ANIMATION ANECDOTES
April 16, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

The Disney Package Features

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.

10 Comments

  • This era could be regarded as a wildly inventive and creative period at Disney–finding ways to stay afloat during treacherous times. The package features seem, to me, to be a realistic, viable alternative to feature animation. I have mentioned in other posts that there is an air of melancholia over many of these projects from the 40’s. Several of the cartoons contain a theme of death (“The Martins and the Coys,” “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Operatic Whale,” “Johnny Appleseed”), loss (“Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet,” “Without You,” “Casey at the Bat,” “Pecos Bill”), or destruction (“Little Toot,” “Ichabod and Mr. Toad”). This mood seems to pervade much of the Disney output during that period. There seems to be no guarantee that the lead character will survive (Willie, Johnny, Ichabod) or will avoid heartbreak (Pecos Bill, Casey). At last, however, Cinderella’s fairy godmother arrives (“Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo”) and with a flourish of her wand restores the customary Disney happy endings. The feature films of the 50’s radiate optimism and hope for the future despite setbacks. Regardless of wicked stepmothers and stepsisters, ego-maniac queens, ruthless pirate captains, cat-toting aunts, or evil sorceresses–the good characters will triumph and peace will ultimately prevail.

  • Despite the grousing of Bosley Crowther and others, there are many positive things that can be said about the Disney package films. The films that resulted from the South American goodwill tour really did improve cultural relations between the U.S. and its southern neighbours. The package films gave Disney’s artists the opportunity to experiment in a variety of styles; in art, as in science, most experiments yield negative results, but I think the success rate here is really quite high. Also, the individual segments of the package films were later repackaged for the Disney television shows over the next two decades, which could not be done with the features to the same extent.

    As for music, the package films showcased an expansive range of styles and genres, bringing many of them to new audiences. For example, “Tico Tico”, played by Joe Carioca in “Saludos Amigos”, was the first Brazilian song to become a hit in the United States and internationally. (Of course, it would not be the last.) On my last tour of Japan three years ago, at my pianist’s request we played “Tico Tico” as an encore and absolutely brought the house down.

    Which reminds me. In a couple of weeks my wife and I are going away to a hotel where you can get the Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil. Its key ingredient is cachaça, the liquor enjoyed by Joe Carioca in “Saludos Amigos”, which I have heard is next to impossible to get outside Brazil. The last time we were there I didn’t notice it on the cocktail menu until I had already ordered something else. This time I’m determined to try cachaça and see if it makes me breathe fire like Donald Duck in the cartoon. Salud, amigos!

  • The Disney artists were too harsh on them in later years. Sure they aren’t in the typical single narrative format, but they have great mood pieces and a lot of heart. They’re grossly underrated films.

    I hope more behind the scenes stories and concept art will be published.

    Something I’ve wondered, how and when did the Disney Company establish the canon of its animated features? As much as I cherish the package films, it’s never made much sense to me that they’re listed in the official canon given the format and obscurity with the casual Disney fan.

    • Films are films. Snow White is a film, so are Saludos Amigos, Melody Time, Peter Pan or Mary Poppins. So are Wreck-it Ralph, La Dolce Vita or A bout de Souffle.
      Why anybody in his or her right mind would ever bother with the marketing device known as “the canon” invented by the soulless mega-conglomerate known as “Disney”, present day owner of Walt Disney’s movies, is beyond comprehension

      • You do know some of the team (which is not as souless as another company I can think of) reads this blog, right? Besides, I think the set-up on what counts as an animated feature film might have partly began with Maltin’s books such as “The Disney Films” and “Of Mice and Magic”.

  • There’s great potential in the anthology format. I rate “The Three Caballeros” as one of Disney’s best movies, at least in terms of its innovative presentation. But it was also the first Disney movie I was exposed to, so I may be biased! I also think it was a wise move to replace the overly long classical sequences of “Fantasia” for more popular music, controversial though that may be. “Bumble Boogie”, “All the Cats Join In”, and “Once Upon a Wintertime” are some great examples.

    However, aside from the Latin American features, many of these movies lacked a central thread, theme, or mood. “Make Mine Music” in particular, has these great confusing mood swings between segments. Had they taken a step back and said ‘our next anthology picture is going to be focused on X’ before putting everyone to work, no doubt something great would have emerged. The experimental atmosphere was clearly there. But for whatever reason, that idea never materialized, and eventually they went back to telling feature-length stories.

    Over the decades, “Fantasia” has been hailed as one of Disney’s greatest artistic achievements, and rightly so. But features like “Melody Time” and “Make Mine Music” show that there was also life after Fantasia. Financial and critical pushback killed artistic innovation in that direction, so that ever after people will always talk about “a new Fantasia”. Which is about as interesting a perspective as viewing “Pinocchio” as a new “Snow White”; i.e. not very.

  • Man, if I never a see a Bosley Crowther review cited for any film again it won’t soon enough for me. The only value they have today is as an example of the worst kind of mid-20th-century cultural snobbism.

  • As a near-boomer kid I knew most of the individual segments from “World of Color”. They were mixed with other stuff, old and new, to create hours that were ironically more cohesive than the original movies. Tall tales, famous writers, fairy stories, holidays, music, etc. Then came home video releases and Disney Channel specials assembled on the same lines, but usually sans Uncle Walt or Von Drake (although the “Legends” video had James Earl Jones linking the animated segments).

    Also, some were re-released as stand-alone shorts / featurettes in support of Disney features. It was news to me that “Wind in the Willows” was shown any other way. Pecos Bill was once the attraction at the Fantasyland Theater in Disneyland.

    It wasn’t until the late 70s that I saw the original intact “Make Mine Music” and “Melody Time” at college showings, and they played well before student audiences with only occasional fits of snark.

    “Fun and Fancy Free” is for my money the weirdest one. “Bongo” is ultimately a one-joke story, and the joke is slapping the one you love. “Mickey and the Beanstalk” is fun for giving the gang a last silver age hurrah, but the opening scenes of them starving are too darn persuasive even with the gags.

    Now I’ve got all the package features on disc. A big part of their ongoing appeal is exactly what the critics disliked: the sheer Disneyness of them. For we of a certain age they evoke Sunday night television and movies with added attractions.

  • I hate that Disney stopped releasing their older, lesser-known, films on Blu-ray before we got Make Mine Music and Melody Time. I love them deeply, even though they are objectively uneven. I think Make Mine Music may be the only one of the classic-era animated features to not be available on Disney+. I’m not sure what the reason behind that is. Thankfully, I have the U.K. DVD that was released uncut, unlike the U.S. DVD. The Blu-rays of Saludos Amigos / Three Caballeros and Fun & Fancy Free / Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad are lovely. The FFF/Ichabod/Toad disc even has The Reluctant Dragon in HD as a bonus feature.

    I have very fond memories of my elementary school gathering all of us in the gym every Halloween to watch The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on 16mm. It’s still one of my all-time favorite things that Disney put out.

  • The “Martins And The Coys” segment was completely scrubbed from the DVD release of “Make Mine Music”. Disney even went so far as to entirely darken the part of the vertically-panned neon marquee during the opening credits sequence, where “The King’s Men” singing group’s name had originally been!!

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