Saturday, November 12, 2011

Disney’s “Fantasia” Encourages Your Imagination to Soar

Disney's Third Animated Feature - 1940
Back in June, when we ran Regina Robbins’s essay on Disney’s Dumbo, I included a short sidebar on 1940’s Fantasia. In retrospect, I believe I gave this film short shrift. It’s easy to dismiss this film, since Walt Disney himself all but offered a public apology for this box-office bomb. At the time, he commented, “We all make mistakes. Fantasia was one but it was an honest mistake.” I would never describe this as a mistake. It was created as a showcase for the talented, innovative Disney animators, allowing them to push their artistic and technical skills to the limit, mostly unfettered by the demands of story. And that’s a big risk, because without story, it’s a lot more difficult to engage an audience. After all, stories are the way we make sense of the world, and without characters to care about and stories to follow, Fantasia does drift, even flounder at times. On the plus side, this film is at times entrancing, at all times risky, and pushed film animation to new heights of excellence. I think Fantasia can—in the era of the dvd player—fulfill its original promise: to encourage an appreciation of classical music in children. The sequences that went “right” in Fantasia are superb; and the parts that went “wrong” are what your “fast forward” and “skip” buttons are for.

Fantasia is a must-see for serious students of animation, but it’s been decades since this was cutting edge. Today, the appeal lies in the amazingly hand-drawn images of flowers and sea creatures, as well as ballerina ostriches and hippos. What’s less successful? I’d say the inclusion of music critic and composer Deems Taylor who introduces the movie and every individual segment. Deems explains and over-explains the experience in not particularly kid-friendly terms. It’s a bit “eat your vegetables” for me. The implication is that unless this is dumbed down, you’re going to hate it. Perhaps Deems was unwittingly communicating the fears of Walt himself. No need to worry: the animated sequences speak for themselves, clearly and beautifully, and rise and fall on their own merits.

Individual segments from Fantasia could have great appeal for kids in specific circumstances. For instance, the segment, Night On Bald Mountain would make a great choice for a children’s Halloween party, scary in that “jump out and yell boo” sort of way, and filled with chills without violence. The first piece—Bach’s Toccata and Fugue In D Minor—is a play of silhouettes of musicians, colored light effects, and shadow play, a different form of animation and cinematic abstraction. I’m reminded of the footage of real people that Disney animators would match to create their animations, such as the footage of dancer Marge Champion that formed the basis for the dancing sequences in Snow White. You can see some rare Disney reference footage on bonus tracks and here.

The Nutcracker Suite, interpreted by sparkling, iridescent fairies reminiscent of Tinkerbell or the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty, brings a garden to life in the moonlight. The famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Mickey Mouse, uses magic to haul water to disastrous effect. Mickey’s a breath of fresh air, a character we can hang our sorcerer’s hat on. And it needs no explanation, from Deems or anyone else.

In one sequence, we see the scientific beginnings of life on Earth. The animation begins in space, finds the Milky Way, and travels to the gaseous, violent surface of an unrecognizable Earth. We pass through the era of first life in the primordial ooze, through the various eras of the dinosaurs, leading to a dying off of the dinos against a recognizable Monument Valley in Utah; then onto mass extinction, cataclysms, and the creation of the Rocky Mountains and Grand Canyon. There’s an interesting lesson here. In the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we had story plus character, and it was enthralling. Here, we have a great story, but no actual characters, and it’s a bit less engaging. The next sequence “stars” the Sound Track in the “character” of a waveform with some fanciful interpretations of what the sound of a harp looks like. This isn’t so much a mistake as it is unnecessary. The music isn’t dragging anything down. If anything, it’s the visual storytelling that (sometimes) forgets the a-b-c’s of storytelling itself.

Beethoven’s Pastoral is set to a mythological day in the country with unicorns, fawns, Pegasus, Bacchus—you get the picture. Baby animals in pastel colors will appeal to youngsters. But this scene is famous for its long-deleted racist depictions of half horse/half human centaurs. You can see the unedited version of the Pastoral on Youtube here. Disney certainly didn’t invent racism, but neither was he ahead of the curve on the subject of dealing in cheap stereotypes. Extraordinary in many ways, Disney was all too ordinary when it came to embodying the racial prejudices of his day. But any serious student of historic media will be confronted with the issue of racism in our society.

Did Fantasia betray a racist sensibility? Yes. Was its animation at times soaring and brilliant? Again, yes. In short, it was of its time, and history is a messy place. Take a close look at virtually any earlier Disney film and you’ll find examples of racism, sexism, and homophobia, such as the moment from Snow White where Dopey puts a cymbal on his head and strikes a pose as a stereotype of an Asian person. In the same scene, Doc curtseys like a woman or perhaps he’s making fun of the idea of an effeminate man. Regina Robbins discussed the famous crows from Dumbo and found them no more offensive than other cheap stereotypes. In honoring these films, we choose to hold them in regard despite moments that betray the uglier aspects of our shared past. It’s easy to find these examples in Disney films and in virtually all media from this era. A tougher task is to identify lingering racism, sexism, and homophobia in today’s cinema (though sometimes, not so tough). A student of history would do well to keep their eyes wide open. I try to point out the less admirable bits when I see them, but I don’t hesitate to praise deserving moments. We own both histories. We are both histories.

You can watch Fantasia in its entirety on Youtube. What do you think? Does Fantasia have a place in your dvd collection?

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