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An In-Depth Analysis and Critique of the "Fantasia" Films, Part 1

There is a significant difference, to be sure, between Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. It's just tougher to put one's finger on exactly what it is. The easiest and more biased approach from some people would be to say, "Oh, well, one's just simply better." I, as you can gather, disagree wholeheartedly with such brush-off tactics, especially when we have been given films with pick'n'choose skit variations that allow individual viewers to like mere sections of the films without having to construct a full opinion of the films themselves. It is clear that in both cases these films are high achievements in animated art. So, the question remains, what's their core difference?
The answer came to me recently, and as I go section by section through both films, analyzing both their content and my opinion thereof, I hope my theory clarifies as much for you about the Fantasia films as it has for me. Consider the types of insults either of the two films tend to get: Fantasia/2000 is condemned for pandering and childishness, while Fantasia is marked down for being esoteric and boring. Neither true nor false, the criticisms reveal the truth about the nature of each one. At my college, we do not have separate theatre or dance departments, but rather they are combined into a single Theatre/Dance school. Fantasia/2000 is the theatre, and Fantasia is the dance.

Seems to click, doesn't it? Not that Fantasia is lacked for storytelling, nor is Fantasia/2000 remote to its music, but the approaches are significantly different. The later one is preoccupied with crafting an Aristotelian arc to each segment, while the earlier one merely celebrates putting animated images to music, even if unconnected via any sort of real story per se. I'll explain in greater detail as I get to the films: Fantasia for this week, Fantasia/2000 for next week.


Walt Disney, Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski view a segment of Fantasia as it is being set-up in the multi-plane camera.


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We start with "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", the most abstract segment of the bunch. It should be fairly clear that "Toccata"'s real purpose is to acquaint the audience with the inherently abstract core concept of Fantasia in general - a necessary first step, especially in 1940. It's very slowly paced, starting with a long section of footage of the musicians themselves. When we finally reach the animation itself, the shapes at first very directly resemble musical forms, like the bobbing heads of violin bows. It takes a while for the piece to leave the obvious references to reality and start envisioning its own images, but it eventually does. "Toccata" is akin to slowly entering cold water, gently and gradually easing yourself into the concept. It also is pure, abstract dance, the images moving clearly on the impulses of the music alone. Because "Toccata" took this first step, "Symphony No. 5" in Fantasia/2000 didn't have to. For my own feelings, I admire the piece for what it is, although it inspires little emotion in me outside of the music's own doing. My favorite moment is easily the three colored circles gliding to the French horns, their colors corresponding to the lights shone on the French horns earlier.

 

"The Nutcracker Suite" is probably the ultimate example of what I mean in Fantasia's predilection towards dance. Deems Taylor himself notes that the work is a series of dances, and thusly this segment is nothing more than that. It frames itself against the changes of seasons, but the true purpose is the celebration of the imagination inherent of animation being able to make ANYTHING do the dancing. Between fish, thistles, mushrooms, seed pods, and your general fairies, everything is endowed with the quality of dance, from the sultry wading of the white veilfish to the ballet of falling leaves. This piece is one of my favorites because it goes full-blast into the abandon that the Fantasia ideal offers, beautifying the music of Tchaikovsky more than the stage ballet ever could.

 

Everybody knows "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", and nearly everyone loves it, as do I; in fact, as one of Mickey's far lesser admirers, I maintain that this is his greatest achievement. Of course, this piece is both the most emblematic of the Fantasia name, and also the singular bridge between the two films. That is true twice over; not only is it featured in both films, but it is the ultimate combination of the sensibilities of theatre and dance as exemplified by either of the two films. It tells a very specific story, and the segment can be viewed in an entirely Aristotelian fashion. On the other hand, it has large sections to it that are just as much dance and abandonment as anything else. Mickey's leading of the enchanted broom on the march is a perfect dance, as is Mickey's entire dream sequence. It fits the tone of the piece to include dance in those moments, as they occur during Mickey's time of greatest joy in his power and control. Only once he realizes his grave mistake does the story really kick into high gear.

 

Sadly, it is disappointing to see "Rite of Spring" drop the energy so beautifully swirled up by "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Sad to say, but "Rite of Spring" is perhaps my least favorite segment between the two films. Part of my complaint lies in the issue of the music itself; this is hardly a favored piece of Stravinsky's for me. It's really quite long, and quite dull at that, and one is tempted not to fault the filmmakers too much for the piece of music inspiring little interest of imagery, especially in its opening parts. (The lava footage is interminable in seeming length.) On the other hand, I can at least censure the artists for not having the sense of editing with this piece that Fantasia/2000 has in spades. Shorter does not mean less effective, and since the real meat of the segment is the dinosaur stuff (especially the climactic fight), why spend so much time in the beginning? The dance of science is what we're seeing, and while it's a fine subject to choose, the real problem lies in the piece's joylessness. Its tone remains dreary as it trudges through the steps of the world's creation, like a bored schoolboy reading about that very subject. Seriousness is a virtue, but not at the expense of energy.

 

"The Pastoral Symphony" is a little better. It's a preening, showboating piece of work, filled with characters whom have little to do but pose suggestively or majestically. There's more life to the music and thus more life to the visuals, although the pastels can get monotonous after a time. The segment picks up more speed when Bacchus comes in halfway through, and "Pastoral" at least can boast over "Rite" that it has enough juice to get us there. There's some halfway-storytelling involved (the most prominent of which being the girl centaurs getting prettied up for the guys), but the thing becomes one big bacchanal when its namesake shows up, drunk out of his W.C. Fields nose and goofy donkey/unicorn. For Disney historians, check out the characterization of Zeus here compared with his later Hercules incarnation; in Fantasia, he's not only an unforgiving god, but a cruel and sadistic one - note the delight on his face when spying those he would attack.

 

There is little necessary to be said in defense of the "Dance of the Hours" being a dance in and of itself. One supposes that the caped crocodiles and the elephants with tutus made of bubbles would be enough proof of that. Of course, the real trick of the piece is not merely that these unlikely animals (ostriches, hippos, and the aforementioned elephants and crocodiles) would be dancing such a prestigious ballet, but that they would be doing it so seriously. Despite the fight over grapes and the many licked lizard lips at hippo flesh, they're all really serious about dancing. Humor, then, is not the absurd doing absurd things, but the absurd doing serious things. That's why the opening and ending moments are so crucial to the joke. It opens languishing on the beautiful dance hall that is to be inhabited, and the ends with the place falling to shambles. The old standards are torn down, because the supposedly unworthy had decided to dance there.

 

The final piece, "Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria", is often considered the penultimate example of animation creating a sense of horror and disturbance. In rewatching it, I did not come to an opposing opinion on the topic, but I found it amazing that such a result is stemmed from a segment that is, once again, primarily based in dance. Here, Chernabog summons the dead from their graves to do nothing more than dance crudely in his presence. His evil is obvious, we assume, although we see him do nothing of actual harm to anyone (we are to take it, I imagine, that the church bell had halted his very first attempt at such). In that, the real stars then are the minions, not Chernabog, for they are the ones interacting most sublimely (if the word can be used) to the music. There is no story here, nor any particular triumph over evil beyond it just hating the light. Such a struggle shall be saved for "The Firebird"; however, that's a thought for next week.

 


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on November 29, 2003

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