“Fantasia”: A Modern Approach to a Timeless Film

“The Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians” defines fantasia in music as “a piece of instrumental music owning no restriction of formal construction; but the direct product of the composer’s impulse (Grove & Fuller, 1920).” When Walt Disney released his feature film “Fantasia” in the United States in 1941, many critics from film and music scrutinized “Fantasia” for its controversial imagery, metaphors and simplification of classical art forms (Smoodin, 1994). In order to further understand “Fantasia” from a theoretical standpoint, the Frankfurt School’s ideas of authority, the concept of modern aesthetics, and finally medium specificity will be analyzed.

In the 1930’s when Walt Disney was living in Los Angeles, the now urban metropolis was still farmland and really not considered metropolitan at all. Los Angeles was made up of immigrants and as a whole, was in search of a cultural identity. Disney reflects this need for identity, union and respect in “Fantasia” through its bountiful references and scenery of ethnic and historical diversity throughout the film. In a broader scale, Disney also implies loosely defined notions of American popular mass culture in many scenes (Willis, 1987).

“Fantasia” delivers modernist aesthetics due to its scenes subject’s matter and meanings. The presence of high culture and low culture mingling is prevalent throughout the entire film. The most perfect example of this occurrence of figures embodying modernist aesthetics is when Mickey Mouse mounts the conductor’s podium and shakes hands with the flesh-and-blood Leopold Stokowski. This scene is more than a blend of animation and live action photography, though. In a sense, it symbolizes “Fantasia’s” hidden meanings. The conductor is a symbol for high art, Europe, tradition and cultural maturity. Mickey Mouse is the symbol for the United State’s opposition. The handshake is indicative of the union of high art and American popular mass culture forms, such as Mickey Mouse, which is a modernist concept. Why would Disney do this? Basically, Disney produced “mass culture high art (Willis, 1987).”

Mass culture’s function is to lift elite forms out of their historical and social context, and Disney is notorious for doing the latter in his animations. For example, “Rite of Spring” was severely edited to suite the order of “real” geological time. The classical ballet dances are full of simplified jumps and deformed steps in order to suit the slapstick requirements of early animation. In sum, traditional culture forms are transformed into mass culture forms. We cannot forget that Disney was an entrepreneur for the most part and not an artist (Smoodin, 1994). Because of this, he could not help but hollow out art, and simplify art as a series of signifiers and signs (Willis, 1987).

Modernism expresses a multiplicity of attitudes and techniques.  Broadly speaking, there is an accumulative drawing of attention to the modes of representation themselves.  Instead of attempting to represent the world, thoughts, feelings and relationships in which people know, the modernist author and/or artist struggles to draw attention to the way representation categorizes our frequently different experiences and understandings of the world. For this reason, art and writing becomes less like a way to viewing something else, and more like something you have to take notice of for it’s own existence.

Modernist elements are prevalent throughout “Fantasia.” The film truly walked the aesthetic line between modernism and sentimental realism. Disney sentimental realism was enacted to inhibit the development of ideas that might make the audience question their relation to what is “natural” in the Earth. Another view is that Disney’s animation was not realistic enough. Many writers criticize Disney for giving sanitized and sweetened images of nature (Whitley, 2008).

In continuance with modernism and sentimental realism, the opening scenes of “Fantasia” embody these trends perfectly. During Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” a musically inspired series of images dances across the screen. Near pure abstractions of vibrant colors, swirling forms melting into each othe, and a barely existent violin bow are seen. These non-figurative abstractions are purely a modernist idea. The opening scenes are followed by a parade of delightful modernist images, including dancing mushrooms in “Nutcracker Suite,” the dark magic of the Master Wizard, and the relentless marching of the many brooms in ‘‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The ironic hilarity of dainty hippo ballerinas in “Dance of the Hours” is the final modernist component (Watts, 1995).

Among the modernist elements seen in the film the most dominant are abstraction, the mingling of unlikely or random images, interspersing of high and low cultures, the contact between intellect and emotion, and the mingling of seriousness and humorous satire. In the last two scenes of “Fantasia,” a couple of drastically different musical pieces are used to inspire the animation. Modest Petrovich Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” are the two pieces of music conveyed. The scenes as a whole represent the cosmic battle between virtuous good and malicious evil. The evil aspect is represented by the Satanic being throwing souls and vampires into a pit of ferocious fire during “Night on Bald Mountain,” as the audience is simultaneously confronted with dark and particularly sinister music. Then, the scene ends, as a dark and steamy forest is unveiled, with the morning sun rising behind its trees that are filled with dozens of priests carrying candles in a perfectly straight line. The clashing subject matter in these two scenes presents a dramatic aspect of modernist thought (Watts, 1995).

Walt Disney claimed that caricatures created a “subconscious association” as it invokes scenes the audience may have felt, dreamt or seen. In short, Disney aimed to combine abstraction and realism in order to move the audience towards modernity, which emphasized appeal towards the unconscious and irrational. Fantasia wanted to show the “fantastic, the unreal, the imaginative,” according to Walt Disney in a 1935 memo. Disney wanted to bring the audience’s imaginations to life. In the end, critics discerned Disney’s hybrid modernist aesthetic (realism to make fantasy persuasive) as the appeal to the audiences irrational and subconscious mental life (Watts, 1995).

The way, in which Disney’s style consists of perceived cultural truths in the form of the folktale, can be seen as replicating vivacity through an artificial and industrial process. Bizarrely, Disney’s modernity lies in his ability to preserve and maintain old preindustrial conceptions of the artist and artwork. He does this by rendering invisible the implements and materials of film’s industrial development (Langer, 1990). Other writers, such as Paul Wells, are more indecisive about the matter at hand. Wells concluded that while Disney “fixed an aesthetic style that was intrinsically bound up with conservatism, consensus, and conciliation (Whitley, 2008),” he also used modernist elements in his aesthetic to speak towards contemporary agendas in art and writing of the time, including expressionism and montage.

“Fantasia” encompasses expressionism by depicting objective reality rather than subjective emotions and reactions that things arouse in the artist. Distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy through an array of formal elements are traits of expressionism (Emerling, 2005), which “Fantasia” comprises as well through vivid animations. Spontaneity and self-expression are descriptive of expressionism in art, and the application of it to “Fantasia (Smoodin, 1994).”

The second element of modernism that “Fantasia” has is montage. The production of a succession of images in the film to illustrate an association and comparison of ideas is a characteristic of montage (Emerling, 2005). In the “Rite of Spring,” dinosaurs are seen gasping for their last breaths, immediately followed by flashes of earthquakes and smoking mountains, and finally dust implying that the dinosaurs have passed (Leong, 2003). The idea of multiple images forming one composite image and idea is ideal of the montage artfulness in film.

Additionally, the fact that “Fantasia” has no sequential story line or plot (Benzon, 2011) is an exceptionally modernist aesthetic. The originality of the film hindered its money making capabilities; “Fantasia” did not break even with the budget until the 1960’s- over twenty years after it was first released. Music critics hated it, film critics were speechless, and the audience simply ignored “Fantasia” (Benzon, 2011).

Peter Wholen’s alternative aesthetics explain “Fantasia’s” bizarre and unusual story line, or more appropriately, lack thereof. Predominantly, narrative instransivity expresses the film. There is a complete absence of plot and narrative, leaving the audience in a confused or investigative state while watching the film. Unlike strictly realist film “Fantasia” leaves viewers with questions and loose judgments (Stam, Alternative Aesthetics). “Fantasia” is much like an abstract expressionist painting. It confronts you, makes you question it and yourself and leaves you in a state of bewilderment, which are all affects of modern artistic production (Emerling, 2005).

Finally, Disney’s style consists of perceived cultural truths in the form of folktales, which are the opposites of each other due to modernity and its advancements. Folktales are lovely and enchanting, while modernity and life in America in the early 20th century was unforgiving and brutal due to harsh economic standards. “Fantasia” replicates life through an artificial process and lens; He gives us realism as well as fantasy. Surprisingly, Disney’s modernity lies in his capability to preserve preindustrial and pre-modern conceptions of the artist by rendering invisible the tools and materials of film’s industrial process (Whitley, 2008).

The Frankfurt School shared the same common interest in how cultures shapes individuals and collectives, and was incredibly pessimistic about contemporary culture and it’s affects (Hollows & Jancovich, 1995). The film “Fantasia” reveals the formation of culture industry as well as threatening authoritative figures. In short, the Frankfurt School hated authority and the “culture industry.” Walt Disney is ultimately the hypothetical king of turning movies and old tales into cheap toys, amusement parks, and gimmicks (King, 2005).

Further, Leopold Stokowski embodies artistic mastery, domination, and functions as the world of music mirroring Disney as the world of animation. Stokowski is seen in all bridge passages between animation scenes, and is literally the narrative glue. Appropriately, he is seen as a silhouette, and in turn his personality is emptied. The composer brings order to the “tuning up” orchestra, enhancing his image of domination and the need for art becoming centralized production (Willis, 1987).

The idea of art becoming centralized reproduction and the product of an elite force instead of an individual or collective group of reason is extended by the Frankfurt School’s supposed culture industry. Basically, the culture industry describes culture as a commercial product, with culture including the arts, literature, politics etc. The Frankfurt School saw the culture industry as extremely debilitating and even evil (Hollows & Jancovich, 1995). “Fantasia” clearly turns classical figures into mass culture ideas through sentimental realism, but one must wonder if this is actually debilitating to human thought and action.

The appearances of authoritative figures are seen throughout “Fantasia” as well. The interesting aspect is that the predictability of the film is reciprocal to the audience’s expectations. In the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene, Mickey is obviously the slave of the Master Wizard. Mickey borrows the Master Wizard’s hat and magical spell book, and then orders a broom to grow legs and carry out his chores of bringing water to a fountain. Of course, Mickey falls asleep from boredom of ordering his slave broom around, and awakens to a flooded room. When he attempts to destroy the broom it multiplies, and the flooding worsens, as he cannot control his slaves. The multiplication of a single animated event transforms the master/slave relationship into a horrible image of a modern factory production where low life proletariat threatens to destroy an entire operation. In the end, Mickey’s salvation only comes once the Master Wizard returns, symbolizing the need for authority. The Master Wizard is even displayed in a paternal sense, as he is shown spanking Mickey’s behind with the ruined broom (Willis, 1987).

In “Pastoral,” an angry, tired Zeus appears from a cloud to chastise unruly humans. Satan tortures skeletons in hell during “A Night on Bald Mountain.” The tyrannical character is exploited in “Rite of Spring,” as a tyrannosaurus-rex devouring weak and scurrying lesser dinosaurs. And the insensible comic in the form of a dancing alligator appears in “Dance of the Hours.” These scenes distinguish between fatherly (Zeus), tyrannical (Tyrannosaurus Rex) and unholy (Satan) authority figures, and in the end reaffirms the need for domination (Willis, 1987).

From authoritative references, discrepancies in race are widespread in “Fantasia” as well. During “Pastoral” color coded centaurs are seen coupling off.

At the end of the coupling scene, the best example of the importance of color in relationships is shown. As a sad blue centaur wonders about, looking at all the centaurettes, which are for some reason not good enough for him, he stumbles upon a blue centaurette. The only instance of color mixing in “Pastoral” is among the Pegasuses. There is a black one and a white one, which have multi colored offspring. This can be seen as a comparison between human racial purity and animal primitivism. To top it all off, African zebra centaurettes are shown escorting Bacchus later in the scene, which once again, is also a gesture indicative of high and low cultures associating (Willis, 1987).

The Frankfurt School argued that mass-produced culture makes the audience passive and easy to manipulate in turn (Miller, 2000). The pleasurable idea of getting lost in a movie and “vegging out” on the couch were seen as worse than Nazis at one point. One critic, Toby Miller, argued that class is important in viewing film because it affects how we relate to the visual imagery. In support of this notion, consider how one views a person they have just met once they hear their accent or notice something about their clothing. For instance, a certain fashion style or accent can make or ruin a relationship. But, how does film relate to culture? Basically, people that create the media we consume must be perceived as artists, as well as workers. If they are not perceived in this way, then no one will see their media as legitimate and worthy (Miller, 2000). When applying Miller’s thoughts to “Fantasia,” one must consider the multiplicity of scenes that show authority. As I described before, “Pastoral,” “Rite of Spring,” “Night on Bald Mountain,” and the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” are all examples of classic authoritative occurrences.

The final theoretical approach to be employed when analyzing “Fantasia” is the idea of medium specificity. When “Fantasia” was first released, many classical music composers, music critics, and film critics scrutinized the film for stepping out of the medium’s supposed boundaries (Watts, 1995). Walt Disney once stated, “In my business we’d say it another way. We say that the public- that is, the audience- would always recognize and appreciate quality. It was this faith in the discrimination of the average person that led us to make such a radically different type of entertainment as ‘’Fantasia.” We simply figured that if ordinary folk like ourselves could find entertainment in these visualizations of so-called classical music, so would the average audience (Clague, 2004).”

Many scholars see “Fantasia” as a break through multimedia, though, one in particular being Nicholas Cook. He aimed to create a “generalized theoretical framework for the analysis of multimedia.” His definition of multimedia is a medium, which begins as music and moves away from it towards other media. He specifically notes that the “Rite of Spring” sequence exemplifies “music film,” which he specifies as “a genre which begins with music, but in which the relationships between sound and image are not fixed and immutable but variable and contextual, and in which dominance is only one of a range of possibilities.” It is interesting to notice that Cook sees “Rite of Spring” as its own genre. Cook proposes that the sequence is not only defined by the music from which it originated, and also that the combination of visuals and music in “Rite of Spring” creates an entirely new entity or genre. He firmly believes that this new entity or genre is worthy of analytic attention, which he devotes towards it. Cook described the “Rite of Spring” sequence as “the construction of a fundamentally new experience, one whose limits are set neither by Stravinsky nor even by Disney…. But by anybody who watches- and listens- to it.” In sum, Cook’s idea raises “Fantasia” up to a new level and standard for “music film (Leong, 2003).”

The notion of sound and image as a unified whole has deep roots in the history of film theory. Rudolph Arnheim stated, “a combination of media that has no unity will appear intolerable (Leong, 2003).” He only valued media which had elements that conform to one another in a way that creates unity as a whole, but the separateness of the different elements in the media remain evident. Another critic, Scott Paulin, stated “the need for unity, totality, continuity, fusion of some form among disparate elements,” is crucial to the media. “In addition to the need to create the impression of internal unity within both the images and the soundtrack separately, the two tracks must also cohere as to invite perception as a unified whole (Leong, 2003).” Basically, he is saying the soundtrack and visuals must relate somehow, in order to bear relations of appropriateness and realness to one another. I believe famous soundtrack scene in “Fantasia” attempts to denote these ideas of unity between image and sound. The scene may be too literal for some critic’s taste, as a line that resembles a current day audio visualizer represents the soundtrack. Yet, I see this as a tasteful acknowledgement by “Fantasia,” shedding light on the crucial need of the soundtrack mingling with visual imagery well.

Referring back to the “Rite of Spring” sequence, some critics see it as a horrible chasm between unity of music and visual imagery (McN, 1941). The sequence’s blend between Disney’s animation and Stokowski’s soundtrack does not create a “fundamentally new experience,” as Cook claimed, but rather an apprehensive melting pot of cartoons and audio in which the pieces do not fit together at all (Leong, 2003). In order to understand why some critics feel this way, it must be noted that the musical piece “Rite of Spring” by itself, was originally the mastery of composer Stravinsky. Stokowski manipulated the song by cutting it, reordering it and re-orchestrating it in specific parts. As a result, the re-cut song succumbs considerably from the original musical piece by Stravinsky. Any music critic would be offended by the rendering of the original piece in order to make an attempt at fitting the audio and visual imagery together nicely (Leong, 2003).

In 1941, the Musical Times reviewed “Fantasia,” and had mixed reactions. In the review, was made evident that not all sequences in the film are impressive to the musical community. The review begins with the acknowledgement that the audience is “recommended to dismiss the idea that the artist has come to meet them on their own ground (McN, 1941).” Over all, the review is only satisfied with three of the eight sequences in the film. Coming from a music critic’s view, the “Casse-Noisette” sequence of dancing flowers and fauna is too supercharged with Disney’s technique, leaving the music “scarcely present in its own character.” It is also stated that if viewing the sequence from a strictly Disney standpoint, it is highly successful. In contrast, the review sees the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as highly successful in uniting audio and visual imagery, stating, “It’s as if Dukas’s little masterpiece had been waiting all these years for Disney to complete it (McN, 1941).” The review also praises “The Rite of Spring” for placing the musical piece as an indisputable masterwork, as the music fits the animation ideally. The “Pastoral” sequence is reviewed as an “outstanding failure.” It is made clear that the strong and overpowering music is too intense to be coupled with Olympus and centaurs (McN, 1941). The assumption can be made that imagery is not always essential to music, and vice versa.

When applying each method of criticism to “Fantasia,” many questions of relativity arose, as well as a plentiful amount of information and documentation to be analyzed and broken down. Although all of three of the theories I chose to apply to the film were helpful, one was clearly more appropriate than the other two. From the research I have conducted and applied to “Fantasia,” the Frankfurt School’s negative and pertinent thoughts about authority and film were the most relevant. I believe this for a few reasons. One being that The Frankfurt School arose around the same time “Fantasia” was created. The second reason I think this is because the Frankfurt School was entirely scholarly, and diverse in thought while still holding a certain sameness about them. The Frankfurt School ranged from scholars such as Walter Benjamin as well as well as Bertolt Brecht. Both of these scholars were considered part of the modernist movement (Emerling, 2005), and many of their theories are taught in relation to modernism currently.

When I applied the Frankfurt School’s ideas to “Fantasia,” many of their outlooks on film conflicted with “Fantasia’s” continuing themes, such as the need for authority. When one steps back and views “Fantasia” from an artistic perspective, these elements and themes stick out like sore thumbs. Since I have discussed “Fantasia” as having modernist aesthetics, I am going to consider that the film was a part of the modernist movement. I have also concluded that “Fantasia” reflects modernist ideas and developments, or more so reacts to those changes at the time.

In order to understand what I mean by the film reacting to those supposed elements I mentioned before as modernity, one must first understand what exactly modernism is. In simple terms, modernism is a response to modernity. It can be negative or positive, and is based around the idea of never one cause and never one effect. As discussed earlier, the idea of placing things such as high and low culture together were prevalent in this social and artistic movement as well. Other aspects of modernism include universalism, cubism, Marxist ideas and no ideals. The idea of simplicity is completely excluded from modernism, appropriately. The construction of creating different relationships within time is also a key concept in modernism (Emerling, 2005).

In a variety of ways, “Fantasia” exhibits many modernist philosophies. The most resilient being the relationships between contrasting sounds, animation, subject matter, and the construction of different relationships throughout time. The Frankfurt school is tied to modernity because of its scholars and the similarity of their beliefs to the art being produced at the time. An example would be the painters Edouard Manet, or even Paul Cezanne. Both were tied to modernist ideas, and reacted to modernity, which is key in making my point (Emerling, 2005). The Frankfurt school despised modernity, and artists living in modernity simply reacted to it, creating a connection. Artists, including filmmakers such as Walt Disney all reacted to the changing world around them, which was becoming more and more contemporary every day. It may sound like modernism is more appropriate when analyzing “Fantasia,” but the Frankfurt School described the reaction to modernity, which is more important in my eyes.

I found myself going in circles as I considered these notions. On one hand, the Frankfurt school should like “Fantasia” for it’s abstract nature and usage of alternative and modernist aesthetics. “Fantasia” breaks all sorts of rules, or supposed rules at the time. But, at the same time “Fantasia” placed mythical and folk worlds and characters into the Frankfurt School’s idea of the culture industry. Basically, Disney “sold out” the idea of mythology and classical music and ballet. Or at least, that is what the Frankfurt School might think. With that being said, one can understand why The Frankfurt School may have had a hard time judging “Fantasia” without talking in circles.

Of course, it must not be forgotten that the Frankfurt School was not fond of Hollywood and film at all, due to their unfortunate witnessing of the Holocaust and Hitler (Stam, Film Theory An Introduction). Also, much of “Fantasia” displays scenes of pure spectacle, and the original idea of Fantasound is quite spectacular, too. Bertolt Brecht, a member of the Frankfurt School would not have seen these traits as impressive, yet he may have seen the abstract animation scenes as impressive, since they invoked thought and the strange (Miller, 2000). Walter Benjamin’s ideas lead me to say that “Fantasia” is the perfect example of classical art and ideas losing their auras due to the technological reproducibility of the film “Fantasia.” But, he would also possibly think “Fantasia” was brilliant because of the extent to which Walt Disney took film’s mechanical capabilities, which much of the Frankfurt School overlooked (Emerling, 2005).


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