Sunday, January 07, 2007

What a Character! - Willie the Whale

A series of posters highlight the queue area of Mickey’s PhilharMagic at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Tying in to the music hall theme of the attraction, the posters take well-know Disney characters and feature them in faux promotional pieces for musical acts. The Three Little Pigs and Big Bad Wolf become the Wolf Gang Trio. Hercules’ villain Hades sings Torch Songs. Aladdin’s Genie sings the blues. The Little Mermaid and her sisters form Ariel’s Coral Group. And the Three Caballeros host the Festival de las Mariachas. But perhaps the most appropriate of the posters, befitting the attraction’s concert hall setting and use of “opera glasses,” would be the one that promotes I, Pagliacci, and features one of Disney’s more enormous stars, Willie the Whale.

Enormous in physical size, if not in star stature.

Willie the Whale made his one and only appearance (not counting House of Mouse cameos) in Disney’s 1946 animated feature Make Mine Music. He was the star of the film’s final segment, The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.

The “package” films of the mid to late-1940s, Make Mine Music, Melody Time, Fun and Fancy Free, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, are in many ways the forgotten children of Disney animated features. Many of the sequences contained in these films have faded from notice, while others have gained some degree of notoriety by being released individually, or by being incorporated into other programming. Such is the case with The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.

Make Mine Music has generally received mixed reviews over the years, by both mainstream critics and Disney historians alike. But one point of agreement among them all seems to be praise for the story of Willie the Whale. In his book The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin sums up the general consensus when he states, “It is pleasing that Make Mine Music ends on such a delightful note, for ‘The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met’ is surely one of the film’s highlights, and tends to overshadow the film’s very definite weak sequences.”

Make Mine Music identifies itself as a “Music Fantasy in Ten Parts.” Part Ten is Willie’s tale, and arrives under the heading of Opera Pathetique, the meaning of which becomes clear by the story’s end. Newspapers report of a mystery voice at sea, that is ultimately attributed to our hero Willie. Academics scoff, and one in particular, opera impresario Professor Tetti-Tatti, believes that Willie has swallowed an actual opera singer. He sets off to harpoon Willie, and rescue what he hopes will be his next great discovery.

Learning that Tetti-Tatti is searching for him, Willie prepares for an audition, not understanding the professor’s true intentions. He dreams of fame, and it is there where we see him performing various operas, most notably Pagliacci, as manifested in the PhilharMagic lobby poster. The final confrontation with Tetti-Tatti does not end in the usual Disney manner; suffice to say that Willie ultimately ends up performing to a sold-out “heavenly” audience.

The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met is distinctly one of Disney’s standout achievements during the late 1940s, right down to its bittersweet ending. Most remarkable is the voice work of Nelson Eddy. As John Grant notes in his Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters, Eddy is responsible for every word spoken or sung in the entire sequence, including a multi-track rendition involving a 400-member choir. There is also an inside joke involving Eddy--when Willie first appears in the short, he is singing “Shortnin’ Bread,” one of the singer’s popular hits.

The short has some great details, especially the use of newspapers and media as narrative elements. Look close at one of the newspapers and you’ll see a smaller headline that reads, “OWNS SINGING SEAL CLAIMS ESKIMO.” The cover of Look Magazine is hilarious--Willie in the Princess role from Aida, which is not one the performances featured in the fantasy sequence.

The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met can be seen on the DVD of Make Mine Music. One caution: the movie has been edited. While the Willie sequence is intact, the first part, The Martins and the Coys, fell victim to the PC knife when the film was released back in 2000.


Ashley Rae Fischer said...

hey i was just wondering if you new a site where i could get a t-shirt of willie the whale. my boyfriends going to eastman school of music for vocal performance and it would be a good gift.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Hi Ashley--

I'm afraid to my knowledge Disney has not done any kind of merchandise related to Willie.

Anonymous said...

Of the many things I have forgotten from my younger years, I actually do remember seeing this on television in the very early 1970s I presume.

I remember being shocked at Willie's ultimate end, not fully understanding why the guy wanted to do in the whale, though I probably had some inkling of whaling and fishing back then.

I think it was the imagery of seeing a giant whale singing that made it stick in my memory. At least now I know the details, thank you.

Disney once again has had a big influence on my life.