Disney Revisited: Fantasia

Some thoughts after rewatching Fantasia (1940)…

  • Just as with Snow White, it’s first and foremost a work of art. Each element of Fantasia—its length and scope; its clouds of abstraction, exploding with light and color; even its 15-minute intermission—is calculated to impress its ambition and absolute beauty on the viewer. The language of Deems Taylor’s interstitial narration further frames Fantasia as “a new form of entertainment.” It flaunts its innovation and cultural significance.
  • It’s middlebrow to the core. Fantasia is a utopian, anti-elitist vision of art in the 20th century. It sets out to give everyone (children and adults, rich and poor, college-educated and illiterate) equal access to the wonders of classical music. It’s a book-of-the-month club approach that tries to enlighten and flatter its mass audience simultaneously. However, in the process of rendering its subject matter more accessible, it also erases a lot of context and nuance. (This goes not only for classical music but for earth’s evolutionary history, of which the Rites of Spring sequence claims to be a “coldly accurate reproduction,” and for Greek myth, as witnessed with the Pastoral Symphony.)
  • The whole film is premised on Mickey Mousing—i.e., synchronizing onscreen motion with the rhythms of the music. Superficially, this technique works: it makes the music and image feel made for each other, as if both were telling the same story. But it also strikes me as inherently limiting and literal-minded, suggesting an artificial one-to-one relationship. It allows even Fantasia’s abstractions to degenerate into cutesy anthropomorphism, hopping along to the beat of the music. The film works best when it plays with this schema, using it to draw out invisible parallels rather than for straightforward cross-media mimicry.
  • The Rites of Spring sequence is startlingly naturalistic and brutal. Even within the constraints of Mickey Mousing, its prehistoric world finds room to breathe. Before unifying its dinosaurs against the threat of the tyrannosaurus, the segment glides from one milieu to another, observing vicious, survival-driven animals at work. (One vignette, in which a pteranodon flies into the jaws of a mosasaurus, is especially haunting.) Once the tyrannosaurus has devoured its prey, it refuses to wrap up neatly, but drags on through a drought and ice age. It’s a bleak, unsentimental representation of extinction-inducing cataclysms.
  • Chernebog from Night on Bald Mountain is a masterstroke of character design. Like the Queen from Snow White, he’s a figure of charismatic, confident evil—a mass of dense, fleshy darkness punctuated by a pair of yellow eyes. He’s majestic, even graceful, as he leads the Walpurgisnacht rites. Sweeping across the countryside, raising hell with mere gestures, Chernebog resembles the sorcerer from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And both, in their godlike fashions, call to mind Fantasia’s conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Or another figure who could create worlds with gestures: Walt Disney.
  • The whole film has a quasi-religious aura to it. It’s all too appropriate that Fantasia ends with dawn breaking to the tune of Schubert’s Ave Maria. The segment, and by extension the rest of Fantasia, feels designed to engender reverential awe in the viewer. Going back to my first point about its self-conscious artistry, Fantasia is meant to be vast, overwhelming, more than just a movie. It’s billed as a synthesis of aural and visual art (“Hear the pictures! See the music!” crowed its tagline) and, by implication, as the culmination of both. This, Fantasia seems to say, is all that can be done. It’s as far as you can go. For me, it’s emblematic of Disney’s status as the monolithic representative of all animation. It’s an open invitation to give up, come inside, and worship at the temple of Walt.

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Music

2 responses to “Disney Revisited: Fantasia

  1. motown missile

    It may interest you to know that Chernebog was modelled after Bela Lugosi, and in fact Lugosi was contracted to sit for Disney’s chief animators in life drawing classes so his likeness could be captured for use in “Fantasia”.

    • I had read that, but it turns out that they later discarded that particular design and revamped Chernebog completely—which makes sense, since his final form in Fantasia looks nothing like Lugosi. Still, it gives a hint of what they had in mind when developing the character.

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