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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"We Have Here a Picture of the Struggle Between the Profane and the Sacred."

             “Ginger?”
            “Yeah, Bre?”
            “I think I have a problem.”
            “What is it?”
            “Amazon says that Fantasia isn’t supposed to come out until November 30th.”
            “Oh no.  What are you going to do?”
            “Well, I found the old VHS copy of it the other day.  I thought I might just watch that.”
            “Well, that should be fun.  Vintage and classic.”
            “By vintage and classic, you mean obsolete and annoying?”
            “… Yeah, that too.”
            That was the phone conversation my sister and I had a few days ago.  It seems Disney did a bit of a miss print for their Beauty and the Beast release and it has left me in a bit of a lurch.  But I still want to go on with my marathon, so this has become one of those occasions where you do what you have to do with what you’ve got.  Though I would have loved to experience Fantasia in glorious blu-ray for this marathon, I’m more interested in getting all fifty flicks done in a timely manner.  I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but I’m really, really glad that my folks never got rid of the VCR.
            Hee, I had forgotten about that classic Disney VHS logo.  It brings me back to our basement in Virginia when I used to line up all of our Disney movies in chronological order… yes, I was a dork for Disney back then too.  It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Fantasia, at least all the way through, and I know that I have yet to watch the full thing as an adult.  So it’s almost as though I’m watching this film for the first time.
            First impressions: I can kind of understand why this film did not do so hot during its first pass in movie theatres back in 1940.  I know that seems like blasphemy to say considering what a landmark film it would go on to be.  But think about what had come before it: Snow White and Pinocchio.  Animated fairy tales.  Fantasia opens with a live action conductor and orchestra, and though it is visually compelling to see silhouettes of the musicians performing music with only impressions of color behind them, it must have left many a mass market 1940 movie go-er quite confused.
            “This is by the same guy that made that Snow White and Mickey Mouse picture show?”
            But I have to say as someone who has studied film, the transition from the live action orchestra to the animation during the first piece was seamless and a very appropriate way to marry the two worlds for the film.  It is here in the opening where the audience realizes that they are not watching a film, but watching animators work in tandem with an orchestra.  Instead of listening to a symphony, we are watching the emotions that music can evoke.  It was a concept that was, needless to say, ahead of its time and still something you don’t see in this day and age.
            But the animation most certainly is top notch.  “The Nutcracker Suite” sequence is a study in effects animation, from the sparkles the fairies emit to the drops of water that run down the web of a spider.  I have a feeling many a young animator looked at Fantasia as an opportunity to show their stuff.  The sequence of the flowers “dancing” on water was so lifelike and yet still managed to evoke the imagery of ballerinas.  Considering that this was only the third feature film put out by the studio, it’s amazing to see how far the animators had come as artists in only three years.  The stark contrast between the lines of the fishes tails to the black background was gorgeous.  The way their tails flowed was like watching belly dancers taunt their audience with the swaying of their veils.  Where the sequence hits it stride is most definitely the final bit of animation with the winter fairies creating ice on the water and wearing snowflakes like tutus.
            Oh wow.  I didn’t remember that “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was only the third segment of the film.  It’s not just the most famous scene from the film; it’s also one of the most iconic scenes from any Disney film.  It’s featured heavily in the parks.  If you watch Philharmagic in Fantasyland, you will shocked to discover that there are only two Golden Age animated films that earned a spot in the attraction: Peter Pan is one and this scene from Fantasia is the other. 
Over in Hollywood Studios, Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat is the symbol of not only the park, but of the entirety of Walt Disney Imagineering itself.  This scene also has the honor of being the only Disney Animated film to have a show scene in The Great Movie Ride.  Finally, Mickey in his Sorcerer form plays a large role in the story of Fantasmic!.  And for better or for worse, the sequence inspired the Nicholas Cage summer blockbuster vehicle of the same name.  I’m sure most Disney fans worth their salt know how the sorcerer Yen Sid (Disney spelled backwards) was based off of the man himself.  But did you know that for the famous, iconic Partners statue of Walt and Mickey in the Magic Kingdom, the Imagineers actually looked to Fantasia when they were designing it?  Why would they do that?  Well, they needed reference for how tall to make Mickey in comparison to Walt Disney, so they watched the scene after “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” where Mickey rushes out to congratulate Mr. Stokowski to see how the famous mouse measures up in scale to an actual human being.  Those Imagineers don’t overlook a single detail.
There are only two sequences from Fantasia that I remember vividly as a child, and the dinosaurs featured in “The Rites of Spring” sequence is one of them.  As a kid, I was both terrified and fascinated by dinosaurs (I only managed to bring myself to watch Jurassic Park when I was nineteen).  Am I the only one that feels really sad when the stegosaurus loses against the tyrannosaurus?  The stegosaurus has always been my favorite dinosaur and it seems like when a fight against a t-rex is called for, they pick the stegosaurus.  I think it’s because the stegosaurus lends itself to epic fight potential.  Why?  Because its tail has spikes on it.  Spikes people!  That’s so ridiculously badass.  Sorry, tangent.  Back to Fantasia.
It’s an interesting sequence to say the least, about the birth and eventual end of life.  But the piece was entitled “The Rites of Spring,” and spring time has always been used as a literary symbol of rebirth and life beginning so it’s a fitting choice to tell the story of dinosaurs.  If you take a gander over at IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032455/trivia), you will learn that the sequence of the dinosaurs here inspired the beginning of their usage in the parks.  So if you’ve ever been on Ellen’s Energy Adventure a.k.a. The Universe of Energy in Epcot or made a stop in Dinoland U.S.A. over in Animal Kingdom, you have this film to thank for the inspiration behind the animatronic dinosaur.
The other sequence I remember most vividly was definitely the Fantasia take on Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony.”  I’m also a dork for Greek mythology, and I remember thinking how beautiful the adult pegasi were animated.  They weren’t so much animated like horses, but like ballet dancers evoking the movements of horses.  Their multi colored babies were also especially cute; they were not animated to resemble foals either, but to look like actual children.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but were the nipple-less centaur ladies the first time we see animated nudity out of Disney?  I know we’ve seen a number of baby butts (the one that forms a heart evoked a giggle out of me), but I don’t think those count.  Anyway, again from the IMDB trivia page, this was the first time Walt Disney told his animators they could color their scenes however they wanted (a first) and there isn’t a scene where this is more prevalent than the scene with the centaurs.  Instead of having a bunch of blonde, redhead, and brunette centaurs, there are blue, orange, purple, yellow, and red centaurs that form matching pairs from both genders.
It’s an interesting take on the Greek gods.  I’m not sure how Rick Riordan would feel about it, as it’s very much the gods Disney-fied.  Probably more so than Hercules down the line.  Making appearances are Dionysus, Zeus, Hephaestus, the wind gods (I’m no sure which ones they are exactly), Iris looking especially gorgeous, and Apollo and his sister, Artemis. I read on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasia_(film)) that Ward Kimball was one of the supervising animators on this and without even having to look it up, I can tell you he had a hand in Dionysus’ design.  The character just evokes that Kimball style that he did so well. From a stylistic, musical, and story standpoint, for me, this is my favorite sequence out of Fantasia.
Ah, the “Dance of the Hours.”  Another one of the more iconic scenes out of this movie.  Who else but Disney could conceive one of the most famous ballets as a chance for elephants and ostriches to show how graceful they can be?  Who can forget watching hippos dance in tutus with rakish alligators?  If you’ve ever spent any time playing the mini golf circuit of Walt Disney World, then you’ve been out to Fantasia Gardens, where this film heavily inspired the look of the course, drawing from this scene in particular.  If you’ve caught the SpectroMagic parade over in Magic Kingdom, then you’ve seen the ostrich characters dance around the float of the alligator spinning his hippo lady friend.  I have to say the idea of an alligator and a hippo experiencing a torrid romance did not initially come to mind, but here in Fantasia, it’s really sweet.  This might not be my very favorite scene of Fantasia, but it’s easily a close second.
And for the finale we have a mash-up of “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria.”  Man, what a way to end a film.  This piece of music has always struck me as sinister and dark, and here the animators expand on it with a full-fledged story featuring the dead rising, fiery demonic minions, and towering demon gods.  Besides Sorcerer Mickey, Chernabog is probably the most iconic character to emerge from Fantasia.  Also featured in the SpectroMagic parade, his float is one of the most memorable.  He too plays a part in Fantasmic! and is also featured in the motif of the candy shop, Villains in Vogue.  By the way, parts of animation from this sequence were later used for The Black Cauldron (but we’ll talk about that later).
It goes from dark and evil, to hopeful and lovely for the “Ave Maria” portion.  In comparison to the detailed demons and Chernabog rendered only a few frames earlier, the religious procession shown is much more impressionistic, little more than box shapes and little circles of light.  The final shot of the segment is the sun rising.  Before viewing Fantasia, I remembered that the film concluded with “Night on Bald Mountain.”  As I waited for the tape to rewind, I could not help but think what an odd note to end the film on. 
“Night on Bald Mountain,” as I remembered from childhood, was dark, foreboding, and sinister (Bela Lugosi himself posed for live action reference for Chernabog after all).  Hardly the kind of ending Walt Disney was famous for.  But watching it now as an adult, in conjunction with “Ave Maria,” I see now what Disney was trying to say.  "We have here a picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred" is how “Night on Bald Mountain” is introduced.  That struggle, if you think about it, is the very heart of Disney films. 
There usually are always villains and heroes in all Disney films, thus there has been a struggle between “the profane” and “the sacred” in practically every animated classic.  Within “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria,” we don’t have the nuanced characters, the comic relief, and the romance that every other Disney film tends to have.  In this segment of Fantasia, we have a frightening representation of “the profane” and a beautiful processional of “the sacred.”  Mr. Disney chose to end his masterwork with the ideals of his films fully visualized.  He was quite the sorcerer.


3 comments:

  1. I finally watched this again after almost eight years. Back when I was younger, I used to skip to my favorite part (the Greek mythology). However, now I can appreciate the movie in its entirety. The way the music and the animation blends together is utterly fantastic. And I can't help it, the Chernabog (I call him Cherny) is probably one of the coolest Disney villains ever. I used to skip the ending, but watching it this time I felt that it was a very poignant scene. On a last little note, I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that the church-goers in the movie were the smallest animated figures ever hand-drawn...

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  2. A shame you had to resort to the VHS edition. I have both the VHS and the "uncut edition" (which is a lie) DVD from the early 2000s. The DVD version is the most complete home version, as it restores all of the Deems Taylor introductions (which were trimmed down for most re-releases and the VHS). The longer bits work sometimes and don't other times because they give away everything you are about to see. Also, because the sound track seems to have gone missing or deteriorated for the missing footage, all of Deems Taylor's lines were re-dubbed by a sound-alike. This bothered me most, having been familiar with the VHS audio, when the new guy inflects completely differently. The "soundtrack" bit is particularly noticeable.

    Also of note is the editing of Sunflower the black centaur out of all the home versions. It's seen as racist. The edits are sometimes complete digital erasures (so the carpet unrolls itself), or very awkward zooms and pans to keep her out of the image. When you watch the Pastoral sequence and it suddenly gets really grainy, that's because they've zoomed WAY in. I sort of hope that they include the option of the original version on the blu-ray.

    I think the nipple-less centaurettes are the first Disney nudes (if we don't count the fairies in the Nutcracker Suite), though there may have been a few other fairy types in a silly symphony or two. I don't think so though. And while the centaurettes get all the attention, there are also bare breasts in Night on Bald Mountain, complete with nipples, that fly toward the screen. And it was still able to get a G rating on rerelease.

    I love Fantasia most for the amazing effects work. It's a showcase of some of the most beautiful and painstaking detail that today would all be done in a computer and not look half as magical. Though it does mean a LOT of money and time, it means that nearly every frame of this film is painterly. The glows, the bubbles, the transparency, the airbrushed look to the floating milkweed pods. That's it's true legacy.

    On another note, as it begins here, have you thought about what to do regarding the editing of the films for home video? Will you make reference to that? I suggest for example when you watch Make Mine Music (the pop Fantasia), that you view the first sequence on YouTube, since that was how the movie REALLY starts.

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  3. I've only seen Fantasia a couple of times; as a little girl, it didn't quite hold my attention as well as the more plot-driven films did. That doesn't mean it wasn't beautiful, though, or artistic, and the Dance of the Hours always makes me giggle. Not only that, I once knew a little girl who reminded me very much of the hippo ballerinas--a big girl, she moved so daintily, like such a delicate flower...priceless!

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