DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of the Walt Disney Corporation unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.
Let me give you a sample of some of the comments I’ve been getting on Facebook in anticipation of this review.
“I look forward to reading what you make of Fantasia. The first film I saw in the cinema and still one of my favourites…”
“Looking forward to Fantasia. Changed my life; the Rite of Spring is still my favourite piece of music ever.”
“The saddest day of my life was when our copy of Fantasia got stuck in the VCR.”
“That movie got me into music!”
“I must have watched Fantasia a hundred times when I was a kid…”
“OMG FANTASIA IS THE GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME AND IF ANYONE WERE TO EVER SAY ANYTHING MEAN ABOUT IT I WOULD KILL MYSELF!!!”
Oh-ho-ho-hokay. Well, that’s wonderful. Really. I am just so gratified that this groundbreaking, unique and artistically vital film has such a strong and devoted following and I’m definitely not stalling for time because I’m terrified of admitting to you that…I…don’t…really…like…it.
Sorry. Sorry. Really. I am. I’m sorry. Does this mean that I think it’s a bad film? No, absolutely not. In many ways, for me, Disney is like Shakespeare. There are plenty of Shakespeare’s plays I don’t like, or don’t enjoy. That said, I recognise that Shakespeare on his worst day is still better than pretty much any other writer in human history, and even his weakest play is a serious piece of art worthy of admiration.
So yeah, I may not enjoy Fantasia, but we are a long, long way from the day when I will look at a Disney movie and actually say “Okay. This is a turd.” Although that day will certainly come.
So if you love this movie, good for you. If you think I’m an uneducated troglodyte for not loving it, you may well be right and that sure as hell would explain this massive forehead and my inability to master fire and stone tools. But at least let me explain why I don’t like it. Partially, I think it comes down to the kind of art I’m drawn towards. And I don’t mean style or tone, I’m talking actual media. I don’t usually go to museums, and I rarely go to concerts. I’m not what you’d call overly enthused by painting, scultpure or even music that doesn’t have some kind of vocal or lyrical element. I do, however, go to the theatre on a regular basis, read approximately a rainforest’s worth of books every year and love film with the passion of a jealous Greek. My point is, that the types of art I am drawn to tend to be less visual and more narrative based. I love me a good story, is what I’m saying. I adore well written dialogue and well fleshed out characters, and while I appreciate music it’s really more as a tool to establish mood and atmosphere than for it’s own sake. Now, the interesting thing about Disney movies is that they usually cater to both camps. I can go to a Disney movie with a friend, and enjoy it for the charming characterisations, the great gags, the heart, the emotion, the story. While my friend, who we’ll call Percy Higginbotham McHighbrow…
Well he’s there just soaking up the gorgeous artwork, the musical score, the fluid animation, all that good stuff. But we’re both happy, basically. Now, my problem with Fantasia is that Disney seems to have remembered to make a movie for Percy, but not for me.
Okay, so a little background. In 1940, Disney released not one, but two animated motion pictures. The first, of course, was Pinocchio, which was kind of like Jesus, if Jesus was an animated film.
And the second was Fantasia. Fantasia originally started out as an extra length, big budget cartoon short set to classical music called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in order to give Mickey Mouse’s flagging popularity a boost.
However once Leopold Stokowski, the legendary conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, came on board, the project grew and grew until finally it became not one short but eight, and no longer an attempt to revive the popularity of one cartoon character, but an effort to create an entirely new art form. Disney truly believed that Fantasia was the start of something entirely new, a new way of appreciating both animation and music that would enhance the experience of both. (One famous story has him watching the early rushes of The Pastoral Symphony sequence and declaring “This’ll make Beethoven!”) Deems Taylor, the composer and music critic who narrates each sequence, refers to Fantasia as “this new form of entertainment” in his introduction, and Disney intended the movie to be re-released every few years, with some new sequences added, and old classics retained or dropped as time went on. Instead, the movie remains a once-off oddity (the 2000 sequel notwithstanding) and it gave Disney his first bona-fide flop. No, this movie did not simply “perform disappointingly” like Pinocchio, it flopped. Why was that? Well, there was the old problem of Europe just not going to the movies.
Then there was the problem that, despite doing quite good business when compared to the rest of the market, the movie just cost so much to make what with the orchestra, and Disney’s insistence on the best animators and animation techniques and, oh yeah, actually inventing stereo so that audiences could properly appreciate the music…well, there was just no way it was ever going to make back it’s money unless it was a hit on the scale of Snow White. Which it wasn’t. Which brings us to the last problem, a problem of what these days we would call branding.
See, while Disney saw himself as being all about this:
America still associated him with this:
So, let’s just imagine that you’re an ordinary rube in 1940 who’s brought his kids to see this latest talkie by that Walt Disney feller. You know the guy. He does those funny mouse cartoons. And he did that movie a while back with the broad and the seven midgits. Real swell stuff, how does he get the drawings to move like that? Anyways, the kids love ’em.
And then, this guy walks out.
“How do you do? My name is Deems Taylor, and it’s my very pleasant duty to welcome you here on behalf of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and all the other artists and musicians whose combined talents went into the creation of this new form of entertainment, “Fantasia”. What you’re going to see are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good. Now there are three kinds of music on this “Fantasia” program. 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. Now, the number that opens our “Fantasia” program, the “Toccata and Fugue”, is music of this third kind, what we call “absolute music”…”
Imagine if you will, you set your kids down in front of Dora the Explorer and the episode begins with Dora reciting Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech.
This is not how you begin a children’s movie. Now, Disney knew more about making children’s movies than you or I ever will, so we can assume that the only reason he chose this way to open his film was because it is not a children’s movie. This movie is not for kids. This is for very serious grownups. This movie is Art.
And I think that’s what sunk it. People went to a movie made by the funny mouse cartoon guy and they got the cinematic equivalent of being told to eat your vegetables.
And so it flopped. Disney was devastated. Coupled with the disappointing box-office for Pinocchio, and all in all 1940 was a pretty lousy year for him.
First up is Bach’s Toccata and Fuge in D Minor and for my money it’s easily the weakest of all eight segments. It’s just a series of abstract images set to the music and it’s dull. Yes. It is. You know it is. Don’t lie. The images aren’t even particularly interesting and there’s nothing to hold your attention. It’s pretty, but that’s about it it. It’s like watching a screensaver. Next.
Tchaikovsky’sNutcracker Suite. Okay, quick question. Am I the only one that finds the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies more sinister than charming? Like, on the surface it’s sweet but that’s just a ruse because behind you, creeping up the stairs is a giant spider tip-toeing on all eight legs or a creepy clown or even maybe a OH GOD JESUS NO…
FUCK! MY! LIFE!
Anyway. Each dance is enacted by a sucession of fairies, flowers, plants, mushrooms and sexy fish…
And it is genuinely beautiful but that’s really all I have to say on it other than to mention the rather regrettable racist imagery.
Next is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, probably the most famous of all the shorts. Micky Mouse shows why he’s best used as a silent character, with his appealing design and fluid animation integrating seamlessly into the music. There is a reason that almost no-one nowadays hears this piece of music without picturing Micky.
Rite of Spring by Stravinsky is another of the stronger shorts, showing the history of the Earth from it’s cooling to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs themselves are not particularly memorable as characters but the sequence does conjure a very evocative mood of dinosaurs travelling across a barren, rocky, desolation in seemingly unending twilight trying to avoid predators all while being cast in this weird orangey light…
Yeah, I was actually a little taken aback at just how blatantly Don Bluth’s 1988 classic The Land Before Time borrows from this sequence. By the time the T-Rex appeared I half expected to hear someone screaming “Sharp-Tooth!” And, I’m sorry, but I can’t let his go. I was ten years old when Jurassic Park came out. Which means that I made it my business to know everything there is to know about dinosaurs. This short has a stegosaurous fighting a T-Rex. The former of those is a Jurassic dinosaur, the latter is from the Cretaceous. This might seem picky, but let me put it in context: If human beings in the distant future make a historical movie depicting Barack Obama riding into battle against Osama Bin Laden on a sabretooth tiger, it will be 11,857,143 times less anachronistic than that dinsoaur fight. Next!
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Like the Nutcracker Suite, plenty pretty but not much to say beyond that. Pegasuses and Centaurs frolic around merrily until Zeus gets bored and starts shooting lightning bolts at them for shits and giggles. Also, there are some annoying continuity errors in this one. A Pegasus colt dives into the water blue and comes up pink. That kinda stuff.
Then it’s Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, a silly, pleasant little number where ostriches, elephants, hippos and alligators dance a ballet. I just get a kick out of imagining Walt watching this sequence:
And that’s it. So, join me next month when I review…
Oh yeah. You probably want to hear about this guy:
Okay, even as someone who doesn’t really like Fantasia, I throw up my hands and gladly admit the awesomeness of Night on Bald Mountain. The demon (named Chernabog by the animator, but flat out called Satan by Deems Taylor and Walt himself.) looms over a village at the foot of Bald Mountain and raises the dead and torments them for his own amusement, all to the diabolic brilliance of Mussorgsky’s music. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, these images and this music are now inextricable in many peoples’ minds. I cannot praise the design of Chernabog enough. I love the way, in the first few seconds of the short, he spreads his wings and gives a king of shrug, like he’s loosening himself up before a fight. It’s such a simple, yet badass motion. I also love the name Chernabog which sounds like it should be shouted by an injured Russian sailor from a hospital bed.
And so at last, the movie ends with Chernabog being driven away by the power of heaven (or Schubert’s Ave Maria if you prefer) and the profane gives way before the divine, a perfect ending to an imperfect film.
Beautiful, yes. But this is nonetheless a step backwards from the greatness that was achieved with Pinocchio. And there are some noticeable continuity gaffes in the Pastoral Symphony.
The Leads: 12/20
Jeez, this is a tough one. Who is the main character? Can you even say there is one? Screw it, Mickey Mouse.
The Villain: 15/20
Chernabog. He doesn’t really do anything. He’s only onscreen for a few minutes. He has no lines. But sheer menace will get you so far.
Supporting Characters: 11/20
Yeah, I know this seems harsh. But I’ll be honest, a lack of interesting character design is one of this movie’s major flaws for me. Outside of Chernabog and Mickey, a lot of the characters are seriously bland looking.
The Music: 20/20
Yeah. It has some of the all time greatest pieces of classical music performed bythe Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted by Leopold frickin’ Stokowski. What do you think?
Final Score: 75%
Next Week: The Unshaved Mouse has been a loyal union man all his life. But his son needs to go to ballet school, so he’ll be crossing the picket line to review Dumbo.