Suspended Animation #315
They have been called the “package features”, the “anthology features”, “omnibus features”, and even the “compilation features”. Sometimes the Disney Studio would include them on a list of Disney animated features if they wanted to reach a certain key anniversary to promote an upcoming film while other times they would be missing entirely.
There seems to be no agreement in terms of their official title, but Disney fans instantly recognize these pastiche placeholders in Disney animation history that contain a variety of different short cartoons gathered together, rather than a sustained single narrative.
Respected New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther spoke for many others when he wrote, in the mid-1940s, that they were “a gaudy grab-bag show in which a couple of items are delightful, and the rest are just adequate fillers-in…[they are] as disordered as a work of any artist can be…Some [of the segments] are delightful Disney fancies and some are elaborate junk. Watching it is an experience in precipitate ups and downs”.
Disney Legend Ben Sharpsteen, in various interviews, referred to them as the “vaudeville” films, referencing a series of unconnected acts or the “remnant” films as many of the segments were pieces left over from other projects.
These films began in spirit with Fantasia (1940) where several unrelated animated shorts were compiled together with a loose theme of exploring music visually and loosely held together with an educational narration providing a segue from one section to the next.
Walt Disney envisioned it as like a concert (the original tentative name for the film was The Concert Feature), where different selections were played for the audience during a single performance.
Originally, the plan for Saludos Amigos (1942) was to make up to 12 separate short cartoons using the material gathered by the Disney team during its trip to South America on a Goodwill tour. Each cartoon would have focused on one particular country.
That plan changed, thanks to memos to Walt from producer David O. Selznick, who suggested that it would be more effective to package the shorts in groups of four and release them as feature films. It was felt that a cartoon focusing on one particular country would be very popular in that country, but not as much in the other countries.
Also, since the purpose of the project was to create goodwill and understanding among the countries, by combining the cartoons together it would help introduce audiences to several different cultures at the same time and, hopefully, build that bond. Walt had to use 16mm home movie footage he had shot himself on the trip to loosely tie the individual cartoons together.
In addition, a feature would garner more income than individual short cartoons.
The film was so popular critically and financially that it was followed by another loose anthology of Latin America-themed cartoons titled The Three Caballeros (1944), that focused on countries not included in the original compilation and, supposedly, each of Donald Duck’s birthday gifts was the springboard for these tales.
Due to World War II, Walt had neither the staff nor the budget to make a full-length animated feature, and so these last two films were a way of still producing product at a studio that was now primarily devoted to creating training films for the various branches of the military.
After the war, the Disney Studios was still struggling to recover, especially since foreign markets had been closed to Disney films for many years, so Walt again turned to the concept of a package film because they could be done quicker and less expensively than his classic animated feature films that required highly skilled artists working over a span of several years.
In addition, the variety of the subject matter would appeal to different audiences.
Walt also explored doing hybrid films that would feature less expensive live-action with three short animated segments, as he did in Song of the South (1946) and planned to do originally for Treasure Island (1950). The Disney name still meant “animation” and Walt’s contract with his distributor, RKO, specified that the films he delivered featured animation, so Walt was unable to switch over to just live-action at the time.
Walt was not pleased with the compilation films, according to author Bob Thomas, but he felt trapped.
“I wanted to go beyond the cartoon,” Walt said. “Because the cartoon had narrowed itself down I could make them either seven- or eight-minutes long — or 80 minutes long. I tried the package things, where I put five or six together to make a feature cartoon 70- to 80-minutes long. …I had a lot of ideas I thought would be good in the cartoon form, if I could go to 15 minutes with it…but I knew I needed to diversify further and that meant live-action.”
For the animated package features, Walt picked subjects that might need more time than the length of a traditional short cartoon (that was already having a hard time recouping costs as movie theaters started eliminating them), had been developed for other projects (like the Latin American films or updates for Fantasia), or that were considered for a feature film but didn’t have enough story to support that extra length.
Walt was still sensitive to the critical and audience reaction to Fantasia’s high-brow classical music, so he attempted to graft popular tunes into the same format instead and came up with Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948).
This time he counted on the marquee value of popular singers and musicians to attract and entertain audiences. Benny Goodman, Dinah Shore, Nelson Eddy, the Sons of the Pioneers, Frances Langford, Dennis Day, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, the Andrews Sisters and more contributed their talents to these musical mélanges.
Fun and Fancy Free (1947) as well as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) were examples of films that contained some stories that were each considered for full-length treatment before World War II and had preliminary work that had already been done on them, so that saved some development costs.
In this way, Walt was able to release a feature film every year and to bring his studio back up to full speed by making modest profits to keep the studio in business. Audiences considered them as merely somewhat entertaining appetizers and longed for the satisfaction of a full meal.
Many felt that Walt had lost his vision and direction. It was during this time that intellectuals abandoned Disney as an artist in droves. They considered that his early brilliance had all but disappeared if it had ever existed at all and he had become a sentimental, mawkish, callow, hack filmmaker.
Writers used all those adjectives and more to describe Walt and his films at this time.
Walt’s production of Cinderella (1950) more than met that desire of audiences for a return to the full length classic fairy tale that would define Disney animated feature films for many people. It was one of the year’s top grossing films, Disney’s biggest money-maker since before the war, and generated an additional bonanza in merchandise.
The film’s critical and financial success spelled the end for further animated package features during Walt’s lifetime. From then on, audiences wanted a full story and not an anthology of disjointed individual stories with different characters and styles, no matter how entertaining some of the stories were.
However, these package features included many segments that are considered beloved classics today – including many of my personal favorites like Pecos Bill.