Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rings in Disney's Fantasia

While I'm still buried in Gojira, I think it's useful to remember that there are a number of ring forms in Disney's Fantasia. Both (The Nutcracker Suite, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are rings. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a five-part narrative with the first and last segments focused on the Sorcerer, and second and fourth on his Apprentice, and the middle on a dream the Apprentice has. For what it's worth, that dream doesn't exist in the Goethe ballad that was Disney's immediate source of the story.

The Nutracker Suite isn't a narrative at all. As the name suggests, it's a suite. Disney chose six of the eight sections from Tchaikovsky's original suite and sets them in a small wooded pond. The first and sixth sections are about nature sprites or fairy's causing daily (first) and seasonal (sixth) changes in plant life. The second and fifth show dancing plants against a black background. The middle two segments (three and four) have acquatic settings. The third involves flower petals dancing on the surface of the stream while the fourth shows goldfish underneath the stream. It's the only segment involving animal life. What makes it particularly interesting is that a couple of the fish look directly at the audience and react to what they see–arguably the only place in the film that this happens.

The fact that this segment isn't a narrative is interesting to me precisely because it isn't a narrative. And yet one of those two central episodes is clearly marked as somehow important. That those fish look at us is no mere accident. But why did Disney do it? Why the ring form in a non-narrative setting? This suggests there is an aspect to ring form that isn't narrative in character. It's something else.

As if we didn't have enough to think about as it is.

And then there's the Pastoral Symphony, which is somewhere between The Sorcerer's Apprentice and The Nutcracker Suite in narrativity. It's not a disconnected set of episodes like The Nutcracker Suite. All of the events take place in the course of a single day and they are presented in order. At the very end all of the characters we've seen are gathered together in a group scence. But it doesn't really have the kind of (simple) plot structure we see in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, where there's a clear and obvious causal thread connecting the segments. Moreover, the moment the Apprentice puts on the Sorcerer's hat, he abuses his relationship with the Sorcerer and we in the audience know that. It isn't until the very end, when he sheepishly returns the hat, that that relationship is repaired. There isn't any comparable 'long-distance' connectivity in the Pastoral Symphony. But, as I said, there IS temporal continuity, which we don't have in The Nutcracker Suite.

So in these three examples of ring form in Fantasia which also have three different degrees of narrativity, from none, Nutcracker, to some, temporal connectivity in Pastoral, to a full plot in Sorcerer's.

And then we have the film as a whole, which may quality as well. There are distinct parallels in imagery between the first and last segments – light from above, gothic arches – and the central section, the intermission, has a distinctly "meta" character about it that warrants some serious thinking, more than I'm up to in this simple note.

When I put these three, or four, rings along side the other rings I've been investigating I come away with the impression of a small family of devices and appear together in various combinations. That's what interests me – what job does each device perform? How do they work together?

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