Friday, January 30, 2015

Disney's Fantasia: Second thoughts

Storm's come and gone and life's back to normal, but we talked it over and I really want to try to do some kind of keep-up with this blog as much as I can. As long as people keep reading and commenting, I want to keep writing. It just feels good to be able to express myself again.

Anyway, enough natter from me, let's talk movie :D

Warning: this post is very very long.

It must have taken mad stones to dream up this movie - classical music set to animation, no overarching story, no talking apart from Tells You Everything Like A Jerk yammering on about what's going to happen next, opening with an incredibly abstract sequence... "the sound track." To say nothing of topless centaur girls and Mega Doom Satan in the form of Chernabog (thank you Rachel). Two movies probably isn't enough to firmly establish a brand, but I'd still imagine that the general viewing public would have been expecting something more traditionally children's story than the vivid and artful sequences of Fantasia.

So I'm really glad they made this movie.

The first sequence, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, is of course one of the two abstract parts to the movie, and it was a pretty bold choice to start off with. Nobody's ever called the Toccata a welcoming piece of music (cause holy smokes it is not) and before they even get into the abstract animation they spend, what, something like two or three minutes on colored silhouettes of the orchestra. THAT was a bad choice, offering nothing to the audience (that being me. And Lacy was here but still me). So it's kind of a jarring selection to begin with, especially since it's something like ten solid minutes of not-storytelling. The music of course eventually reveals its richer elements, but to be honest... while I liked the abstract "shapes meaning sound" conceit, I could see it being a big turnoff, especially since it should have been one of the most explosively creative parts of the film and instead it was frequently "slight motion plus clouds."

I've had a little while now to think over this next statement, and I feel pretty comfortable making it after considering everything I watched: Fantasia's greatest triumph is the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. A tremendously striking set of pieces with some heavy cultural connotations, Fantasia is able to take it all and do something totally new with it. What follows is something like 10-15 minutes of pure audiovisual gold as the animators take it to town. Every musical flourish matches up with something, and that something is often unexpected. Leaves flash in the wind, fairies spread dew over cobwebs, fish dance sinuously in the depths of the sea, and little vaguely-racist-caricature mushrooms do a happy little circle dance while the youngest one tries to butt in. I say this is the film's triumph because every other part has something big, bold and - I'm going to say easy here, but it's not the right word - going on. Or is Bach. Giant demons, funny animals, Mickey Mouse, dinosaurs and a Greek pageant... each of these has something huge to take over the screen with insofar as there are... anchor points for audience interest. Look at that guy, look at those baby unicorns, look at etc. and so this segment has that much greater of a challenge because there are very few individually-animated characters, to the point that the entire segment feels tremendously distinct in style from any of the others. Fantastically detailed backgrounds and anthropomorphic designs of flowers and mushrooms in fairly abstractive ways (excepting the Chinese Dance). It flows so well part-to-part that you just want to see it keep going. Do the full Nutcracker, Fantasia, you have our attention.

Some of the techniques in use here are a sight to behold as well, from how the animators create these evolving patterns of dew and frost, or the translucent swirls of the dancing fish's tail, and of course the color-changing of the autumn leaves as they brighten to gold. For me, though, the standout is the snowflakes with fairies in them, little musical flourishes corresponding with a flash of light across the glassy surface of the spinning ice. They look so solid, so crystalline, and even though objectively it's a small thing I can't help but admire it.

Mickey Mouse was a real treat as The Sorcerer's Apprentice (by the way, am I the only person out there who feels like the word should be spelled "sorceror" for some reason?) and the segment is a lot of fun. I have to say, though, the Sorcerer himself has an utterly bizarre look, like they couldn't decide if he would be rotoscoped or drawn in Disney's new human character style like Gepetto was and went with an uneven-looking halfway point. Mind you, I would expect that more than a bit of that was deliberate - he's intended to look weird and otherworldly because he's the master Sorcerer and it's there in those EYES. This feels like it was intended as the signature segment of the movie - the cover definitely thinks so. The music is a perfect fit, as the narrator mentioned, and the animated object that steals the show does so with... I mean, there's NOTHING there in terms of character design, objectively, and yet it has so much personality. Mickey's dream of ruling the cosmos is marvelously over-the-top pointless. They could have made it about his ambitions to eat a giant cake, or be a king, or have a huge party, and instead they went a bit abstract and just made him blow up stars. With the musical score backing it, that might well have been the best choice, and it tells a fun little story (and foreshadows, no less) about the apprentice not understanding power or the use of magic. Which of course comes back to bite him. The fact that he tries to solve his problem the old-fashioned way and gets in over his head is a fantastic comeuppance and the dramatic climax of the Sorcerer waking up to resolve everything comes right before the segment might have worn out its welcome. It's also a really striking image, the classic Moses-parting-the-Red-Sea idea but on a smaller scale and with some hell of a dramatic lighting choice. I really enjoyed it.

Which brings us to the part I did not enjoy, the overly long, plodding and full-of-itself prehistory tale set to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The music certainly matched up with the subject matter, being tremendously eerie at times but also full of these sorts of "awakening" and "coming forth" motifs. Of course, they squandered a lot of it on dancing volcanos. On the other hand, the score they chose also had this serious issue of little forward motion. Lots of times the composer just seemed to get stuck on one thing he was proud of and do it for a solid minute or so. And the animators got in on that "fun." Tip: if the music isn't doing the work, then you need to. It can't just not get done at all.

So we have the "evolution" of early life after plodding through space, with the help of the DOOM CLOUD. What the narrator promised me never really showed up on the screen (probably not a coincidence that I started plugging my ears when he talked after this point). This segment easily went over 15 minutes and felt like a waste of time. When even dinosaurs can't save you, you've gone and messed up. But that's what happened - the dinosaurs were positively dull, their interactions reduced to "move slowly, eat food, eat food that other dinosaurs were trying to eat." Stegosaurus versus T. Rex was the most interesting part and it was both brief and kind of anticlimactic. After that, of course, we got into the extinction, which was also - surprise surprise - slow and plodding. At times the animation in this segment felt lazy, especially the hyper-cartoonish magma. But what I think did it in for me was the palette. It's gray, brown, red, that "roan red" color that you get with the Laurentian colored pencils set, and there are some dark greens and muddy yellows in there too. If they were trying to communicate something with that palette, it definitely worked. But what it said was "this is the part where we are being full of ourselves, you should appreciate us for that." The few bright colors in this part came early on and were either SILLY CARTOON LAVA or strange underwater life. So the result is something like 15-20 minutes of grimy, washed-out baaaaah.

Anyway, next came the "sound track," which was a fun little interjection, I suppose, but I would have liked it at the start of the movie as the demonstration of the "abstract." Not sure it would have worked, mind you, but it's a thought.

From there, we get into the second act, as it were, with the fantastic Pastoral Symphony segment. This is another long one - probably 15 minutes or so, but it felt shorter at the time. It's actually three different segments, of course, which is why. First there's the arrival of the pegasi and their gambolling with the satyrs (isn't that a fantastic word?), then centaur dating, naked flying baby style. Finally, we have the wine festival and the interruption by Gozer Zeus, which leads into the finale. Character design is on top of the game here. Impish satyrs, cheerfully adorable unicorn and pegasus foals, impossibly cute Cupid cherubs, the absolutely daffy rendering of Bacchus/Dionysus (that's Silenus, honestly. It's the donkey that gives it away)... even the centaurs get a pass, because while they still have that weird rotoscoping kind of design it's a lot cleaner and more well-realized, and they put a ton of work into creating... must have been something like twenty distinct centaurs. Visually, at any rate. This is a segment that just abused the hell out of primary colors for visual composition, which, I mean, Disney centaurs are apparently all afflicted with a taste for too much food coloring (the other "flesh" characters have flesh tones). That said, there are elements like yellow skies alongside deep green-blue fields with red trees and the colors are picked just right to create vibrancy instead of looking patchwork and clumsy. In many ways the exact opposite of the previous segment, this one pops with brightness, motion, activity and pure joy.

The music did, sadly, get a little ehhh whatever around the dancing part of the wine festival, but that's hardly Disney's fault, the rest of the score is obviously too good to not use. And of course, all is forgiven when Surprisingly Blue Zeus shows up with the Doom Cloud (watch out or you'll evolve in to something else that's still boring and lifeless) to dispense some lightning bolts of divine JUSTICE. I mean BOREDOM. Because he is FUCKING WITH THEM. And mainly with poor drunk Bacchus. Some of the least interesting musical elements are in this part, so it helps that the animators counterbalanced it with fantastic amounts of motion, character and implicit storytelling (see, people who worked on the previous segment? It can be done). A little rain must fall in every life, of course, and the finale, which kind of feels more like an eventuality than a climax, is actually sort of unwelcome just because we have a lot of fun with these fantastic creatures. I could have taken another 5-10 minutes of it and been really happy. Kind of don't know why the unicorns were there, though. I mean, they have like... they show up at the very beginning, and there's one other part where a mama unicorn shelters her foals from the storm, but that's really it. The show belongs to the centaurs, pegasi, Cupids and a little to the satyrs (not much, but a little). Also are unicorns even Greek? Anyway, I'm quibbling. This is a fantastic opening to the shorter second act and makes an awesome balance to the previous segment. Of course it should not have needed to balance the previous segment but what are you going to do, movie's 70 years old, barn door etc.

So far we've had "art?" followed by "ART!" followed by "cartoon story" followed by "" followed by ":D" (that's really all I could use to represent that). Now we move into something new: Absurd. And it is. And it's splendid. A familiar piece of music (apparently it's called the Dance of the Hours, which is apt) given new life in the most preposterous way possible, among the columns and gardens of a stately palace where a ballet troupe performs and attempts to best their competition. Ostriches. Hippos. Elephants. Crocodiles. I don't even know that I have anything else to say that can describe it.

Character design is strong here, although the ostriches and elephants are clearly playing second fiddle to the hippos (the lead hippo is the star) and the crocs (the lead croc is... the villain, male lead, romantic prospect, instigator par excellence...) to the point that the head ostrich has no role in the climax and... was there even a head elephant? I don't think there was. One weakness I found, and this was with the score itself, is that there's not much to distinguish "midday" (hippos) from "morning" (ostriches) in a musical sense barring that "morning" contains the introductory flourishes. Conversely, "afternoon" and "night" both have distinctive elements before leaning on the main motif. Also the elephants are a little bit creepy, in part thanks to the music. The way they articulated all of these (immensely expressive) animal designs with the ballet motif was both hilarious and really quite stupendous. The cloaked crocodiles were a good touch, since it gave them an immediate contrast to the other animals that implicitly made it feel like they were the male dance troupe. It's the unique motions and the deftness of the character animation that make this segment so awesome, the ludicrous scenario being given the whole nine yards of effort, and holy smokes does it pay off. If there were another segment in the movie that were going to be remembered outside of Mickey (I'll be eating my words on this one later but I'm saying it anyway you can't stop me) it would definitely be this one. Once the climax hits and everything's going nuts, you just know that Lead Gator, Lead Hippo and the antics of all the animals racing around in the palace at night are going to stick in the mind forever as a prime example of cartoon absurdity. It helps that the frenetic score demands this level of balls-to-the-wall silliness. The whole segment is surprisingly short but its pace manages to be at times both slower and faster than the previous one, which is important to set them apart so they don't feel samey. And they managed it. And so it is awesome.

The final segment. Not-fucking-around time. I could get whiplash from how fast and how hard the mood shifted there. No buildup at all, just thirty seconds of "shit be bad yo" followed by GOOD EVENING I AM SATAN CHERNABOG. Big horrific theme, incredibly dramatic and bold visual statement, and then everything... I was going to say "goes to hell" but I suppose the reverse is true. The pageant of the demons is an incredibly affecting thing to put on the screen and neither the animators nor the music ever let up on it. It's like the Disney people were itching to do the grotesque and eerie (I saw Pinocchio, this is a true statement about them) and it's clear they had a ton of fun investing their efforts into the chaos unfolding on the screen. Once again, character design is king - the most spectacular character in the entire movie, bar none, is the towering and monolithic Chernabog, even though he only has two expressions ("I am evil and you should fear me" "I am happy and you should fear the fuck out of me") until he gets banished. I don't know that any two monsters thrown up onto the screen are identical; certainly not the grotesque lemures, dretches and manes that scrabble and crawl. The blue devils, they are, there we go. A blending of styles sees... I think it must have been a similar technique to the snowflakes used here for the summoning of the spirits from the graves, where they look to be on a different solid plane and move uniquely compared to the composition of the scene. There are elements of the animation that feel so much more loose and disjointed (the things that fly at the screen are positively crude by Disney standards, and I don't mean because of harpy nipples) but as a whole the cirque macabre is just a tremendous and overwhelming sequence and is a daring thing for Disney to have inserted into the film. I loved it.

Of course, fusing it with the Ave Maria I did not love. All of the gas just went out of the movie when that happened. Chernabog gets this washed-out look that really exposes just how reliant his design was on not being detailed, which of course is hard to get away with when you're trying to throw him into relief with light. The procession of lamp-carrying figures is long and meaningless. It literally never resolves, either. They all sort of go toward the woods and then we go into the woods and then we walk through the woods and are out of the woods, which as a metaphor for surviving the festival of fiends is all well and good but as a component of this movie? If I were to show someone just the last, what, three to five minutes, I don't think they could tell me 1) what movie it was from or 2) that it was even from Disney. There's just no animating going on. Things move, sure, but it's purely visual composition at that point. It's placid and bland and everything about it (up to and including the vocals and color palette) is completely unlike the movie it is supposed to be part of. I say that even counting the Rite of Spring segment; that was morose and lifeless, this is bland and soulless. Which is a bad thing when it's the Ave Maria. The point of the film was to bring forth ideas from the music that were... hold on, I need to phrase this right. That were not necessarily germane to the music itself or the intentions of the composer. It skewed closest with The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the Dance of the Hours, of course, but even then Disney actually distinguished its efforts from what anyone might have done with the music. This... flops.

All in all, this was just a fantastic thing. Which I suppose is why the movie title. I'm shocked that they did it but I'm not at all surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. I don't know how much analysis of anything I managed to provide, but I also... find myself not caring. This is definitely a movie I'm going to come back and watch again. Hell, I could just leave it playing in the background and have a great time. Except for the goddamn dinosaurs.


  1. God I love that Fantasia exists. It's more a cultural artifact than a movie, but it's just so wonderful and does so much right that I gleefully forget about the boring bad stuff like dinosaurs and the end of Night on Bald Mountain. (No, seriously, reading your recap I was like "wait, Ave Maria is in this? I had no idea.")

    I'd say that Sorcerer's Apprentice and Ballet Hippos are the segments that have the most cultural impact, in terms of those same character designs reoccurring and us audience expected to recognize them. (Pretty sure the Ballet Hippos are in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, for example.) But I loved all the same parts that you did.

    1. And I did see a statue of the lead hippo and gator in one Disney World marketplace... Of course, I learned the lead gator's name was Ben Ali Gator from their Fantasia mini-golf course.

      I think Chernabog also gets trotted out in a few places when they need an "ULTIMATE VILLAIN!" line-up or joke of some kind. For theme park rides, The Universe of Energy was like the "boring dinosaurs" of Fantasia, while the Countdown to Extinction thrill ride was vaguely tied in to the 2000 Dinosaur movie. And while The Rite of Spring may have been the longest segment in the movie, I heard the full version was closer to forty minutes and the composer was annoyed it had to be cut down so short.

      Toccata and Fugue in D Minor's opening now has stereotypical associations with spooky mountaintop castles, and I believe I was first acquainted with the Dance of the Hours through parody lyrics. Did you ever hear the one about Camp Grenada?

      I guess Disney was way ahead of My Little Pony on thinking that not only gods but modified equines should come in every color of the rainbow. I'm just looking forward to the nineties when we get more of that sloppy Greek mythology, more forced animal transformations, another digging song... Fortunately more cute animals are never far away.

  2. I'm with your last comment exactly. Fantasia has such great musical selection that I can throw it on in the background and enjoy it for the music, and look up to watch my favorite parts.

  3. Told you this movie was really something.

    I think overall I find myself in agreement... Little Rachel would be shocked and insulted though, she ate up anything with even the slightest hint of dinosaurs.

    And yes, "sorceror" is a much more aesthetically pleasing spelling.

    I don't have much to say this time, you said it all, man.

    1. I could have sworn it was always spelled "sorceror" until one day the spell-checker turned on me.

  4. I can't wait for you to watch Fantasia 2000 Ryan. The musical selection is similarly fantastic, the animation more modern and each section has a much more refined story and characters. It even has another piece by Stravinsky, the composer of The Rite of Spring, but an earlier ballet that wasn't so experimental and elemental and much more lush and cathartic. In all I'm sure you'll love it.