If you’ve never heard of this film, I can hardly say I’m surprised. It’s one of those movies that exists in the footnotes of the studio literature that will say something along the lines of “Walt made So Dear to My Heart because it reminded him of growing up in the Midwest at the turn of the century”. It’s like, well, okay, so…what else? Is this supposed to be another Song of the South-type film, where they’re so humiliated by it, they don’t want people to know it exists? I mean, judging by its poster, it certainly looks unique enough to warrant at least some interest, right?
Let’s long for lovely licorice lambs!
The plot: Jeremiah Kincaid, played by Bobby Driscoll, is a boy living in a tiny midwestern town, dreaming of owning a prize-winning animal, like champion racehorse Dan Patch. His grandmother, Granny Kincaid (Beulah Bondi), doesn’t begin to humor such ambitions and urges Jeremiah to just work on the farm. One night, a coal-black lamb is born and rejected by its mother. Jeremiah bonds with it, naming him Danny, and dreams of making Danny a champion.
However, Danny grows up, becoming a reckless force of nature and worse, keeps distracting Jeremiah from doing his chores. Uncle Hiram (played by Burl Ives) suggests that Danny might win a blue ribbon at the county fair. Now Jeremiah has to find the means to get himself and Danny to the fair.
How’s the writing?: It’s pretty good. It’s not great, it’s not bad, it’s just good. Sorta.
The characters have well-defined personalities. The dialogue is handled well. If I were going by that alone, I’d leave it at that. But there is one big, gaping hole in the movie. And it happens the moment Jeremiah decides to raise money for the train tickets.
See, Granny already has established she won’t go to the fair because A.) they can’t afford it, B.) she won’t accept Uncle Hiram’s offer for a loan, and C.) she won’t sell her “kivvers” (“Quilts” to the rest of us). So Jeremiah has to get the money on his own. He inquires at the general store, where the grocer agrees to buy any wild honey the boy finds. The next five minutes or so is Jeremiah and Tildy (his Song of the South and Melody Time co-star, Luana Patten) following a single bee through the countryside. Let’s put it this way: Jeremiah has to follow a bee so he can find the hive so he can get the honey so he can sell it to the store so he can get the money so he can buy the train tickets so he can go to the county fair so he can enter Danny in the competition. Phew!
If the tone of the scene were to emphasize how important this is to Jeremiah’s goal, then maybe this might have felt differently, but instead, it’s played so lackadaisically. Tildy’s frustrations emphasize the tediousness of the task and reflect ours as well. You can feel the story grind to a complete halt because it’s so tenuously tied into the character’s primary goal, and yet they’re not really doing anything. Even if they wanted to allow viewers to just relax and enjoy the scenery as though it were a Winnie the Pooh film, the fact that there is an objective to achieve results in only frustration.
Does it give the feels?: How do I put this? I think so, but I’m the wrong person to ask.
As you might have been able to glean from my blogs, I’m a liberal with atheist beliefs. And So Dear to My Heart is the most Christian, nay, religious Disney film since Fantasia. At least the “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” sequence is played with enough ambiguity to portray the battles of good and evil that it transcends beliefs.
At the end of the second act, Danny runs away amid a terrible thunderstorm on Tildy’s watch. Jeremiah is full of pent-up rage he lashes out at everyone, including God. Granny harshly reprimands Jeremiah for this indiscretion, leaving the boy even more despondent. The next day, Danny returns, and Jeremiah decides to call off the county fair trip. He explains to Granny that he promised God if Danny were to return home safely, he’d abandon the prospect. Granny, sobered by this, says she promised God if Danny were okay, they would go. She rationalizes since God knew her longer, it’d be okay to break this one promise just this once. She even utters a brief prayer when he leaves, basically apologizing to God for breaking her vow.
If this sounds sweet and sentimental to you, awesome. It just rubs me the wrong way. Not just because religion is placed front and center as an integral part of the character arc, but I have my own issues concerning this. I was raised Catholic and I was given these kinds of talks, too, but as I’ve grown older, I tend to, for lack of a better word, overthink all this. I can’t just read it at face value, so I’m the wrong person to truly comment on this. Make of it what you will.
Who makes it worth it?: If you ever watched Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the perennial 1964 Christmas special from Rankin-Bass, you’ll definitely recognize Burl Ives, who played Sam the Snowman. His silky pipes gave us “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold”. He had a few roles at Disney, with Summer Magic in 1963 and voicing Sam the Eagle in the 1974 – 1988 Disneyland attraction America Sings. But his first was here in So Dear to My Heart, as Uncle Hiram, with all the gentle charisma you’ve come to expect.
He’s kind of the laid back big kid with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. Most every moment in the film, he’s working hard on all sorts of projects with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. He has a great relationship as a confidant and friend to Granny, Jeremiah, and Tildy. He advocates for Jeremiah and Danny to Granny and urges the boy to follow his county fair dream. He is so kind, optimistic, and endearing. He’s no Uncle Remus, but it’s pretty close.
Best quality provided: I have been mute on the animation in the movie, mostly because there’s not much to comment on, as good as it is. It adds some cute whimsy to the movie despite not really adding anything to the story.
Then there’s the songs. They’re mostly forgettable with two (really one and a half) exceptions. First is “Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly”, a 17th century folk song that Burl Ives expertly croons. It’s a sappy, sentimental song that’s just so adorable. It was reused again for 2015’s Cinderella to much, much less success. I was pleased to see it was nominated for best original song back in 1949, losing only to…”BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE?!”
The other song I want to call attention to is “It’s Whatcha Do With Whatcha Got” (And yes, it’s officially spelled that way.). In 1985, Disney aired a cluster of cartoons: Lambert the Sheepish Lion (Some regions had the Elmer Elephant Silly Symphony instead), Mickey and the Beanstalk (Narrated by Sterling Holloway), and 1941’s Dumbo. My mom was opportunistic enough to record this off TV on VHS (Kids, ask your parents), and I watched that tape for well over a decade. The block kicked off with a montage of clips from the three cartoons, while the most eighties-infused chorus got me hyped as I heard them sing “It’s Whatcha Do With Whatcha Got”. It’s one of my most favorite Disney songs ever, even though I can’t tell you what they’re singing. Experience my nostalgia vicariously here!
Well, I eventually found out this song came from So Dear to My Heart and when I heard it for the first time, I was…wholly underwhelmed.
Chalk it up to it not living up to my childhood memory, but man, is it such a letdown…Wait, did you actually click on those links or are you pretending, hoping I’ll just try to explain it? (Sigh.) Well, the OG version is fine, but it lacks flow. It’s very staccato. And where it does flow, it just lacks passion. The ’85 cover is just inspired. The eighties’-sounding vocals electrify it into being one that gets you excited to do something. Now if only I could actually understand what they’re saying because them sure ain’t the movie’s lyrics.
What could have been improved: Aside from the aforementioned pacing issue, the biggest problem I have in the movie just might have to be Beulah Bondi’s character.
Oh, she’s a great actress. And Granny’s written very well. I don’t even mind the Christian aspect (that much). That’s not the problem. The issue is Granny’s attitude flies directly in the face of of everything Disney’s been teaching us for years, and she isn’t the bad guy. Shortly after we meet her, we witness her attitude when it comes to dreams and ambitions: that they’re foolish and a distraction. That Jeremiah shouldn’t bother wanting more than a farm life. While she doesn’t try to stop Jeremiah from working to get to the fair, she doesn’t encourage him once, either. The film’s context reads that she’s grounded, realistic, sensible, and caring. And while that’s true, neither does she empower Jeremiah to work hard to achieve his goal, which leaves it to his own determination and Uncle Hiram’s suggestions.
I suppose if I were to be fair, it’s a lesson to learn that’s appropriate given the time period and the Christian teachings. But nowadays, we are always encouraging our kids to shoot for the moon, and those who discourage them from dreaming are seen as monsters. I can definitely see some conservative or otherwise religious family taking this to heart, but it completely counters Disney’s modern narrative of following your dreams.
It makes me think of Pinocchio, a movie whose lesson could be summed up as “don’t disobey your father, do only what you’re told, and don’t stray from the path you’re told to follow”. Pinocchio is punished the moment he’s told of fame and wealth and doesn’t go to school, resulting in a world of horrors and trouble. Compare that to 1989’s The Little Mermaid, where Ariel openly defies authority, runs away, and is rewarded for it. The Nightmare Before Christmas and Wreck-it Ralph teach similar lessons, but in a more neutral sense. I guess what I’m saying is Disney’s conservative lessons were fine back in the forties, back when there were serious repercussions if you stepped outside the norm. Nowadays, we in the 21st century can afford to take more risks, and history teaches us that it can lead to great things.
I think millennials and younger might not know what to make of Granny Kincaid unless they were raised in a strictly conservative household, where it’s more important to work hard and suffer before receiving any sort of pleasure. I understand, but it just isn’t for me, and I think, it isn’t for a lot of other fellow whippersnappers.
Verdict: This movie can be off-putting if you don’t know what to expect between its proselytizing and its super draggy pace. There are plenty of moments of charm, with good acting, good animation, and some good music. Even for a guy like me, who loves Song of the South, I find this movie a bit of a chore, despite many similar elements. Nothing about it is bad, per se, but it is tedious. For me, at least. Altogether, it earns four blue ribbons out of ten.
Wow. I guess they were right. It is what you do with what you got that pays off in the end.