Friday, 12 November 2010

Fantasia (Various Directors, 1940)

Fantasia was Disney's 3rd feature film and their biggest venture to date, after Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (Various Directors, 1937) and Pinnochio (Various Directors, 1940). Snow White had recieved a standing ovation from industry officials such as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich, and became a box office smash, putting Walt Disney on the Hollywood map and the cover of TIME magazine. Pinnochio was less of a financial success, finding some support from critics. Fantasia, however, was a revolution. Intended as more of an extravagant entertainment experience with fancy dress, reserved seating and Fantasound speakers (which would later influence the invention of surround sound), Fantasia was an example of cinema at its purest. Sadly the film initially failed to find an audience which means that its status has grown over time and is now rightly positioned as a classic. I don't think the film is perfect (certainly it's not their masterpiece) but this new DVD/Blu Ray release is a fitting transfer for one of the most ambitious films ever made...

You may wonder why I keep writing 'Various Directors'. In the early days of Disney each picture would have around 5 directors including 'sequence' and 'supervising' directors. Fantasia has eleven: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Ben Sharpsteen (uncredited as a director on this picture, Sharpsteen also produced Fantasia and is the director of my favorite Disney short Moving Day, 1936).

The biggest flaw of Fantasia is the live action interludes. Until around 1960 it was not uncommon for an actor, director, producer or perhaps even a hired announcer to introduce the picture - Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) opens with a friendly warning that the film may "shock" or "horrify" you - calmly suggesting that viewers with a weak stomach would do well to leave now. This was also the tradition with movie trailers, my favorite of which is James Stewart explaining the plot of The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). I've always had something of a problem with this technique - mainly because it's too theatrical for my tastes, and also because it's a little condescending. Fantasia opens with an announcer (Deems Taylor, composer and music critic) telling us of Walt's ambition for the picture - and how it was devised with a group of artists interpreting classical music from the likes of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. It contains, he tells us, three story types - and these will provide the images that we imagine when we listen to the music. This is the problem that I have with the film. Not only do these interludes interrupt the fluidity of the film and make it seem more like a live theatre event (the orchestra is never hidden and sometimes actively takes part in applause and set-piece jokes) it is also very condescending. Personally I don't need any artist to tell me what to think, and how to imagine - especially when the music on offer is so naturally beautiful and evocative. Each sequence lasts around ten minutes, and most are captivating, but after a short while one begins to fear the ending for the looming appearance of Taylor, a perfectly adequate but unnecessary narrator, who grinds the film to a halt far too often for it to be recognised as a classic in my mind. His presence is annoying and adds at least thirty minutes to the run-time (124 minutes) - which is not to mention the interlude at the hour mark, strangely kept in this DVD release. Stranger still is the intact inclusion of the following segment entitled Meet The Soundtrack - a brief jazz session preceding a lesson in sound design, narrated by Taylor. It really saps the magic.

You'll never be bored though, such is the quality of animation and music. Each sequence has something different to offer. My personal favorite is Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring sequence, directed by Roberts and Satterfield, which depicts a condensed history of the Earth, from the genesis of the planet to the extinction of the dinosaurs. I'm a big fan of Stravinsky (famed also for his affair with couture queen Coco Chanel) and his music here is used to perfect effect. The colours in this segment are spectacular - living, breathing browns, crashing yellows and volcanic oranges, the palette is alternately dreamlike and dangerous. The shots of the planet evolving are masterful - especially the overhead shots of bubbling lava and smoke rising into the black skies. As life evolves under the sea Stravinsky builds up to a crashing statement of evolution. Soon the Pterodactyls are stalking overhead, occasionally diving into the ocean, and the Brachiosaurus' reach to the treetops and protect their young. The music, played out in full, is observational for this period of time until the carnivorous side of prehistoric life is explored. A Tyrannosaurus Rex is stalking its prey, eventually dueling with a Stegosaurus. Just as the spiked dinosaur has the upper hand he's pinned down by the Rex, who bites into his neck to seal the kill. Soon an earthquake occurs, water runs dry and the monsters are forced to travel through sweltering heat. Both the animation and music are of an exceptional standard in this piece, for me the highlight of the film. There are sequences better timed to the music - Armstrong's Nutcracker sequence for example, which makes beautiful use of a more vibrant landscape and the changing of the seasons as seen through nature itself - flowers, spider webs and an iced lake. There are some dud sequences, especially the opening Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, also directed by Armstrong. The films most famous sequence, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Algar) is impressive but nowhere near as exciting as I had previously been lead to believe. The inclusion of Mickey Mouse has no doubt boosted its profile, and it's certainly influential (see The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Jon Turteltaub, 2010) but there are stronger sequences to be found, including The Pastoral Symphony (Luske, Handley, Beebe), which is a dreamlike, pastoral vision of Greek myth, and Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria (Jackson), a dark, exciting nightmare whose monster Chernabog was based on movement by Béla Lugosi, who served as a live action model.

If it weren't for the live action interludes this might place much higher on my Disney ranking. The individual sequences are mostly majestic, towering works of art, but they're let down massively by boring, tedious and needless sequences of Taylor explaining everything we're about to see. If this is your first viewing, you may well be disappointed. But you'll also be amazed, excited and enthralled by Disney at the height of their visual powers - as evidenced in Rite Of Spring, a masterpiece short in a flawed feature.

1 comment:

  1. I understand you being anoyed by taylor and am sure he is not trying to tell you how to think he is only intruducing the theme of the of the film which is by creating art inspire by music, and fantasia is the work of a group of artist what you see in the film is what their imaginations created and they are sharing it with us. am sure you can listen to this wonderful music and imagine your own thing.