Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Fantasia (1940)

*This article is part of The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

The best word to describe Fantasia is "audacious." It's a film with a curious reputation: one that's widely admired among critics, but usually only merits a casual mention from those who love Disney, and most audiences only know it for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." It's respected, but I wouldn't necessarily say that it's loved the way other Disney animated films become treasured memories of childhood.

There's two major reasons for this, I would say. The first is that it is, essentially, an anthology film, and as with any such film, there are some segments that are naturally stronger than others. The second is that this is an awfully experimental, pretentious film, unlike anything Disney or any other studio has ever made. Think about it: if you were to pitch to any studio today a film that's set completely to classical music, with no dialogue and segments with no plot, do you think you could actually get it bankrolled? The film itself was something of a box office failure in 1940; it didn't recuperate its budget until after a few reissues. It's not exactly a film that was going to be a blockbuster, especially since classical music was finding itself being replaced by the success of jazz and pop music in the national culture.

But at the time, it was the sort of bold film that Disney could make: coming off the success of 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, itself the first feature-length American animated film, Walt Disney decided to open the realm of possibilities within animation by marrying art with classical music, allowing animators to come up with whatever they wanted to illustrate various pieces. Conductor Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in recording the music, while composer Deems Taylor introduced each segment (those interstitials, by the way, were lensed by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe).

To go back to my introductory point, I was raised on Disney, and I can remember watching Fantasia several times as a child. I was mesmerized by certain images, but it was far from my favorite film to watch (that would be Beauty and the Beast, discussed here). Revisiting it now for the first time in well over a decade, I was surprised at how quickly I was transported back to that state of mind. I still don't think of it as any kind of masterpiece, but I found myself visually engaged with certain segments and enthralled by what was presented.

As this week's selection in Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has issued a challenge: pick one shot from the "Rite of Spring" segment, one shot from "Rite of Spring" and one from the movie at-large, or one shot from each individual segment, totaling six. I've deigned to undertake the final, "sorcerer's" challenge. Let's begin our musical journey, shall we?

Toccata & Fugue

This one wasn't necessarily part of the challenge, but how interesting is it that the film begins with it's most abstract piece? There's no plot, nor is there anything bearing a resemblance to tangible objects: just colors and shapes that prove surprisingly moving. Of any of the segments, this one is the truest to the idea of representing hearing music at it's most basic, using colors to evoke emotion in tandem with the music. 

As for the above image, well, isn't that just a great bit of photography? The maestro of sound and image, not unlike a director of a film.

The Nutcracker Suite

I know I've been all about reflections in this series (it's a syndrome), but I love this shot of the flowers falling onto the surface of the water. Honestly, there's enough beautiful shots in this film to make you lament the end of Disney's hand-drawn animation department even more. The choice to match each dance in the suite with various aspects of nature (including fairies, which look like prototypes for Tinkerbell) is interesting, but this is one of those segments that's merely pleasant, not necessarily groundbreaking.

Other shots:

This is another very elegant, anthropomorphized-nature example: seeds as dancers in elegant gowns.

And of course, this wouldn't be early Disney without some sort of racist caricature.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

This is, of course, the segment that everyone knows about. Its popularity can be owed not only to the fact that it stars Mickey Mouse, but also to its narrative, in which the Apprentice tries to use magic to make his tasks easier, only to get his comeuppance for skipping out on hard work (an era-appropriate theme). Of all the segments in Fantasia, this one has the most straightforward plot (based on a symphonic poem by Paul Dukas, itself based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), but it also strikingly uses light and shadow to great effect. Throughout the segment, we see the difference in lighting of inside and outside, and the shadows play almost noir-ishly across the walls. In the above shot, we see the Apprentice's situation (literally) spiral out of control, while the never-ending army of brooms marches onward in it's mission (which I never completely understood?). It's a stunning example of the use of shadow to suggest something almost nefarious about the use of magic.

Other shots:

Because how many other times has Mickey wielded an axe?

I love how almost pop-art this is. You could almost expect it to be used in some propaganda poster in a Communist nation.

The Rite of Spring

Given that it's a famous Stravinsky ballet (I have a soft spot for him, thanks to high school band) and deals with dinosaurs (because who doesn't love dinosaurs?), this had all the elements to be my favorite segment. And yet I'd say it's actually my least favorite of the film. It certainly doesn't lack for ambition, attempting to tell the story of life from the formation of the universe to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The problem is that, though the music is affecting (Stravinsky reportedly hated the arrangement used in the film) and the animation striking, it doesn't really muster up the feeling of wonder that it should. It even has a showdown between a stegosaurus and a T. Rex, for Pete's sake, and it doesn't quite get the pulse racing. The above shot, though, feels like a wicked moral coming from the Studio Where Dreams Are Made; the T. Rex has been felled by hunger and thirst, while his former prey staggers toward their inevitable deaths. The segment begins with birth, but as every spring leads to fall, so does every life wane into the twilight of death.

The Pastoral Symphony

The middle portion of the film is the one that really sags. This follows Rite of Spring, and though it's colorful and loaded with mythological beings, it never really musters much beyond a "aw, how cute." There is a strong study in coloring here, and the courtship of the centaurs paired with a literal bacchanalia is an imaginative interpretation of the music. Which is why my choice for favorite shot comes from an abrupt storm, caused by the king of the gods, Zeus, in a bit of inspired dickery. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the segment's soft colors, and the silhouettes against the purple storm clouds are appropriately gloomy.

Dance of the Hours

As a kid, this was my favorite segment. In fact, the above image is deeply ingrained in my memory (what that indicates about me is up to you and perhaps a therapist to decide). Despite the selection of animals on parade (ostriches, hippos, elephants, crocodiles), all of the dancers are surprisingly graceful, which of course is the joke here. It's the most humorous segment in the film, and I think this impossibly elegant shot is representative of that.

Another great shot:

This is just great shot composition. And oddly elegant as well.

Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria

On this viewing, though, this was by far my favorite segment. A study in the profane and the sacred, the first half takes us to Walpurgisnacht, where a massive demon reigns free for one night. Reportedly, artist Salvador Dali offered to do work on the film, and though his work wasn't used, this segment, as evidenced in the above shot, is very informed by his style. The off-kilter designs of the demons unsettling enough, but paired with that truly frightening beast of a demon controlling them makes it even more terrifying.

On the other side, there's this solemn, peaceful shot of the pious drifting through the forest, as the haunting sounds of "Ave Maria" play. It's a gentle, uncomplicated way to end a film that was ambitious, beautiful, and sometimes frustrating.

Another shot:

This could (*did*) give me nightmares.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1940's Fantasia Is My Tenth Favorite Film Of All Time.