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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Disneyear: Fantasia (1940)

For a while now, the Disney movies had simple, yet coherent stories to them. So for their third feature, Fantasia, it seems odd that they did the total opposite of that. It's not one story, but seven pieced together with classical music. The result is a film that's more than just a movie. It's a powerhouse of art and sets new standards for not just animated films, but music videos too. It's really the first Disney film mainly for adults, but there are things that kids can enjoy about it. It's not just my favorite Disney film, it's one of my favorite films of all time. 

Like I said before, it's not just one story, but a bunch of them with no dialogue except from our host, Deems Taylor and a scene with Mickey Mouse and our conductor, Leopold Stokowski. So because of that, I'm going to analyze each segment and then review it as a whole in the end. I'll do the same for other films like this, fyi. So, let's get started!

We get our introduction from Deems Taylor about how the film is going to be. He states that there are three kinds of music: First, there's the kind that tells a definite story. Then there's the kind that while it has no specific plot, it does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. And then there's a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake. The first piece is music of the third kind, Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. What we see are a bunch of abstract images. It may seem pointless, but if you listen to it again and close your eyes, these images may be the first to jump in your mind. It's a very interesting and bold way to start your movie and easy one of the best scenes in the film.

The second is Pyotr Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite. This scene has a lot of nature themes in it, the biggest idea being that fairies control morning dew and even help with the changing of seasons. As the music goes on, we're also introduced to Chinese mushrooms, dancing flowers and goldfish, and end with summer turning into autumn and winter. It's another scene with powerful imagery. Sometimes, just the falling of leaves has a bigger impact than the internal struggles of a character. It's amazing how these artists can read nature as if it's poetry or ballet. It's a great part and one I always enjoy seeing.

Next is the most famous scene: Mickey Mouse starring in Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and the first clear-cut story in the film. We see Mickey learning under a sorcerer named Yen Sid (see if you catch that reference!) as well as doing a few chores for him. One day, the master leaves his hat, leaving our mouse to make some mischief by turning a broom alive to do the work for him. Only problem is the broom doesn't stop. So, thinking fast, Mickey chops it up with an ax only to have it multiply. They flood the place until Yen Sid comes back and fixes everything. Obviously, this is the most kid-geared section of the music, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't entertaining. Fun fact: this short is actually how the film came about. It was originally supposed to be just this one, but Disney must have liked the idea and wanted to try it out some more music and stories. The love really shows here and in the other segments.

Now we have Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Originally a series of tribal dances, the Disney artists had recreated Stravinsky's original idea for the piece: the evolution of life (at least up until the dinosaurs to avoid problems with religious folks.) This is probably my second favorite segment in the movie. There's a lot of drama and more serene moments in here, but that's life itself. Emotionally, I'm never sure how to feel when watching this. The dinosaurs are there, then they're gone. That's it. There's no good vs. evil, there's no heroes or villains. It's animals living their lives. And I always find stuff like that fascinating.

After that, we take a break and see the orchestra take a jazz break and watch a segment with an animated soundtrack. It's a nice break and this segment does get a chuckle out of me. On top of that, the animation on the soundtrack, like the rest of the film, is beautiful. So, I'd say don't skip it.

We come back to see an interesting interpretation on Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (#6). Instead of the German countryside, like how Beethoven originally envisioned, we see a delicately colorful meadow inhabited by creatures and Gods of Greek mythology, like unicorns, satyrs, pegasus families, centaurs in love, a party hosted by Bacchus and his unicorn donkey (something I'd actually like to attend. He seems like a cool guy.), Zeus breaking up the party, and everyone settling down as the days end. It's pretty colorful and I have to admit, I do enjoy this segment too. It's at least in a lighter mood after the last, really heavy segment. I should also bring up the fact that this is usually censored in almost all prints available. Disney later edited out a black centaur character named Sunflower that acted as an assistant to all the other lady centaurs. I have seen a version with this character in it from YouTube (I guess someone had the original reel) and can tell you that while it's not the most racist thing I've ever seen (It's actually hard to tell with Disney...), Disney should at least have this open for people to make fair judgments for themselves. Another thing, they kept two zebra-centaurs in the film, so why edit Sunflower out if you're going to leave those two in? Besides, the efforts to edit her out are really obvious and a little distracting.

Ok, now we have Amilcare Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours as performed by hippos, ostriches, crocodiles, and elephants. Different parts of the ballet represent different parts of the day both visually and audibly. Out of all the segments in the film, this one is probably the funniest. There's some good, silly, physical humor in it while keeping a sense of dignity like the rest of the film. The choreography of the dancing is good, too.

At last, we come to the finale of Fantasia. Combining Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain with Franz Peter Schubert's Ave Maria sounds like an odd way to end your movie, but they contradict each other so perfectly that it's downright beautiful. It combines all the darkest and most evil things on earth (including a kick-arse devil animated by Bill Tytla) with all the goodness in the world prevailing over it. This has to be, emotionally speaking, the most powerful scene not just in the movie, but out of everything Disney has done that I'm reviewing this year. I swear, that choir brings a tear to my eye every time... 

So that's the film in a nutshell. It's a very powerful tour de force not just in film, but the art of animation itself. Remember what I said about Snow White and Pinocchio working due to emotional simplicity? You could argue that this is the film that perfects that concept. I also enjoy the fact that it's not about story, but moments. Some are easy to emotionally identify with, others not so much. There's also the fact that the Disney artists are able to suck you into a film so simple and yet so awe-inspiring. It's like going to an art museum if the exhibits were alive and moving in front of you. It's Disney's magnum opus. So, to me at least, this movie ages like fine wine and is easily Disney's masterpiece.

If I could find one fault in the movie though, it's that it may be an acquired taste to some. After all, not everybody was brought up on classical music like I was. I still remember my first classical CD: David Bowie narrating Peter and the Wolf performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. So, maybe this is why only a handful of people I know love this movie like I do. Who knows? Maybe if some folks watch it again, they'll at least appreciate the animation and it's sophistication. After all, everyone's entitled to their opinions and I still hold mine. 

Fun fact here: Walt originally wanted this to be a part of a continuing series of films. Unfortunately, this film didn't make the money it needed back when it was first released (even though it was the 2nd or 3rd highest grossing film that year), making another was financially ridiculous. One was made almost 60 years later, but I'll get to that one when it comes around.  

How about some clips? Here's The Nutcracker Suite and Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria with some scenes of Sunflower that I mentioned.

1 comment:

Rodan said...

I haven't seen this movie in years but having read this I will revisit it. Every time I watch it I see something new. "The Night On Bald Mountain" is the best segment for me.

I love this Disney film and wished they would have done another movie or two like while Walt was alive. Of course, maybe the appeal of this work has a lot to do with the rarity of its concept.

The 2000 version isn't as good.