20 January 2012

Disney Daze: Week 3: Fantasia

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The film that ultimately became Fantasia grew out of a desire to reintroduce Mickey Mouse to a public whose affinity for the character was on the wane. By the mid-1930s other Disney creations, including Donald Duck and Goofy, were consistently upstaging the studio's mascot.  Walt vowed to rectify this, putting his alter ego--whom he had voiced himself--back into the spotlight.  He knew that this could not be achieved with just another Mickey Mouse-brand short.  He needed to make Mickey's return special.  Walt ultimately struck upon the idea of setting a cartoon to a beloved piece of classical music, conducted by a superstar.  This would be a melding of the character-driven antics typical of the Donald Duck shorts with the more elegant animation found in the studio's more experimental Silly Symphonies.  When the cost of the resultant short became entirely too exorbitant to be recouped alone, Disney decided to bundle the film as one of many in a feature-length program of classical pieces, animated in a variety of styles.

Originally released in thirteen US cities with a lavish roadshow production, Fantasia was the event film of its day, akin to today's popularity with IMAX screenings.  Exhibitors showing Fantasia were outfitted with state-of-the-art Fantasound, which as the name implies was created specifically for the feature.  The film comprises seven distinct shorts animated in accordance to a veritable greatest hits of classical music conducted by the venerable Leopold Stokowski.  Stokowski, who offered to work for free on the project, was the first person to suggest the feature-length version of the work, and was also the one who gave the film its name.  In between animated segments, the audience is given some background on the pieces along with an idea of what the animation is portraying.

The first piece of Fantasia, Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" is the most abstract and experimental work.  The silhouettes of the musicians slowly dissolve into floating strings, rolling hills, and pastel monoliths.  I consider this section one of the most invigorating in the film.  The animation may not truly convey what one imagines when they listen to music but the dream logic flows smoothly and beautifully.  There are moments in this section that are direct precursors to some of the avant garde styles of lysergic 60s films like Yellow Submarine.  (It comes as no surprise that the film was re-released in 1969 with the tagline, "The Ultimate Trip".)  To come as the initial segment of a Walt Disney Studios production in 1940 must have been quite a shock.  It still is today, in fact maybe even more so.  I wonder how synesthetes like this section.  Do the colors and shapes match up with the ones in their mind's eye?

The second segment, animated to "the Nutcracker Suite", is the most gorgeous section of the whole feature.  Depicting the changing of seasons with all manner of flora, fish, and fairies, the level of artistry on display is unparalleled.  Time and again, Disney historians like to single out the work of certain animators who created a particularly flawless piece of art, but I want to give a shout out to the ink-and-paint department here.  Unfortunately we have no way of singling out the fine (mostly) women who worked so hard on this feature.  The vibrant colors in the Nutcracker section are utterly exquisite, particularly on the Blu-ray.  They pop off the screen like a confectionary kaleidoscope.  The gentle shadings on the mushroom heads and dying leaves contribute just as much to this pastel pastoral as the admittedly fine line drawings.

Next up is "the Sorcerer's Apprentice", Mickey's triumphant return to center stage.  The segment certainly is a wonderful showcase for Mickey and it's great to see him playing a scamp closer in spirit to his original reckless self, than the neutered face of a corporation he ultimately became.  Here Mickey is lazy and foolish and boy, is that more fun than watching him play Bob Cratchit.  While his appearance here was the whole reason for Fantasia coming into being and on it's own I find the short thoroughly worthwhile, the last several times I've seen the film, "the Sorcerer's Apprentice" has left me decidedly underwhelmed.  It's distracting seeing Mickey in the middle of this buffet of animation, it feels a bit like a guest appearance shoe-horned in.  Ultimately his persona and the more cartoonish qualities don't fit with the overall feel of Fantasia.  That being said, there are some lovely moments in this section, particularly the slaying in the shadows of the rogue broom and the subsequent brief flashes of black-and-white before the broom's multiplying resurrection.

The least successful section of the film follows, the attempt to tie Stravinsky's "the Rite of Spring" with the creation of life on earth.  While I applaud the use of a relatively contemporary composer with Stravinsky, less than thirty years after this very work caused riots at its premiere, and the use of a scientific depiction of the beginning of life, the segment generally falls flat.  There are flashes of brilliance in the animation, the opening shot of the galaxy being a particular standout, but the dinosaurs are poorly conceived (admittedly due in part to flawed scientific conceptions at the time) and the rest of the scene is rather ugly.  It overstays its welcome long before its completion.  Despite the segment's flaws, it does contain my favorite line in any Disney film when our host, music critic Deems Taylor (overdubbed by Corey Burton for re-release when the original masters were lost) introduces the scene with: "So now imagine yourselves out in space billions and billions of years ago looking down on this lonely, tormented little planet spinning through an empty sea of nothingness."  Will do!

The second half of Fantasia is much stronger than the first.  After the intermission, which during the original roadshow lasted fifteen minutes, we are treated to a gorgeous companion to "the Nutcracker Suite", Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony".  Although the ancient Greek setting of centaurs, fauns, and gods was not the original inspiration of Beethoven's work, this segment succeeds much better than the equally incongruent "Rite of Spring" section preceding.  The animation here runs the gamut from whimsical, harrowing, and romantic.  From Bacchus's drunken shenanigans to the exquisite rainbow cresting through the sky, "The Pastoral Symphony" has something for everybody.

Unfortunately some of those somebodies are racists.  While the Asian mushrooms and the fanning African centaurettes are retained on the Blu-ray edition of Fantasia, the original theatrical release and all subsequent releases until the mid-1960s featured snippets of some truly racist imagery.  A black centaurette named Sunflower, who is drawn as an extremely outlandish Sambo-esque caricature, is seen attending to the more fair-skinned ladies, polishing their hooves and braiding their tails.  She is the only centaurette left single at the end of the sequence and is obviously only there to serve her masters.  While it is blatantly obvious why Disney has tried to excise the character from history, I wish that we could have a completely unedited copy of the film for the very sake of historical study.  Washing this character away won't solve anything.  On the lush Complete Black-and-White Mickey Mouse collections, cartoons with offensive imagery or subject matter are prefaced with disclaimers to appease the lawyers, but the films are still available for viewing.  Disney needs to create similar releases for the likes of Fantasia and the unavailable Song of the South.  We need to learn from past generation's bigotry, not pretend like it never happened.  It too makes me uncomfortable seeing the stills of Sunflower but in a way that's a good thing.  That kind of flippant racism in mainstream society is thankfully now a complete relic.

The funniest and most consistently enjoyable section of Fantasia is the penultimate "Dance of the Hours" sequence which depicts the score's ballet performed by ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators.  The animation here is one of the greatest showcases of character animation in history.  Without words we are treated to fully realized performers like the prima donna and her ravenous Lothario.  The way the animators portray the unconscious dignity of these animals makes the sequence side-splittingly hilarious.  There is the calm grace of an elephant floating on a bubble and the modesty of a hippo pulling her tutu down as she lounges on a bench.  This segment in particular would work wonderfully next to Chuck Jones's phenomenal Warner Bros. short What's Opera, Doc?

A notebook was recently discovered near the old Disney Studios featuring an exhaustively detailed description of all of the special effects contained in Fantasia.  It was created by a man named Walter Schultheis who used to work for the studio.  Every single effect shot is described, diagrammed and depicted in this priceless artifact.  Some of the book can be seen on the Fantasia Blu-ray, but to really get a chance to delve into the work, one must visit the fantastic Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco which has digitized the important volume.  Many of the greatest effects shots are found in the dark doom of the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence that, juxtaposed with the peaceful procession of "Ave Maria", concludes Fantasia.  "Bald Mountain" features translucent spirits rising from their graves and ascending to a mountain's peak where the evil Chernabog commands ghouls to dance before he drops them into a fiery pit.  Like the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio, "Night on Bald Mountain" tapped into a dark recess of my consciousness as a kid and has never let go.  Late at night I can still see the curious and demented visage of Chernabog as he studies the demons dancing in the palm of his hand.

After the adolescent scarring comes a denouement so muted that as a kid I probably didn't even notice it onscreen.  Now it has become my favorite piece of the film and one whose subtle power is undeniably strong.  The "Ave Maria" sequence contains the longest tracking shot in multi-plane history as we follow a candlelit procession through a dark forest and out into a glorious dawn.  That's it.  Nothing more to it.  Seven full minutes of a uniform pilgrimage marching slowly to the strains of a timeless hymn.  But contained in this section, deep within the frame, is an unyielding sense of righteousness, dignity, and dare I say it, love.  "Ave Maria, along with the opening "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", are the two pieces in Fantasia that hint at where Walt Disney was hoping to usher animation.  Neither sequence has identifiable personalities, which put them at defiant odds with the dictionary definition of a cartoon.  They are more like moving paintings exhibited extravagantly in a grand concert hall.  They are full of deft line work, glorious color, and a soundtrack for the ages.


Fantasia is a phenomenal, fascinating, and occasionally frustrating work of art.  It is truly a film like no other and a reminder that the medium of cinema can aspire to something much more than what we normally expect.  Unfortunately, audiences tend to pay for things that they can safely anticipate so Fantasia failed to recoup its production cost during its initial run.  For the most part the masses who preferred their cartoons short, sweet and full of gags stayed away, accusing Disney of going highbrow.  The expensive costs of running the roadshow did not help matters, nor did the war raging in Europe.  It is a shame that this film, certainly the most artistically audacious and ambitious film Walt Disney ever produced, was not initially embraced as the grand experiment that it was.  While Walt would continue to work on expanding his artistic horizons and that of the studios, films like Destino--his surreal collaboration with Salvador Dali--were put on the back burner indefinitely.  Walt called Fantasia a mistake, but if anything it was a mistake in timing, nothing more.  The Catch-22 of Fantasia is that at no other time in cinema history could a visionary like Walt Disney mount such an original project with all the money and resources he required, even though no one at that moment in time was there to appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. I've rewatched this with my nephews a lot over the last couple years, and it never fails to be amazing. You rightly hit the high points ("Bald Mountain/Ave Maria", "Dance of the Hours", "The Nutcracker"), but I'd swap opinions with you on "The Rite of Spring" and the "Pastoral Symphony", give me depressing dinosaurs over cutesy cupids every time.