Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fantasia - 1940

"Fantasia" - 1940
Dir. by Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen and David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, and Ford Beebe, T. Hee and Norm Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson - 2 hrs. 5 min.

Original Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's so easy to have an image in your head of exactly what a "Disney Film" is, and it's not entirely complimentary.  My honest expectations are white-washed, saccharine, vapid kiddie fare when I see that Disney logo before a film.  Granted, the company itself is much larger than that, and they were ultimately the parent company that released "Pulp Fiction," but I very rarely subject myself to straight-up Disney movies.  So imagine my delight in "Fantasia," a Disney film made before the very building blocks to "Disney Films" were codified and enforced.

Released initially in 1940, "Fantasia" is a hybrid live action/animated film which presents cartoons accompanied by classical music (there's no dialogue to speak of in any of the animated segments), with live action segues hosted by Deems Taylor and the orchestra that plays the classical pieces.  "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is probably the most famous of the segments, with Mickey Mouse playing the apprentice that quickly gets in over his head, using magic that he isn't quite ready to control yet.  "Fantasia" also includes Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," among other famous musical pieces.

I'm constantly amazed that some of the most impressive animation comes from the 1940's.  Between Disney's early output and Warner Brothers' "Looney Toons," the art form advanced quickly.  And there are a number of really breath-taking animated sequences present here.  Entire essays could be written on this subject, but the consistently impressive (and varied) treatment of water throughout is one such point, as is the treatment of foliage (meaning that it's actually animated, rather than static and pushed to the back in the background paintings).  Everything from dancing mushrooms to centaurs to ballerina hippos are lively, spry, and energetic.  But you don't need me to tell you this; if you've watched "Fantasia," you know how amazing this completely computer-free animation is.

And another point: this film has tons of stuff that's both non-offensive (to me, at least) and that you would never, ever, in a million years see Disney commit to film for fear of Christian protest.  There's the dancing mushrooms, there's the sorcery, Mickey murdering his recently-come-to-life mop with an axe, there's more bare cherub butt than you could ever hope for, literally Satan and dancing demons, topless centaurs...  In other words, cool, funny, benign stuff that over-zealous parents have stripped out of cartoons in the years since "Fantasia" came out.  Maybe having a bent-over cherub's backside morph into a cartoon heart is only pretty funny, but in the context of a film that starts with the Disney logo, I was rolling with laughter.  But it wasn't only the unexpected details that were enjoyable.

One of my favorite segments of "Fantasia" is Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours," featuring a series of dancing animals, each of whom is supposed to represent the hours passing over the course of the day.  It starts with dancing ostriches, who are replaced by dancing hippos (and the character animation of these hippos in tutus is absolutely fantastic), who are replaced by dancing elephants, who are chased by dancing alligators.  It makes sense when you watch it, I promise.  But the dancing and character animation of each is wonderfully specific and funny, the sort of thing you simply don't see out of animation any more (and haven't for many years).

Most of the time, it's not that hard to write about film.  But "Fantasia" is one of those movies that is an experience more than it's a series of plot points, and the synthesis of music and animation adds up to something special.  Even as I've been trying to describe points in the film, the thought runs through my head that it would be easier to just grab you by the shoulders, shake you a little bit, and tell you just to sit down and watch the damned thing.  So, you know, don't make me come over there.  Just watch it, already.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

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