Fantasia (1940, various directors)


Directed by: Samuel Armstrong; James Algar; Bill Roberts; Paul Satterfield; Ben Sharpsteen; David Hand; Hamilton Luske; Jim Handley; Ford Beebe; T. Hee; Norm Ferguson; Wilfred Jackson

!!! A+ FILM !!!

There are people, and they are more than entitled to this, who will tell you that Fantasia is middlebrow kitsch; who will regard Walt Disney’s ambition to create what he called the “Concert Feature,” an ever-evolving tour of music and light more than a movie, as a wrongheaded, prog rock-like apology for the emotional directness and lack of pretension in the rest of his work. In 1940, many of those who were paying attention — not as many as had been hoped, alas — considered the entire project an obscenity upon the classical music it sought to illustrate, or that either the music or animation was being used in a shorthanded and cheap way, one to elevate the other. It’s not that these views wholly lack merit, it’s that the viewer of today must marvel in admiration at the fact that any such conviction — most of which, honestly, would have existed in principle prior to the movie’s actual release — survived actually seeing the film. Because to put it one way: some movies seem as if they could shut just about anyone up.

To put it another way, more delicately and admittedly based on personal experience: some movies make it seem as if time has stopped. 2001: A Space Odyssey, for one, and Vertigo, City Lights, Metropolis, Stop Making Sense, Yellow Submarine, Paris, Texas, Days of Heaven, precious few others, most of them to a lesser extent. Few of those named can stand up to Fantasia in its ability to captivate and render irrelevant the world existing around it. Outside of 2001, this is as close as I get to an experience I’d label “spiritual” anywhere, much less on film. That doesn’t mean the nuts and bolts of it are not as occasionally corny and of-their-time as advertised, but rather that the film’s overall quality of immersion is a smashing success in any context — even (personal experience again) too close to the TV with headphones on, lying on the floor.

This is the Disney studio’s third feature film, released almost simultaneously with the more conventional Pinocchio — which had a standard release along the lines of its much more successful and culturally ubiquitous predecessor, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the 1930s, a time when Hollywood films were routinely inventive and ambitious by necessity, Snow White had stood out as a major work of genuine artistry; that it possessed innate appeal across a massive and ageless range was a culmination of years of work by Walt Disney and his crew to push harder and harder and aim higher and higher. Little wonder that, validated by Snow White‘s success, he would follow it with an even darker and longer narrative film and a film that shirked narrative altogether, a film that aspired to marry music and visuals in a fashion far beyond his innovative Silly Symphonies series, some of which are still among the loveliest cartoons ever produced. Fantasia would be more sophisticated, more literary, more indulgent, wilder — Disney’s vision was that you would see it and it would be a major event, like going to the symphony. You would dress up, perhaps, and pay money to be enveloped, helped along by the film’s radical use (invention, arguably) of stereophonic surround sound. Rather than opening in multiple cities at once, Fantasia would move from town to town and gradually transform, with more sequences added to its initial seven as the years passed, perhaps with some excised. It would run for years, decades, maybe forever.

The roadshow feature was not a new concept — it dated back to the silent era and was similar to today’s limited release, only a little more hoity-toity: structured like a typical stuffed-shirt night out at the theater. You’d have someone take your coat, get an elaborate paper program, have an official Disney-sanctioned paid employee seat you, and there would be an intermission and all of this would happen only twice a day, in seven cities. Fantasia packed the patrons in some places, especially the Broadway in New York, but it was more frequent for people to think of Disney going “classy” as a misstep. More’s the pity: Fantasia neither talks down to its audience nor pretends it knows anything it doesn’t; it means entirely to be a visceral experience, which is exactly the way classical music — divorced from historical context that should be of secondary importance — should be enjoyed by kids and adults today, and arguably is. (I very much like classical music, for instance, but know absolutely nothing about it and am too intimidated to try and make it a focus of study; Walt Disney himself apparently felt the same way, and part of his intention was to plant a seed of appreciation in people like me, which seems to have worked.)

As ever, though, what matters most in a Disney film is the action, the animation. He wanted to create a film in which the music and visuals were of equal importance, but given the absolutely stunning technical capabilites of his staff by now and the perpetual availability of the music being used (no truly esoteric contributions are among the seven here, although all are beautifully conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra), inevitably the rapturous, painterly look of the film is what resonates most now. If you stop and look at already brilliant creations like Skeleton Dance and Hell’s Bells from the late ’20s, the leaps and bounds taken in a mere decade by a remarkbly insular group of people are nothing short of breathtaking. In Fantasia, the Disney studio creates some of the most singular and beguiling images ever shown to us in any film, and as in all of their first five features, there’s a sense that we have never appreciably evolved beyond what they were accomplishing at this point. There are no CG films with this level of imagination — almost no films, period. Six of the seven sequences are inconceivably grand. Their majesty translates in any context, and their menace is equally unrestrained.

Of course, purists will ruin us all. It was classical music purists whose complaints about the film arguably contributed to its once-lowly reputation. It was animation purists who complained that an artificial pedestal of enlightenment was unworthy of Disney’s artistry — and the beauty and effervescence of Dumbo makes it hard not to at least kind of see their point. And finally, it is film-legacy and preservation purists who have managed to make Fantasia a bit thorny for a modern audience to fully appreciate, at least an audience of children who deserve its magic even if children were never the primary target. In an effort to recreate the traditional concert experience, Disney hired James Wong Howe to shoot linking sequences of an orchestra tuning up, jamming and screwing up, and beloved classical music critic Deems Taylor introducing and explaining each sequence before it starts. It makes some sense in the context of the full-on experience Disney pictured, since at symphonic concerts I’ve been to this is in fact what generally occurs, and it doesn’t break the magic of the music because it’s just an external commentary.

But we see films differently in 2013, and inevitably all of Taylor’s scenes are a part of the movie, which in turn hurts its sense of pacing and its hypnotic hold upon us. Recognizing this, rereleases in 1946 and later on in the ’80s either clipped Taylor’s scenes and the orchestral meandering or dropped them entirely, whereas modern DVD releases, understandably anxious to completely reproduce the original theatrical experience, include every moment of the 125-minute picture, intermission included and subsequent RKO-imposed title sequence excluded (because you were meant to look in your program for the credits). That’s a splendid effort, but Taylor’s endless rambling introductions, charmingly dated though they are (among other things, he classifies The Nutcracker as a little-known, rarely-performed ballet), rob the film of a good deal of its elegance and mystery. I have not seen the film without his intrusions in over twenty years, but I must imagine that it’s a stronger experience from a contemporary standpoint. It’s especially problematic at the dragging back in from intermission (with the tiresome “Sound Track” sequence, wherein Taylor has a conversation of sorts with the film’s optical soundtrack — yeah), which does little but give a sense of the boredom of sitting in your seat waiting for the show to start again. That said, it’s easy enough to program them out of your DVD player for a spell, and Disney does display some prophetic sense of this when he doesn’t have Taylor come back out at the finale to say his goodbyes, thank heavens.

But as soon as Taylor shuts up and Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” begins, it is to drift into cinematic oblivion. Oskar Fischinger, of all people, was consulted on what amounts to an effort by Disney and director Sam Armstrong to introduce a mass audience to avant garde filmmaking. Some purists (again) protest that because the sequence drifts upward from footage of the orchestra playing and later uses real-world objects as a basis for its evocative visual stunts, it is not true “avant garde.” But for anyone sensing the pangs and tension in the music and floating into the dreamworld permitted therein, to see this is to see the act of listening somehow rationalized; it beats Windows Media Player, anyway. And is there any way to “live up” to Bach besides to go on a tangent of strange images and thoughts?

Armstrong also served as the director of the deeply imaginative and moving “Nutcracker” sequence, which has nothing to do with the actual ballet and is much the better for it. It’s essentially a showcase for the stunning leaps forward in Disney’s animation team in terms of their work on movement. The dancing in this sequence, so far from the wonderfully stilted strangeness of Ub Iwerks’ work on Skeleton Dance, was choreographed by Jules Engel and communicates a kind of grace and exuberance that no other cartoon had quite attained up to now. Of course, the intoxicating romance in Tchaikovsky’s music does much of the work — the falling leaves at the Waltz of the Flowers are a lilting, carefully designed illustration of deepest passion, and passion was a new conceit to even the Disney studio. The subservience to beauty in these two sequences would be enough to justify its place in a pantheon.

Fantasia only improves from there, however, even if it reaches its true emotional peak early. James Algar’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” originally a Silly Symphony that went vastly over budget and thus inspired the creation of Fantasia itself, is more than a Mickey cartoon, it’s a living nightmare of power and control, with violence and humor in equal and unsettling turns. Mickey himself wakes up transformed, his eyes newly pupiled and complex, but is still the mischievous ne’er-do-well of Steamboat Willie rather than the corporate figurehead to come. Of course you know the story, but perhaps you’ve forgotten its intensity, its artistic largeness and how long down the dark and foreboding path it goes with a simple fantasy of assertion that finally grows into an immature boy’s mythic near-demise. Algar takes every idea in this piece as far as it can go — he sees Mickey’s self-congratulation as the gateway to a belief that he can and will control the stars, that he is himself God, that God possesses no limits. The levity and humor of the final moments are an act of forgiveness that would seem inappropriate if Mickey’s confusion and suffering didn’t finally feel strong enough to have earned such tough-love kindness. In small terms, it’s a perfect parenting moment: you let the kid fend for himself and then he learns that he is yet nothing without your guidance. But seen in terms either big or small, the cartoon is a masterpiece.

Each half of Fantasia closes with its most aesthetically impressive and potentially divisive sequence. Just before the intermission we are given the tremendous, challenging “Rite of Spring,” directed with aplomb by Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield. Igor Stravinsky’s wildly controversial ballet was considered a contemporary piece of music at the time; less than three decades earlier it had created mass chaos at the Champs-Élysées. Hence, Disney’s impressively inspired choice of this as the soundtrack for his sprawling examination of the birth and early evolution of life on Earth — two hours shorter than The Tree of Life, incidentally, and Sean Penn-free — is as much an admirable stretch and new avenue for his studio and audience musically as the “Toccata” was visually. And in much the same way that the prior two segments were cause for showboating by Disney’s best-in-the-business character animation team, “Rite” showcases the studio’s effects animation department, better than the best in the business (not to mention art director John Hubley, who helps to so vividly craft apocalyptic images and would later create such masterworks as Rooty Toot Toot for UPA). The science is dated now — the colorful dinosaurs, which used baby alligators as reference, reflect limitations in knowledge as of the late ’30s — but what resonates is the lengthy piece’s commitment to science, and especially to the idea of origins and evolution, embraced unequivocally. As this vivid, stirring creation plays on, its sheer size and scope become more and more overwhelming — as bacterium grow into massive, predatory life and finally something new crawls from the hellish, deadening heat of a mass extinction — and it seems clear that the Disney team is capable of anything.

Perhaps it’s reassuring, then, that they could also still fuck up magnificently. Beethoven’s glorious “Pastoral Symphony” is the source for an audaciously tasteless and drab cartoon revolving around centaurs and cherubs and fauns and gods, all superfluously cutesified in an instance of all of the worst excesses often prescribed to Disney’s animation, resisted elsewhere in this film. Thematically, it’s unworthy of Beethoven, and a choice that even Stokowski fought against despite dutifully arranging the music with love and care. Its offensiveness is compounded by its eye-weighting length, and it seems to last even longer than it actually does (about twenty minutes). All modern prints of Fantasia censor several shots in this part of the film because of racially-stereotyped centaurette characters; thus we have no truly complete version of the film, and yet because this sequence is so awful and so clearly doesn’t belong, no one actually cares. It’s disastrous enough, despite the presence of a fine director like Hamilton Luske along with the more dubious Ford Beebe and Jim Handley, that it seems worse than the weakest of the Silly Symphonies — and yes, I’ve seen them all — or at least on a level with entries in that series as dull and garish as Funny Little Bunnies, The Golden Touch (directed by Disney himself) and Water Babies. It’d be nice if the intermission continued long enough to gobble up this brightly colored, heavily outlined, ultimately very stupid thing — but it’s still not enough to taint all else that Fantasia offers.

At “Dance of the Hours,” all is forgiven. For me, this is the singular moment of the picture and one of the absolute peaks of American animation, a first-rate and virtually perfect piece of filmmaking that rides atop an overused, almost trite ballet and speeds it off into elegant, sumptuous oblivion with wit and something like ecstasy: borrowing the motif of time, it brings us dancing ostriches then hippos and then crocodiles and elephants, all individually characterized and all buoyant and magnificent dancers. T. Hee and Norm Ferguson’s direction of all of this is chaotic in the right ways, cartoonish and silly in others, finally an act of absolute seductive joy that seems to sing out with glee. In comparison with any of the other sequences in Fantasia, it explodes with its sense of fun and perverse, adorable, vibrant romance — sharp yet entirely free of cruelty or cynicism. That shot wherein the hippo Hyacinth runs from one group of crocodiles only to be confronted by another and briefly lets her guard down to expose the pure, unfettered joy of the moment: that may be my favorite couple of seconds in all of the cinema I’ve been exposed to.

The closing “Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria” is nearly as haunting as Pinocchio at its most disturbing and may stand with The Old Mill (an in-name-only Silly Symphony) as the technical apex of the studio’s output. Sourcing its vision of evil and decay from Mussorgsky and the terrifying figure of Chernabog from a caricature of its director Wilfred Jackson without his shirt (the great animator Bill Tytla preferred Jackson’s visage to the provided reference material of Bela Lugosi), it uses some of the most nightmarish images in the catalog of American cartoons, floating spirits personified by skeletal ghosts, portraits of terror that owe more to the Fleischers’ Snow White than to Disney’s Skeleton Dance and call ahead to UPA’s legendary Tell-Tale Heart. And at the crack of dawn and the first ringing of the bells comes Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” following the bracingly pious and impressionistically foggy portrait of monks in procession into morning services. For anyone, the presentation of the ideal of the morning light and the bells of worship washing away the unforgiving evil of the night is a stirring notion, presented as beautifully by Disney as anyone ever could. But the sense of dread and fear in “Bald Mountain” is unresolved by the resolution; it’s a threat that penetrates like nothing else I’ve seen. Just as Vertigo doesn’t give you even credits to cushion the final blow, this movie just cuts to black and leaves you there. Perhaps it will all happen again when darkness falls; perhaps it always will.

Walt Disney was only a producer and ideas man by this point (he stopped directing in the early ’30s), although his creative input into nearly every film released by his studio at this point arguably eclipses that of his actual directors and animators. But when seeing Fantasia now, your takeaway is the remarkable extent to which he used his stature as a great popular artist nearly invariably for good rather than evil: introducing a mass audience to avant garde cinema with “Toccata and Fugue,” literally easing them into the idea; likely opening the universe for thousands of future dancers in “Nutcracker”; and thumbing his nose at creationists in “The Rite of Spring.” This was Disney’s peak moment in many ways; a strike at the studio just a year later would wear him down, as would the oncoming war and the loss of the European market. By the time he’d gain his footing again in the early ’50s, he would be a changed man in a changed marketplace; reality would have finally set in. The onset of such reality began, I suppose, with the box office failure of both Pinocchio and Fantasia; you can make a convincing argument that Disney was an unflappable enough figure not to be discouraged by such matters, but never again would he produce a film quite so far-reaching, ambitious and potentially alienating as these two. He would do great things but would never again put faith in a mass audience to go with him wherever he thought it interesting to take them.

Alfred Hitchcock, underestimating the power of great storytelling (which, to me, is different from the sort of movie I’m addressing and equally important) said that one day we wouldn’t need movies anymore, the “director” would just press a certain button to get the proper emotional reaction from the audience. Fantasia comes pretty close, and this is 1940. Kitsch, nothing — the power it has is almost unsettling (enough to render a film like Blowup, whose use of abstraction is so trite by comparison, quite silly); the only thing more riveting than seeing it is, afterward, wondering — as animator Ollie Johnston did in an interview half a century later — where the studio (and industry) would have gone next if the film had been a success.

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