Wednesday, August 24, 2011

DATE Night: Fantasia

No. It's got nothing to do with American Idol.

Before we get started on our next DATE Night, for Fantasia, I need to get a little bit of a rant out of the way, please and thank you. I dunno whether I've mentioned it before, but I have a lot of DVDs. My media hoarding started at around the same time the format really, really took off. The idea of switching over to Blu-ray and re-buying DVDs that I already own makes me itch. Thanks to my amazing mama, however, I finally got a Blu-ray player last Christmas. It was just in time since Disney has started to actually push the format down our throats a bit.

I am also a huge special feature consumer. I love to get all of that extra contextual content. What put me over the edge about switching formats was the fact that Disney, whose DVDs make up a significant chunk of my collection, was starting to release bare bones DVDs and holding all of the significant bonus features for the Blu-ray. (I'm sorry Disney, but the punks from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody extolling the virtues of Blu-ray does not a good bonus feature make.)

I was getting upset at the trend, but when I got the Blu-ray player and saw the fantastic features that Disney was including in new releases (Second Screen, Disney View, Cine-Explore), not to mention the amazing picture and sound quality, I got over it. I don't have an extensive Blu-ray collection and really only buy releases on Blu-ray when the artistry of the film warrants it or the special features are exceptional.

Oh!!! That's how it works!
While watching Fantasia on Blu-ray, I decided that I wanted to watch the making-of featurette. Nothing wackadoo or terribly specialized. Just the same fifty minute documentary that came standard on the last DVD release that I didn't buy before it went out of print. Along the way I had acquired Fantasia 2000 and the Fantasia Legacy discs, but never the original. To accomplish the simple task of watching this one basic feature, I (meaning Tom) spent over two hours trying to find it on the disc menus, realizing that the player had to be connected to the internet, connecting said player to the modem across the room so we didn't have to leave the apartment and spend $60 on a wireless whatever-it-is, realizing that I needed an extra memory card in the player, getting that memory card from a camera after fruitlessly searching for a USB memory drive thingee, configuring everything, and finally getting to the darned documentary.

How were we rewarded? The special feature I wanted to watch was in the Virtual Vault. Sounds neat, right? It isn't. It means that it's not actually on the disc. The disc connects you to the interwebs, which hold the feature in cyberspace. (If you look at a disclaimer, it warns you that the contents of the Vault can be changed at any time, meaning one day it might be gone and not accessible anymore.) You then select it, it buffers, then plays. And it plays in a tiny window that takes up about a tenth of the screen. And you can't make it full screen. I was so angry I wanted to scream. I couldn't enjoy or get much out of the documentary because of the annoyance of getting to it and the teeny, tiny size of the screen it played on.

So it's about Mickey, an ostrich,
mushrooms, and...fruit?
I appreciate that Disney is doing a lot to take advantage of Blu-ray technology and push the envelope of what they are including, but I have limits. I now have to buy the last Fantasia release on DVD just so I can watch the making of full-screen. And now there are special features that are only being put on 3D Blu-ray discs. 3D gives me headaches. I will never spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for 3D enabled TVs or Blu-ray players. Disney needs to slow their roll and stop punishing people for not having excessive amounts of money to burn. Please, please, please. Phew. I'm glad to have that off of my chest. Now on to the matter of Fantasia, which, if you hadn't previously heard, will apparently amaze-ya! (Yes. They actually used that as a tag line at one point. Eek.) Hrm...we'll see about that...

The Background:

Coming off of the financial disappointment of Pinocchio, which wasn't a failure, but also not the hit that Disney hoped for, stakes were rather high for Fantasia. They needed a hit to sustain everything that Snow White had built. Rather than taking the easy way out for their third animated feature, all the stops were successfully pulled out to make Fantasia unlike any other film. You can never really accuse Walt Disney of repeating himself.

After developing "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment as a short for Mickey Mouse, who had been upstaged of late by some of his animated cohorts (namely Donald Duck), it was determined that they could never make money back on it and it might be more financially responsible to make it part of a full film. Around the same time, famous conductor Leopold Stokowski, who had led the orchestra for the short, suggested a film that would interpret other pieces of classical music visually. Despite initial reluctance, Disney moved ahead with "The Concert Feature".

Mickey and Stokowski.
Working with Stokowski and music critic Deems Taylor, who serves as onscreen host for the evening, they decided on a slate of classical music pieces that would be interpreted by the animators. They wanted to create an event rather than a movie, so they released it in select theaters at premium prices, giving patrons programs and reserved seating. They also designed a new sound system to be installed at each screen called Fantasound, essentially making Fantasia the very first movie to be shown in stereo. The goal was to keep the movie in theaters perpetually, adding and subtracting segments periodically to keep it fresh, so that it was a film that would never be finished. Much like when Disneyland was created with the idea that it would be allowed to constantly change fifteen years later.

Then the problems set in. The biggest was World War II, which confiscated the Fantasound systems for use in the war effort and kept European markets out of reach. In order to keep money flowing in, RKO got the rights to distribute a version to wide release. It was in mono and cut from two hours to less than one and a half, which did the movie no favors. Audiences didn't seem to know what to make of it. High brow audiences balked at its desecration of the classical repertoire. The masses felt like it was above their heads. The critics were split.

Eventually, with re-releases, Fantasia ended up being profitable, but even Walt himself questioned whether the film was a mistake. Planned sequels fell through until Fantasia 2000- sixty years later. The film did not stay in theaters indefinitely. The movie fell into favor of audiences in the sixties who wanted some visual stimulation whilst they were under the influence. Now it is widely recognized as a classic and is regularly honored as such.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project-Part 43: Fantasia. "Sorcerer's Apprentice" was clever. "Nutcracker Suite" was fantastic and I want my very own Hop Low. Impressive artistry. Feels like it's a more high-toned string of Silly Symphonies. Lacks the strength of telling a great story that Disney (even in its shorts) excels in. Ahead of its time in some ways, but not at the top of my list. Easier to appreciate than fall in love with.
January 22 at 9:43pm ·

The Art:

Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle!
9/10. Amazing. Every cel is full-on work of art. The film was focused on visual flourish and technical skill and shone in both of those departments. There are so many stunning elements. The abstraction of "Tocata and Fugue" left me speechless. It's incredible that they created things like the striped rolling hills without the aid of a computer. The craftsmanship throughout is bewilderingly awesome. There is a moment in "The Nutcracker Suite" where flowers are drifting towards the water that blew my mind. This was just as lovely as the lamps drifting towards the water in Tangled, after much time and technology had come and gone. 

Special effects are sprinkled liberally throughout the movie, rendering things such as smoke, lava, water, light, dimension and ghosts so convincingly that you'll spend the whole movie contemplating, "How did they do that?" There is a grace and beauty to everything in this film that has kept it an artistic touchstone even now. You can see the artistic influence in everything from later Disney films, such as Dinosaur and Hercules, to audio-animatronics in the parks, (the dinos in the "Universe of Energy" in Epcot and "The Primeval World Diorama" in Disneyland). Words cannot and will not do Fantasia justice. It has to be seen to be believed and appreciated.

Nope. Not courting hallucinogen users at all.

The Story:

4/10. Only two of of the segments have a really strong sense of story- "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "The Pastoral Symphony". Some of the segments stray so far from traditional story that they are fully abstract, like "Tocata and Fugue". "Rite of Spring" tells such a sprawling story, from one-celled organisms to the dinosaurs, and with such realism, that it feels like a documentary. Others just depict a situation or tell a fragment of a larger story that we never get to see. It can be argued that telling a story was not the goal of the film as a whole, nor the goal of some of the segments, and it's the truth. As interesting an experiment as it was to create a film in this non-traditional manner, I'm partial to a stronger narrative. Even the later package films and Fantasia 2000 improved greatly in this regard and it made for much more enjoyable movies.

The Characters:

Yeah. Um. Sorry bout that, sir.
6/10. Since this is a series of short pieces, rather than one longer story, character development is tricky. Many of the best Silly Symphonies are able to establish fantastic characters quickly, but in Fantasia it feels as though since they were so concerned with interpreting the music and didn't have the ability to use dialogue to establish character, they were content to let the creatures populating the screen remain a bit lacking in dimensionality. Also, for the most part, the characters are just a means to help set a mood or add detail to the scenery rather than serving to propel the story forward, since there is little story to begin with.

Some characters still managed to make an impact. Mickey in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a different Mickey than what the public was used to seeing. He had become the good guy, and thusly, kind of boring. This new Mickey was redesigned to be more expressive (by doing things like giving him traditional eyes with pupils) and was made mischievous, interesting and relatable. He was rewarded by becoming one of the most iconic incarnations of the character. The Sorcerer himself, named Yen Sid (read it backwards), with candle flames in his eyes, is appropriately mysterious and brooding.

Hop Low considers himself more of a mover than a dancer.
There are other creations that really stood out. My personal favorite is Hop Low, the adorable little mushroom in "The Nutcracker Suite" who can never quite stay in step with his shroom friends. The Soundtrack from the "Meet the Soundtrack" section is a line that represents visually what we hear and is imbued with a lot of personality. Though it's awesome that they can make a line that dimensional, I wish they had spread the wealth a bit. "The Pastoral Symphony" is full of great characters from the cute, bare-bootied cherubs to Bacchus and his donkey sidekick to the lonely blue center and centaurette who find each other. The animals in "Dance of the Hours" are interesting, especially the hippo ballerina who constantly tugs at her skirt in an effort to stay modest, but they never evolve far beyond sight gags. "Night on Bald Mountain" has appropriately creepy demons. (Notice that the evil demons are allowed to have nipples, while the good fairies and centaurs aren't. Message: nipples are evil?)

The Music:

5/10. Now, before you get all huffy about this, full disclosure- not only am I not an expert on classical music, I don't really even enjoy it all that much. I know that there was a big ole brouhaha about the liberties that were taken with arrangements in order to support the animation when this movie was first released. I do not have much of a connection to this music and feel much less protective about how the music is interpreted. I think they did an admirable job of doing unexpected things with the music, really making the songs their own. I cannot hear "Night on Bald Mountain" or "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" without seeing the imagery from the movie. I think that speaks to how effectively they handled the task. On the whole, though, classical ain't my jam.

The Gay Scale:

Fire crotch, indeed.
6/10. There are a decent amount of gay elements sprinkled throughout the film. This is for sure an artsy, pretentious queen's wet dream, what with all the classical music, ballet, mythology, and science. If Fantasia were a gay pick-up spot in NYC, it would be Lincoln Center post-performance. Plus Deems Taylor has that whole handsome, well-spoken, intelligent college professorial vibe down. He's kind of a Tim Gunn figure. There is also an abundance of sparkly fairies in "The Nutcracker Suite" and there is something sexy about the devil Chernabog in "Night on Bald Mountain." He's got a rockin' bod. Some guys dig bad boys and boys sure as hell don't get badder than Satan.

Even the staff is a rainbow.
However, "The Pastoral Sympohony" on its own would rate an 8/10 on the gay scale. It is so bright and candy-colored that I'm surprised it hasn't inspired a Katy Perry video yet. It's got everything little gay boys used to put puffy Lisa Frank stickers of on their Trapper Keepers- unicorns, fauns, cherubs, centaurs. And of course rainbows. Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, even makes an appearance. They frolic in rainbows, fly through rainbows (making for some impressive color work), even drink rainbows.

There is partial nudity (But remember our lesson about nipples. They are what? Evil. That's right class. So they don't exist on the centuarettes.), drinking and canoodling. The centaurettes do a little runway show after the cherubs have styled them in Gaga-esque headwear. Plus the centaurs are super handsome, though they are mysteriously nipple-less. Maybe to keep it uniform they have envisioned the centaurs as a nipple-free species. Zeus is a silver fox and Vulcan is ripped from hammering all that lightning. There's even a Diana, goddess of hunting, who is something of a lesbian icon.

No nipples = good.
Most importantly however, the segment embodies an intangible queerness. It has something to do with its campiness, celebratory nature, flourish, playfulness and joy. It is also (surprise, surprise) my favorite segment of the film. Whereas most of the others impressed me artistically, this one has the whole package. Along with the visual impact, which is like the clouds breaking after a dark storm, the charm and humor are there as well. The characters are specific and full of personality. The storytelling is closer to the mark, with light touches tempered with a bit of dramatic tension and a fabulous button at the end with Morpheus cloaking the world that's been beautifully created in night.  

The Bottom Line:

Nipples = bad.
6/10. I have nothing but respect for Disney undertaking such an ambitious film. On the whole, though, this film is a bit of a yawn. It's all very artsy-fartsy. It's as if after Snow White, Disney was determined to be taken seriously so they made an overly dark movie (Pinocchio) and an overly serious one (Fantasia). In the process, they sharpened their artistic and technical skills, but, as formidable as those were, it didn't make up for the fact that they let the storytelling skills fall by the wayside. There is so much to love visually about this movie and there are bits and pieces that I adore. This was not one of the movies that I was terribly excited about revisiting and my opinion of it did not shift much after another viewing. A lot to admire, but little to love.

The Miscellanea:

As I have discussed before when I reviewed The Help and Snow White, I am a supporter of confronting social issues and learning from them rather than sweeping them under the rug to try and convince ourselves that our past isn't checkered. Since the late sixties, a character in "The Pastoral Symphony" has been edited out. She is a centaurette named Sunflower and is portrayed as a young black servant girl. I wish that instead of hiding these kind of things, Disney would give the option to experience them as they were originally intended, warts and all, and contextualize them. Censorship of any kind doesn't sit terribly well with me. I would rather be engaged in a conversation about why these things are wrong than be asked to believe that they never happened. This is the kind of thinking that has kept Song of the South in the vault for decades.

Warner Brothers produced a quite wonderful parody of Fantasia, called "A Corny Concerto", featuring Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck, that is actually quite wonderful. Lots of classic sight gags, great referencing of the source, and really effective storytelling. In that way, they kind of succeeded when Fantasia failed, though admittedly, the art is not even close to nearly on the same level.

Last but not least, an entire segment was animated for the film set to "Claire de Lune" but was cut from the final film for reasons of length. It is a lovely piece set in the Everglades, the future neighbor of Walt Disney World. It was later included in a later package film called Make Mine Music with different accompaniment. This is the clip as Walt intended for it to be seen originally.

What did I learn on this DATE Night? Don't take me to a classical music concert unless you intend for me to nap. Disney is still trying to find its narrative footing. Nipples are the work of Satan. How about you? Am I being far too hard on Fantasia? Do you love it? Holler at me!

Next week, we'll go on a DATE Night to the circus with Dumbo! If I get too drunk and start seeing pink elephants on parade, for heaven's sake take me straight home and put me to bed. And do not try to take advantage of me. I'm a gentleman, thank you.

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