Bea’s Reviews: Fantasia (1940)

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Directors: Samuel Armstrong/James Algar/ Bill Roberts/ Paul Satterfield/ Ben Sharpsteen/ David D. Hand/ Hamilton Luske/ Jim Handley/ Ford Beebe/ T. Hee/ Norman Ferguson/ Wilfred Jackson

Fantasia is a sensory, emotional experience which one can only appreciate through the act of watching it. With a curious yet ultimately effective cross-pollenation of Disney animation and style inter-spliced and given a resonating voice through classical music (replicated by Deems Taylor and an accomplished orchestra led by Leopold Stokowski) by the immortal likes of Bach, Tchikovsky and Beethoven among but a few, no other words could accurately describe this one of a kind foray. Disney had a lot riding on this feature, not the least of which being it’s very reputation because nothing like it had ever been attempted by the studio in the past and it is highly likely if Fantasia had fallen flat on it’s face, Disney may never have quite recovered. Thank The Mouse this didn’t happen.

Fantasia, at least in my case, introduced me to not only the wilder concepts of imagination Disney was already known for but of course to the spanning world of classical music and I’m not ashamed to postulate that it was Fantasia which made me appreciate the lays of bygones past.

Actually, as a matter of fact, since I feel like my above statements weren’t enough, allow me to give my own two cents of each segment with a bit of help from everybody’s favourite assignment cram source. Please note, my thoughts are not a reflection of the quality of the film.

Segment One: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

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Synopsis: A series of live-action shots of the orchestra illuminated in blue and gold, backed by superimposed shadows, fade into abstract patterns. Animated lines, shapes and cloud formations reflect the sound and rhythms of the music.

Thoughts: A casual and brief introduction into the nature of how music works in a practical sense which isn’t so much about your creative side running wild, but a general preview of what is to come. Conductor Deems Taylor affably describes the influential nature of classical music in a refreshingly non-pretentious way which is as informative as it is entertaining.

Segment Two: Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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Synopsis: Selections from the ballet suite underscore scenes depicting the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn to winter. A variety of dances are presented with fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves, including Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Flutes, Arabian Dance, Russian Dance and Waltz of the Flowers.

Thoughts: Too. Freakin’. Cute. A colourful, lively sequence which never fails to bring a smile to my face that may come across as overly saccharine to some, but hey, it’s Disney. My favourite ‘character’ is a small mushroom who desperately tries so hard to keep up with it’s larger peers at one point even falling out of frame only to come hurriedly waddling back. Thinking about it even now makes me squee, it’s so adorable.

Segment Three: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

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Synopsis: Based on Goethe’s 1797 poem Der Zauberlehrling. Mickey Mouse, the young apprentice of the sorcerer Yen Sid, attempts some of his master’s magic tricks but does not know how to control them only for things to get out of hand incredibly quickly.

Thoughts: A benchmark in every sense of the word with that recognizably magical yet also vaguely intimidating score. Mickey as per usual is charming and means well, but the moment he gets cocky with making a broom do his chores, that’s when affairs becoming surprisingly dark as the magic overwhelms him so much he needs to resort to picking up an axe and smashing the holy-moly out of the brooms only for it to backfire again. It’s not until an understandably miffed Yen Sid intervenes and sets things right culminating in him giving Mickey Mouse a brief whack on the backside with a broom. It’s an incredibly well-animated sequence which compliments what you hear with what you see.

Segment Four: Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

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Synopsis: A visual history of the Earth’s genesis is depicted to selected sections of the ballet score. The sequence progresses from the planet’s formation to the first living creatures, followed by the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs.

Thoughts: This is undoubtedly one of the most rawest parts of the film that is surprising in it’s detail and calculating in it’s approach. There is no attempt at humanizing any of the featured creatures in this recount of Earth’s birth and evolution, creating a separation between us and what we see on screen. Nevertheless, when the Tyrannosaurus Rex faces off against that poor Stegosaurus (in what is actually a very violent scene) complete with Stravinsky’s compelling music you feel powerless. When the dinosaurs commence their painful demise thanks to starvation and extreme and unsympathetic environmental changes, it wastes no time for audience reconciliation as the world shakes and breaks apart, the tides advancing over the bodies of the fallen titans to make way for a new generation of life.

Intermission/Meet the Soundtrack

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Synopsis: The orchestra musicians depart and the Fantasia title card is revealed. After the intermission there is a brief jam session of jazz music led by a clarinettist as the orchestra members return. Afterward a humorously stylized demonstration of how sound is rendered on film is shown. An animated sound track ‘character’, initially a straight white line, changes into different shapes and colors based on the sounds played.

Thoughts: After the previous segment, this is undoubtedly a soft lead in again works as more as an instructional piece as opposed for one made for entertainment. However, to hear all of the talented musicians riff off of each other is a treat that you might even find yourself dancing smoothly along with it. By the way, look out for the band member who accidentally trips up while returning to his seat earning chuckles from his peers.

Segment Five: The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven

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Synopsis: A mythical Greco-Roman world of colorful centaurs and centaurettes, cupids, fauns, pegasai and other figures from classical mythology is portrayed to Beethoven’s music. A gathering for a festival to honor Bacchus, the god of wine, is interrupted by Zeus, who creates a storm and directs Vulcan to forge lightning bolts for him to throw at the attendees. In the end, all resolves itself and all of the mystical denizens are left to return to their dreams for another night.

Thoughts: Okay, first- HOLY NUDITY, BATMAN. Although this segment is not prurient in the slightest, the beautiful centaurettes we first meet in their forest preening themselves are proudly bare-chested as they are tended to equally butt-nakies cupids (no front genitalia though). For an animated film made by a mainstream studio, I admit I was taken aback by seeing these homo-equine babes and their diminutive helpers parading around in what their gods gave them. However, this honestly shouldn’t come as a bother since it’s not done in a pornographic fashion, if anything, it displays how comfortable everybody living in this vibrant, mystical world feel in their bodies and with each other.

The harmony and beauty in Beethoven’s work is perfectly reflected here complete with a mummy and daddy pegasus with their adorable brood, playful fauns playing their flutes, galloping unicorns and various divine entities who make an appearance in addition to that cheeky aforementioned Vulcan. The usage of colour during this section is utterly jaw-dropping as everywhere you look, a festive palette is absolutely everywhere to seen. Certainly one of my personal favourite parts of the film.

Segment Six: Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli

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Synopsis: A comic ballet in four sections: Madame Upanova and her ostriches (Morning); Hyacinth Hippo and her servants (Afternoon); Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe (Evening); and Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators (Night). The finale finds all of the characters dancing together until their palace collapses.

Thoughts: Oh lordy, beautiful, irreverent chaos combined with surprising anthropomorphic grace is the order here. Dance of the Hours is a piece I adore because of this hilarious and light-hearted romp. Witnessing animals traditionally associated with brute force such as elephants and hippopotamuses pull off fancy ballet moves becomes a non-issue because the segment fully commits itself to it’s joviality and jubilance. Hyacinth Hippo is a thick and feisty lady who isn’t afraid to tease her alligator paramour with her grace and sass, which, if you ask me, is a prime case for body confidence if there ever was one.

Segment Eight: Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky/Ave Maria by Franz Schubert

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Synopsis: At midnight the Earth-bound devil Chernabog awakes and summons evil spirits and restless souls from their graves to his home of Bald Mountain. The spirits dance and fly through the air until driven back by the sound of an Angelus bell as night fades into dawn. A chorus is heard singing Ave Maria as a line of robed monks is depicted walking with lighted torches through a forest and into the ruins of a cathedral.

Thoughts: Hands down, quite possibly my favourite segment during the entire show. Those who say Disney can’t do scary either a) haven’t seen ANY Disney or b) are in complete denial because watching this probably traumatized them as a child. From the opening moment we zoom in on Bald Mountain with Chernabog perched upon his See to the closing notes of the Ave Maria we bear witness to the classic battle between Good and Evil, the clash between the profane and the sacred all stunningly realized through the synchronous alliance of orchestral power and visual beauty. Once again, I have Fantasia to thank for knowing about Mussorgsky’s absolutely thrilling work. Listening to and watching the animation work together, you feel like you are bearing witness to the ultimate accumulation of that is unholy, and as Stokowski conducts his congregation, as does Chernabog as he summons his children forth to dance, worship and condemn themselves for his pleasure all over again.

To counterbalance the infernal orgy, when the light of day (and presumably the divine God) and the bells ring, the damned return to their graves as a dawn service is held with a gorgeous rendition of Ave Maria– the evil has been combated, but as it is with all immortal struggles, it is only a matter of time before Chernabog will awaken again.

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