51 Days of Disney (Day 3): Fantasia

Version watched: 2010 Blu-Ray release with Disney View

Let me get this out of the way right now, Fantasia is my favourite movie of all time, but that will not affect my review in any way. This movie is perfect enough as it is. It does not need my love of it to make it sound better.

Fantasia is a very interesting beast. It does not have any sort of centralized story or characters (unless you consider the announcer Deems Taylor to be a character). It doesn’t even really have a set style to it. Just as a note, I won’t really be talking much about the music as 1. it’s all unanimously amazing and 2. I really do not feel qualified when it comes to talking about music.

The best way to go about this is to review each segment individually, in my opinion, so that is how this is going to work.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

As Deems Taylor put it in his introduction to the segment, this piece is really just music for music’s sake. There is absolutely no story to this segment and I would say that it is the weakest segment of Fantasia. That being said, the images are gorgeous and the movement from subtle representations of the instruments themselves being played to heavenly lights in the sky is beautiful to behold.

Of course, saying that is this the weakest segment is like saying that this particular piece of gold is the least shiny in the pile.

The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

This segment, like the one before, does not really have a set story in Fantasia. It is mostly a representation of the changing of seasons via dancing plants, fish, and eventually faeries changing the seasons from fall to winter. What I find to be very interesting is how characters almost completely devoid of any sort of personality can be so popular. I am talking, of course, about the Chinese Mushrooms from this segment. Seriously, they are on a significant amount of the Fantasia merchandise and they even make an appearance at the Fantasia Gardens at Walt Disney World.

The most memorable part of this segment is the faeries that were mentioned earlier. Their movements are so beautiful and graceful that when combined with the frosting and the effects created from their “ice skating” freezing process that some absolutely gorgeous shots are created.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

This is the point (you know, 30 minutes into the movie) where it really start hitting it’s stride. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the first segment in Fantasia to have a very definite story, Mickey Mouse is the apprentice of the sorcerer Yensid and is tasked with filling a caldron with water. Mickey is incredibly overeager and decides to try some magic and brings a broom to life to help him carry water and in typical Disney fashion, everything goes wrong.

This is my second favourite part of Fantasia (the first will come later, much later). Everything about it is perfect. In all reality, it should be. It was the first segment made for the film and actually the reason the film was made. It was originally just a Mickey Mouse short, but the budget got so high on this one short that Walt Disney decided to take what he did on this particular short and make others like it to make what was then called “the Concert Feature.” This also marked the first time that the more modern and expressive Mickey Mouse that replaced the “Pie-eyed” Mickey on screen. As much as I love pie-eye Mickey, there really is no comparison. The scene where Mickey is on the mountain top magically playing with the stars and ocean surrounding him would have not nearly been as wondrous and magical (I couldn’t resist) without that look of childish glee in Mickey’s eyes and face. That particular part of this segment is easily one of my favourite scenes in cinema.

Just as a note, “Pie-eyed” Mickey’s eyes took up almost the entirety of the “mask” on his face. When they created the modern Mickey, the eyes were shrunk down to a size that allowed for more expressiveness in his eyes and facial movements.

One last thing, did anyone else get a little scared as a child when Mickey brutally chopped up the broom with the axe? I’m just curious.

The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinski

This section of Fantasia is a very violent and brutal representation of the creation of the Earth up to the death of the dinosaurs. It’s pretty scientifically accurate to what was known about dinosaurs at that time (don’t be expecting to see dinosaurs with feathers in the segment. Also, the T-Rex’s arms are too large and have 3 fingers) and it gets somewhat frightening at then end when the Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks.

I always wondered how this segment snuck by the wrath of fundamentalist groups, but it turns out that the segment was originally going to go all the way up to the birth of humans and the discovery of fire. Disney decided against this in order to not stir up a controversy.

Symphony Number 6 in F major, Op. 68 (Pastoral Symphony) by Ludwig von Beethoven

The Pastoral is easily the longest section of Fantasia. With a running time of over a half-an-hour, it could have been one of the most boring sections of the film if Disney had not chosen a suitable subject matter that would allow for  a large variety of images to be put on screen. The segment is based off of Greek mythology and has an incredibly large cast which allows for the segment to be segmented even more into a few short stories that all come together at the end.

One segment follows Peter Pegasus (yes, that is his actual name) and his family on an outing, another follows the centaurs preparing for a party with Bacchus (considering that this is based off of Greek mythology, his name should be Dionysus) and helping him to make the wine, and finally Zeus (in what is one of the best representations of Zeus in any movie I have seen) being a complete and total dick and ruining the party for everyone with the lightening bolts made by Vulcan (who should be Hephaestus. Seriously Disney, pick a mythology and stick to it).

Dance of the Hours by  Amilcare Ponchielli

The Dance of Hours is, coincidentally enough, about the times of the day. The morning is represented by Madame Upanova and her troupe of ballet dancing ostritches, afternoon is Hyacinth Hippo and her dancers, Elephanchine and her dancing elephants are the evening, and finally Ben Ali Gator and his alligator dancers represent the night.

Yes, they all do have names and they are the real names. You can’t make this stuff up.

This is easily the funniest segments of the film, and as such is one of the most well known. It is almost entirely full of slapstick humour and is, as such, a great representation of squash and stretch. Due to the involvement of the heavily stylized and “cutesy” animals, this is one of the more… merchandisable of the segments. When the film was just rereleased, there were a series of plushes for the film. There was of course, a Sorcerer Mickey and a Broom (I have those), but the other three were Madame Upanova, Hyacinth Hippo, and Ben Ali Gator. I would have loved them to have had a Chinese Mushroom, though.

Even this segment has quite a lot of park representation. Every year at the EPCOT Flower and Garden Festival, there are topiaries of Upanova and her dancers, Dance of the Hours (and to a much smaller extent the Pastoral Symphony) are featured in a large float in SpectroMagic, and the music and animation in this segment are in the film at the end of the Great Movie Ride. At least they chose a segment that was good for this amount of public sight, unlike the Carnival of the Animals from Fantasia 2000. I have some serious problems with that segment, but that is for another day.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgski/Ave Maria by Franz Schubert

This is easily the greatest segment of Fantasia and one of the most moving pieces of a Disney film. Night on Bald Mountain is genuinely scary, with it’s ghastly images of ghosts, demons, harpies, and other creatures of the night combined with the sheer terror that is dished out by Chernabog, the Slavic god of evil and easily the greatest Disney villain. There is some amazing looking animation with ethereal horsemen riding across the sky looking like something that is very much not of this world and Chernabog’s movements directly mirror that of a someone conducting an orchestra.

Part of what makes this first part so powerful (and what makes Chernabog such a great villain) is the fact that he is not working to achieve anything. He is not inherently antagonizing anyone in particular, he’s just doing what he does best: turning beauty into filth and playing with the dead under his control.

Ultimately it is the rising of the sun and the ringing of church bells that stops the arcane party and sends the forces of darkness slithering back into the mountain. The segment switches to Ave Maria at this point and is where the major emotional resonance comes into play. The imagery is very subtle at this point, everything is very soft and pleasant to contrast with the visual harshness of Bald Mountain. Ultimately, it is the tracking shot travelling through the cathedral like forest near the end that brings a lump to people’s throats. It shows just how beautiful and divine the natural world can be and the rising of the sun is a perfect ending for both the battle of good and evil that just transpired and the film itself.

When Fantasia was first released in 1940, it was a colossal failure both critically and commercially. People just did not know how to react to it. It was incredibly experimental and was Walt Disney’s attempt to really push the art form that was animation to a higher state. There were shots in this movie that were not even known how they were achieved until a notebook was found in recent decades that documented how everything was created. Disney tried to make something that would push the medium and also something that could have been rereleased every year with segments being rotated in and out of  the film as new segments were made. This, of course, did not happen until Roy O. Disney finally got Fantasia 2000 to be made. It is incredibly unfortunate that this film was not profitable until the 1969 re-release when it became popular mostly for it’s… psychedelic qualities. The film did so horribly when it was first released that it almost bankrupted the company, but that is a topic for another day.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Favourite movie of all time? I just didn’t get it – if anything, it made me angry. Angry enough to blog about: http://tinyurl.com/DDFantasia

    Reply

  2. […] segment down to the music from the original Fantasia, if you want a review for it you can find it here. The only differences are the introduction by Penn and Teller (which is the best one in the film) […]

    Reply

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