Hippos and fairies and broomsticks … oh, my.

Ohh, Fantasia. What joys don’t you provide?

Well, quite a few, if some folks are to be believed. Over the years, I have heard all manner of reactions to this film: some love it for its sheer artistry and musical magic, while others find it to be monotonous, boring, over-hyped, and overblown, and still others are rather indifferent to it.

My opinion’s pretty obvious, if you’re a regular reader of this blog: I love me some Fantasia. And just how do I love thee? Well, let’s get to counting (again!) …

  • I adore the selection of music–it’s a lovely cross-section of the greatest classical tunes ever composed, and an excellent introduction to the classics for younger viewers. And, for the rest of us, the movie serves as a great reminder that there is so much more to music than the mishmash of pop/country/rock/rap/alternative crap that pervades modern radio (geez, that makes me sound positively ancient. “And I also walked to school through fifteen feet of snow!” Although I actually did that the year I lived in Iowa … bygones).
  • I love how each song is animated so brilliantly according to its underlying themes that it draws forth new interpretations and emotions from each piece of music with every single viewing.
  • I love the elegance and the artistry displayed by this movie. With Fantasia, Disney and his crew really showed what animation can do. It doesn’t have to be slapstick and silly to hold an audience’s attention (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and Fantasia delves into that realm itself in segments such as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Dance of the Hours”)–it can mean something more. This film demonstrated, from the earliest days of full-length animation, that it could (and should) truly be considered an art form.

In short … I just love it.

For the sake of not writing a book here, I want to focus on the three segments that I especially revere: the Nutcracker Suite, Dance of the Hours, and Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria.

The second piece in the film, Disney’s lovely rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite does not follow the plot of Tchaikovsky’s ballet; it is, instead, a depiction of the changing of the seasons. It opens with the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” as brightly-colored fairy sprites sprinkle their magic on the flowers, christening each blossom with dew as dawn approaches.

The animation here is particular evocative of its musical accompaniment, as the fairies dart nimbly across the screen like dancers on a stage. The segment then moves into the “Chinese Dance,” featuring the most adorable little mushroom you will likely ever see.

This continues into the “Dance of the Flutes,” as some beautifully balletic flowers glide gracefully across the surface of a pond; this, in turn, is followed by the poetic “Arab Dance,” as conducted by a school of curious (and curiously flirty) goldfish, and the acrobatic “Russian Dance,” performed by multicolored thistles and orchids.

The segment concludes with a wildly imaginative take on the “Waltz of the Flowers,” as the fairies return to change the leaves to burnished brown, red and gold, ushering in autumn; soon after, the winter fairies arrive and turn everything to icy brilliance.

I have loved the Nutcracker ballet since the first time I saw it performed on stage when I was eleven years old. And though I’m normally picky about adaptations–I don’t like too many changes to source material–I think Disney did a remarkable job with this segment of the film. Fantasia‘s take on The Nutcracker, though it bears little resemblance to its source material, at least stays true to the essence of Tchaikovsky’s music, and that, to me, is the most important factor here.

The penultimate segment of the film, Dance of the Hours, is the movie’s take on the classic balletic piece from the opera La Gioconda by Ponchielli, and is actually a pretty faithful adaptation of the original ballet, albeit with a troupe of dancing animals as opposed to human performers. The music is divided into “hours,” according to periods of time during the day, and a different group of animals dances to each interlude within the song.

The dancers of the “Morning” are represented by Madame Upanova and her flock of long-limbed dancing ostriches …

… the dancers of the “Daytime” are represented by the hippos, led by the ever-ladylike Hyacinth Hippo …

… the dancers of the “Evening” are represented by Elephanchine and her herd of bubble-loving elephants …

… and the dancers of the “Night” are a hungry crew of alligators led by the suave Ben Ali Gator.

Each group’s segment gives way to the others until they are all brought together in a huge explosion of dancing madness at the end. As the piece reaches its crescendo, and Hyacinth and Ben express their newfound love through a comical tango, the slapstick comedy becomes more frenetic until it collapses into the utter chaos of a hilarious chase sequence featuring all of the players, ending only when the building has been completely demolished by the insanity.

Dance of the Hours is a lighthearted segue into the unquestionably darkest piece in the film–the haunting sequence Night on Bald Mountain, based on both Mussorgsky’s dark nineteenth-century tone poem of the same name and Schubert’s grandiose prayer song Ave Maria.

This is the only segment of the movie that combines the work of two composers, and the result is one powerful piece of animation.

Fantasia continues Walt Disney’s seeming determination to scare the crap out of the kids in the audience. And he’s three for three in his first full-length features: Snow White has her Wicked Queen, Pinocchio has his Monstro, and the good folks populating Fantasia? Well, they get the scariest mother-effer of them all … Chernabog.

The character is based in part on the Slavic god Chernobog, essentially a demon of the Hades or Hel or Satan (or whatever your preferred ancient religion called it) persuasion. In fact, in the introduction to the piece, the film refers to Bald Mountain as “the gathering place for Satan and his followers.” And as the segment progresses, Chernabog calls forth spirits, ghosts, and demons to commune with him on Walpurgis Night, which in German legend is an annual witches’ celebration of the arrival of spring, held on the eve of April 30th every year. According to folklore, on this night, the doorway between worlds melts away, and evil spirits mingle with us poor, lowly humans in the everyday world.

As Chernabog calls forth his minions, he oversees the action from his perch atop the mountain, cloaked in shadows and immense with power. Frankly, this portion of the film is a little unsettling and frightening to me, though I’m reluctant to admit that; when I said as much to my friend Michelle recently, she laughed at me in disbelief and replied, “Brandie, it’s just a cartoon!”

Be that as it may, the Bald Mountain imagery is fraught with terror. Seriously, this is some scary shit! HE PICKS UP HANDFULS OF SPIRITS AND DROPS THEM INTO THE FIERY PITS OF HELL. Tell me he’s not the scariest bastard in the Villain Olympics.

Plus, he kinda looks like a Gremlin here. All right–who fed the Chernabog after midnight, y’all?!?!?!? Someone needs to answer for the damn nightmares I had about this dude as a kid.

All joking aside, I will admit that the scenes of skeletons and spirits and demons coming to life under Chernabog’s ministrations are some of the most gorgeously animated sequences in the movie. And in my mind, that’s a nod to the immense talent of the animators who worked on Fantasia. Creating artwork–and no one can deny the artistry involved in making this film–that makes people squirm in their seats is a difficult task, in my mind. Like Michelle says, it’s “only” a cartoon. But in my mind, it’s eerier than any high-budget torture porn schlockfest that passes for “horror” today.

And, hark!–we need not fear long; the redemptive force of the tolling of the Angelus Bell sends the demons scurrying for cover, and we are treated to some beautifully-rendered sunrise shots as a long line of monks sings Ave Maria to further drive the evil away.

I’m not going to delve into the religious aspect of this final segment of the film. There is a very obvious Christian motif, but in the end, the lesson learned, if any, is not merely a Christian lesson, but a necessary, human one–the power that faith has over evil and strife. And on any given day, however one manages to impart it, that’s a very good lesson. And I’ll just leave my remarks at that.

This concludes yet another long-winded Saturday Morning Cartoons post from yours truly! Next week, you’ll be treated to a feature on Dumbo by Carrie, and I’ll be back the following week to wax rhapsodic about another one of my very favorites–Bambi.


2 thoughts on “Hippos and fairies and broomsticks … oh, my.

  1. I also adore Fantasia! My brother and I always turned off the movie before Night on Bald Mountain came on, so I was an adult before I realized Ava Maria was played after it!

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