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Double Take: 'Fantasia' Muses on Music

Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick

Fantasia stands alone as a virtuoso tribute to the virtuosity of its music.


Director: Norman Ferguson, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr., Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen
Cast: Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor
MPAA Rating: G
Studio: Disney
Year: 1940
UK Release Date: 1941-07-21
US Release Date: 1940-11-13 (New York)

Steve Pick: Fantasia is one of those films that everybody knows about, but not everybody has seen. Certainly this was my first time viewing it, save for snippets of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence. Disney knows how to make money, by making films scarce at times and then re-releasing them, and not having them in general distribution on TV. We lucked out, coming up with this film at a time when it’s actually streaming on Netflix.

I knew it was going to be a trip, as animators in 1940 sequencing images and stories to classical music was a new idea at the time. I wasn’t prepared for just how trippy some of it was, nor was I aware of just how beautiful some it could be. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the only sequence that acts like a typical cartoon of its time. In other places, we are shown abstract visuals, scientific history, mythical tales, and the triumph of love over incarnations of evil (though admittedly, the evil beings seem to be having more fun). Had you seen Fantasia before, Steve? And what was your favorite bit?

Steve Leftridge: Yes, I’ve seen it a few times, but never like this time, for I ran the Blu-ray on the flatscreen and blasted the music through surround sound. I was trying to replicate that old Fantasound power of 1940. And, indeed, it was a feast for the senses. Your comment about Disney holding back its films for maximum returns is interesting because I remember being frustrated as a kid that I didn’t have access to some the Disney classics. That’s a thing of the past, however, thanks to the digital revolution. Now, once these films have been released, they stay released, even if we will continue to get expanded and remastered versions.

My least favorite? Wow, you’re not wasting any time here. I was all ready to heap praise on my favorite bits. But you want to get right to the poleaxing! Okay, I don’t really love the rendering of Beethoven’s The Pastoral Symphony. It’s a bit too deliberately cute for my tastes, especially with the My Pretty Unicorn Babies. Everything else in the film has elements of darkness, even Mickey’s part. But the Centaurettes with all their preening are pretty annoying. Things pick up when Bacchus shows up drunk off (and on) his ass, but not much. I’m far more intrigued by all the other segments. You?

Pick: Wow, you misread what I wrote, and came up with a more interesting way to go. I asked what was your favorite, and you thought I said least. My Pretty Unicorn Babies? That’s hilarious, and sadly accurate. That was the only segment in the film that I felt embarrassed to watch, though even more so for the gender norms of the '30s, where women are only defined by their ability to land men. Meh. And why would centaurettes have breasts at all when they don’t have nipples? Funny they didn’t feel the need to cover up those until the centaurs came to town.

Anyway, I want to talk about the delights of the film, which were many. It was a brilliant idea to use Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to soundtrack the story of life on earth from one-celled organisms to dinosaur extinction. Sure, science has changed since then, and the current take is extinction was caused more likely by a major meteor impact, and some of the dinosaurs apparently moved differently than the animators knew at the time. But it’s just exquisite watching the march of time in that sequence. I particularly liked the undersea creatures growing more and more complex, and eating each other as they went. Sure, they jumped from amphibian to dinosaur pretty quickly, but those giant beasts were pretty cool to watch in this, especially the babies. There was even a nod to the current sense that dinosaurs were ancestors of birds, by showing feathers coming off one of them.

What did you think of that sequence? Nowadays, I imagine a major corporation like Disney would be afraid to so explicitly state the age of the earth and the story of evolution.

Leftridge: Man, I don’t know how I misread your question! That Night on Bald Mountain must’ve really thrown me for a loop.

I had the same thought as you did about The Rite of Spring: impressed that in 1940 the Disney corporation would take such a progressive approach with regard to evolution. How odd it is that depicting what the entire scientific community has established as scientific fact (that “after about a billion years, certain fish, more ambitious than the rest, crawled up on land and became the first amphibians”) should be more controversial in 2015 than it was in 1940.

The visuals are especially well-paired with the music in this sequence, like those syncopated volcano blasts. But it’s the “100-ton nightmares” that are most memorable. I kept thinking, however, about the intended audience for these scenes: the pterodactyls diving for fish until one of the pterodactyls is itself picked off -- there’s always a bigger fish -- and the T-Rex attack; the stegosaurus is killed, the light slowly going out of its eyes. During the drought-plagued death march, we see the once-fierce monster during its slow, agonizing decline into expiration. (Like Albert Pujols!) But amid all these harsh Darwinian lessons here, animators apparently weren’t worried about traumatizing children. I know it’s hard to put things into a '40s mindset, but sinners being tormented in the pits of hell seems odd fare for a children’s flick.

Pick: Times were different back then; cartoons were loaded with violent and horrific situations. Kids were expected to deal with traumas in a more overt way, I suppose. But, I’m wondering if Fantasia was intended to be a children’s movie primarily, or if Mickey Mouse was thrown in as a sop for the kids. The lecturing from the guy at the podium seems aimed more at adults, who were conventionally thought to be improving themselves whenever they experienced classical music. I’m thinking the experience was meant to be for the entire family, and the darker parts were probably expected to go over the heads of the younger set.

Also, I joked earlier about the lack of nipples on the centaurettes; the female demons floating around on Bald Mountain definitely had them. It’s as though each segment of the film was being marketed to a different age and experience level.

But that’s viewing things through our modern prism of targeting specific audiences. You’ve got kids, Steve, so maybe you think about this sort of thing more than I do. Just from the viewpoint of artistic enjoyment, I’m more interested in talking about the contrasts between the gorgeous imagery of the little fairies and other creatures moving in time to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and the much more malevolent movements of the demons and devils in Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. (As an aside, I was fascinated when the MC mentioned The Nutcracker ballet was rarely performed any more as of 1940; it’s been a staple my entire lifetime, and I wonder if Fantasia’s use of the music helped motivate audiences to seek out the original.) The music itself is dramatically different -- gentle, light-hearted, delicate Tchaikovsky versus powerful, hammering, brassy, bold Mussorgsky. Did you find any other pairings in the sequences, whether dissonant or consonant?

Leftridge: You are hitting on something when you suggest that Fantasia a pastiche that doesn’t always go that well together. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a long way from Bald Mountain and “Ave Maria,” even though Mickey’s axe murder of the first broomstick is shockingly violent. That sequence is clever and fun and oddly disturbing, and I remember it as being one of the first and only times as a kid that I got to actually see Mickey in action. For a corporate flagship character, Mickey cartoons were in short supply until fairly recently with new Mickey TV shows and shorts being produced again.

Obviously, Disney has updated its social, political, and cultural depictions with the times (and due to plenty of criticism), and we could talk about violence and princesses at length here. And, yes, I furrowed my own brows at that line about the Nutcracker (“nobody performs it nowadays”). Which brings me to your question: I found the whole Nutcracker sequence just lovely: Those fairies covering everything with dew, and later ice, paired with the uniformly gorgeous music, is delightful. The goldfish dancing to The Arabian Nights also feels timeless and beautifully interpreted, and the animation is remarkable, especially for 1940. When people talk about “Disney magic,” I think this is it. Speaking of political correctness, do you think the Chinese mushrooms would be risky today as stereotypical ethnic portrayals?

Pick: There is no question that the Nutcracker sequence is the most charming in the whole film, though “Dance of the Hours” (music by a composer I’ve never otherwise encountered named Ponchielli) has its whimsical moments. There is so much elegance in the movements of all the creatures in the Nutcracker Suite. I can’t tell how much this is aided by the familiarity I have with the music, but I think the images are perfectly matched here in ways some of the other sequences don’t quite achieve as well. During the Pastoral Symphony, I found myself listening to the music at times separately from the animation. Of course, it’s Beethoven, so it’s inherently more likely to overwhelm the senses all on its own.

As for the Chinese mushrooms, well, I winced. According to Wikipedia, the animator of the Nutcracker sequence actually based the mushrooms on a bit from the Three Stooges, no paragons of cultural sensitivity themselves. As it turns out, however, a quick internet search reveals that there is a far more blatantly racist depiction in the original Fantasia that has been stripped from the version we see today. In the original film, there were black pickaninny centaurettes doing the hair of the white centaurettes, images which were removed sometime after a TV airing in the late '60s. Disney films, like much of Hollywood (and popular culture in general) during this time, bought so whole-heartedly into the stereotypical tropes of the time that they could insult an entire race with a horrible throwaway gag. While it’s important for us to remember that this happened, and was not an isolated incident, I’m glad the film has excised this bit while retaining all its good qualities.

Speaking of good qualities, I really enjoyed the opening sequence with the musicians arriving on the stage, with their huge shadows moving above them. Of course, here we see another subtle reminder of the times being different: all the musicians save for two are white men, and the two women are relegated to the stereotypically feminine instrument, the harp. The way the film eases us into the animation during the Bach “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” is sublime, with the orchestra being shaded different colors before abstract lights and colors begin to take over the screen. Here, Laserium is born avant la lettre.

Leftridge: I like the scenes that are explicitly about the music: the beginning you mention with those colorfully lit images of the orchestra, conductor, and their shadows; Leopold Stokowski in front of the fat red sun, sending blasts of water left and right, punctuated by string storms. The “soundtrack” bit is a little dated, perhaps, showing the sonic reverberations of the harp, violin, fluth, trumpet, bassoon (“go on, drop the other shoe, will you?”), and percussion. Perhaps that display isn’t all that useful today, given the prevalence of digital readouts, but as a piece of non-CG animation, it’s a neat trick. Which brings me to a final question for you, which you hinted at earlier. I can imagine that classical music purists could contend that the animated sequences actually detract attention away from the music that is best absorbed all by itself. Do you think that’s a valid argument against Fantasia as a whole?

Pick: Ah, the only kind of purists I like are the ones like me. You know, get rid of the designated hitter and that sort of thing. But, no, I don’t think the animation takes away from the music, nor does it add to it. The music exists on its own terms, and it certainly doesn’t need any images to make it fantastic. The animation in this case, however, really depends on the music. In every case, the images are moving in time to the rhythms we’re hearing, and that’s something that boggles the mind, given the way animation was done in the olden times, with each frame of the film drawn one at a time. How did they know exactly how to line all that up with the music?

Fantasia can’t detract from Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, et al. It can introduce the music to an audience that would otherwise never experience it, which given the dwindling economics of contemporary symphonies can only be a good thing. It’s a film experience not quite like any other I know before the rise of MTV and music video; and even then, the images didn’t match the music nearly as much as the cuts did. Maybe it didn’t make enough money to do a sequel back in the day, or maybe Disney’s minds were always thinking ahead to the next big project. For whatever reason, Fantasia stands alone as a virtuoso tribute to the virtuosity of the music.

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