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"Fantasia": Animation Fantastique

by on November 30, 2010

The Walt Disney quote on the packaging is truth in advertising: Fantasia is timeless. Seventy years after its debut in 1940, no production has brought animation and truly great music together in such a perfect synthesis.

Fantasia was an experimental project of the best sort, an earnest attempt by Walt Disney and his company to create a “concert feature” for people to enjoy that would be revised and updated over the years with new music and new set pieces. Nothing like it had been done before. Indeed, the entire film is an outgrowth of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which was originally intended as a lengthy Silly Symphony starring Mickey Mouse before the ambition and cost of the short grew to the point that it was decided to make it a part of a much longer project. Reflecting a desire to showcase some of the best music available, the entire film is scored to classical music masterfully performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and directed by accomplished conductor Leopold Stokowski. (That’s the “Leopold” satirized by Bugs Bunny in “Long-Haired Hare,” by the way.) The pedigree is impressive: Bach (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a), Paul Dukas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring), Beethoven (Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68 “Pastorale”), Ponchielli (Dance Of The Hours), Mussorgsky (Night on Bald Mountain), and Schubert (Ave Maria).

As grand as these selections are, what makes Fantasia so impressive to this day is the animation that accompanies them. The brilliant men that brought this thing to life were masters of subtlety and timing. Take the first segment set to Bach, arguably the most subdued part of the film, where the very water and the red light reflecting upon it are essentially reacting to the notes. On another front The Nutcracker Suite brings us dancing mushrooms and flowers, joyful faeries and swimming fish. You’d think that all this and more would be plenty to grab one’s attention, but nature itself is just as much a part of the show. The falling winter snowflakes are a case in point; they are a small part of the segment and yet aesthetically pleasing and more detailed than any other representation I have seen. With Fantasia, noticing such minute details is as much a part of the fun as anything else. It’s the joy of observing art.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is probably the most iconic part of the film, and perhaps for good reason. Besides the fact that it stars Disney’s flagship character, this part indulges in whimsical fun in particular as Apprentice Mickey lets a little power go to his head all too quickly. One moment he’s enchanting a magical broom to do a simple chore for him, the next Dukas’s music peaks while Mickey dreams of making the oceans and heavens themselves obey his every whim before he awakens to a terrible situation that he makes worse until his master intervenes. The mood shifts quickly in “The Rite of Spring,” which starts with a serene trip through the cosmos until we arrive at a prehistoric Earth characterized by active volcanoes spewing lifelike smoke and vibrantly red, bubbling magma. The following act is essentially the evolutionary process condensed into a precious few minutes; we start with mere amoeba and work up to dinosaurs walking the Earth, followed by their extinction and the genesis of the planet’s next era. The dinosaurs, incidentally, are brought to life with surprising credibility. Nowhere is this more evident than the moment where a Stegosaurus fights a doomed battle against a hungry T-Rex, aptly demonstrating the proverbial law of the jungle. In contrast to the fantastic nature of most of the film, the scene is primal and realistic—rather like the segment itself.

In contrast, “The Pastoral Symphony” dives right into the mythical realm with its herd of Pegasuses and Centaurs frolicking in the idyllic vistas surrounding Mount Olympus. The highlight here definitely comes toward the end, where the Centaurs’ playful courtship is cut short by a brutal storm brought on by Zeus himself. Yet the creatures endure and a new day dawns, in the same spirit that new life followed calamity in the prior segment. The storm offers opportunities for some truly evocative visuals, not the least of which being the silhouettes of centaur dashing for cover while a lone creature rallies the others to safety with his horn. It must be noted here that the film is not entirely uncut; in this release you will not see the maidservant “Sunflower,” a black-skinned centaurette grooming the others. While the original edit in 1960 cut footage and thereby disrupted the flow of the music, today image cropping does the job and keeps the presentation well intact. This said, some may object to the persistent editing of Sunflower citing artistic integrity or opposing a denial of the past. As to that, I am content to cite the words of Disney Historian Brian Sibley during the film’s audio commentary: “Whilst there is no excusing it, we can recognize that this regrettable characterization was very much of its time. And it’s better that we acknowledge the history but do so, perhaps, without perpetuating the image, which can anyway be found in scholarly animation books and collections.” “Dance Of The Hours” takes a turn for the whimsical again: what’s not to like about the absurd sight of an alligator attempting to dance with a hippo?

The best may come last with “Night On Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria,” which are blended together to serve as a single piece. The former stars the great demon Chernabog, and through him it gives form to evil even more easily than it brought nature and myth to vivid life earlier in the film. No less an authority than Walt Disney once identified him as “Satan himself”, and the astonishing thing is that the character has sufficient presence and menace to pull off the comparison. From his high mountain he raises every manner of evil thing from a graveyard, all of which are like literal playthings in his hands. As if his design weren’t enough, yet again the creative team applies light in just the right way to highlight his terrible visage. In contrast to the harrowing and compelling display the sublime procession depicted by “Ave Maria” is almost anticlimactic, and yet it feels right. The darkness is immense, terrifying, and seemingly all-consuming. Yet it is driven off by simple things: by morning’s light, by the sound of a church bell, by a line of normal people headed for its source—a cathedral—without fear. Chernabog rules the damned only, and not those that choose not to fear what he represents.

Fantasia 2000 is presented in this collection as well. For any who might not know, the film is almost entirely a new composition, including only “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the original Fantasia. The classical music does return via a wonderful performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which performs the works of Beethoven, Ottorino Respighi, George Gershwin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Camille Saint-Saens, Sir Edward Elgar, and Igor Stravinsky. It’s easy to overlook this film in favor of the original, but this would be a shame; there is some excellent work to be found here. The opening scene, scored to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, is first a dazzling light show and later a pleasing symphony of color that serves as a more compelling opening than what Fantasia had. The third segment, “Rhapsody in Blue,” is a crowning achievement that depicts city life in Depression-era America. Its animation style is both striking and cartoonish; its timing and execution is well done enough that one is left feeling that it was meant to be a Fantasia short all along. What I particularly appreciate is the way it juggles the story of a diverse group of characters without missing a beat: an intrepid and cheerful construction worker, a frustrated rich husband, an unemployed man, and a little girl with loving parents but a strict nanny. This short is perfection. Also especially worthy of praise is the ending “Firebird Suite,” which stars a lively forest sprite and a deer that recalls the stags of Bambi more than a little bit. The sprite herself is poetry in motion and beautiful as nature itself, often flowing through the scenery and across the sky as though she were like water. The short’s narrative hews closely to the themes of the original Fantasia: nature is laid to waste by a being of fire, but with the stag’s help the sprite realizes that there is hope and life can begin anew.

There’s even a lot to like in the interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, where the one-legged title character rescues a lovely doll from the unwanted advances of a sinister toybox. The other segments are more acceptable than exceptional. “Pines of Rome” features flying whales and is very appealing to look at, but it doesn’t impress the way Fantasia does at its best; it could have used more activity on the screen or a shorter running time. “Carnival of the Animals” stars a pack of graceful flamingos put out of sorts by a yo-yo-loving comrade. The absurd concept is amusing and certainly Disneyesque, but other parts of the film stand out more. “Pomp and Circumstance” puts Donald Duck aboard Noah’s Ark and is actually rather charming; Donald is separated from Daisy during the great flood and both believe the other is gone until a heartwarming reunion at the end. That said, there is perhaps a bit too much focus on Donald’s admittedly fun hijinks rather than the grand setting he finds himself in. The flaw of Fantasia 2000, such as it is, is that everything here is rather loosely connected. None of the new parts particularly complement each other, so the production doesn’t embrace a broad theme or idea as the original did. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable experience that puts no small amount of admirable talent on display. One can only hope that Disney will one day have the guts to try something like this again, hopefully with ambition to match the talent.

The collection’s extras are not the most impressive that have been presented in a Disney release, but there is a lot to like here. The audio commentaries for both movies are quite nice, although I have to give the nod to the Fantasia commentary by Brian Sibley over the Fantasia 2000 commentary with executive producer Roy Disney, conductor James Levine, and producer Don Ernst. Sibley is a treasure trove of knowledge that discusses the individuals behind every animated segment, at times even getting specific enough to explain exactly who drew a particular character. The techniques behind many visual effects are discussed as well, which really helps hammer home what a thorough and painstaking effort production must have been. For animation buffs and serious fans, the extra is a must. The Fantasia Blu-Ray disc includes an interactive art gallery, which is about what you’d expect; I’d personally rather see the gorgeous artwork in motion. Another extra offers a short but sweet tour of the Disney Family Museum, which is not directly related to Fantasia but still a subject of interest for those that want to hear more about Disney history or from Disney family members themselves. Finally the extra “The Schultheis Notebook” discusses the recent discovery of the notebook that was called the “rosetta stone” of animation techniques used for the film. The history of it all is interesting, although fans interested in the techniques themselves can learn many of the details in the audio commentary.

The Fantasia 2000 disc notably contains the animated short Destino, a collaboration between Walt Disney and the great artist Salvador Dali. Though the project wasn’t finished it was ultimately completed later, qualifying for an Oscar nomination in 2003. It’s an interesting piece of work, albeit a surreal one—I’m still processing it a bit. Also here is the documentary “Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino”, which runs quite long since it begins the story at Walt Disney’s childhood. This means that there’s plenty of history packed into the presentation though, so those who aren’t already animation buffs are likely to find much of interest. But the most fascinating extra here by far is “Musicana”, which discusses a slew of ideas that were rejected for a new Fantasia project long before Fantasia 2000 came along. This offers much more than talking heads; viewers get to see the considerable concept artwork that exists for these old ideas. It’s impossible to watch this and not feel some regret for what might have been in at least one case or two.

With all of this material present along with a typically fantastic high definition presentation, this release of Fantasia is certain to be the definitive release for a very long time to come. Disney aficionados should embrace it, any animation lover ought to own it, any newcomer will benefit from owning a glorious piece of cinema history. This one is not to be missed.

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