Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guest Review: Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia and its sequel are like nothing else Disney, or any other major American studio, has ever made or attempted and is today widely hailed as a pinnacle in animation. However, when it was released, though the critical reception was mostly positive, audiences were less than thrilled, in fact Walt Disney later said in an interview that Fantasia “nearly broke us”, but defended it as an “artistic masterpiece”. He is right.

Fantasia is an art film. There is no other way to describe it. It has no overall story, linear or non-linear, instead it is a series of vignettes with each one centered around a particular piece of music, each introduced by Deems Taylor with the music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. They are, with summaries, in order:
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach:
The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky:
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas: A sorcerer
Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig von Beethoven
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky & Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
The first two feature absolutely no plot or story and are largely images to fit the music, especially Toccata and Fugue, which is here played on the strings rather than the usual organ, where the visuals can only be described as “impressionistic” in that they give a visual “impression” in animation of the music you are hearing. You “see” the violin strokes, you “see” the music played. In The Nutcracker Suite you have mushrooms and flowers dancing to the various tunes you hear in the suite.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the most famous, with Mickey Mouse as titular apprentice to the sorcerer, Yen Sid (Hint: spell “Yen Sid” backwards). You probably know the story, the sorcerer having told the apprentice to fetch pales of water goes to bed leaving his magic hat behind. The apprentice then uses the hat to make the brooms do it for him but soon finds he can’t control it.
Rite of Spring uses Stravinsky’s most famous ballet, and one of my personal favorites, to tell the story of Earth from its birth in the cloud of dust around the sun and the volcanic eruptions of its early days to the ultimate rise and eventual extinction of the dinosaurs.

Pastoral Symphony features various “pastoral” creatures of Greek mythology such as centaurs and faun dancing and frolicking with the Greek god Bacchus in the day until Zeus appears and scatters the partying flock with his thunderbolts. This one is mostly light-hearted after the dark Rite of Spring.

Dance of the Hours, famous for providing the music for Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” is even more light-hearted and comical with dancing ostriches, hippos, and an alligator chasing his hippo, not because he wants to eat her but because he has fallen madly in love with her.
A Night on Bald Mountain & Ave Maria is the final one and tells of the slavic god Chernabog (read: Satan) calling the ghosts and demons to Bald Mountain where he holds a terrifying black mass until the morning church bells chase him away. Fantasia then ends on a chorus singing Schubert’s Ave Maria.
What is Good About It
The animation and the music. Each one is genius in its own way and will have you watching and re-watching again and again. From the stunning strings of Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor to the beautiful chorus at the end the music is fantastic and needs little praise. The presentation is fantastic whether its the dramatic death of the dinosaurs, the terrifying demon Chernabog on Bald Mountain, or the hopeful, heavenly chorus of Ave Maria that closes the movie out.

But splendid animation and music does not a great film make. The true genius of the movie is that it never tells you what to take from it. There is no dialogue and Deems Taylor’s narration only gives a basic outline of what you are going to see, so the interpretation of it is largely up to you. You are never told how to feel about the events of the movie. You are never explicitly told how to feel about the dinosaurs dying out. It is shown, it happens, and the emotional response is up to you.

This means you cannot watch it like a normal movie. You can’t listen to dialogue and say. You have to free your mind and let the movie, and its images, music, and emotions wash over you. You can’t watch it, you have to experience it.

If Snow White is prose, this is poetry.

I will acknowledge, however, that certain moments are rather dull, for example, the Nutcracker Suite can drag on too long. And the movie, as you might have guessed, may be too adult for young children. But its an “artistic masterpiece” and one that is definitely worth checking out.

19 comments:

Dave Olson said...

I saw Fantasia in a theater for an early '80s re-release. I liked it but it would be fair to say that, as a young teen, I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have. Oh, to have it released again on an Imax screen with full THX. That would worth the inflated ticket price. I'd even shell out for a large popcorn.

The VHS version looks horrible to my DVD-spoiled eyes, and the narration of Deems Taylor has been re-dubbed in a way that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger's lines in Hercules in New York sound like they were re-done by Prince Charles. I hope this has been fixed in the DVD or BluRay releases.

Kit said...

Dave,

I never noticed any problems on my DVD so maybe they were fixed.

Seeing it on Imax would be awesome!

Anthony said...

I saw Fantasia on video (which means I saw an edited version) decades ago when I was a kid. I thought it was interesting to watch, but I wasn't particularly fascinated by it probably because of the whole lack of narrative thing.

Tennessee Jed said...

I saw these when originally released, and also when segments aired on Disneyworld t.v. in the 50's (at least the original was.) They were a animation tour de force then. Of course as a kid growing up in Philly, we were very proud of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski (later Eugene Ormandy.) When re-released in the 80's, my generation went to see it with altered consciousness, thus starting the rumor that Walt had been a "coker." Still, I am aware of and respect the criticism that the segments work wonderfully independently, but can get a bit long when viewed at one sitting. It is a valid point, I think. Regardless, great review Tryanmax.

ScottDS said...

Dave -

I believe the Blu-Ray retains the dubbing. (I should know... I own it, but I haven't watched it in years!) The reason they had to dub Taylor was because they incorporated some previously missing footage into the film but the audio couldn't be found - their options were: a.) present the new footage with subtitles only, or b.) dub Taylor's entire performance.

And there are still a couple of shots that have been edited to remove some racial stereotypes in the Pastoral Symphony sequence.

ScottDS said...

Truth be told, Fantasia has always kinda dragged for me a little bit. I hate saying that because I love the music and the animation is beautiful. To be fair, I haven't watched it in a long time but some parts are definitely a struggle.

It may not have had the same impact, but I actually love Fantasia 2000. Same concept, but... shorter. The Rhapsody in Blue sequence with Hirschfeld-style drawings is wonderful, as is the Steadfast Tin Soldier segment, which introduced me to the work of Shostakovich. I even got misty-eyed when I found out how the story originally ended. (In the film, the soldier defeats the evil jack-in-the-box and gets the girl. In the original story, the soldier and the girl fall into the fireplace, melting into the shape of a heart.)

tryanmax said...

I wish I could take credit for this excellent review but, alas, it was not me. The tags suggest it was Kit. Great job!

I have the three DVD collectors edition with Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 (which is like Michael Bublé to the original's Frank Sinatra) and some strange third disc that I've never even popped in the player, I don't think. I suppose I'll have to get the Blue Ray one of these days. *sigh*

I think it's worth noting that, while Fantasia nearly broke Disney, the extremely spartan follow-up, Dumbo pulled them back, and not without bringing along some of Fantasia into the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence. Vestiges of Fantasia can be seen throughout the war years' and post-war package releases. And, of course, Alice in Wonderland released in '51 harkens back to Fantasia's abstractions quite a lot. So while audiences may not have understood Fantasia at its release, it still managed to leave a deep mark on animation.

Anonymous said...

Just as Star Trek inspired future scientists/engineers how many thousands of musical artists began that journey seeing Fantasia as a kid? I think The Firebird Suite from Fantasia 2000 is one of the most sublime works of animation in history.

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

That "strange" third disc is bonus material, documentaries, art galleries, etc., much of which was not carried over to the Blu-Ray for reasons only a studio bean-counter could comprehend.

Tennessee Jed said...

well great job, Kit. I guess I didn't look closely enough :)

Mike said...

You have to free your mind and let the movie, and its images, music, and emotions wash over you.

I read that and thought "I wonder if I should tell about the time I saw the movie in college?" then I read this:

Tennessee Jed: ...my generation went to see it with altered consciousness...

I enjoyed the movie, but I'm not sure just how much. I don't regret much in my life, even the bad and stupid things I've done because they were learning experiences. I do regret hurting people and esp. those I love and who love me and I particularly regret drinking that punch my dorm buddies gave me right before going to see The Exorcist and within the following week (still feeling the after effects), watching Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Jesus Christ Superstar. It was a strange time for a young man who had been raised in a non-religious home.

KRS said...

I saw the original Fantasia in the theaters sober. Apparently that was my mistake.

Taken as a series of vignettes in the way Kit suggests is the way to watch it - taken individually, each is kinda cool - but even that is jarred by the narration interruptions and the wildly divergent animation styles employed. For example, Micky just feels completely out of place among the other bits. There is no underlying visual theme, so it's full stop and start between each one. I'd have been happier if Porky had come on after each with a stuttering "T-t-t-that's all folks!"

Btw, I know he's Warner - t-t-t-that's what makes it funny ; )

I sincerely feel that F2000 is much better. The animation follows the music extremely well and the vignettes are not only great, but they seem to flow together much better. Plus, flying humpbacks will make almost any movie better. If I could watch humpbacks cross the skies above Shia LaBeouf, I'm sure he wouldn't bother me so much.

But F2000 also suffers from the narration. I would much rather flow through these vignettes uninterrupted.

Got my contrarian on today.

PikeBishop said...

Doesn't one of the scenes actually contain bare breasts on some mythological creatures?

My memory of the Sorcerer's Apprentice section is from a set of LPs my Dad bought me for Christmas one year. They were "Disney Songs and Stories" and they had the original songs from the great movies (Dumbo, Bednobs, Sleeping Beauty") with story narration from veteran character actor Dallas Mckinnon (the storekeeper on Daniel Boone to the voice of TV's Archie). There was one album side devoted to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." The story and the scenes of those living brooms terrified the living crap out of me. After listening to it once and reading along with the storybook, I was terrified. I don't think I listened to it again for over a year.

Kit said...

"Doesn't one of the scenes actually contain bare breasts on some mythological creatures?"

In the "Night on Bald Mountain" scene, yes. But its more terrifying than sexy.

Kit said...

KRS,

Its a movie not everyone will enjoy. The changes in style never felt jarring to me.
I've never seen Fantasia 2000, but its on my to-do list.

Kit said...

tyranmax,

I love Dumbo. I hope to review it sometime in the future!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Thanks for an excellent article! Sorry I haven't commented before this, but it was one of those days. I love Fantasia, but I love classical music too. So to me, this was a great chance to associate beautiful images with the music rather than looking for a cartoon. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this as a film.


By way of an announcement, tonight's film will be posted Thursday night instead of Wednesday. Sorry for the delay.

tryanmax said...

Kit, we may have to leg-wrestle for it, b/c I wanna review Dumbo, too!

Actually, I want to do more of an analysis. (I'd say more, but I don't want to give it away.) If you're more interested in a straight review, maybe we could coordinate, maybe release them back-to-back.

Feel free to email me. It's just my username @gmail.com

Kit said...

Tyranmax,

I sent you an email. My email is wkitjohnson@hotmail.com

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