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The Persistence of Disney, Part 3: Fantasia (1940)

24 Jul
The Persistence of Disney, Part 3: Fantasia (1940)

In the same year that Walt Disney released Pinocchio he also released Fantasia.  Both were artistic milestones that pushed the boundaries of animation further than anyone imagined they could go and made them such enigmas that 75 e years later their impact is still being felt in the industry.  Yet, at the same time, they both failed at the box office and serve as a cautionary tale to film artists that it is often wise cull your instincts.  Disney’s dream was to explore new territory and take his medium as far as it would go.  Like earlier explorers of unmapped territory, he was going to test its limits and see what was out there.  Yet, in jumping head-first into these two ambitious projects he made a terrible oversight – commerce will always trump art.  Art and commerce are squabbling siblings, one has the brains and one has the muscle.

With his early features, Disney’s intent was to push the horizons.  If Snow White and Pinocchio were an equivalent to Columbus discovering the new world, Fantasia would be equivalent to a trip to the moon.  And yet, like our voyages to the moon he would find that the public’s yearning to be challenged is a bit of a gamble.  Time would be kind to Fantasia but Disney would discover that the audience wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as he was about exploring the horizons.

Fantasia is, even by today’s standards, a milestone not just of animation but of film itself.  Stripping away all sense of narrative, Disney wanted the film to be a sensory experience, the equivalent of spending an evening at the symphony.  It was to be the kind of movie that didn’t just happen in front of you; it was to be an experience that got inside of you.  If we are attending the symphony, we are anchored by the limits of stage production.  On film we can leave the space of the theater and float into streams of consciousness, so Walt wanted our eyes and our ears to be filled with the magic of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shubert, Muggsorgsky and Beethoven while our eyes were given visual sensory experience.  Some of the segments contain characters, others vague characters and at least one contains no characters at all.

It is interesting to me that he opens the film without any sort of characters on the screen.  In an age when the perception of filmmaking is that it lives and dies by what images open a film, it’s interesting that he challenges our perception of how a film is constructed.  This isn’t Snow White; this isn’t Pinocchio.  It doesn’t begin with characters and then run them through a plot.  It was a new experience and the opening images are reminders of the kinds of images we might see in a museum only they are moving to music, they are a merger of two great art forms of animation and music.  Then, as the movie goes along he settles us in with the more familiar images, with fairies and leaves and shimmering spider webs, the natural world mixed with fantasy characters, fairies spreading fairy dust that falls like gentle rain.

Revisiting the film last week I tried to be analytical about some of the images that were appearing, but it is difficult.  Its a little like analyzing a ballet.  You can only report back on how it made you feel.  Accompanied by the music Disney seems to be borrowing images (maybe stereotypes) of Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern influence.  Yet, what am I to make of it?  I can only report how I felt and I felt the same as I do when I hear the music by itself.  It is exhilarating.

The most famous segment, and the only one that actually tells a story, is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” featuring Mickey Mouse for the very first time with pupils in his eyes.  At the time, Mickey’s popularity was on the wane as he was being upstaged by the much more energetic Donald Duck.  Disney’s intent was to bring him back around to the public’s imagination and bring Mickey into the next phase of his popularity, but I think much of it was curtailed by the appearance of another cartoon icon who made his debut the same year.  Mickey, for all of his sweet gentility, just doesn’t have all the appealing mischief of Bugs Bunny.  As an icon, the mouse abides but as a character even in the Disney cannon I don’t think Mickey’s adventures are as familiar or as much fun as Goofy or Donald.  Maybe it was the massive availability of Looney Tunes on television when I was a kid versus Disney cartoons which were relegated to a few hours on Sunday night or tucked into the post show broadcasts after the Disney feature that would play on HBO.  I never felt like I grew up with Mickey.  As a matter of fact, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the only Mickey short that I can recall outside of “Steamboat Willie.”

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was actually the inspiration for Fantasia.  Disney was making this short for the Silly Symphony series and had a chance meeting at a party with Leopold Stokowski and so the short became the springboard for a much larger project.  The strange thing is, I always wanted to know the rest of Mickey’s story.  Why is working as a sorcerer’s apprentice?  Why is he there?  What are his lessons?  Did the wizard dismiss him?  What happened the next day?  I always wanted to know and I guess it says something that we don’t ever find out.  The wizard bats him in the butt with a broom and the piece ends.  I always wanted to know more.  Maybe that was the point.

“Rite of Spring” always seems the most out of place.  It is another experience that is supposed to feel like something that would be going through your mind when hearing the music, but I’m not sure how I’m suppose to feel watching it.  It follows the life and death of the age of the dinosaurs from their evolutionary origins (I imagine this segment has creationists cringing) through their demise, but it is interesting that Disney doesn’t give in to the temptation to make them into characters.  We are looking at what Jurassic Park might look like after the humans fled the island.  Did Stravinsky have dinosaurs in mind when he wrote the piece?

“The Pastoral Symphony” is a nice mixture of beautiful imagery and cuteness overload, reducing Beethoven’s four-hour symphony down to about 8 minutes and melding it with images of mythical Greco-Roman figures such as centaurs and “centaurettes”, cupids, fauns and other figures gathered for the festival of Bacchus.  Then Zeus decides to crash the party by throwing lightning bolts down from the heavens.

This is one of the most interesting segments because it is the most controversial.  All prints since 1968 have this segment edited down due to racial stereotypes – the infamous centaurette Sunflower, a blackface caricatures whose purpose is to serve as personal dresser to one of the other centaurettes.  If you know where the edits are, you can spot where the character comes into the movie, but the folks at Disney have been very careful to remove this character (you can see the side-by-side comparison here).  It’s hard to complain.  I do not believe in censorship especially with regards to art, but I’ve seen the unedited cut and I can’t complain about the character being edited out.  As a matter of fact, I think it says something about racial progress that we would want to eliminate such an image and there isn’t a controversy about it.  It isn’t seen a marring Disney’s work.

“Dance of the Hours,” I think, is the most Disney of all of the segments outside of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  This is the one, I think, that most likely gets under the skin of most purists of classical music.  Its a farcical, a comic ballet set to Ponchielli’s most famous work, portraying the hours of the day through dance.  Yet, I don’t imagine that the great Italian composer had hippos, elephants and alligators and ostriches in mind when he wrote it.  The piece is formed, of course, in four sections, Madame Upanova and her ostriches (Morning); Hyacinth Hippo and her servants (Afternoon); Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe (Evening) and Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators (Night). The finale finds all of the characters dancing together until their palace collapses.  Again, what am I to make of this?  Is Disney celebrating Ponchielli or mocking him?  Personally, I find it hilarious, energetic and fun.  Plus, based on the grim nature of what comes next, its almost essential.

“A Night of Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” are not just my favorite pieces in the film; they are my favorite pieces of animation ever.  I find it breathtaking; it’s like attending a great opera.  The forces of evil overtake the night as the demon pulls the strings on the legions of the dead.  The animation here reminds me of some of the images I’ve seen in paintings – the dancing demons, the floating spirits, and death riding his horse.  There isn’t much I can say about it except that it’s the least Disney animation that I can imagine.  It was a brave choice and one that is the most simplistic in terms of its theme.  The devil raises that dead and then is beaten back by the light and angelic music as a group of candle-bearing monks walk into the ruins of an old church.  There are many interpretations of this segment, but I have often seen it in the context of the times.  Watch both segments and imagine that this movie was made at the exact moment that Hitler and his thugs were goose-stepping across Europe.  Could it been seen as an allegory?  Its just a thought.

Some have complained that this last segment goes on too long and slows down the picture but I think it works beautifully and was the perfect note on which to end the picture.  The music fades out and the it stays in your mind because there are no distractions.  There are no end credits; the movie doesn’t add a button at the end to tell you when to leave.  You’re just kind of left with the feeling that the music that the music left you with.

Watching Fantasia again last week, trying to interpret it in my mind, I found that it was the most challenging of all of Disney’s works.  Its a vanity project from top to bottom, encapsulating a vain attempt to give pictures to classical music.  What pictures are appropriate for Stravinsky, Beethoven, Shubert and Mussorgsky?  What images capture what happens in your mind when hearing it?  Dancing Hippos?  Dinosaurs?  Mickey Mouse?  This is a movie that must have had purists tearing their hair out.  Was it an act of vanity to add Disney’s roly poly characters to the works of these incredible artists? That’s a debate for the ages.  Is it any more or less offensive to have dancing hippos wrapped around Ponchielli than it is to have Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd immersed in Rossini?  Mull that one over.

As breathtaking an experience as Fantasia is, it was never the success that Disney had wanted.  In making it, Disney went over his budget several times and curtailed the roadshow presentation because of a new “Sensaround” sound system that required theaters to be reformatted just for this film – he wanted his audience to feel the experience rather than just being in attendance.  That meant many cities didn’t get to see it.  It made money but it didn’t make back its budget.   It was proof that his ambition overreached his common sense.  With Hitler stomping all over Europe, the film’s distribution was, for the most part, cut off and that eliminated much of its overseas revenue.  It would take years and many re-releases for the film to bring forth a profit, but it became the breaking point to Disney’s ambition.

That’s the real tragedy because the film’s failure killed Disney’s desire to explore the limits of the medium.  “We’re through with caviar,” he said, “From now on its mashed potatoes and gravy.”  You can see that in the rest of his work.  For much of the decade, the films produced by the Disney company were compilations encompassing animated bits that were leftovers from a proposed Fantasia sequel and the rest of his life he would focus on fairy tales.  The failure of Fantasia financially, effectively ended Disney’s desire to explore.  Both Pinocchio and Fantasia are regarded as the greatest works of animation, not just in Disney’s cannon but in the world of cinema, but they are enigmas, they stand as the world of a man who had so much more potential than what he would later have the desire to do.

In many ways, Fantasia represents one of the greatest debates in all of cinema.  What kinds of films should Hollywood be making?  We are sitting in a summer right now that includes space aliens, comic book superheroes, ghost busters and treks through the stars, but very little that redefines what a movie is.  Francis Ford Coppola once lamented that we have only explored about 10% of what the movies can do, and 6% of that was discovered in the silent era.  Movies have such potential, but week after week I see Hollywood continually wading in the kiddie pool.  It’s distressing, and as a critic you find yourself often searching the edges of the film world for something that is attempting to push the medium forward.

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane, Fantasia is one of those art pieces of which no two people have the same opinion.  Its odd, strange, beautiful, brilliant, but much in the same vein of the music it employs, it challenges you to consider how you feel about it.  The critic Otis Ferguson wrote: “Dull as it is towards the end, ridiculous as it is in the bend of the knee before Art, and taking one thing with another, it is one of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world.”  I agree though I would never call it dull.  I’ve seen it at various points in my life and I always find myself with a differing opinion though I am always mesmerized by it.  It’s odd, strange, glorious and kind of brilliant at the same time.
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Previously:

Pinocchio (1940)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

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