I’ve saved the most troublesome for last, Disney’s setting of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It was soundly criticized upon initial release, mostly, or especially, for Disney’s use and reworking of Beethoven. THAT doesn’t bother me at all. That kind of artistic license is pretty much the price of admission for Fantasia. No, what bothers me is the cuteness, but secondarily the palette. Both are obvious enough, but it’s the cuteness I want to grapple with.
For THAT is one of the central criticisms of the Disney aesthetic, it’s too cute. This is certainly not the only episode in Fantasia where cuteness rears its ugly head. Yet it’s not bothersome in the dancing mushrooms, and it’s easily set aside in the goldfish and the baby dinosaurs. But it’s front and center in the Pastoral.
Moreover, the Pastoral is in the heart of Disney’s imaginative world, for it’s about family life. The first segment shows us a family of winged horses—inspired by Pegasus—mother, father, and children. One of the children takes its first flight before our wonderstruck eyes. Then see the little ones at play and the whole family parading majestically across the sky. That’s the heart of Disney country. And its followed by courtship, a rousing party, a storm that drives adults to protect children and males to protect females, and then the storm breaks, out comes the sun. Everyone’s happy. The sun sets. Bedtime.
Why all the treacle, in the character designs, in the actions, and in the palate?
Let’s work our way through it.
A Day in the Life
The segment opens with a shot of Mount Olympus, and it will end there as well. We see bright fields with scampering unicorns and fauns. One of the fauns plays the pan pipes:
Here Disney does something he doesn’t do anywhere else in the film. The faun’s playing matches a part in the symphony, as though that particular bit of music were being played by the faun. This will happen a half dozen or so time throughout the segment. It has the effect of bringing the music into the action rather than having it being, well, an accompaniment to it.
Whether or not this is an incidental feature of this segment or it is somehow organically linked to Disney’s purpose is not clear to me, though I’ve not been able to come up with a rationale for such linkage. The mere fact that it happens, however, is sufficient to justify mentioning it.
After a bit more romping we see the winged horses and, in particular, a mother and child. First we see the child suckling, then it stands:
This child will take its first flight—at least, it is logical to assume that it is its first flight. That involves a number of gags, but, once the little nipper gets going he joins the family in parading across the sky. They land in the water and, as they’re swimming, we get perhaps the loveliest sequence in this episode. A whole herd of flying horses spirals across the sky and lands in the water:
The effect of the reflections moving on the surface of the water is marvelous. Of course they move in parallel to the horses themselves, but they also cut through the family that is already in the water, playing around.
This segment gives way to the second movement, which depicts the courtship of centaurs and centaurettes, aided and abetted by dozens of cute cherubs. The centaurs are awkwardly designed and stiffly animated. The centaurettes fare rather better and John Culhane is right to praise their facial expressiveness (Walt Disney’s Fantasia p. 141). One of the loveliest moments occurs when one of the cherubs positions a dove’s wing so as to form a hat for a coy centaurette:
And perhaps the worst moment in the episode comes at the end of this segment, after three cherubs have successfully introduced a lonely centaur and a lonely centaurette to one another. The three of them draw a curtain over the scene, but one lingers on, peeking through the curtain to observe the scene. Here we see his every so cute little bottom:
In a few frames that will morph into a heart. So cute and adorable.
Now we get to the heart of the episode, the middle segment, the Bacchanal. It opens with fauns, centaurs, and centaurettes bringing grapes to a large wooden vat and the fauns dancing on the grapes while gleefully playing their pipes—as though they were the source of soundtrack music. Then Bacchus enters, flanked by centaurettes, attended by fauns, beneath a canopy held up by cherubs, and riding a donkey that’s considerably smaller than he is:
After this bit of business and that, the dancing begins, centaurs, centaurettes, and Bacchus himself, the randy old goat. Well, not a goat, but obviously randy, he dances with a number of centaurettes, one after another:
But Bacchus is thoroughly drunk and can’t stay on his feet. So he ends up sitting on the ground, not merely embracing, but kissing—no, not a centaurette—his donkey! What next? Well, what next is that a cloud looms over the scene:
The sky darkens and rain begins to fall, a fierce rain. Everyone scurries for cover. Fauns, unicorns, centaurs and centaurettes, and flying horses—there’s a sense of real danger and distress. Thus a centaurette rescues a young unicorn stranded on a rock in the river; the cherubs huddle fearfully inside a temple; and a centaur sounds the alarm (yet another of those moments where the music emanates from onscreen action):
But the real action in this sequence comes from Zeus, who hurls thunderbolts down to earth. He doesn’t aim them just anywhere. He aims them at Bacchus:
Here he chases Bacchus and his donkey across a field:
At this point they’ve taken refuge behind a tree, which Zeus zaps:
And all the creatures come running out from behind that tree:
We follow various creatures here and there before once again joining Bacchus, who seeks refuge under the wine-making vat. Which promptly gets zapped:
The grape juice spills from the vat, floods the land, and Bacchus ends up playing in a puddle of grape juice. He’s OK:
At this point Zeus looses interest and indicates that Vulcan should stop forging lightening bolts. Which he does. Zeus falls asleep. The storm is over.
[Note: Yes, I know that “Zeus” is a Greek name and “Vulcan” and “Bacchus” are Roman. But those are the names Disney’s team gave to these creatures.]
There’s no climax at all. Or, rather, the bursting of the vat and the flowing of wine, THAT was the climax. We’re now into the denouement.
Which is utterly uneventful, but lovely here and there. The sun comes out, everyone’s happy, night descends, everyone goes to sleep, and we end with another shot of Mount Olympus:
What Just Happened?
First, as I indicated at the beginning, this episode is about domestic life. First, parents and children, represented by the flying horses. Then we have courtship between centaurs and centaurettes, which is followed by the Bacchanal, then the storm, and, at last, happy good night for everyone.
We have five segments, with the Bacchanal in the middle. The action’s in the Bacchanal and in that storm. Why did Zeus specifically target Bacchus, that rotund randy fellow who ended up kissing a donkey?
Let’s set-aside all the cuteness, and especially the depiction of Bacchus—I have a vague memory that one reviewer termed him “Bacchus in diapers” but I can provide no citation—and think of this as, well, as myth. Bacchus is the Roman version of the Greek Dionysus, who was the son of Zeus (the guy hurling the thunder bolts). Bacchus/Dionysus are associated with wild passionate rites where anything goes, and that most certainly includes sex. If those centaurettes were sexy women and Bacchus were a virile young man we’d have no trouble believing that there were sexually interested in one another and that, given a suitable opportunity, they’d have sex.
But they’re not. Well, the centaurette IS sexy, in a centaurette kind of way, and we’ve just had a segment where centaurs and centaurettes were courting, and you know what THAT leads to, don’t you? So, yes, she’s sexy, but since she’s a centaurette we don’t have to take her sexuality seriously. As for Bacchus, he’s an obese old man. The idea of him have a sexual relationship with a nubile young woman, well, that’s JUST disgusting. Which is the point. It’s so disgusting that THAT cannot possibly be what’s going on there on the dance ground, even though he dances with centaurette after centaurette and one even beckons to him. No, it’s not happening.
Except that it very obviously is. That the women aren’t human and the man is old and fat. That’s all camouflage, plausible deniability; in psychoanalytic talk, it’s defense. And the big defense is when the drunken Bacchus ends up kissing his donkey. How silly. How very silly. No sex there.
Well, a couple of years later, 1944, Walter Lantz made a cartoon called Abou Ben Boogie, a companion to The Greatest Man in Siam. The singer in Abou Ben Boogie is modeled on the same character as the sexy daughter in Greatest, and she’s wooed by a strapping young man. One of the running gags is that the sexy singer gets swapped for a camel while the young man doesn’t know it. Here we see two versions, the second coming from the end of the cartoon:
There’s no doubt that there’s a sexual interaction between Abou Ben Boogie and the singer. But there are, of course, limits to what can be depicted on screen. There are limits to how far you can go, as it were. But, if you are clever, you can go further, or at least gesture toward what’s next along the line, by substituting. So, you swap out the woman and swap in a camel. The juxtaposition is so absurd that it effectively disguises what’s really going on. Which is that Ben Boogie and the lady are making the beast with the two backs.
And so it is in the bacchanal sequence with Bachus and the centaurettes. Except that his donkey has been substituted for a centaurette. He can embrace and kiss the donkey and no one’s sensibilities are offended. It’s a good gag, just a good gag.
But obviously someone’s sensibilities WERE offended. Because that’s when the sky clouds over, just as Bacchus and his donkey were getting down to business. And, as we’ve seen, it’s Bacchus who’s the target of those thunder bolts. That storm isn’t just any storm. It’s a storm about him, and his actions, and their implications. The storm ends those Bacchanalian revels, it ends the license, it ends the fun. THAT’s why Zeus took aim at Bacchus. The old killjoy in the sky wanted to restore order.
But what ends the storm? The destruction of the grape vat, that’s what. And it’s the wine of the grape that’s the agent of all that licentiousness, no? And Bacchus presides over that, no?
Now, and here we’re swinging for the rafters, doesn’t sexual intercourse usually end in an explosion of fluid, and isn’t that what we get when the vat, under which Bacchus is hiding, gets zapped? After that, what happens? Relaxation and sleep maybe? Bacchus and the donkey play around in a puddle of grape juice and Zeus goes to sleep.
It all fits. And it’s outrageous. But then, that’s how things go, isn’t it?
A couple more observations and we’re done.
Notice that we don’t see any winged horses in either the courtship segment or the bacchanal. Their segment is about parents and children, and about children learning how to move about in the world. Disney keeps that separate from courtship, in the second segment, and licentious revelry, in the thirds. That makes sense. But the horses do make a brief appearance in the storm sequence. A young one is having trouble flying and he’s retrieved by mother and taken back to the nest. The storm threatens all.
In the final sequence, when the sun comes out and then the night falls, all the creatures are on stage, including the winged horses. The youngsters are now frolicking in the sky, and with the cherubs, those cute creatures that fostered the romance that leads to sex that leads to babies:
Cherubs lead to babies, yes they do. Here they are, next to one another, but in such a way that the causal relationship is utterly obscure. Which is how art sometimes works.
To Cuteness, and Beyond?
Make no mistake, Disney’s Pastoral is plagued both with cuteness and with a garish color scheme. Yet, in standard Freudian fashion, the repressed keeps popping up. The sexuality that Disney, on behalf of middle America, repressed, it snuck in there anyhow. The vat exploded and all’s right with the world.
Yes, Disney DID sanitize his world, but we can go overboard with that charge. His Rite of Spring sequence ended in gruesome lingering deaths for those dinosaurs, a sobering experience to take into the lobby at intermission. He followed the Pastoral with Dance of the Hours. One can argue whether or not those animals are cute, but they sure had big eyes. More to the point, they had trouble keeping in role. They keeping losing touch with the roles they were supposed to be dancing and, instead, lapsed into, well, mere animals. Isn’t that what happens in a good rousing bacchanal? You get so drunk that you’ll even fail to attend to the difference between a person and a donkey.
And then we have Night on Bald Mountain, the other Fantasia episode framed by a mountain. That episode too has frenzied revelry at its center. But, where the revelry in the Pastoral is stopped by a dominating male figure, the Bald Mountain revelry is stoked by a dominating male figure, as though it were the Pastoral’s negative transformation.
And beyond this film there’s Dumbo. Yes, Dumbo is cute, and Disney plays him for all he’s worth. But the film takes a soberly cynical view of circus management and is straightforward in depicting the back-breaking physical labor required to run a circus.
Alas, Disney never did another film like Dumbo. That remained a world unexplored. Nor did he do another Fantasia, though his successors gave it a go with the inferior Fantasia 2000. For whatever reason he was never able to integrate these diverse aspects of human life into a single coherent aesthetic vision. What we get is fragmented and scattered. And, often enough, as it is in Fantasia, magnificent.
It’s a good thing you can’t bring an intellectual property suit against someone who ‘infringes’ on your intellectual property even before you created that property. If THAT were possible then no doubt St. Jobs would have sued Disney for infringing on his logo:
ADDENDUM: I've now got two more posts on this episode:
Pastoral 2: Color and Sound—with particular attention to playing in the raindbow at the end and some remarks on (all but) breaking "the fourth wall."
Pastoral 3: Come Dance with Me—over 20 frame grabs of the dance sequence, with light commentary, and, BTW, how'd that donkey get a horn in the middle of its head?
I'll be doing a fouth post, which will be about oral imagery and master, and then a fifth, about overall artistry.