Friday, March 13, 2020

Fantasia (1940)

USA, 125 minutes
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr., Norman Ferguson, David Hand, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen
Writers: Joe Grant, Dick Huerner, Lee Blair, Elmer Plummer, Phil Dike, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Norman Wright, Albert Heath, Bianca Majolie, Graham Heid, Perce Pearce, Carl Fallberg, William Martin, Leo Thiele, Robert Sterner, John McLeish, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, Erdman Penner, Joseph Sabo, Bill Peet, Vernon Stallings, Campbell Grant, Arthur Heineman
Photography: James Wong Howe
Music: Johann Sebastian Bach, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Amilcare Ponchielli, Modest Mussorgsky, Franz Schubert
Animators / editors: numerous
Cast: Deems Taylor, Leopold Stokowski

Is anyone still alive who saw this when it was new? It seems unlikely, as the release of "this new form of entertainment, Fantasia," is 80 years past now, a full lifetime. The pompous words are from the dweeby Deems Taylor, standing uncomfortably in formalwear he doesn't belong in, who is our host, master of ceremonies, and all-around Robert Osborne guy for the movie. He's really not wrong about "new form of entertainment," as the vast collaboration of Fantasia arguably produced the template, if not indeed the ultimate refinement and pinnacle, of what we'd later call music videos. Taylor, continuing, "Now, there are three kinds of music on this Fantasia program. First, there's the kind that tells a definite story. Then there's the kind that, while it has no specific plot, does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. And then there's a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake."

As it happens, the third kind tends to be my favorite here and it seems to be what gets Taylor most amped up himself, as when, after the intermission (Fantasia is also old-fashioned in many small comforting ways), he carries on a conversation with "the soundtrack," represented by psychedelic symmetrical shapes and colors corresponding to musical instruments playing. In many ways it's the forerunner to computer screensavers and those hypnotic visualizers digital music players used to have.

Of course, it's Disney, so sooner or later Mickey Mouse has to get involved. We are spared Donald Duck—as someone who's dubious about Disney for many, many reasons, I appreciated that some of the more clanking branding was left out of this. I take that as another grace of its extraordinary old age. Mickey is the hapless apprentice in the cartoony treatment of Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The other piece that is more like straight-up cartoon is the treatment of Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, which as it happens I know better in the Allan Sherman version as "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" Even as I kept hearing, "Here I am at / Camp Grenada," a series of ungainly ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators took the screen to dance and sway as elegant ballerinas. The elephants wore skirts made out of bubbles. It looks forward to Dumbo, and I was charmed in spite of myself.

Fantasia was David O. Selznick's favorite animated feature and it's Steven Spielberg's too, which I was seeing quite plainly in the Rite of Spring piece even before I looked it up. Everything about the adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring seems unlikely now. Mass audiences now may or may not know the reputation of Stravinsky's ballet for setting off riots when it debuted in Paris in 1913 (which Fantasia acknowledges, if awkwardly). But reimagining it as the story of the evolution of life on Earth would likely not get past the treatment stage today. It was probably daring even then. Perhaps it gets away with it only because Taylor is an obvious egghead and the whole project might be taken as a lot of intellectual jacking off.

Those were different times in 1940. Why, Fantasia is so sophisticated it even dares to include female nudity. Female centaurs, that is, shown with bare breasts as they bathe. They have no nipples, but neither do the male centaurs. On the other hand, the female wraiths in the remarkable Night on Bald Mountain piece do have nipples and so do the Olympian gods in the one based on Beethoven's Pastoral symphony. Try to figure that out. I'm not sure why I charted that so carefully. It's not like 1940 was a better time for sexual or gender candor, but there's an openness here that is striking.

The influence of the Rite of Spring piece alone in Fantasia is remarkable and obvious. Many of the schemes, palettes, and framing approaches for the last third of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are virtually storyboarded in the volcanic Earth sequence, and the treatment of the T. Rex in the dinosaur period translated directly to Jurassic Park. There's even a mountain that looks like Devils Tower. That's Spielberg. Kubrick likely had some of these Rite of Spring scenes in mind for the caveman overture to 2001. The whole movie rings with an air of familiarity. You get the feeling everyone has seen it and it made an impression on all.

Fantasia finishes on perhaps its strongest pieces, a workup of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (later used by David Shire in Saturday Night Fever as "Night on Disco Mountain") which segues into Schubert's "Ave Maria." IMDb's trivia section for Fantasia notes that parents still complain about Night on Bald Mountain giving their kids nightmares. And, actually, it's still pretty potent stuff. That's Bela Lugosi standing in as the model for the demon. "Ave Maria," on the other hand, is a very lovely hymn, if a little on the sickeningly pious side. Still, it works well paired with the nightmare sequence. The whole movie is remarkable—stiff as a board, and endlessly inventive.

Top 10 of 1940
1. Fantasia
2. The Shop Around the Corner
3. His Girl Friday
4. Rebecca
5. Christmas in July
6. The Grapes of Wrath
7. The Philadelphia Story
8. The Great Dictator
9. The Letter
10. Waterloo Bridge

1 comment:

  1. I'm not to be trusted. I first saw Fantasia in 1971 or 1972. I was tripping on acid. It seemed like an amazing movie, perhaps even more so because it was apparently an annual event with the college kids in the midwest town I was living in to go see Fantasia once a year while tripping. So it was a theater full of people basically going "WOWWWWWW" for the whole movie.