Thursday, August 29, 2013

Disney's Fantasia as Masterpiece

This is currently the fifth most popular post at New Savanna.  I originally published it in The Valve in August, 2006; I then republished it here in November, 2010. It's about why Fantasia is one of the great works of 20th Century art. The first time I formulated that thought to myself — that Fantasia is one of the great works of 20th Century art — it took my breath away. But in time I got used to the idea. Almost.

The argument in the post, however, is at most only half the argument. It's about what happens in Fantasia, what phenomena Disney chose to represent. The other half of the argument is, it seems to me, rather more difficult to state, for it is about how things look on the screen. If the film doesn't look good, well, the representational content is not in itself enough to make compelling art. I believe, of course, that it does look good. This post on The Nutcracker Suite is part of that argument, as is this post on Dance of the Hours.
April 27, 2014: It's now the 4th most popular post. Another Fantasia post, Two Rings in Fantasia, is 3rd.

June 14, 2021: It's now the 6th most popular post. Two Rings in Fantasia is now 4th.


In 1938 Walt Disney decided to bet the farm on an extravaganza originally entitled The Concert Feature. Disney's intention was twofold. On the one hand he would use the power of animation to present Classical Music to the Masses. Get it out of the concert hall, into the movie palace, and dress it up to make it more approachable. But also, showcase the powers of this new medium - one in which Disney had a considerable investment, both in time and imaginative effort and in money - in a way that had never been done before.

Disney secured the collaboration of Leopold Stokowski, the best-known conductor of the day (who had already been parodied in a cartoon or two) and devoted the full resources of his studio to the effort. The film premiered in late 1940 under a new name, Fantasia, and received mixed critical notices. Music critics were offended, film critics didn't quite know what to think, though some liked it. The public, for the most part, did not. The film was a financial failure, though it finally managed to break-even in the late 1960s, after Disney had died.

Fantasia is highly regarded among students of animation and has sold well in videotape and DVD. I have little sense of where it stands among more general arbiters of culture. I'm convinced it is a masterpiece. But a masterpiece of what?

Encyclopedic Forms

In 1976 Edward Mendelson published an article on “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon” (MLN 91, 1267-1275). It was an attempt to define a genre whose members include Dante's Divine Comedy, Rablais', Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Melville's Moby Dick, Joyce's Ulysses, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Somewhat later Franco Moretti was thinking about “monuments,” “sacred texts,” “world texts,” texts he wrote about in Modern Epic (Verso 1996). He came upon Mendelson's article, saw a kinship with his project, and so added Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung's (note, a musical as well as a narrative work), Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a few others to the list. It is in this company that I propose to place Fantasia.

On the face of it, the idea is absurd. For one thing, the works Mendelson and Moretti discuss are securely ensconced in the Western Canon of High Art, Fantasia is a cartoon. Perhaps it occupies a significant place in popular art of the 20th century, but how could it possibly be anything more?

I'm not sure what kind of consideration this is. But I'm just going to ignore it.

The fact that Fantasia is not even a narrative - it tells no connected story from beginning to end - is a more serious matter. If genres are to be defined by intrinsic characteristics, then Fantasia fails. In a footnote Mendelson indicates that Frye discusses various encyclopedic forms in his Anatomy of Criticism, namely Menippean satire and anatomy. But Fantasia doesn't fit there either. Perhaps it is sui generis.

What is important to me is simply the encyclopedic scope of these various works. All of them seek to encompass the entire world as it was known at the time.

So does Fantasia. In the brief compass of two hours Fantasia traverses an astonishing range of . . . of what? “Human experience” would be a good phrase here, but one major segment, The Rite of Spring, concerns things which no human being could possibly have experienced. Human experience, yes. But more generally, the world.

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A Cosmos

Here is a brief sketch of how Fantasia maps the world. Note that each segment, except for the last, is preceded by a brief onscreen introduction by Deems Taylor, a well-known music critic.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: The opening toccata displays the performing musicians as shadows and silhouettes in variously colored light. The following features imagery that is either fully abstract or that represents various things totally out of context, e.g. violin bows moving among clouds, gothic arches. Taylor asks us to think of these images as “oh, just masses of color, or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space.” This is a subjective and undifferentiated world of “thing-free qualities,” to borrow a phrase from Reuven Tsur.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Nutcracker Suite: Six pieces, each fully representational, each presenting some aspect of the natural world, but in small compass. The virtual field of view is, say, a foot or two wide at the focal plane. Individual leaves, flowers, sprigs, spider webs, goldfish, snowflakes, and so forth loom large on the screen. The first and last pieces show faeries causing change in Nature (the transition from night to day, the procession of the seasons), while the second, third, and fifth show dancing plants; goldfish in the fourth piece seduce us with their sinuous movements and large eyes that look at us. This is an animist microcosm.

Paul Dukas - The Sorcerer's Apprentice: We are in the human world, but in it's uncanny aspect of magic and dreams. The episode takes place in the residence of a sorcerer and his apprentice (played by Mickey Mouse). Both work magic, but Mickey's gets out of control. The sorcerer restores order using gestures that bespeak of Moses-parting-the-seas. In the middle of the segment Mickey falls asleep and in his dream has the forces of nature fully at his command. In his gestures of command, the dream-Mickey parodies Stokowski; the dreams themselves foreshadow the next segment.

Igor Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring: Here we experience 100s of millions of years of life on earth. Disney begins with an initial zoom from outside the galaxy to the earth's surface, traversing 100s of millions of miles of space. But we also see single-celled life in the early seas. And pterodactyls, all manner of terrestrial dinosaurs, a fight between a T. Rex and a Stegosaurus, violent cataclysms and storms. This may well be the first time anyone has attempted such a visualization, the origin of and evolutionary development of life. It is a naturalist macrocosm.

Intermission: Two things happen in the intermission. There is an onstage jam session that takes off on a line from the up-coming Beethoven symphony. This is followed by a segment where Deems Taylor introduces the sound track. On screen we see a vertical line wiggling and jumping. When various instruments play, the line transforms into a visual “signature” of each instrument's timbre.

Ludwig van Beethoven - 6th symphony in F, the Pastorale: The least successful visualization, this segment is a polychrome day in the life of fauns, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, winged horses, and a gods (Bachus, Zeus, Neptune) acting out domestic scenes. We see parents with children, courting couples, and lots of festive dancing. It is a world of domestic affairs.

Amilcare Ponchielli - Dance of the Hours: Disney presents a ballet performed by elephants, ostriches, hippos and alligators. At least one scene, featuring Hyacinth Hippo, parodies a Balanchine-choreographed sequence that had appeared in a recent movie: a ballerina rising up through a fountain. The entire piece is a parody of artistic aspirations in which the animals are not fully contained within their artistic roles.

Modest Mussorgsky - Night on Bald Mountain: The devil Chernobog summons his followers - ghosts, spirits, and demons of all kinds - on Walpurgis Night. Twisted dancing amid hell fires; hallucinogenic transformations; quick glimpses of naked breasts - this is the most fevered segment in the movie. Evil and perversion.

Franz Schubert - Ave Maria: By contrast, the final segment is almost static. The only foreground animation depicts a column of robed religious walking through the forest in early morning carrying lighted candles. Otherwise the segment is a long pan-and-zoom through the forest ending on a sunrise (reminiscent of images from the Bach and the Beethoven). The overall mood is one of reverence.

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No matter how you count it up, that is an astonishing range of phenomena. Is it everything? No, of course not. Everything is not possible. But it is an indicative sample: the very large, the very small, subjective, objective, fractions of seconds, eons, seasons, birth death play mating, awe, anguish, desire. The encyclopedic uses synecdoche, as Mendelson noted. Everything that Disney shows us implies much that he doesn't. The range of implication compressed into these two hours is vast.

Not only that, but the film employs several different animation styles, perhaps not enough to constitute an anatomy of animation as it existed then, but enough to demonstrate an open-ended range of possibilities. Beyond animation style, we have, more generally, the film's wide range of graphic influences. Robin Allen (Walt Disney in Europe) has documented a wide range of European influences while Kendall O'Conner, an art director on the Dance of the Hours segment, asserted African and Japanese influences (quoted in John Culhane, Walt Disney's Fantasia, pp. 168, 170).

Extrinsic Considerations

So far I have discussed intrinsic matters, themes and styles. But Mendelson and Moretti mention extrinsic matters as well, and these speak to the larger issue of social and cultural forces at play through the work. These works tend to be singular, originating without precedent and inspiring few or no progeny. Fantasia has not inspired successful imitators. The Disney studio's own Fantasia 2000, championed by Walt's nephew, Roy, lacks the encyclopedic scope of the original as does Allegro non troppo, a 1977 film by Bruno Bozetto.

One other characteristic looms large in Mendelson's formulation. These works are identified with particular national cultures and arise were these nations become aware of themselves as distinct entities. This creates a problem for his nomination of Gravity's Rainbow as an encyclopedic work because Moby Dick already has the encyclopedic slot in American letters. He deals with the problem by suggesting that Pynchon is “the encyclopedist of the newly-forming international culture whose character his book explicitly labors to identify” (pp. 1271-1272).

Fantasia presents the same problem, for, like Moby Dick before and Gravity's Rainbow after, it is nominally an American work. But there is no specifically American reference in the film. None of the music is American, none of the segments are set in America nor refer to American history or culture. It is not, in any ordinary sense, a nationalist work, an expression of national identity. Rather, it is an expression of a naïve middle-brow universalism, unaware of the cultural specificities on which it depends.

It is by no means obvious to me, however, that that prevents Fantasia from participating in that “newly-forming international culture” for which Mendelson makes Pynchon the spokesman. Or, if not exactly that international culture, then perhaps a different international culture. Or, perhaps, Disney's mode of participation was different as well. While Fantasia is very aware of itself as artifact, e.g. the soundtrack segment, it betrays no hint of self-consciousness about its cultural provenance. In that respect it is not like Gravity's Rainbow.

But, Disney's reach was international by the time Fantasia was made. The cartoons, comic books, and branded goods circulated internationally long before the theme parks. Disney counted on international distribution to cover his enormous production costs. Despite World War II, Fantasia was released in both Latin America and Europe before the war's end, though it did not reach Japan until 1955.

I wish to suggest then, that with all its flaws and limitations, Fantasia takes a place in a fundamentally international flow of cultural expression. To move beyond mere suggestion, however, is more than I can do at this time. On the one hand it would require an examination of the international circulation of film technology and titles throughout the 20th century. This leads us, in turn, to the international circulation of animation that has been emanating from Japan during the last three or four decades. Influenced by Disney in that the studio's influence has been pervasive, the Japanese wave of film production is grounded in local circumstances that do not confine animation to children and families, as has been the case in America since WWII.

At the same time we need to examine of Disney, Inc., which certainly is an international phenomenon. The interested reader should consult the fascinating essays in Dazzled by Disney? The Global Disney Audiences Project. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Disney's global reach as a simple matter of middle-brow American cultural hegemony.

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A Magnificent Monster

Finally, there is the music itself. None of it originated from within Disney's studio. All of the pieces are from The Classics, though some, the Beethoven and the Stravinsky, are more important than others, e.g. the Dukas and the Ponchielli. The Beethoven and the Stravinsky were significantly altered, a source of considerable consternation to some music critics. To the extent that the purpose of the film is to present The Classics to the Masses, such alteration is a problem.

I take a different view. Whatever this film is, it is not a good vehicle for music appreciation. Thus I am not bothered by the violence Disney committed on the Beethoven and the Stravinsky to bend them to the requirements of his film. As for his intention to educate the people in the Classics, Disney simply did not know what he was doing.

But the film's dependence on the music does raise thorny questions about just what sort of beast it is. First, let me reiterate that the film does depend on the music. However magnificent the animation is, whatever the encyclopedic implications of Disney's choice of subjects, the film would not be convincing without the music, which supplies Dionysian life to the Apollonian visual forms. Second, the music does not itself contribute to the film's encyclopedic range. Most of the music is from one relatively narrow range, Romanticism, of one musical tradition.

This music is from a high cultural tradition while animation has, for the most part, functioned in popular culture. That is to say, the music is Art, while the images are Entertainment. How then, are we to construe this film? Art or entertainment, both or neither?

I am not, on the whole, inclined to dismiss that distinction as nothing more than an expression of class conflict and social dominance, though it is that. I believe that there is intrinsic substance to the distinction, though it needs to be recast in very different terms. In any event, the distinction was very real to Disney and his audience, and he made Fantasia, in part, to cope with that difference.

And I say “cope” in deliberate preference to alternatives such as “transcend” or “dissolve.” Fantasia neither transcends nor dissolves the distinctions between art and entertainment, imagination and commerce, class and mass. A magnificent mongrel, Fantasia is an act of inspired and radical bricolage.

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Secular and Sacred

And no more inspired than in Disney's desire to yoke the sacred and the secular together into a single expressive work.

When, several years ago, I first began to study this film, I found the final segment, set to Schubert's Ave Maria, to be sentimental and embarrassing. The vocal performance, with lyrics commissioned by Disney, and a lush arrangement, seemed the stuff of easy-listening music. And the animation, the animation went on and on and on. It was very pretty, and pretty boring.

But I studied it, and have learned to see it, perhaps more as Disney himself wanted it to be seen. Consider this statement from a recent appreciation by Michael Koresky:
If it's the enormousness of Fantasia that still reverberates to this day, then it's the film's beatific final statement that still manages to surprise. In the end, the flurry of images, of clumsy hippo ballerinas, of soaring, multicolored pegasuses, of swirls of glittering fairies and dancing demons drifting and gliding to Tchaikovsky, Bach, and Beethoven, suddenly stops, the tone hushes and becomes contemplative. Fantasia closes on a note of spiritual elation that, both by the sheer audacity of its form and the unadulterated religious surety of its concept, would be nearly unthinkable today.
Perhaps Koresky's statement is overwrought, but not by much. The slow, rock-steady movement of the (virtual) camera stands in radical contrast to the hyperkinetic motion of the preceding segment and, indeed, in contrast to most animation. For animation is about movement, about gags and routines. What Disney had his staff do, then, was against the grain of what he had devoted most of his professional life to. It was an act of austerity.

In his introduction, Deems Taylor had contrasted this episode with its predecessor - The Night on Bald Mountain - as the sacred to the profane. That is a measure of the Disney's naiveté, for that previous segment is more properly the demonic, and we know the demonic and the sacred to be two aspects of the same realm. The film itself is a more devious instrument, with the Ave Maria getting its energy through working against the Walpurgis Night.

Beyond this, as Koresky has noted, the concluding invocation of the sacred stands in contrast to the unremitting secular Darwinism of The Right of Spring, which concludes the first half of the film. Here we should note that, while Disney had originally intended to extend the evolutionary sequence up to the origins of humankind, fear of a creationist boycott led him to stop with the demise of the dinosaurs (Culhane, p. 126).* Thus we have both Disney as the progressive man of science and Disney as a “Congregationalist who believed strongly that his financial and visionary successes in life were greatly tied to prayer and belief in God” (Koresky). This Disney led a group of artists and craftsmen through the creation of a film, this Fantasia, that gave form and substance to a cosmology that is modern in its devotion to science, ancient in its fear of demons, and fragile in its faith in the imagination.

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*Michael Barrier, one of our premier Disney historians, has informed me that Culhane is mistaken in this.


  1. This is one of the more insightful pieces I've read on the film, not praise I offer lightly. It's particularly compelling to me because I just watched Fantasia again less than 24 hours ago - while this was once my favorite Disney, it has slipped a bit in my estimation, due to the unevenness between the sequences and the fact that the visuals seem to so thoroughly to overpower the music.

    For a while the Rite of Spring (originally my favorite piece as a kid, since I loved dinosaurs) seemed one of the weaker patches, losing the vital paganism of Stravinsky's music and sacrificing art to (sometimes incorrect) science. This time I found it fascinating, powerful, and the most unsentimental thing the studio ever did.

    Something else which occurred to me on this viewing - the film is immensely cyclical, with almost every sequence depending on the transition of time - even the supposedly abstract Bach moves towards a ray of light descending from the sky, while Tchaikovsky, the Beethoven, the (meanwhile, the Tchaikovsky moves through the seasons, while the Beethoven, the Ponchielli, and the Mussorgsky/Schubert explicitly move through the course of a day, either sunrise to sunset or sunset to sunrise (the Beethoven also moves through several cycles of weather). The Stravinsky of course moves through the rise and fall of life on a macro-scale. Only the Dukas lacks such a timestamp, though I suppose you could note it moves through a slee-cycle. I suppose this is all down to the structure of the music itself, but it's fascinating nonetheless.

    Anyway, what I like about your piece is that it's a step towards thinking of Fantasia as a whole, rather than just a collection of parts - I've a mind that likes to synthesize, so I appreciate the effort even as I suspect that much of this consists of what we bring to the film more than what it brings to us. At any rate, it's a line of thought I'd like to pursue.

  2. I'm glad you liked the piece.

    Yes, the film is VERY uneven, and the cuteness is sometimes almost more than I can take. But there's nothing else like it.

    On cyclicity, check out my piece on ring forms in Nutcracker and Sorcerer's:

    And here I discuss music and evolution in Rite:

  3. Very pleasing to read.

    I inserted Disney awkwardly into a different list of things. The identity issues raised are familiar although I am more familiar with the questions looking at a form of goose and its relationship with particular environments.