With the Blu-ray release of Fantasia, Dr. Toon reassesses his critical thinking about the Make Mine Music follow-up.
Unless a given film is either perfect or totally abysmal, the ways in which it can be critiqued or examined are legion. There are, for example, unlikely to be raging camps involved in competitive analyses of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, but there are certainly many of Walt Disney's films that inspire opposing views regarding their content and quality. This is the story of how I re-examined a critique I did for The Animated Movie Guide by Jerry Beck (Chicago Review Press). The purpose of the column is to inspire critical thinking about one's own critical thinking, an indispensable ability if one is to seriously examine animation.
I was thrilled and honored when Jerry asked me to serve as a contributor to his guide, and doubly joyful that he asked me to compose the entries on the Disney films. Jerry had studied them for decades, and preferred to concentrate on the oddball entries in the book, so this rich plum fell to me. For months I reviewed every Disney animated feature extant from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through Home on the Range, attempting to do the best critical summation I could on each film.
My office was overrun with DVDs, used ink cartridges and dozens of copies of reviews in various states of draft and revision. That was the summer of 2003, and it was one of my favorite summers to date. Jerry was generous with feedback and guidance, and never once tampered with an opinion, entry or finished piece: they appear in the book just as I had written them. That's not to say we didn't have professional disagreements.
The one that led me to rethink my critique years later (and birthed this column) had to do with a Disney film originally known as Swing Street but released under the title of Make Mine Music (1946). The feature was composed of 10 segments, many of them written years before, including a piece that did not make it to the finished version of Fantasia (1940). I had seen Make Mine Music a number of times, and with the exception of perhaps three of the 10 segments, held it in low regard, especially when viewed through the prism of the 2000s. Here's what I had to say in the guide:
"This film depicts a post-war popular culture that no longer exists… With the exception of some of the animated segments there is little for today's younger viewers to relate to. Make Mine Music is a relic of Disney's America, a film more suited for cultural historians than audiences."
Jerry, on the other hand, believed I had been rather unfair to Make Mine Music. Although the performers and pieces may have been dated, Jerry believed that the feature still had far more credits than debits. After six years, I re-examined my stance on this film and came to the following conclusions: I was both right and wrong. The stance that I still consider to be correct is that the movie was not built for success in the way that Pinocchio was. In my initial review, I considered this film a badly dated artifact whose poorer segments are burdened by kitsch, overly cute characters and visuals that most Disney artists could have executed while comatose. No teen today, for example, could easily relate to the "All the Cats Join In" segment: They would have been laughing too hard at the opening scene in which a boy has to scrounge a nickel from the unseen artist to make a call from a telephone booth.
Anyone who remembers Dinah Shore, Jerry Colonna, The Andrews Sisters, The King's Men and the Pied Pipers is likely doing so from a communal lounge at the nursing home. Inconsistencies abound. The abstract animation featured in "Without You" is offset by a virtual live-action short of a ballet featuring David Lichine and Tania Riabouchinska in "Two Silhouettes." The hyper-real (if dull) imagery of " Blue Bayou" is seriously at odds with the loud, slapstick Gay-Nineties style of "Casey at the Bat." As for "Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet," it is difficult to believe that Walt Disney, even given his occasional lapse of taste, still allowed this maudlin short in one of his major releases.
Still, it's hard to sink a Disney film: "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met" (A vocal tour de force by Nelson Eddy) is a masterpiece of musical fantasy and brilliantly shines among the other mediocrities in the feature. This is probably because the story is not tied to any particular time or era and could have taken place in 2010. The undeniable energy and synergistic magic between Benny Goodman's orchestra and the Disney animators make "After You've Gone" a timeless treat. Much the same can be said for "All the Cats Join In." Despite the fact that the short would be dated in just a few years by the advent of rock and roll, the action is frenetic and the animation wonderfully expressive given the limited character designs.
These exceptions do not rescue Make Mine Music from its inconsistencies and failings. It would be difficult to call this film a triumph for the studio, although it was a financial success upon release. What was it, then, that I missed? More to the point, what is it Jerry saw in the film that I didn't? Quite simply, Jerry saw the feature through the eyes of an audience in 1946. With his extensive background in the shorts and films of the time, it was easy for him to do so. And herein hangs an important lesson for animation critics: Critique in the context of the culture and the times.
During one scene of "All the Cats Join In," the malt shop is invaded by a raccoon-coated, ukulele-strumming Jazz Age teen adding his best Bo-De-Do-Do to the proceedings. The "cats" give him the bum's rush out the door to the accompaniment of laughter and cheering on the sound track. Today those same "cats" would have been shown the same door by a succession of Beats, Hippies, Yuppies, GenXers, Grungers and GenGreens. Such is the nature of a cyber-nation continually speeding up the play of cultural forces, and this is where I reconsider my stance. To critique Make Mine Music harshly in terms of its artistic content is my prerogative as a critic. To pan Make Mine Music for being outdated is accurate but unfair, and I apologize to readers of the Animated Movie Guide for that. If I am employed by Jerry for a future edition, I will make that clear, and may Dinah Shore forgive me.
It was once said by a disgruntled ex-Disney employee that Walt had the innate bad taste of the American public. That is, upon examination, an unfair and derogatory statement. Taste now fluctuates at an amazingly rapid pace. One example is the ascendancy of Katie Perry, who has supplanted Lady Gaga as the female fireball of the moment, and by next year will be passé. Highbrow and lowbrow culture has always co-existed in America, and if it seems that lowbrow culture always has the upper- hand, not so. It is simply louder and more media-driven than its more cultured counterpart, and its turnover rate is faster. The Kardashians, currently media goddesses, will be answers to trivia questions mere months from now. CG- animated/3-D films pour into theaters in buckets of multicolored pixels, but how many of these will be immortal classics?
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.