Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The darkness of Disney 11: Willie the Whale

As further evidence that Disney has never shied away from confronting audiences with death, there’s Willie the Whale, from the cartoon segment “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” in the 1946 package movie, Make Mine Music. Willie is depicted as a sympathetic character (unlike the villainous Monstro the whale from Pinocchio) with the miraculous ability to not only sing opera but to sing in three different voices all at once -- tenor, baritone, and bass. The entire cartoon is narrated and sung by Nelson Eddy -- who, impressively, sings and speaks every part in the cartoon. The story: A famous opera impresario learns of the whale and, rather than accept that the whale is singing, believes instead that Willie has swallowed opera singers. He sets off in a hired boat to track down the whale and rescue the “singers.” As Willie is singing and imagining himself in operatic roles onstage at the Metropolitan Opera, the impresario harpoons and kills him. The story is intended to be a tragi-comedy, but the death of Willie is treated rather realistically.

Facing a studio strike, lost revenue, and further complications brought on by World War II, after releasing the feature Dumbo in 1941, Disney mostly turned away from making full-length animated feature films and instead made package films, or movies consisting of many different stories and segments “packaged” together. Package films, particularly musicals, were very popular with movie studios of the time, and popular with audiences as well. In total, Disney produced six package films between 1942 and 1949: Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). With the exception of Victory Through Air Power, Disney didn’t produce another full-length animated feature film until Cinderella (1950).

Technically, Fantasia was the first Disney “package film.” However, Fantasia has always been considered independent of the "official" Disney package films. Fantasia had required a great deal of commitment from the studio and had been very expensive to produce. Also, audiences of the time found it “pretentious,” as classical music was believed by many to belong primarily to “snobs.” The less expensive and more freewheeling package films were more palatable to 1940s audiences, and they proved to be popular and lucrative for Disney at the time. Fantasia lost money upon release, but the package films became box office hits. Ironically, Fantasia has gone on to become the most financially successful "package film" in movie history, while features like Make Mine Music have been all but forgotten by general audiences.

(Note: Willie the Whale, of course, is NOT to be confused with Free Willy, 1993)


Anonymous said...

This is a really fantastic series, thanx! A great reminder that Disney isn't just for kids, and that their specialities are storytelling and character development above everything else.

Speaking of Monstro, have you watched Pinnochio lately. The Coachman/Pleasure Island stuff stands up to any Universal Horror scene of the same time period in terms of darkness and creepyness.

Keep up the good work.

Jeff M.

Sea-of-Green said...

Thank you! :-) And, yes, I agree completely about Pinocchio. I think it's by far the darkest of the early Disney features, what with Monstro, and Stromboli, and the transformation of Lampwick, and the underlying threats of deceipt, treachery, and death that permeate the movie. But OH what a glorious movie ...!