"Fantasia," Walt Disney's glorious monument to mid-century middlebrowism, is celebrating its 50th birthday. It opens once again at area theaters on Friday. No doubt dutiful, reverent, forward-thinking, nostalgic, self-improving parents will be hauling children to it by the Volvo load.
Hmmm, you say.
You know you are supposed to like "Fantasia" the way you are supposed to like "Tom Sawyer," or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or Bob Hope, or the recent PBS series about the Civil War -- cozy icons you're obliged to enjoy as if they stand for something higher.
"Fantasia" -- two hours of animation set to the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky and Schubert -- is an icon, all right. It has been endorsed by decades of scientists and educators. Probably Ralph Nader, the ghost of Lillian Hellman and the Kennedy School of Government would endorse it too, if you asked them -- all the best people. The problem being that icons tend to be disappointments, or bores, pallid homage to gentility.
The point is: Don't let that worry you.
"Fantasia" is still glorious. Better than ever, to my eyes. (I saw it in 1946, at the age of 5, when it was admired for improving young minds by exposing them to the great composers. I saw it again in 1969, when it was admired for reducing young minds to psychedelic rubble with its oh-wow interior world of color and form -- more about that in a moment.)
The history: Disney had married tawdry Hollywood technology to vulgar newspaper entertainment in the 1920s. In the late '30s, he wanted to take the animated cartoon children of that match and marry them up, up, up in class. Give them respectability! And what had more respectability, what stood more for the upper classes and high culture, than classical music?
According to John Culhane in "Walt Disney's 'Fantasia,' " Disney "had vowed, when he was snubbed as a mere 'cartoon-maker' 17 years before, that his animated productions would someday be treated to the same kind of gala premieres accorded live-action films."
In 1937, at Chasen's restaurant, he met Leopold Stokowski, who was conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and one of America's great self-publicists and crowd pleasers in 20th-century classical music. Stokowski was the epitome of the high-culture genius -- the flyaway hair, the European-style gravitas, a persona he had cultivated well enough that he had recently appeared, playing himself, in a movie called "One Hundred Men and a Girl" with Deanna Durbin. (He conducted the 100-man orchestra while she sang.)
Disney said he'd been thinking about another in his series of Silly Symphonies, this one set to Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Would Stokowski be interested in collaborating? He would. But would the great Stokowski conduct music for slipping on banana peels? No, it was time for Disney's animators to start behaving themselves. Soon, Disney was asking them to "please avoid slapstick gags in the ordinary sense; work instead toward fantasy and business with an imaginative touch."
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" ate up an incredible $125,000, but Disney didn't care. Bankrolled by the eruption of profits from "Snow White," he was thinking about something even bigger, with a working title of "Concert Feature."
This was more than aesthetic social climbing. Disney, let us not forget, was a genius whose medium was the American psyche -- its fascination with technology along with its yearning for old Europe, its cultural inferiority complex along with its democratic desire, back at mid-century when so much seemed possible, to make new art in a new land by putting high and low culture together. Gershwin had done it with "Rhapsody in Blue." Thomas Hart Benton returned from Paris to paint murals of farms and industry. Pete Seeger dropped out of Harvard to invent a new "folk music." Thornton Wilder wrote "Our Town."
Disney came up with "Fantasia."
When it opened, he talked to a reporter from the New York World-Telegram about classical music. "I never liked this stuff. Honest, I just couldn't listen to it. But I can listen to it now. It seems to mean a little more to me. Maybe it can give other people the same thing. When I heard the music it made pictures in my head. Then the boys listened and they had ideas. I had a lot of ideas, but they voted some of them down. Anyway, here are the pictures. This isn't a picture just for music lovers. People have to like it. They have to be entertained."
The movie opens with live shots of silhouetted musicians ambling to their seats, conspicuously relaxed despite their tailcoats. Then a musicologist named Deems Taylor strolls onstage and, with the easy amusement of the stage manager in "Our Town," explains what you are about to see and hear.
It is "not the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good," he says with a chuckle. Ah, yes: We'll be safe from those snooty concert hall types.
A silhouetted Stokowski takes the podium, lifts his hands (which hold no baton, a Stokowski affectation) and we're off into Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Extravagantly shadowed shots of the orchestra blend into abstract animation, and as the fugue kicks in we enter Fantasia-land, with spheres pouring through infinite space, lines writhing like a brainwave readout from the creative lobes. It's interesting, but in an age of computer logos plaiting and effulging at every television station break, it seems stiff and primitive, a self-conscious effort to honor esthetic theory.
The trick was to let Disney be Disney. For Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite, the animators set the Sugarplum Fairy to scattering Tinkerbell twinkle dust around morning glories. They transformed mushrooms into Chinese dancers with the scrumptious roundness that is a Disney hallmark. Cuteness is rampant. In "The Arab Dance," a fish swirls around and around, blinking at us through the veil of her transparent tail. She has not only eyelids but eyelashes, sultry ones. Milkweed dervishes whirl through falling leaves, thistles do a Russian dance. In the alchemy of animation, everything is transmutable.
Then comes "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," in which Mickey Mouse is the Promethean little guy whose magic gets away from him -- the broom he enchants into carrying pails of water turns into a horde of brooms, and the water turns into a tidal wave. Some kids get edgy with this one. At the end, Mickey's master, the sorcerer himself, returns to set everything right, and a moment later we see a shadowy Mickey climb the podium to shake Stokowski's hand. The conductor as sorcerer, sorcerer as conductor.
"The Rite of Spring" presents the Creation itself, from Earth gathering itself out of the void of space up to the death of the dinosaurs, "a coldly accurate picture of what scientists think went on," Deems Taylor assures the parents and self-improvers in the audience. Not only are we learning about classical music, but it's scientific too! (This was back when scientists such as Einstein were demi-gods, just like conductors.) Disney also brings in classical mythology with the music from Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. By the finale, he has gotten bold enough to present his visions of Hell and Heaven, the profane and the sacred, in the "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria" sequences: The Cosmos According to Disney. What noble ambition! What naive grandeur!
The movie opened to reviews that hinted at just how many niches it would come to occupy in American culture.
A Britisher, Sir David Low, said that the "Rite of Spring" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences "drive right to the foothills of the New Art of the Future."
The New Art of the Future! Capitalized, yet!
What a world that was, when we could believe in the New Art of the Future, a dream that gives the quickness of adolescence to "Fantasia" still, and the charm of good intentions. Lost, lost, lost now, at the end of the century, in our fin-de-sie`cle weariness. The last big efforts to put high and low culture together came in the '60s with Third Stream jazz and pop art -- but the pop artists had their tongues in their cheeks. Irony became everything, a tangy smog floating through galleries and creative writing workshops.
Another early comment came from an educator named Martha W.D. Addams, who raised the flag of self-improvement and cultural uplift when she said: " 'Fantasia' is the greatest contribution motion pictures have made within the 10 years in which I have been actively engaged in community work for better films. It should be seen by every child and every adult, over and over again."
That sort of thinking has dwindled too. Does anybody paste stickers of great paintings into educational booklets anymore? Remember Leonard Bernstein initiating us into higher realms with his television lectures? The atom bomb made it hard to believe that science would save us, and it's difficult to keep faith in the uplifitng power of high culture as the American arts community sinks ever further into a sullen sump of self-reference and grantsmanship, notable less for civilizing genius than for self-righteousness, obscurity, obscenity and the boondoggles of academia.
It wasn't until the mid-'50s that "Fantasia" made money. It kept on making it, becoming part of the Disney gospel as Disney himself became a prophet and saint of the American way. When the American way became a joke among the higher-educated classes in the 1960s, though, "Fantasia" did not fold. It got bigger than ever as an interior travelogue for acidheads, a sort of Timothy Leary workout tape.
"Fantasia" persists. It is icon, uplift, art of the future, nostalgia, psychedelic journey, Americana, technological triumph, classic.
Now it is 50, and as the cultural and political baggage of a half-century gets left behind, I feel I'm seeing yet another "Fantasia."
By now the 1940 soundtrack, even with a sprucing up, is a quaint aural relic, thin and murky at the same time, a sound that evokes cathedral radios smelling of furniture polish as the tubes heat up. Yes, the music was written by the Great Composers, but who worships at their feet anymore? Bach, Beethoven and company seem more like soundtrack composers this time around, like Dmitri Tiomkin. The glory of the movie is what drove Disney in the first place: the lost or at least endangered art, craft, and spirit of animation.
Since the Disney animators were at their peak, the Hanna-Barberians of the Saturday morning cartoon world have betrayed their art form. They've persuaded generations of children that animation is outlines moving against static, shadowless backgrounds, ghosts in a desert -- and only one ghost moves at a time. In Disney animation, there's a density and heft to things, a rounded, final fullness to the potbellies on the dwarves, the singing trees, the tires on Donald Duck's convertible. They have a richness that seems edible, but not edible like a bluefish or an eggplant -- Disney objects don't have inner workings or guts. Instead, there is something confectionary about them, like candy. Like marzipan, for instance. You get the feeling that if you sliced open a Disney mushroom or mountain, it would be the same marzipanny stuff, all the way through.
Things have shadows, and the shadows move. Water bubbles and pours. People walk with a gorgeous, choreographic self-consciousness, as if they are underwater. Everything seems not only alive but sentient -- clouds, flowers, everything. This is animation in every sense of the word, as if you are seeing the world through the eyes of your tree-worshipping ancestors. The forest spirits and the water sprites live. Animism rides again. Disney turns you into a pagan, hence the charm of "Fantasia" for the LSD neo-aborigines of the 1960s. Medieval theologians would have had him burnt at the stake.
How enthralling. And how scary when the wicked witch or the thunderstorm looms over you and everything goes jagged, turns into fangs and fingernails, acute angles and edge. Suddenly you don't eat it, it eats you, absolute evil, all the way through. On the other hand, Disney animation did something that poets and writers had never been able to do. It made Heaven -- as in the paradise of the Beethoven sequence -- as real as Hell, maybe realer.
Animation for animation's sake. It doesn't need uplift. If you could see only one sequence of "Fantasia" again before you died, you'd probably pick "The Dance of the Hours," which features the ballet-dancing hippos almost everyone mentions when you say "Fantasia." Here are the lecherous alligators in capes pursuing these obesities. Here are the pratfalls, the slapstick and the belly laughs Disney was trying to transcend. Stokowski would have been upset. (He tried to get Disney to take Mickey Mouse out of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice.") Low art! Terrific! Let Disney be Disney!