Disney feature film #3: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

Fantasia, 1940, 126 minutes.

Introduction: Walt Disney demanded that Fantasia have stereo sound, which didn’t exist in almost any theaters yet. Because of this, the movie became a “roadshow” release, so the release would only be in one city at once. Disney had to install the 3-channel stereo (which would later become the standard, before becoming the 5-, and 7-channel surround sound we have today) systems in each theater, so each city’s theater cost around $80,000 to set up. The movie’s receipts would have recouped the cost, had it not been for the per-theater cost. In total, the installation of the special sound systems ended up costing around an additional $1 million overall, and the movie lost more money than Pinocchio. By the time the movie had been recut and rereleased, in mono, it was too little too late, and it was not until a second rerelease, years later, that the film even recouped its budget.  But enough for this chapter in how to not release a movie, let’s talk about the movie itself.

fantasia-poster-1940

An orchestra, on film. Something is different about Disney’s third film. It is not animated, there are no on-screen titles, it is simply a pit tuning up. The coloring in this shot is something else, it has an “otherness” to it, but within a minute, we’re being introduced to the feature by a man, in person, and the lighting becomes much more neutral. Next comes a rather drab orchestral interpretation of Bach’s wonderful organ piece, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and during the toccata, we simply see the pit playing it in the strange lighting that opened the film. By the time the fugue comes around, we have transitioned into the heart of what Fantasia is, animation.

The introduction to Fantasia is perhaps its most surprising element. For a movie that heavily featured Mickey in all its advertising, it seems strange to open on a pit, and a brief speech by Deems Taylor. Mickey, of course, is in this film. He is the most exciting and alive part of the whole feature, but he is hardly the star. We will get to that later.

The animation that opens the film after the toccata is a beautiful and abstract series of lines, staves, clouds, and shapes that give the film a fitting, if somewhat unmemorable, introduction. There is not any story to be told, as Taylor tells us in the introduction, the music is “absolute,” and therefore, about “nothing.” Think Seinfeld for music snobs. As a kid, I thought this piece was boring, both musically and visually. As an adult who is familiar with the music, I find the choice to use a full orchestra for Bach’s wonderful organ piece to be regrettable, as part of what makes the Toccata and Fugue so hauntingly beautiful is its use of an organ. If they had gone with the traditional arrangement of just an organ, the piece would have had a lot more impact, especially as an introduction to what comes next.

After another brief introduction by Deems Taylor, we are given what may be the most elegant scene in the film, The Nutcracker. Using selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, there are several scenes of playful, graceful dancing between fairies, flowers, and mushrooms, moving in perfect rhythm with the beautiful score. When we get into the Arabian Dance section of the suite, the animation slows down with the music and we are given a beautiful scene of dancing fish.

a2d6552a9a9caa83bdccfe0e6891c7e6

When the animation becomes slower, and more methodical, Disney’s character animation makes its first appearance in the film. The eyes of the fish looking suggestively at the camera as it performs against a beautiful backdrop of a colorful seafloor is a perfect contrast to the fast dancing that directly precedes and follows it. The piece closes the way it opened, with the beautiful fairies transforming the world around them. There is such a rich story told in this brief piece, and even more impressive is how packed it is. So many different moods and characters are expressed. The fairies on the snowflakes are possibly the most gorgeous thing Disney had created up to this point. It helps that The Nutcracker is a wonderful, rich, and varied suite of movements, that lend themselves to multiple types of animation with unique characters in each scene.

Fantasia’s production started off as something different entirely. Walt Disney wanted to do something special with Mickey. He wanted to make a Mickey short that was set to classical music, much like many of the Silly Symphonies had, but he wanted the music to be a catalyst for everything happening. He also wanted fantasy, not slapstick. Because of this, he wanted it to not be under the “Mickey Mouse Cartoon” banner. As he spent more and more producing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — at this point it topped $125,000 — Walt realized he couldn’t make a profit on just the short. At four times the cost of an average short, Roy and Walt decided it needed to be a part of something bigger, rather than as a main attraction, if they wanted to succeed at all with this film. Disney saw this ever-expanding budget as an opportunity rather than a problem. He wanted to expand this germ of an idea, this wonderful short film, into a suite of classical music with accompanying short films.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the film’s crown jewel. It is the only piece using an existing Disney character. The silent acting Mickey does here is some of the finest animation I’ve ever seen on the character. It is the icon of the movie, Mickey in the stars-and-moon hat, with that giant red robe. The animation is so playful and silly, but with a very realistic weight, and tangible texture to each element. Of course, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the best piece of music in the film as well, and it is worth noting, it has one of the stronger arrangements. It is the only scene in the film in which I can close my eyes and still see everything that happens based only on the music. It is that good, and that memorable.

1d91a64786ebb3444b921dea96efe6cf.jpg

Mickey’s appearance in Fantasia is so well-remembered that his hat from the sequence served many years as the landmark outside Hollywood Studios down in Orlando, and the eared hat is everywhere in the parks, being one of the more popular Mickey-ear hats. It’s amazing to me that this would remain Mickey’s only appearance in a true Disney feature until Fun and Fancy Free, a deeply flawed, but nonetheless interesting film that would feature the debut of Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Rite of Spring is perhaps the most controversial piece in the film. The ballet itself was infamous long before Fantasia used it. Its use was heavily criticized by Stravinsky, not only for its animation, but for its reordering of the pieces, as well as Stokowski’s simplified arrangement. I suppose I understand why he felt this way. Not only is the arrangement uninspired, the scene grinds the film to a halt after the brilliance of the previous two shorts.

The short is not completely toothless, as Stravinsky’s music is brilliant no matter how it has been arranged. There is a gloominess to the piece, and combined with the subpar arrangement of the music, make it the toughest watch in the film. Not that it is not good, it is. But its placement after the strongest, most familiar piece of the film makes it a jarring act break before the intermission.

The animation is wonderful, as is to be expected. Wolfgang Reitherman headed up the animation on Rite of Spring and his masterful control of character animation is shown in the closing moments of dinosaur destruction. The segment is beautiful, but boring. Not until the very end of the segment does it really have enough going on to hold your attention, and it is easily the weakest section of the film, outside of the animation set to Bach’s Fugue.

The intermission has a title card, the first we’ve seen of one. That is the most notable part of the intermission. There is a moment in which we see the soundtrack, which is simply an abstract representation of lines, “playing” a variety of instruments. It’s a moment that probably seemed novel at the time, but at this point seems silly and gimmicky, as do the entirety of the live-action sections of the film.

Pastoral Symphony gets everything back on track. We have here a wonderful story with centaurs, cupid, and fauns all getting together to honor Bacchus (or, Dionysus) and make wine with him. It is an interesting Greek mythology piece that, like the rest of the film, shows us a rich story through music.

Fantasia-disneyscreencaps.com-9269

The animation in this scene is not the most technically impressive in the film up to this point, but each character is so vibrant and full of life. Each centaur, each faun, Zeus and Vulcan as they interrupt the party, everything is so full of fun and excitement. The character work in this scene has a pre-Snow White Disney look to it. It feels very Silly Symphonies, and it is all for the better. The rest of the movie has sharper lines, more sophisticated characters, but it does not take away anything from the simple majesty of Beethoven’s work.

While Rite of Spring halts the momentum of the film going into the intermission, the Pastoral Symphony brings it all back. The moments of Zeus and Vulcan attacking the centaurs and cupids down below are so exciting, and the music so powerful, that it quickly reinvigorates the film as it heads down the home stretch. Again, this is a simpler sequence, its animation somewhat unsophisticated, but it is nice to have something on the lighter side after the rich intensity of Sorcerer’s Apprentice and heavy-handed dino fighting in Rite of Spring.

Dance of the Hours is the most classic Disney-like part of the entire film. Again, it has character animation akin to earlier shorts, and the absurdity of the hippopotamus dancing with an alligator evokes the silliest Silly Symphony. It is wonderfully silly, but does not have the emotional impact of the Nutcracker, nor the masterful animation of Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but it certainly is a lively and altogether fun setup for the dramatic finale of the film.

chernabog-fantasia

Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria. To see those names contrasted is to see the brilliance of the film’s finale. The terrifying devil-like Chernobog awakens the evil spirits to convene on Bald Mountain, and not until the bell rings do the spirits go to bed. The bell is, of course, rung by the monks as they begin to sing Ave Maria. The segment is larger than life, and must be seen to be believed. It is terrifying in a way Pinocchio is not. It is an otherworldly, disturbing kind of scary that makes you quite uneasy. Disney gets away with this by shrewdly placing the priests’ prayer directly after it, in a seamless transition from Night on Bald Mountain, so that the movie can immediately be absolved of its evils.

Though Fantasia is good throughout, and occasionally brilliant, the film is an uneven experience. From the opening scene of the film up until The Nutcracker, the first proper animated sequence, the film has a lot of wasted time. If they cut Deems Taylor’s time in half, I feel the film would have had a much more natural flow. The scene in which Taylor introduces the “soundtrack” is entirely unnecessary and lengthy, as is the entirety of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. It could have been an interesting introduction, the animation is beautiful, but unmemorable, and the arrangement of Bach’s wonderful piece is dull and uninspired. As it is, it would simply be a better picture without it.

With Rite of Spring being another low point in the picture, due to its own problematic arrangement and its lack of variation in setting and slow pace, that leaves us with 6 segments that are quite good. If we were to cut both the Bach and Stravinsky pieces from Fantasia, as well as Taylor’s monologues about each segment, Fantasia would be about 75 minutes. This sounds like a more reasonable length to me, and much more in line with the rest of Disney’s catalogue at the time. As a kid, I always thought Fantasia was boring, and dull, unlike its “cool” little brother 2000 (While just as ambitious, the belated sequel bites off a tad more than it can chew). It still can be boring, in part, but it certainly is not dull. It is overlong and uneven, to be sure, but it also contains some of the most brilliant marriages of music and animation that have ever occurred on screen.

Grade: B

Up Next: Dumbo

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Disney feature film #3: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

  1. This is another movie I owned on Vhs as a little kid, but it’s one of those I’d not watch very often, because of its length and my favorite segment being ‘the sorcerers apprentice’, and not any other segment. but anyway great review as usual, also on my rewatching of the film, I wasn’t particularly interested in watching but it was part of my binge watch, because it’s one of those movies you REALLY need to be in the mood for, can’t wait to hear your ‘Dumbo’ review

    Like

  2. I found your blog from the Disney subreddit, so hello!

    First of all I think you have a lovely way with words and I’m looking forward to your next review!
    I’ve loved Fantasia since I was little, so I think bias comes into play but I actually think it’s one of Disney’s finest. It’s something we’ll sadly never see again as Disney has such a refined formula now; while I think they are still creative and inspiring they will probably never be THIS experimental again. My favourite segments were always A Rite of Spring (I loved dinosaurs as a kid) and Pastoral Symphony, although I think the greatest segments when it comes down to pure artistry are Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria. Those two pieces are amazing when we consider they were animated in the 1940s (or probably late 1930s more accurately) and they still stand up as some of the most exceptional 2D animation Disney has ever made.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s