Wednesday, April 2, 2014


After my dinner tonight, I settled down for a cozy evening at home, here at Chateau Maine, accompanied by my delightful feline companion, Patrick Flanagan. Patrick, however, had other plans for the evening and soon left for a benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I had several cups of coffee, to which I added some of my new Special K cereal additive and soon I was bursting with energy and that Martha Stewart drive for improved domestic order.

Off I headed for the front lawn to completely rewire the Christmas display. I had grown tired of the Babes in Toyland theme and decided to disassemble the figures and rearrange them into scenes from Bob Clark's 1983 film, A Christmas Story. I had completed Melinda Dillon and was working on a two story profile of Darrin McGavin when I suddenly seemed to lose much of my energy and developed a need for bright colors and calming music. I left the schematics on the lawn, for Jesus, my yard man, to complete in the morning and headed in.

Off I trooped to the home theater where I found the new DVD release of Walt Disney's Fantasia and so I slipped that into the machine as I collapsed artfully on to the divan. Soon symphonic music and lovely images were soothing my jangled nerves. I remained at peace even when Patrick returned home late, reeking of tuna, one too many margaritas and some cheap floozy of an alley cat.

Fantasia, created in the late 1930s and released in 1940, was a daring experiment and a labor of love for Walt Disney. The success of Snow White and Pinocchio showed that there was a market for serious animated features and had given his studio the financial footing to experiment further with the form. Throughout the 1930s, Disney had produced a number of color animated shorts, the Silly Symphonies which used music blended together with animation as a way of highlighting story and emotion. (The best known of these is The Three Little Pigs with the song Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?.) In the late 30s, the Disney animators began a Silly Symphony featuring the studio's reigning star, Mickey Mouse, set to the Dukas piece, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. As the short neared completion, Walt began to have grander ideas; why not make it just one piece of a full animated concert feature? A feature that would use a variety of composers and animation forms to explore the art form in a new, more adult way?

Disney enlisted the aid of Leopold Stokowski, at that time, the pre-eminent serious conductor and purveyor of classical music in America to work on the Concert Feature, later entitled Fantasia. Hundreds of pieces of music were considered and Disney thought of the work as a constantly evolving, new segments added and old segments taken out, forever in release. The program was eventually edited to include seven sequences: Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D minor, Tschaikowsky's Nutcracker Suite, Dukas' The Sorcereror's Apprentice, Beethoven's Symphony #6 Pastoral, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Ponichelli's Dance of the Hours from La Giaconda, and a combination of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria. Each segment was given a unique visual look and animation style. The pieces were tied together by interstitials featuring Deems Taylor, sort of a Howard Cosell of the arts world in the 30s and 40s, acting as a narrator, standing amongst the orchestra.

Fantasia was released in 1940 as a 'road show' attraction in select cities. Select theaters were set up for Disney's latest invention, Fantasound, an early version of surround stereo - the first time it had been applied to film. Seats were reserved, the audience received written programs and it was an event. The great expense of the presentation coupled with the world wide jitters of World War II combined to sink Fantasia outside of a few urban centers and it remained an oddity. The cinema world didn't know what to make of the serious musical pretentions and the music world was aghast that Disney and Stokowski dared monkey with original scoring for the sake of time and narrative. The plans for new segments were shelved. The film remained a failure until the 1960s when Disney rereleased it with a marketing campaign implying a primitive psychadelia (bold colors! dancing mushrooms!) and it was embraced by the Baby Boom and hailed as a classic. It has been widely visible since then.

The current DVD release is being touted as restored and unedited (some of the interstitials had been cut over the years - all were remastered and reinserted for this edition). This is not quite true. The Pastoral sequence originally contained some African American centaurs and centaurettes who would be considered nasty racial caricatures by today's standards. They have been expunged with nary a comment from Disney. It's possible to tell where they were as the camera zooms in on a portion of the original image, throwing off the composition, until the offending moment is past.

As the film is a compilation, it seems that each part should be treated individually:

Tocotta and Fugue in D Minor
After a brief introduction to the orchestra, the famous organ piece takes on a symphonic form. Straightforward images of the players color and sway and soon the screen is full of abstract shapes and colors, with just a hint of reality to them. The piece is fun and sets the tone perfectly but some of the images are a bit odd. I was not sure quite what to make of the rolling red ropey muscles or the walking piano coffin.

Nutcracker Suite
Stokowski cut the first two of the movements of this famous piece and rearranged the remaining for purposes of flow. Rather than the traditional Christmas imagery, the Disney artists focused on nature through the seasons with blossoms, milkweed pods, falling leaves, and little fairies whirling in gay abandon. Some of the animation tricks involving dew and snowflakes remain absolutely remarkable and the familiar music is lovely.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
This piece, the inspiration for the whole project, was the introduction of Mickey Mouse to the mature Disney animation style. Previously, Mickey was always a bit stiff and unexpressive. Here, especially as he is wordless, he develops a fluidity and a grace of motion that served him and Disney well throughout his later career. The images of the lines of brooms are brilliant and once seen, never forgotten.

Pastoral Symphony
This segment is the weakest link in the program. Part of this is the cutesy-poo cloying animation style employed, a staple of the late 30s and early 40s. Part of it is an uneasy jelling of Beethoven with Greek mythology. (The piece was actually conceived originally for other music and the Pastoral substituted later.) I advise a bathroom break.

The Rite of Spring
Stravinsky's ballet of primitive man becomes, to Disney, a story of primitive life - a sort of animated Jurassic Park where the dinosaurs stalk and fight each other to the music's driving rhythms. The effects animation for volcanoes, rain and the like is marvelous. The dinosaurs have power and resonance, more so than a lot of modern dinosaur films using much more sophisticated technology.

Dance of the Hours
One of the funniest pieces of animation ever created and a wonderful burlesque on the classical ballet. The tutued hippos, graceless ostriches and shifty crocodiles that pirouette through the Renaissance palace and garden to Ponichelli's chestnut are divine.

Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria
An attempt to make a meaningful comment on the sacred and the profane. As in most such dichotomies, the evil side is much more successful. The enormous horned demon and his minions, angular and gyrating, are sensational. The quiet pilgrims, even in an incredibly immense tracking shot, are dull.

The DVD is a clean digital transfer and the soundtrack has been spruced up for Dolby 5.1. There are two commentary tracks, one discussing the film and its making with Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and head of Animation at Disney Studios and various experts. The second, and more interesting one, is Walt himself, taken from various archival recordings, discussing Fantasia and what it meant to him. There is also an hour long documentary on the creation of the film.

Disembodied violin bows. Ice skating fairies. Magic hat. Thunderbolt attack. Visible soundtrack. Dying stegosaurus. Stuck elephant. Emptied graveyard. Magical sunrise.

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