The Great Disney Blogathon: Fantasia (1940)
|November 21, 2012||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Music, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Let’s see. Fantasia was a pet project for Walt, who viewed it as a new form of entertainment entirely, and was so attached to it that when the studio was forced to shorten it, he refused to do it himself because he loved it so much. It cost a bundle to make and is, for the most part, a tour de force of animation, chock full of innovation. However, it bombed in its initial release. This was thanks in part to the war (as we saw with Pinocchio), but also because it had trouble finding an audience: classical music aficionados were offended by the way conductor Leopold Stokowski’s arrangements chopped up the original pieces, particularly Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, while ordinary folks thought the film too highbrow for their tastes. Also, it was originally released in only 13 cities due to its experimental “Fantasound” technology, which mimicked stereo and which most theaters couldn’t afford. Pro tip: when you only release your tremendously pricey film in 13 cities, you will lose money.
However, this ugly duckling story has a happy ending: thanks to rereleases in the late 60s, the film suddenly found its niche among people who were totally high. Since then, Fantasia has become a beloved part of the Disney canon among sober and stoned people alike, and has more than made its initial cost back, as well as inspiring several attractions in the Disney parks and a sequel, Fantasia 2000, which we’ll get to in due course.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I’ll be honest: I put off reviewing this one for a while, because, well…I’m not a huge fan of Fantasia. I love stories, and words – lyrics and dialogue – and those are all pretty thin on the ground in this movie. What follows, then, are my highly biased accounts of the eight set pieces in the film; take with a grain of salt proportionate to your love of Fantasia.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach: This is an entirely abstract representation of the music. Remember how I said I need narrative and words to be engaged in something? This bores me to tears. As a kid I invariably fastforwarded through this one to get to…
The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: This is probably the most famous (at least to modern American audiences) music in the film, and the one with the most canonized visual representation, so it’s actually rather impressive that Disney managed to create an almost entirely separate version. On the other hand, they did so by chopping it up into distinct segments, some of which are more successful than others.
As a kid I liked this one because I loved any animation with pretty girls, and I still adore the dewdrop, autumn, and frost fairies, who are not only lovely, but part of some of the most beautiful animation in the film. The triumph, for me, is the changing leaves sequence, which makes you wonder how that music could ever be intended to convey anything but the melancholy grandeur of fall. On the other hand, I find the seedpod ladies to be kind of creepy. The dancing petals are also pretty boring, although there is one a simply exquisite moment where you see what initially looks like flowers floating upward until you realize that they are reflections of flowers falling from above, and the image becomes the flowers, their reflections, and the ripples on the water moving together.
The other dancing vegetation/fungi in this sequence are anything but boring, but unfortunately that’s at the cost of being super problematic. The dancing thistles in the Russian Dance are the least troubling only by virtue of being giant honking stereotypes of white people. The mushrooms, however, are drawn with squinty little eyes to make absolutely sure that you know they’re “Chinese,” as if the excessive bowing and conical “hats” didn’t get the point across.1 The actual animation is admittedly super charming, but it can’t save the sequence.
Finally, there’s the Arabian Dance, which combines The Nutcracker Suite’s twin themes of pretty girls (…ish) and ethnic stereotypes with a passel of sexy goldfish. As a child, I loved this section, because pretty girls! Pretty girl fish with pretty girl fish tails! Now I’m kind of put off by the extremely overt sexuality in this section. First of all, coming in the wake2 of Pinocchio’s Cleo, I’m starting to worry why the Disney animators were so into seductively attractive lady goldfish. More importantly, the use of the admittedly impressively-animated translucent tails to suggest veils makes the “Arabian” aspect of this section pretty clear, and hey, you know what’s not cool? “Sexy harem dancer” stereotypes.3
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas: Okay, here it goes: I think The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is just okay.
I know, I know, blasphemy! I don’t know what it is – maybe I just feel like it’s overexposed, maybe I like Mickey better playing off of Minnie or Donald – but I can’t help but find myself to be aggressively neutral on this short. That said, it’s of course a hugely important short, the most important one in the film, and an iconic moment for both Mickey and Disney as a whole. It was the first appearance of Mickey’s “new look,” with pupils, and helped shore up the Mouse’s fading popularity. It’s a big deal. Still, I prefer Donald’s turn in Fantasia 2000. (Though I have to admit, Mickey’s silhouetted conversation with Stokowski is incredibly cute, as is the fact that the orchestra gives Mickey a standing ovation.)
Fun Fact #1: This short was originally supposed to star Dopey. Thank God it didn’t.
Fun Fact #2: Any Disney buff worth his or her salt already knows this, but the sorcerer’s name is Yen Sid. Get it?
Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky: This might be the only instance of Disney making something less racist, as the original music was intended for “a simple series of tribal dances,” according to narrator and musicologist Deems Taylor. Instead, “It’s a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet’s existence.” Or at least, you know, it’s trying to be, starting with Earth-as-molten-ball-of-lava and ending with the death of the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, 1940s paleontology was still pretty rudimentary; I don’t know anything about dinosaurs that I didn’t learn from The Land Before Time, and even I can tell that this is wildly inaccurate. I was also never much of a dinosaur fan as a kid, so this short has never held any particular appeal for me; aside from having no characters for me to latch onto, it’s extremely brutal4, and the end is weirdly anticlimactic.5
Fun Fact: Stravinsky was alive when Fantasia was made, and hated it.
P.S. I see you there, multiplane camera. Good job.
At this point, there’s an intermission, which is especially weird since by modern standards the movie isn’t that long (just about two hours). As the musicians return, they “improv” a little jazz, which I have to admit is my favorite music in the film. I guess I’m just a modern hepcat!
Meet the Soundtrack: Here Deems Taylor introduces us to a shy little “character” called “The Soundtrack,” who looks like a glowing line at rest but who, when asked, can transform itself into a visual representation of sounds (big purple flares for the tuba, etc.). It’s cute enough, but I find myself longing for this sequence to be narrated by Ludwig von Drake. No one makes the metaphorical relationship between music and color as delightful as he does!
The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven: At the risk of exposing myself as a total philistine, this is by far my favorite part of Fantasia. By any technical argument, it’s the weakest segment: the music has been altered far more than any of the other pieces, and the animation is well below Disney’s usual standards and actively crude in parts. But it has actual characters! And little stories! And pretty girls! And (rather butchered) Greek mythology, which I have been into from a very young age! When I rented Fantasia as a kid, because we didn’t own it, I would watch The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Dance of the Hours once each, then this one five or six times, then return it.
Even so, Pastoral Symphony has its high points and its low points. The unicorns and satyrs are basically just filler, as far as I’m concerned, and the cherubs border on obnoxiously cloying, but the little black and white pegasus is an adorably klutzy Disney baby of the first order, even if his dad does look like the Mobil logo. Disney does cute better than any studio out there, and while much of this short toes the cute/cloying line a little too hard, the little pegasus hits it just right.
The high point of the short, though, is the centaurettes. They are gorgeous pinup girls in the best Fred Moore style, and the sequence of them bedecking themselves with flora and fauna is incredibly charming.6 (Watching this movie as a kid, I was a good 87% sure this was what adulthood would be like – just endlessly arranging live birds on my head to soft music.) By contrast, the centaurs are downright crude, with disproportionate arms and faces that are clear afterthoughts. But then, no one’s looking at the centaurs anyway.
(Oh, and hey, speaking of what audiences are looking at – the centaurettes are totally topless when they first appear. They’re just drawn with small, nipple-less breasts – as are the fairies in The Nutcracker Suite – which are quickly covered with wreaths of flowers. Similarly, the cupids are not only naked, but a (terrible and vaguely icky) joke is made of it when one cupid’s bare bottom turns into a glowing heart as he watches a centaur and centaurette…um, do something. That wouldn’t fly today, nosirree!)
Finally, there’s the Disneyfied bacchanal, with Bacchus himself (and his donkey Jacchus – GET IT???) presiding. Bacchus’s over-the-top but somehow gentle drunkenness is the kind of humor that wouldn’t fly today, not just because alcoholism is no longer considered hilarious or fitting subject matter for kids, but because the actual humor of the scene is exceedingly tired. What’s interesting to me instead is how different Bacchus is from his fellow gods. Zeus and Vulcan7, while ridiculous, are also portrayed as cosmic beings, while Diana, Apollo, Iris, and Inexplicably Female Morpheus are regally unreal. Bacchus just seems like some dude on a donkey who is just as terrified of Zeus’s lightning bolts as the mortals. (Which, by the way, comes off like weird child abuse when you think about it.) It’d be interesting to know why that choice was made, but judging by the general carelessness with which the mythology is handled, I’d guess it was less of a statement vis à vis Bacchus’s relationship with mortals and more “a drunk guy falling off a tiny donkey is funny.”
I would be remiss in not mentioning Sunflower and Otika, the black centaurettes who were cut from Fantasia in the 60s. Mindlessly grinning servants to the other characters (Sunflower is first seen polishing a white centaurette’s hooves), they are drawn with the best bullshit stereotypes the 40s had to offer. Having seen the original footage, I can say that the movie is definitely better without them.8 Less obviously racist – but still obviously racist, oh my God – are Bacchus’s zebra centaurette handmaidens, who are also black and dressed in stereotypical “African” accessories. They’re actually quite cute, but come on, Disney. Zebras are black people dripping with pseudo-African stereotypes and pastel horses – the “normal” characters – are thus understood to be white? Boy, I’m sure glad we’ve moved past that particular brand of racism!9
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli: This is probably the second most iconic short in Fantasia after The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and deservedly so, because it’s adorable. The ostriches are particularly cute, lining up and stretching like real ballerinas. And I absolutely love Hyacinth Hippo. She holds her lines like a champ, and you can tell she knows she’s hot.10 For the most part I am untroubled by her relationship with Ben Ali Gator,11 since it’s a clear pas de deux in which she is enthusiastically participating, but the raucous end of the short is rather troubling. The other gators are far more violent than Ben, yanking painfully on the elephants’ trunks and riding the ostriches while using their bows as makeshift reins that are clearly choking them, and it’s a disappointingly assault-y end to a short that is otherwise very charming and playful.
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert: I found this short too terrifying to watch as a child. As an adult, Chernabog no longer strikes fear into my heart the way he used to,12 so – another blasphemous statement – this short just doesn’t do much for me. The animation is fantastic and extraordinarily creative, but the chill just isn’t there. And the Ave Maria section, while lovely, is long. Enough already!
Fun fact: The harpies have nipples! As does Chernabog. That’s how you know they’re evil.
So there you have it: Fantasia. I apologize for the fact that this was so rambly and deeply idiosyncratic, but with a slew of anthologies coming up soon, I fear that’s how these posts will go through much of the 40s. Feel free to angrily tell me how wrong I am about Chernabog in the comments!
- Did you know that the little one is named “Hop Low”? See, it sounds fakey Chinese, but it’s a hilarious pun! Uggggggggh. ↩
- Ha! Water pun! ↩
- Or, you know, stereotypes in general. ↩
- Unless you think that dinosaurs being devoured alive, struggling futilely in tar pits, and dying of thirst is Good Clean Family Fun. ↩
- Apparently it was supposed to continue to the Dawn of Man, but Disney decided not to so as to avoid offending the creationists any more than they already were. ↩
- It’s very similar to a shorter scene with mermaids in Peter Pan – unsurprisingly, as Moore animated both. Or at least part of both – he was killed in a car accident during the making of Peter Pan. ↩
- Trust me, the haphazard mixing of Greek and Roman names makes me just as crazy as it makes you. ↩
- To any Disney historians who want to cry at me about “preserving the original art,” untwist your panties – the original footage is safe in the vault with Song of the South, and if you really want to track this stuff down as an adult, you can. Preserving original art < preserving original racism, especially for the eyes of children. ↩
- Protip: If you don’t want to spend your evening being disappointed in humanity, don’t Google “Sunflower and Otika.” Also, I usually praise the John Grant Encyclopedia of Disney Characters in these posts, but if you get it, skip the Fantasia section – aside from basic factual errors, he engages in racist apologism to a vile degree re: Sunflower and Otika. And everywhere else in the book. ↩
- Mindy Aloff’s Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation has a fascinating anecdote about Hattie Noel, the mostly-forgotten vaudeville, film, and radio star who did some of the live action modeling for Hyacinth. While classical dancers Marge Champion and Tatiana Riabouchinska were the models for the ballet technique, Noel – plus-sized and African American – provided the physique as well as some touches of the lindy. Very little evidence survives of Noel’s participation, most of it oral, but Aloff does her best to reconstruct the context and determine whether Noel was treated like the talented performer she was or a source of ridicule. Sadly, Aloff is unable to draw a conclusion. ↩
- Though that “ethnic” pun name coupled with his sexual aggressiveness is…problematic, to say the least. ↩
- To me, the scariest Disney villain is Frollo because he’s so believable. Which is why I hate and fear that movie. But more on that when we get to it. ↩