My God, It’s Full of Stars
I saw a rerelease of Fantasia in Radio City Music Hall when I was probably 6 or 7, and the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence scared the bejeezus out of me.
It still does.
Anticipating the look of psychedelic-drug-induced hallucinations of the 60s by 25 years and music videos by 40 years, Fantasia remains a masterpiece of animation today. The narration that precedes each piece of classical music and its accompanying show of light and color may be a bit stilted, but the rest of Fantasia is gorgeous.
Fantasia opens with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” — the opening chords of which we now all know as mad-scientist music, to be played on a pipe organ and echo through a dank castle. Here, these somber strains score blobs of light and abstract stars like you see when you close your eyes and rub your eyelids real hard (as if the movie itself wasn’t enough to bring me back to kidhood). Tinkerbell fairies, magic mushrooms, and flowers dance next, to selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, in Fantasia‘s most luminous sequence.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is probably the bit we all know best, and with good reason. In a brilliant little silent movie, Mickey Mouse is student to a mighty warlock, playing with the dark side of the Force while the master is away. While his magically animated broom does his chores for him, Mickey, wearing the sorcerer’s peaked hat, dreams he’s on a mountaintop, controlling the weather, bringing waves from the ocean far below crashing up around himself. It’s a powerful image that brings to life the strength and mastery over the world that eludes all children — and, alas, Mickey, too.
Fantasia then takes a musical interpretation of the reawakening of life after winter — Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” — and attaches it to a brief history of the evolution of life on Earth, from the solar system coalescing out of a gas cloud to the demise of the dinosaurs in a magnificent sequence that has obviously influenced the look of fantasy illustration today. The visuals that attend Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” on the other hand, borrow from Maxfield Parrish, showing us a mythological setting with skies saturated blue and purple filled with golden, sun-drenched clouds, under which unicorns, cute little satyrs, and other fantastical creatures play. The clever, witty accompaniment to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” is pure Disney, with ostrich, hippo, and elephant ballerinas and villainous crocodiles in red capes — a kind of ballet on safari.
Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” which follows in stark contrast, is the stuff of childhood nightmares. A horned, winged devil on a craggy mountaintop calls the undead to a midnight bacchanalia, skeletons and ugly spirits rising from the cemetery of the town below. These are oily, black visions out of a Goya or Munch painting, the devil’s burning eyes watching over the orgy of these hideous creatures. Incredibly ahead of its time, this, my favorite part of Fantasia (it’s good to be scared, sometimes), echoes today in the look of graphic novels like Arkham Asylum and that of every Tim Burton movie. But so as not to leave you totally frightened out of your wits, Fantasia ends with the beautiful and serene “Ave Maria,” by Schubert, as benignly mysterious figures move through a peaceful forest carrying globes of light.
It’s high time Disney — or DreamWorks or Pixar — produced another film along the lines of Fantasia: beautiful music escorted by wondrous animation.