Thursday, January 26, 2012

1940 - Fantasia

In my last post, I gave you the basic idea of Fantasia, so no need to rehash that here. Seven classical pieces and one comedy bit, linked with introductions from music historian, minor radio celebrity, and pin-up model Deems Taylor. Actually, Taylor presented a bit of a sticky situation for me. The original cut of Fantasia was a 124 minute roadshow, which was edited down to 115 minutes by chopping up Taylor’s intros. For the recent DVD release, they restored the full film, but with no original sound prints, had to dub Taylor’s voice for the whole movie with that of Disney mainstay Corey Burton. Now, I hate editing of old movies. I think 3D conversion should be punished by horsewhipping, aspect ratio alteration by behanding, and colorization by execution. There is one exception, but I’ll get to that later. So do I watch the original voice with deleted lines, or the dubbed voice with original lines? I went with the latter, for the more accurate experience. Not that it was the complete original version. As I implied up there, there is still one part that’s been cut out, but we'll get to that. Feeling classy? I know I am. So grab a foie gras and caviar smoothie and let’s talk about Fantasia.

TOCCATA AND FUGUE IN D MINOR - This done as a series of abstract images that suit the music. A good choice, and smart to pick a song everyone knows. If you think you don’t know it, I want you to imagine Dracula music. Yup, that’s it.

THE NUTCRACKER SUITE - Before this segment begins, our man Deems gives us a little background on the original Nutcracker Ballet, which he says “Wasn’t very popular and is rarely performed today.” At first, I thought this was just Deems being a master of deadpan, or Corey Burton not picking up on some sarcasm, but it turns out he’s right. The Nutcracker bombed in Russia, and didn’t even have a full performance in the US until years after Fantasia’s release. The segment is quite good, with fairies bringing a garden to life and cycling through the seasons, but I still can’t help but wonder what it was like for the 1940 audience. Without the vast cultural proliferation of the music from The Nutcracker, they’d see this in a completely different way from me. Also, the mushrooms would seem less racist.

(Oh, I’m sorry. I mean “Mushlooms”)
THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE - What’s the point? You all know this one. Hat, brooms, starring Mickey Mouse, who’s kind of blandly charming but hasn’t been actually funny since like 1930. It’s fine, the music is solid. It’s certainly the best short cartoon to ever be expanded to a mostly not terrible Nicolas Cage movie.

THE RITE OF SPRING - The origins of life on earth, as  understood by the scientists of 1940. Actually, the early cellular development stuff is quite solid. The dinosaur biology is horrible. Tyrannosaurs with their tails dragging, sauropods with their necks raised, and dinosaurs from a span of 200 million years all hanging out with each other. But it still looks great, and the music is suitably epic. I wonder if creationists complained. They tended to be a lot quieter in those days, but Deems sure did seem to be hedging his bets in the intro, though definitely on the pro-science side. I do find the way he keeps saying “Science tells us this”, or “Science says that” to be hilarious. Like there’s just this guy called Science telling us everything. I bet he’s got a lab coat.

INTERMISSION - 15 minutes of the title card, capped with 2 minutes the musicians improvising, which is charming and funny and gives some personality to the army of nearly identical tuxedoed white men that have been playing for us. Then Deems spends 3 minutes interviewing “The Soundtrack”, a white line that changes shape depending on what instrument is played. This is awesome. And all that also includes about 4 hours of watching the orchestra file in and out of their seats. THRILLING.

You'd think I'd make fun of all the rainbows and multicolored pegasi,  but then I'd have to make fun of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and I WILL NOT DO THAT AND YOU CAN'T MAKE ME, THAT SHOW IS AWESOME.
THE PASTORAL SYMPHONY - This mostly boring symphony contains mostly boring visuals based on classical mythology. It’s also racist and sexist. The bulk of it involves girl centaurs getting tarted up for boy centaurs and putting on a sexy show for them, whereupon the boy centaurs claim their women and go have a picnic or something. The sexism is bland yet annoying ‘40s sexism, but I’m sure you’re more interested in the racism. See, there’s green and blue and orange centaurs, etcetera, and they all pair up with another centaur of the same color. And if that doesn’t sound too racist to you, there’s also Sunflower. Go ahead, click on that link. Yeah, she dances around and shines the white centaur’s hooves. Yyyyeah. Sunflower has been aggressively deleted from every print of Fantasia since 1969, and this is what I alluded to when I said there’s one form of altering an old movie I’m okay with. As Roger Ebert observed, "While the original film should, of course, be preserved for historical purposes, there is no need for the general release version to perpetrate racist stereotypes in a film designed primarily for children." And he’s right. But the segment is still boring.

DANCE OF THE HOURS - A comedic ballet involving ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators for its four segments, which are the same musical themes reorchestrated to imply morning, afternoon, evening, and night. It’s okay, I guess. But frankly, there’s going to be one segment I always forget when I’m trying to remember what’s in this movie. And the music is irritatingly repetitive.  (You may recognize it as the tune of Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”. And if you don’t, do your sanity a favor and don’t look that up.)
Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man with huge freaking wings.
NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN/AVE MARIA - Deems Taylor calls this a juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. I call it a juxtaposition between the awesome and the lame. First off, the devil comes to life on the top of a mountain and makes a load of ghosts and demons dance for his amusement to the tune of the most awesome music ever with some really neat experimental animation. Then the church bells ring and all the cool stuff goes away and some lame pilgrims walk by singing Ave Maria. When I was a kid, I never got what the devil was doing wrong. The town was abandoned, so it’s not like they were tormenting mortals. They just wanted to climb a mountain and have a sweet party. At the time, I was technically still a Catholic. Perhaps this sympathy for the devil was the start of my slide into apostasy. Or perhaps I could just tell the difference between awesome (Mussorgsky) and lame (Schubert).


* This was also on the AFI list, but it deserved to be.

* Next time I do an actual review instead of a list. These get too long.

* I should probably mention that in the Pastoral, Bacchus had two sexy black centaur attendants, so… there’s that. They had zebra bodies, but if that’s racist, then so is My Little Pony, and I’ll not hear such insults.

* Years after the fact, the Disney company started claiming that the guy on the mountain wasn’t Satan, but the Slavic deity Chernobog. But Deems called him the devil, and Walt called him “Satan himself”, and Mussorgsky was all over the place on that one, so I’m sticking with the obvious interpretation.

Taylor OUT.

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