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 – a clip from the film itself.