Monday, March 23, 2009

Disney Marathon: Fantasia

Fantasia (1940, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Fort Bebee, et al.)

Released in 1940, Fantasia origins can be directly linked to Mr. Disney’s desire to give increase the popularity of his much beloved character Mickey Mouse, whose profitability had dwindled somewhat in the few years prior. Inspired by the classic poem Der Zauberlehrling (Goethe), known in the English language as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the short cartoon would feature Micky Mouse as, what else, a sorcerer’s apprentice who, despite not being fully trained in magic, uses some powers to make a broom take care of the house chores with serious repercussions of the apprentice’s hastiness ensuing. Conductor Leopold Stokowski accepted to conduct the music for the film at no charge at all. A Paul Dukas piece, L’apprenti sorcier, would be the music that accompanied the on screen action. Fantasia would also be the first feature film to display its soundtrack in stereo sound, meaning that different sounds would emerge from different speaker in the theatre. It’s a rather standard quality of movie going to day (expected by most in fact), but back in 1940, the use of multiple audio channels and speakers to produce a more realistic audio experience was an impressive first.

The powerful development in sound design, coupled with intricate and impressive animation quality to bring Micky and supporting characters to life (this is 1940 remember, they ain’t making Bolt with computers here), rose significantly beyond what was normally needed to produce a short back in the day. With that in mind, it was deemed more prudent to augment the costs some more while making The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but one segment in a feature length musical program which would include several skits, each one accompanied by music for sound alone. A music conductor named Deems Taylor was even hired to narrate the program, thus providing a bit of context to the segments before each began. It was Stokowski’s suggestion in fact to name their effort Fantasia, which, as a noun, can mean either a ‘musical composition that does not follow a conventional form’ or ‘a musical composition based on several familiar tunes’ (both definitions from the Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2001.). A rather apt title given that not only are the musical pieces featured throughout the program quite well known but the program itself does not follow any conventional form. There is no story per say or evident overarching theme that ties everything neatly together, with the exception that all the music played is of the classical variety.

Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Schubert, all these and more are given the Disney treatment in Fantasia. Playing out like a concert in fact, the film opens with Deems Taylor welcoming the audience and explaining that for the next little while, conductor Leopold Stokowski his orchestra will play some classical music pieces while original cartoons, inspired from the said music in the minds of the creators and artists at Disney, play for all to enjoy. Essentially, this a marriage of music and animation, but more specifically, the marriage between famous classical pieces known the world over with the creative talent at Disney Studios and whatever ideas that music could evoke. Taylor provides an interesting tid bit about music before the concert begins however, explaining briefly that there are three varieties of music. A piece can tell a definite story, a piece can have a theme (but no story) and a piece can simply be there for the pleasure of the listener, the composer having not written it with any specific intent or plot in mind (absolute music). I thought this was a crucial bit of information because it prepared me somewhat to comprehend the onslaught of sights and sound that were to follow (if you haven’t guessed already, I had never seen Fantasia except for Night on Bald Mountain). I could therefore find my footing a little bit instead of constantly wondering why exactly certain images were chosen to accompany any chosen musical suites. I still did at times, but with the knowledge (or reminder I suppose since I think I already knew that) that music can just ‘be’, I was prepared to let myself witness what Disney had in store for me as opposed to over analyzing anything.

And then it began with Johann Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a piece I love. There is a power and majestic quality to it that almost brings tears to my eyes (I said almost, so don’t get any ideas). Visually it started a bit slowly I find, with shadows of the orchestra’s player splashed on a great wall with some colours added for style (interestingly enough since Taylor, only moments ago, suggested that absolute music might convey only blots of colour to the listener at first). The only element I found annoying about this segment was how Taylor actually gave clear hints as to what would appear on screen for this part of absolute music. Personally, I would have preferred to be completely whisked away since (or ‘gone in cold’, if you prefer). I thought Taylor was just fooling around with his description of what an audience member might envision in his or her mind when listening to absolute music. A few minutes later, I see that he was in fact telling us what visual treats the segment reserved. Still, I thought the animation quality was simply exquisite. Obviously, it’s quite abstract and I therefore shan’t go into the intricate details of what hits the screen. Discovering it is part of the fun after all.

Interestingly enough, the next segment’s soundtrack is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which is for a specific story (the Nutcracker ballet), but Disney decides to animate the short with original material, completely non-Nutcracker related. A peculiar but intriguing artistic choice if I may say so. I did think that the visuals, from the seductive fish underwater to the little pixy fairies, possessed a delicacy, a playfulness that suited the music. It’s a difficult short to get into if one can’t separate the fact that this immensely popular piece of music was written and conducted for an equally popular ballet, which is still played around the world till this day. If you just can’t think of anything other than the Nutcracker ballet accompanying the suite, then perhaps the second short won’t be your cup of tea. It took me a couple of minutes to grow accustomed to it, but I eventually enjoyed it a lot.

At this point I was merely content. If this was what the remaining 80 minutes or so were to be like, very well then, I would most likely end up thoroughly enjoying the feature without ever really loving it however.

Well, the whole ‘abstract/non-linear or plot driven’ animation was actually over by then. From there things are absolutely kicked into very high gear. From the third segment onward, the third being the now remarkably famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Dukas’ music, the program not only continues to feature music that I admire to the utmost degree, but displayed entertaining, thrilling, mysterious and funny animated stories and a ballet (hippos dancing with freaking crocodiles for crying out loud). Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (such a marvel, makes me so bloody happy when I hear it), Franz Schubert’s Ava Maria, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours (I was less familiar with it until now even though I knew it a little, so it was nice to get a better idea of what it sounded like), and of course the powerful, intimidating and ferocious Night on Bald Mountain from Modest Mussorgsky. Nothing modest about this piece of music, let me tell you that. It’s like the end of the world, or, at the very least, the kind of music that would accompany the most hideous, depressing situation I could think of it came to life. Pure darkness with no hope for respite. It’s a depressing but thrilling bit of music all at once. In the cartoon Chernabog, the giant demon-thingy, emerges from Bald Mountain one night and summons evil, ghoulish spirits to perform a dancing ritual. Chernobog, wtf?!? This creature of the night is, in my humble opinion, the most impressive and frightening ‘foe’ I have ever witnessed in any Disney film and probably in any animation film I have watched (except maybe hunger in Grave of the Fireflies. Yeah, no one should dies of hunger). He throws his minions into a fiery pit and the others still worship him afterwards!

Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with animation showing the ‘blossoming’ of life on earth, was another little gem to watch unfold. What was life on earth like all those millions of years ago (apologies to creationists on the boards)? Fossils, archaeology and several other sciences can provide us with good ideas of how life was back then, but I think that if I could physically travel back to that age, the sights would probably still freak me out nonetheless. Different landscapes, different eco systems, foliage, animals, etc. The short treats it at first like a mysterious science-fiction story and I felt it worked wonders. Then of course the dinosaurs appear (rejoice Spielberg fans), and that segment was equally impressive, if less mysterious. The part with the dinosaurs perishing of thirst while traversing a barren and desert like land was very impressive to see in a family cartoon. I almost want to say that this was my favourite segment. I felt the coupling of this particular piece of music and the telling of this particular story through animation held up remarkably well. I at least liked all, loved a few, but this one took the cake in my opinion (hi worm!).

This is an infinitely difficult film to write about because I think that, more than many of the other films we are to watch and have already on this Disney animation journey, Fantasia will split people the most. There’s no overarching story to grip on, with the film jumping from one segment to another every 10 minutes or so. Some will please you while others may leave you wanting for more. I think that it always a risk taken with anthology films. Of the three films we have watched thus far, I think this is my favourite and I’m not even certain the race is that close. I enjoyed our 2 previous films, but found faults in both nonetheless that hindered my ability to fall in love with them. This was less the case with Fantasia, even though I didn’t find it perfect (I never once liked the cuter, talking Mickey, so therefore hearing that annoying little voice congratulate Stokowski was freaking grating). Of course, one could argue that its success is a bit of a cheat since the filmmakers did not need to create original music. They took exquisite examples of classical music and classical ballets and added to the paper canvass what their imaginations could fathom. Personally, I don’t really care. The gut reaction is what I’m going with in this round and my gut is telling my Fantasia is a great experience with both forms of art combining together handsomly.