by Jay Seaver
"Fantasia" is built to last. Certainly, in some aspects it occasionally appears dated, and one sequence has been digitally edited in its recent releases because societal attitudes have changed (for the better), but seventy years passing has not made the music less stirring or the animation less impressive. Walt Disney's ambitious project, though a commercial bust in the 1940s, has the combination of timeless content and exquisite craftsmanship that will keep it accessible, entertaining, and occasionally awe-inspiring for a long time to come.Only two elements have not aged particularly well: First, one dark-skinned character, drawn in a caricatured style no longer considered acceptable, has been erased, although folks who don't know it's there may never miss it. Second, the introductions to the various pieces by Deems Taylor may come across as redundant and dry to a generation that absorbs information much more quickly than their grandparents, and varies from a stern lecture to a whimsical conversation with the film's soundtrack. And to be fair, that's not just being dated - these segments were cut from the film after its initial release, and added back in later.
"Brilliance is not appreciated in its own time, but is long after."
The rest, though, is almost perfect. There are a couple of exercises in nearly-pure abstraction - the aforementioned "Soundtrack" bit and the Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" - which, in addition to showing how "absolute music" can create images in our minds that don't necessarily have a story connected, also serve to ease the audience into the animation after the introduction and intermission. It's a canny device; no matter what one's prior knowledge of orchestral music is, these segments give an audience member the chance to appreciate it on its own, as opposed to as background, while still engaging the eyes.
Two other segments are more traditional musical segments. The second segment, "The Nutcracker Suite", is not quite so abstract as its predecessor, but dispenses with the well-known story from the Tchaikovsky's ballet. Instead, it uses different plants and animals as counterpoints to the song's different themes. It's a whimsical piece, with a number of fun characters dancing about, able to change from one thing to another quickly and smoothly. "Dance of the Hours', the second-to-last segment, could easily be removed from the film and play as one of Disney's "Silly Symphonies", but it's a delightful one, as unlikely creatures like hippos and alligators perform a ballet from Amilcare Ponchielli's oepra "La Gioconda". Disney was good at this sort of thing, and it's a funny, oddly beautiful cartoon.
After "The Nutcracker Suite" comes the segment that has had the most pop-culture impact of the group, Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". It's one of the most memorable not just because it stars one of the most recognizable creations of the twentieth century, but because it is the segment that best tells a story: The lazy apprentice (Mickey) tries to use his teacher's magic without complete mastery and needs to be bailed out of the chaos he causes. It's beautifully animated, perfectly matched to Paul Dukas's music, with great matching between background and characters. Plus, it's one of the greatest Mickey Mouse cartoons ever, where his expressiveness and personality best come out, better than most shorts where he's given a voice.
The segment that closes out the film's first half is my personal favorite, "Rite of Spring". The animators tell the early life of planet Earth to Igor Stravinsky's work, and it's a gloriously grand scale work of animation, with volcanoes erupting as the music bursts forth, the process of evolution depicted with cuts across millions of years, and a haunting, ruined landscape following the extinction of the dinosaurs. Those dinosaurs are fantastic, imbued with size and heft that wouldn't seem possible for a medium mostly used for children's entertainment.
After the intermission and soundtrack bit, is the "Pastoral", where gods and other mythological creatures revel to a symphony by Beethoven. There's a lush, overt sensuality to it, especially when we first see the "centaurettes" bathing without initially being shown their lower halves. There's a a mischievous tone, even when Zeus starts throwing lightning bolts; the whole segment is a mixing of seemingly disparate tones - that delight in the physical is combined with the innocent cuteness of a baby pegasus learning to fly and the grandeur of Olympus.
The film's big finish is a mash-up of Modeste Moussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain" and Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria", and it serves as a perfect climax - in "Bald Mountain", the animators get the rare opportunity to let loose with dark, horrific images, and they do so with gusto. The demons and monsters are more frightening than one might expect from animation - being unreal, they can seem to be pulled directly from the nightmares - with the imagery and music reinforcing each other perfectly. Then, rather than sending the audience out with those images the last things they remember, "Ave Maria" allows for a bit of a cool-down, with the animation becoming simpler and more abstract after the overwhelming visions that preceded it.
All of that ambition comes together by the work of a great many talented people; Leopold Stokowski is the most notable, orchestrating the compositions to better fit with the animation and conducting the Philadelphia Orcherstra to give the film a beautiful soundtrack. Ten different directors and countless animators produced the other half of the film, and what they did should not be discounted; it's not just amazingly smooth animation, but work that feels unified without relying on a house style. Even in 2010, it's technically impressive; what they do with lighting and shading is something that today's animators with digital tools refined for years for that exact purpose often struggle to replicate.That's why, seventy years on, "Fantasia" is still a masterpiece without needing "for its era" tagged to it. The musical selections had, by and large, already stood the test of time before the film was made, pairing animation to them meant there would be no period-specific references, and it turns out that the highest-quality animation from the period still holds up. I suspect that decades from now, new generations of children will still be dropping their jaws in amazement and adults will still be astounded by how well the whole thing works.
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originally posted: 12/05/10 00:03:38