When You Wish Upon a Star: The War Years

While being self-quarantined, we are all looking for different ways to occupy ourselves. I have decided to watch all the theatrically released Disney animated films offered to me on Disney+, in order. Of course I can’t just let that be it, so I will be writing a little something about each of them.

The Walt Disney animation department was on a role. Bambi set a new benchmark for what they would do and how their characters would look and could interact. Things were starting to look good for Walt and his House of Mouse. But like any good story when things start to look good something unexpected comes along and derails the process. In this case it was that chode brained Hitler and his stupid fucking Nazis.

Many of the people working for Disney left to fight the war, and several of the animators were recruited to make propaganda films (fun fact: Dr. Seuss was also on the team making propaganda films). This left Disney’s animation department low on personnel. Disney was still committed to making cartoons to help occupy the public while their loved ones were off kicking in Nazi teeth. However, these cartoons wound up being a bit different.

Instead of one complete story, the features during this war time were often made of two or three smaller cartoons linked together in some way, usually by some live action bumper segments. So since this felt like watching a bunch of cartoon shorts rather than a feature length movie, I’ve decided they don’t get their own entry but one lumped entry.

First up is Saludos Amigos. The live action segments have us following the animation team down to South America. Had this been the one they made near the end of the war I would have assumed this was actually a covert spy mission to find Nazi who fled to Argentina. But it was early on so I think it was just animators trying to get a free trip to South America.

Saludos Amigos is made up of four animated segments designed to take place in different countries in South America to I guess maybe teach us something about that country. In the first one we join Donald Duck in Lake Titicaca, which of course I laughed at because Titicaca is never not funny. Donald is a tourist and encounters a llama. It’s fine.

The next segment gives us a Chilean mail plane named Pedro. I don’t know if this had any influence on the 2013 film Planes but what I know is I do not care at all about anthropomorphic aircrafts. I really wasn’t paying attention during this. I think there was something about mountains.

After the boring airplane shit we are whisked away to Argentina and learn the ways of the gaucho by American cowboy Goofy. This was more respectful than I expected for being a cartoon about aptly named Goofy becoming a South American cowboy.

The last segment gives us more Donald Duck. He’s in Brazil now and meets José Carioca, a green parrot who dresses very similarly to Jiminy Cricket. They have some drinks and learn to samba. Saludos Amigos has bit of an educational vibe to it as I feel like I learned a little about South America.

The next film is The Three Caballeros. I was hoping this was some kind of Multiplicity with Steve Caballero. Where one version of him is a sick street skater, another is a badass vert skater, then the third is the one with a screw loose and he’s rocking the Razor scooter. But alas it’s another collection of shorts.

The thread line on this one is Donald Duck’s birthday. He gets a package full of presents. The first present is a collection of cartoons about South American birds. This is pretty rad because nearly all birds are pretty rad. Off to a good start.

Donald opens his next present and it’s his new old pal José Carioca and a book. José is able to take them into the book and we learn more about Brazil. There’s more drinking and samba. And Donald Duck strikes out with some live action samba lady.

The last present involves a new friend for Donald and José, Panchito. Panchito is a rooster from Mexico. The three birds dub themselves The Three Caballeros and already have a song and dance routine. When I was a child we had a couple of Disney Sing-a-long video cassettes, which we watched ad nauseam probably to the annoyance of my parents. But I remember this song being one of my favorites and always confused about where the song came from. To my surprise I still knew the words and sang along, alone in my apartment, at 10 o’clock at night.

I would say quarantine is a weird time, but I’d probably have done that regardless.

Panchito brought a pi­ñata and some fireworks. Donald Duck appeared to have nice birthday.

Next is Make Mine Music. This one is not on Disney+, so technically I didn’t need to watch it or talk about it. I had to find each segment separately on YouTube. This made it feel less like a movie and just a YouTube rabbit hole. This film has “Casey at the Bat” and “Peter and the Wolf” which I recalled from my youth. Though I remembered “Casey at the Bat” differently, or I was just thinking of the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he plays all the positions. This brain of mine is just a big mess of cartoon mush.

Speaking of cartoon mush, the last three movies of this era are Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Together they involve a Jack and the Beanstalk story, Mr. Toad’s wild ride, the Headless Horseman, and also for some reason Bing Crosby and Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy.

Fun and Fancy Free consists of two segments. One about a circus bear named Bongo, the other has Mickey, Donald, and Goofy in a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. These two segments are linked by an animated Jiminy Cricket in a live action world. In the first part he comes across some stuffed animals then it dives into the story about Bongo. Then he ends up at some little kid’s birthday with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and Edgar tells the Beanstalk story with Charlie being an a little interrupting bitch the whole time. I wasn’t too into Fun and Fancy Free.

Melody Time, is much like Fantasia or Make Mine Music with several short pieces set to music. There’s one about a young couple in love on a sleigh ride and ice skating date. This one stands out for me because much of it was used in “Jingle Bells” on the Disney Sing-a-long Christmas VHS we had. Melody Time also has tales of Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, a story about a bumble bee, a tale of a tugboat which could be seen as some kind of inspiration to Cars, and some gorgeous nature art set to a poem about trees. But the highlight here has to be Donald and José doing more samba with a live action samba lady. I’m just really impressed by the animation and live action they do with Donald, José, and the samba lady in both this one and Three Caballeros, some 40 years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The final one in this WWII animators at war package is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. This film feels like a footnote in the grand scheme of Disney animation, yet Mr. Toad had his own ride at Disneyland. It was wild. The story is about a rich toad who isn’t allowed to drive his car but does so anyway and gets into trouble that requires a court case. Ultimately he learns nothing and continues his reckless automotive ways. Then we get the New England legend of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. I love the animated setting of the New England autumn in post-colonial times, and the scary woods where the Headless Horseman shows up. I know I watched this one as a kid at a Halloween party, but it didn’t keep my attention as much as the other films being played, Monster Squad and The Wolfman. However I found myself really into this viewing of it. Bing Crosby narrates this one for reasons I don’t understand.

The entertainment industry had to find ways to adapt and pivot during uncertain times of a global threat, much like today, and Disney animation did that in a way that worked for them. They didn’t diverge too much from their modus operandi, but it definitely wasn’t business as usual. There were things I enjoyed about these films and this departure, but ultimately I was happy to be done with them and get back to full length adaptations of classic tales.

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