Anne continues to technically be on hiatus in May, but apparently she doesn’t know the meaning of the word “hiatus” since she insists on continuing with Hit Me With Your Best Shot.
We forget that Walt Disney Studios started as an experiment. Before the Disney Princesses, before Disneyland, before the purchases of Marvel and Star Wars and the infamous battles over copyright, Walt Disney Studios was a small group of artists testing the limits of a burgeoning film technique: animation. Fantasia was the closest thing to an avante garde film Disney would produce; a series of (mostly) plotless animated shorts based on classical music pieces. Walt himself hoped to make Fantasia an annual event with new additions to the film every year, but World War II and low audience turnout put that idea on hold. Still, it has introduced millions of children to classical music through the years. I know of one child in particular whose of classical music was born from a record of Peter And The Wolf and a wornout VHS of Fantasia. From 20 years ago to the present day, Fantasia‘s incredible union of music and animation continues to fascinate, thrill, and delight me, only now I have the grown-up film studies words to express my joy. And since I’m an overachiever and completely enamored with this movie, I’m going to present my favorite shot from each sequence, starting with my choice for Best Shot.
“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565” by Johann Sebastian Bach
This is my favorite segment, and perhaps the strangest of the nine. Instead of identifiable characters or landmarks, the audience is treated first to a dazzling lights show of an orchestra performing, and then a series of abstract colors and shapes which flit across the screen in time to the music. I’d imagine this is what synesthesia feels like: flashes of moving color and light weaving through the music you hear. This scene in particular stands out to me. The bass line (represented by red ripples) rolls through rhythmically, and bits of violin flash through in rhythmic counterpoint. To this day, when I hear bass strings and french horns, I think of red waves.
“The Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Fantasia made The Nutcracker popular in the United States. If you listen to the Narrator before this segment, he mentions that it wasn’t performed very much. Obviously, Disney changed that. I see The Nutcracker every Christmas if I can, and I love the second act suite. However, the Arabian Coffee performance, no matter how gorgeous, never seems to top this underwater sequence in exoticism or beauty. I’m going to say it even though it sounds creepy: that is a seductive fish.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas
This is my least favorite segment, most likely because it’s the most conventional. It just bores me. Anyway, I chose this shot because it reminds me of an earlier silhouetted shot of Leopold Stokowski conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra:
“Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky
No matter what Stravinsky thought of Fantasia, I stand by my assertion that this is the segment that best exemplifies the imaginative union of music and animation. “The Rite of Spring” is an emotional whirlwind music, but the original ballet doesn’t do it justice. I know that at the time Nijinsky’s choreography caused an uproar, but in today’s post-modern dance world, it really just looks like a bunch of guys jumping around in silly hats. Fantasia‘s version of “The Rite of Spring” unleashes all of the music’s creative power with a recreation of the beginning of the world. It terrified me as a little kid, but I never fast-forwarded through it because I was awestruck as well. Also, until my parents decided I could watch Jurassic Park these were the only scary dinosaurs I had.
“Symphony No. 6 (‘Pastoral’) Op. 68” by Ludwig Van Beethoven
I love the little black-and-white Pegasus. Actually, what I want to talk about here is a term called “Mickey Mousing.” Mickey Mousing is a technique used most often in animated film when music is synced to an action onscreen. For instance, a character falls a distance to an accompanying slide whistle and hits the ground with a drumbeat. Characters in Fantasia do a kind of reverse Mickey Mousing; actions are matched to the beats of the music. In this case, the little black-and-white Pegasus gives himself three pulls on the tail to an accompanying three-beat violin scale that will start the next musical sentence.
“Dance of the Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli
Ostriches eating oddly-shaped fruit is never not funny.
“A Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky
Are you convinced yet that Disney didn’t set out to make kids’ movies? Because nothing about this sequence says “let’s show this to little kids.” The demons in “A Night on Bald Mountain” are terrifying, but this sequence is also the source of some of the most hallucinatory and beautiful art in the entire film. This was another situation where, no matter how badly I was scared, I could never turn the TV off.
“Ave Maria, Op. 52 No. 6” by Franz Schubert
I used to think that this was an extension of “A Night On Bald Mountain” because of how well the one transitions into the other. But I didn’t much appreciate its calming effects or slow, light-bearing pilgrims after the blast of adrenaline caused by the previous scene. Looking at it now, I can’t help noticing that it presages the beautiful blue-green palette and architectural style of the trees in Sleeping Beauty by about 19 years.
It is profoundly difficult to write about a movie that’s almost entirely music and plotless images, so I’m going to conclude this by saying: if you haven’t watched Fantasia in a while, or even if you have, watch it again soon. And if you can’t do that, then listen to the music and create your own Fantasia.