In honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.
Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank.
Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
Like all children lost in their toyboxes, however, Disney often let his imagination get the best of him, and his egotism held that wherever he went money would follow. A hard reality check was in order. He simply couldn’t fathom that just because he found something fun, everyone else might not necessarily fall in love all the same. Which is why, after Snow White, several of his company’s following features were matched only in their forward-thinking artistic perfection by their crippling financial failures. Disney’s 1941 release Dumbo was a big success and provided enough funding for the company to stay alive while shilling out package deals throughout the rest of the ’40s for a cheap, quick buck, but Disney’s trifecta of post-Snow White efforts are about as radical as they come. One was a Germanic fable of sin and guilt that often bordered on horror and plunged the pits of man-kind’s deepest secrets. Another was a trenchant, placid realist film about human evil with some of the most painterly images ever captured in any medium.
But the most openly radical film of all saw Walt Disney’s love of movie magic bolstered by his love of animation, and it intended to accomplish nothing less than redraw the bounds of cinema by throwing narrative out the window entirely and using the whole cloth of animation’s potential to favor emotion over logic to capture and redefine the spirit of past art for a new era, pushing cinema into the modern age in the process. It was a wholly ambitious endeavor, a melding of animation and music mechanisms designed to better each other. It was a playground of unbridled ambition and animation playfulness, wherein animators would match the spirit of classical music pieces to visual imagery and have an almost unparalleled freedom to do with the spirit of animation whatever they imagined in their wildest dreams. Disney’s dream, Disney’s Fantasia, would be the cinema’s greatest achievement, and a perpetual, even yearly event wherein animation and emotion were tested time and time again as new talents brought their skills to the chopping block for future audiences.
Alas, the dream was never to be, and the first entry, released in 1940, was an almost miserable box office flop, a work ahead of its time that indulged to the nth degree with childlike glee and the hope that people would follow. Eventually, of course, they did, and like Pinocchio, Fantasia would eventually become the talk of the animation town, but in the meantime the project fell on deaf ears. Seventy-five years later, we have only this film (and one fifteen-year-old mistake better left under the covers) to show for Disney’s dream.
But, in the meantime, what a show! Composed of beautifully contrasting segments that battle out like distilled emotions in a bottle, yet never overwhelm one another, Fantasia’s highs are about as high as cinema has ever gotten. And it operates at an almost unending high. From the very beginning, the omnivorous film dares us with the non-representational quality of Bach’s demented “Toccato and Fugue in D Minor”, openly defying society’s grip on narrative storytelling in a tremendously bold gesture for an animated company’s third feature-length release. Openly partaking in a whirlwind parade of abstract lines and shapes, this segment dances in the air and dazzles the screen in sparkling abstraction.
Following this, “Nutcracker Suite” impressionistically falls in love with nature through tiny, pinpoint anthropomorphic gestures, caressing the four seasons and seeing emotion and form in pure harmony for the film’s most playful sequence of pure majesty and wonder (and its most unspeakably beautiful sequence as well, moving from frothy theater to seductive, hazy underwater dream to an alluringly mysterious winter for the ages). It is one of the loveliest bits of animation in history, even if it contains one racist mushroom-dance too many (ie it contains one).
The most famous segment, Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, interrupts to provide wonderfully whiplash whimsy and mischief, but plays with the same German Expressionism more famously known to the later segments of the film (a sequence where Mickey bludgeons some of his overzealous brooms with a knife is augmented with lightning-tinged music and teased in shadows that hit with blunt trauma). Soon afterwards, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” boldly tackles the creation of life with a combative forward progression that sees the film make the transition from the impressionism that defined the “Nutcracker Suite” to the pitch-black Expressionism of the later “Night on Bald Mountain”. When everything rises and rises and finally boils over, the whole segment feels downright cataclysmic, revolutionary, and ready to burst.
After the rising action, it was time to cool a bit, a necessary respite provided both by Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” and, more successfully, by “Dance of the Hours”, neither of which are film highlights but both of which coast on their lovingly unambitious silliness and an airy, “just for pleasure” demeanor that is so wonderfully positioned in between the peaks immediately before and afterwards. “Pastoral” suffers for a variety of reasons, including its well-known and deeply difficult racist caricature and an overabundance of down-time that clashes with its zippy frothiness, but the high spirits of its partner and successor win out in the end.
The final two pieces shift to a hard right, the first boiling to a climax so restless, intense, and overpowering it can only be matched by the elegantly quiet beauty of its counterpart. “Night on Bald Mountain” is an impulsive horror straight from hell, a work of such undiluted Expressonism it is almost impossible to comprehend a mainstream animated company even thinking to include such a beast in its nightmares in today’s world. Utilizing high-grain, a low-level of saturation so as to bury the sequence in greyness and shadow, and some dangerously stilted, almost stop-motion movement that stutters and spurts at different speeds so as to disorient something fierce, it is a sterling achievement of primal destruction. Owing to silent classics like Haxan (the thought of an animated classic taking inspiration from an alien artifact like Haxan brings an eternal grin to my face) and especially FW Murnau’s Faust, the sequence takes Murnau’s arcane mysticism masquerading primordial fears of choice, human agency, and existential determinism, and turns it into an equal parable of human destruction and guilt-ridden sin.
Such a brutal ending for a brutal world, but Disney’s humanism prevails when the film drifts off to sleep with the lovely “Ava Maria” ready to rescue the world from Chernabog’s demonic undoing in “Night on Bald Mountain”. Not only do the final two segments contrast spiritually and thematically (death vs rebirth), but the art melds to the music to contrast aesthetically as well. While “Night on Bald Mountain” was a deep, dark secret rooted in z-axis depth and baroque hopelessness, “Ava Maria” is a simple beauty of hazy earthen flatness that stretches off in a lateral direction for miles but intentionally holds no secrets and knows no mischief. It’s the film at its most ethereal, most haunting, and most forgiving.
It’s tempting to define Fantasia in light of its specific mini-movies, but a rudimentary understanding of editing tells us differently. For moments do not only stand individually but are shaped in relation to one another, and Fantasia’s audio-visual quilt is far more than its composite patches. On one level, the sheer elegance of the order is shockingly well composed. The most abstract entry startlingly, daringly begins by bulleting us into the future of animation, followed by a steady rise up to “Rite of Spring” plateauing the film in the middle as a murderous, awe-struck thunderous peak positioned around three quietly restful comic respites. The film then rapidly blazes again with “Night on Bald Mountain” bringing the house down with the fire-and-brimstone infused end of the world before the gentle gestures of the soothing “Ava Maria” lull us off to sleep. Naturally, the ebb and flow of the film’s chaotic up-and-down emotions fit the rising and falling action of a multi-movement symphony, and the emotional flow of the film’s rise and fall plays like music to the ears.
More importantly, and comparatively under-discussed, is the place of the inter-segment introductions by Deems Taylor openly breaking the fourth wall and reminding us with avuncular spirits that this is a motion picture, dammit, and it is ready to entertain. Fronting images of the Leopold Stokowsk-led Philadelphia Orchestra rendered in nearly abstract color, and barely hiding smiling eyes, Taylor reminds us that this is a film made by animators and musicians, and that they, forward-thinking artists that they are, have produced the joy spread out before us with techniques unique to film. It’s a bold, even confrontational, statement to film as an experience and a product, and the perfect statement to the essence of a revolutionary work about cinema, for cinema, and by cinema.