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
5. Finding Nemo
6. Despicable Me 2
7. Inside Out
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?
Pinocchio – An Imperfect Wish
Pulp Fiction – Writing What You Know
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