Fantasia – Magic

Thoughts On: Fantasia

An experimental combination of music, abstract animation, spectacle and fantastical story telling.


Artistically, I think it’s safe to say that this is Disney’s greatest film. In short, this film is insane in so many ways, it’s utterly mesmerising, dumbfounding, awe inspiring, and a plethora of other things. I never used to like this film though. As a kid it was just boring, disjointed and meh. I think this is because this isn’t really a kids film. It’s conceptually complex, and when you don’t understand what the artists are trying to achieve you just see a conglomeration of shorts that can’t make up their mind as what they want to do. However, as I grew up, I began to understand the purpose of the film, it’s intentions toward bringing music to the screen, visually portraying sound – which it does perfectly. That said, there’s not much I can really say about narrative messages with this film, so we’ll look at it in parts and discuss ideas around it for this Thoughts On: essay.

We’ll start with the introduction. This is the easiest section to criticise (along with the other transitions) from a modern perspective. These are the parts of the film that haven’t aged well because how we consume film has changed drastically. Fantasia of course came out in 1940 where going to the pictures was a big event. There wasn’t video, T.V or DVD. You’d see a film when it was in select theatres and then never until it was possibly re-released. (Or until you got a T.V). This means Deems Taylor, the presenter, was there to mimic a real show, to guide an audience through an abstract piece of film they may only ever see once. Moreover, all original content has this element of Psycho in it. By this I mean the expositional ending of Hitchcock’s 1960 classic. Audiences were assumed not to be familiar with Norman’s condition, or the concept of psychosis, being a transvestite, Freudian psychodynamics and so on. But, with Psycho and psychological dramas becoming a huge hit in the 60s that lead cinema further away from monster pictures and toward slashers, the world became all the more accustomed to these abstract concepts. Thus, Psycho hasn’t aged perfectly (though, in my opinion, very well). The point is, we just don’t need the ending explained to us 50 years on. What has happened with Fantasia however is not the saturation of a market with films like it, but mere exposure. Also, music videos. I’m not sure of how you’d measure the influence of Fantasia over music videos and animation overall as it wasn’t a great success upon initial release, but what this film essentially is, is a conglomeration of astounding music videos. To a modern audience, Fantasia needs no introduction because… I don’t know, Kanye West. I mean Bound 2 (Explicit). Speaking of things ageing, yeah, no, Kanye West will not stand the test of time. At least he shouldn’t. This guy’s an idiot. And I say this purely based off of this video. We don’t need to get into Kanye West when talking about Disney though. So, to make the point again… Anaconda. If we can accept this without explanation, there’s no way we need Deems Taylor. So, in an around about way, that’s why the intro and proceeding transitory segments don’t work so well.

This brings us to the first short accompanied by Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. This is a perfect introduction, easing us into the abstract elements of the film. My only criticism is that this opening is a little too strong. It is utterly mesmerising, staying true to the music, allowing the images, colours and movement to work with note, rhythm and beat. This is, without a doubt, the best segment of the film. The artistry demonstrated with each and every frame of this opening segment blows my mind. There is unquestionable genius imbued in every brush stroke, colour choice, line of movement. Unquestionable genius. The juxtaposition of images in small parts is a little jarring, meaning the jumps from red to blue can be a little too explicit, but I feel it works into the tone of the song, keeping a solid sense of rhythm, bounce and fluidity, keeping the eye locked onto the screen and ear on the song. All in all, the opening sequence is one of the greatest segments of cinematic history. I have few adjectives left, so let’s just leave it at that and move onto the next sequence with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. This is another great sequence that manages to sustain the level of atmosphere and tone of the opening. It’s not as poignant, but of equal quality. My only issue with this segment comes with the fact that I love this piece of music. When you say you like a classical piece, what you really mean is you like a specific recording (maybe one or two) of it. At least this is the way I feel. There’s inherent beauty in the liquid free-flow of Tchaikovsky’s composition, layering of strings and winds and his sprinkling of light percussion. There’s just absolute quality embedded in his writing. However, some interpretations are going to be better than others. The recording of The Nutcracker by the Philadelphia Orchestra is ok, but I am not a fan of the nuances found in their emphasis of beats, and handling of undertonal rhythm. I’d only exhaust myself and you by pulling apart specifics, but suffice to say the music lets down the animation a little – and does so throughout the film, which is a real shame. Nonetheless, the opening two sequences are dazzling as they hold up to the eye down to the tiniest detail – especially the Toccata and Fugue short.

Next we have the pivotal short with the Mickey Mouse as a sorcerer’s apprentice who decides to bring a broom to life. There is a tonal jump here into the story-telling, non-absolute, program music. However, this is handled well with the set-up given by Taylor (maybe he’s not so useless) and the slow ease into action. The integration of music and story is also flawless here, so what we’ll do is pick apart the narrative it tells. To give a quick summary, Mickey has to haul water from a well outside, inside for the sorcerer. After a while, the sorcerer having retired, leaving his hat behind, Mickey decides to use the powers given by the hat to bring a broom to life as to do the work for him. Mickey then falls asleep waking up to a flood which he can’t stop as he’s forgotten the magic words to de-animate the broom. Instead he chops the broom into hundreds of pieces which of course just come back to life and drown the place. I’m not sure if you picked up on it, but this is a very common plot found most famously in Terminator. This is about automation. Whereas this archetypal story used to mean having others do work for you, or simply taking short cuts, is a not a great idea, with the technological progression of the present day this idea of automation is very real. This doesn’t mean we’re going to drown ourselves with electrical brooms, but, as the plot lines in Terminator implies, maybe it’s A.I that gets us. So, the allegory told is pointed towards an idea of work, of doing it yourself in the simplest terms. However, there’s a contradiction in the telling of the story in Fantasia that reveals a greater truth. The wizard is using Mickey just like Mickey was using the broom. In this sense, Mickey’s mistake was the mistake of the sorcerer – I mean, wasn’t he the one who left his hat behind? This turns the allegory into one of trust and responsibility. Automation isn’t a bad thing, A.I isn’t our inevitable apocalypse. Neglect is what kills us, not automation. In short, if you want your head in the clouds, fine, just make sure you at least peep down to Earth once in a while.

The next short is where the film looses audience members (especially upon initial release). Here there’s a jump into a scientific exploration of the young Earth set to Stravinsky’s, The Rite Of Spring. There are so many things I love about this section. I love the balls it took to make this, I love the atmosphere, I love the design of almost all of the dinosaurs. In fact, stylistically, the dinosaurs constructed for this short are my favourite attempt toward their animated portal in all film. The only one I don’t much like the look of is the T-Rex. His body is too squashed, off balance and stumpy. But, remember now that this is Disney’s third full-length animated feature. Before this there was Snow White and Pinocchio. There are mature subtexts to both of these films, but neither were so explicit to show animals (dinosaurs) killing one another. In fact you never see anything like this from Disney ever again. This is the main reason behind the tonal jump not working well. In Bambi there’s death, but it’s all implied (which makes it so poignant). In Cinderella a cat’s thrown out of a window to splatter, in Lady And The Tramp two dogs go at, in Tarzan we see his two dead parents, in Lion King there’s even more murder, but none of this hits the audience, and none of it is as up-front as Fantasia. No one is pulling any punches with this film and that’s admirable. But, it’s for this reason that the film probably failed in 1940. My only personal criticism of this segment. however, is that the music falls into the background. In fact, from this point on, the integration of action and sound is lost. Story takes over and it’s more like watching a silent film – which negates the purpose of the movie. However, we’ll come back to this, what’s interesting about this segment is what it makes so clear about animation as a whole. Animation has always been immersed in science – especially in dinosaurs. The first animated film with a true character was released in 1914 and called Gertie the Dinosaur. But it’s not just dinosaurs we’re interested in, it’s biology, it’s animals, creatures, monsters. Look at the top 10 highest grossing animated films of all time:

1. Shrek 2

2. The Lion King

3. Toy Story 3

4. Frozen

5. Finding Nemo

6. Despicable Me 2

7. Inside Out

8. Minions

9. Zootopia

10. Shrek The Third

(Taken from IMDB)

What connects all of these films? A significant element of monsters, animals or dinosaurs. The same is true for 43/50 of the highest grossing animated films. Each and every one has anthropomorphised animal characters or creatures. We seem to love them. Why this is, can’t be said for definite, but I think it’s clear that animation is intrinsically linked to fantasy. What’s the point of creating your own worlds if your not going to break some rules? But, fantasy is inevitably going to have its basis in reality, so, to convolute the process of inspiration, why not be inspired by the most alien things we know? Why not use dinosaurs, an amalgamation of humans and animals? We’ve been doing this as a species for as long as we have been telling stories. Whether it’s the buffalo on the caveman’s wall, the Egyptian Gods, creatures of folklore embedded in all cultures, books, plays, films, we’re fixated with the inhuman as a vessel to tell human stories. This has a lot to do with reality and how hard that is to accept for some people. When we look up at the sky and see tonnes of water that just floats, an apparent blue protective cap, balls of gas burning at thousands of degrees, huge suspended shining rocks, other distant rocks and clumps of gas somehow spinning around us, an infinite void containing… I have no clue,.. beyond… well, it’s a bit hard to comprehend to say the least. But what’s harder is accepting it, accepting the idea that this is all here for no apparent reason, that we may or may not be alone, that reality is nothing more than a question. When this is so hard to accept, we turn to the unreal, the intangible, ineffectual. This is true for all difficult apparencies in life. We turn to Hulk, Iron Man, John Wayne, John McClain, Keanu Reeves for heroes. We turn to Godzilla, zombies, mutants, ghosts to symbolise tragedy in its many forms. By distancing ourselves from reality we gain perspective and can begin to handle bigger concepts. That’s why fantasy is so important, that’s why cartoons resonate so well with children. With ineffectuality comes levity, there’s no real fear, but entertainment, and all the while we’re (kids are) subconsciously dealing with major issues. That, again, is why fantasy is so important, but also so dangerous. Fantasia’s use of science massively contributes towards its lack of success and all because it was a little too close to reality to fool us all into learning something, into seeing and imagining new things. This is the ultimate danger, the thin line animation treads in its poignancy and precision.

I feel like we just peaked there, but hold on we’ve still got the second half to do. So, let’s try do this a bit quicker. This strange ending of the first half leads us onto a small short that’s suppose to act as a palette cleanser. I’m talking about the soundtrack portion. This steps up the animation again with some ingenious characterisation and demonstration of sound through images. But, from this point onwards I feel that the film dips into a lower quality band. The sequence on Mount Olympus is quite disinteresting to me as it’s just things happening. The same can be said with the dance routine and ending. There is no support given by the music here, just mood. The music element falls away and the film becomes nothing more than a good silent film with a clever accompaniment. This doesn’t mean the film is bad overall, it just doesn’t live up to what it sets up with the first half – the introduction especially. What’s most interesting about these last shorts are the references Disney makes to themselves which demonstrates just who they are. We see this throughout the film in fact. There are a myriad of examples I could give ranging from the fish seen in Pinocchio, the dinosaurs in Dinosaur, the use of the bigger mammals in Dumbo, the use of mythology in Hercules, and many other small creatures used repeatedly across Disney’s entire cannon of films. If you see this once you’ll see it a thousand times, and it seems like Disney are referencing themselves here, but to link all of these together is not something I can do right now. Instead, I think the crossovers in design make clear the Disney style. In saying that, it becomes obvious that Fantasia really is a focal point of the Disney library. This is where everything truly original and nuanced that we get from them comes to the forefront or is at least implied. It’s with Fantasia that we can see the essence of Disney’s magic.

This leads onto last words. Magic is the central idea of this film. It’s through fantasy, tone, rhythm, sound and movement that Disney plays their illusion, making us believe, feel, an idea of magic. Irrevocable levity, that’s what you get from Disney. In  the end it’s a shame that this film isn’t water-tight, but perfection is a lot to ask. This is because perfection is a matter of subjectivity. This is also why, for me, Fantasia is a little lacking. It wants to please a wide range of people. It wants to have something for everyone. That’s why there’s a strong use of both religion and science, of abstraction and story telling. Fantasia’s main fault is that it’s trying to do too much, but, nonetheless, this is an astounding picture, leaving me the question: what do you think?


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Pinocchio – An Imperfect Wish

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Pinocchio – An Imperfect Wish

Thoughts On: Pinocchio

A woodworker prays to a star, wishing for one of his puppets to come to life, to be real boy.


This is a really tricky film to pull apart. This is because it seems so simple. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you it’s about right and wrong. To those people: have you watched this film?? What does Pinocchio learn? He learns that if you behave like a jack-ass you’ll become one, but, really, he doesn’t learn this. He sees this and then only just avoids becoming a full blown donkey. He learns nothing. Every mistake he makes is fixed by the fairy, or by some weird writer’s device… and then… the whale? The line through this narrative with the idea that it’s about right and wrong is very weak. It doesn’t explain all the crazy jumps in logic, all the insane imagery, the mixture of fantasy, absurdism, surrealism and a weird sense of hope. Nothing makes sense about this film when you take it at face value with its apparent themes and plot. My initial response to this was just a huge: WHAT THE FUCK!?!?!? But, I’ve been going over and over and over the film, and I think I have a grip on it. Before we get to that, I’d like to say that this is a pretty open film – as all films are to be honest. I wanted to mention this in the Snow White essay, but it didn’t fit the tone. Either way, let’s get it out now. I appreciate that Disney films are kids’ films, that they have a target audience. This means that whilst they have more complex meanings to tease out, they also have a simpler child friendly concept readily available. In other words, (forgive the metaphors) you can see a Disney film with your heart, or you can watch it, pick it apart with an analytical eye. If you watch Pinocchio with feeling, letting the narrative message guide you emotionally, then you’ll probably see it as a film about right and wrong with a few fun moments that don’t need to make sense. This is how most people watch films, with feeling. This isn’t wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. Art is founded on emotion, it’s how it translates its ideas. We have to feel what the artist wants us to feel. But, moral lessons are weak when based on feeling. I want to say that’s just my opinion, but… no. I have confidence enough in the concept of pragmatism, of sense and rationality, to say that life isn’t meant to be lived the way you want, by what feels nice and comfortable. I mean, that’s a key idea in the film with the whole concept of pleasure island. But, right now I’m talking about something a little wider than childish indulgence. I’m talking about intelligence, about being able to look at the world, not just wander through it. If a film has more to offer than entertainment, it makes sense to chase that down. Even if we are manufacturing meaning, if we are taking away from a film more than it thought it offered, what’s the harm in that? Films are like dreams. They are fantasies, these weird things we create and project to let us slip away from reality. So, maybe Freud is nuts. Maybe dreamwork is unscientific nonsense. Maybe it’s sniffing a brain fart and…

smelling the fart.gif

smelling the fart 2

… faking it in other words. But that’s all besides the point. The point is that we got from A to B. The road taken may have been weird, possibly wrong, maybe we were wearing the wrong boots, maybe there was a clearer path. But, we got to a better place nonetheless. All I want to say is that it doesn’t matter where the EUREKA!! moment happens. If it’s in the bath, don’t you dare hesitate, forget the towel, run down the streets and scream. Be careful though. Pneumonia and such. Anyway, let’s not get lost. Let’s get on with it.

If you don’t want to see Pinocchio as a simple story of right and wrong, you could take a more mature look at the film. In other words you fall into the trap of the phallic imagery. There is sense in this theory, and a succinct take away, but, well, let’s just pull it apart first. In short, seeing Pinocchio’s nose as a symbol of puberty reveals some dark , possibly homophobic, messages. There’s quite a few nudges and pokes toward the parents in the audiences with Jiminy, faces going red, cute women figurines and such. These could be seen as a reinforcement of Pinocchio’s sexuality. This is emphasised with the goldfish and Geppetto being alone. Without a mother, it’s possible Geppetto has a fear that his son doesn’t become a real boy, in that he may grow up gay. This means that show business and being an actor is both an insinuation of pretence and homosexuality. Pinocchio lying when he is saved by the fairy, his nose growing, is another double-entendre. It both implies an erection, that Pinocchio is maturing, but also that this expression of sexuality only makes it even more obvious that the kid is gay. This turns Pleasure Island into god-knows-what. It could be a trap, some kind of sex trade ring, or it could just be a place for boys to–I’ll leave it to your imagination. In the end you can either see the film from this position as either homophobic or tolerant. We see this through the whale which represents depression in Geppetto, but also an aggression. This comes with the realisation that his son is gay. For Pinocchio to help him out of this ditch, but then die, could be a metaphor for complete transformation. He becomes a real boy because his sexual preferences magically changed. Or, you could just see this as both Geppetto and Pinocchio facing this challenging moment and coming away all the better, Geppetto accepting his son as a real boy, as gay. Like I said, this is a valid interpretation of the film, but it does take quite a lot of assumption to start it rolling as well as a fair bit of attribution without sound evidence. You could also make the argument that this kind of a message is a bit before its time. Either way, from where you sit, you can see the film however you want – I’m just offering what I think is an interesting interpretation. We’ll move onto what I think is the most solid take on Pinocchio however after a quick Easter egg. Does it count if Easter egg isn’t even in this film? I don’t know – and no I’m not talking about Tangled with Pinocchio sitting up in the rafters of the Snuggly Ducking Inn. I’m talking about Shrek. So, of course in Shrek there are a plethora of references to fairy tales–especially those adopted by Disney. The huge outliers (non-references) in the movie are Shrek, Fiona and… not Donkey. He is a character derived from this film. On Pleasure Island some of the boys aren’t fully transformed into jack-assess, they can still talk. I won’t take it any further than that, but try watching Shrek again with the idea that Pinocchio is about coming out and the island is…. I don’t know… comment below, tell me what you think…

donkey - pinno

Ok, let’s get to it. To me, Pinocchio is best understood as a tale of inadequacy. Firstly we have Geppetto, a man that possible can’t reproduce, or simply never found a wife to raise a child with. This is symbolised with his work shop. He manufactures toys for children, keeping clocks for himself. He surrounds himself with an idea of time, time lost, time wasted, time to be wasted. This is a man living a pretty empty life. His only companions are the cat and the fish. The cat is a representative of himself, it’s playful, a little self-centred, but ultimately in search of affection. The goldfish is a projection of a woman. It’s a captive idea of a female presence in a lonely man’s house. It’s all really rather depressing to be honest. What Geppetto wants is a little boy, another version of himself possibly to live through. His vicarious experience of life through a child is what the film is centrally about – it’s about wanting to be a parent. But, we mustn’t forget Jiminy here. Jiminy is representative of the control parents wish they had over their children. Parents wish they could be there to watch their kid, to guide them through their personal moments of stress or strain. The core conflict of the film however comes with this, it is Geppetto. He doesn’t know what he’s doing as a parent. He’s just as naive as Pinocchio. This explains the disjointed logic of the film and the irrational plot lines. The biggest mind-boggler comes with the first seconds of Pinocchio’s birth (if you could call it that). Having one of your puppets come to life is not something you’d easily accept, you would not be dancing with a strange creature in the middle of the night minutes after you witnessed the horrifying miracle that was its animation. Chucky anyone? By seeing Pinocchio not as a puppet that’s come to life, but an idea of parenthood, this moment is much clearer in terms of character motivation. The second biggest what the fuuu….??? moment is the very next morning. Geppetto has just witness the impossible, he watched a toy, a few chucks of wood come to life and speak to him, and then he decides to send it to school. What!? I could easily write three films about the implications of the thing coming to life. Think of all the questions you’d have. Think of how the world would respond to this thing. Let’s not get into that. In fact, have you read my Bill & Ted post? If you liked the alternate history/fan fiction story line I constructed comment below or tell me on Twitter if you want to see the same thing done with Pinocchio. But, not seeing the film literally, the next morning is representative of Geppetto’s need for his child to be integrated into society, to grow and learn.

So, we’ve established that this film is about Geppetto’s fears as a father. All his fears are realised with the absurd diversions Pinocchio takes on his way to school – toward education and growing up correctly. Geppetto takes blame for this, which brings us to the end of the film. Before that we need to look at the key metaphor that is Pinocchio himself. He is a puppet. Seeing a child as a mechanism for your hands to work, to contort and control, is what Geppetto must learn not to do. Becoming a real boy is not just Pinocchio’s responsibility. It has a lot to do with how his father perceives and raises him. That understood we can come to the whale. The whale, just like with the previous theory is representative of Geppetto again. It’s here that you can say that you could adapt some of the interpretations of this analysis to strengthen the previous, but that’s all up to you. So, what the whale represents is depression again. It’s also the father Geppetto doesn’t want to be. This is linked to his cat and his goldfish. The cat has a few aggressive moments, but it is under Gepetto’s control. The whale is a whole other beast. Everything docile about it is torn away leaving behind pure hatred that consumes. The concept of everything being trapped in the whale’s stomach is thus linked to Gepetto’s home and life. His family become trapped in the pit of his failure. This is Geppetto as a bad parent, a parent that let his kid become a diligent, a parent that cannot run a home. The fish consumed by the whale are also representative of sexual frustration, of the proliferation and objectification of the goldfish metaphor. The end of the film is in turn Geppetto facing himself with the aid of his child. He learns that he may not know what he’s doing, that he too is a naive party in the parent/child relationship. This is what ultimately allows him to see Pinocchio as a real boy. The realisation of this is also what allows Pinocchio to figure out right and wrong. What’s right is that he sticks by his father and does what he is told. There are huge lapses in logic within the film for this very reason. There is also no solid ending. Jiminy gets the medal for doing nothing essentially because being a parent is 90% just being there. This is the crux of the film. It’s about endurance, of wanting imperfection, about wanting to try for a better life. Geppetto’s dream isn’t perfect, neither is the way he raises the kid, neither is the kid himself, but perfection doesn’t exist.

So, in the end, Pinocchio is a film about learning by not learning much, but by experiencing and altering the way you approach yourself and those around you. What all the characters learn is that we don’t always understand what we wish for, but better be grateful for the things we have and get. This is what makes wishing upon a star acceptable. It’s not about wanting the ludicrous, it’s not about wanting perfection, it’s not even about wanting something better. It’s about wanting another option, another path.

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Fantasia – Magic

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