Fantasia (Various Directors, 1940)

“Now, look – will the soundtrack kindly produce a sound?”

Introduction
As mentioned during the week, this film was bought for me as a birthday present. For a long time I was keen to watch – or rewatch – the Disney ‘Classics’ Canon. Fantasia is a funny film as many people dislike the film – vividly remembering The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Mickey Mouse but not-so-keen on sequences like the ‘soundtrack’ whereby the composer converses with a vertical line that shimmers and changes shape according to the instrument played. You win some, you lose some I guess.
The Filmmaker as an Artist
Having recently taught lessons on the artist Wassily Kandinsky, I was amazed to see various theories that he believed discussed in the film Fantasia. To clarify, Kandinsky was “fascinated by music’s emotional power” – music had no constraits or literal form, whilst at the time, to some extent, Art did. Kandinsky experimented with the idea that Art could be as expressive, abstract and emotionally involving as music creating art pieces that contained a musical playfulness and resonance. The very first thing Fantasia ‘teaches’ us, is the connection music has with art. Deems Taylor, who ‘narrates’ each segment states:
“What you’re going to see on the screen are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists.”
He even goes further to explain ‘three different types of segments’
“First, there’s the kind that tells a definite story. Then there’s the kind that while it has no specific plot, it 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 … what we call “absolute music”. Even the title has no meaning beyond a description of the form of the music. What you will see on the screen is a picture of the various abstract images that might pass through your mind if you sat in a concert hall listening to this music” 
For a family film starring Mickey Mouse, this is hugely informative and filled with art theories associated with ‘high art’ at the time. Kandinsky died in 1944 at the age of 78, so it is safe to assume that his theories and artistic practice was clearly known in the art world by 1940. It’d be nice to think that maybe, just maybe, Kandisnky watched Fantasia. If he did, I’d be very interested to know his opinion. In an attempt to see if there was any quote from Kandinsky on the film I found a short blog post that managed to see the connection I have seen between Kandinsky and Fantasia too.

Access to Classical Music

The conductor Leopold Stokowski introduces many segments and, to add to the feeling of watching an orchestra, we see the orchestra set-up and prepare at the start. An interval additionally shows the orchestra ‘leave the stage’ before re-emerging (and even engaging in a little playful improvisation) before the second-half commences. I believe that Disney wanted to bring the beauty of classical music to the masses. I know here in England, it is not neccessarily easy to find a full orchestra play classics if you don’t live in London. So in the big, expansive US of A I assume it will be even more difficult. If you live in small little town in Utah, to ‘experience’ the Philadelphia Orchstra playing Tchaikovsky is unlikely – so every effort has been made to make you ‘feel’ like you are watching a live show. The hustle and the bustle of the set-up, the opening curtains, the ‘improv’ playing and lack of camera-movement as the Orchestra are seen. We don’t move through the orchestra or see out into the audience – everything is from the front, sometimes in close-up to focus our attention to a detail, but ultimately from the front. Reminds me about Dial M for Murder, whereby Hitchcock attempted to use 3D to make it appear that you are looking up to the action ‘on the stage’.
Off-Balance
Despite the good intentions of the filmmakers, it is clear that some sequences work and some do not. Obviously, The Sorcerers Apprentice is iconic and unforgettable. The fact that the purpose of the sequence was to re-establish Mickey Mouse after he became a little less popular at the time, clearly worked a treat. The animator Fred Moore even added white’s in his eyes to give him more opportunities to express himself – the ‘character’ being the centre-point to much of Disney’s success. But the ‘soundtrack’ sequence as a literal soundtrack  – a vertical line – changes shape and colour to demonstrate the different instruments, feels a little out of place. But again, as weak as this one sequence may appear, I think it is ‘teaching’ us the different sounds – what exactly does a clarinet sound like? The sequence literally goes through different instruments and shows us the sounds they make.
Another sequence is based on ‘Science’. I felt that this was quite groundbreaking in how it depicts the beginning of the earth through to the extinction of dinosaurs. I vaguely remember this sequence as, pre-Jurassic Park, I was a huge dinosaur fan and this was one of the view visual associations I could have. I think the ground-breaking element resided in the presentation of evolution ‘for kids’. I know that, even now, many children simply do not ‘believe’ in evolution, but it is clear that Disney is trying to ram this reality home: “And that story, as you’re going to see it, isn’t the product of anybody’s imagination. It’s a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet’s existence. Science, not art, wrote the scenario of this picture.”

Innovation and the Future

This was the third Disney film – following Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio. One thing that is exceptionally clear from watching the special features of these earlier films, is how much innovation Disney brought to animation. The first feature-length animation in Snow White, fascinating angles and uses of colours to show dream sequences – Disney’s work with Dali on Destino. It truly is awe-inspiring to see such amazing talent on screen. Fantasia for all its inconsistencies, again presents us with a broad range of incredble animation – from the abstract shapes, colours and ideas that open the film, through to the fun and engaging The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Nutcracker Suite. The science lesson in The Rite of Spring and the ‘introduction-to-ballet’ we have with the Dance of the Hours and to finish with the incredibly scary and sinister devil in the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria. Whether it works or not (21st Highest Grossing Film of All-Time when adjusted for inflation through the multiple re-releases it has had since its release in 1940… I think this means it worked…) is not so much the point as it is an fascinating idea and stunning to observe – either showing one sequence or watching the whole ‘experience’. Another ground-breaking release from Mr Disney.
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3 comments

  1. Sorry! I should have checked the spelling on my earlier post! Walt Disney intended for Fantasia to be a living, changing, growing thing. He wanted to release it every few years with some sequences removed and new sequences added. I wonder how it would have fared under those circumstances. I'm not fond of The Rite of Spring. I don't dislike the animation or the story it is telling, I just don't enjoy the music of that particular sequence. Fantasia is a great classic and certainly deserves that connotation more than most films.

  2. Well, the reason it has made so much money was because of the re-releases … though I don't think he added anything in. I think the main thing is that it opens peoples eyes to classical music – something they may have thought to be unaccessible before. I love the film.

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