The conventional wisdom is that Fantasia (1940) was a box office flop, and that Walt Disney abandoned the idea of having a rotating set of cartoons set to music form the basis for an ever evolving film. However, Fantasia went on to become a beloved classic and did make a profit after a few decades, and the Disney Animation Studios actually did eventually put together a lot more cartoons set to music Fantasia-style. Make Mine Music is an anthology film, very similar to Fantasia but with more of a pop music emphasis, although there is a nod to classical (a setting of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf), ballet (a really forgettable section sung by Dinah Shore with rotoscoped dancers), and opera (“The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” with all the voices sung and narrated by Nelson Eddy.)
This is about 40% a good, even great, film. Four of the ten musical set-pieces are timeless Disney, inventive animation, or just great entertainment. The rest of the film is either boring, dated, or just forgettable. The humor is mostly dated, 1940’s style, kind of like watching Red Skelton today–he used to be hilarious, but now he is just mildly amusing. “The Martins and the Coys” (a parody of the Hatfields’ and McCoys’ 19th Century hillbilly inter-family feud) and a setting of “Casey at the Bat” (narrated by comedian Jerry Colonna) are just too busy, and the comic narration too baroque, to be actually funny. Even Peter and the Wolf suffers from so much comic business that it saps the energy of the story.
The film grinds to a halt repeatedly for sappy bits that Disney probably considered to be serious attempts to expand the animators’ art, but probably didn’t work in 1946 except as excuses to go buy more popcorn, and they definitely don’t work today. “Blue Bayou” (sung by the Ken Darby Chorus), “Without You” (sung by Andy Russell), and the aforementioned ballet with the rotoscoped dancers to Dinah Shore’s crooning, are all snoozers.
The film excels, however, in four of its ten segments. These four alone are worth the price of admission:
“All the Cats Join In” is an exceedingly clever tour de force of animation drawn to Benny Goodman and his Orchestra. This is one of the finest tributes to swing music ever as a group of teenagers get ready to go to a dance party and then really kick it at the hop. The gimmick is that the whole thing is happening in a sketch book as the sketch artist is staying just a few sketches ahead of the events. This is the kind of Disney brilliance that inspires the modern Disney animators, Pixar included, to plumb the archives for ideas.
“After You’ve Gone” with the Goodman Quartet is a different take on the Bach number from Fantasia, only this time with surrealistic, mutating musical instruments flying around to jazz music.
“Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet,” sung by the Andrews Sisters, is a cutesie but engaging bit about two hats who falls in love in a department store window, only to sold and separated, but love prevails, and there is a happy ending. This sort of almost Victorian family entertainment can be so trite that it is embarrassing, but this one really works, and the resolution of the story is priceless.
“The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” sung by Nelson Eddy, makes a great finale. As a cartoon short, it is as grand in concept as the grand opera music it is about. There is a whale that makes the headlines for singing out at sea. An Italian opera impresario becomes convinced that the whale has swallowed an opera singer, so he charters a schooner and some harpoonists and sets out on a mission to rescue the swallowed singer. The cartoon spins hilariously out of control as there are fantasies of the captured whale’s illustrious opera career, but alas, it is never to be, because the harpoon ends the whale’s chance at fame. Possibly Disney’s most creative innovation since he made an elephant fly.
[It should be noted that “The Martins and the Coys” was cut from the American DVD release of Make Mine Music because of all the comic gunplay of hillbillies shooting at each other. I supposed the Disney Company was trying to protect American children in this era of high school shootings and whatnot, but it seems a greater crime to make the little ones sit through the ballet spot in the film. If you want to watch the complete, uncut film, you need to get the European DVD. That will require a region-free DVD player. Thankfully, The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature owns one.]