The next several decades of undying controversy notwithstanding, the 1946 release Song of the South was a game-changing project for Walt Disney Productions: it was not just a more than fair box-office hit, it was one of the few films that company released between 1942 and 1950 for which that can honestly be said. While the animated package films struggled sometimes just to turn a profit, SotS revealed that the much faster more cost-effective art of live-action filmmaking might be a better route to telling some of the stories Walt was so eager to push into theaters. Indeed, SotS had not yet been completed when the producer selected his next live-action project, Sterling North's 1943 children's novel Midnight and Jeremiah. Seeing in this quiet tale of life in the rural Midwest in 1903 an echo of his own childhood in Marceline, Missouri, Disney was eager for So Dear to My Heart - for that was the title he and his storymen gave to their adaptation of the material - to represent a new paradigm for his art.

Unfortunately for his dreams, his distributors at RKO Radio Pictures were incredibly nervous at the idea of a Disney production that didn't have any any animation at all (bearing in mind that his two most protracted experiments with live-action to that point, SotS and 1941's The Reluctant Dragon, had come under no small amount of criticism for the relative lack of animation, it being the implication that Disney's imagination was only valuable insofar as it was hand-drawn), and early in 1946, So Dear to My Heart was retooled somewhat, to add in a few musical animated numbers. The degree to which the writers' hearts were in this task can be readily measured by considering that the plot of the film would change in not the smallest detail if the animated sequences and everything presented within them were removed entirely, though at that point it would barely clear 70 minutes and only barely meet the definition of a "feature". On the other hand, the animators and designers assigned to the project - several important figures such as Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Mary Blair, and others, all under the direction of Hamilton Luske - were clearly more energised than their colleagues; the animated sequences in SDtMH, though brief, are among the most innovative of Disney's post-war history.

One of those sequences, though it hardly meets the typical definition of "animation", essentially opens the movie: after the camera tracks in to a dusty old scrapbook in an attic, the famous multiplane camera takes us into and through the pages of that scrapbook, in one of the most ambitious series of shots the studio had then attempted. Through greeting cards and across landscapes that shift and flow as easily as nature, this vies with the legendary "Ave Maria" shots in Fantasia for complexity, and if the movie consisted of nothing but this sequence, that would still make it worth at least a peak. It is easy to note that the package films made little use of the difficult, expensive multiplane technique; I had been inclined to blame the need to produce those films fast and cheap, but now I wonder if there's another part to the answer: the opening of SDtMH took all the energies of the multiplane operators between 1946 and 1948 (no, I don't actually think this).

This mesmerising, technically jaw-dropping journy into the the past sets us in the fictional Fulton Corners, Indiana (played by the distinctly non-Indianan landscape of the San Joaquin Valley), in the spring of 1903. Little Jeremiah Kincaid (Bobby Driscoll) is ecstatic that the nationally famous racehorse Dan Patch is stopping by, and the reflected stardom of the animal is enough to get him thinking about raising his own colt. His grandmother (Beulah Bondi) will have nothing to do with horses, and thus Jerry settles on a decent enough back-up: the little black lamb that was just born to one of his grandmother's sheep, the runty twin of a mismatched set. With a little TLC, Jerry knows that he can get the sheep beautiful enough to compete in that summer's county fair, and in this he is encouraged and helped by his uncle Hiram Douglas (Burl Ives, at the very start of his career in movies), and Tildy (Luana Patten), a little girl who is probably Jerry's cousin (familial relationships are difficult to parse out: we have to intuit that Jerry's parents are dead, while Tildy's parents are alive, and never seen, though she is certainly not Hiram's daughter). Opposing Jerry, Hiram, and Tildy, is Grandma's implacably beatific Protestant Christianity, in which desiring anything but God's will to be done in all things is proof that you are going straight to Hell, Jeremiah.

Okay, not that blood & thundery, but it is an exceedingly Christian film, by the standards of 1948, when the film premiered, or today. That extends to its resolute lack of overt conflict: almost the entirety of the film consists of Grandma Kincaid gently giving in to Jerry's whims and turning a blind eye to the destruction wreaked by the black lamb - Danny, named in honor of the horse - while fretting that in so doing, she's allowing him to drift away from God, contrasted with Hiram's attempts to sweet-talk the old lady into dropping her steadfast opposition to the fair, which she views as a frivolous waste of the precious money that comes to the family as a privilege, not a right. Beyond that - which is tenuous to support even a 79-minute family film - So Dear to My Heart is nothing more or less than a love letter to Walt Disney's well-expressed ideas of Americana, where nothing in the whole of history was ever better than the life a child in the Midwest in the early 20th Century, which by stunning coincidence happened to be exactly the life Disney himself led. Indeed, certain elements of the set design in the movie were based on his own memories, most notably the Kincaid barn, which Walt ended up installing in his own backyard. To the end of his days, it was a retreat where he could go when the pressures of being a studio head and the manager of the largest theme park in the world got to be too daunting.

That sweet anecdote reveals quite a lot about the film itself, which is one of the most aggressively nostalgic things Walt ever put his name to; years before Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. gave a concrete physical form to his conviction that life had been going to hell ever since the 1910s, So Dear to My Heart argues the exact same thing in celluloid form. Not just that, of course; and the robust conservatism that on the one hand informs every inch of the mise en scène and the film's glowing recreation of a tiny Indiana town that never existed, is not itself reflected in the story, though for a long time it seems that it will be. In fact, Jerry grows a lot from his refusal to stick by his grandmother's authoritarian refusal to try new things, and her relationship with God is revealed, in the end, to be a good deal more flexible than her iron-clad rules of behavior would have implied. This is not seen at all as hypocrisy, as it would have been, and often had been, in a John Ford movie on the same themes (in some ways, So Dear to My Heart plays as a much straighter-edge variation on How Green Was My Valley a Valentine to small town life that nevertheless found room to allow that small towns have their petty problems). It's just part of the sweet pageant of nostalgia that is the movie's whole being.

I won't lie, I found it all a bit tiresome. Movies that make arguments like, "God, how much better in every conceivable way life used to be, before modern things" don't hold much water for me, unless they are also glorious masterpieces of cinema, like the politically suspect, but audaciously entertaining Meet Me in St. Louis. So Dear to My Heart, in its otherwise admirable desire to be as generous and approachable as possible, is compelled to be too simple to have any kind of real aesthetic bite - Disney continued his weird trend of hiring generally anonymous men to direct his life action films, this time handing the reins to Harold Schuster, whose greatest claim to fame is undoubtedly that he edited F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and 4 Devils, and when your second-most famous credit is on a movie best known for having been lost decades ago, you can be safely considered an historical nobody. Luckily, then, that once again, the cinematographer was someone of particular note: Winton C. Hoch returned from The Reluctant Dragon, still one of the most important Technicolor artists of his generation. And if his work in SDtMH is not as bold and different as Gregg Toland's in Song of the South, at the very least he makes the colors sing, and emphasises the warm fuzziness that was the film's purpose without spilling into saccharine sentiment.

It is not enough to save the film from its own worst impulses; but it at least ensures that while So Dear to My Heart is suffocatingly cozy, it comes by it honestly. Not that I think Walt Disney's rose-colored love of the past was dishonest; but it could be and often was a great deal more cloying than this. Driscoll and Patten are still both obnoxiously precious - Driscoll far less so than in Song of the South - but Bondi, given the role that is certainly the most bland and warm and reassuring in the film, manages to redeem the character's fluffy edges by playing her with the typical Bondian combination of genuine warmth and significant prickliness. It's a performance the actress could have done in her sleep by 1948, but the film needs it.

As for the animated sequences: there are three, besides that multiplane opener, each tied to a song, and each expressing Jerry's self-comforting fantasy at a particular moment, in the form of a Wise Old Owl (Ken Carson) giving him advice. These moments, as I mentioned, are easily snipped from the plot as a whole, and the songs do not make up for it: they are insipid and twee, exactly what you'd expect from a kids' musical in 1948. The only good song, in fact, is Ives's "Lavender Blue", which was an Oscar nominee despite being a re-working of a 17th Century English folk song (it was the first major hit of the folk singer's career - his "crossover single", as I am certain they did not call it in the '40s).

The animation, however, is stunning; disposable as they are, these sequences are the very best parts of the movie. Even the least of these, a short interlude to bring us to the fair, is not without interest, as the animators found ways of using reflections and silhouettes distorted in balloons to give the recognisable fairgoing adventures seem nearly Surrealist.

It's the other sequences, though, where the film shines. The first, an upbeat "pep yourself up" number called "It's Watcha Do with Watcha Got", opens normally enough, with a simple cel-animated owl haranguing a cartoon lamb; but as the owl and lamb bound across Jerry's scrapbook, the animation takes an unexpected turn for mixed media.

And in a brief illustration of the David and Goliath story, it stumbles into a kind of expressive, dramatic visual not typical of Disney, at any point in its history.

Better still is "Stick-To-It-Ivity", a ghastly jingle grace by a truly stunning collection of images that are breathtakingly unlike the Disney norm, though none of them are truly original (some of the package films and Silly Symphonies had performed similar experiments): but still, the use of shading, of texture, and of non-realistic lines are powerful stuff, visually, proof that even if Walt wanted So Dear to My Heart to be a sweet, uplifting lark, somebody on his staff wanted it to be an attempt to do something truly creative in a way the studio hadn't been able to for more than half a decade. These are not images that should accompany a brainless anthem like "Stick-To-It-Ivity" (not even when it bizarrely name-drops every child's favorite hero, Robert the Bruce) but if that's the price I have to pay, then I'll pay it.

Hell, I'll even agree to overlook the incredibly obvious steal of some animation from Fantasia, a barbarically obvious lift even given Disney's open willingness to rifle through its archives for material - only the numerous appearances of that damn quail from Bambi can compete.

Fantasia: "Pastoral Symphony"

So Dear to My Heart, "Stick-To-It-Ivity"

A few minutes of amazing animation cannot save a feature, though, and audiences in 1949 - the year of the film's general release - apparently felt the same; the film slid through theaters making only a ripple in the box office, and fell into obscurity almost immediately, despite long remaining one of Walt's favorite pictures from his studio. The film's most lasting legacy is probably its inspiration for some of the architecture in Disneyland; it does not represent a tremendously significant step from Song of the South, the first predominately live-action Disney feature, to 1950's Treasure Island, the first entirely live-action Disney feature; it's probably not even as significant as the live-action Disney short Seal Island, the first in the True Life Adventures series, released the same year. It's simply an attempt to stay alive, and not a completely worthless one; though Disney's tendency towards flattening history in the name of warm fuzzies was arguably never this soporific, and for that reason I guess it has a certain place of prominence.