Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Since I’ve been watching a lot of recent Disney efforts lately, I figured I’d head back in time a bit and watch Fantasia for the first time (also, my mom got it for me for my birthday). I’d been curious to see it for some time, as it’s generally considered the most experimental effort Walt Disney ever made, and seems to have been a very love-or-hate type of movie (though audiences in 1940 largely hated it enough that Disney almost went bankrupt). After all, making a two hour long film (to date, the longest animated Disney film) without any proper narrative, merely a series of vignettes that frequently have no semblance of a plot, but exist only in an attempt to marry Disney animation to famous classical music? Well, that does kind of sound like something I‘d want to see.

Unfortunately, its very nature does lend itself to being a pretty inconsistent effort. It gets off to a fairly rocky start, giving us what (in my opinion) is the greatest musical piece in the entire film, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, with fully free form animation -- mostly just vague splashes of color, though it eventually moves on to things like animated strings and bows playing the music. Really kind of disappointing. I know Disney was aiming at creating an entirely new type of art form here, but unfortunately part of taking risks means that you will occasionally fail.

The rest of the film has less flighty animation, giving us such vignettes as the rather charming Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries during Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (alright, perhaps it was a bad time to say these were less flighty immediately before praising a segment that’s about faeries literally flying around, but you know what I meant), a rather epic history of the Earth from its formation to the fall of the dinosaurs done to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (complete with a T. Rex totally taking down a stegosaurus), and of course, the famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment done to, errm, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. My favorite, though (as anyone regular reader would have likely guessed) would be the bit with all the ghosts and demons near the end done to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. It’s got a perfect marriage of one of the best songs in the film and easily the coolest visuals. Yes, because it’s filled with monsters.

Of course, I’m obviously listing all my favorite bits there. There’s quite a few, in this ponderous two hour running time, that don’t work as well. Not being the expert on classical music that I’d like to be, I’m not sure if it’s the particular selection of songs on display in the film, or if it’s more how conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra performed them, but far too many of them sound so light and airy that they’re largely indistinguishable, and aren’t helped by animations that are frequently nothing more than cartoon characters dancing. The introductions to each sequence, by narrator Deems Taylor, also fell flat for me, feeling more like Disney was worried he needed the introductions to ease nervous filmgoers into the underlying concept of the film, rather than being anything truly helpful or necessary. Also, I don’t know if this should be mentioned as an actual criticism or not, but I will say that I was rather amused by how the infamous pickaninny centaur had to get excised from the film due to its horrible racism, and yet they retained some ridiculous Asian caricatures with nobody saying a word about it. Mulan does not excuse this double standard, Disney Corporation!

As I said, this is a tough one to give a proper rating, as parts of it are straight up brilliant, and completely live up to Walt Disney’s lofty goals, while other segments….not so much. I don’t think it’s quite the classic that some people have made it out to be, but I still have to say that I rather prefer it to the two more famous films Disney made immediately following (they would be Dumbo and Bambi). It’s definitely worth a viewing, though you may find you’re fast forwarding a few of the segments.

Rating: ** ½

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