Friday, October 25, 2013

Movie Review: Fantasia (1940)

It’s Friday, and time for another film review! This week is a return to good movies, and this one is one of my first, and one of my favorites. My dad introduced me to Classical Music at a young age, and decided to nourish it with the 1940 Walt Disney animated classic Fantasia. The dazzling colors and shapes set to Bach’s toccata and fugue in D minor, the antics of Mickey Mouse set to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the classical majesty combined with colorful creatures of classical myth set to Beethoven’s 6th symphony, satirical slapstick animal ballet of Ponchielli’s Dance of the hours and the nightmarish demonic revelry in Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain all made impacts on me, but it was the prehistoric epic of the Rite of Spring that impressed me the most. It was at the time I loved dinosaurs thanks to this film, The Land Before Time, and trips to the Field Museum’s dinosaur hall. Thanks to Fantasia, my love of dinosaurs increased and my love of classical musical blossomed. It’s still one of my favorite movies and Stravinsky is one of my favorite composers.

Igor Stravinsky’s the Rite of Spring has had a notorious history. In 1913,  Stravinsky was working for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russe in Paris, eager to share Russian culture with the Russophilic French. The French hoped to have Russia at their side to confront the established empire of Britain and the rising menace of Germany, and so the two cross-polinated. Stravisnky himself was artistically curious, musically innovative, devoutly nationalistic, and politically conservative, so he hope to find solace in France, away from the rising Marxist threat in Russia, and use France to spread national Russian culture.

He decided for his next work after the spectacular success of his Russian-mythological ballet L'Oiseau de feu (“The Firebird”) would reflect on ancient pagan Russia and the rites of the prehistoric Slavs. His score for this new piece, Le Sacre du Printemps, would reflect the primitive themes. He used folk music from the peoples under the Russian empire, incorporating them into repetitive themes, played by instruments stretching outside their range at terrific volume to create a brutal, alien world. Suffice to say, the audience reacted strongly. Derisive laughter was countered by screams for silence and yells of rage and disgust. The Paris Opera audience broke out into brawling and attacking the orchestra, and the offended who did not immediately stalk out were tossed out by the Paris police.  Reviews were equally mixed-some praised the ambition and innovation, others were disgusted by the ugliness, repetition, and discordance of the score and choreography.

Fantasia gave this work a great deal of publicity, and in fact was a very early idea for the film. Walt Disney wanted two things in his concert feature; a modern piece, and a prehistoric piece. Disney wanted to see dinosaurs on the screen, and to test out his animator’s skills at bringing them back to life. The master of ceremonies, radio personality, critic, and composer Deems Taylor suggested the Rite of Spring, which in his opinion has the savagery and primitiveness required to score prehistory.  Conductor Leopold Stokowski enthusiastically agreed, and when Disney heard the piece, he proclaimed it as absolutely perfect. Stravinsky, the only featured composer alive at the time, eagerly agreed to the use, hoping for greater recognition and trusting Stokowski to do his piece honor.

The episodic structure of the ballet score was fit in with the episodic nature of the animated narrative, and this mutual structure allowed for careful deletion and editing. All in all, about 15 minutes of was trimmed. Compared to Fantasia 2000’s slashing of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony into 2 minutes of the first movement, this was the closest the editors came to matching the completeness of a full-length piece.

The woodwind calls of Introduction accompany a pan through deep space, sending the viewing travelling into the Milky Way, past nebulae, stars, and comets, and to Earth in the Hadean eon, roughly 4 billion years ago. The savage string rhythm Danses des adolescences is matched with spectacular volcanism, entire mountain chains erupting in fire, and lava flooding the surface of earth. This transitions into the frenzied Jeu du rapt as earthquakes send tsunamis and hurricanes to engulf the volcanoes.  The musical sections Rondes printanières,  Jeux des cités rivales, Cortège du sage and Danse de la terre are skipped over.

The second half’s Introduction overlays brief snippets of life in the sea. The calm string melodies and soft brass underscore the action. One-celled organisms transition to hydras, to the Cambrian’s worms and trilobites, to the Ordovician’s fish, cephalopods, and jellyfish to a lobe-finned fish swimming to the surface. The piece continues into the Mesozoic sea, particularly the animals of Kansas. Spiky mosasaurs, swan-necked elasmosaurs, and giant turtles swim below cliffs full of batlike, colorful-headed Pteranodon,  The audience is moved to the prehistoric jungle, where Cercles mystérieux des adolescents plays over Dimetrodon, Nothosaurus, and Scelidosaurus. Triceratops, Ornitholestes, and trilling Archaeopteryx lead to a group of placid brontosaurs in their swamp. Plateosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Gryposaurus are introduced. Flutes and violins play a rhythm over Struthiomimus, which slows down to introduce a particularly big and chubby Stegosaurus. Dinosaur families of Triceratops and brontosaurus foreshadow Land Before Time. The slow meandering of the strings underscores the placid jungle of lumbering but placid, awkward but plump dinosaurs.

This idyll is broken with outbreak of a storm and alarming hunting horns. Every dinosaur turns in alarm to something on the right, offscreen. A sweeping pan to a lightning crash provides a dynamic entrance for Fantasia’s terrifying Tyrannosaurus rex. It has a boxy skull, pointed teeth, and long, taloned arms, but it’s unmistakably meant to be the dinosaur superstar. Screaming horns, savage strings and drumbeats of the Glorification de l'élue underscore its rampage as the other dinosaur flee for their lives. The slow Stegosaurus is attacked and the battle begins, the other dinosaurs watching. Tense pizzicato strings and roaring brass play over the fight as the Tyrannosaur relentlessly attempts to tear out the Stegosaur’s throat and the herbivore struggles to repulse it with powerful swipes of its spiked tail. As Evocation des ancêtres  plays, one last savaging dispatches the Stegosaurus, and trombone blares announce its death and roar for the victorious Tyrannosaurus.

The scene transitions to a desert wasteland, devoid of vegetation and water. The macabre brass march and grieving strings of Action rituelle des ancêtres play as the dinosaur move in herds across the sands. A Gryposaurus and Protoceratops stop to dig for water, Triceratops and Diplodocus quarrel over small ponds, and herds of Stegosaurus and brontosaurs become stuck in quicksand as Ceratosaurs descend on them. The march continues through sandstorms, with the dinosaurs dropping off one by one, including the once-proud Tyrannosaurus. The next time we see the dinosaurs is in a slow pan over a bonefield of dinosaurs devoured by sand and mud, lingering on the Tyrannosaur skull. An eclipse and a final geologic cataclysm bookends the sequence, as earthquakes and tsunamis bury the skeletons deep underground to Danse de la terre, replacing the ballet’s climax of Danse sacrale. Stokowski repeats the opening bassoon call as the scene pans out to reveal modern Earth.

Is this sequence perfect? Well, the science is pretty terrible. The Permian Dimetrodon, Jurassic brontosaurus and Stegosaurus, and the Cretaceous mosasaurs, elasmosaurs, Triceratops, hadrosaurs and Tyrannosaurus are bunched together. The death of the dinosaurs is through a desert wasteland rather than any disease, vegetation change, or extraterrestrial impact. Tyrannosaurus barely resembles the actual animal-a short, stout floppy tail, a boxy head, long arms with long claws and upright stance are all completely wrong. There are reasons for this, however. Tyrannosaurus just looks scarier this way, and Stegosaurus is just more distinct and more dramatic and alien looking than any of the animals Tyrannosaurus would have hunted in reality.

Any cut to the music is a crime. Too much time and music is spent with natural disasters than animals, and there’s nothing on the life after the dinosaurs.  This, I have read, is because Disney was hoping to use the remaining 15 minutes and use it for the age of mammals, probably the ice age, and the rise of man using fire and tools. The idea was canceled because of outcry from creationist groups.  I hope some animator is reading this and creates a more accurate and comprehensive piece using the entire piece, or even Disney doing an epilogue segment.

It is still by far the best piece. The animation is Golden Age Disney, and Disney made it clear that the animals would not be made cute, but as realistic as possible in look and behavior.  The animals are based on Charles Knight's work, and more than a little Maurice Delgado snakes in. One production photo shows Stokowski and an animator looking at the head of an Agathaumas that looks like it was straight from the Lost World. The atmosphere, the faded colors, the rich backgrounds, the design and action of the dinosaurs is all Knight.  The theme, the art, and of course the music all come together. This is a prehistoric epic, the most seriously dinosaurs had been taken. They don’t menace any humans or perform goofy animal antics. Pseudo-Darwinian “struggle for survival” is stated to be a theme by Deems Taylor’s introduction, and while this is clearly an outdated and inaccurate idea, it makes for great theater.

Of course, the film itself is a masterpiece. Wonderful music and wonderful animation are blended together in a fantastic concept. A friend once described it as “Classical music videos”. Indeed it is. I give it 90/100. If you like music or animation, this film is a must-see, and the Rite of Spring sequence is its high point.
I recommend this book, as well:

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