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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.)


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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Texan

A couple of weeks ago, in a haze of post-Cannes enthusiasm, I said of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life: “I’m a sucker for cosmic spectacle, so Malick’s long-awaited Palme d’Or-winner might just do the trick for me.” I guessed right, because as soon as the screen filled with fireballs, asteroids, and planetary ballets, I was sucked in. The half-hour experimental film lodged in the middle of The Tree of Life held me rapt, glued to my seat, with my eyes wide open. (Mind you, this was at 10 AM on a Friday morning.) It’s like an expansion of the Rite of Spring sequence from Fantasia (or Boléro from Allegro Non Troppo), with a dose of Stan Brakhage and Godfrey Reggio.

Furthermore, I loved the dinosaurs. A lot of critics have derided the entire creation-of-earth sequence as misjudged, and they may be half-right, but let me posit this: in just a few prehistoric minutes, Malick outdid just about every other appearance of CGI dinosaurs ever. CGI dinosaurs are traditionally used, after all, as big, scary plot devices. Even Jurassic Park, the Citizen Kane of dinosaur movies, only gave its dinosaurs as much personality as was necessary for them to terrorize Laura Dern. Malick, however, treats his dinosaurs with as much tenderness and attention to detail as his human characters. It shows just how powerful special effects can be when used by a thoughtful filmmaker, self-indulgent as he may be.

My only problem with this abbreviated glimpse at the birth of the universe is that it makes The Tree of Life feel so piecemeal. Most of the film is devoted to Jack O’Brien—Sean Penn as an adult; the precocious Hunter McCracken as a boy—and his memories of childhood in 1950s Texas. The only real connective thread we get is the sense that the intimate is epic, that Jack’s personal development is analogous to the development of life on earth. Like much of the film itself, this logic is abstract, airy, and audacious, but slightly dissatisfying.

But that’s OK. The Tree of Life doesn’t have to be perfect, because it’s enthralling, poignant, and truly original, with enough quietly powerful imagery for several whole movies (possibly the ones Malick could’ve made in the past forty years). Edited in a swift-footed, anecdotal style that reminds me of Alain Resnais, with a camera that floats like a ghost and runs like a puppy, The Tree of Life darts with curious energy through Jack’s memories. We see his parents through his eyes: an angelic Jessica Chastain and a clean-cut, ex-Navy Brad Pitt who could be carved from the side of a mountain.

Sometimes these recollections will start to blend together; they’re so fragmentary and their borders are so ill-defined. But the film is unconcerned with narrative except in the broadest sense: Malick’s trying to capture the textures of childhood, its ebbs and flows, its guilty secrets and countless traumas. Sometimes he gets at this through fleeting father-and-son conversations, but more often it’s through glances and movements. Pitt and Chastain are only seen through Jack’s eyes, but their performances still speak about the joys of child-rearing and the tragedies of lost dreams.

Most of The Tree of Life unfolds with lyrical potency, tonally akin to a paean or a prayer. By this token, the film’s greatest failings are its occasional dips into bright, soppy sentiment. During a few fantastic interludes rife with whispered voiceover and, especially, during parts of the quasi-apocalyptic finale, The Tree of Life felt like the Lubezki-lensed equivalent to those tacky porcelain cherubs you see in thrift stores, or like the world’s greatest Hallmark Channel movie. But even then, and even when Sean Penn wanders superfluously around the fuzzy edges of the film, the evocation of family life is strong enough to carry the film along.

The Tree of Life was the first 2011 film I’ve seen. If the year yields anything else this good, I’ll be very, very happy.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Power Rangers

Granted, it’s Sunday, but the point is the same. This is the opening from the first season of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which ran from 1993-95. By buying tons of footage from Japanese tokusatsu shows, Saban Entertainment (which had a very bizarre logo) was able to brand a new product – one which was aimed directly at the American youth market of the mid-’90s. Embedded in the Power Rangers opening in a strange saga of cultural appropriation, national differences, and how to win over kids with awesomeness. It’s also a warning to those who would spell gerunds with no “g” and no apostrophe. But hell, it was still part of my early childhood.

Here’s a challenge: watch the Power Rangers opening side by side with the one for Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, the show from which it stole most of its fights and special effects. Now look at the significant changes in the Japan-to-America transition. Every weird Japanese touch has been left out, from the lifelike dinosaurs to any distinctly Japanese shooting locations to the traditional costumes and weapons of the original rangers. Saban strips away any non-American cultural specifics. Power Rangers begins with blunt exposition wherein comical hag/villain Rita Repulsa (formerly the Japanese “Bandora”) sets her sights on a really low-rent rendition of “earth,” and the wise face Zordon tells his robot buddy to “recruit a team of teenagers with attitude.” Ah, attitude, that ’90s zeitgeist.

One major difference between the Japanese and American iterations is the pace of the editing. Whereas the Japanese version, especially toward the end, has a relatively leisurely pace, Power Rangers takes its lightning bolt logo to heart. The characters are introduced in very brief snapshots, even using split-screen to get more information across faster. At times, shots go by so fast you can barely perceive them on anything but a subliminal level, as they cram in as many special effects as possible per second. Kenta Satō’s Japanese theme song is relaxed and triumphant; Ron Wasserman’s quasi-metal theme is far more repetitive and urgent. (Wasserman notably composed theme songs for other Saban series, like X-Men.) Lightning really is emblematic of what this opening is trying to do – it’s a sensory overload, striking kids with hyperactive music and flashing lights while emphasizing the Zords’ abilities to transform and unify.

So the transition from Japan to America is manifested not just in the language and the characters’ national identities, but also in the visual iconography and style. Zyuranger is another entry in a long-standing tradition of Japanese television; Power Rangers is the consummate American kids’ show, with attitude. As many have observed since the show began, Power Rangers‘ cast is a hilariously unsubtle attempt to recreate the American melting pot within a California suburb, including the likes of Trini Kwan, the generically Asian-American Yellow Ranger, to Kimberley Hart, the ultra-feminine Pink Ranger. It’s a curious collision between an America that’s supposedly beyond race and the need for extremely legible characters in such a fast-paced show. In the end, though, the individual Zords merge to form the Megazord. So maybe, in Saban’s America, an individual’s race is transcended by the awesomeness of the group.

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