I think it might be really fun to bring one of these Disney reviews in under 2000 words again, so I'm going to skip the history lesson this time, except to reiterate what happened to the Disney Studios in the post-war '40s: Walt Disney was inattentive, they were running out of money, and the package films - collections of cheap shorts sold as a feature - had been running dry as a creative endeavor for a couple of years. Disney animation looked very tottery at this point.

So Melody Time is something to be grateful for. Conceptually, it's just another "poor man's Fantasia" like Make Mine Music, but it's a great deal more successful. None of the shorts here are the equal to "Peter and the Wolf", but as a whole, the stuff here is better than the stuff there, and there's not a single outright clinker. I do not know what change happened in the studio to give it a new burst of playfulness - though my suspicion is that by the time this film went into animation, story work had begun in earnest on Cinderella, and the nightmare of poverty and cost-cutting begun in 1942 was finally drawing to an end, giving the creative team a new burst of optimism and enthusiasm. At any rate, the seven musical shorts comprising Melody Time are each and every one of them well-done, though some are merely fun and only a couple stand out as really great examples of Disney's aesthetic in the 1940s; they're also the longest pieces, and therefore give the film most of its personality.

The film's framework is a bit more conceptual than the concert hall openings of Fantasia and Make Mine Music. Here, there is an animated brush that quickly paints out a stage upon which a floating mask announces that we're in for a quick "take your worries away" slate of fun and romance. The paintbrush motif (though not the mask) returns to introduce every short, giving this film something of a focus on the combination of music and art, rather than stressing first the musical performances, and presenting the art as something that just sort of happens onscreen as the music plays.

On we go to the first sequence! This is "Once Upon a Wintertime", as sung by the extremely popular radio star Frances Langford, and if you put a gun to my head and told me I had to pick one number to be the worst from Melody Time, this is probably the one I'd go with - which says great things about the feature, because it's still a reasonably enjoyable bit of playful nothingness. The film tells the story of a young couple in some Currier & Ives neverwhen, out for a sleigh ride through the woods and over the river. They pick up a pair of amorous rabbits along the way, and at one point both boys (human and leporid) try to impress the ladies with their skating skills. Both boys also manage to cover their ladies with snow in the process, and the girls storm off onto thin ice, pouting. The boy rabbit, in his anxiety, manages to shatter the ice, and it's up to a host of forest animals to save the girls from going over an icy waterfall after the boys prove to be absolutely useless at anything.

The single problem that keeps this short from rising above the bottom of the pack is that the song and the movie don't really go together well. And for a change, I like this particular late-'40s ballad: it's sweet and romantic, and Langford has a nice voice. But the look of the movie is very bouncy and bright, and there's a constant tension between what we're hearing (slow, melodic), and what we want to hear (upbeat, fun - the song "Sleigh Ride", composed only shortly after this time, leaps to mind). On the other hand, the very simple design of the piece remains appealing: the backgrounds especially, which have a graphic art quality that could only have come from 1948 give or take a few years. Round lines, blocks of primary color, all very clean and smooth. It's easy on the eyes and the bold colorful shapes are very appealing even in the abstract.

The story itself is a bit peculiar, when you think about it: we're conditioned to think of Disney movies in which the boy saves the girl, but here the boys are both colossal screw-ups who spend the whole rescue mission buried in snow. Lest you get to thinking that this is some kind of gender-progressive piece, it must be pointed out that the girls get into their predicament by acting as the laziest kind of stereotype: catty, with wicked mood swings, playing hard to get. It is in essence a story about the two reductive clichΓ©s acting according to their worst instincts, and falling in love because of it. I really don't know what to say about this, other than to point out that it's not terribly interesting drama to have the big rescue effected by a bunch of random wildlife.

Next comes "Bumble Boogie", a short piece set to the jazz piano of Freddy Martin's band, with one of radio's most famous pianists, Jack Fina, taking the lead. It's a jazzy update of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee", with the narrative following a little insect (that doesn't look much like a bee at all) flying through a surrealistic nightmare world in which everything flower, animal, and smooth surface is made up of disembodied instrument components, especially piano keys. That is to say, it's this film's "visualising the way that music sounds" piece, but it's a great deal more successful than "After You've Gone" from Make Mine Music, not only because it gives us a specific character to cling to, but because the manner in which the animators dramatise the music is much more imaginative and effective. This is decidedly the shallowest piece in Melody Time, but I have always found it one of the most entertaining - it is certainly the most energetic, both visually and aurally.

The third segment is the film's highlight: "The Legend of Johnny Appleseed". It seems likely to me that this short probably received more personal attention from Walt Disney himself, being that it fits so comfortably into his idealistic love of all things Americana: the frontier spirit, Christian faith (the movie quietly glides over the fact that the historical John Chapman belonged to the fairly marginal Church of the New Jerusalem), doing good deeds for others.

I'd like to call myself immune to the boy's own story charms of this and other Disneyfications of American mythology, but here as elsewhere I find that the unabashed sincerity of the piece far outweighs its undeniable kitschiness. Walt really honest believed in the stuff he puts out in projects like this: that the taming of the American frontier was one of the all-time great achievements of mankind, and that the men who did it (it's definitely always men, in Disney) are heroes of the first order. I may find that notion a bit dangerous, but a short like "Johnny Appleseed" is so earnest, and lovely to look at, and well-intentioned, that it's easy to respond to its cutesy, white male-driven sense of history, even while understanding intellectually that it's ideologically troubling.

Narrated and mostly performed by Dennis Day, this short feels a great deal like a Disney feature shrunk ever smaller: it is the only piece in this film or in Make Mine Music to place songs in a non-sung-through narrative (that said, the old settler who narrates does have a tendency to speak in lilting, rhythmic lines). It's also one of the most visually elegant, with oil backgrounds that actually suggest that some money was put into them, and some of the best character animation in any of the package films. At the same time, it feels like a dry run: it would be well-surpassed in most ways by the second half of the next year's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, itself an attempt to limber the animators back up to work on features once more. The character design especially seems like a transition from the Golden Era into the more comic-book influenced look that their character started to take in the 1950s; I think it is not unfair to suggest that "Johnny Appleseed" was an experimental piece like the 1930s Silly Symphonies, finding the animators working out the kinks in their art for the benefit of future projects; and a damn good job of it. This is a truly lovely little bit of storytelling and animation.

Next comes my other candidate for worst short: "Little Toot", adapted from a 1939 illustrated children's poem by Hardie Gramatky, with vocals by my old nemeses, the Andrews Sisters. This is, much like "Pedro" from Saludos Amigos, the story of an inanimate vehicle taking the personality of a child, who gets to prove that he can do the same things that the grown-ups can. In this case, Little Toot is a tugboat who loves to splash around a busy city harbor, causing mischief and irritating his father, Big Toot. After one particularly giant bit of trouble, Little Toot is banished to the outer ocean, where he finds a liner beached on the rocks during a terrible storm, and he alone can drag it back to the safety of the harbor. Naturally, once he does so he is praised by all those who once dismissed him.

I must admit that the Andrews Sisters don't irritate me nearly as much here as in Make Mine Music, or most of the other places I've encountered them, though the song "Little Toot" isn't exactly one of the great songs of 1948. It's terribly cute, much like Little Toot himself is terribly cute: this is by far the most "childish" short in Melody Time, by which I mean the one that is most evidently designed for the kids in the audience.

That is not to say that the sequence is therefore shoddier or less ambitious than the others: it actually might be the best-animated of all seven (as contrasted to best-looking over all; that would definitely have to be "Johnny Appleseed"). I particularly admire the animation during Little Toot's ocean sojourn: the water and storm animation is typically great, and the evil look of the buoys that are the tugboat's only companion is quite well-achieved, with the splashes of water forming their claws one of the nicest touches of effects animation in all of the package films.

At the same time, there's an aching feeling of familiarity to this segment: it might be tarted up with an infectious kid's song, but at heart this story had been done numerous times already, and once again I find that when Disney does inanimate objects as people, I find it almost as creepy as it is charming - though "Little Toot" is nowhere near as bothersome as "Pedro" or "Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnett" in that regard.

The fifth sequence is the simplest: called "Trees", based upon the most famous poem of the largely unknown Alfred Joyce Kilmer ("I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree"). Sung by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, a prominent choral group of the day, the sequence is not unlike "The Old Mill": it quite lacks any plot, simply presenting nature as nature. In terms of incident, "Trees" grabs more than a couple concepts from the "Little April Shower" number in Bambi, though it is quite impossible to say that this short steals from that film; "Trees" is so stylistically unique that it's not really fair to call it beholden to anything else in Disney's canon, except perhaps for some scraps of Fantasia. It has the look of a moving painting and not a cel-animated cartoon at all, and even then the painting is heavily stylised, as seen, for example, in the wide shots of a tree in sunlight at the beginning and end; the tree itself is painted to look not unlike one giant leaf. This is by far the most visually accomplished of the shorts in Melody Time, though I have nothing positive at all to say about the song.

Second-to-last, we have "Blame It on the Samba", the third in the "Latin American" trilogy uniting Donald Duck and JosΓ© Carioca, after Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. It again has no real plot: Donald and JosΓ© are depressed, to the Aracuan bird tosses them into a giant shaker and turns them into the ingredients of a samba cocktail. Inside the drink, they meet live-action organist Ethel Smith, and dance about in ever-more fevered tones, getting more and more caught up in the samba until they have danced to death.

No, actually the short eventually just stops, with the Aracuan bird folding up his samba cafΓ© like a menu and leaving the dancers to their devices. It is a reasonably fun and lively bit, with "what the hell?" surrealist gags that would have fit into The Three Caballeros without much problem, up to and including Donald's insane lust for live-action women. For that matter, the animation is married to the live-action as well here as in any earlier Disney project; the technology hadn't changed so much as Ub Iwerks, the legendary co-creator of Mickey Mouse and one of Disney's biggest techies, had gotten better at what he was doing, and by this point there is really no further advance: Mary Poppins, 16 years later, does not look significantly more convincing than "Blame It on the Samba", in my estimation.

The only real problem with this piece is that it lacks a Latin flavor; Ethel Smith, bless her, could not have a more whitebread American name if she tried, and the song performed by the Dinning Sisters is unfortunately in English. While all the strange musical numbers in The Three Caballeros at least felt like something you might actually find on the streets of Brazil or Mexico, this feels, how can I put it, like white people trying to copy South American music. And thus the number is much less convincing than its prequels.

Melody Time's finale is a twofer: to ease us into the wild West, the Sons of the Pioneers (the cowboy singing group led by Roy Rogers) sing a moody number called "Blue Shadows on the Trail", as we watch the desert animals and tumbleweeds creep by in the light of a full moon. It's a faintly beautiful number, although far outdone visually by the similar "Trees". Anyway, this is just a palate cleanser for the arrival at "camp", on the soundstagiest desert set ever, with Roy and his famous horse Trigger (back before he was stuffed and mounted in Roy's home), and the Sons of the Pioneers, and Disney's two contract children, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. It comes about in conversation that Bobby and Luana have never heard of Pecos Bill, the folk cowboy hero (who was invented by a New York magazine writer in 1916), and this is absolutely impossible for Roy to stand. So he and the sons launch into a raucous retelling of some of the many adventures Bill experience in his life, ending with the sad tale of how he found and lost the beautiful Slue-Foot Sue, and why this loss causes coyotes to howl at the moon.

"Pecos Bill" is one of the comic masterworks of Disney in the 1940s, and I suspect - though I have nothing but anecdotal evidence - that it has the highest profile of all the Melody Time shorts (it is, at least, the only one with a namesake restaurant at Walt Disney Company theme parks). Mostly just a series of comic exaggerations in the form of setpieces, you can't say that it's not true to the Pecos Bill stories; coupled with the impossible-to-dislike song full of deliberately atrocious wordplay and rhymes, it's perhaps the single most fun thing produced by the Disney Studios between 1945 and 1950, and if I do not quite rank it as highly as "Johnny Appleseed", that is entirely because it has much simpler animation, of no greater quality than can be found in any randomly selected Disney short of the period. No, this one is all about the story and the humor, which are top-notch.

In latter years, "Pecos Bill" has become a sort of battleground between Disney and the people who buy Disney movies from the 1940s on home video; fearing that kids will see Bill smoking (he has a cigarette in his mouth close to 100% of the time), and think that, hey! cartoon cowboys smoke and so should I, have digitally removed every tobacco product from the film, and cut out a whole verse of the song (one of the funniest) to avoid such a reference. This despite the fact that this is hardly the sort of film that a little child will cue up when Tinkerbell's Magic Closet of Marketing Tie-Ins is sitting right next to it on the DVD shelf - only adult animation buffs really care much about these package films, and most of us hopefully have better sense than to give a shit about Pecos Bill's personal habits, either way. Incidentally, Disney did not cut out a jaw-droppingly offensive bit about "a tribe of painted Indians" leading to the Painted Desert, thanks to Bill's grand skills at Indian-Startling; and I approve of that, for I am anti-censorship as an absolute position. But it does reinforce my belief that it simply can't be the fear of seeming racist that keeps Song of the South off of DVD; that, or Disney is full of damned hypocrites.

At any rate, there we have Melody Time: a film much more entertaining than you'd expect, even if only two of its seven sequences individually reach classic status (and "Bumble Boogie" should be a third). Whatever dark bird had settled on the threshold of the animation studio in the mid-'40s, it was gone now: although Melody Time was a financial disappointment, the next and final package feature would be even better, as it became clearer and clearer that this horrible slump of cheap films with no ambitions was just about over.

(I did not, incidentally, come anywhere near my 2000-word goal).