Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: Fantasia

If there is one Disney Animated Film that has seen more and different versions than any other, it would be Fantasia. Originally released in 1940 as a Roadshow Theatrical Release, which is kind of like a modern limited release except you had to reserve your seats way ahead of time. The film grew out of one of its more popular segments "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" which was to be a stand-alone short for the "Silly Symphonies" series. Oddly enough, because Mickey Mouse had been losing popularity to the likes of Donald Duck and Goofy, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was made as an attempt to rejuvenate Mickey. And I have to ask, does this strike anybody else as odd? Mickey Mouse was in trouble of vanishing into obscurity? The Mickey Mouse? I guess it worked, because he's one of the most recognizable characters of all time...

After adapting two fairy tales, Disney decided to do something entirely different with Fantasia. Instead of a single narrative, we're treated to a concert-on-film with visuals provided by Disney animators and their interpretations of the music. In that sense, it's hard to really review this film the way you would any other, so instead, I'm going to talk about the 1969 theatrical release.

Seriously, is anybody at all surprised at how popular this film was thirty years after its release? It was released in theaters in 1940, 1942, 1946, 1956, 1969, 1982 and 1985 and has since seen multiple home video releases. This film didn't turn a profit until 1969 when it turned a HUGE profit. I think the Disney marketing machine knew what it was doing then. Look at the poster:

"Let's go check out this 13th Floor Elevators Show! Oh, wait...Disney? Oh well, looks trippy enough. Get the bong."

But back to the actual film: this was one gutsy move on Walt Disney's part. He defined an art form with Snow White and then had pretty good critical (if not financial) success with Pinocchio so why, then, did he go all Radiohead's Kid A on his third film? Didn't he know he needed an OK Computer to bridge the gap? And as I put the Radiohead metaphor to bed, I want to say that he actually did have that middle piece, he just released it after Fantasia. It's called Dumbo and I'm reviewing it next.

So Disney makes the first experimental art-house concert animated film, broken up into eight segments:

1) Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Here we get live-action silhouettes of the orchestra against colored background (kind of cutting edge for 1940) which melds into colorful visual impressions. The idea was that since the music didn't come with a ready-made narrative (like many of the others), the animators would just kind of doodle. I'll bet in 1969 this was one of the more popular segments. In 1940, I'll bet it was kind of...odd.

2) Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite

Of course today, we know this as Christmas music. But back then, it was apparently not very popular and was associated with dancing plants/fungi.

3) Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice

This is the most popular and well-known segment of this film, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that every piece of promotional art ever made for this film besides the 1969 poster includes a picture of Mickey Mouse wearing the Sorcerer's Hat. This was the image Disney wanted associated with this film and it is the enduring image. And it's one of the best parts of the film as well, which I think can be attributed to the familiarity we have with Mickey as viewers. We're automatically invested in whatever happens to him, and what happens is that he meddles in things he shouldn't and gets in over his head. I'll bet you've got the tune in your head, right now. Don't you? You're humming it and imagining Mickey putting the broom to work and you're still humming it.

4) Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

It's funny to watch this one, because ideas of evolution and what caused the extinction of the Dinosaurs has changed since 1940, not to mention our understanding of Dinosaurs in general. Here we get the early stages of life on earth with single-celled organisms developing into more complex forms of life until we get the pinnacle of evolution, the T-Rex.

You Won't Fool The Children of the Revolution

Only the Dinosaurs look ridiculous in comparison to the way we depict them now; they move so goofy, and the Tyrannosaurus looks suspiciously like an overgrown malformed crocodile. And then instead of a meteor striking Earth, apparently just a bunch of volcanoes erupted simultaneously and killed off the Dinosaurs. Also...what does this have to do with The Rite of Spring, which was about Pagan rituals? Ah, whatever...

5) Meet the Soundtrack

We get a line on the screen which changes whenever we hear a new sound. They go through the entire orchestra but never once mention a Contrabass Sarrusophone. Lame.

6) Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

This was probably also a favorite of audiences who were tripping, because it has Unicorns and Centaurs and more than one Pegasus (what is the plural of Pegasus?) and also has Bacchus throwing a huge party which gets interrupted by a lightning bolt trigger-happy Zeus. So, you know...exactly what the Dinosaur segment should have been about. Only then there wouldn't have been any Dinosaurs, so...

This portion of the film is something modern audiences have NEVER seen in its original form. Why, do you ask? Because in the original there was one black female Centaur who worked as a servant for the white, blonde female Centaurs, doing menial tasks for them while they all got ready to frolic with the hot male centaurs. This character has not appeared in the film since before 1969, when she was cut out by an editor who cited it as an "appalling...racial stereotype." I can see why they would do that.

7) Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours

This is the one where Ostriches, Hippos, Elephants and Alligators all dance together with the end result of toppling the palace in which they are dancing. Years later, Disney would get a little more mileage out of this "Hippos are fat" joke by using it again in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

8) Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria

The demon Chernabog spends the night summoning evil spirits and restless souls to do his bidding, which apparently is just a whole lot of flying around a mountain top. And, before he can start his real evil plan, the Church bells ring and he calls off plans while he settles in for the day. We can only assume he does this every night and, until he learns how to get better organized, won't ever enact any actual evil. Or maybe he's counting on the church bells not ringing some morning. But imagine you're one of the tripped-out 1969 viewers. You've seen cool colors, dancing mushrooms, brooms put into slavery, Dinosaurs, half naked centaurs and hilariously mismatched cartoon animals ballet dancing, and now, probably just as you start coming down from your high "HOLY CRAP THE DEMON CHERNABOG!"

"Guys...tell me I'm not the only one seeing this..."

Scary, Disney. Real terrifying.

This film works because it's so different. It was a risk but it was worth it. Only, not at the time. It took years for people to appreciate this film the way Disney wanted it to be appreciated (and I'm not talking about hippies, but professional film critics and film historians, you know, people who used to be hippies). The original vision was for this film to be re-released every year, each time with some of the original segments but also with new ones. If it had immediately achieved the level of success it did thirty years later, Disney's vision might have come to fruition. But instead, we are left with this single dazzling wall of sight and sound.

There are a few problems, of course. The first section feels like it's running slow. To borrow a phrase I heard on the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, I kept waiting for the word "Buffering" to appear on the screen (to all of my older readers, that's an online video joke). And the arrangements were done by Leopold Stokowski, the conductor, and they are somewhat paired down from the original orchestrations of the pieces. Which probably doesn't matter to most people, but when you grew up in the house I grew up in, and played in an orchestra yourself, and in that orchestra while growing up in that house played some of the pieces of music found in Fantasia you actually do notice these things. I understand why it was done: first off, it's easier to record a smaller group than a larger one, especially at the time. But also, this had never been done before, and it was a massive financial gamble. Disney was probably looking for cost-cutting measures wherever he could find them. "Do we need thirty violinists? Can we get by with fifteen? Good." That sort of thing.

What's strange about this film, and about Pinocchio is that although neither was a great success at first, both of these films have weathered well through time and have become classics not only of animated film, but of film in general. Fantasia especially added another dimension to a medium still yet in its infancy. Without Fantasia we probably wouldn't have any of the Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes "Kill the Wabbit'" sung to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries style cartoons. And that, my friends, would be a terrible, horrible loss.

Also, the real T-Rex wanted to say something.

"Get it on/Bang a Gong/Get it On!"

Disclaimer about the Wikipedia article on Fantasia. Joke about Wikipedia's accuracy.


Molly said...

I think I saw this movie for the first time in... umm... well, it WAS the 70's... maybe 1974? It was at the Midnight Flicks at the Shady Oak Theater (RIP) in Clayton. Later, I bought the soundtrack on vinyl. When your dad saw that, he sneered at me. I finally know why. Thanks, son.

notawritersfather said...

I'll bet this would be even better if I knew what text I was missing behind the Amazon ad over the first paragraph!

Elliot said...

Umm...there shouldn't be any missing text. What browser are you using, dad? Because things look good for me in Firefox, Chrome and Explorer, though Explorer does make it look like there might be some missing text.

Anonymous said...

I found a vid with the black servant centaurs!