Extended Thoughts on ‘Fantasia’

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Fantasia

Directed by Samuel Armstrong; James Algar; Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield; Ben Sharpsteen and David Hand; Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, and Ford Beebe; T. Hee and Norm Ferguson; & Wilfred Jackson

Starring Deems Taylor

A few weeks ago, I read a great article by Drew McWeeny of HitFix wherein, while describing how his two children responded to one of the first and most important Disney live-action films, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he posed this question: are Disney movies automatically “for kids”? This is, unfortunately, a very common criticism levied by people who either should know better or don’t educate themselves on the history of film, let alone Disney films. You know what criticism I mean: “Oh, that’s just for kids.” “It’s a kids’ movie. Who cares?” Sometimes, when I nitpick some aspect of a Disney film, whether it’s live-action or animated, I hear that complaint. Why should I care so much about a movie that’s targeted at kids and, thus, is allowed to get away with more implausibilities than something for adults?

I would argue with every aspect of that question, which shouldn’t surprise you. This kind of question is, I think, one posed by people who assume that children are idiots. Are kids idiots? Of course not. Sure, they may not know as much about the world as adults do, but that doesn’t make them dumb, nor does it give adults the right to condescend to them on a daily basis. In the same way that talking down to a kid reinforces the idea that children are idiots, so does making movies that automatically don’t treat them in an intelligent way. Because people making plenty of kids’ movies ask the same question those complainers do: why care about the logic? It’s a kids’ movie. It’s a vicious cycle we deal with—stupid movies are made continuously because people see them, and so studios assume no one cares about those movies not being stupid. I’m not naïve enough to assume the vicious cycle will end any time, but we need to ignore the idea that kids deserve dumb entertainment.

There are, of course, innumerable ways to counterargue this foolish question—and seeing as I’m running a podcast about Disney movies, it’s a good thing I’m compiling more and more reasons against the question on an almost daily basis. One of the many strong points to bring up is that, from a very early time, Walt Disney himself was trying to stave off the notion that his movies were simply for kids. Frankly, back in his day, it was probably less difficult to worry about such criticisms. When filmmakers saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for instance, they responded with unfettered positivity. Sergei Eisenstein, director of the famous Russian silent film Battleship Potemkin, hailed it as a landmark in cinema, as did the iconic star Charlie Chaplin. Though Chaplin’s films were just as accessible to kids as they were to adults, Chaplin was a star, beloved by millions (though by 1937, his star had fallen a bit). The point, though, is that Disney was considered an icon, and you didn’t have to be a kid to enjoy his work.

But Disney took a big step forward in 1940, one that was perhaps too big at the time, in releasing Fantasia, a two-hour film that predates the majority of Disney package films such as Fun and Fancy Free and Make Mine Music despite having essentially the same format: animated sequences set to pieces of classical music. The differences after you get past the basic concept are pretty substantial: Fantasia is far longer than any other package film (including its long-overdue sequel), its content is not targeted specifically at children, but not specifically at adults, and the general scope of the film is far greater than anything else Walt Disney had ever attempted. Frankly, you could argue that outside of the theme parks Disney would focus most of the latter years of his life creating, nothing topped the ambition of those first few feature films he made.

And yet, as I’ve discussed here and on the podcast before, how much leeway do you get for being ambitious? My opinions on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may brand me as a crazy person, but I think some people deify the film because it was first and, for its time, very ambitious. But 1940 alone proved that ambition doesn’t equal quality for Walt Disney and his animators. I’m somewhat lukewarm on Fantasia as a whole, but the scope, animation, and music in that film, along with the overall triumph of Pinocchio is, I think, more than enough to put Snow White to shame.

The ambition is clear, but ambition and quality don’t always match. The most ambitious segment in this film, a representation of the evolution of the Earth from the days of primordial ooze to the rule of the dinosaurs set to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” happens to be the one that I’m most disengaged by. I hesitate, of course, to say I was bored by it—if I’m bored by something in a movie, TV show, book, and so on, isn’t it my fault for not engaging with the content?—but you can read into “disengaged” what you like. The music is a bit more challenging than Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” the animation, while telling a clear story, never provides the audience with a character to relate to, and feels less like a vital piece of animation, and more like something to be watched in a museum.

Having said that, I’m reminded of the oft-used phrase regarding such classic television shows as The Wire, Deadwood, and Arrested Development, which I’ll paraphrase here: the weakest part of Fantasia is better than the majority of most animated movies. And that’s true. I can’t tell you I’m a big fan of the “Rite of Spring” sequence, but do I prefer to it even one minute of most DreamWorks Animation films? Hell yes. I would prefer that sequence to a healthy number of Disney animated films as well, from older package films to newer, non-package films. Within the context of overall animation, Fantasia is a momentous achievement that, you could argue, hasn’t ever been replicated to the same degree. Yes, Fantasia 2000 tries to be like its predecessor, but it also tries too hard to be for kids. This movie tries—but doesn’t always succeed—at being for both kids and adults.

This is, I think, the fundamental flaw of Fantasia: it doesn’t have enough confidence in who it should be for. Some sequences, such as “Rite of Spring,” are clearly not intended for little kids, even with a T-Rex battle. Since that bit is one part of a massive, 25-minute segment, and the rest of that segment isn’t chock full of other kiddie-bait material, it’s safe to assume Walt Disney and his animators (or his “associates,” as master of ceremonies Deems Taylor laughably dubs them) wasn’t intending this for the same young audience who ate up Mickey Mouse shorts. But, speaking of the famed mouse, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment is clearly targeted at a wider audience. Yes, the same adults who nod in appreciation at “Rite of Spring” may get a kick out of Mickey trying and failing to ward off the enchanted brooms, but kids will love it just as much.

One of my esteemed co-hosts, Gabe Bucsko, mentioned on the podcast the idea of watching segments of this movie as opposed to the entire thing. And sure, in that case, the experience is vastly different. Some of you may do the same thing—I hadn’t ever considered the idea, though arguably, it’s very easy to do on DVD or Blu-ray. (By the way, if you own a Blu-ray, love Disney movies, and don’t own this movie, you are crazy. Get thee to Amazon.com or Best Buy now.) Watching the movie entirely, I think, shows how a fractured presentation can work, but doesn’t completely succeed here. One issue, related to the movie’s emcee, Deems Taylor, is that anyone who’s seen the movie already may find themselves massively bored by all but one moment in the interstitials between each segment.

We don’t need to be talked down to anymore. Yes, any first-time viewers to the film, such as children, may need to grasp what the whole point of Fantasia is, but frankly, the explanation Taylor provides to us sounds like the worst possible example of talking down to someone. He might as well bring out a pointer and chalkboard and, while gesturing to a musical note, say loudly, “This…IS MUSIC. You will HEAR…the MUSIC…while the PRETTY PICTURES…are on the screen!” I know some may be comforted by the interludes, but I find it just wastes time, and in a movie that’s more than 2 hours, time is important. What’s more, unlike most live-action films that run past 2 hours, we’re not expecting animation to go that long. The less time wasted on the superfluous and the inessential, the better.

You could argue that I’m picking nits with such a vital and important film as Fantasia. And whatever criticisms I may have of the film, make no mistake: this is a film everyone needs to watch. As Kate said on the podcast, children need to be introduced to this film, especially now. We all are victims of short attention spans these days, but Fantasia rewards its viewers with immersive landscapes, frequently enjoyable and accessible stories, and music that sweeps you away. No, the stories on the screen may not be what you think of when you hear classical pieces by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and others, but the marriage of music and animation is often as transporting as Walt Disney dreamed it would be. This is not a purely successful film in terms of its reach, but it reaches high and gets awful close.

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