Revisit the Horrifying ‘Fun and Fancy Free’

The Walt Disney Company is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, starting today—which means it’s time to completely embarrass it by trudging up old memories. What better way to fete the birthday boy than that?

One embarrassing—nay, disturbing—memory I have is watching Fun and Fancy Free, one of the lesser-known films in the animation studio’s catalog. (You can watch it on Disney+, if you really want to.) Perhaps that’s due in part to how it’s only sort of an animated film in the first place. Released during World War II, the 73-minute feature Frankensteins two very disparate shorts, neither of which were short enough to be released on their own. That didn’t mean that “Bongo and the more famous “Mickey and the Beanstalk belonged together whatsoever, though. And Disney’s efforts to connect them were an absolute backfire.

If you aren’t afraid of ventriloquist dummies, I envy you. But I am, and the historical context that made the live-action inclusion of comedian/ventriloquist Edgar Bergen notable at the time doesn’t land with any modern viewer. Bergen was popular in the 1930s and ’40s for his comedy routine, which featured innuendo-obsessed ventriloquist dummies. To add some audience incentive for the otherwise anemic Fun and Fancy Free, Bergen both appeared in and narrated parts of the film.

Most notably, he and his dummies (Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, both horrifying “beings”) introduced “Mickey and the Beanstalk” in a live-action sequence featuring child star Luana Patten. The setting is her birthday party, where Jiminy Cricket has stopped by; he appears in the film’s other, opening short, Bongo. To humor Luana, Bergen tells her a retrofitted take on Jack and the Beanstalk starring Mickey Mouse and company. Sitting alongside her? Charlie and Mortimer, free of their master’s hand, speaking and moving on their own.

In two words: Good lord! It’s a haunting choice, made only to satisfy the poor parents who are forced to watch this film with their bored kids. Bless those patient parents, putting up with this waking nightmare of wooden dolls come to life. And bless little Luana for somehow acting as if this is all perfectly normal.

The Mickey and the Beanstalk short itself is fantastic, iconic, and joyous. In the ’60s, Disney re-released it without the live-action parts on TV. That’s the version I watched on a VHS tape many times as a kid, where it was thankfully divorced from that intro; instead, fellow animated Disney character Ludwig Von Drake set the story up. But Bergen’s voice remains throughout, narrating Mickey’s misadventures with the giant up in the sky—which, if you have seen Fun and Fancy Free, is a triggering reminder of its original home.

It’s bizarre to see a real-life guy that has nothing to do with Disney and is barely integrated into the story appear on screen, right after a Jiminy Cricket cartoon and before a Mickey Mouse one. Having his dummies speak to a little girl is creepy enough—that they’re talking about Mickey Mouse is surreal. It feels like a blast right through the fourth wall that animation puts up by design, especially when Bergen’s voice bleeds right into the cartoon.

This dissonance is part of the reason why Fun and Fancy Free is one of those little-remembered Disney films. That’s compounded by the fact that it was released during one of the studio’s sallow periods, when it supported itself primarily by making war propaganda. (If you haven’t seen Donald Duck living in Nazi Germany, you’re in for a whole ‘nother trip.) But the packaging of disparate shorts and the wraparound of a forgotten, niche act do this movie no favors. In fact, it’s a total nightmarish detractor, especially if you’re afraid of things that shouldn’t speak suddenly speaking. (*Raises hand*)

It’s funny that Fun and Fancy Free takes place at a birthday party, now that I think about it—perhaps Disney would do itself well to play this one at its 100th celebration.

Sike. No one should have to watch those dummies talk about Mickey Mouse ever again.

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