Great Movies IV

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Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 2, 2015

I really like this movie. It’s all over the place, but bravely so. I know they used to read those audience response cards like crazy, but for all that Fantasia feels like a gamble, and a statement of conviction and affection. The opening, where the orchestra comes into this carefully and crazily lit space, is a nice, doubtless unconscious entry in the cinema direct category. It’s utterly contrived documentation, but it’s also a contrivance with real documentary value. These people are, after all, musicians. It’s like Carlos Saura’s dance films (q.v.)—shoot real stuff, as beautifully as you can. Great idea! That’s not Deems Taylor’s voice anymore, is it? Looped or not, he’s an hilariously square, dull presence, and will continue to be such for the duration. Stokowski is ridiculous. Stokowski is fabulous. That silhouette!

The Bach piece is cool. Oskar Fischinger might well have gotten upset, and it’s hard to explain that thing that looks like a marching green pepper of death. But there is too abstraction here, or maybe an effective Mickey Mousing (musically speaking) that dispenses with actual objects. As fine art it might just be kind of gauche, but in the field of animation it is an undeniable advance. The Tchaikovsky stuff is exquisite, and it demonstrates another really valuable kind of abstraction. These are recognizable objects, and they’re even given personalities. But they’re not really given narratives, or motivations.  It’s just colour and movement and space—terrific.

The Sorceror bit is pretty familiar by now. Still, look at that animation! Also really exquisite. And you may not have remembered that Mickey Mouse is an ax-murderer! The source poem is by Goethe, of course, and this really is a kid-sized version of Faust. One of the stated motivations behind this movie was that it was going to Educate Audiences about Classical Music. This episode makes a quieter, maybe more effective contribution to that literacy effort. “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” is an exemplary entry in the vaunting ambition/mad scientist category of myths that we should all learn and know. It’s lovely how they accomplish that, then pull it back for a piquant, have-it-both-ways didactic ending. A spanking, and an affectionate gleam in the eye.

The Stravinsky sequence is really cool. Instruct and delight!

Next comes that soundtrack bit. Awful! These classicals don’t do jazz very convincingly. The Beethoven is also awful, partly because all of their female mythical creatures resemble the Black Dahlia. (You might not want to look that one up.) That thunderstorm is great, though, and Hespera’s passage through the twilit sky is utterly exquisite. The marriage of picture and music at this moment is just perfect. In fact, for all I just said, the Beethoven sequence is also beautifulthe 6th!and remains pretty well untouched by all the tackiness surrounding it.  

If that first mythical episode is a mixed bag, then the next also-mythical part is about as unmitigated as you can get. I vote: “The Dance of the Hours” must be Disney’s greatest moment. In fact, it’s up there with the whole medium’s greatest, most joyful accomplishments. And how heartening it is for kids, or any other sadness-prone soul. These awkward, umprepossessing dancing creatures don’t know that they’re awkward or unprepossessing. The result is that they’re not. In fact, that head hippo is stunning! We love you, kids…

Additionally, this is an hilarious send-up of balletic excess and self-regard, except that eventually send-up morphs into sincere admiration, even devotion. The self-regard is justified; the ballerinas deserve, carry any air they may put on. The felicities in this sequence are nearly endless, but can you beat that hippopotamal prima ballerina’s last great, cataclysmically, apocalyptically graceful dive? (Do I protest too much? I’m trying to find words that are as big and high and wide as what actually happens.) The alligator loves her! And how right he is to do so! The subsequent escalation/climax/destruction is perfect. (Tristan und Isolde? After Union, it’s on to the götterdämmerung [excuse the mixed Wagnerian metaphor!].) This, here, is as good as movies can possibly be.

“Night on Bald Mountain” probably should have been tacky too.  It’s pretty great. All stops pulled with those infernal characters, who really register.  The Schubert is kind of po-faced, or, if you prefer, it’s kind of sweet and moving. In fact, I so prefer. Actually, I really love this movie.