Saturday, August 11, 2012

Disney Canon: Fantasia

Sorry for the late post (to the couple of people who read the blog). I am trying to do the "Disney Canon" on fridays, but I couldn't finish this up yesterday. I'll try to be on schedule next week.

Back in 1938, Walt Disney was enjoying the greatest moment in his career. 'Snow White' had just become one of the biggest hits of all-time, Walt's folly had proven to be a huge success and only the sky seemed like the limit for a triumphant Disney. It's understandable that Disney would come up with an idea as (if not more) daring and ambitious than the making of 'Snow White' at this time.

At this point, the cartoon mouse that had started the success of Disney's career was in trouble. Even if the studio itself was doing better than ever, Mickey Mouse was losing his popularity to more dynamic characters like Donald Duck. Disney couldn't let his biggest star fade in the public's eye, so he redesigned Mickey in order to start one of his "Silly Symphonies" shorts scored by Paul Dukas' 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'. The project would soon be part of something way bigger.  

Disney took the stand-alone short and turned it into just one of the segments in 'Fantasia', a feature-length film composed of animated shorts set to classical music. He enlisted composer Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Philharmonic for the score. He had almost all is animators (who did an amazing job) work on a segment or another. He recorded the soundtrack with multiple audio channels, which enabled him to reproduce it using a system he called 'Fantasound', which was the first stereophonic sound system to be used for the showing of a movie. But that wasn't all. Walt's initial plan was to keep revisiting the film every number of years, re-releasing it with new segments replacing some of the older ones. This way, the film would always keep evolving through time. 

The film ended up costing twice as much as 'Snow White', but seeing how that movie ended up making many times its budget in the box office so there was no need to fear... Except the film couldn't make a profit at the box-office. The european market was closed due to World War II and many theaters across the country couldn't afford to star the sophisticated 'Fantasound'. An initial box-office failure, it did (like many other Disney films) end up becoming very popular with audiences and making a lot of money due to re-releases, tv showings and home video. 

There's no doubt this was an incredibly ambitious film, but do the animated pieces of 'Fantasia' hold up to time? Is it a film worth watching these many years later when the novelty it's gone? 

Well, like most films composed of separate segments, some work better than other. However, 'Fantasia's pieces stand fairly in the same level of quality from one another. The animation is certainly superb. Disney really pushed his animators to create a visual spectacle that would stand on par with the classical masterpieces it was going to be paired with. 

As far as the short's content, curiously, the one that works the best and is best remembered is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". I would say not only because it features Mickey Mouse, but because it is the one short that offers a clear narrative: Mickey puts a spell on a broom to help him with his work and things spin out of control. It is also the only segment that portrays the narrative of the actual piece, which is based on Goethe's poem Der Zauberlehrling, which has essentially the same plot as the cartoon (except it doesn't, of course, star Mickey Mouse). 

In other cases where the music offered a narrative like Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" or Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" Disney didn't use it for the animation. In the "Nutcracker Suite" we have fairies and other magical forest creatures dancing to the tune of Tchaikovsky, ignoring the plot of the ballet, not even featuring a nutcracker. Meanwhile, in "Rite of Spring", the dark and complex story of the piece is exchanged to a depiction of the creation of the earth and evolution in our planet, which includes a long sequence featuring dinosaurs, something that made it one of my favorite parts of the movie as a kid (any movie that has a fight between a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus is worth watching). 

In both these segments, as well as in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony", more than a clear narrative we have little scenes of action that provide action and movement to the music rathe than a story. These three segments work equally fine thanks to this approach, but for all their virtues (and dinosaurs) they also lack when compared to the three other segments. 

We already know that Mickey's segment benefits greatly from a narrative for the audience to follow. The other two work for very different reasons. Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" is a comic ballet featuring ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators dancing until the palace the performance is taking place collapses and works so well precisely because it is the most overtly comedic and amusing sequence. 

As for the final short, we begin with Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain", which presents us with a fearful sequence in which the devil Chernabog summons spirits and demons out of their graves until they are stopped by the night turning into dawn and the sounds of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria". This highly religious short works especially well in its first part thanks to the intensity of the music paired up with the macabre. I think it also benefits from the contrast it offers in the narrative be it as simple as it is. 

There was always the question amongst the highest of highbrow critics wether it was worth it to trivialize such complex musical compositions with cartoon characters. Stravinsky, unsurprisingly, detested what Disney had done to his "Rite of Spring". I, for one, think it's a fairly effective way to introduce children to these works and I think that's the opinion most people have forged since the theatrical debut of 'Fantasia'. 

At the end, the shorts that work, work really well and the others work fine enough as to make it a good sit-through, especially it you're watching it with kids. I, for one, admire the audacity of Disney's enterprise, but also prefer his more traditionally narrative features. 

Next Time: Dumbo, a tiny movie, but a great success for Disney. For now, let's enjoy one of Fantasia's greatest moments in Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours. Most of the shorts are on YouTube if you want to check them out for yourself.

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