Friday, November 11, 2011

Domestic Tranquility, NOT: Disney’s Pastoral

Pastoral 29 mountain (beginning)

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:

Pastoral 1 fawn playing 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:

Pastoral breakfast

Pastoral 2 Pegasus and child

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:

Pastoral spiral1

Pastoral spiral2

Pastoral spiral3

Pastoral spiral4

Pastoral spiral5

Pastoral spiral6

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:

Pastoral 5 dove hat

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:

Pastoral 6 Tush

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:

Pastoral 7 Bacchus enters

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:

Pastoral 8 the dance

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:

Pastoral 9 kiss the donkey

Pastoral 10 the storm

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):

Pastoral 18 sound the horn

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:

Pastoral 12 thunderbolt

Here he chases Bacchus and his donkey across a field:

Pastoral 13 thunderbolt2

At this point they’ve taken refuge behind a tree, which Zeus zaps:

Pastoral 14 thunderbolt3

And all the creatures come running out from behind that tree:

Pastoral 16 thunderbolt4 scatter2

We follow various creatures here and there before once again joining Bacchus, who seeks refuge under the wine-making vat. Which promptly gets zapped:

Pastoral under the vat

Pastoral 19 got em!

Pastoral 20 got the wine

The grape juice spills from the vat, floods the land, and Bacchus ends up playing in a puddle of grape juice. He’s OK:

Pastoral 21 swimming in it

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:

Pastoral 27 Diana

Pastoral 28 mountain

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:

Abou 1 he and she

Abou 2 he and camel

Abou 3 he and she

Abou 4 he and camel

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:

Pastoral 24 rainbow play

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:

Pastoral apple 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.


  1. Weird. Just start writing something I have been putting off doing for a couple of years.

    Some motifs concerning the ape which form in part from the sexual and bestial nature of Fauni and Satiri and their association with Apes.

    Key features of mine are bestiality, rape and child murder, dysfunctional family life.

    "After that, what happens?"

    "Loves promises have been cleansed by the waters of forgetfullness. What is it not to love?"

    A possible outcome to that question from 1610 a.d.

    Disney is about the last place I would expect to see anything even remotely related.

    What a surprise!

  2. Interesting beasts you've got there, Jeb.

    And, yes, Disney is full of surprises. This episode sure surprised me, and most of the real surprises didn't come until I began taking screen shots, which is the last thing I do before actually writing. Now, before I did that I'd watched this episode maybe 10 or more times, so it's not as though I wasn't familiar with it. But taking screen shots really forces you to pay greater attention.

    And that's when I realized that Bacchus was actually kissing his donkey. It's not as though I hadn't noticed it before. I no likely did. But I didn't actually think about it, register it in my mind. Now it registered.

    And then, when stepping through the storm, all of a sudden I realized that HEY! Zeus is throwing those thunder bolts AT Bacchus. It's not that he's tossing them here and there and Bacchus happens to get in the way of a few. He's aiming them at Bacchus. So Disney's sure telegraphing something there. And then Bacchus hides under the vat, and it gets struck: Zap! Kabloom! Splash! Couldn't miss that, or Bacchus and his donkey's subsequent affectionate play.

    Paying attention DOES have its rewards.

  3. Its a wonderful piece of observation. Has made me pause and think and given me something to watch for particularly in relation to humour.

    Speculating on possible relationships, loss of due social status is a central re-occurring theme in what I look at. It's certainly a subject ripe with comic potential.

    Thanks, a fantastic post!

  4. Speculating on possible relationships, loss of due social status is a central re-occurring theme in what I look at. It's certainly a subject ripe with comic potential.

    Hmmmm . . . You ought to read Northrup Frye on comedy. Check out his stuff on comedy in Anatomy of Criticism (1957). It's in the Third Essay. Archtypal Criticism: Theory of Myths, specifically, The Mythos of Spring: Comedy (pp. 163 ff. in my edition). It's classic material and basic. There's a complete text online somewhere; just google the title and you'll find it. Also, C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festival Comedy. It's probably more your style than the Frye as it's loaded with archival detail.

  5. Even though the fat guy is called Bacchus in Fantasia, he's really Silenus.

    'The original Silenus resembled a folklore man of the forest with the ears of a horse and sometimes also the tail and legs of a horse. The later Sileni were drunken followers of Dionysus, usually ***bald and fat with thick lips and squat noses, and having the legs of a human***. Later still, the plural "Sileni" went out of use and the only references were to one individual named Silenus, the teacher and faithful companion of the wine-god Dionysus. A notorious consumer of wine, he was usually drunk and had to be supported by satyrs or ***carried by a donkey.***'

    And the fat old guy chasing beautiful and much younger women and unexpectedly winding up with someone much less appealing is a stock comedy situation.

    As for the supposed sexual connotations of the wine vat explosion, if you go with that, it's much more obvious that Silenus is being punished for bestiality (kissing the donkey). But sometimes a gag is just a gag.

    It's unfortunate you went with a rather far-fetched and truly hackneyed Freudian interpretation and missed the obvious Bacchus/Silenus mistake.

  6. And the fat old guy chasing beautiful and much younger women and unexpectedly winding up with someone much less appealing is a stock comedy situation.


    It's unfortunate you went with a rather far-fetched and truly hackneyed Freudian interpretation and missed the obvious Bacchus/Silenus mistake.

    Changing the creature's name merely changes the name. What happens is still what happens.

  7. Name changes can yield important information. When a creature like a feral or wild child for example is sighted and then captured its an activity that all social class participate in and come to some form of consensus about. But they will seek to maintain a sense of difference in repetition and names are one indication of this social activity which allows differences to made in repetition.

    But I don't think its a hanging offence this is a blog post. To suggest it is simply a mistake made by the script team. It may well be but unwise to assume. I don't expect to see fully formed ideas in posts or comments. Mine certainly never are and I see no indication that that I am unusual in this regard.

    "But sometimes a gag is just a gag."

    When they cluster around groups of other motifs in a particular form its a useful means of identifying both the historical and geographical range. Meaning is irrelevant its the repetition.

    These type of motifs have a significant and complex history. They occur in the U.S. in particularly interesting forms, which as far as I am aware have yet to be subject to detailed investigation. They are oral as much as literary but I suspect from you're remarks you are thinking only of literature here Anonymous, although I may be wrong but the gag remark is a somewhat rigid statement of the obvious.

    I have no idea what the exact relationships or non-relationship between these motifs are in the States but no one else does either.

    "Hackneyed Freudian interpretation." I think the bestiality punishment is more secure than the other interpretation, I dislike Freudian interpenetration.

    I don't however have any idea what Walt or the script writers perspective was on Freud so I would not run with that until I did. Danger of presentism.

    I don't see anything unfortunate in any statement here.

    Learning. It's a messy activity but unexpected observations like this post make it worthwhile and more interesting.

  8. 1) FWIW I ran Anonymous’s comment by Mike Barrier, who’s perhaps our premier animation historian, who’s written a biography of Disney, and who’s been in the Disney archives. He agrees that the Silenus observation is telling, as do I, but has nothing in his Disney notes about it. It is, of course, possible that Disney’s team just accidentally reconceptualized Bacchus in the direction of Silenus. But it’s also possible that, in the process of researching this episode—and I’m inclined to think that they DID research it, because that’s how Disney did things—they encountered Silenus and decided that HE was what they were after, more so than Bacchus.

    Now whether they decided to conflate the two, or simply go with Silenus under B’s name, or something else, we don’t, at the moment know. And maybe we’ll never know. But Disney kept meticulous records of meetings at that time so it’s possible that, if the issue were discussed in a meeting with Walt—who micromanaged everything about this film—that there is a record of it in the archives. Whether anyone with the appropriate sophistication will ever get to examine those archives, that’s another matter.

    2) As a practical matter, whatever names the Disney team put on their model sheets—where the name IS Bacchus (Culhane reproduces some in his book on Fantasia)—there are no names spoken or written on screen. People who saw the original run would have gotten a program that named Bacchus as the culprit, and Deems Taylor mentions Bacchus in his introduction. But, Fantasia has been shown in versions without Taylor (he wasn’t there when I saw the film in 1969).

    As I said before, what happens on screen is what happens on screen.

    3) As for Freudian interpretation, the nature of psychoanalytic theory and practice is such that whether or not Walt Disney, or his team, knew or adhered to psychoanalytic ideas is irrelevant. Beyond that, well, I’ll say more about this in a later post. Perhaps the one where I discuss oral imagery, or perhaps the one after that. I’m not sure which at this point. I’ll have to write them to find out.

    4) And, yes, I’m pretty much making this up as I go along, so I DO appreciate comments. I’m playing around with ideas. The play is serious, but it is also play. The only way to arrive at serious ideas about art—and Fantasia IS art—is to try things out and see how they fit. Sometimes the ideas work, sometimes they don’t. No way to find out unless you give them a try.

    Yes, learning IS messy.

  9. "adhered to psychoanalytic ideas is irrelevant"

    Take the point. For me it is useful and relevant though. Psychoanalytical theory for me is not relevant it's not my subject and outside my corner of the pond. Like science and philosophy, when it impacts directly on my sources I can't ignore it and have to take notice as it is no longer an outside subject but central to understanding specific context.

    These are intensely interdisciplinary subjects and what we look for is shaped by different cultural perspectives and notions of value. Broad and diverse inflection range is helpful in this regard.

    How do you inflect to maintain the interest of a diverse audience? Age old performance issue resolved by experiment.

  10. Note the addendum above, two more posts on this episode, and two more planned.

  11. Sorry. I go on. This subject or an outside distant relative has caused me headaches for years. Its central to establishing a direct clear narrative link from wild man to ape. I have a million and one questions and issues to resolve.

    I was also thinking about how Walt was dealing with the audience question maintaining the interest of child/adult and the uses of morality.

    Chapter 23: On Curious Plants

    The Consumption of Female Form: A Translation

    As an archival slave, the name change I find potential interesting. It places more emphasis on consumption in this case wine. Blinded by the grape, Its the wine vat that is hit as a substitute. If it has a moral message concerning the use and abuse of booze it may also have some ambiguity with regard to male sexuality and behaviour. Legal texts have an influence on the historical development, would come as no surprise to see the ghost of legal excuses and moral exemptions making this one more attractive for consumption.

    At least that's my initial bias and start position.

  12. On keeping the interest of adults and children, it’s not clear to me that that would have been explicit issue at the time. Cartoons didn’t become fare fundamentally for children and secondarily for families (you know, “kids of all ages”) until after WWII. Disney was making films for the general movie audience, which wasn’t strongly segmented into children vs. adults. That was the audience for the cartoon shorts.

    Now, when Disney did Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs we WAS worried whether or not anyone would take a cartoon seriously as a feature. But I don’t think he was worried in particular about adults, assuming kids would eat it up. He was just plain worried, because it had never been done before.

    Similarly, Fantasia was made for the general movie-going audience, an audience that, incidentally, needed to be educated in the musical classics. And Walt was happy to provide that introduction while, at the same time, strutting his animation chops as they’d never been strutted before.

    If you consider the whole film, it’s not a particularly kid-oriented film. Most of the episodes don’t have plots; this one certainly doesn’t, not really. Except for the Mickey Mouse one, they’re all strings of vignettes of one sort or another. Disney did have to worry about censorship, hence the garlands covering the breasts of the centaurettes, hences, also, decided to forget about extending Rite of Spring to the evolution of humankind. He didn’t want to have fundamentalist Christians breathing down his neck.

    That wine vat is mighty interesting. I’ve given it a sexual interpretation in this post. But I’ve given it an oral reading in the post I’ve just put up:

    I don’t see these as exclusive, not at all. What I think is Disney’s tossed everything but the kitchen sink into this episode.

  13. I don't know the film so coming at it utterly ignorant on that score (and with the weight of a great deal of textual history that can be as much a stumbling block as a help at an early stage).

    I attack texts as I learnt to do as a performer you seek out a full inflection range and explore the full register. That will go well beyond what was original intended by the writer. Its not the writer that is sat in front of you each night. or hopefully not bad enough if the director shows up, both together is often somewhat restrictive.

    Single answers or rigid unchanging and unyielding inflection simply will not fly you will die a slow death in full public view.

  14. G.B. Shaw in his role as ring master wrote phonetic scripts in an attempt to control this phenomena. If the electric cattle prod had been around I am sure he would have deployed one to ensure the 'cattle' (in-house term for actor) remembered their correct position on the stage.