Monday, December 27, 2010

DAF #40 - Fantasia (1940)

Title: Fantasia
Year: 1940
Rating: G
Run Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Plot: A collection of animated segments set to classical music.
Based on: Original ideas and interpretations of classical music.
Setting: Nature; Yen Sid's lair; uh, Earth from the dawn of time to 65 million years ago; mythological Greece; Some ballet studio place; Some Slavic village.

Tagline: Walt Disney's Technicolor FEATURE triumph!

First Viewing: Sometime after the first home video release in the early 90's.

The good news is, we're out of the bottom ten! The bad news is, eleventh from the bottom, just slightly above most of the package films and Chicken Little, is Disney's 3rd animated feature and pet project, Fantasia.

[Pausing for gasps]

How is it possible, you ask? How can I, esteemed amateur Disney-phile film critic that I am, possibly dislike Fantasia? My apologies, but you'll just have to wait until the end of the review before I start defending myself.

A little history before I chew my way through: So Walt had been exceptionally successful with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His second DAF, Pinocchio, for some reason didn't fare too well. None the less, Disney decided to keep making movies HE wanted to see, and by God, HE wanted to see classical music set to surrealistic animation.

Fantasia starts with little fanfare as who-the-hell-is-Deems Taylor introduces this new concept of animation and musical synergy. He explains that several of the pieces have a story while some are just "music for music's sake". Any story that originally went with this music has been pushed to the wayside for Disney and his artists' own interpretation. Let's begin.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Johann Sebastian Bach) – Music for music's sake. It starts with shots of the orchestra and then blends into abstract animation that more or less follows what the music is "doing". There really isn't that much more to it.

Nutcracker Suite (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) – I'll give them props on this one. There is nothing to do with nutcrackers, rat kings or Christmas. (Can you imagine how played to death this thing would be in December???) Instead we see a collection of "mini vignettes" of various flora, fauna, and faeries changing the seasons from summer to autumn to winter. We have naked fairies, Chinese mushrooms, sexy fish, Russian thistles and more naked fairies. Probably my second favorite segment.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Paul Dukas) – Oh boy, speaking of played to death...Here we have the painfully classic piece where Mickey Mouse, that little scamp, steals his master's magic wizard hat to lighten his seemingly endless chore of carrying buckets of water to a big tub. (Seriously, why? Is it for the wizard's bath or something?) Mickey enchants a broom to do all the heavy lifting and then falls into a dream where he is the undisputed master of OUTER SPACE...and water? When he awakens, the whole place is flooded so he HACKS UP THE BROOM because he can't figure out how to stop it. However, the splinters of the broom form new super brooms that keep filling the tub. FINALLY, the wizard wakes up, fixes everything and gives Mickey a sound smack on the ass.

The Rite of Spring (Igor Stravinsky) – If there is any given reason why I dislike Fantasia so much it is because of this segment. Originally, "The Rite of Spring" was meant to be some kind of "primitive ballet". Disney's take was to show the formation of Earth and its evolution until the extinction of the dinosaurs. And, oh my Christ, I swear the real evolution of the Earth took less time than this segment. (I know my bitchiness is showing). Plus, out of all the music, this piece is my least favorite. It's very harsh and manic and just fucking unpleasant. But truly, my disdain for "The Rite of Spring" comes down to: "I don't like dinosaurs. They're icky." I thought it when I five and I'll think it when I'm 95.

Intermission – Since everyone in the theater now needs a drink, we get a short little interlude where each musical instrument is introduced as well as visual representation of its specific sound. It's mostly pandering, but quite necessary to lighten the mood after "The Rite of Spring".

The Pastoral Symphony (Ludwig van Beethoven) – Are you in any way shocked that this is my favorite segment of Fantasia? You shouldn't be. It's the closest to having pretty, pretty princesses. It begins in "mythological Greece" as baby pegasi learn to fly with the aid of their parents. Then the little cherub-faun-satyrs play matchmaker for all the unhitched centaurs. The next day, Bacchus (or Dionysus if you prefer) throws a great celebration with wine, women (well, zebra centaurs), and song which Zeus decides to fuck up with a storm. But, ho ho, it's all just an ordinary day in mythological Greece!

"The Pastoral Symphony" is marred with a bit of controversy. In the original release, a centaurette's grooming was being aided by an African-American centaur named Sunflower, who instead of having a horse body, had a donkey body...and huge lips...and nappy corn rows. Ever since 1969, this racially insensitive image has been cut from the film and the subsequent home video release. None the less, for educational purposes, I give you Sunflower.

However, these chicks stayed:

Dance of the Hours (Amilcare Ponchielli) – Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Granada...if you know that tune, then you know "Dance of the Hours". This is the most humorous and light of all the Fantasia segments. And as much as I love "The Pastoral Symphony" we need something SiLLy at this point in the film! And what, pray tell, is sillier than ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators doing ballet? NOTHING. Ha ha ha... is it over yet?

Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria (Modest Mussorgsky/Franz Schubert) – The second most famous segment in Fantasia is, without a doubt, "Night on Bald Mountain". This is owed to the over hyped villain, Chernabog, who is based on an evil Slavic demon of little known origin (or importance according to Wikipedia). But in Fantasia he is basically THE DEVIL. Throughout the night, Chernobog summons evil spirits and demons and, uh, plays with them until the morning church bells sound.

I'll be honest with you, as a child, I couldn't watch this part. I'd make it about two minutes in before shutting off the TV. So, I'm not as familiar with this segment as I am with the others. In fact, it wasn't until high school that I learned there was even a second part where all the towns people walk to church with their lanterns to "Ave Maria".

I didn't know about this, either:

And now I'm going to bitch about Chernobog. Is he scary? Yes. He's the only animated character to scare me. Is he a superbly animated character? Yes. Is he a villain? FUCK. NO. He doesn't do anything! He summons some spirits, but does he send those spirits to do his evil bidding? NO! He just makes them dance for him. He is not a villain! All he does is look menacing and then fold up come the morning light. OVERRATED! LIKE THIS WHOLE DAMN MOVIE!!!

And here it comes...

Fantasia is overrated. Yes, it is an original concept. Yes, it is the precursor to the music video. Yes, it has good animation and probably good sound mixing. But all that doesn't make up for the fact that it's overlong, pretentious, and survives off its own sense of superiority. The first few DAF's, (Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi) all have a certain humility to them. They know they are family films and they know that's okay. But Fantasia, oh boy, Fantasia is for sophisticated adults. Fantasia is a concert feature. Fantasia WOULD CHANGE THE FACE OF CINEMA FOREVER!!!

But, at least at the time of its initial release, it didn't. It was actually a pretty big bomb. And after FIVE rereleases, the damn thing still managed to stay under the radar of the viewing populace. Nobody gave two shits about dancing mushrooms. That is, until 1969. I don't know who exactly was in charge of the Disney corporation at the time (with Walt having died three years earlier), but someone knew that there was counter culture of hippie youth who would take drugs and see "head movies". And that same someone realized that Fantasia was pretty damn psychedelic and there was a pretty good chance that it would usher LSD raddled minds into the theaters. If you think it happened by accident, take a look at this poster.

Yes, I've already posted this in my The Three Caballeros review (to illustrate a similar point), but it bears witnessing again. I mean, look at that thing! It's an acid nightmare waiting to happen. (I wonder how many "bad trips" are owed to "Night on Bald Mountain"). It's because of this drug association that the Disney company finally made money off of Fantasia and from then on, it was heralded as a masterpiece of American animation. Boy howdy, what drugs can do for a movie!*

It's because of this that I'm certain my own father likes Fantasia. It was one of the earliest DAF's we owned, in fact. My dad used to watch it with sound turned off and The Grateful Dead blaring instead of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. (Take from that what you will). Therefore, I've seen it WAY too many times. I also didn't own that many movies so Fantasia was in heavy rotation.

I know a few people (other than my dad) who really, truly love Fantasia and easily rank it in their top ten. Good for them. If you yourself like it, it's no skin off my teeth. Like a lot of good movies, Fantasia was misunderstood and under appreciated in its time. However, if the Summer of Love never happened there is no doubt in my mind that Fantasia would be categorized with the segmented package films.

And is it really any better than Make Mine Music or Melody Time? Is it really? It's longer and more self important and uses CLASSICAL MUSIC, but does that make it that much better? I certainly don't think so, hence my ranking. Fantasia was underrated at the time of its release, but now its distended into this tour de force, end all be all of animation. In truth, it should probably be ranked somewhere right in the middle, but if someone can put it at their #1, then I can put it at my #40.

Still, maybe with a little herbal influence, I would finally see what all the fuss is about.

I can SEE the MUSIC!
“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” – Johann Sebastian Bach
“Nutcracker Suite” – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
“The Sorcerer's Apprentice” – Paul Dukas
“The Rite of Spring” – Igor Stravinsky
“The Pastoral Symphony” – Ludwig van Beethoven
“Dance of the Hours” – Amilcare Ponchielli
“Night on Bald Mountain” – Modest Mussorgsky
“Ave Maria” – Franz Schubert

Favorite Song: "Ave Maria"
Favorite Segment: "The Pastoral Symphony"
Favorite Character: The littlest mushroom kind of looks like a I the only who sees this? He gets the biggest laugh, and therefore, is my favorite.

Next Film: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

*Seriously, I hope there is some mention on the new Blu-ray of this poster and how psychedelia had a lot to do with this flick's resurgence into the mainstream. But I wouldn't be surprised if it was glossed over. (Let me know, Andrew!)

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