Fantasian Studies

Disney’s third full-length animated feature is a departure from the two full-length fairy tale adaptations that preceded it. Fantasia is, as I’m sure you all know, a series of cartoons set to classical music, played by an in-house orchestra. The animated segments are interspersed with footage of the orchestra and narration from Deems Taylor, who provides both introductions for the pieces and occasional comedy bits, like the rather poor shtick featuring a visual representation of the soundtrack. Opinion on this film seems to be pretty sharply divided, with some people considering it a masterpiece, and others being bored by it. Really, I can understand both perspectives. I remember seeing this as a kid and being a bit fidgety during it, especially the “Rite of Spring” segment. Even as an adult I found some parts to drag somewhat. Taken as a whole, though, it’s an excellent piece of work. I think it might be worth examining the different parts individually, so here we go.

  • Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach) – A bit of abstract animation that I find largely forgettable. Besides, I kind of think this piece of music is more effective when played on an organ anyway.
  • Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky) – The different pieces of music are accompanied by different cartoons, all with a nature theme. I found the fish to be reminiscent of Clio from Pinocchio (released earlier the same year), but also of Dr. Seuss’s drawings. I think one of them even had the half-circle pupils that Seuss was known for. The dancing mushrooms had a stereotypical Chinese look to them (well, it WAS the Chinese dance), but I haven’t heard of anyone being offended by this.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas) – Starring Mickey Mouse, this is probably the most famous of the individual segments, as well as apparently being the first one to be conceived and developed. Oddly enough, Mickey was actually declining in popularity at this point, and the short was intended to attract audiences back to the Mouse. Although the music was composed in 1897, Taylor reports in the introduction that the story is over 2000 years old. The immediate inspiration for Dukas was Goethe’s story Der Zauberlehrling, but Wikipedia mentions that Goethe himself was obviously influenced by a story written by Lucian in the second century. The basic theme of an automaton endlessly performing a task shows up in a lot of other places as well. The sorcerer’s name is not mentioned in the film itself but is officially Yen Sid, and he was intended to resemble Walt himself.

    I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the first magic we see Yen Sid performing is the creation of a graphical illusion. The sorcerer also shows up in Kingdom Hearts and Epic Mickey, but I’ll confess to not having played either of those games yet. Speaking of Epic Mickey, however, I remember a lot of the preliminary discussions on the game mentioning how Mickey had become too much of a goody-two-shoes in recent years. In this cartoon, he’s really not, being careless and disobedient. Granted, that’s what the role requires, but I still think it might have been rather unlikely for Mickey to have appeared in this part if it had been made, say, forty years later. By the way, when Mickey shows up in the live-action part after the cartoon, is that Walt voicing him? I read that he was the regular voice of Mickey until 1946.

  • The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky) – This is the one I can specifically remember having trouble sitting through when seeing this as a child, even though I liked dinosaurs. It still seems a bit overly long, but there are some interesting aspects to it. In particular, with all the talk of Creationists trying to stop public schools from teaching evolution, I have to wonder if there was ever any controversy over how matter-of-fact this was about the subject. According to Wikipedia, Disney decided not to include anything after the extinction of the dinosaurs to avoid religious controversy, but what was already there seems like it would be controversial enough to extreme fundamentalists. Maybe they’re just not watching classic Disney movies anyway because they’re still pissed off that the Disney parks cater to homosexual couples. Some of what was shown in this cartoon, like the way the dinosaurs moved, has since fallen out of favor with the scientific community, and I’m pretty sure that it was known even in 1940 that the tyrannosaurus and stegosaurus, for instance, were not contemporaries. Still, I think Disney worked well with what they had.
  • The Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven) – Being a mythology fan, I have to say I especially enjoy this part of the movie. It’s based primarily on Greek mythology, or perhaps I should say Greco-Roman, as the drunk god who makes out with his donkey is definitely more Bacchus than Dionysus.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, however, Disney took a lot of liberties. While Pegasus obviously comes from Greek mythology, I don’t think there was ever any indication that there was more than one of his kind. The cupids are a bit of a stretch as well, and Greek mythology didn’t include unicorns at all. Also, why was Zeus/Jupiter/Jove throwing thunderbolts at his own son? Well, maybe that was his way of expressing disapproval for Bacchus’ drunken antics. Oh, and you probably already know about the racist portrayal of a black centaur that was edited out in the late sixties. Here’s a YouTube clip of her appearance:

  • Dance of the Hours (Ponchielli) – A ballet danced by ostriches, hippopotami, elephants, and alligators. Actually, I’m pretty sure Beth recently bought the stuffed figure of Hyacinth, the lead hippo.

  • Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky)/Ave Maria (Schubert) – Really, there isn’t much to the “Ave Maria” part, which is basically just to provide a happy ending to a dark segment. I’m not even sure why it was necessary, as it’s a fun kind of dark. The leader of the evil spirits is officially named Chernabog, after a Slavic dark god, but Disney apparently referred to him as “Satan himself.”

    Also of note is that the harpies are totally naked, and you can clearly see nipples. I guess they figured nobody would find them erotic.

It looks like Dumbo is up next. That’s one I remember seeing several times in my childhood, but I haven’t seen it all the way through in years.

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5 Responses to Fantasian Studies

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