lost patience with pretty quickly.  The film drops the faux-documentary framing and instead starts with a framing narrative about Donald Duck getting things sent to him that transition into shorts but then it kind of drops this and instead takes more of a stream of conscious approach with Donald, José, and a new avian ambassador: a Mexican rooster named Panchito Pistoles.  There are a number of sequences here which juxtapose these animated characters against live action, a technique that would eventually be used again in the infamous Song of the South, and the animators really go nuts with this to the point where a whole lot of the film is just these birds fucking around in front of b-roll of Brazilians on the beach; it’s an oddly horny film at times with Donald frequently ogling human women all over the place.  None of these characters are really conversationalists and there’s no narrator so it’s a pretty visual experience, but not really in much of an elegant way.  Frankly I found it all kind of tiresome after not too long, but on some level this film might work a bit better for the original “good neighbor” aims of the whole project.  Instead of condescendingly explaining these cultures like Saludos Amigos did it simply lets its multicultural cartoon characters act wackily in harmony without too much of a language barrier to overcome… but that doesn’t mean I actually enjoyed it and for someone trying to look back on these for scholarly purposes in 2021 The Three Caballeros was definitely the less enjoyable viewing experience.
Saludos Amigos: **1/2 out of Five
The Three Caballeros: *1/2 out of Five

Make Mine Music (1946)

By 1946 the war was over, but Disney was not yet in the clear.  The European market that has sustained them before the war was not yet fully back on its feet and the studios animators were only just coming back from the military.  What’s more even if they had been fully operational it was going to take a while before things finally made it through the pipeline.  Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros had both been about as successful as they could have hoped so starting with 1946’s Make Mine Music the studio started putting out more similarly constructed “package films” that weren’t part of State Department diplomatic efforts.  In fact there’s not much of a unifying theme to Make Mine Music at all outside of the fact that most of the shorts are sort of based around various forms of music.  There’s no framing story here whatsoever, not even something like the Orchestra leader in Fantasia, it’s just one short after another in sequence.

Today Make Mine Music is notable for something else: it’s the only fully animated Disney feature that is not currently available on Disney+.  The reasons for this are a bit unclear: certain websites say this has to do with “mature contents in two segments” but I don’t know that Disney has actually released an official comment on this (likely because this is a movie that only a few completist nerds like me care about) and it’s not entirely clear what the two segments are although there are some definite suspects.  The most likely culprit is a short called “The Martins and the Coys,” which originally opened the film and was a parody of the “Hatfields and McCoys” feud which involves a whole bunch of rednecks shooting at each other for half the short, at one point killing most of them and forcing them to watch two remaining family members from each side become a sort of Romeo and Juliet from heaven.  At some point someone at Disney must have decided that all this comedic violence was not very family friendly, so the segment has actually been cut out of every home video release including the used DVD I got off of Ebay to see the damn film (the short can be found online).  Why this short is still “too hot” for Disney+ I don’t know, most of the Marvel films on the service are way more violent so it seems pretty silly.  Further if it’s really such a big deal I’m not sure why they don’t just upload the bowdlerized version that they were apparently willing to put out on DVD.

Another likely reason Disney has sort of buried this is a short called “All the Cats Join In,” which featured music by Benny Goodman and mostly consists of teenagers jitterbugging around the suburbs and has a device where you they animate in pencils on screen finishing the drawings “live” for most of the short.  It’s certainly one of the whitest odes to jazz music, but that’s doesn’t seem to be the reason Disney has a problem with it.  No, it seems like the issue here is a sequence where a teenage girl comes out of a shower, dries off, and then changes into her clothes.  It’s not an explicit shot (she’s facing the other direction and has a towel over her butt) and isn’t pointedly sexualized, but it is a touch saucy for what you’d expect from Disney and the version on home video has apparently been digitally altered to make her boobs smaller and less visible in the shots.  Beyond that, it’s a pretty energetic and creative short, probably one of the film’s highlights.

Among the film’s more famous segments is an animated dramatization of Ernest Thayer’s popular baseball poem “Casey at the Bat,” which is done humorously but perhaps does a bit too much to adapt the poem, which perhaps could have stood to be recited more straightforwardly.  The film’s centerpiece is probably a dramatization of “Peter and the Wolf” done with Sergei Prokofiev’s leitmotif heavy orchestrations and narrated by future Winne the Pooh voice actor Sterling Holloway.  That short is pretty straightforward to how you would expect it to be, but it delivers well and has shown up in other Disney shorts compilations for a reason.  Less straightforward is the film’s final segment, a demented little piece about an opera singing whale who dreams of singing at the Met… I’m pretty sure they were drunk when they came up with that one but there’s something amusingly zany about the thing.  That is another segment that may have played a role in this thing not being on streaming, firstly because the whale sings the probably racist minstrel-associated song “Shortnin’ Bread” (the one that goes “Mammy’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread”), but also because the damn whale gets harpooned at the end… which is a rather morbid way to close out the film.

Other shorts here are less notable and some of them kind of just seem like filler inbetween the more substantial shorts.  The film opens (in the censored home video version anyway) with a sequence in the everglades set to music, which was apparently a leftover from the making of Fantasia.  Other segments like “Without You,” “Two Silhouettes,” and “After You’ve Gone” are all very short pieces that are largely abstract representations of the music in question with one or two little tricks here and there.  Then I guess there’s also the “Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” piece, which is a silly little short about a pair of sentient hats in a store display who love each other but are separated and then later re-united.  That one is sung/narrated by The Andrews Singers, a vocal group that’s probably best known for that song “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy,” but it never really overcomes its dopey concept.  So, the overall movie is pretty uneven and there isn’t much of a unifying vision between everything either.  When assessing it I’m kind of in the place I expect I’ll be with a lot of these “package” films: there are certainly shorts in it that have indeed endured but as a whole I’m not sure I would call it a “good” movie that someone would be well served seeking out as a film.
**1/2 out of Five 

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Fun and Fancy Free is one of two Disney “Package” films of the late 40s to consist of two longer stories as opposed to multiple brief shorts.  The film is about evenly divided between a short called “Bongo” and a piece called “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”  Both of these were apparently in development to be turned into features before the war through everything into chaos and they were eventually transformed into shorts for this package film.  The two are very loosely framed via introductions by Jiminy Cricket and both have a certain number of easter eggs for other Disney movies but are otherwise completely independent.

The first and much less famous of the two is “Bongo,” which is actually based on a short story by Sinclair Lewis, of all people and is about a circus bear that breaks free from his cage and integrate himself into the wild. If the Wikipedia summery is to be believed, this is not a terribly faithful adaptation of that story, in which the bear spends a year trying to ingratiate himself with the wild bears before eventually giving up and rejoining another circus.  It’s probably some sort of political metaphor about how difficult it really is to transition from a status quo, but I’m not sure.  Unsurprisingly, Disney’s version has a more unambiguously happy ending in which Bongo does eventually prove himself to the wild bears and ingratiates himself to a lady bear.  The short was originally envisioned to be a sort of semi-sequel to Dumbo what with the circus animal theme but the outdoor environment also has shades of Bambi (even if the animation isn’t nearly up to those standards).  The popular singer Dinah Shore was brought in to narrate the whole thing, but music really isn’t the short’s strong suit, it has this whole bizarre song and dance number with the bears about how bears express their attraction to one another by slapping their partners… which is just a bad idea for a whole number of reasons.  Beyond that the short is cute enough and has a pretty well done finale where Bongo fights a larger and more aggressive bear that gets genuinely exciting, but beyond that there isn’t a ton there and it’s probably for the best they didn’t try to expand it into a feature.

The second short, “Mickey and the Beanstalk” is probably highest profile short the company ever made to star their signature Mickey, Goofy, Donald triumvirate and marks the last time that Walt Disney himself would voice their star rodent.  The project was actually started because Mickey was beginning to lose popularity in the wake of the company’s ventures into feature film and they wanted to give him more of a showcase.  The story the settled on was a re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk that doesn’t diverge too much from the original fairy tale’s basic story but which stars the Disney cadre engaging in cartoon hijinks through the whole thing.  The film is probably best remembered for its version of the giant, who is this sort of dimwitted comical giant here that sort of steals the show, in fact he’s so likable here that it kind of feels messed up when he actually has to take the role of the villain at a certain point and ends up getting offed.  Still the animated stuff here is certainly some of the best work Disney did during this period, but there is something of a key flaw to the segment and that’s the framing device.

In the presentation of Fun and Fancy Free we return to Jiminy Cricket after the Bongo story ends and he then gets an invitation to a birthday party and from there the film transitions to a live action set where the performer Edgar Bergen proceeds to tell the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” story to a kid.  Bergen was a wildly popular entertainer during the 40s, which is weird because the dude was a ventriloquist.  He and his dummies, the monocled Charlie McCarthy and the dim Mortimer Snerd, were just beloved by the masses for some reason and their celebrity was probably considered a big “get” for the movie at the time but seventy five years later their presence in the film seems pretty odd.  Frankly I don’t see the appeal of this guy, he doesn’t even seem to be a terribly talented puppeteer as you can pretty clearly see his lips moving when the dummies are “talking.”   I’m guessing they show up in the film via live action in large part because the voices of the dummies would seem really weird if they weren’t established first in the live action segments, but all three are generally odd narrators for whimsical fairy tale stories and the film keeps on cutting back to their house in a way that really brings a lot of the momentum to a halt each time.   So, that’s a fairly big flaw but one that the short’s legacy would transcend.  As for the movie as a whole, it’s alright, doing two featurettes instead of multiple shorts was probably the stronger approach and makes the whole thing feel closer to being a “real” movie than something quickly packaged together to keep a flailing studio alive.

*** out of Five

Melody Time (1948)

By 1948 a lot of Disney’s wartime setbacks were starting to be put in the past but they weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  Most of their staff were back from the army, international markets were opening up, and they would have been in production on their comeback features Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland but those still wouldn’t be ready for a couple of years so the time had come to clear out the warehouse of old shorts through a couple last “package films.”  Melody Time was the second of these package films to mostly consist of short musically oriented sketches and for all intents and purposes could be looked at as Make Mine Music part 2.  The fact that this is kind of clearing out leftovers is actually pretty apparent when you watch the film as some of these segments, whatever their merits, are pretty clearly leftovers from previous projects or derivative works thereof.  For instance there’s a segment called “Blame it on the Samba” which sure looks like it’s a deleted scene from The Three Caballeros thrown in in case the world needed more shots of those avian ambassadors dancing around and goofing off.  A segment called “Little Toot” is basically just the “Little Pedro” segment from Saludos Amigos but about a sentient tugboat instead of a sentient plane and with music by The Andrews Sisters in the background.  Then other segments like “Trees” and “Once Upon a Wintertime” feel like really half thought-out Fantasia extensions.  “Bumble Boogie,” a rather surreal piece about a bee set to a jazz rendition of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” was also probably meant as a Fantasia segment at one point but actually reminded me more of “Pink Elephants on Parade” with its general trippiness.

The film’s centerpieces are almost certainly the segments based on Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, both American tall tale figures and I almost wonder why they didn’t just make some additional segments focused on similar figures like Paul Bunyan and John Henry in order to make a movie that’s exclusively focused on American folklore but instead they just burned them off here.  The Johnny Appleseed one probably aged a bit better, though it is a bit odd to me that they really heavily emphasized his Christianity, which was not exactly the aspect of the guy that was focused on when I heard about him.  The one that’s held up a bit more… interestingly… is the Pecos Bill segment.  Previous home video versions of this one were known to be heavily censored in order to cut out Bill’s smoking, though the segment actually is fully uncut on Disney+.  More surprising to me was that there’s one section of this segment in which Bill shoots at and “runs off” the Native Americans, who are straight-up called “redskins” by the narrator Roy Rogers.  I’m honestly a little surprised that modern Disney let that through with or with or without their usual “cultural depictions” disclaimer, it’s way more offensive than anything in Make Mine Music.  I’m not complaining necessarily, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to track down a used DVD for this one as well, just surprised.  Anyway, that aside the Pecos Bill short is probably the strongest work in the film.  The animators render the desert really well and it’s fun watching all the hijinx this guy gets up to.  However that one short isn’t really enough to overcome the fact that Melody Time as a whole doesn’t really hold together even by Disney Package Film standards.

** out of Five

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

If Melody Time was an echo of Make Mine Music, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is basically an echo of Fun and Facy Free in that both are films consisting of two stories stuck together which were originally meant to be a pair of features that were eventually truncated.  In this case the Mr. Toad segment based on “The Wind and the Willows” had a particularly long and troubled with the company with them having had some interest in making a movie based on the book for a while and had planned for it to be one of the immediate follow-ups to Snow White but there were split opinions in the company as to how good it would be and it got dropped and picked back up again a couple of times before finally being burned off with this movie.  Meanwhile the Ichabod Crane/Headless Horsemen segment started production sometime shortly after the war and pretty quickly evolved into a featurette for one of these package films and was finally paired with “The Wind and the Willows” with their literary origins being used as their ostensible link.

In my childhood I definitely saw the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” segment of this a handful of times owing to it being something of a go to movie for schools to show to elementary school kids around Halloween as a short age-appropriate horror type thing.  I had thought I had also separately watched the “Wind in the Willows” segment in elementary school when we read the book, but as I watched it this time around a lot of the stuff I had remembered from before wasn’t there and after some research I think what I had actually been shown back then was a TV movie version of the book made by Rankin/Bass in the 80s.  I don’t remember that version (or the book) well enough to really compare them, but I can’t say I found this Disney version to be much more than mildly amusing.  The character of Mr. Toad here is more of a straightforward protagonist than I had remembered him being and I think things have pretty clearly been cut down.  That Rankin/Bass version is almost three times as long as this twenty five minute segment and that probably shows.  There are some fun moments here however and Basil Rathbone is a fun narrator and the animators do seem to have a decent grasp of the English gentry by way of animals and have some fun with that.

By contrast the Legend of Sleepy Hollow segment holds up a lot better.  I’m not sure I really processed it as such as a kid, but the whole short is basically a showcase for the vocal stylings of Bing Crosby back when he was at the height of his fame.  Crosby voices both Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones and sort of sings a narration for much of the story.  Unlike “The Wind and the Willows,” which sort of felt cut down, this segment is adapting a novella of appropriate length and takes its time with it.  I imagine the twenty minutes of build-up in which Ichabod Crane macks on some local villagers might have tested some kids patience but most of that would have likely been set aside once the headless horseman finally shows up.   That climax for the short is masterfully animated and manages to strike a very fine balance between becoming a cartoony slapstick chase scene while still making the horseman himself unwaveringly menacing and years later this remains one of the strongest straightforward adaptations of the story.  So, that story definitely ended the post-war package film era on a high note, but I can’t say I’m overly enthusiastic about The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad as a feature package.  These stories really don’t have that much in common with one another and differ in style and quality and that makes this a rather uneven viewing experience for this one hour and eight minute movie.  The next year Disney would finally make their real comeback with Cinderella and would stop making these short film compilations with one exception in the 1970s.

*** out of Five

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

Over the years I’ve changed a lot in terms of my willingness to watch movies for kids but even after endeavoring to watch a whole lot of Disney movies, the “Winnie the Pooh” franchise still kind of seems like a bridge past what I was willing to sit through.  Where other Disney movies felt like movies made for kids, these Pooh movies feel more like products made for straight-up babies and toddlers.  That was part of why, even though it was not really part in parcel with their wartime package films I still omitted it from my first Disney retrospective as something decidedly separate from their normal features.  To be fair, it is in fact a very different project from other Disney projects of the era like Robin Hood and The Rescuers and is in some ways even closer to being a true “package” film than some of those other projects in that it is essentially a compilation of three existing shorts that had already been released to the public over the course of ten years.  The first of these shorts, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, was actually made and released during Walt Disney’s lifetime and was attached to a mostly forgotten live action Disney movie called The Ugly Dachshund in 1966.  The second short, “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” had been attached to something called The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit in 1968 and had won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short that year, and the third short “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too,” was made six years after that and attached to a movie called The Island at the Top of the World.  The three were then compiled together along with some interstitials and an epilogue to create the hour and fifteen minute long feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in 1977.  Notably there’s also a fourth short called “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore” was made in the 80s and was also edited into the feature for some home video releases, but that’s not considered canon and isn’t in the Disney+ version I reviewed.

So how do you review something like this?  Well, maybe I should start by saying that I do think they do a pretty decent job of putting these formerly separate shorts together in a way that feels relatively cohesive.  They use a children’s book motif to tie them all together and don’t just incorporate this into the spaces between the shorts but also use it inside of the shorts here or there so it all works together.  If I didn’t know better I would have assumed it was all a single anthology film rather than an assemblage ten years in the making.  As for the content itself, well, I’ll say that if you step back and look at it the animation itself is pretty charming.  It looks different from Disney’s other movies of the era, but not radically so, and it’s also interesting that Sterling Holloway’s work here is one of the more memorable and identifiable voice performances in Disney’s catalog.  So I’ll concede all of that but man oh man is this stuff not for me.  I’ve always found the stuffed bear motif kind of confusing, if this is all supposed to be Christopher Robin’s imagination wouldn’t he envision this as an actual bear rather than as a walking talking toy?  And I must say, Christopher Robin must be the most chill and sensitive little boy I’ve ever heard of because all the kids I know would have begun and ended most of these scenarios with Pooh and Tigger mauling and killing all these other animals or at least causing some kind of chaos.  Even Andy from Toy Story at least had his toy cowboy and toy spaceman get into train heists and fight aliens and shit. But of course that’s just me being difficult, obviously this thing isn’t meant to operate on something more akin to a kind of gentle logic that very small children can sort of relax to… it’s not the movie’s fault I find that alternately boring and annoying.

**1/2 out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

Well, cross that one off the list.  I kind of climbed this little mountain just to say I did and, well, I did.  Was it a rewarding experience?  Eh, I guess it wasn’t unrewarding.  Few of these movies were particularly bad experiences and their short running times made most of them pretty breezy viewing experiences.  That said these were every bit as “for completists only” as I expected them to be and are mainly only all that useful to people who are particularly interested in Disney’s history and without that context of what led them to make these movies they would seem to be rather peculiar movies to exist.