Friday, March 28, 2014

Disney Films: Fantasia- Revolutionizing Animation...Again.

Third in line in the Disney canon is another film that I like not only for what it was (which is pretty amazing, by the way) but for what it did:


If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs elevated animation to the level of legitimate story telling, then Fantasia elevated it to the level of pure, unadulterated art. A two-hour epic journey into the world of classical music paired with breathtaking animation, Fantasia was more than just a movie. It was an experience.

Walt Disney was a man of many talents. He was, first and foremost, a story teller. He loved reading and telling stories to an audience. But he was also a pioneer and innovator. Nothing fascinated Disney more than the concept of the new. With each successive film, he worked to push the envelope of what animation could do. And so it was with this project. It was never Disney's intention for Fantasia to be just a film. He wanted a continuous, evolving experience. Instead of simply releasing the film like he had with Snow White and Pinocchio, Disney envisioned a touring roadshow. He planned on having new material added every few years. He also wanted audiences to feel like they were really at a symphony, with the orchestra playing all around them. So, he developed a new system he called Fantasound. In essence, Disney pioneered the technology that would become surround sound, some thirty years ahead of its time.

Unfortunately, Disney's gift was also his curse. RKO, his distributor, was uncomfortable with the roadshow format, and only issued a limited release. The film was a huge success and was wildly popular, but the production costs of setting up the equipment and leasing the theaters decimated any profits the movie made. Disney also had some unfortunate timing. The advent of WWII caused demand for certain materials to skyrocket, and a lot of the Fantasound equipment was scrapped to help the war effort. In an attempt to regain some of his losses, Disney allowed RKO to issue the film in a general release to audiences, but to save costs and encourage higher ticket sales, the film was released in mono sound and was heavily edited for time. Subsequently, Disney's dream of an evolving experience was shattered, and he was forced to abandon the idea.

What remains of the project (and what most video and DVD copies contain) is still considered by many critics to be an artistic masterpiece. Disney had hired Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to conduct and gave him free reign over the musical aspect of the project. Stokowski was so thrilled with the concept, he offered to work on it for free. The music is brilliantly conducted and the passion that Stokowski has is obvious, even though all you ever see of him is a silhouette.


Disney had his animators choreograph the various musical pieces in differing styles:

Bach's Toccata and Fugue is backed with abstract shapes and designs that moved with the rhythm of the music.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite depicts various elements of nature (and some fairies) in sprightly dances.
Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice has the only recognizable Disney character, Mickey, playing out the story as originally written by Goethe. (Fun trivia tidbit: the Sorcerer's name in the film is Yensid. It's Disney spelled backward!)

Stravinski's Rite of Spring shows early life on Earth, including the reign and subsequent extinction of the dinosaurs.

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony portrays various characters in Greek mythology gathering for a celebration of Bacchus, god of wine.

Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours is a 4 act ballet, with the dancers played by various animals.

The final piece is a combination of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria. The music is accompanied by the Slavic demon Chernabog forcing the spirits of the dead to dance for his pleasure. (Trivia tidbit: Chernabog's facial expressions were based heavily on Béla Lugosi, best known for his portrayal of Dracula.) The festivities come to an end when the demons and spirits hear the sound of church bells and a choir singing Ave Maria, while monks walk through the woods to a cathedral.

A brief interstitial is shown after the Rite of Spring sequence that introduces audiences to the orchestra, and shows how sound is rendered on film with the help of an animated line displaying the vibrations of various instruments.

Disney's exceptional vision for the enormous potential of animation as legitimate art has left history with one of the greatest gems of the 20th century. While a few sequences might frighten younger children (the Night on Bald Mountain sequence and the Rite of Spring sequence), most older children, teens, and adults will thoroughly enjoy Fantasia, particularly if they have a love of art or classical music. Fantasia is much more than a film. It is what Disney envisioned from the beginning: an experience!

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