Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

April 10th, 2012 by | Tags:

Fantasia, directed by a lot of dudes, written by a lot of other dudes, 1940 (Amazon VOD): This was playing at the Castro Theatre (which turns 90 this year!). I haven’t seen Fantasia in years. Probably 15 years? Definitely not since Y2K. As a result, this was almost entirely new and a real deal delight. In my head, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was much, much longer. I’d somehow forgotten about “Night on Bald Mountain” and its blend of the profane and sacred, and the totally insane “Dance of the Hours” with the dancing gators and hippos, too.

I watched this on an old 35mm print, I think, so it was pretty scratchy, but still beautiful. The theater was full of old people and children, which was nice. The kids a few rows behind me kept gasping and talking about the action on the screen. They sounded impressed. I was, too. I think my favorite sequence was “Nutcracker Suite.” I like the song, but the animation was nuts, the ice and water effects especially. Watching the fairies dancing around and the colors slowly fading through the seasons was amazing.

My absolute favorite part of that sequence was the very beginning, as the fairies bring color and life to the land. Everything about it, from the palettes to the detailed animation and the sweeps of color that serve as pollen or contrails or whatever, rocked my world. The bit with the spiderwebs especially, where the fairies are dropping dew on the web? Yeah, that. Dang. All of Fantasia is good, but this was the bit where it looked like someone was trying to show off. “Look what I can do.”

Second favorite is “Night on Bald Mountain.” I’ve been really into looking at… I don’t know the term, occult iconography? Hellboy stuff, basically–Ars Goetia, cultural monsters and demons, what evil looks like to different people. That sort of thing is really interesting right now, and “Night on Bald Mountain” is an incredible example. I remember being surprised that “Rite of Spring” was basically “Evolution: The Movie.” I mean, 1940–was that sort of thing cool back then? But then “Night on Bald Mountain” brings it back around to religion.

I love the monsters in this one. The creepy limp demons and lizards, the paper-thin ghosts, and then that bit where the demons and skeletons are dancing in front of the fire pit as their brethren are destroyed. The demons feel like they’re part worm. They look like regular monsters, but the way they move is disgusting. They’re the embodiment of the other. I love the bat-faced monster, too. He’s such a great idea, and so well-conceived. He’s an overpowering, burdensome presence while he’s in action, and then when he disappears, it’s obvious that he’s just around the corner, laying in wait. He looks and feels like a predator. The part when the bells begin chiming and light strikes him is a very arresting visual, too.

“Night on Bald Mountain” is basically 1 Peter 5:8 in animated form. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” He’s always there, lurking in the shadows, and everyone is a target, no matter how sleepy your town might be.

I liked all of Fantasia, really. I was surprised at how much nudity there was (the harpies have nipples!), but it was a really good ride. I was actually thinking about Kubrick’s 2001 while I watched it. The wordless visual cacophony late in that movie bugged and bored me, but I had no trouble with the first part of Fantasia. They’ve got two entirely different goals, I think, but I couldn’t help but compare them.

It’s kind of surprising to me that something from 1940 can look so good. Some parts have aged better than others, yeah, but by and large, this looks really good. Everything has a ton of personality, and the little useless things that add verisimilitude (bubbles popping, excess splashing, you know what I mean) abound. It’s sort of like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira in that way. So much care was put into giving the movie not just a style, but a high level of quality, that it ends up looking really good. I want the Blu-ray, but this is definitely a movie that was worth seeing in a theater.

But yo, seriously, the dancing mushrooms–they were supposed to be Chinese stereotypes, right? That made me a little uncomfortable.

I had a joke I wanted to make about Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia being a re-imagining of “Rite of Spring,” but I can’t quite bridge the gap and make it work. But yeah–I definitely spent some time during that sequence like “Oh man, Melancholia was a huge downer, but really pretty.”

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4 comments to “Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940)”

  1. Man, if the mushrooms made you uncomfortable good thing you weren’t seeing the original version that doesn’t have the black donkey/centaur cut from it…

  2. Fantasia’s gorgeous, and has an inventiveness that I don’t think was matched by the Fantasia 2000 movie, although I’d love it if Disney kept putting them out. I watched it over and over as a kid.

    I don’t know how much you know about the Nutcracker Suite, so I don’t know if I’m giving you information you already know, but the mushrooms were very much supposed to be Chinese. That section of the suite comes toward the end of the ballet. Clara and the Nutcracker have traveled to some fairy world after he vanquished the rats, and watch dances which represent the various sweets and delicacies that people would indulge in or give around Christmas. There’s Chinese Tea, Arabian Coffee, Russian Candy Canes, and Danish Marzipan. The music was supposed to be influenced by the musical traditions from the region. Modern ballet companies try to do dances that are also influenced by the movements and costumes traditional to the region.
    Sometimes the dances cross over into stereotype, but sometimes they’re done quite well. You can see a similar influence later in the same number when they bring in the Russian music.


  3. You can google ‘Chinese Tea Nutcracker’ to see a variety of them, but I’m going to also give you a link to the Moscow Ballet’s Arabian Coffee dance (most often does as a snake dance), because holy god it’s good.


  4. @Esther Inglis-Arkell: Wow, I never read those flowers as Russian for some reason, but I can totally see it now. Thanks for cluing me in.

    And holy cats at that second video.