Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fantasia - 1940

"The Concert Feature," as Walt called it, originally started as a single short, in which Mickey Mouse would play a sorcerer's apprentice and the piece would be set to classical music. It was to be part of the Silly Symphonies series of shorts. By coincidence, Walt met Leopold Stokowski at a restaurant and explained the short to him. Stokowski expressed his interest in conducting the music and from there, the two decided to expand the concept into a feature, where Disney artists would present their animated interpretation of the music.

Everyone who worked with Walt said he was at his best when he was doing something that had never been done before. Walt's ultimate vision for Fantasia was that it would be re-released every year with a new segment replacing an old one. Unfortunately that dream was never fully realized, although a sequel was made in 2000 that acted as if this did happen and included 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' as the only segment that was left in from the original.

Walt Disney is credited with the creation of stereophonic sound, which was created for Fantasia. Nowadays, surround sound is the norm, but this would have been the first time that audiences heard sound coming from multiple areas in the theater. It was called Fantasound and it included more than thirty speakers per theater. Walt won a special achievement Oscar for his advances in sound.

Fantasia premiered on November 13, 1940, in New York City. The full Fantasound version only played at twelve theaters because of the cost of installing the speakers. It did not turn a profit during this initial run. This roadshow version was distributed by Walt himself, but in 1941 RKO took over as distributor and edited the score into mono sound for a wide release. The film was hard to sell, so RKO edited it from 124 minutes to 81 minutes later that year, cutting out most of the live action segments as well as "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." This is the way that most audiences experienced Fantasia in 1941. With the cuts, audiences were unable to understand what Fantasia was supposed to be and they didn't respond well to it.

It is reported that Fantasia didn't make money for Disney until 1969 when it was released to theaters for the fifth time. Thankfully for us, Fantasia has since become a classic and is considered a monumental piece of film and animation history. It has stood the test of time and is now considered to be one of Disney's best animated features.

The original roadshow edition was mostly put back together in 2000 for it's 60th Anniversary DVD release. It is that version of the film that I have used for this review.

The film opens as if a curtain was parting. In real theaters, a curtain would have opened as the film began, creating the illusion that the orchestra was really behind it. No beginning credits sequence is provided as we see the orchestra take their seats and start tuning their instruments. The reason Fantasia has no opening credits is because audiences at the roadshow edition of 'Fantasia' were handed programs that gave them credits. The whole movie-going experience of 'Fantasia' was to feel like you were attending a live concert. Deems Taylor steps up as our master of ceremonies and introduces himself as he explains the concept of 'Fantasia.'

The first sequence presented is "Toccata and Fugue In D Minor." As Bach's classical piece is played, we see silhouettes of the orchestra and Stokowski's conducting against a color changing background. The sequence really sets the mood of the film and prepares the audience for the groundbreaking film experience they are about to embark upon. As the sequence progresses, it switches to animation of various instrument parts and shapes moving across the sky.

A transition from Taylor introduces us to "The Nutcracker Suite" by Tchaikovsky. As Taylor explains, the titular character is nowhere to be found in the imagery created by the Disney artists. The sequence opens with beautiful fairies at nighttime placing dew drops on nature, making it sparkle and shine. Their dew eventually hits a small cluster of mushrooms, who proceed to dance as if they were Asian men. We then see flowers falling on water, where they turn inside out and dance like ladies in dresses. Next we go under the water where elegant fish perform an underwater ballet. More flowers take over as they perform a Russian-style dance. As the flowers end their dance, the fairies return to bring Fall to the land by turning everything that was green into gold, causing leaves and cotton to fall in an aerial ballet. And finally, the ice fairies come to bring winter to the land as they skate across the water, turning it to ice. Snowflakes shimmer as they fall, ending the sequence.

As Taylor introduces "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Paul Dukas, he explains the story we are about to see about a sorcerer's apprentice who uses magic beyond his power to help with his chores, which causes a big mess. As the sequence begins, we soon realize that the apprentice Taylor was talking about is in fact the one and only Mickey Mouse. In the most iconic sequence of Fantasia, Mickey dons his master's famous blue conned hat with silver stars and moons to help him make a broom carry buckets of water for him. As Mickey drifts off to sleep, he imagines himself as a great sorcerer on a pedestal altering the stars in the cosmos. He then starts to control water, making it splash as high as it can. He wakes up when the water starts splashing him to find that the broom has flooded the house and he can't get it to stop. His attempt to chop the broom into pieces is thwarted when the shards turn into hundreds of brooms which continue to pour water into the house. As Mickey is caught in a whirlpool about to drown, the sorcerer stumbles upon the mess and puts everything back in order. Upon getting his hat back, he points Mickey towards the door, signaling that he is fired. A bit of trivia: the Sorcerer's name, while not mentioned in the film, is Yensid, which is Disney spelled backwards. As we switch back to the orchestra, Mickey's silhouette runs up to Stokowski to congratulate him. Note that this was the debut of Mickey's new design, the biggest change being his eyes, which now had pupils.

Next up is "The Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky, which presents the story of the beginning of the Earth in scientific terms. The sequence opens with black that slowly comes into focus on our solar system. We zoom past our sun, catching it's fire as we pass, narrowly avoid a few commits, and zoom in on a hot red planet that isn't Mars, but is in fact Earth. We see the molten lava streaming out of volcanoes, forming land. We then go into the water where we see some of the earliest single-celled organisms evolve before our eyes, eventually leading to prehistoric sea creatures. Eventually, a sea creature with appendages crawls out of the water and we transition to the time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. We get a glimpse of how scary dinosaurs can be as pterodactyls peck fish out of the ocean and large sea creatures drag the winged beasts into the water to be eaten. We also see how peaceful life could be, as herbivores eat and babies are born. It doesn't last long though, because a ferocious T-Rex is on the hunt, eventually cornering a stegosaurus and getting into an intense battle with it. Next we transition to find the dinosaurs starving for food and water, which has practically disappeared. We see herds of dinosaurs trying to find sustenance. We even see a mighty T-Rex fall down dead, a sharp contrast to the one who just defeated another dinosaur. More time has elapsed and we see dinosaur bones sticking out of the ground, soon to be completely covered and fossilized. Earthquakes rip the land apart, creating mountains and caverns. Water floods the new space, creating rivers. As an eclipsed sun sets, we see a much more familiar view of Earth, drawing the sequence to a close.

Next up is a 15 minute intermission. We see the orchestra stand up and walk away to go on break and the black curtain closes. It reopens and the orchestra reappears to take their seats and tune up. Deems Taylor comes back to welcome us to Act II and introduces an animated sequence titled "Meet the Soundtrack." It doesn't technically count as one of the eight sequences of 'Fantasia,' but provides a fun way to learn about what sound looks like for each instrument.

Beethoven's "The Pastoral Symphony" is the fifth segment, which is based on fictional characters from Greek mythology. As the sun rises over Mount Olympus, a group of baby unicorns come running over the hill. They meet some flute playing fawns and play with each other. We then meet a family of pegasus who fly together. They land in a lake and have some fun, with the adorable children diving and splashing into the water. We then see beautiful centaurettes bathing in a pool. Little angels help them get ready and signal the arrival of the centaurs. It should be noted that this sequence originally contained an offensive character named Sunflower who has been edited out of subsequent versions. Sunflower was an over-the-top portrayal of a black centaurette who helped the other girls get ready. Walt Disney admitted to being in favor of cutting the character out of the film in re-releases. As the centaurs arrive, they go off together in couples to fall in love. The angels lead one centaurette who couldn't find a partner to a centaur who had the same problem and the two go off to share the same happy ending as the others. We next see the centaurs preparing for a celebration as they bring grapes, which the fawns crush into wine. Bacchus, the god of wine, and his delightful unicorn donkey enter the scene to take part in the merriment. A dark cloud brings rain to the party as Vulcan, the god of thunder, plays lightning darts with Zeus. As the sun returns, Iris, god of rainbows, paints the sky, bringing joy back to the mythological creatures. As the sun sets, we see Morpheus riding his golden chariot. Apollo flies across the sky, bringing night to the peaceful scene. Diana shoots her arrow, throwing the stars into the sky as we leave the beautiful Mount Olympus.

Next up, Taylor introduces Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours." We enter a large room where ostriches in ballet slippers wake up and start their stretches before attempting a beautiful and graceful dance. As they go outside, a hippo emerges from a tiny pool of water. As she steps out, it is revealed that she, too, is wearing ballet slippers. More hippos come in tutus, bringing one for the lady who just emerged. They powder their noses and admire their "beauty" in mirrors before attempting their graceful ballet. As the hippos take a nap, a group of elephants in ballet slippers come in to perform with bubbles and "dance." They create tutus made of bubbles as they continue to defy physics with their performance. The elephants leave as night falls and some alligators in capes eerily enter the scene. One would expect the alligators to eat the sleeping hippo, but instead they are taken with their "beauty" and perform a dance of love. Ultimate hilarity ensues when a hippo leaps onto the alligator, expecting him to catch her.

Finally, Taylor introduces the last two segments of Fantasia. The first is "Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky. The segment takes place on Halloween as Chernabog raises the souls of the dead. He throws little devils into fire and then makes dancing ladies out of fire, which he turns into ugly animals and then demons. The mood is intense and eerie. This is probably the darkest piece of animation that exists in the Disney canon. In the end, Chernabog is driven away by the sound of church bells, which perfectly leads into the final segment.

"Ave Maria" by Schubert presents the almost exact opposite tone as the previous segment. It is calm, peaceful, and serene. A line of people are walking to church with candles, passing over a gorgeous bridge and through a beautiful forest. It is one of the longest single multiplane camera shots in any Disney film. This is the only segment of Fantasia with singing. As we enter darkness, we zoom on a narrow arch, the only source of light. As the arch widens, we see another arch made of trees and a blue sky behind it, which we zoom in on. The golden rays of the sun fill the sky as the music ends and we fade to black.

Fantasia isn't just a movie, it's an experience. An experience that was completely lost on me as a child. I would fast forward my VHS tape to see the segments I was interested in, so as a kid the 81 minute RKO cut probably would have been easier to watch. However, as I got older I came to appreciate Fantasia for the piece of artistic genius that it is. It's a shame that it wasn't a success in it's initial release, but thankfully time has made up for it by placing Fantasia on a high pedestal.

Fantasia was last released on Blu-Ray and DVD in 2010 and is now out of print. Both sets included a new restoration of Fantasia and bonus features about the Walt Disney Family Museum and Walt's inspiration for a sequel. Exclusive to Blu-Ray is the 2003 short Destino based on a collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, newly discovered documents revealing secrets about Fantasia, interactive art galleries, audio commentaries and Disney's Virtual Vault. A book called Hippo in a Tutu explores how dance has been used in many Disney animated films and the challenges of bringing them to the screen, taking it's main influence from Fantasia.

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