Each week, THN takes a look back at one of the Walt Disney Animated Classics. The ones that the Walt Disney Company showed in cinemas, the ones they’re most proud of, the ones that still cost a bloody fortune no matter how old they are. The really good ones get through more editions than the Star Wars trilogy, and that’s saying something.
This week, well, it’s Fantasia. This is going to be tricky.
1940/ 125 Minutes
Budget: $2.28 million
Box Office: $83,320,000
Directed by Samuel Armstrong [with others]
Fantasia actually began as a way of getting Mickey Mouse back in the limelight; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was originally intended to be an elaborate Silly Symphonies short. However, as production costs rose, Disney realised it wouldn’t make a profit, so made it the centrepiece of “The Concert Feature”, which later became known as “Fantasia.” The soundtrack was recorded using multiple audio channels and reproduced with “Fantasound”, a pioneering sound reproduction system that made Fantasia the first commercial film shown in stereophonic sound.
Unfortunately, Fantasia didn’t make a profit either, partly because of mixed critical reaction, and partly because the Second World War had cut off the lucrative European market, not to mention the cost of leasing theatres and installing equipment for the Fantasound. The public’s reaction was also mixed; after two (relatively) light and fluffy fairy tale features and countless lighthearted and comical shorts, Disney came along with the highbrow concept of abstract animation and, shudder, classical music.
Consequently, Fantasia has been through various reissues, each with modified, restored or even deleted elements. (See Blade Runner). Disney’s original idea of making Fantasia a rolling production, with new animated segments removed and replaced over time, never came to be. At least not until Walt’s nephew Roy co-produced Fantasia 2000 59 years later.
But, it wasn’t all in vain. Disney’s pioneering “Fantasound” technology effectively paved the way for stereo in movie theatres, and led to the development of today’s surround sound.
SYNOPSIS: (Oh, brother) Fantasia begins with the Philadelphia Orchestra coming in and tuning up, as music critic and composer Deems Taylor acts as Master of Ceremonies (Host). He goes on to explain the setup; different kinds of music are played with different kinds of animation, from the coherent to the abstract, the comical to the downright scary.
We start with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, which starts pretty simply; the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, is shown in silhouette as he conducts the orchestra. Each section of the orchestra gets a different colour, and as the music progresses and swells, the overlaid silhouettes and colours fade out into something not unlike the visualisations on Windows Media player when set to random.
Stay with me, people.
Next is The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, which dispenses with the standard ballet plot with scenes depicting the changing of seasons, performed in one form or another, by fairies, fish, dancing flowers, mushrooms and falling leaves. After the surrealism of Toccata and Fugue, this is actually quite coherent and not unlike some of Disney’s short films. Looking back, however, it is a little risqué; the fairies are depicted as nubile, and naked, young women, and the Mushrooms are… well, let’s just say they might not be deemed politically correct in this day and age. Ah-So.
The third segment of Fantasia is perhaps its most famous; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Paul Dukas, based on Goethe’s 1797 poem Der Zauberlehrling. This is the one everyone’s seen, even if they haven’t. It’s the one where Mickey Mouse nicks the Wizard’s hat and creates an army of walking brooms.
INTERESTING INTERLUDE: Originally, Dopey was supposed to be the star of the piece, but Walt Disney insisted that Mickey be given the role, to boost the little rat’s dwindling popularity.
Walt Disney himself actually appears in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, sort of; the scowl that the Sorcerer, Yen Sid (See what they did there?) gives his apprentice, after almost destroying the gaff, is modelled on the dirty look Disney himself would give animators who hadn’t cut the mustard.
Next up, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. This is the one with the Dinosaurs, showing the birth of life on Earth to various sections of the ballet score. It’s a rather bleak affair, with death and carnage all over the shop; after a long, drawn out and bloody fight between a Tyrannosaur (I think) and a Stegosaurus, the scene changes to pretty much everything dying of thirst through a sun-scorched primeval Earth.
After the Intermission (the only Disney movie to actually have one), there’s a short jam session amongst the orchestra while everyone gets settled, and then we’re “introduced” to the other hero of the movie, the Sound Track. This is arguably the best sequence of the film, and gives the audience a stylized example of how sound is rendered as waveforms to record the music for Fantasia. It’s a real testament to the talent and brilliance of Disney animators, as they’re able to give a simple squiggly line a
distinct personality as he’s coerced into “showing” the sounds made by various instruments.
Then it’s back to business with Beethoven’s The Pastoral Symphony, or Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68 “Pastorale” if you prefer. It basically shows a day in the life of Ancient Greek Mythology, with a family of Pegasi foals learning to fly, and then a group of cupids getting some Centaur fillies ready for a big party with the guys, and Bacchus, the god of wine. The party’s in full swing when Zeus decides to crash the party, raining down lightning bolts and causing all manner of chaos, before taking a nap.
Much like the Nutcracker Suite, there are a few characters in this one that aren’t exactly PC. Bacchus, the tubby alcoholic demigod, is flanked by a pair of “black” Centaurs, who are African Amazon up top, Zebra down below. Which makes sense when you think about it and you could just about get away with today, Sunflower, however, is a little harder to excuse.
Most people who have seen Fantasia will never have known, but Sunflower is a centaur “servant”. To be blunt, she’s half stereotypical black girl, half donkey.
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli is where it starts getting really bizarre. It’s a comic ballet in four sections: Madame Upanova and her ostriches symbolise Morning; they wake up and fight over a fruit basket, dropping some grapes into a pool of water, out of which rises Hyacinth Hippo, whose servants arrive to attend to before her Afternoon nap. While she sleeps, Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe show up and dick about for the Evening, before being blown away (don’t ask) leaving Hyacinth, still asleep, in the middle of the courtyard. As Night descends, so does Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators. (Top marks for these names, guys, I mean really.)
The finale finds all of the characters dancing together, until their palace collapses in a massive heap.
Last, but by no means least, Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert. This is the one where everything goes to hell. Literally.
The demon Chernabog summons up a host of evil spirits and restless souls from their graves, basically to torture the fuck out of them. Like a sadistic kid playing Spore, Chernabog creates and destroys at will, cherning out ever more grotesque monsters, until they’re driven back into their hellholes by the ringing of a church bell. As the demons return to their slumber, a line of monks (the only humans to appear in any animated sequence) walk with lighted torches through the forest to a ruined cathedral, as the light of dawn symbolises the cleansing of a world tainted by evil. Or something.
Now, this is where things get a little tricky. Fantasia as a film is so different and avant-garde from the rest of Disney’s canon, that it’s almost impossible to score with the same system. So we’ll just muddle through and hope for the best.
In a way. each segment can be seen as having its own “hero”, be it Leopold himself in Toccata and Fugue or Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Personally, I’m inclined to include the Sound Track itself as the real hero, as it effectively sums up the concept of Fantasia.
Gigantic Tyranosaur, anyone? Whatever science might say about them now, back in the day they were the business. Do we count Zeus? He’s not evil as such, just a bit of a douche. Ben Ali Gator on the other hand comes across as a lecherous stalker, kidnapper, etc, but who are we kidding, Fantasia has Chernabog. He might not be the actual Devil, but he may as well be.
THEIR FATE? Assuming it’s the same one, the Tyrannosaur dies of thirst/starvation/exposure just like everything else in that segment. Zeus just goes back to bed. Ben Ali Gator, not sure. Chernabog is driven back into his mountain by… Christianity?
The movie is littered with incidental characters on both sides, ranging from the cupids to the fairies, the Greek gods Hephaestus and Bacchus through to a little dino sneaking an egg off a Brachiosaur.
Plenty. Aside from the relentless, sinister marching of Mickey’s accidental Broom Army, there’s kids in peril, a giant lizard smackdown, the earth itself being torn apart by primeval force, it climaxes with an almost literal descent into Hell Itself.
It’s more about the appreciation of music and a glimpse into the imagination – of Disney animators, anyway- but it does serve as a “gateway” of sorts to the worlds of classical music.
From Mickey, however, we do learn an important lesson; don’t mess about with your boss’ gear, especially if you haven’t read the manual.
While it may not have been the cash cow Disney was hoping for, it did lead to some technical advances in cinema sound. It’s been preserved in the National Film Registry (along with Pinocchio and Snow White), and has – so it’s said – to be the film of choice when indulging in the narcotic of your choice.
FINAL SCORE 42/53
(By about March we should have enough movies on this list to bother with a scoreboard.)
Any thoughts, questions, complaints? As the Candlestick said, “Be our guest”.
Sources: disney.wikia, IMDb