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:


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.


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).


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.


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...


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.


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.


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.

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