The 1940s were a strange period in the history of Disney animation. The decade kicked off with three all-time classics — 1940’s Fantasia, 1941’s Dumbo, and 1942’s Bambi — but the balance of the ’40s was devoted to so-called “package films,” six anthology features that bridged the gap before the classics picked up again with 1950’s Cinderella.
Why haven’t those package films been remembered in the same breath as the animated Disney films that bookend them? The answer is mired in the history of Disney’s financial affairs, and World War II’s impact on the animation industry. Due to the financial underperformance of Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi, and the limitations World War II put on the potential worldwide box office, Disney’s financiers at Bank of America would only continue supporting the studio’s animated projects if Walt Disney stuck to the less costly work of producing shorts.
So Disney shelved Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and other projects for a while, and from 1943 to 1949, the studio produced 31 shorts, bundled into six features. These shorts range in length from a few minutes to half an hour long, and in subject matter from a Mickey Mouse adventure to social propaganda to abstract interpretations of jazz music. Most galling from a 21st-century perspective, many of them traffic in racial and cultural stereotypes that were probably the ultimate factor explaining why these odd collections have largely been memory-holed.
So how to approach the package films? Perhaps it’s best to treat them as Bank of America preferred: Not as features at all, but as 31 short films of wildly varying effectiveness. Here’s a full ranking of these shorts, to help you sift through the problematic muck on your way to the treasures within.
31. Pecos Bill (Melody Time)
Several of Disney’s package films on Disney Plus open with the same disclaimer, which begins: “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.” The final short in 1948’s Melody Time earns the classification for one specific moment that’s startling enough to land Pecos Bill in the bottom spot on this list. In this “tall tale straight from the chuck wagon,” the eponymous cowpoke startles a group of “redskins” happily slapping war paint on each other, and their comic terror is so extreme that the paint flies off their bodies and onto the rocks around them, lending the painted desert its name. It’s stomach-dropping. The material around it isn’t strong enough to distract from its ugliness — though a cartoon Western can be good fun, the storytelling in Pecos Bill feels rote, and the animation is unimaginative. This one might rank higher without the war-paint moment, but it’s just too egregious.
30. El Gaucho Goofy (Saludos Amigos)
1942’s Saludos Amigos is one of two Disney package films “celebrating” Latin American culture. (And celebrating Donald Duck’s sexuality.) These films were part of America’s “Good Neighbor” campaign, which sought to build bridges between Latin America and the United States. If only the efforts weren’t so ham-fisted, as demonstrated by this disappointing entry. In El Gaucho Goofy, we learn about the lifestyle of Latin American horsemen known as gauchos. Throwing a wrench into the works, though, is the fact that we learn about them through the device of Goofy, who’s depicted as a southwestern cowboy plucked from his environs and dropped in Latin America, where he demonstrates dress, cuisine, and various other aspects of the gaucho life.
Goofy is the only demonstration we’re offered of the gaucho — he has no local guide or associates. We only see this classic fool modeling a culture he’s entirely ill-equipped for, implicitly mocking the idea of gauchos via his presence. By the time Goofy is dancing to “the song of the farmer’s daughter” with a horse wearing a dress, any arguable merit in this short has flown out the window. It’s a crass pantomime of cultural insensitivity.
29. The Flying Gauchito (The Three Caballeros)
1944’s The Three Caballeros is the second of the “Good Neighbor” package films. (It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that the bottom half of this list is dense with entries from those ham-fisted features.) This short tells the story of a “little gauchito” — a boy who befriends a young donkey born with a condor’s wings, an association that lets him win a gaucho race before ascending to the sky, never to be seen again. Though it’s more benign than El Gaucho Goofy, it again portrays gaucho culture through a caricature, and the short is narrated by someone identified as “an old gaucho from Uruguay” — but the credits reveal the voiceover is from Kansas City native Fred Shields, doing an egregiously false accent. That factor alone is enough to land The Flying Gauchito (a supposed Uruguayan folktale written by and for Americans) near the bottom of this list.
28. Blame It on the Samba (Melody Time)
Melody Time features one short that seems to have been yanked straight out of The Three Caballeros, with the Aracuan Bird — something like Disney’s answer to Woody Woodpecker — teaching Donald Duck the art of the samba. The Aracuan is an appealing character who deserves the center-stage treatment, but his co-star is famed musician Ethel Smith, a Pennsylvania native who appears here in prototypical Latin American garb, standing in for the very concept of the samba via some casual brownface.
27. Lake Titicaca (Saludos Amigos)
Saludos Amigos is framed as a series of impressions the Disney animators gathered during research trips to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Here, Donald Duck stands in for their tourist perspective as he visits a market near the Bolivia/Peru border, meets and trades outfits with a young boy, then encounters a llama trained to dance to flute music, which leads to plenty of musical hijinks. There’s some classic cartoon comedy to be found here, but even the most seemingly benign shorts found in the “Good Neighbor” films tend to caricature the native populations and exoticize the cultures. A gesture as seemingly simple as Donald Duck swapping outfits with a Peruvian boy is loaded with fraught cultural connotations.
26. Las Posadas (The Three Caballeros)
This traditional Mexican Christmas story, in which a group of children reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter on the night of Jesus’ birth, is presented as a storybook, and the illustrations are lovely. This one wins points for offering a genuine glimpse of Mexican culture, but at only a minute long, it comes and goes too fast to leave much impact.
25. Aquarela do Brasil (Saludos Amigos)
The title of this short can be translated as A Watercolor of Brazil, and that more or less sums up its content. This one is framed as a basically loving tribute to a nation foreign to many in the U.S. audience, but, by virtue of being among the few examples of Brazilian culture likely available to many viewers in a pre-digital age, there’s a flattening effect in making that culture appear exceedingly gorgeous and magical. As lovely as the animation may be, there’s more to Brazil than loveliness, and Saludos Amigos is resolutely opposed to letting you know that.
24. Baía (The Three Caballeros)
Now accompanied by the parrot José Carioca, Donald Duck visits the Brazilian state of Bahia, here spelled Baía. Much like Aquarela do Brasil, this is an ode to an apparently magical land, but things take a turn when Donald tumbles into a pop-up book about Bahia. Inside this storybook land, Donald falls in love with a cookie vendor, played by Brazilian singer Aurora Miranda, who appears as a live-action figure inserted into the cartoon landscape, letting an entire region be represented by one sexualized performer presented for a cartoon duck to lust after. The blend of live-action and animation is startling and effective, but the “Good Neighbor” films are inherently pretty ugly.
23. You Belong to My Heart (The Three Caballeros)
Here, Donald sees Mexican singer Dora Luz in the sky and falls in love with her, in another short that blends animation with live action. This short has the same issues as Baía, and in spite of some appealing fantastical touches — notably, the dancing cacti, which feel straight out of Alice in Wonderland or Fantasia — there’s something dispiriting in seeing Donald again lusting after an exoticized, sexualized woman meant to stand in for an entire culture.
22. Mexico: Pátzcuaro, Veracruz and Acapulco (The Three Caballeros)
Alongside the Mexican rooster Panchito Pistoles, Donald and José Carioca (who goes by Joe, since Donald can’t pronounce José) ride a flying sarape through documentary footage of Mexico City before landing at a Mexican dance. They land at a beach, where sunbathing women in bathing suits tease Donald for his perpetual lust by blindfolding him and throwing him around. The mixture of live-action and animation is truly impressive here — when Donald is tossed in a beach blanket, he seems to carry genuine weight — but again, Latin culture is summed up as exotic and sexual. The documentary footage lands this one slightly higher up the list than the other “horny Donald” shorts, but it’s a relief to now mostly leave the “Good Neighbor” films behind and turn our attention to other matters.
21. Casey at the Bat (Make Mine Music)
Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic comedic poem is read by the outrageously voiced Jerry Colonna (the March Hare from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland), whose delivery renders the words all but unintelligible. This simple text could have made a simple transition to the screen, but the animators added an abundance of fidgety business: Any maneuver the baseball players execute involves at least four or five additional physical tics and quirks. That breaks the flow of the story, complicating things to the point where it undermines the poem’s momentum. An animated Casey at the Bat could be a home run, but due to unnecessary silliness, it strikes out.
20. Without You (Make Mine Music)
Make Mine Music (mysteriously, the only one of the package films not currently streaming on Disney Plus) is something like Fantasia for popular music, and the effects vary wildly. On the low end of the spectrum, this short, set to a 1946 Andy Russell ballad, serves as an animation showcase and nothing more. We see trees, stars, and some intriguing liquid effects dripping down the screen, but there’s nothing like a narrative.
19. Two Silhouettes (Make Mine Music)
Again, there’s no concession to narrative here, only two rotoscoped ballet dancers against an animated backdrop. There are impressive effects that add depth to the rotoscoping, but this one’s more showpiece than short film.
18. Bongo (Fun and Fancy Free)
Some of the package films feature longer shorts, including this loose, roughly half-hour adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ short story “Little Bear Bongo.” This “musical story sung by Dinah Shore” tells the story of a little brown bear who works as a death-defying circus performer, but longs to “answer the call of the great open spaces,” leading him to escape from his circus train as it travels across the untamed wilderness.
After many long minutes of frolicking, Bongo meets a female bear cub and instantly falls in love. Problems arise when another bear vies for the affection of Bongo’s beloved, leading to an extended mating dance, and a duel between Bongo and the aggressor. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough material here to sustain nearly half a feature-length film, and it’s decidedly uncomfortable how Bongo and his beloved are coded as cubs, while Bongo’s rival seems to be a full-grown bear. There’s an appealing strangeness to some elements (we learn that bears express their affection not by kissing, but by slapping each other around), but for the most part, Bongo is a slog.
17. Trees (Melody Time)
This short does what it says on the tin: It is, according to the narrator, “a simple tribute to a tree.” While Joyce Kilmer’s classic poem (“I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree…”) plays over a musical accompaniment, we see various images of trees. Nothing more, and nothing less. The animation is lovely, evocative of the Little Golden Book tradition of children’s literature, but there isn’t much here to linger in the memory.
16. After You’ve Gone (Make Mine Music)
In this roughly three-minute interlude, we see anthropomorphic musical instruments, hands playing a floating keyboard, and other light psychedelia. The animation is striking, but this is largely a short in search of an idea.
15. The Legend of Johnny Appleseed (Melody Time)
In this tale, supposedly taken from a book titled American Folk Lore, we meet America’s legendary patron saint of apples. Around the turn of the 19th century, Johnny longs to head west with the pioneers, but doesn’t feel cut out for the lifestyle, until his “own private guardian angel” appears in the form of a frontiersman who tells him (in song, naturally) that the apple trees he loves so much will be much more useful out west than the muscles or traveling gear he lacks.
Johnny, an obsessive apple-grower who’d seemingly never realized apples were useful before, goes west planting trees, leading to some hijinks with a pack of mistrustful animals, who send a skunk to scare Johnny off. The misadventures of Johnny and the skunk form the core of the narrative here, wrapping up with a coda that takes place at a square dance centering on apple treats. After his shadow stretches to literally cover the west, Johnny dies, and his frontiersman angel summons his spirit to heaven. There’s a profound oddness to the shape of this story, with only a couple of plot beats. Like Casey at the Bat, this seems like a simple enough tale to adapt, but it might as well have been titled Johnny Appleseed and the Skunk, which seems to miss something of the central appeal of the Appleseed legend. (It’s worth noting that the real-life story was whitewashed in Disney’s telling: The real Johnny was more shrewd businessman than secular saint, and more interested in hard cider than tasty nutrition.)
14. Little Toot (Melody Time)
This short concerns the trials and tribulations of mischievous young tugboat Little Toot, who’s exiled to the open ocean after disgracefully impeding the work of his father — the unsurprisingly named Big Toot — and triggering an accident that destroys the coastline of a major city. After finding a ship in distress, Little Toot restores his good name by pulling the ship to safety. It’s a slight thing, but Little Toot is an appealing protagonist, if a lesser creation than the similar character of Pedro the mail plane, coming up shortly in this list.
13. Blue Bayou (Make Mine Music)
This “tone poem” was originally intended as a segment in Fantasia, and it’s easy to imagine it being slotted into that more accomplished feature. The animation is ethereal, with stunning light-on-water effects. The only knock on this one would be the fact that nothing in particular happens, save a wading bird taking flight. It’s not much to hang a short on narratively, but the strength of the animation elevates this one above the various other tone poems found in the package films.
12. Pedro (Saludos Amigos)
In the introduction to this short, we learn that cameras were not allowed during the animators’ visit to Chile (no reason is given), so the team had to work from memory and imagination. That lead to the creation of the little plane that could. Pedro is the son of a brave mail plane, but when his papá comes down with a cold, Pedro must fly his mail route for him, leading to some aerial antics.
Pedro is cut from the same cloth as Little Toot, but the character design is elevated (no pun intended), while the antagonist, the fearsome mountain Mendoza, is effectively ominous. If there’s one wrinkle to Pedro’s effectiveness, it would be the fact that Chilean cartoonist René Ríos Boettiger took exception to this being the chosen representation of his homeland, leading to the creation of his own character, the bird of prey Condorito. If that takes some of the shine off Pedro, at least the little plane can be said to have provided some net good by indirectly inspiring a long-running and beloved alternate character.
11. The Martins and the Coys (Make Mine Music)
As problematic as some of the package shorts are, only one has been struck entirely from home media release. This tale of two warring families was declared offensive to American mountain culture, leading to its blacklisting. That ruling feels tremendously silly, given the actual content of the Romeo and Juliet-inspired short. Yes, the two titular families are stereotypes, but if Pecos Bill can be shown in full, why not this comparatively mild cultural ribbing?
An inter-family war (accidentally inflamed when a drunken grandfather gathers eggs from the wrong henhouse) leaves every Martin and Coy dead, except one member of each family: a buxom lass and hunky lunkhead, who immediately fall in love, seemingly ending the feud. Approximately a third of the short’s run time is then afforded to their wedding reception (it’s unclear who the wedding guests are, given the annihilation of both families), but the honeymoon is over quickly — it turns out husbands and wives fight a lot, and so the feud between the Martins and the Coys is reignited. The battle-of-the-sexes comedy here is stale, but there’s an appealing energy to the proceedings. With the drunken violence, it may be odd fare for an all-ages program, but what are the cartoons of the 1940s, if not questionably appropriate for children?
10. The Cold-Blooded Penguin (The Three Caballeros)
The Three Caballeros opens with this fable concerning Pablo, a penguin who hates the cold and decides to head to “the land of the sun.” After a few false starts, he carves a boat out of ice and sets sail up the South American coastline, toward the Galápagos Islands, “the isle of his dreams.” What do you know, though: Pablo ends up missing home. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? This is the highest-ranking short from either “Good Neighbor” film, primarily for its comparative lack of exoticization — this is the most benign short in either Saludos Amigos or The Three Caballeros, and for that, we should all thank Pablo.
9. Once Upon a Wintertime (Melody Time)
“Romance is the theme,” we’re informed at the start of this short, which traces the lovelorn odyssey of a sleighing couple. After passing through winter scenes, the central young man and woman embark on an ice-skating trip gone wrong — the ice cracks and breaks, sending the young woman careening downriver toward a waterfall. Rescued in the nick of time, she returns to the sleigh alongside her beloved, and even grants him a kiss — though it takes place during a trip through a tunnel, saving us the scandalous image of a woman kissing a man’s cheek. There’s a pastoral appeal to this short, along with a cute Greek chorus of paired-off animals (two besotted rabbits mirror the central couple), and — a surprising rarity among these shorts — the three-act adventure is well paced.
8. Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet (Make Mine Music)
Disney’s wartime shorts take a turn for the decidedly bizarre with this love story between the two titular anthropomorphic hats, who fall for each other while on display in a store window only to be separated by the cruel whims of commercial fate. We follow Johnnie Fedora on his journey of despair, which matches the downturning fortunes of his owner, who visits a speakeasy that’s promptly raided, another bizarre image for an ostensible all-ages feature. (Drunkenness is comedy gold in Make Mine Music.) Johnnie and Alice are reunited when both become hats for a pair of carriage-drawing horses, but even this happy ending can’t make up for the horror of the central implication: Any time we don a cap, we’re cramming our heads into the voiceless maw of a living, sentient creature. Don’t think too hard about Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet. That way lies horror.
7. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad)
This adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic short story may well be the most iconic entry in any of the package films. Its distinction is earned — Ichabod Crane’s climactic ride through the Sleepy Hollow woods, pursued by the gruesome Headless Horseman, is timelessly chilling, a perfect blend of comic caper and genuine dread, with almost psychedelic horror animation. The only problem is that this closing sequence comes at the end of a long and grating preamble. Irving’s story just doesn’t seem like an appropriate fit for the Disney animation treatment. The story’s comedy — mainly to do with the romantic rivalry between Ichabod and the lunkhead Brom Bones — is dry and satiric, appropriate fare for grown-ups, but likely to bore children. Disney also made the probably pragmatic choice to avoid synced dialogue, leaving the story to be told as narrated silent comedy, which grows tedious quickly. The Headless Horseman sequence is undeniably effective. Everything that comes beforehand? Deniable at best.
6. The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met (Make Mine Music)
Another short that does what it says on the tin, the finale to Make Mine Music tells the tragic tale of Willie the singing whale, with voices provided by famed stage and screen singer Nelson Eddy. A surprising amount of the run time is devoted to the procedural debate over how a whale could learn to sing. (The going theory ends up being that the whale might have swallowed an opera singer.) The concept is imaginative, if odd, and maybe most memorable for its shock ending — the whale’s entire opera career takes place in Willie’s mind in the moments before he’s harpooned to death by a jealous “impresario,” twisting this comic short into a morality tale about humanity’s failings: “People aren’t used to miracles,” we’re informed. There’s nothing miraculous about this one, but it explores its comic premise thoroughly, and features maybe the most adventurous structure of any short surveyed here, giving it an edge.
5. Mickey and the Beanstalk (Fun and Fancy Free)
Mickey Mouse makes his sole appearance across the entirety of the package films in this telling of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” narrated by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppets, who appear in live-action throughout the narrative to goose things along. That hackneyed color commentary acts against the effectiveness of what’s otherwise a solid cartoon fairy tale, starring some of the most beloved faces in animation. It’s hard to complain about Mickey, Donald, and Goofy enacting such classic cartoon business as splitting a single bean three ways, in a classic shorthand for starvation. As with Bongo, which forms the other half of Fun and Fancy Free, the material here feels a bit overstretched, but with Mickey and co. as your guides, there are worse ways to spend half an hour, and this entry does earn points for being one of the few package-film entries that might actually appeal to children.
4. Bumble Boogie (Melody Time)
In this jazzy reinterpretation of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “a confused little character tries desperately to escape from the hectic harmony of an instrumental nightmare.” That manifests as a hallucinatory journey that blends the biological with the musical — the bee must contend with carnivorous flowers, a keyboard turned serpent, and malevolent horns with fiendish eyes. It’s all reminiscent of “After You’ve Gone,” but the presence of a central character keeps things from devolving into abstraction. This short keeps it brief and fiercely bizarre, and it livens up the frequently slack Melody Time. A number of the package shorts exist as an excuse for whirling-dervish chaos, but this is the tightest and most creative. Boogie on.
3. The Wind in the Willows (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad)
This adaptation of a segment of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel is another example of a short that weighs in at half a feature run time, allowing for ample depth of characterization to the justifiably iconic character of Mr. Toad. The short appropriately evokes the particular oddness of Grahame’s book, in which humans and anthropomorphic animals coexist. And there’s a dazzling variety to the cartoon creations. (Alongside classic animal figures like Rat and Mole, we have antagonist Mr. Winky, a sort of devilish cousin to the Pringles mascot.)
The camera angles during moments of tension evoke German expressionism, while the story and themes, appropriately carried over from the book, may stretch children’s attention span. (For long stretches, this is essentially a legal drama, while the comic chaos of the climax comes down to who secures the deed to a house.) But this is the package short that feels most like a classic work of Disney animation. It’s enough to make one wish for the full adaptation of The Wind in the Willows we might have gotten, if not for Bank of America’s shorts-focused bias.
2. All the Cats Join In (Make Mine Music)
The greatest of the Fantasia-for-pop-music entries in this list, All the Cats Join In is a classic example of the “pencil is seen drawing the cartoons as they move” trope. We see a teenage sock hop come to life before our eyes, to the occasional consternation of the characters being drawn, who express their frustration with their creator. The stretch-and-squash animation is lively and dynamic, and the jazz soundtrack livens everything up. There isn’t much to All the Cats Join In, but what is there is thrilling in its inventiveness. You’ll want to join in, too.
1. Peter and the Wolf (Make Mine Music)
This adaptation of Sergei Prokofiev’s musical fairy tale is a sort of pure ideal of what one might look for in a Disney animated anthology film. Narrated by Sterling Holloway (most recognizable as the voice of Winnie the Pooh), this short is timed perfectly to the classic score, innovating nicely within the confines of the reestablished narrative: Peter, a young boy with a pop-gun and a dream of glory, sets out to hunt the wolf terrorizing the Russian woods, flanked by his coterie of animal sidekicks. But things get out of hand when the wolf actually arrives and punctures Peter’s fantasies.
Forming a more effective counterpoint to Casey at the Bat, this is Disney doing right by a classic tale, keeping it clean, simple, and creatively staged, and not overstaying its welcome. If more of the package films had leaned in this direction, there might have been a Disney classic in the bunch yet.
Still, it might be that an effective playlist could be created out of the top five shorts here. Call it The Best of the Package Films — you might be leaving 26 works of animation in the dust, but you wouldn’t be losing much. There’s a reason these packages have largely been forgotten by history. When they’re operating at full power, though, there are enough sparks of the old Disney magic to keep the flame alive across the nearly decade-long break between Disney’s feature-length animated classics.