Fantasia (1940)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Song & Dance | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Sequences involving evolution, an asexual fairy, centaur and cupid nudity, killing involving some nasty predators, and a cameo by scary old Satan.

As we all know, the music that plays in motion pictures is directly inspired by the moving images on the screen, often following the content and tone. We picture something like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, in which Neil Young played electric guitar while the film played in front of him, or the members of Pink Floyd when they put together Dark Side of the Moon to allegedly follow The Wizard of Oz. But it may surprise you, as it did me, that our most powerful responses in movies comes not from the visual, but the aural. So why does the music follow the images and not the other way around? Anyone who has given classical pieces their due, whether in concert or the privacy of their own home, knows that music can and does inspire images in our minds. Walt Disney knew this, and with Fantasia he sought to change the way we experienced music in cinema.

The movie is composed of, essentially, seven and a half short films animated to enhance the experience of hearing classic pieces of music. The first is an exhibition in color, landscapes, and weather. The second builds on what we first experienced with a ballet of fairies, fish, and flowers as the seasons pass. Another, an intermission of sorts, shows nothing more than the variations in a few instruments to the image of a single, vibrating line. This is followed by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, synched up with a mythological setting of unicorns, pan flutists, Pegasus kids, centaurs, cupids, Zeus, and hints of drunken beastiality and racism (since changed to be PC).

But the best sequences in the film Fantasia2are those I purposely neglected to mention. Perhaps the most well known of the movie’s shorts features a sorcerer and his apprentice, whose fame is no secret: it stars the infamous Mickey Mouse (redesigned for the film). Envious of his master’s powers, Mickey tries on his magical hat and animates a broomstick to handle his chores. Before he knows it, the castle is flooded and the brooms are cloning. The other popular sequence for younger viewers is the Dance of the Hours, an animated ballet with clumsy ostriches, prima donna hippos, “bubbly” pachyderms, and suave crocodiles. Personally, I prefer the sequences that accompany The Rite of Spring and Night on Bald Mountain. The former is a reproduction of evolution, as microscopic organisms become dinosaurs, which inevitably become extinct. I will always remember Night on Bald Mountain, which finishes the film. Even after going no less than a decade without seeing it a second time, this sequence immediately reintroduced my former feelings of horror as Lucifer unleashes bats, burns demons, and reanimates the dead. No need to worry, however, as church bells ring – making those conjured villains subside – and take us on a brief trip to heaven.

Walt Disney’s simple idea was to create images to accompany classical pieces in a visual interpretation. Almost like the world’s first music video. What’s particularly amusing about this feat – and, lets face it, considering the innovations, 60 animators, and no less than 11 directors, Fantasia may be the cinematic definition of “feat” – is the fact that these pieces were at the time almost exclusively heard in concert halls. With this, he created a realm beyond the highbrows for everyone to savor these pieces, which were in this medium conducted by Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

As far as accomplishments are concerned, yes, Fantasia was the first American film to use stereophonic sound. It also won two honorary Oscars for “outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures” and “for a new form of visualized music.” But Fantasia is more widely known as the only production that called for a process that Disney labeled “Fantasound,” a series of more than 60 speakers around the theater in what modern audiences would call surround sound. This didn’t turn out well, as many exhibitors refused its installation and those that did experienced a financial failure. The critical and box office reception forced Disney to stick to only commercial endeavors, and this would be his only attempt at artistic and technological bravado. He originally intended to re-release the film regularly, adding new segments in what could have been an original cult sensation. Instead of wearing fishnets and heels for Rocky Horror, imagine people waiting in line at arthouses with broomsticks and tutus. In a strange way, Walt eventually got his wish with Fantasia 2000, a version with five new pieces in a remake of sorts that was revamped with the introduction of IMAX (at that time is was only the second feature-length production made for those auditoriums).

Fantasia eventually received the reception it deserved, starting right around the re-release in 1970 when psychedelics rediscovered it. Sure, there are moments that make it unfortunately dated, and the fact that it lacks a traditional plot may not hold the average viewer’s attention on a consistent basis. Perhaps these items explain why Fantasia still has its critics, such as Premiere Magazine, which placed it among the 20 Most Overrated Movies of All Time. What sums it up best for me is a review by the near-impossible-to-please Bosley Crowther, who after the premiere criticized the length and “placed sounds,” and after clearing those two minor beefs, praised its overall presence as a “transcendent blessing.” Well-put recovery.

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