Saturday, November 13, 2010

 

When a Cartoon Aimed to Be Art


In honor of the 70th anniversary of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz watched and discussed the film with his daughter, Hannah, age 13. The format was somewhat less than ideal — an old VHS cassette that hadn’t been touched in more than a decade — but it was enough to jog dad’s memory. However, the authors did not expect that peculiarities of the format would complicate the project; more on that in a moment.

MATT: So what do you think of this sequence, with the creation of the earth and the dinosaurs?

HANNAH: I think it’s really cool, but wasn't this made back when there was a big uproar between creationism and evolution? Were there any problems when the movie came out?

MATT: Not that I'm aware of. It's interesting that you bring that up though, because I hadn't really thought about that sequence in those terms. Fantasia was a somewhat controversial movie, not because of its content, but because of its form. It was made after Walt Disney became a huge pop culture force with his first feature, Snow White the Seven Dwarfs, and his follow-up, Pinocchio, films that had plots and characters and that were drawn from familiar fairy tales. This was his attempt at art with a capital “A” — a series of short films set to classical music, tied together with this framing device of a conductor leading an orchestra, and a narrator or explainer character teaching people the basics of listening to classical music. I think people were more confused than anything else. I'm not aware that religion versus science came into the reaction, although I don’t know much about that part of Disney history to say for sure.


HANNAH: That makes sense, but how was the film’s form “controversial”?

MATT: As far as most viewers were concerned, movies existed to tell stories with beginnings, middles and ends. It was a popular art form that aimed to reach everybody, and for a long time there was resistance to the idea that the medium could create art as great as the masterpieces produced in older forms. At the time Fantasia came out, critics of older arts generally considered movies to be artistically inferior to painting, ballet and classical music. Fantasia contains aspects of all those arts. So in a way you could say that this movie was Walt Disney expressly admitting an inferiority complex on the part of filmmakers in general, almost like he was saying, "You think movies can't be art, and that cartoons can't be art? Well how do you like this? It's basically a ballet of paintings with classical music attached. That's art, right? See? It's art, right?"

HANNAH: But being controversial suggests a sort of a public disagreement. Were the audiences displeased?

MATT: Some people loved it. Some hated it. A great percentage were somewhat puzzled, because there hadn’t been any precedents for what they were seeing. Fantasia was not a hit on the order of Disney's previous films, mainly because audiences didn't know what to make of it. And interestingly, when the company finally made a sequel, Fantasia 2000, over three decades after Walt Disney's death, the same thing happened again. It was the same concept with different music and different subjects, and moviegoers kind of went, "Huh, interesting," or "Huh, boring."

HANNAH: That's strange, seeing as there are so many documentaries that are like this nowadays that people can sit through. For example, Disney’s Oceans.

MATT: We're deep into the creation-of-the-earth sequence. No plot has occurred and no characters have been introduced. What do you think of that?

HANNAH: I don't really care that there's no plot, it's not that kind of movie. It's supposed to be eye (and ear) candy.

MATT: OK, here’s a research interlude: There was controversy over the birth-of-the-earth sequence. According to IMDB, Disney decided to end the opening section, set to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," with the extinction of the dinosaurs, partly to placate fundamentalists.

HANNAH: Yes, a detailed evolution sequence doesn't seem like something Disney would consider, even for a second. So, did audiences go into theaters knowing what they were going to see?

MATT: Yes, in general, but actually sitting there and watching was probably a different thing. I'd imagine it was a bit like being used to going to a theater to see a vaudeville variety show or a musical comedy and getting ballet instead. Even if you’d been warned that you were going to see something different from the norm, it would still take some getting used to.

By the way, this fight between the stegosaurus and the T-Rex and all the other violent dinosaur action was Disney's way of throwing the casual moviegoer a bone and keeping them interested. When I was a kid this movie pretty much bored me, except for the dinosaur stuff, which I thought was totally awesome, and the bit with Mickey Mouse, which we haven’t seen yet and which is a total crowd-pleaser.

HANNAH: How often would they throw in a people-pleaser scene to keep the audience on their toes and compensate for the "boring" sequences? Is that a regular thing in the movie?

MATT: Not as regular as a little kid raised on Mickey Mouse would hope.

Here comes the death of the dinosaur sequence. Look, no leaves on the trees. They're licking mud. Things are bad right now. Death would be a blessing to these poor creatures.

HANNAH: Erm... no asteroid? I would think that the animators would have a ball animating that sequence. They seem to just be drowning in their own heat right now.

MATT: This movie came out before the scientific consensus that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs.

And now the tectonic plates are shifting. The continents are being reshaped. The earth is changing into what we recognize today. This is a pretty amazing sequence, actually, and I'm appreciating the craftsmanship that was involved. Every frame of this thing was drawn, inked and painted by hand. This was a half-century before what we now call digital filmmaking. More than that, really. I love watching this movie and picturing the armies of animators with their little plastic cels and paintbrushes hunched over draftsman's tables.

HANNAH: It's a great sequence. Was that based on science? Sorry, I like factuality…

MATT: Yes, the tectonic plates did shift and realign the continents.

HANNAH: Here's an acknowledging-the-musicians sequence. Live action? It seems out of place. I think it would have been cooler if they had animated the musicians playing or something.

Oh, I see now. The part with the sound waves is animated. That’s cool. But I wish the musicians had been animated, too.

MATT: Yeah, that would have been more sensible, to animate the orchestra. But this live action sequence with the narrator makes sense for the time. America still looked to Europe, and to older forms of art, for validity, and was suspicious of homegrown art forms such as mainstream dramatic feature films and cartoons. People got a bit of classical music education in this sequence.

HANNAH: Um, wow. Nice sound wave sequence. I was totally entranced.

MATT: This whole sequence that visualizes the sound graphs of different instruments is quite striking. And something about it — and the opening sequence with the volcanoes erupting in time to the music of Stravinsky — also reminds me of the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the mother ship is having a musical conversation with the people on the landing strip.

HANNAH: Do you know for a fact that Fantasia influenced Close Encounters? You've compared Disney and Steven Spielberg a lot.

On a side note: OMG I ♥ UNICORNS.

MATT: Nope. Just a guess, knowing how much Spielberg loves Disney. The little red light that follows the three spaceships around in Close Encounters is basically his version of Tinkerbell, and one version of
the film's score includes snippets of "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio. He’s a Disney obsessive, and he’s never been coy about that.

HANNAH: Ha, this unicorn sequence is so Disney... the little cartoon faces on the baby unicorns.

MATT: Apparently this sequence once contained some kind of heinous racial stereotype, but it was excised in 1960 and hasn't been seen since. This version that we're watching on videotape doesn't contain that footage and I doubt very many people alive today remember it. Let’s look it up.

OK, here’s a picture of a female African centaur that once appeared in this sequence.

HANNAH: That’s like, really vile.

MATT: She's shining the white centaurs' shoes. Can you imagine being a black audience member pre-1960 and enjoying this movie up until the point where that image came onscreen? That kind of thing happened back then more often that it does now. Movies aren’t perfect in that regard, but they’ve gotten better.

Now here's the sequence with some female centaur nudity. This was apparently a problem for some viewers, although they could have gone to a museum and seen a lot more skin in paintings.


HANNAH: It's honestly not that big of a deal. It's a cartoon, and it’s not really that graphic. But when people see some female nudity in a cinema where they’ve taken their children with some confidence that what they watch will be “appropriate,” I can understand why they would be pissed.

MATT: I guess have somewhat looser standards than most dads. I took you to museums and let you see pretty much whatever was available, at least in terms of older art. And how old were you when you saw your first R-rated film? Ten?

HANNAH: Yeah, I think I was ten. But this was released in the ‘40s, when you couldn't say "screwed" on TV.

MATT: I'll go you one better. In 1940, nobody had TV. It didn't become common in American households for another 10 years or so.

HANNAH: Oh yeah, I'm thinking of the 1950s. Well, you probably couldn't say "screwed" on the radio either.

MATT: No, you couldn’t.

And here come the boy centaurs. They all look like college boys from an old movie, with their broad chests and big toothy smiles. Like the kinds of guys that would tease Holden Caulfield.

HANNAH: Wow, Barbie and Ken much? (The centaur couples.)

MATT: As much as I want I to defend the entire movie on general principle just for daring to be different, I have to admit that this whole sequence is about the most boring thing Walt Disney ever put his name on. I was clean-shaven when we started watching it. Now I have a long white beard.

By the way, the piece of music in this sequence is Beethoven's sixth symphony, the Pastoral. It was first performed in 1808, and is one of the first pieces of music that contains what's called "programmatic" content, which means it tells a story or builds an idea or an argument through music, section by section.


HANNAH: Is the centaur/unicorn sequence supposed to be pleasing to little girls like the creation sequence was supposed to be pleasing to adults?

MATT: I don't know. If you were little when you'd first seen this part of the movie, do you think it would it have interested you?

HANNAH: I don't know. You remember when I was little.

MATT: I think you would have liked the Barbie/Ken centaur stuff for about five minutes, then you would have dozed off.

HANNAH: I can see me liking the first five minutes, then getting bored.

Why is Zeus suddenly in the picture? Shifting to a more mythological side now, are we? It was mythological before, of course, because of the centaurs. But that was very Barbie-ish, and now it's hard-core wind-blowing thunderstorm stuff.

MATT: I am sitting here thinking that the image of Zeus raining destruction down on these partying creatures seems less like Greek mythology than the Old Testament story of Genesis, with a wrathful God kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden. Disney was a Midwestern Christian, so maybe this is that aspect of his upbringing taking over. Many of his films portrayed Pleasure — or sin — being followed up with incredibly harsh and frightening punishment. So there is some religious content in this movie, it's just not right out front. It's kind of buried in the movie's DNA.

HANNAH: And now it's back to the freaking rainbow happy Barbie stuff. Comic Book Guy Voice: Longest. Sequence. Ever.

MATT: The Mickey sequence does the pleasure/punishment thing yet again, in a different way. Although Disney was not an actively religious person, he had an upbringing that was very Midwestern and anal-retentive and Puritan. I recognize the type, having spent my childhood in Kansas City with relatives that were pretty heavily Mormon. That aspect of his childhood is all over Disney’s films, and that’s part of the reason they struck a chord with mid-century Americans during and after World War II.

HANNAH: Disney the guy, or the company?

MATT: I'm talking about Disney the guy, in reference to Fantasia. Walt Disney himself was a very representative American male, but with more talent and money. He focused mainly on the movies up until the point in the fifties when he created the park and started a couple of TV shows to promote his empire of merchandise. But after the mid-50s he became a businessman first and a filmmaker second. His name became what we now call a “brand.”

And now we're back to the orchestra. At this point in the movie I would imagine that every small child in the audience was either fast asleep or would have been removed from the theater after throwing a cranky tantrum.

And here come the ballet-dancing ostriches.

HANNAH: The ostrich legs are kind of freaking me out.

MATT: This piece is written by Amicare Ponchielli. It's called "Dance of the Hours,” and it's from the “Giocanda." But if you recognize the melody it's probably because of the song "Hello Muddah/Hello Fadduh/Here I am at/Camp Grenada..."

HANNAH: OHMYGOD IT'S A DANCING HIPPO. (Faints)

MATT: Wikipedia says the ballet appears at the end of the opera's third act. The music and choreography represent the hours of dawn, day, twilight, night and morning. The dance in the original opera is meant to symbolize the eternal conflict of the forces of light and darkness. Which doesn't explain the hippos in tutus and ballet slippers, but hey.

HANNAH: So the animals fighting are supposed to represent the conflicts between the times of day? Is that like a mythological or religious reference? You would think they'd at least use animals that pertain to the time of day they're dancing in.

MATT: Dumbo was released after Fantasia, in 1941. I wonder if the elephants in this sequence were a dry run at the next project by the animation department. This is a bit like the "Pink Elephants" sequence in Dumbo, only less freaky and scary.

HANNAH: Dude, “Pink Elephants” scared the hell out of me. Compared to that, hippos and crocodiles dancing is nothing.

MATT: And here we are, back with the orchestra. The narrator is introducing "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria.”

HANNAH: Awww YEAH I remember this part, so damn cool....

MATT: The narrator says the juxtaposition of the two pieces is about the contrast between the profane and the sacred. Do you know what he means by that?

HANNAH: No.

MATT: Basically, sin versus virtue, evil versus good, darkness versus light, the devil versus God. It's kind of Disney going into the cellar of his consciousness, hauling the really deep stuff that drives his art and putting it right there onscreen and hanging labels on it for us. He starts with a devil figure sending a plague of evil down on this town and turning it into a vision of hell, with demons dancing around flame.

You can see this same contrast played out in a more tolerable form when you visit the theme parks. You've got the clean and sparkly Midwestern town, which is basically an idealized recreation of Disney's own boyhood, and in the same park you've got the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, with these scurvy little pirates burning and looting whole towns, and The Haunted Mansion, where the dead come out for a party.

HANNAH: The contrast is more apparent in this movie. I mean, we've gone from unicorns and meadows to a satanic apocalypse.

MATT: The "light" in Disney is really sweet and sentimental, and the "dark" stuff is very disturbing, often so disturbing that when kids think back on their early experience with Disney movies, they mainly remember being scared out of their wits. Disney is notorious for traumatizing the hell out of little kids. You yourself had the living crap scared out of you by the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And not even the witch in the movie — the one in the ride at the park.

HANNAH: And James was scared by the Winnie the Pooh ride. It's always something.

MATT: Actually, the Winnie the Pooh ride freaked me out a little bit, too. Something about the design of it reminded me of the nightmare sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, a movie we need to watch together soon.

I must say that this sequence with the progression of souls through the misty forest is lovely. It might be the only sequence in the film that rises to the level of the music Disney is using for his soundtrack.

HANNAH: I dunno. For me, the sequence of the earth beginning and the apocalypse scene seemed to live up to the musical expectations, too. But the unicorns and dancing hippos kind of threw off that groove.

MATT: What I love about this sequence is that it's basically an enormous, moving bit of abstract art. It's all shadows and light, colors and shading. Though of course I love the dinosaurs, too.

HANNAH: I know. Sometimes I look at a photograph or a piece of art and I feel like this ping in my stomach and I think, "I really wish I was there.” This is one of those times.

Wait, the movie just ended. Where's the Mickey Mouse thingy with the broomsticks?

MATT: Oh, crap. This is embarrassing. Hannah, it's been so long since I watched this that I forgot the order of the sequences. I think the videotape wasn't rewound all the way when I put it in the player. Sorry. We need to go back to the beginning and watch the stuff we missed.

HANNAH: That's like the coolest part. Remember when we saw “Fantasmic” live at Disney World and they lit the lake on fire?

MATT: OK, the tape is done, let’s watch the beginning.

You know, it's been a while since I watched anything on VHS. I feel like I'm studying a cave painting.

HANNAH: It's so grainy.

MATT: OK, starting with the musicians coming in and tuning up is a nice framing device...although I'm kind of digging how we accidentally started with the dinosaurs. That was totally an accident but it felt sensible to me.

You know, you're actually seeing an archivally correct version of the movie, Hannah, cruddy as the visual quality is. The narrator of the movie is Deems Taylor, a well-known music expert from that era. When the company restored Fantasia for its DVD release in 2001, the one element they could not include was Taylor's narration, which I believe was damaged or lost or something. So they replaced Taylor with a guy who sounds very different and much more modern, like a movie trailer guy from 2001.

An orchestral version of Bach's organ piece Toccata in Fugue opens the film. You may recognize this piece of music from....

HANNAH: Every horror movie ever made...?

MATT: You got it.

HANNAH: I love the colors and the silhouettes.

MATT: I forgot about the red lights coming on when the percussionist hits the kettle drums.

HANNAH: It sorta reminds me of E.T. More Spielberg.

MATT: How so?

HANNAH: The red glow coming from the kettle drums looks nearly identical to the E.T.'s red, glowing heart.

MATT: You’re right. I hadn't thought of that. Is it possible that this one movie is responsible for Steven Spielberg's entire career?

HANNAH: Mind blown. Brains flying across the room. Over the moon-face.

MATT: Add three syllables to that and you have a haiku. Go for it!

HANNAH: Fantasia.

But wait, is that three or four syllables? Is it Fan-tay-shuh or Fan-tay-see-uh? These are the questions that haunt me in my sleep.

MATT: It can be three syllables if you want.

HANNAH: YES! I'M A PUBLISHED HAIKU-IST!

Anyway, This sequence is cool. I like it when there's not even like, objects. Or a specific scene. It's just random colors and shapes that go with the music.

MATT: This sequence is sort of the opening parenthesis of the movie, and the "Ave Maria" sequence is the close parenthesis, if you know what I mean. They're very similar in style.

HANNAH: Which one is the “Ave Maria” sequence?

MATT: The finale, the procession by candlelight.

HANNAH: That last part with the conductor totally reminded me of that documentary The Bolero.

MATT: Yes. The conductor silhouetted, the instruments shot like pieces of sculpture.

HANNAH: Wow, a piece I actually know: “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.”

Oh, and incidentally, look! It's a fairy... and she's dancing.

MATT: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Tinkerbell.

This is as good a place as any to say that we need to see this film together
on a big screen, redubbed narrator or no redubbed narrator. It's awesome.

HANNAH: Definitely.

Nice. Turning the mushrooms into dancers.

MATT: The dancing mushrooms with the slanted eyes and coolie hats are a stereotypical image of the Chinese.

HANNAH: I was about to say.

MATT: But this particular piece is called the "Chinese Dance," so it's not like it comes of nowhere.

HANNAH: I remember this part as well. Do these flowers morph into broomsticks? Because they are positioned like the broomsticks in the Mickey Mouse sequence.

MATT: I don't recall. We'll see in a moment if you called it right. Wow — the flower blossoms rising up on the water and spinning around like dancers with big, long skirts is flat-out beautiful.

HANNAH: I love the fish. So gorgeous.

MATT: The flowers, the fish, the animals, are also an example of Disney's skill at anthropomorphizing things, making it seem as though animals or inanimate objects have personalities, or a life force. This seductive goldfish using her long transparent fins to do a fan dance is a great example of what I'm talking about.

HANNAH: Their animation also has a way of making everything have grace.

MATT: That's true. Would you say that Pixar or Hayao Miyazaki are as graceful as early Disney?

HANNAH: Miyazaki is the master of landscape. I wouldn't credit Pixar for everything they do that's movement-related, because it's all computer-generated. It's insane that they used to draw all this!

MATT: This movie really is a spectacle, like a fireworks display in slow motion. The way objects drift across the frame and kind of ebb and fade reminds me of animation in science documentaries that shows how synapses fire in your brain when you're thinking.

HANNAH: This is so dreamlike. Sorry to state the obvious, but it's true. Like how in your dreams, the setting can change in a second, and all the objects morph.

MICKEY!

MATT: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” at long last. Sorry it took us so long, Hannah.

Interesting how, at the start of this sequence, the conjurer is calling forth the outline of a demon that resembles the one we'll see near the end of the film. There's a lot of foreshadowing in this movie, and a lot of callbacks to things we saw earlier. But it's all visual and design-related since there’s no story to speak of.

HANNAH: Yes! The broomstick marching song. Theme to my life.

MATT: By the way, good call on the dancing flower blossoms resembling the brooms.

HANNAH: I think I touched on this before, but I love the way how, no matter what the image is, it always moves with the music, whether it’s the ocean, or a flower, or just a simple color palette.

MATT: OK, now we're back to the creation of the universe sequence, which is where this conversation inadvertently began. Which means we’re done. What do you think of Fantasia?

HANNAH: Like I said before, eye and ear candy. And especially when you put the sound and the images and the movement together so eloquently, overall it’s just an amazing thing to watch. Oh yes, and it's unappealing to little kids, which is unfortunate, considering that Disney's reputation is for being a kids’ company. But it’s still a nice change of pace.


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Comments:
Just wanted to say: Hannah is one smart cookie, Matt.
 
Actually, I loved this movie as a kid. I think Hannah is right - I rewound the sparkly unicorns so much as a little girl that the tape is warped.
 
My favorite was always the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence, which would sometimes be shown, by itself, on the Disney Channel, usually around Halloween.

That's a shame about not using the original narrator in the 2001 release. Why couldn't Disney have just lifted the sound from one of those old VHS tapes?

And, as racist as that sequence is in the Pastoral Symphony section, I think it should be included as an extra feature on the DVD version, with commentary by film historians and others to put the sequence in the context of its times, the audience's reaction to it, and why it was pulled in 1960 (pretty obvious, if you see the sequence, which can be found on Youtube, or even from that still you provided). After all, it was part of the original film.
 
So Hannah already has a better eye than I do, and from the sounds of it Jack would beat me in chess in three moves.

I give up.

(Really enjoyed reading this, though.)
 
I totally agree with kenjfuj - that conversation is like a Film history lesson with an undergrad!
 
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