Fantasia (1940) Review
It has been ages since I have updated this. For those of you who care (Hi Alex!) I have been quite busy plus…this one was hard. I was determined to do the reviews in order but ‘Fantasia’ was a struggle to write about. So hopefully I will go back to posting once every week or so from now on. So rejoice! Sing! Dance! Tie ribbons in your hair! And let’s look at Disney!
What do I know about the film?
You have to hand it to Walt. Sure he was a tad grumpy, a wee bit odd, a smidgey-widgey bit racist, but I have to admire his raw inimitable ambition. While developing several films at once and launching them like brilliantly drawn ships into the cinematic sea (I don’t know. I’m tired and don’t like editing) he began working on a musical vehicle for his beloved Mickey Mouse. And while it is Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice that adorns the front of VHS and DVD cases throughout the world, ‘Fantasia’ ended up being so much more than a way to gain some love for the Mouse. It became a film designed to introduce classic music to the movie going public.
To fully realise their vision they had to create a new way of recording sound. Seriously. They called it Fantasound. Due to this revolution in film making cinemas showing ‘Fantasia’ had to be kitted out with new speakers, this was the precursor to surround sound, just so audiences could feel the full effect. In their ears. ‘Fantasia’ was a labour of love that became not just a film but an experience.
Thanks to the wonderful Paw and Elisa from thatguywiththeglasses.com, whose Fantasia review is far better than mine could ever be so please check it out, I also knew in advance that there are actually real people in this. So the statement in my first post about reviewing animated films only? A filthy lie apparently. Although this is included as one of the 52 Walt Disney Studio classics so…What can I do?
Plus the people are not characters as such…they are the orchestra, the conductor and our tour guide. Otherwise known as The Philadelphia Orchestra (although confusingly, they are not really members of this orchestra but in house staff and musicians miming to the Philadelphia Orchestra…Don’t ask me, I wasn’t there) the great Leopold Stokowski and the oddly named classical music expert Deems Taylor: All recruited by Disney during production to add a touch of authenticity to proceedings.
I also know there are a lot of different cuts of ‘Fantasia’ For the record, The copy I watched was 125 minutes long and I believe is considered the definitive version. However I could be wrong and if there is anything I don’t mention in the review that you think should have been touched on feel free to let me know (although please don’t get confused with ‘Fantasia 2000.’ That is coming much, much later) Frankly the fact that there are so many different versions floating around suggests getting the final reel together was a challenge and not everyone was impressed with the outcome. I am aware that Disney had a lot of ideas and wanted to make more ‘Fantasia’ films but then it did not do that well financially and the Second World War went ahead and read its Wikipedia page and realised it was time it got really serious so suddenly animation became….but I am getting ahead of myself. So back to 1940 we go. Although first a quick stop off in the 90’s…
Did I see it as a child?
I have the faintest, far away memory of the film being stuck on either at a Nursery I attended or very early into my primary school career. I wasn’t paying attention either way. Only three vague memories stick out…The first is of little mushrooms/toadstools doing a funny little dance to a happy sounding song, the second is of a dinosaur dying and it freaking me out and the third is Mickey Mouse being schooled by a wizard. So with that in mind…what the hell is this film about?
Erm…There isn’t really a synopsis. An orchestra tune up and we are told that this is a brand new form of entertainment designed to give us the visuals we see in our heads while listening to classical music. There are several distinct stages and even an interval. Then more music with different styles of animation. Then it ends.
Want more? Ok…
The First Section: Is a bit of the ol’ Bach played by the ‘orchestra’ to some abstract images in an attempt to recreate what can be experienced when your mind drifts while listening to classical tunes…
The Second Section: The Nutcracker Suite, composed by Tchaikovsky. Again there is no story but as the piece alters greatly from moment to moment pace wise, there is a lot to take in from fairies to fish, to thistles, all dancing and enjoying the music.
The Third Section: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas based on the famous poem by Goethe (This all seems impressive but ask me to pronounce any of these names) You may know it better as the bit where Mickey wears a pointy hat and finds he has too many brooms.
The Fourth Section: The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. The history of Earth. Again, can’t stress this enough, the man was ambitious. This was being worked on just after he had done the first ever full length animated film and he thought: ‘for an encore, why not a 20 minute history of Earth that contradicts the Christian faith as it is taught in America at the time and while I am at it, let us set it to some classical music?’
The Fifth Section: Intermission followed by Meet the Soundtrack…I am not sure how to explain this. We meet the music. Sorry, that is all I have on that.
The Sixth Section: The Pastoral Symphony by a little known newcomer called Beethoven. There are some centaurs, pegasi, cherubs and a few Gods. Zeus acts like a dick.
The Seventh Section: Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli as performed by some dancing elephants, hippos, ostriches and alligators.
The Eighth Section: Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky. A Demon summons all this evil to a little sleepy village and they have a big Hell party. But they are chased away by a church bell ringing and…
The Ninth and Final Section: …Ave Maria by Schubert. Some people in robes walk through a forest singing this very well known song.
Still with me? Alex? You out there? Either way here I go…
As I have noted I have a deep admiration for the ambition and scope of the project. For me now, over 70 years later, the concept still seems surreal and not really linked to what I expect to get from a film. Not just a Disney film…Any film. And it was great to watch something I had actually never seen attempted before. They say that there are a finite number of stories to tell. Disney found a way round this with ‘Fantasia.’ Forget the story. Let’s educate the suckers.
So did I learn anything? I don’t consider myself especially familiar with classical music but I think it is fair to say pretty much everything that is on offer in ‘Fantasia’ is a taster, a glimpse and pretty much Classical 101. Even if you don’t recognise the tunes you will have heard of the composers. Or if you don’t know who wrote them, you will know the tunes. Thanks to ‘The Simpsons’ The Dance of the Hours will forever be associated with the equally jaunty ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’ for me. My point is…It is a great place to start. And it is interesting. If you have never been to a classical concert before (don’t feel bad I haven’t. I like to sing along) you get a sense of the drama and excitement that comes from the striking up of an overture as well as the beauty and complexity of the melodies on show.
I think the best way to approach this is to highlight the sections that I felt were successful in getting me to care about what they were trying to do, if that makes sense. Am I judging the musical choices or the animation or how well they work together? I don’t know yet. Wait and see.
The Nutcracker Suite has some beautiful moments and it is certainly my favourite musically. I am a ballet fan and feel the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is paired up nicely animation wise with little glowing fairies lighting up the seasons. Have you ever closed your eyes and seen dancing colours? It is like that at first. And it works great for me. I wasn’t exactly enthralled because my mind wandered but then by their own admission they were going for that. In my mind I was dancing with them.
The little mushrooms are charming and the Russian Dance section performed by Scottish Thistles (No I am not making this up. I watched the film. I really did.) seemed to be alive and their energy was infectious. This section of the composition is my favourite as it is just so…joyous. That is the word. The music may have been overused in trailers and the like, but it is fully utilised in the chaotic thistle dancing here.
Then we return to our fairies and some really beautiful animation. The first half hour goes by in a rush as there is so much for the senses to take in even as my attention weaned in and out. It requires a certain amount of mental energy to take on everything ‘Fantasia’ is asking. Music and pictures may not be a shocking notion here in 2013, but the music has no words and the pictures have no story. I can’t stress enough how odd this was for me.
As a result I was relieved when Mickey Mouse and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice showed up. Here we have a protagonist. A familiar face in his best known role. And the story is one we all know. It is so easy to empathise with trying to put things right when you have bitten off more than you can chew and just making it worse. The moment when Mickey thinks it is over only to realise all the bits of the broom have formed many new bodies takes me back to many a photocopying disaster. Plus when the wizard shows up to school Mickey on not stealing his wizard hat and Mickey tries to get round him by smiling…haven’t we all done that?
I was barely on nodding terms with the music prior to my viewing. I knew the repeated refrain but only when prompted. It is great: the melody is mischievous, playful and just a bit sinister. And how you can not love an orchestration that requires a special keyed glockenspiel? All in all, I can see why this bit of the film endured as it did. Mickey will never be an especially warm protagonist but he gets a pass here mainly because he is actually playing a character and does it very well. Plus he doesn’t get dialogue so has to be more expressive than usual. You get a brief moment of him talking to the conductor at the end and it made me cringe cause I hate his speaking voice so much. Fun fact, Will Young also hates early Mickey Mouse. Another fun fact, The Wizard is called Yen Sid which is Disney backwards. That is the end of the fun facts.
This is all well and good but what is a cartoon without some hell demons? Oh don’t worry. Walter saved those for the end. I must have never got all the way through ‘Fantasia’ as a child because I am sure I would have remembered this. Night on Bald Mountain is a wet dream for fans of the macabre. Often labelled as The Devil himself, it is actually the demon Chernabog who rises from a mountain top in the dead of night to summon lost and weary souls for some banter. The animation director for this sequence Wilfred Jackson and the animator Bill Tytla and both deserve major props for capturing the chaos of the dammed and giving Chernabog a kind of menace rarely seen in animation. It is his smile, coupled with the lack of pupils in his eyes. He really loves his gig. Night on Bald Mountain is wonderfully imaginative, really tapping into the human fear of night and darkness that is drummed into us from a young age. Not to mention the breasts. There are a lot of those.
So naked breasts, satanic creatures and classical music…Is this film for children? But are any of these films truly kid’s films? Ask your average adult needing an hour or two away from their toddler and they will say yes. But if you really look at a sequence like Bald Mountain…Children CAN watch it in a way they can’t ‘A Clockwork Orange’ but a U rating does not make it a film for children. Something being a cartoon does not make it a thing for children. When did Disney become shorthand for babysitter anyway? It is so disrespectful to such innovative film making.
What has always set Disney apart from other cartoon making studios in America is the music. Watch your average made for family entertainment cartoon and the musical numbers are clumsy, forgettable and shoe horned in for the purposes of padding out a weak story. Disney took time, care and actual consideration over their songs. You don’t need to talk down to children. They will either get it or they won’t. ‘Fantasia’ is a wonderful example of what makes enjoying music such a personal experience. A lot of what they did in this film works for me. But then…
What Doesn’t Work:
Two words: Deems Taylor. Remember how I said just now that you don’t need to talk down to children? The same goes for any human people. And man, does this guy want you to understand what they are going for in each section. Look mate, as I have said I will either like it or I won’t. You don’t need to explain EVERYTHING. But he couldn’t hear me. And he did insist on explaining everything. I would have had a lot more respect for ‘Fantasia’ if the humans had stayed silent and the clips were not introduced. Would I have been confused? Maybe. But I’d rather be confused than bored. Patronising the patrons defeats the experience they are trying so hard to create. I don’t watch films to be lectured by a man who somehow manages to make the idea of ‘Gangster Dinosaurs’ seem dull.
Speaking of Gangster Dinosaurs…I am a huge fan of the Stravinsky ballet ‘Petrushka’ and dinosaurs are cool. So what went wrong with the Rites of Spring? Well unlike the story of Petrushka, the creation of the Earth and Stravinsky are not a good fit. The pace is terrible, the music does not go with the images at all and it just keeps going. And going. And going. I did not enjoy the music here one bit actually. It really could have done with the Theme from Jurassic Park to liven things up. Sorry Stravinsky. You win my newly created Worst Composition of the Week Award.
The pace is a problem more than once in ‘Fantasia.’ A lot of the sections have strong moments that outstay their welcome. While the colour pallet in The Pastoral Symphony is truly lovely and the mythical creatures frolicking and flirting is all very nice it is hard to care for the amount of time they are asking. Plus, what is with the pervy cherubs? There is even a sex gazebo for God’s sake! It is a little off kilter despite the nice imagery. Plus, this section looses points for omitting and flat out denying the existence of the black slave centaur, Sunflower, who was in the original cut. As the funny internet people at cracked.com pointed out: How is saying there are no black centaurs an improvement when you are trying not to be racist? ‘No we never, ever showed any black centaurs serving the white ones! Why would we show you black people?’
I enjoyed the Dance of the Hours because it is fun although it is a bit of a step down both in animation and imagination. And it goes on too long. The introduction is a little too abstract for me and even The Nutcracker Suite lost me at the Arab Dance as performed by fish. And Ave Maria seemed a bit of a cop out, like they were afraid to go out on something dark. The film kind of fizzles out. Basically what I am trying to say is there is more that didn’t work for me than did in terms of isolated sections and as a whole it is really, really messy.
So am I a philistine or was ‘Fantasia’ just trying too hard? It is difficult to say and you may just have to judge for yourself. But for me…This could have been so much more. Not everything deserved the screen time it got and if they had been more discerning about that and perhaps devoted more attention to matching the images to the tunes…Well…Perhaps I could give it more than just kudos for their attempt at something new.
For example, there is ‘What’s Opera Doc?’ the 1957 Looney Tunes cartoon that successfully references all these classical works while keeping their own creations consistent, the jokes funny and the pathos surprisingly moving. ‘Fantasia’ could have achieved this by giving less attention to the lavish but I suppose making a hit and miss cartoon that inevitably inspired better work from other creative minds is still something to be proud of.
It is not nearly as charming as it could be but man are the aspirations lofty with this one. There are flashes of genius, especially in Bald Mountain, and the idea of mixing different animation and music without dialogue is cool and I am sure inspired a lot of innovative cartoons over the years. I just wish there had been more to love and less that needed explaining. Oh so much explaining. Dam you Deems Taylor you boring bastard.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 6
Mickey brutally murders a broom with an axe, dinosaurs die, naked children, mean Zeus hates parties, kidnapping alligators and pretty much all of Bald Mountain.
My favourite piece musically would have to be the Russian Dance from The Nutcracker Suite. But for this film I am going to go with the best section. The only contender that comes close to the winner is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice which tells a memorable and cohesive story. But Night on Bald Mountain is just fantastic. Even removing that classic Disney controversy of having naked ladies dancing with demons, It is so cool and the music goes brilliantly with the sequence. Plus unlike a lot of what happens in this film it is not over-long and leaves you wanting more. Please check it out (Note: The cartoon has been taken down by the always vigilent Disney lawyers so here is the next best thing: The music and some of the imagery. Best I can do for now)
Bitchy elephants and controversial crows…It is Dumbo (1941)