The Wartime Era of Disney animation refers to the films that begun production during and were released shortly after the Second World War, in the years between 1942 and 1949. There were seven films released in this period: Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1946), Song of the South (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
The bombs that dropped on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 shook every facet of American life. Though Americans had volunteered to fight in Europe and the British had been benefitting from lend-lease almost since the war began, by Christmas of 1941, the United States was officially at war with the Axis powers. For the next four years, Americans would fight and die alongside their Allied brethren across Europe and the Pacific and the hungry mechanism of war would stoke the fires of industry back home, inadvertently throwing off the last remnants of the Great Depression.
Every industry was affected by the war, including Hollywood. On one hand, war movies and propaganda could mean big business for filmmakers. The first American movie to feature Nazis as a villain was Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a spy thriller released almost four months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland officially kicked off the war. This tradition continues to this very day, with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk winning three Academy Awards almost eighty years after the actual Dunkirk evacuation. On the other hand, the war effectively removed the European market from the film world, and American films weren’t yet looking to Asia for their foreign box office boosts, meaning the business had to rely on domestic markets.
Disney was no stranger to these forces. World War Two is often seen as a turning point in the public perception of animation. What was once seen as childish entertainment now was recognized for its potential in telling more serious stories. It just so happened that these stories all had to do with recycling cooking grease and Japanophobia, but it was a turning point nonetheless. Disney produced a number of shorts for the U.S. Army both for showing in the U.S. and abroad.
However, the war also brought Disney to the same dire straits as other companies. The loss of the European market really hurt Disney’s more ambitious projects like Pinocchio and Fantasia. Not only that, after Pearl Harbor, a large number of Disney’s animators were drafted into service. There was really no financial reason not to work with the government to produce propaganda, and the majority of Disney’s remaining staff was by the end of 1942.
Only two of the seven films in this era actually came out during the war. The first, Saludos Amigos, was a result of Disney’s trip to South America as part of the Good Neighbor policy before the war. Backed by federal loan guarantees and featuring documentary footage of a modern Latin America, not just the indigenous areas many still pictured at the time, the film is credited as helping change public perceptions of Latin America at a crucial time. After its premiere in Rio de Janeiro in 1942, the film grew in popularity to the point where Disney produced their first sequel, The Three Caballeros, which premiered in Mexico City in 1944.
Postwar Disney had trouble recapturing this level of popularity, though. Most of these films are considered “package films,” collections of shorter films combined into one feature-length films, usually with some overarching framing device connecting them. This wasn’t the first time Disney had used this device as it was basically the conceit of Fantasia. However, it was a fairly easy way to pump out a lot of content with the short staff they had, even once many animators came back from the fight. This may also have been part of the impetus to move to live-action and combine it with animation, which Disney did with films like Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. Unfortunately, the majority of these films performed poorly at the box office and garnered mixed receptions overall. Some of the shorts used in these films would find new life in repackaged anthologies once home video became more widely available, while others remained lost to the sands of time.
The driving force behind the Wartime films is necessity. These films were made in order to keep producing content and making money during an economically turbulent time. That’s not to say they were devoid of artistry or ambition, but the primary focus of these package films wasn’t to reproduce anything on the scale of Fantasia.
Honestly, it’s probably more accurate to speak of each short individually, as they can vary in quality between each movie. Some shorts are the classic Disney fare that would slot in well with classic shorts from any era, like “Casey at the Bat” from Make Mine Music or “Mickey and the Beanstalk” from Fun and Fancy Free. Some are more abstract and could fit in with the classical shorts from Fantasia, like “Two Silhouettes” and “After You’ve Gone” from Make Mine Music, or “Bumble Boogie” from Melody Time. Still others have been forgotten, either because of poor quality or other concerns. For the home video release of Make Mine Music in 2000, the entire opening sequence, “The Martins and the Coys,” was cut due to the comic use of violence and gunfire, and parts of “All the Cats Join In” were censored for containing mild female nudity. I really didn’t expect to be writing the phrases “comic gunplay” and “mild female nudity” in a blog post about Disney movies, but here we are.
Unfortunately, I will not be ranking each short individually, as that would make my list way too long. Besides, you didn’t pay to see each short on its own, you paid to see the whole thing, no matter how good or bad each individual short may have been. All that really matters is how good the movie was overall. Here are my thoughts on and rankings of the Wartime films.
7. Song of the South (1946) – Oh, Song of the South, I wish I knew how to talk about you. At this point, the controversial history surrounding this film is more known about than anything else, save “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” There is a time and a place to discuss the complicated history of race in American film and this movie’s place in it, but this is not the place and I am not qualified in any way to talk about it. What I will talk about is just how boring this movie is. It is an hour and a half of poorly-shot slice of life in the postwar South intercut with animated segments that are okay, but certainly not any of Disney’s greatest. It’s like Gone With the Wind without any of the memorable performances or lush production design, leaving behind one admittedly catchy song and a really uncomfortable feeling in the viewer. It’s for the best that you forget about most of this film before your next trip down Splash Mountain (which I also don’t really like.)
6. Fun and Fancy Free (1947) – This movie reminds me of those low-budget kid’s films you watched over and over again when you went to your Grandma’s house because she only had, like, three VHS tapes. It’s a movie people probably have fond memories of. As someone without fond memories, I can safely say it’s really not good. The shorts are okay, but much lower quality than I’d expect from Disney. The only lasting thing about this for me was the fact that the giant in the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” segment later appears as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which is the most nostalgic for me anything in this movie will get. Also, there is an extended sequence where a little girl is entertained by a man and two ventriloquist dummies at his house with no other guests. And by “extended sequence,” I mean “the literal framing device for one of the two short films in this thing.” It is exactly as uncomfortable to watch as it sounds.
5. Make Mine Music (1946) – Make Mine Music is the closest of the films in this era to really be considered a sequel to Fantasia. Every other film that tried just didn’t quite hit the same beats. Unfortunately, that means I have a lot of the same problems with Make Mine Music as I did with Fantasia. The good stuff is great, with “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” being one of my new benchmarks for short films. The stuff that isn’t so great just drags it all down. Like Fantasia, pieces of it work exceptionally well and I think the more modern music works better overall. However, it still doesn’t escape just being a lesser sequel to the original.
4 & 3. Saludos Amigos (1942) & The Three Caballeros (1944) – These two are at a tie because they are fundamentally the same movie: Disney package films with a heavy focus on Donald Duck as a main character and Latin America as the setting. It all depends on your preferences: Saludos Amigos has a focus on travelogues and live action footage showing the animator’s process of working in Latin America, while Three Caballeros is just animated shorts. Not every short is the most engaging, but you take them as they come. Saludos Amigos is the shortest movie I’ll watch for this project at just over forty minutes. Three Caballeros is longer, but that just means we get more good and more bad. All in all, they’re fun, simple, and introduced me to my new favorite Disney character: Jose Carioca, the one Portuguese speaker in the whole canon and officially meu rico filho.
2. Melody Time (1948) – So, here’s the best time to state that my top five are all really close together. None of the films in this era are the most groundbreaking or classic, but they’re all generally charming and harmless to throw on for young viewers, with the two exceptions at the bottom of this list. If you compare this to my Golden Age list, my top five are all pretty much concentrated between Snow White and Fantasia in the “Fun and Enjoyable for Kids, Not Really Engaging for Adults Yet Not Horrible if You Have to Watch It” category. I bring this up now because Melody Time isn’t really that much better than Make Mine Music as my list would have you believe. They’re incredibly similar in terms of concept, and I just feel like Melody Time executed on that concept better overall with segments that are more enjoyable to watch. I may be a little biased as the opening segment “Once Upon a Wintertime” is used in a lot of Disney holiday specials, but I still hold firm that this is overall the more enjoyable of the two spiritual successors to Fantasia.
1. Ichabod & Mr. Toad (1949) – You can tell the creative juices were running low at this point as this is the only film in this era without a strong framing device, and yet, it’s easily the best one. Both shorts are charming and wonderfully animated. The Wind in the Willows is odd but charming in that way that only very British stuff can be (like Narnia or books involving boarding schools). Meanwhile, Ichabod Crane is a Halloween staple for a dang good reason. It’s dark and atmospheric, comedic in unique ways, yet manages to still be actually scary towards the end. A real slam dunk to end off the era of package films for good.
Well, that took forever to get through. Honest talk, between schoolwork, mental issues, and relationship troubles these past few months, I’ve not really felt much desire to watch this handful of frankly mediocre films. But, that’s all in the past. The war is over (and has been for four years), the troops are home, and America is set to finally shake off the last vestiges of the Depression. And who better to be our entertainer in this time than the man with the mouse. In our next installment of The History of Disney, we’ll look to the future, to expansion and transformation, to television, cinema, and…theme parks? All this and more when we discuss the Silver Age.