Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Walt Disney, part III: Serious Symphony


FANTASIA

One of the most ambitious cinematic endeavors of all time, Fantasia is the masterpiece of Disney's Golden Age, and perhaps the greatest and most successful experiment in animation attempted by anyone in any age.

1940
"Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor" and "The Nutcracker Suite" directed by Samuel Armstrong; "The Sorceror's Apprentice" directed by James Algar; "Rite of Spring" directed by Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield; "Meet the Soundtrack" directed by David Hand and Ben Sharpsteen; "The Pastoral Symphony" directed by Jim Handley and Hamilton Luske; "Dance of the Hours" directed by Norman Ferguson and Thornton Hee; "Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" directed by Wilfred Jackson
With Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor, and Walt Disney

Spoiler alert: inapplicable


Fantasia has a kind of stupid origin story, and this is fitting, for it was a reckless thing, from start to finish.  The way the story goes is this: following the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney had set his studio to the monumental task of a second animated feature—which turned out to be Pinocchio, released in February 1940 and ultimately losing the studio about a million bucks.  But even as Pinocchio began its tortured development process, Walt's thoughts turned inexorably to the one who'd brung him, that little mental doodle he'd co-created alongside Ub Iwerks, who'd saved Walt's career during the hard times of the 20s, and upon whom he'd founded an animation empire—Mickey Mouse.  In recent years Mickey had become a little old hat.  Perhaps audiences had tired of watching a faintly-creepy cartoon rodent be zany for ten minutes a clip.

Walt resolved to bring his star, his alter ego, back into the limelight—or at least give him the send-off he'd richly earned.  He did something like both, calling it "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."  A double-length short intended to slot into Disney's Silly Symphonies series, "Apprentice" was destined to become the Mickey cartoon to beat them all, the work that would define the character for the next eighty years, and, notwithstanding his merchandising ubiquity, be the biggest thing people remember about him.  "Apprentice" is certainly a funny cartoon, but Walt ensured that it wouldn't be just another piece of vaudeville; it would be a work of great ambition, extraordinary craft, and mythic power.  The problem was, ambition, craft, and myth turned out to have a price tag upwards of $125,000.  Eventually, Walt's brother and business manager, Roy, noticed that this was an absurd amount of money to spend on a short film, and that, on the basis of how shorts were sold (and how math worked), it was effectively impossible for it to ever recoup anywhere near its budget unless it was integrated into a feature that their company could profit from directly.  Walt agreed with his brother immediately... and made a movie that cost even more per minute than "Apprentice" had.

That movie was to grow from the collaboration that had played its part in making "Apprentice" so epic in the first place, which had begun when Walt, either by coincidence or by contrivance, happened to meet Leopold Stokowski, the famed maverick conductor.  When Stokowski said he'd like to work on something with Walt, Walt said he already had just the thing: a dialogue-free Mickey short based on the Paul Dukas orchestral piece, based in turn on the Johann von Goethe poem, and that he couldn't think of anything nicer than for Stokowski to arrange and conduct it.  Stokowski did, and when Walt came back to tell Stokowski that his mean big brother was forcing him to make a whole movie based on the same premise of classical music matched with ridiculously-expensive, groundbreaking animation, he asked if Stokowski would like to help with that, too.  Unsurprisingly, the conductor said yes.  Thus did The Concert Feature begin its life—finally receiving its official title of Fantasia at Stokowski's instigation not long before it was finished, and only after several hundred other, terrible suggestions from the Disney staff (such as Highbrowski by Stokowski) were rejected.  It took but 18 months, a remarkably short span for an animated film then or now, let alone one of Fantasia's exacting construction.  There were practical reasons for this—the workflow was perhaps more efficient than most of Disney's Golden Age films, and the absence of dialogue meant, of course, that dialogue neither had to be recorded or animated—but I like to think that the biggest factor was that the passion that had surged through Walt crackled down through all his collaborators, too.  For, without a doubt, that passion shows in every glorious frame of their work.


Yet Stokowski's involvement, and the classical music anthology concept that had lured him, ultimately put Disney on the path of most resistance after all: for one thing, there was the frankly surprising amount of money which Stokowski cost (or, rather, which recording Stokowski's chosen Philadelphia Orchestra cost, since Stokowski himself had deigned to work for Walt for cheap); for another, even some of the music itself cost a non-trivial amount of money (Igor Stravinsky was still alive, his works still under copyright, and he not only got six grand for "Rite of Spring," but the priceless opportunity to shit on the people paying him).  Above all, either Stokowski convinced Walt, or they came to the conclusion together, that Fantasia would be the perfect vehicle for (and suffer in the absence of) stereophonic surround sound—something that did not exist until Walt told his engineers to invent it, dubbing it "Fantasound."  The consequence of Walt and Stokowski's delegated mad science was that Fantasia would cost any theater that showed it tens of thousands of dollars—upfront.  Disney's distributor RKO, aghast at the obvious implications of this—nobody would show Fantasia—dropped the picture, forcing Disney to release it themselves, which they did in all of thirteen lucky theaters across America, refitted for Fantasound at Disney's expense.  So, in the end, the overbudget short that couldn't possibly make its money back became the overbudget feature film that couldn't possibly make its money back.  And it didn't, and it wouldn't, till after both Walt and Roy were dead.

Whereas in early 1941, I suspect Roy routinely considered hastening both those sad days.

Fantasia did extremely well in its thirteen-theater roadshow, at least on those rather reduced terms; it did less well when Walt, crawling back to RKO in 1942, permitted his distributor to give it a general release in mono and, worse than that, with a series of gutting excisions that reduced its 125 minute runtime to 80.  Of course, by this point, Walt had no choice.  Thanks to the massive box office failure of Pinocchio, the even more massive box office failure of Fantasia, and the closure of every box office in continental Europe as Walt attempted to release two of the most expensive movies ever made into a world riven by war, Disney was about to undergo a painful financial contraction that led to a decade-long flirtation with bankruptcy—and, in the nearer term, a mutiny of very dissatisfied employees.

But that's for next time, and it's entirely likely that you, dear reader, find Fantasia's historical context less interesting than I.  Perhaps, then, we'll talk about the movie itself now, beginning at the beginning, where we meet not a cartoon, but the first of several interspersed live-action host segments, all featuring the orchestra and, importantly, Fantasia's welcoming and erudite VJ, music critic Deems Taylor.  It seems that the first resort of any editor tasked with truncating Fantasia for its post-roadshow releases was to reduce (or eliminate) Taylor's introductions and explanations; it is trivially easy to see why.  On paper, he adds virtually nothing.  As an expositor, his monologues are often actually worse than nothing, in that few of them are especially insightful, and they have a tendency to simply describe what we're about to see before we see it, in some cases preemptively revealing elements that, as far as the staging seems to indicate, were intended by the animators to be twists.  And yet I cannot easily imagine a Fantasia without Taylor serving as a genial guide to the world of classical music, both because of the gentle magnetism of his personality, and because it's pleasant to have something as a buffer between the intensity of the animated pieces, so it might as well be him.


Taylor's at his most useful at the outset, relating the premise of "this new form of entertainment."  (Fantasia earns that high-flying self-praise, though objectively Fantasia might only be an evolution of the more music-minded Silly Symponies.)  Forthwith, he leads us into the first proper segment, Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor."  "Toccata and Fugue" itself is something of an introduction.  As Taylor explains, there are three types of music: music with a specific plot; non-narrative music that nevertheless conjures definite imagery; and "absolute music," of which "Toccata and Fugue" is an example, music that exists for its own sake.  Taylor does not seem to find any apparent irony in the fact that most of Fantasia's pieces with "specific plots" abandon those plots, yet don't seem any the worse for wear; nor that "Tocatta and Fugue," this abstract, "absolute" music, appears to have generated mainly only a kind of Art Deco-ish semi-abstraction in its animators' minds, eventually climaxing with arches and towers in the clouds, in the meantime featuring a curious little coffin-shaped lozenge walking in a cave.

It is surrealist more than abstract, then.  This was not always the case: this episode was to be the brainchild of Oskar Fischinger, the animator-artist whose work we actually saw in Pinocchio in connection with the Blue Fairy's magic.  When it came to Fantasia, Walt saw his efforts, and called them "dinky"—Fischinger's ideas evidently mostly involved shapes coming into and blinking out of existence.  When they couldn't come to any agreement, Walt fired him; and perhaps he was even right to do so.  Regardless, instead of dinky triangles, we are presented with a terrifically wonderful piece that, at the very least, swiftly looses any mooring to pure representation.


The central idea is that, while listening to music, we first become aware of the instruments themselves, then the notes, before drifting off into a kind of reverie, and so "Toccata and Fugue" begins with Stokowski and his orchestra—our entry into this particular fugue photographed by no less than James Wong Howe, silhouetting the conductor and orchestra against an array of colored lights so stunning that, if you weren't told otherwise, you'd assume had to be created with multiple exposures, rather than in-camera magic.  Fantasia would obviously like to be considered in competition for the best Technicolor film ever made; it makes its claim to that title early and often.

The sequence dissolves into animation, a showcase (and not the last) for Disney's effects men, particularly Cy Young and Joshua Meador, who had, throughout the 30s, helped Disney reach the technical pinnacle it now occupied.  Most impressive is a series of stylized waveforms spreading across—above?—a pool of liquid, highlighted by a golden stream of energy.  It is lovely.  The whole thing is lovely, a meditation on form being reduced to essence, and it rocks you easily into a state of dreamlike contemplation before reminding you of form again, as it reaches its ecstatic conclusion. (9/10)


Next comes Pyotr Ilyich Chaykovsky's suite from The Nutcracker, which Taylor describes as not "much of a success," though he thinks we might recognize it.  The suite's latterday familiarity—even overfamiliarity—doesn't count for too much, firstly because it's great, secondly because Stokowski rearranged it, and thirdly because the accompanying visuals aren't likely to remind you of the famous ballet at all, except in the sense that they incorporate a balletic artistry: Fantasia's "Nutcracker Suite" is instead a journey through the seasons, hosted by various elemental nymphs, gossamer multi-hued creatures (well, naked women with dragonfly wings), whom we find dancing through a sylvan night, as if they themselves might be able to hear "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."  Already quite beautiful just as a contrast of color against darkness (and the nymphs were animated by Les Clark, shortly to become Disney's go-to guy for gracile femininity), we follow through a bit of fluid multiplane as they reveal their forest piece-by-piece with their light, and perform their miraculous functions.

Once again Young's effects get a workout, especially with the deceptively difficult task of realizing the morning dew the fairies conjure across a spider's web.  The abiding sense of the segment is infinite delicacy—the care that creates and maintains the world.  And we see nothing but delicacy as we move through the various geometries laid out before us: figure-eights in "The Chinese Dance," with its little clutch of problematically-caricatured mushrooms who come to life to bring us a brief, masterful exercise in how flaws can make something perfect; circles in the complicated, impressionistic ballet of petals backed by "Dance of the Flutes" (my favorite of these sub-segments); the oddly sexy fish, as seemed to be a motif in Disney's 1940 features, of "The Arab Dance," arrayed (naturally enough) in hexagonal pseudo-arabesques with their exaggerated, veil-like fins; then the assaultively stark, stage-like presentation of Slavic flowers in "The Russian Dance," flinging themselves at us in echelon, line after line of them—but only to conclude their aggressive posturing as a splendid little bouquet in a freeze-frame of dramatic stillness that almost looks pencil-sketched.

They say Fantasia at last started retaking financial ground during its 1969 re-release.  I wonder why then?

But nothing is more delicate than the return to the nymphs, who conclude summer in green, now bring forth autumn in warm, golden hues, and finally usher in winter in blue and white.  Unsurpassably sophisticated effects work is deployed in service of the ornate tracings of frost upon the stream, wrought by ice nymphs painstakingly modeled after the movements of real ice skaters.  And if that weren't enough, there is, at last, the climax of the snow nymphs, in truth a combination of animation and composited "snowflake" gears, spiraling through the air in pirouette.  Every last bit of this sequence is beauty incarnate, and it seems pointless to try to scrutinize it for flaws, since there effectively aren't any: the worst that can be said about it is that the introduction of animals into it seems arbitrary—sexy fish moreso—but never have sexy fish been drawn with such skill, and, anyway, with plantae and fungi represented, I suppose that at least "Nutcracker Suite" covers all the major eukaryotes.  Besides, technical mastery and extraordinary loveliness are more important than strict adherence to rules.  (10/10)


This is followed by "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the short responsible for Fantasia in the first place, and here's where I think I may detect something like a flaw in the whole, rather than in any individual piece (and certainly not "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," specifically).  The thing is, Fantasia is far more thematically coherent than I think it even intends to be: it is about natural cycles, creation and destruction, order rising from chaos, sometimes descending back into chaos, but only for order to reestablish itself in the end.  It's something very close to a mystical history of the universe.  Considered as seven competing mystical histories of the universe, any iinconsistency fades; but if one thinks of it as a loose chronology, then "Apprentice" throws that off a little.

By far the most concrete of any of the shorts, it's also the plottiest, being the tale of how Mickey Mouse, apprentice to a powerful wizard and tasked with the tedious work of filling a cistern, seizes instead upon the idea of taking up his master's power and using it to enchant a broom to do the work for him—with predictably disastrous results.  (As a bonus, "Apprentice" occasioned Mickey's iconic redesign by Fred Moore, which, amongst other major revisions that permit one to stand looking at him, finally gave the mouse some proper eyes.)

"Apprentice" can easily be read as an allegory for automation, too (or even, unwittingly, for the hubris of Fantasia itself), though of course it's mostly just what it says it is, which is the funny, scary story of a lazy jerk who got his comeuppance when he dared to meddle with grandeurs beyond his ken, festooned with effects almost as incredible as in the previous segment: shadow animation that makes Snow White look primitive (I think they might've even used it in tandem with multiplane, but either way the shadows thrown onto the far colonnade are crazy detailed), water animation that at least gives Pinocchio a run for its money, and a lot of lightning and expressionistic use of color (the self-resurrection of the butchered broom fading rhythmically from color to black-and-white is really quite neat, even better than the satanic reds used in the moment of violence itself—you know, I'm somewhat assuming you've seen this).  I suspect it may be the best match of music to action in Fantasia, too, though all its segments are exquisitely-choreographed.

And for all that, I feel like it's in the wrong place in the overall design, "Apprentice" being so awfully amenable to a Thoth tarot kind of interpretation (despite predating it).  For what is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," at bottom, other than the story of the Fool—in the form of this foolish mouse—who released the energies of Creation?  No one but a Fool would ever do it, that's for sure: and so Mickey, our perfect agent of creative chaos becomes an accidental demiurge, and it strikes me that his short really ought to have directly followed the uncreated formlessness of "Toccata."  Anyhow, they say the Sorcerer, Yen Sid (get it?), is modeled after Walt.  But Walt's Mickey, too.  In fact, Walt is the only one who speaks at all in this picture besides Taylor and Stokowski: as Mickey runs offstage, chastened, he appears suddenly on the conductor's dais, and shakes our maestro's (Magus's?) hand, receiving his congratulations in turn.  Yes, Fantasia is incredibly self-regarding, but it almost has to be, to do what it's doing.  (10/10)


Perhaps I would have placed the next segment ahead of "Nutcracker Suite" as well: "Rite of Spring," rung in with an obscure joke, when, at the mention of the piece's name, the chimes player knocks over his instrument with a horrid noise.  As a child, nothing about Fantasia was more mysterious than this ("did they just leave that in?" I wondered, for while kids can kind of grasp editing, they still think animation merely "happens").  The youngest, most controversial piece of music in Fantasia, Rite of Spring had caused nothing less than riots when it premiered twenty-seven years previously; and I suppose it's still kind of mysterious, if quaint, to think that there was a world not so far removed from our own that gave enough of a damn about classical music to not just make a conductor a star (I know only one conductor, his name is Leopold Stokowski, and it's presumably obvious how I came to be aware of him), but to use classical music as an occasion for literal violence.  Personally, I like Stokowski's rearrangement of the piece here, and I find its clamor an inordinately good fit for the animation of a young, angry world; of course, Stravinsky, rather famously, did not, and expended some very choice phrases telling people how he felt about Stokowski's work and Disney's choice of subject.

That subject was, in a word, dinosaurs—Walt wanted dinos, and worked backward until he found Rite of Spring, which celebrated "primitivism"—though this segment is not quite so limited in scope, beginning instead at the beginning of the planet Earth itself.  As Fantasia is, by accident or whatever, a magical history of the universe, "Rite of Spring" is a physical history of our corner of it—such as was understood by people at the time, plus a little artistic license—starting with a long push-in through a starry-nighted void, finally arriving at the volcanic fireball that was Earth in what would later be named the Hadean Era.  Earth is rendered an elemental battleground between fire and water—lava and ocean, ultimately between reds and oranges and whites and blues—and this mesmerizing geological consideration takes up a sizeable chunk of "Rite of Spring's" runtime.  A challenge, considering it's already the longest of all the segments.  This is where some people get bored.

I don't know how they'd get bored by this if they weren't bored already.  Bad wiring, I guess.

I like both halves about equally, though there's more to complain about in the first part of "Rite of Spring," mostly effects work that really calls attention to itself as effects work.  But it also offers some of the most subtly impressive visuals of Fantasia, too, with its painstakingly-animated march of magma to the sea.  And I love its refusal to be anything but itself, an impression of deep time as its animators perceived it.  It needed to be long, in order to work.

In any event, it gets to those dinos soon enough, bridging both parts with a dissolve-heavy sequence that rather nicely encapsulates Darwinian notions (Taylor described "a fish more ambitious than the others," prompting an affectionate eyeroll).  One wishes that it might've spent even more time in the Paleozoic, which, after all, has its own interesting beasts.  But dinos beckoned, and they are excellent—the supple necks of the plesiosaurs and sauropods, the swooping of pteranodons on the wing, all living in an eat-or-be-eaten (or eat-and-be-eaten) world.  It climaxes with a magnificent duel between a stegosaur and a tyrannosaurus rex, each animated with amazing weight and urgency by Wolfgang Reitherman, utilizing the skillset he'd honed on Pinocchio's Monstro, namely, capturing the movement of enormous, vicious monsters.  Early plans called for carrying straight through to the late Cenozoic, but Walt decided not to bother the Creationists.  Instead, "Rite of Spring" concludes much as it began, slowly and observationally, though with a more elegaic undercurrent to its bombast, as the dinosaurs starve and thirst to death in the endless desert of their extinction; and this, too, needed to be slow to deliver its effect.  (10/10)


I'd almost say it's a pity it ends there.  Yet the next full segment serves as an even better follow-up than the Age of Humankind.  It is, rather, an imagined prehistory that Fantasia examines.  It's a bracing constrast with the quasi-realism preceding it, yet it reaches something even more primordial in the process.

Before that, though, there's an intermission—a Disney cartoon with an intermission!—and, afterwards, there's a nice little jazz jam session in the orchestra that somewhat betrays its obvious premeditation, followed by a mini-segment called "Meet the Soundtrack," in which Taylor interviews, well, the soundtrack, and tasks it with recreating and visualizing various musical sounds.  It's weird and whimsical and I do love it quite a bit: it's another moment where Meador and Young get to shine (some say Fischinger actually meaningfully contributed as well).  I suppose it held more wonder in the time before graphic equalizers, but this is what I find most contemptible about the cuts that removed Taylor, because whatever else he offers (and whatever he doesn't teach you about how filmstrip soundtracks actually work), he is the one talking to this colorful, silly, adorable shapeshifting line.  (9/10)


That brings us to "The Pastoral Symphony," which is my favorite thing—that is, my favorite thing in animation, Disney or otherwise, for at least thirty-nine more years.  I also have come to realize that I am basically alone on this, though I have no idea why.

It is the one that I think Taylor might be setting out to actively subvert, even though Taylor is the one who gave Walt the cover of his musical authority when he decided to replace Stokowski's own chosen piece, Gabriel Pierne's Cydalise, with Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastorale, in response to Walt's animators complaining that Cydalise just wasn't doing it for them.  I applaud Taylor's choice of music; not so much his choice of narrating in fine detail everything that's about to happen.  It's trivial to be briefer than he is: in a neverwhen of Greco-Roman myth, fauns cavort in pastel fields, a family of pegasoi capers about the sky, and a tribe of centaurs plays at love, and all enjoy the splendor of a summer afternoon, as well as the debaucheries of a bacchanal hosted by Bacchus himself—until Jupiter, in a fit of pique, calls down a withering storm.  But the storm passes, and the love created endures, as a rainbow smiles upon all creation and the sun and moon and sky wish creation a good night.

Even knowing the basic plot going in, Taylor's recitation remains annoying, given that the animators must've been working under the assumption that the bathing centaurides' (or, in Taylor's parlance, "centaurettes") emergence from the water would come as a surprise to their audience, likely still adjusting their collars at the sight of the bare-breasted beauties (pin-up girls, really) they initially appear to be.  Anyway, the dramatic spine of this segment is the mating dances of the centaurs, and, specifically, the two who get left out, until a helpful flock of cherubim help them banish their loneliness by bringing them together, and it's awfully cute if (some say) a little bland and overdetermined.  What is not bland is the form it all takes: unbelievable color.  This segment is entirely about color, both for its own sake, and in furtherance of its aims of presenting a mythic past more passionate and intense than any real one, from what I take to be a sly joke of black and white pegasoi with three-strip Technicolor offspring, to the surreally-hued centaurs, to the heartbreakingly gorgeous rendition of the Greek gods as colossal natural forces.  Meanwhile, they all pop and clash against a bold, eye-searing, candy-colored landscape.  If "The Pastoral Symphony" doesn't fulfill Fantasia's ambition to be the best Technicolor film, then it at least makes it the most.


Pity, then, that it wasn't until 1969 that someone realized something was ruining it, and while nobody loves "The Pastoral Symphony" the way I do (hence I suppose this advice is mostly germane only to my past self), I recommend not ever comparing the version that exists now to the original, atrociously racist one featuring "Sunflower," the demeaned African servant centaurette.  Not even for scholarly purposes.  If nothing else, it'll make you feel like an ass, so to speak, for never noticing how brutally the frames have been manipulated and edited, though censoring this little blood libel was clearly the right choice.  In some respects Sunflower's removal improves the segment, even without reference to racism: her absence in the frame makes the centaurides' seduction of the centauroi seem more ritualized, strange and alien, while remaining quintessentially feminine; and, without Sunflower to push it, Bacchus' rolling red carpet appears to obey the commands of the fauns' trumpets, which is way cooler.  (Meanwhile, the modern version retains Sunflower's distant cousins, a pair of black centaurides with zebra stripes attending Bacchus.  Still servants, but at least in service to a god, I cautiously approve of their design and implementation.)

Of course, there's still the barbaric repetition of a few shots, necessary to keep time to the music—this was a later addition, earlier attempts to fix "The Pastoral Symphony" being even less sophisticated—but it's of a piece, since "The Pastoral Symphony" is the most blatantly imperfect of all Fantasia's segments, retaining glaring animation mistakes (like a translucent cherub in the middle of a frame) that I'm surprised passed even cursory quality control.  Not that it's flawed enough to matter: this is Fantasia's greatest triumph, a lightly-comic, sweetly-romantic romp through Elysian fields of outrageous color, concluding with a sequence of such majesty that I can feel my heart in my throat while I watch it, and few pieces of cinema have ever moved me so much.  Also, fuck you.  (10/10)


Even the best of the rest would pale a little in comparison, but we move now to the one segment I would dare call even slightly weak, "Dance of the Hours," which again takes on Fantasia's theme of cycles of time with the other piece, alongside The Nutcracker's suite, that could be described as overplayed, the third act finale of Amilcare Ponchielli's La Giconda.  Staging it as pretty much an unadorned animated ballet, albeit with funny cartoon animals, "Hours" is incredibly proficient—the only sequence that might've benefited more from life reference was "Nutcracker Suite's" ice-skating—and, don't get me wrong, I like it, but am never going to love it.  For it's basically a big, overt joke, with the twist being that the ostriches, hippos, elephants, and crocodiles signifying the dancers of the morning, etc., are playing it straight.

It is the least interesting use of color and light in Fantasia, and the least technically-minded in terms of painting and effects (though, in fairness, it makes a pretty big thing out of bubbles).  It seeks to make up for this with some of the best-refined (if far-from-naturalistic) character animation in the film, and it's always at least engagingly weird.  Frankly it's a little metaphorically rapey, though I offer this as a factual observation rather than a qualitative or political one: it culminates in a dance of predators seducing then literally carrying off their prey, but this actually plays well in the context of Fantasia's whole mystical riff, and the essentialist way it characterizes the natural forces it seeks to depict, and, ultimately, tame.  (7/10)


That leaves us with the taming itself, "Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria," the only diptych and the only music featuring vocals—right at the end, perfectly enough, when humanity (and humanity's religion) overcomes chaos.  "Night On Bald Mountain," based on Modest Mussorgsky's apocalyptic piece, centers around a black mass convened by the evil titan, Chernabog—evidently Bill Tytla's way of saying, "So, I can't do Monstro because I'd make the whale too scary?  I will show you too scary." Basically darkness in the shape of a mountain-sized, bat-winged man, Chernabog's power is manifest already simply in his stature, and that power is underlined by the festivities of his macabre followers, ghosts, witches, demons, the works.  "Bald Mountain" is a perversion of "The Pastoral Symphony": a celebration of devils, rather than gods, rendered in blacks and eerie, unsettling hues, rather than pastels and bold primaries.  (And it too is technically flawed.  As in "Rite of Spring," the effects call attention to themselves, only moreso: as long as the creatures are actually animated, they're great, but one of the few times in Fantasia where the effects immediately make themselves plain as what they are is in "Bald Mountain," with "ghosts" that are patently composited images that are only moving because they've been placed on turning cylinders.)

Better is when we watch Chernabog create life, just to destroy his creation, transforming it into unspeakably ugly things, which he destroys and recreates again—a black mirror to the creative force that ultimately vanquishes the beast, heralded by the bells of a church.  Chernabog is stilled, toll by toll, and the town he had gripped in his long shadow brings forth a procession of pilgrims, given courage by Franz Schubert's Ave Maria.  In the most elaborate multiplane shot ever attempted (attempted three times, days before Fantasia was to premiere, in fact), we watch these little figures as they go, carrying their little lights to banish the shadows—we see, again and again, the archlike geometry that closed the ascendent final moments of "Toccata and Fugue."  The multiplane camera, interestingly enough, does everything it can to flatten these figures against the layers of landscape, creating something like a long, unrolling, moving tapestry.  Finally, our pilgrims make their way through the forest of chaos and night and, with the multiplane camera turning again toward depth, they see hope, rising as it does, every morning.  (9/10)


It culminates everything Fantasia has to say, which is everything there is to say.  There are almost no films really like it.  Some do adopt something like its form, but very few things equal its cosmic scope, let alone its phantasmic beauty.  It is, undoubtedly, the best anthology film ever made.  And it stands alone in the animated arena as a unique masterpiece, too: a product of a thousand masters, given the freest rein they'd ever get, and of one—old Walt Disney, who basically destroyed his company to make it.  Though I do not think it is the best of Disney's cartoons, it is the best made in Walt's lifetime; those judicious cuts made after he died have helped.  But, either way, he was proven right in the end.

Score: 10/10

3 comments:

  1. You're so very smart, Hunter, and I feel like a heathen now. Though, to be fair, I get bored LONG before the primordial lava. I love the "Toccata and Fugue" segment with my whole heart though.

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    1. I do, begrudgingly, accept that Fantasia isn't for everybody. (But it's so cool... dinosaurs, demons, ballet, Mickey Mouse, abstract animation, sexy centaurs... yeah, okay, no, now that I say it out loud, I understand the problem.)

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    2. P.S. The geological stuff is a common sticking point for a whole, whole lot of folks. (I mean, won't say I've *never* fallen asleep during Fantasia, and it may be around the Rite of Spring segment that I may have done so...) But I just dunno if it's, like, *objectively* more boring/hypnotic/mellow than, say, milkweed ballerinas.

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