Animation History
April 29, 2013 posted by Jerry Beck

Nobody Ever Talks About “Bongo”

bongo4

Bongo anyone?

Nope. Didn’t think so. Does anyone have anything nice to say about Walt Disney’s Bongo?

What a sad strange fate. Bongo was a major section of the Walt Disney package feature Fun And Fancy-Free (1947). Based on a short story from Cosmopolitan magazine by Sinclair Lewis (Elmer Gantry), it’s also one of the (very) few Disney mis-fires. The character didn’t catch on, the story was a bit lackluster, and even the songs are completely forgetable.

But it’s a beautifully produced piece, if a bit slight; the highlight being (for me) the love ballad (Too Good To Be True) set against every heart-shaped visual gag the studio could muster up. However, I do think the film has a bit of significance that’s been overlooked. For me – and this is up for debate – it’s the first film to exhibit the sophisticated post-war Disney animation style.

What do I mean? I’ve always split the progression of classic Disney animation in two. The earlier growth period (1928-1946), where the studio’s animation is growing, on a progressive path towards a standard house style; and the later “standard” Disney style (1947-1967), set in place in such films from Cinderella through The Jungle Book (and a bit beyond actually).

No further artistic growth seemed required by Walt. He was happy with this standard – all future progress would be technical (3D, CinemaScope, xerography). From my armchair perspective, this film fits more with what’s to come than what came before it – it portends the Wooolie Reitherman-Milt Kahl era of simple, cliche-Disney story telling that would take over by the 60s and 70s.

I don’t think anyone talks about Bongo, because there really isn’t much to say. It’s a watchable, innocuous piece of entertainment, and as professional standards got worse in later years it’s held up rather well, if undistinguished. The film itself quietly became part of the studio’s library, and Bongo himself was surpassed by another bear – one called Winnie.

Outside of its initial debut in Fun and Fancy Free, and on a second season episode of Disneyland (“Jiminy Cricket Presents Bongo” on September 28th, 1955), the film was released as a stand alone featurette on January 20th 1971 (on the bill the live action feature The Wild Country).

So let’s hear it for Bongo – the quiet little “missing link” that bridged the earlier Disney animation to the later Disney house style. Below is the 1971 press book, followed by a selection of Bongo related merch (click thumbnails to enlarge gallery), and below that – the film itself.

bongo_press-1 bongo_press-2 bongo_press-3 bongo_press-4

bongo1 bongo2 bongo3 bongo5
bongo6 bongo7 bongo8 bongo9

43 Comments

  • Back in my callow youth,in the sixties,I do remember seeing the Bongo book with Jiminy Cricket on the cover.It’s too bad Bongo was dismissed like it was.I thought it was rather entertaining,if not groundbreaking.

  • I’d say Bongo falls into the same category as a lot of the studio’s short subjects of the same period — great animation put to the service of bland stories. Being paired with the more popular “Mickey and the Beanstalk” segment also helped make the first part of the film forgettable,

    (I’d also put an ‘A’ and ‘B’ part into the 1947-67 period, mainly due to the stylization that started to show up ever so gradually in Disney’s higher profile work due to the UPA influence. A design like Ranger Woodlore or Cruella De Vil never makes in into a late 1940s-early 50s Disney effort, so while the animation quality didn’t change, the look of the animation did.)

  • Perhaps another reason why it gets overlooked is that its companion piece in [i]Fun and Fancy Free[/i] is “Mickey & the Beanstalk” featuring Disney’s three most popular characters, Mickey, Donald and Goofy. It would have been hard for any other featurette to match that star power.

  • I thought this segment was good, though I think this was overshadowed by the more memorable “Mickey and the Beanstalk” segment that it shared billings with.

    To be fair, there were recent plushes of Bongo and Lullabelle that were released in Japan as part of a “Diseny 110th Birthday” set in 2011.

  • Interesting observation on the Disney house style! One might argue that a couple of those later technical innovations (xerography and ‘scope aspect ratio) did alter the studio ‘look’ quite a bit, but your overall thesis of visual and story-telling experimentation shifting into a largely complacent professionalism around ’46 seems about right. BONGO is pretty much DUMBO LITE, but it has its charms… that large format picture book still has a place of prominence on display in my living room. That 1971 pressbook reminds us Dinah Shore’s involvement may have been one big reason the studio decided to dig this one up for theatrical re-issue back then. Her talk show and/or Burt Reynolds romance had put her back on top of the celebrity heap around this time I believe.

  • I think I read one of those books on “Bongo” in grade school, does that count? :-)

  • IMO, the jarring element that renders “Bongo” most unpalatable to modern audiences (and perhaps even those of its day) is the repetitious beating the crap out of his female counterpart, even though the story goes overboard to explain (partly with Dinah Shore’s saccharine vocals underlining the point) that this behavior in the bruin world is supposed to be perfectly normal. The same dramatic device strains to work at all in the climax of the John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara classic “The Quiet Man,” worsening with time but there’s something downright repulsive on the cellular level with watching it in an animated cartoon. It is, as you note, beautifully animated, as was just about everything during the golden age.

  • I didn’t know that was based on a Sinclair Lewis piece. Very interesting!

  • Jerry, you oughtta enjoy this — DC recently reprinted early issues of their try-out series, SHOWCASE in one of those thick B&W SHOWCASE PRESENTS books. I’d never had the opportunity to read most of these stories and I was surprised to see that SHOWCASE No. 2 (with the theme “Kings of the Wild”), cover-dated May-June, 1956, features an eight-page story written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Russ Heath titled “Runaway Bear” that’s an obvious “swipe” from Disney’s BONGO! Here’s the synopsis from the Grand Comicbook Database: “Billy the Bear was born in the circus, and yearns for adventure. He finds it when knocked off a circus train. Soon he’s battling bears and timber wolves while protecting a hunter, and wonders if being free is worth it.” Although the approach is fairly “straight”, Russ gave Billy a slightly cartoonish face, one similar to Mr. Talky Tawny the tiger in the original CAPTAIN MARVEL. The story is one of Russ’ best, in my opinion and you should definitely check out the reprint. http://www.comics.org/issue/12800/

    • Thanks Scott. Hilarious! I never knew about this and I will seek it out.

      One could only imagine what Kanigher and Heath would have done to Little Toot!

  • I was given Bongo on VHS as a toddler and I have loved it ever since. I don’t care what anyone thinks or says about that. Not every animated film has to have the most riveting story to write home about. It’s an underdog…a Disney film from the classic period, designed well, and boasting a gentle & cute narrative without being laughable in the way some view Mickey and the Seal, for example. Sheesh!

    • I would agree too, we all probably saw this at least once in our young lives and thought it was quite a nice little half hour tale to whittle away the time on. I see the video Jerry embedded here has to be run through YouTube’s stupid enhancement filter. That’s why the screen seems to bounce or move around every so often during the video. If you can’t get over that, the whole feature has been up on YouTube for quite a while anyway.

      The one moment I did appreciate a lot though as a kid seeing this on video is the moments with Jiminy Cricket at the opening, especially when he turns a newspaper page over and pulls a record out of a sleeve and it lands on a turntable. Those moments always seemed very good on a technical level. I always wondered how did they accomplished that, nowadays assuming it was some sort of live-action photography and rotoscoping at play.

      Of course there’s no doubt the highlight of Fun and Fancy Free is it’s Mickey & The Beanstalk segment and Edgar Bergen’s wonderful performance and heckling of his pals during the story, to this day I often wonder if the producers of the popular MST3K weren’t a little inspired by what was done before on this film.

  • I saw a lot of Bongo and Lumpjaw when I was growing up because they showed-up in a lot of comic books stories that debuted or were reprinted in the Walt Disney Comics Digest. Bongo and Madam Mim both had me puzzled because I’d never seen them in any Disney animation I was then familiar with. Those were the days when Disney comics extended the “shelf life” of many characters whose films were less than memorable.

  • “Fun and Fancy Free” has not aged well as a whole. The unifying story of Edgar Bergen as a middle aged man throwing a birthday party in the middle of the night for a little girl (he’s apparently not related) with no one else there but mischievous puppets might have been charming in the 40s, but today? Not so much.

    • And yet as a kid in the 80′s I never questioned such a problem as a girl attending a party at a close friend’s house in the neighborhood at all. She obviously got the invitation though why there wasn’t any other kids at the party, I suppose I’ll never know (if Mr. Bergen thought to have invited all the kids in the neighborhood, it might’ve made sense).

  • I remember renting “Fun and Fancy Free” from the library. I thought it was a pretty good movie. “Mickey and the Beanstalk” is the best part of the movie, but “Bongo” is good too. I’ve always loved the song “Say It With a Slap.”

  • I was always partial to FUN AND FANCY FREE particularly because of Edgar Bergen, Charlie and Mortimer. Of course, they are involved with MICKEY AND THE BEANSTALK instead.

    Sadly BONGO’s narrator is Dinah Shore, who is stuck with the Greatest Generation’s fondest memories rather than the Baby Boom’s and Generation X-ers’ fondest memories (along with those too young to know who she is) even though contemporary Doris Day still gets some mileage today. So Dinah’s narration does make this a bit too sugary cute-sweet for some (who like their entertainment more spicy) to digest.

    With that said, I do have a guilty pleasure for BONGO and the other lightweight children’s books style / chocolate box-y offerings like the later LAMBERT THE SHEEPISH LION as well as the ANIMALAND cartoons that David Hand supervised on the other side of the Atlantic shortly after this time. (Those Ginger Nutt Squirrel adventures are even ickier than BONGO but the animation sure is a feast for the eyes.) Watching these is like opening an old box of stuffed toys you haven’t seen since you were six.

    • To JLEWIS: Yes, Dinah Shore does have the problem of being locked to the memories more of the Greatest Generation, though she did stay working until 1994, but as a 52 year old, I’ve always admired her and her Southern voice.:)

      I have the “Fun and Fancy Free” VHS, btw.

      To BILL VALLLEY and CHRIS SOBENIAK:
      Yeah, not only EDGAR BERGEN giving LUANA PATTEN, apparently not even related, not only either too “charming” as a product of its time for our time, (BILL) or even more so creepy, like Michael Jackson when he had strange kids over (CHRIS’s comparision), but it was also progressive oddly—where’s the boys as the party back in 1946? I always thought that it was odd..I don’t recall any other children there..Something outside a slumber party where a young GIRL is invited was, as dated or creepy as this looks, also ahead of its time…I mean, how many times in those old stories do you not see a little boy, instead of a little girl?:)

      Steve Carras, aka “Pokey” on Blogger.

  • I would divide things still further, separating the cartoons made from “101 Dalmations” to “Jungle Book” from the earlier postwar cartoons. 1961 and “101 Dalmations” marked the first use of the Xerox process for transferring drawings to cels, and it caused a drastic change in the studio’s visual style. And not in a good way.

    • The 60′s certainly had it coming with that. We tried to keep up with the changes but obviously it felt like a different beast altogether.

  • Most people don’t remember Disney’s Fun and Fancy-Free or any of their package films for that matter (outside of animation buffs anyway). If they do it, they most likely will recall Sleepy Hallow and Wind in the Willows.

    • The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad surely is quite familiar. Their stories are still quite familiar to modern audiences through other adaptations and the segments themselves have shared a good use of screen time, such as Sleepy Hallow around Halloween.

    • For boomer kids, the individual segments of the package films were often VERY familiar, frequently turning up on TV or re-released as separate featurettes. We knew Johnny Fedora, Pecos Bill, Casey at the Bat, Once Upon a Wintertime, Pablo the Penguin and many more (Johnny Appleseed’s “The Lord is Good to Me” was sung before meals at summer camp).

      But we were mostly ignorant that the package features ever existed, just assuming these were always freestanding shorts like most of the other clips.

      I remember being a little surprised to find out Mr. Toad and Icabod Crane were originally the same film, having always seen them as separate TV shows (and Toad as a theatrical short). And while I found out about the package films from reading about Disney, I never got a chance to see one until a college class on animation history in the 70s.

    • The individual segments being more famous than the original package features continued right through the 80′s and 90s when many were advertised and released as ‘Mini Classics’ on VHS. A lot of people who were kids in this era would be surprised to learn how they were originally released.

  • I was lucky enough to meet the great Edgar Bergen at Disney. I was a huge fan of his radio program. (man, am I old) Anyway, the forties was a more innocent time and people didn’t bring such “baggage” to the table. There was nothing wrong with Mr. Bergen having a party for a kid. No one gave it a thought. Certainly, Walt didn’t.

    I loved Bongo but thought the only reason Walt didn’t do more with the bear was because of rights issues with the author, Sinclair Lewis.

    • True and the forties were also better than the 1970s Scooby era of animation. I wasn;’t even born then and it’s just an innocent thing.

  • Great post. Had a “Bongo” (small edition) book when i was a kid then years ago bought a copy of the Big Golden book on eBay.. still have it. and think its a charming film. For those of you who may have it, in Funnyworld # 21 there’s a great picture of Jack Kinney and the “Bongo” crew in front of the films storyboards on page 30.

  • Bongo was a pretty good segment in Fun And Fancy Free. I always liked Dinah Shore’s vocals. But it was Mickey and the Beanstalk that made the movie. Joe Grant said in an interview that they were skeptical about making Bongo, but admitted later on that it turned out to be a cute story.

  • Footnote: For some reason, my favorite moment is Bongo whipping out his press clippings to impress a hulking rival.

  • A very professional cartoon with gorgeous backgrounds, fine animation and some great water effects, but by Disney entertainment standards it just doesn’t hold up. One thing that no one else has mentioned that I think really holds back this cartoon is the relentless, non- stop narration. Even when it’s all happening to view on screen, Dinah Shore tells us what’s going on anyway. She tells us what the characters are doing, how they’re feeling and even puts words in their mouths. Spelling it out to this degree holds back the character development and makes the whole thing seem really childish. It’s one of very few classic Disney cartoons where I feel like I’m watching something that’s meant for kids.

    There’s not much in this that hadn’t already been done better in previous Disney works. Better circus stuff in Dumbo, better cute animal and woodland stuff in Bambi, Snow White and many of the shorts, better falling in love stuff in Bambi too and more unique and defined characters elsewhere. The whole thing has a very recycled feel, where even certain sound effects and very similar short scenes of animation had been used to greater effect previously.

    Also one of the main plot devices is very contrived. They show their love by slapping each other. Huh? No wonder Bongo was confused. Not only is this weird, it’s also pretty nasty, as Tom Minton has highlighted above. Kind of a shame because ‘Say it with a Slap’ is the only memorable tune from the film.

    A couple more good things I can say for Bongo are the funny bear extras in this cartoon. These seem to have been further developed later into the bears from the wonderful Humphrey cartoons. There’s also a brief scene of the early Chip an’ Dale. And finally someone snuck at least one sly image of a ball bag into the love scene, which is funny.

    • These are my thoughts exactly. “By Disney entertainment standards it just doesn’t hold up.” Perfect. I would also add that its length is stupefying. Almost a full half-hour! MICKEY AND THE BEANSTALK, WIND IN THE WILLOWS, and LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW all justified their running times, but almost nothing happens for the first half of BONGO. It’s a fifteen minute idea, max, ballooned to an obscene length.

      As a child, I only saw (quiet often, as my father reminds me) the later reissue of BEANSTALK, with Ludwig Von Drake narrating. When I finally saw FUN & FANCY FREE in its entirety on DVD, I was stupefied by how intrusive the Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy/Mortimer Snerd narration was. Perhaps BONGO suffers similarly and may be considerably better without Dinah Shore, but I kind of doubt it.

    • Disney did themselves a favour releasing the Von Drake version of Beanstalk. I also grew up with that version which was an absolute favourite of mine on video. I first saw Fun and Fancy Free when I was about 10 and, having never heard of Edgar Bergan and his puppets before, found the whole thing inferior, dated and embarrassing to watch even then. The puppets were ugly, you could see Edgar’s mouth move and it just seemed so cheap and babyish. At one point the entertainment consists of him drawing eyes on his hand and pretending it’s an old lady. Rubbish! Still it cleared up one mystery for me, The Von Drake version leaves in a line of the little girl crying out “Oh!” when Willie wakes up. I’d previously always wondered who was supposed to have shouted that in the cartoon.

    • A ball bag? What’s that?

  • I did a short documentary about “Fun and Fancy Free” for Disney Home Entertainment in 1997, and much of what has been said here is true. Joe Grant actually advised Walt against doing “Bongo,” he felt it was too slim a plot, and would feel padded. The relationship to “Dumbo” was both explored for exploitation (i.e., bringing in those earlier characters for additional story opportunity) and scrupulously avoided. In the end, Grant acknowledged it was a “fun picture,” but not even near worthy of their efforts.

    • here’s that documentary for anyone interested to see it!
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwFPCVPREOM

    • I’ll never forget that 1997 release. The sales blurb on the back of the case has stuck with the film in every Home Entertainment press release since, somehow determining that Fancy Free features “all four of Walt Disney’s most famous characters—Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Jiminy Cricket.”
      Er… enjoy the status while you’ve got it, Jiminy.

    • “Er… enjoy the status while you’ve got it, Jiminy.”

      Well, he’ll have another decade to teach us stuff thanks to that classic cathode-ray set in the living room! :-P

  • Surely, you’d have to separate SLEEPING BEAUTY and 101 DALMATIANS from the crop of films Disney did in the Fifties and Sixties ! Both are stylistically and dramatically more grown-up than the others of the period you’re writing about. BONGO, LADY & THE TRAMP and PETER PAN sure aren’t in the same calibre as SLEEPING BEAUTY or 101 DALMATIANS. Maybe I’m partial to the strong change in design both of those films offer.

    • I understand what you mean, Michael – the designs, stories and production qualities of those two features are quite superior in those latter films. But my “separation” theory of Disney animation style is based solely on the hand-animation quality. My point is that there is a certain level of achievement in character animation that arrived in BONGO that I do not see improved upon further in any feature. That does not mean I think BONGO is the height of Disney animation – far from it. But it “perfects” a level of craft that the studio simply settled on. The look and style of Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians are indeed superior, but the hand-craft, beneath the cels and polish, is of the excellence found in almost everything else they did before and after (in Walt’s lifetime) from Peter Pan to Goliath II.

  • I actually devoted a whole post to BONGO three years ago. http://colorfulanimationexpressions.blogspot.ch/2010/05/brown-bears.html
    But I agree with you about it being a lacklustre film and a forerunner of the “taken-for-granted” 1950s style Disney animation.

  • I love this film

  • When I was a baby, I had a stuffed animal that I though was a bear, although it looked a little different from most stuffed bears. It had a painted cloth face and sort of a mohair covering. I remember picking the fuzz off of the bear when I was very young. After all of these years, I still have him! He is in poor to fair shape due to time and my picking his fuzz off. But he is intact and still has his red (faded) coat on. I never knew what kind of bear he was and never found another one like him – even after some internet searching, including Ebay. Then a few days ago, I retrieved some of my baby pictures from my Mom’s house. On the back of one of the photos, of me holding my bear, my Mom wrote: “Billy with Bongo”. After 60 years, I now had a name. I searched for it and found out that my bear was a Disney Bongo the Bear, made by the Gund Company. I can not believe that I finally found out the name and story behind my childhood stuffed bear.

  • i saw Bongo in ’47-48′ and my memory is that i loved it. But most importantly, i owned the 78 rpm 3 or for record set which i played over and over. Dinah Shore’s honey flavored voice ready reached me. There was a song which is not on the DVD version of Fun and Fancy Free which i was was so disappointed not to hear: the intro starts but then no song: The lyric i remember is “Is this a dream………?”. Thanks for the site. Do you know if the original is available in any form? i still have a phonograph.

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