Friday, April 29, 2011

Sources and Origins: Chernobog and Walpurgisnacht

Night on Bald Mountain - the fearsome, freaky, and fiery finale to Fantasia - doesn't just take place on some random night that the ghosts are feeling frisky. Chernobog rises and summons his minions (as Deems Taylor tells us in the scene's intro) on Walpurgis Night (or Walpurgisnacht), also known as the evening that spans the last day in April to the first day in May - that's Tomorrow night!


Kay Nielsen concept art

Celebrated in Germanic nations (Germany, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and Latvia) by pagans who burn fires in honor of their deities and by Christians who burn fires to keep the demons away. Either way: fire! This is the night that the barrier between the world we live in and the realm of the supernatural is said to be particularly thin. According to Fantasia, of course, this is the night that the demon Chernobog (or Chernabog) rises from the peak of Bald Mountain and calls forth a host of ghosts, demons, and monsters to dance for his evil amusement.


Kay Nielsen concept art.

Chernobog is a death god from Slavic mythology, his name meaning "black death." In the intro to "Night on Bald Mountain," Deems Taylor refers to him as Satan, a much more familiar devil and one whose name comes with a lot more baggage. Somewhere along the line, Disney decided to start referring to the character in its merchandising as "Chernabog." Early animation notes and model sheets (from designer Kay Nielsen and animator Vladamir "Bill" Tytla) refer to the character alternately as "Chernobog" or as "the Devil."


Kay Nielsen model sheet.



Have a happy Walpurgisnacht, dear readers. Careful dancing naked around the fire. If you're concerned at all about bad weather or singing your naughty bits, you could also consider celebrating by staying in and watching Night On Bald Mountain instead.



More on Walpurgisnacht here and here.



More on Chernobog here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lucy in the Sky with Disney: Fantasia 1969

Maybe some of our younger readers don't realize this, but before Blu-Rays and DVDs we had VHS tapes, and before we had VHS tapes and could watch movies we purchased whenever we felt like it, studios (and especially Disney) would sometime re-release older movies back into the movie theaters.

When Disney re-released Fantasia in 1969, it became a fun outing for counterculture youth (also known as filthy hippies) to attend screenings in a state of altered consciousness (stoned).

I wondered how the wholesome Disney company felt about this. Did it bother them that one of their early works was now associated with illegal behavior or were they happy to get the money either way. Could they have even encouraged it?

Strangely, recent releases of Fantasia on Blu-Ray and DVD don't include the various versions of trailers that promoted the movie through the years (unlike pretty much any other animated feature in recent years). I couldn't even find the preview online. All I could really find was the 1969 theatrical poster:



Whoa. Trippy, dude.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sources and Origins: Bacchus

All the deities who show up in Fantasia's Pastoral Symphony sequence are based on Greek or Roman mythology. This is a little strange given that all these gods and goddesses have counterparts in both those mythological canons, but narrator Deems Taylor identifies some using their Greek names (Zeus, Apollo, Morpheus) and some by their Roman names (Bacchus, Diana, Vulcan). But no matter - Eros by any other name would smell as sweet*.

Bacchus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio


Most prominently featured of these is Bacchus - the Roman god of drinking and parties who shows up drunk and riding a unicorn donkey and inspires a bacchanal (a big wild drunken party in which many of the revelers hook up in romantic situations).

Some fun facts about Bacchus (or Dionysus, as the Greeks called him):

1. Bacchus's dad, Zeus, took the form of lightening and scared fetal Bacchus right out of his mother's womb only six months into the pregnancy, killing her in the process. After that, Zeus sewed the baby up into his thigh where he spent the remainder of the gestation period. Apparently that works**.

2. Since Zeus's wife, Hera, was not Bacchus's mother, Zeus had to keep the child hidden from her jealous rage. To do this, Bacchus spent some of his childhood being raised as a girl, and some of it being raised as a ram. I think this goes a long way to explain the constant state of drunkenness in his adulthood.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of Bacchus in his poem, Drinking Song. In it, you'll see some echoes of moments in Fantasia. A few choice stanzas:

Fauns with youthful Bacchus follow;
Ivy crowns that brow supernal
As the forehead of Apollo,
And possessing youth eternal.

Round about him, fair Bacchantes,
Bearing cymbals, flutes, and thyrses,
Wild from Naxian groves, or Zante's
Vineyards, sing delirious verses.

These are ancient ethnic revels,
Of a faith long since forsaken;
Now the Satyrs, changed to devils,
Frighten mortals wine-o'ertaken.

Bacchus in Fantasia


Sadly, I could find no reference in mythology to Bacchus riding a unicorn donkey ***, but other than that, Fantasia's portrayal of him seems pretty appropriate.

If you're interested in further reading about Bacchus:
Myths about the Roman God Bacchus
Theoi Greek Mythology: Dionysus

Bonus fun fact: Along with many of the gods in Fantasia, Bacchuss (now wine colored) shows up again in Disney's Hercules.


*I'm so sorry. This joke is terrible.

**Probably only for Gods.

*** Unidonk?

Friday, April 22, 2011

From the movies to the parks: Fantasia


Fantasia doesn't have any one big presence in Disney's parks and resorts - there's no Fantasia: The Ride, but there are several smaller appearances and references to Disney's third animated feature if you look closely enough. Here are a few:

WALT DISNEY WORLD

Probably the closest thing to a Fantasia attraction are the Fantasia Gardens and Fantasia Fairways miniature golf courses, located behind the Dolphin resort near Epcot.

A quick tribute to Fantasia appears in Disney's Hollywood Studeio's The Great Movie Ride(TRIVIA: This scene, featuring Sorcerer Mickey direcing a whirlwind of water was originally planned to be the tornado that transports you to the next scene, The Wizard od Oz).


One section of the All Star Movies Resort is themed to Fantasia, as is that resort's pool.


Disney World's usual night time parade (on hiatus as of this writing), Spectromagic, features several illuminated Fantasia floats.

Yen Sid's magic hat, apparenly now passed on to his apprentice, shows up to cause lots of trouble for Donald Duck in Mickey's Philharmagic.

DISNEYLAND PARIS

Disneyland Paris' version of the Storybook Land Canal Boats, Le Pays des Contes de Fées, features Fantasia's Chernobog cowering from the sun above the little village.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Queen and the Lady



Fabulous monsters The Wicked Queen and Lady Gaga met at the Magic Kingdom over the weekend. Topics discussed, dealing with paparazzi, doing it for the fame, keeping an excellent poker face, and how love is revenge.

It's assumed the duo will be conquering the world in the next few weeks.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Chronological Canon: Fantasia

Fantasia was Walt Disney's third animated feature and his most artistically ambitious. Having perfected adapting beloved fairy tales into full-length animated stories in just two tries, Walt turned his animators on a loftier goal: creating a concert film that shows the artist's interpretations of works of classical music - sometimes telling a story, sometimes immersing the audience into specific setting, and sometimes merely conveying abstract images.

The admiration I have for this kind of boundary-pushing is enormous, but at the same time, it's hard to ignore that a large percentage of the finished product is as boring as it is lovely. Fantasia is made up of seven different sequences and features brief live-action introductions for each. Let's take those sequences one at a time:

TOCCATA AND FUGUE IN D MINOR

Bach's dark masterpiece starts with images of the orchestra. Gorgeously and boldly lit, we see them mostly in silhouette with colored accents. This is actually entertaining for a little while, but we then moves to animated clouds and instrument-based imagery. This is followed by images that are more abstract, and we head pretty quickly into some very dull watching. There's a moment right at the end when we fade back to Leopold Stokowski, the conductor, who briefly seems to be conducting the imagery which is interesting, but lasts for only a moment.


THE NUTCRACKER SUITE

Tchaikovsky's holiday masterpiece replaces the familiar characters from the ballet with little luminescent fairies among natural settings. They wake the flowers, spread the dew, we see a group of dancing mushrooms! Flowers fall into their reflections then dancing on the water. Fish fan dance. Thistles and flowers Russian dancing. We return to the fairies who then changing leaves to fall and then dance down the snowflakes. The Nutcracker sequence is kind of Fantasia in microcosm. It's all beautiful, parts of it have enough beauty and action to be captivating (the fairies spreading dew), other parts are more traditionally cartoony and funny (those dancing mushrooms), and a lot of it is just slow and dull (fish, falling flowers, the snowfall).


THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE


We're on more familiar ground here with Mickey Mouse and a definite storyline. Mickey plays the title role and steals his master's magic hat to shirk his duty. He enchants a broom to do the work for him, but soon finds that he can't get it to stop. After trying to chop it up, he faces an army of brooms creating a massive flood until the sorcerer returns to put thing right. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is far and away the most accessible of Fantasia's scenes. It's really the only one with a story in the strictest sense of the word. The music was written to tell this story in the first place, so the pacing and action all fit without being forced or relying on filler material.


THE RITE OF SPRING


This sequence is, "the story of growth of life on Earth," according to Fantasia's narrator Deems Taylor. "It's a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet's existence. Science, not art, wrote the scenario of this picture," he says. We start out floating through the universe, then into the milky way, and onwards towards Earth.


After our previous short interlude with Mickey, we're almost instantly back into interminable boredom. It's possible this imagery was so lovely and unusual in 1940 that the sheer spectacle of it was entertaining, but it's unbelievably dull today. Once onto Earth we gets some volcanoes, splashing waves, microorganisms and a little marine life. Then, mercifully, dinosaurs! For a little while the dinos entertain with their action and violence (and I was really surprised to see one dino with feathers - something I didn't realize science was thinking about in 1940). Then the dinosaurs stop fighting and begin dying of dehydration and, impossibly, even they become boring! Congratulations, Fantasia, you made me bored with dinosaurs.


Next up is a 15 minute intermission, which seems hilarious on Blu-Ray, but I'm sure was blessedly welcome in the theater, especially since the last three sequence all included copious amounts of flowing and/or splashing water.


We return to a little "improvised" jazzy warm-up from the orchestra followed by Taylor talking to an animated line that he tells us is the movie's soundtrack. The soundtrack bit is a cute piece of fluff and is thankfully brief. Then, we get into Fantasia's much more entertaining second half...


PASTORAL SYMPHONY


We begin with brightly-colored baby unicorns and junior satyrs scampering about in the morning. A majestic Pegasus is followed by his pastel babies. Then we spend a lot of time with some lovely centaur ladies (or centaurettes as Taylor calls them in the intro - designed by Disney's master of lovely lady design: Freddie Moore) being given makeovers by some fussy cherubs before the guys come over for date night. A drunken Bacchus shows up and we enjoy a little bacchanal. From the clouds above, Zeus brings the thunder (and lightening) and rains on everyone's parade. The storm passes, creatures the return. Apollo carries sun to sunset and everyone goes to sleep. Diana Shoots and arrow to create the stars, and we're out.


While once again this isn't a definite story, there's plenty of activity and lots of delightful characters to keep this sequence interesting throughout its run time. Very bold choices are made with the colors, and I just noticed for the first time at this latest viewing how very much the style and colors of Pastoral Symphony influenced the design of Disney's Hercules over 50 years later.


DANCE OF THE HOURS


This sequence takes a very simple idea (stage an animated ballet starring animals not normally noted for their grace), and milks it for all that its worth. We start out with a company of dancing ostriches, moving on to hippos, bubble blowing elephants, and finally a group of alligators arrive to terrorize the lot of them. It's great fun and full of hilariously animated moments (when the lead hippo, Hyacinth, runs away from her alligator dance-partner only to then turn around and take a long flying leap into his arms, it cracks me up every time). This is Fantasia at its most classically cartoonishness, and also its funniest.


NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN/AVE MARIA


Finally we come to the last sequence, and it quickly becomes apparent that Disney has saved the best for last in this "picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred," as Taylor puts it. In a dark night, a huge mountain looms over a tiny village. It's Walpurgisnacht, and the grand demon Chernabog wakes from the mountaintop. Ethereal spirits rise from the graves in the churchyard below and eerily float toward their demonic summons. Demons gambol in flames. Fiery dancers (damned souls?) transform into monsters. Harpies soar past! The scene erupts into a frenzy of evil for the delight of the towering devil. Finally, church bells ring from the town below. Morning is coming. The demons depart, the ghosts return to their graves and Chernabog folds his wings to once more become the mountaintop. A long line of people carry candles to Church, and we pan slowly out the window toward the sunrise.


It's a masterpiece - the sequence that perfectly achieves what Fantasia seems to be reaching for all along: a scene that reaches true art by combining classical music with daring animation and transcends the sum of its parts. I vividly remember first seeing Night on Bald Mountain in my music class in elementary school and being both disturbed and fascinated by it - especially those eerie spirits following their warped path from the grave to the mountaintop. I've been as enthralled with it each time I've watched it since. It's beautifully macabre - animation of pure pagan mayhem aimed squarely at an adult audience with its tormented spirits and bare breasted harpies. Can you imagine the Disney of today creating such a scene - especially in a feature that also includes Mickey Mouse? I can't. Admittedly, the Ave Maria part is pretty slow, and doesn't offer a lot of variety, but after the grand heights just achieved on Bald Mountain, at least this slow follow-up is fully earned.


Assigning a set numerical ranking to Fantasia is a tough task. On the one hand, I have a great deal of admiration for everything that was being attempted by it: an animated feature unbound by restrictions of story, form, target audiences - an animated film that aspires to comic entertainment, dark imagery, and pure art. Plus, it's almost always beautiful. Unfortunately, I can't ignore that large portions of the actual product just don't hold the viewer's attention anymore (if, in fact, they ever did).


It's also tough to rank the product as a whole since it's easy to consider the parts separately. Were I to just grade Night on Bald Mountain, it would rank very high (Pastoral Symphony and Waltz of the Hours would do pretty well too), but to consider Fantasia as a whole, I have to view that alongside the painful plodding of lesser sequences. But, that's the task I've set for myself, so that's what I'll have to do. I give Fantasia an A for effort, but when it comes to grading the whole shebang as a single piece of entertainment today, I feel awful to give it a six out of ten mice:


Fortunately we live in the time of the Blu-Ray (and DVD) in which we can skip certain sequences or even portions of sequences as we see fit. Fantasia with a remote-control nearby is more like a 9 out of 10. Just night on Bald Mountain (and hitting stop early into Ave Marie), that's a perfect 10.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hitchhiking Ghosts get major upgrade

More big changes have been unveiled at the Haunted Mansion over in Walt Disney World. Last month, I was among the legion of fans of the attraction who railed against changes made to the attraction's queue (You can read my manifesto in two parts: part one and part two.

This week, WDW premiered a big change inside the attraction itself - and to the ride's most famous scene even - the one in which, as you look at your ride vehicle in mirrors, the three Hitchhiking Ghosts appear to be traveling along with you. Previously, these were two-way mirrors that allowed you to see your own reflection along with Audio Animatronic Ghosts traveling along the other side of the wall. The sat there in the middle of the buggy, moving around only a little.


The way things were.


These new versions are computer-generated animations and are significantly more active. What's more - what appears to still be your reflection is actually a projected live-video of YOU too. This allows the Hitchhiking Ghosts to play all kinds of silly new pranks - Ezra may swap heads with you, Gus may take off his beard and put it on your face, Phineas may take your picture. The ghosts may appear next to you or sitting on top of your buggy.


Ricky Brigante over at Inside the Magic has been on top of covering all of these changes to the Mansion. Here's his video of the new Hitchhiking Ghosts:



Here's another video from Jeff Lange DVD:


And now to show you I don't hate any and all changes - even to the Haunted Mansion - I have to admit that I like what I see so far. My complaints against the new queue weren't that I didn't want any silliness in the Mansion, it was that it was silliness in the wrong place. In the beginning you're supposed to be nervous about entering the spooky house. But at the end of the ride, when you meet the Hitchhiking Ghosts and know they're not really dangerous, silliness is perfectly acceptable and welcome.


Plus, while I've been against the ever-increasing use of video screens, projections, and computer-generated characters in Disney attractions, these look to be more-carefully designed and better integrated into the attraction than other examples. All reports indicate, and the video suggests, these ghosts actually appear to have real depth and dimension to them.


A little part of me dislikes that an old-fashioned magic trick is being replaced by modern high-tech. Old stage magic and a haunted house are two flavors that go so naturally together. But in this case it appears the new effect retains some of that old sense of really seeming like magic. I'd hate to see the big-show stopping pepper's ghosts of the Haunted Mansion's ballroom replaced by something like this, but in this single dose, in this specific scene, I rather like what I'm seeing. I'll reserve final judgement until I actually get the chance to visit the Mansion again myself, but it's at least saying something that I'm looking forward to this new addition.


What has me still scratching my head, though, is why the Haunted Mansion is getting all these upgrades right now. It was just a few years ago that WDW's Haunted Mansion received some major upgrades: modern audio and lighting upgrades, the new bride, and the big crazy staircase scene, and even before any of that it was already among the most consistantly entertaining and popular attractions in the park. Not that there's anything wrong with trying to take something great and make it any better (but do it carefully), but why do that when there are many other attractions that could really use the funding and attention? Journey Into Imagination and Ellen's Energy Adventure over in Epcot are so outdated they're embarassing to sit through. An awful lot of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad's effects sit there broken. The grand finale to Animal Kingdom's premiere attraction - the Yeti in Expedition Everest - hasn't been fully functional in years. Again, I do like this upgrade, I'm just confused why they're fixing what ain't broke when other things very much are.


"Hey - HEY! What about ME?"

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pinocchio's best bad

Last month's poll determined that J. Worthington "Honest John" Foufellow was far and away your favorite Pinocchio villain, doubling the votes of his closest competition, the Pleasure Island Coachman (society's racism against puppets only received one vote).

Congratulations, J.

This month, vote for your favorite sequence from Fantasia.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Top secret Pixar

Want a sneak peek at a scene from Cars 2? Start by watching this and look for a clue:


Good luck, agents. Yes, that phone number works too.