Saturday, January 12, 2013

Disney’s Fantasia (1940 movie review)

      This film is widely regarded as one of the absolute greatest, if not the greatest animated film to come from Disney. “Fantasia” was released in 1940, making it the third full length animated movie from the Disney studio and it was Walt Disney’s biggest dream project to create a movie that was like an animated consort feature and that’s just what the movie is, a collection of animated short films that are all matched to classical music. While it’s personally not one of my absolute favorite Disney movies, I do still hold a lot of admiration towed this film for being so unique and innovative for its time. The same way that classic musical pieces like Beethoven's 5th symphony are considered immortal, I’d like to make the argument that “Fantasia” is also immortal for being such a landmark experience, not just in regard to Disney and animation but to film in general.

                  (Live-action scenes/ Intermission/ Meet the Soundtrack)

    Now there’s seven animated musical numbers in this film and in-between all the shorts are brief live action scenes with our host Deems Taylor, who was one of the most well known radio celebrities of the time. He brings a lot of class and sophistication to the film, even a subtle sense of hummer and he has such a perfect voice that just adds to the whole mood of the film. Accompanying him is maestro Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who conduct and perform all the music herd in the feature. I love how their always silhouetted against a blue backdrop, it’s such a nice and artistic touch. Another nice little touch is that mid way through the film there’s actually an Intermission, where we get to have fun with the Soundtrack, almost like a comedian that would entertain an audience midway through a stage production.

                                                                    (Toccata and Fugue)

     Sense this film doesn’t have a continuing story the same way other Disney movies do, it’s probably best to just review the shorts individually. We begin with “Toccata and Fugue” which is a terrific opening piece. Basically, it’s just a collection of abstract images that come to mind if you were to think of music on a sub conches level. The images are all very unique and imaginative while still fitting with the music and tone of the whole piece. I especially love how this one begins with the Orchestra silhouetted against various colors and then the animation gradually comes into play. There’s not much else to say about this one, it’s not as good as most of the other numbers but it’s a perfect place to start things off.

                                                                    (The Nutcracker Suite)
     This is one of my favorite shorts from “Fantasia”, just like how the movie is a collection of shorts, the “Nutcracker Suite” is also a collection of shorts in itself. It’s like a box of chocolates, some are good, some are okay and some are terrific. I just love the wide aroma of different things that are presented in this short alone, sometimes its fairies using colorful magic or ice skating, other times its marching mushrooms and sometimes it’s just the changing of seasons. Some bits I hated (especially as a kid), like that one really boring bit with that gold fish, but other parts like the falling flower pedals I loved. My favorite bit is with the dancing flowers, I watched that over and over as a kid and it always got me dancing around my room. It’s just so colorful and lively that it still brings me joy to this day. I especially love the bit with the changing seasons, just the movement of falling snowflakes or leaves blowing in the wind creates such a genuine and emotional response.

                                (The Sorcerer's Apprentice/Micky Mouce Cartoon)
    This episode needs no introduction, it’s the classic Mickey Mouse cartoon that we all know and remember. Ever sense he first appeared in the cartoon “Steamboat Willie”, Mickey Mouse has gone on to become a Disney classic like no other and is personally my favorite cartoon character ever. I would watch Mickey Mouse cartoons all the time as a kid and while “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” wasn’t his first or best cartoon, it was still the first time that the character would be seen in a theatrical animated Disney movie and it would go on to be his most famous screen appearance. Mickey Mouse would be seen in two other theatrical animated Disney movies, "Fun and Fancy Free" and "Fantasia 2000", however, they weren’t quiet as iconic. Whenever people think of Mickey Mouse, the first thing that usually comes to mind is him as a wizard. I’ve memorized just about every frame of this episode and it’s still just as charming as when I first saw it as a kid, however, if it wasn’t for the novelty of Mickey Mouse, this episode wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to the other “Fantasia” shorts.

                                                                          (The Rite of Spring)
      Now here’s one that I have a lot of mixed feelings about. This short is built into three acts, the first act focusing on birth, the second act focusing on life and the third act focusing on death. It depicts a chain of events beginning in outer space, we then see our planet when it was just a molten waist, then we see cells reproduce, followed by the life of Dinosaurs, which then leads to their extinction. As a kid, I loved dinosaurs more than anything, so it was cool to see all these creatures, the lava bit was really cool too and that T-Rex was just awesome, the way it came out in the rain with that whole musical score boasting its size was just stellar. Having said that, I was still plenty upset that the spike tail dyed. That’s really the problem I had with this short, the tone is very uneven. Unlike “The Land Before Time” which had a collection of fluffy and colorful characters, these Dinosaurs were all so dark and creepy looking, even the settings had this dark and foreboding mood to them. The music in this scene isn’t even that fun to listen to and it just creates this very unbalanced feel. In the end, it's cool to watch but it just leaves me with this hollow, bitter sweet feeling. 

                                                                      (The Pastoral Symphony)
     When I was a little kid, I hated this part but after seeing it again as an adult, I thoroughly love this one. Everything about it is just fantastic, I love the setting, I love the imagery and I love that this one has this big collection of colorful characters that all say so much without even speaking. This short is set in ancient grease with a mythological over tone and features a wide selection of different creatures like female and male centaurs, winged horses, unicorns, fawns, flying baby’s and mythological god’s like Zeus and Apollo. What I especially love about this episode are the colors, whoever did the artistic design really knew what they were doing because this looks wonderful. After seeing all the dark visuals and tones in “The Rite of Spring”, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see this world full of so much color and life. There are a lot of sub stories going on here, like an infant flying horse that’s just learning to fly with his family and there’s also a lonely male centaur who falls in love with a lonely female. It’s basically just the life of these creatures and it all flows with the rhythm and movement of a ballet, and it leaves me feeling great every time.

                                                                     (Dance of the Hours)
    I always called this one, the ballet of the animals, because that’s all it really is, just a bunch of animals like ostriches, elephants, crocodiles and hippos in ballet attire, dancing to one of the most famous ballets of all time. This is personally my least favorite of all the “Fantasia” shorts, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad either, it’s still cute and it has its colors and charms. It’s just very odd to see a hippopotamus dancing around with a crocodile and it doesn’t have the same artsy feel of some of the others. But it’s still okay and is probably the cartoonist and most kid friendly the film ever gets.

                                              (Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria)
     This is easily my favorite of all the “Fantasia” shorts, these two different styles of music are so different in tone and theme that they off set each other perfectly. We begin with “Night on Bald Mountain” and I can’t even express in words how terrifying this was to see at a young age. Its scary right from the start, with that painting of the mountain, all that green lighting and the chilling silence, it draws you in immediately. Then that creepy music begins to build up and throughout the remainder of the cartoon, we get shadows engulfing towns, cemeteries, creepy imagery, phantoms floating all over the place, demonic creatures dancing around flames and all kinds of unspeakable, terrifying creatures just leaping at the screen, it’s awesome. I remember being 4 years old and running behind my couch because I was so scared that those things would leap out of my TV screen but now I make it a tradition to watch this short every Halloween. Sense the movie dosn't really have a climax, this was probably the most exciting episode to end the movie on.

    But the big show stealer of this whole sequence is the demonic villain named Chernabog, and while his name isn’t very well known, everyone remembers what he looks like. In fact, he’s gone on to become one of the most well know and popular Disney villains in his own unique way. I’ll certainly say this, of all the animated villains to come from Disney, none of them terrified me quiet as much as this guy. Those evil eyes and wicked smile always came back to haunt my dreams. The modal actor for Chernabog is none other than horror movie legend Bela Lugosi, whose name is legendary for playing Dracula in the 1931 "Dracula" Classic. Actually, I do get a Bela Lugosi vibe when looking at Chernabog, the motions in his arms and flow in his long wingspan is very reminiscent of Dracula. But what really makes this character so terrifying is that he personifies the devil. Actually, both Walt Disney and Deems Taylor refer to him as Satan himself. Isn’t that nice, the Devil is a villain in a Disney movie, and it’s not like one of those fun shoulder devils that argue with a shoulder angel, this is a purely monstrous and evil creature that turns beauty into filth and creates life only to kill it. While he’s not officially labeled as the devil, he still has this evil presence, in fact the name Chernabog is Slavic for "Black God".

    But the big reason that makes this my favorite animated short of “Fantasia” is what follows next. Chernabog is defeated by the tolling of the Angelus Bell, which leads into Josh Grobans immortal song “Ava Maria”, which is easily one of the most powerful moments to be featured in an animated movie. It’s the only time we hear lyrics and every time I watch this scene, I get a little terry eyed at the end. It’s also a breath of fresh air to have an ending to a Disney movie that's just so moving and simple, nothing feels over the top, the animation is warm and I just feel so touched while watching it. For whatever its worth, this scene alone is my favorite moment from an animated Disney movie.

    Overall, “Fantasia” is just a powerhouse of art combining beautiful artistry with classical music and creating visual poetry in the Process. The only real problem I have with this movie is that it’s looming in the shadow of its sequel “Fantasia 2000”, which I personally found to be a far more beautiful and stunning piece of animated art. Having said that, I do still like the original and certainly regard it to be a classic animated masterpiece that will live on till the end of time.  

                                                                      I give “Fantasia” 4 stars out of 5.
                                                                                  The End

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