Front and Centaur

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Marvelling all over again at FANTASIA, which occupies a key role in my cinema-going life. It must have been an early example of a movie I went to all by myself, not out of any social urge. Truth be told, once I was old enough to not require parental supervision at the movies, there wasn’t anyone around I wanted to see them with or who wanted to go with me, until my best friend Robert joined in. FANTASIA was one I had known about for years but never seen, because I don’t think it had ever turned up on re-release and of course Disney kept their movies off TV for the most part. Oh, and I was a bit of a classical music fan in my early teens — it was another reason for the assholes at school to hate me — the looks on their faces when they asked what kind of music I liked were kind of priceless. That, having long hair in the eighties, and not liking football were enough to ensure pariah status with the right people.

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I don’t think I was aesthetically developed enough to be properly repelled by the film’s most egregious artistic crimes, but I enjoyed the bits that work just as much as I do today. Who was it said, “Too much beauty is disgusting”? Attributing any sort of beauty to the film’s Olympian interlude may seem controversial, but consider: ladled over the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony are a lot of colours, variously bright and brash or even muted and sombre, but all individually pleasing to the eye. The shapes are all soft, sensuous and curving, with not a jagged or discordant angle in sight. And the movement is elegant, arcing, balletic. And the creatures are woodland animals and nymphs and flying babies and cute girls and jocks with equine underparts. And they’re all pastel pinks and purples and blues. The combination of this is enough to provoke a Technicolor yawn from anyone, turning the screen to a Jackson Pollock explosion, which would be an improvement.

In other words, unlike the Toccata and Fugue, which mingles extreme gaudiness and vulgarity with some sublime abstract imagery, or the Nutcracker Suite which features whole sections of gorgeous kitsch, this great conglomeration of beautiful components results in an eye-aching pastel inferno which would serve as an ideal hell for anyone with an iota of taste. It’s all the more shocking coming after the restraint of the Rite of Spring sequence, which has plenty of almost monochromatic shots, all sulphurous yellow or muddy brown.

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The only hints of ugliness allowed in Disney’s Olympus are some spectacularly unpleasing character designs — Bacchus ought to be a relief from all the idealised body shapes and clean living on display, but he’s an unfunny bore and I was rooting for Zeus to immolate him with a thunderbolt — and the typical, yet heightened Disney sexual weirdness. The centaurettes, with their pert breasts and no nipples — (later, in Night on Bald Mountain, the harpies are allowed nipples, so evidently nipples are a sign of evil) — are posed about the place so seductively, we can be almost certain Disney was sexually attracted to horses (and fish). And there’s the usual ass-play, about which whole monographs have been written. Disney’s anal obsession. The best one is probably the centaurette spanking her hindquarters with a twig-as-riding-crop to make herself jump a fence, which brings up all kinds of curious thoughts. It seems she’s not only a conglomeration of two animals, her lower section has a will of its own. King Lear had something to say about that, as I recall.

Still, one aspect of the film’s vulgar heroism is its capacity to do everything beyond belief — when it succeeds, it astonishes (frame grabbing these images gave me a new respect for the artistry in every image), and when it fails it doesn’t settle for falling flat, it crashes towards the earth’s core like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff and leaving a coyote-shaped crater in the desert floor.

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If you’re revisiting it, and I recommend you do, I recommend the Blu-Ray.

UK: Fantasia [Blu-ray]

US: Fantasia / Fantasia 2000 (Two movie Collection) (Special Edition)

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19 Responses to “Front and Centaur”

  1. Love Mickey as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the dancing hippos in tutus. However “A Night on Bald Mountain” scared the living shit out of me as a kid and remains in memory as the most terrifying of all movie sequences.

  2. I wish I’d seen it when I was young enough to be really disturbed by it.

    Richard Lester reports this as the ONLY cinema visit of his childhood, but it seems to have exerted zero influence. Ken Russell, on the other hand, surely soaked it up.

  3. There was a certain resemblance between the arm movements of Stokowski and those of Satan in “A Night on Bald Mountain” Mind you, considering what he did to Toccata and Fugue, Stokowski was much the more evil of the two.
    Franciszka & Stefan Themerson did something similar- and much shorter- in The Eye and the Ear.


  4. I didn’t know of it!

    Disney owed a great debt to Walter Ruttman also, and especially Oskar Fischinger, who he basically ripped off.

    Fantasia’s distortions of the music itself arguably make it inferior as an introduction to the classics to the likes of What’s Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit of Seville.

  5. I was in my early 20s before I saw it in a theater, and had only seen the Pastoral sequence, on TV, and had found it unbelievably boring. “The Rite of Spring” and “Bald Mountain” sequences however, particularly in a theater, were so much more than I was prepared for I really found them as overwhelming as anything I’d seen up to then. Stravinsky’s disapproval has been well documented, but I wonder what proportion of modern audiences might, if transported back in time, find the notorious premier production of “Rite” an “unremitting imbecility” (he made comparable remarks about Nijinsky’s choreography for the original Diagilev production). Anyway, the dinosaurs and environments in this sequence are great, and it’s too bad Stravinsky couldn’t enjoy it; and he was, apparently, treated deplorably by Disney (if Richard Schickel’s account is to be trusted). The Ponchielli sequence really is inspired, and its treatment of the music seems pretty universally to be received with a tolerant and right-minded “So?”

    Sorry David, but I’ve always thought “What’s Opera, Doc” was probably the most overrated cartoon of all time. Jones did make some masterpieces. This isn’t one of them.

  6. My two quibbles with Rite of Spring.

    1) it was a little TOO well synchronized — volcanoes erupting on cue seem to lose something of their natural awe when trained to fit the music. Also, Christopher Walken said something interesting about dance which may be a Universal Truth. “A good dancer is always slightly ahead of the beat: a good dancer Makes The Music Happen.” In animation, it’s easy to make everything land smack on the beat, but that doesn’t mean one should. It’s more dynamic if either the music is provoking the explosions or, better, the explosions provoke the music.

    2) The sync may be perfect but the actual nature of the action isn’t. I was kind of with Stravinsky on this one, and couldn’t convince myself half the time that this music suited these saureans, as opposed to the primitive tribespeople it aimed at.

  7. I guess you either find “What’s Opera, Doc?” funny or you don’t, but the joke works best on the big screen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0evwZnEFtBI

  8. The best thing to come out of Disney’s Beethoven misadventure:

  9. Fwiw, it was Hays who kiboshed the centaurette’s nipples; they were designed to have them. The centaurettes themselves are in many ways the apotheosis of “the Fred Moore girl”, wholesome yet fetching, and entirely fitting for the odd sexuality inherent in the classic Disney work.

    There are many who argue that Bill Tytla’s work on Chernabog in “The Night on Bald Mountain” is the greatest character animation work yet done, and I am not one to disagree.

  10. I was amused by how fashionable the centaurettes’ hairstyles were.

    Hard to make any absolute choices about character animation: other characters have perhaps been subtler, but as a manifestation of malevolence and power, Tytla’s work is astonishing — enhanced by the lighting and angles and colour and everything else.

  11. This film was my introduction to The Rite of Spring, and it has remained a favorite piece of music ever since. Then again, I also loved the Pastoral sequence, so what do I know. Haven’t watched it in years, but the last time I saw it I could finally recognize that these weren’t the best versions of any of the music.

  12. So, was Stokowski inherently dodgy, or did Disney somehow corrupt him?

  13. I think it was mostly the way the music was edited for length.

  14. I think there’s some rather wild re-orchestration going on in the bits they DID use, though.

  15. Gad, I’ve suddenly remembered this from Winsor McCay, which opens with exactly the same naked-lady-turns-out-to-be-a-centaur joke. The closing joke is a kicker too, and even odder.

  16. Complete with denippled breasts, unless the resolution is to blame.

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