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Disney Sundays: Fantasia (1940)


             People sometimes forget how intrinsically linked art and music are. They’re both forms of expression that can mean anything to the viewer. Literature and film can also be interpreted in multiple ways especially when done right, but there’s always more context, in story and character, not to mention they’re less universal across language and geographical barriers. A lot of great paintings, sculptures, and works of music have little context and thus can convey much sharper contrasts of interpretation from person to person, which in a way is art at its purest intent, something which you think couldn’t be conveyed in film; that is until Walt Disney who recognized the shared traits of music and art decided to coalesce them on film.
Fantasia has the most appropriate title. Though it’s not a real word, it has that epic, grand connotation that promises the fantastical and stunning visual extravaganza it soon delivers on. Initially it was released as a theatrical tour playing for a number of cities across America, which the film does nothing to hide, with a live-action opening and transitions between segments, hosted by composer and music critic Deems Taylor. The film presents eight animated segments played to various classical music compositions conducted by Leopold Stokowski and ranging from Bach to Ponchielli. Even by 1940, this wasn’t unique as music had been used to give character to animated shorts for years. But in those cases the music was most often used to highlight the comedy, lightheartedness, or just general whimsy of the cartoon. Plus they were original compositions for those particular cartoons. But Disney understood how animation could articulate music in a more serious way to enhance the dramatic, philosophic, classical, and theological as well as compliment the tone and rhythm. And nowhere was there better opportunity for this to be displayed than in the annals of classical music. Everyone who’s listened to some of these great pieces of music has at least at some point pictured something grand to accompany it. Disney was now doing just that on a visual scale.
In one way Fantasia is an excuse for the animators at Disney studios to show off. And they excel in doing so. But it also provides them an outlet and opportunity to prove their artistic ambition. Here we see an array of animation styles and techniques that are visually stunning. You can see the hard effort that went into each segment. Some of these are as Taylor notes, mere images to music while others anthologies and others stories, which are indeed needed to fully appeal and entertain to a mass audience. But while there are stories to some of the segments, it’s clearly the music and visuals that take centre-stage. None of the segments feature dialogue of any kind and I think all with the exception of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice don’t even use any independent sound effects.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is definitely the most famous sequence. I remember as a kid on a lot of Disney Home Videos that we either owned or rented from Blockbuster (who remembers those?) there was often a logo featuring Mickey Mouse putting on a wizards’ hat and I never knew where it was from. As it turns out it’s from this wonderful short where Mickey as the apprentice to a powerful sorcerer, steals his master’s hat to anthropomorphize a broom to do his arduous chores. But he finds he loses control and chaos ensues. It was the first idea for the film, arguably the segment that Disney based the entire film around but also manages to be funny, atmospheric, and actually even threatening. There’s a scary tone at work in this piece (not least in Mickey’s going American Psycho on a broom) aided by aspects such as a mystique surrounding the sorcerer and the expressionlessness of the broom.  But a lot of this of course comes from the music of Paul Dukas which was composed originally around a similar poem by Goethe, and they work so well together making this segment brilliant on its own and a classic piece of animation.
But what about the others? The rest are all really good and terrifically different. There’s Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, an abstract piece characterized by remarkable light and colours that clash and swerve around the screen. It’s introduced as being what you visualize when you just close your eyes and listen to classical music, and that’s exactly what it is! It’s a visualization of music, and that’s just where the show starts! There’s The Nutcracker Suite a composition we’re all familiar with, but executed here in a splendorous creative way. Now the sheer wonder of Tchaikovsky’s iconic opera score on its own should be enough to satisfy, but it doesn’t suffer at all from the eloquent display of the four seasons complete with fairies, fishes, and anthropomorphic flowers, leaves, and mushrooms. It mixes the music with visual scenes in a well-choreographed grandeur that all but ensured Disney’s hope of reaching out to young children and creating in them an appreciation for classical music. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is an epic that chronicles the formation of the earth from the big bang to the extinction of the dinosaurs and beautifully conveys a weight and sadness to nature and decay even if the dinosaurs’ appearances are outdated. And of course not to forget an illustration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain which is a gothic and terrifying sequence featuring the devil (specifically Chernobog), raising of the dead, and demonic torture animated with such wonderful contrasts of blue and red and frightful detail that it’s instantly memorable; but it’s a darkness matched by Schubert’s Ava Maria full of minimalistic and glorious warmth. Together a perfect contrast and possible theological allegory of darkness and the light right around the corner.
In these intense sequences, Fantasia demonstrates for the first time Disney’s ability to be grown up. There’s such an aesthetic quality to these segments that maybe children won’t appreciate but adults sure will for the imagery and the ideas and themes the animation and music can evoke. There are some that are fairly fluff, clearly meant for younger audiences like a brief “Meet the Soundtrack” which exercises musical vibrations through a shy straight line; the light and comical Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli showing a ballet performed by ostriches, elephants, alligators, and hippos which reminded me of Warner Bros. cartoons like “What’s Opera Doc?”; and The Pastoral Symphony though still great for the amazing Beethoven music and a much more accurate depiction of Greek myth than in say Hercules, but is mostly just cute and sappy and reaching for gut emotions -until Bacchus shows up, who if you know antiquity mythology, is bound to make anything a bit more interesting.
But even in these moments there’s something to be admired. Fantasia as it happens, is a very emotional experience, exemplifying the power animation has at eliciting a wide range of responses. You feel joy permeating in the flowers dancing and the baby horse learning to fly. You feel sadness in the dinosaurs’ futile journey to survive and in the monks’ lamenting. And you feel fear in Mickey’s panic to quell the consequences of his laziness, and in the Chernobog’s tormenting of spirits and winged demons flying into the screen. Because it hits on all levels and doesn’t need an encompassing story to fill the film, it’s able to engage viewers in a much rawer way, allowing simply beautiful music and breathtaking animation to carry us through. It has some drawbacks mostly in the live-action interludes. Taylor sometimes crosses the line from giving context to spoiling a sequence, and do we have to see EVERY band member leave for the intermission and then come back?
                But nonetheless Fantasia is an extraordinary film. It was and in many ways still is unlike any film attempted. Does it hold up after seventy-five years though? To be honest I don’t think it ever didn’t. Generations of animators and filmmakers alike have been inspired by this film and will continue to be inspired. Because while animation and music will generally change with the times, what Fantasia did was create timeless art. Classical music and classic visuals will never die. I don’t think there will come a time when someone doesn’t see the wonder of Fantasia, and what a gift it is to both art and cinema!
Next Week: Dumbo (1941)

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