Behind These Castle Walls, Part III: Fantasia (1940)

It’s been clearly too long since the last installment and I blame today’s movie for it. Fantasia is a difficult movie to approach because it has no larger story and is also not as well known today as all the other movies. Yet again, it is clearly a technological achievement with astonishing visuals and an unusual concept for its time, mixing animation, classical music and live action footage for what must have been really confusing to audiences in 1940. I had never seen it before but only the Fantasia 2000 sequel. I thought about talking about the original version that includes the racist scenes that have been removed since 1960 and while this is interesting, I decided not to because a) this problem is obvious and has been dealt with by Disney (with only a 20 year-delay) and b) I’m doing this to discuss the effects these movies still have today, so I might as well go with the current version. There are still enough issues to look at in this one and I can’t wait to move on to get to the next ones (of which there are still officially 53 left).

I’m not discussing everything here, only the parts that deserve closer analysis. The second segment, the Nutcracker Suite, includes images of dancers of all sorts, including fish that are awfully stereotypically female in their appearance. Long eyelashes, big eyes, huge lipstick lips in an ocean of purple and pink. Later we get obviously female fairies that are nude without being nude. There is nothing particularly wrong with these images, although I really don’t like the fish. But fairies have been portrayed this way in many cultures. Still, in the context of Disney they fit into the female archetype that is created within their movies, the female as tender and elegant, more of a dream than something real and concerning the fish, also sexualized.

The next one is the most famous one, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with Mickey Mouse as the protagonist of Goethe’s classic ballad. The story deals with a young inexperienced apprentice who thinks he can use his master’s power but it quickly gets out of his control. Is it a story about over-ambition and power hunger or about the foolishness of the young? Maybe in its original form, but the Disney version puts a heavier focus on the importance of authority. At first we see the apprentice doing heavy labor, carrying buckets of water for no apparent reason, being exploited by its master who seems a very powerful wizard.

When the apprentice takes his master’s head, he right away puts on an angry and strict look, as he obviously can’t wait to do what has been done to him, controlling others and using his powers to feel superior.

While the master is portrayed as serious and somewhat scary, he is also shown being rightfully the master. The movie doesn’t criticize him, it only mocks the student for even dreaming of becoming powerful himself. When it gets out of control, he has to brutally murder the brooms he has enchanted, showing the trauma he has suffered from trying to be more than he is. It is as if he is hacking away at his own personality, bringing it down to size again, to get back to his preordained place. Nothing helps though and as he tries to use the master’s spell book he is about to drown, as he the book clearly is too big for him.

But there is only one solution to this mess, which is the master himself, parting the water like Moses and standing over the apprentice like the ultimate god, huge, imposing, invincible, the clear authority that shows just how blasphemic the apprentice has been. And after the hat has been passed back to the true we get more really angry, threatening looks and eventually the physical punishment as the master hits the apprentice with the broom. The movie doesn’t even suggest that this might be unfair. It is clearly on the master’s side (which is even made explicit because his name is Yen Sid, a not too subtle anagram of… yes, exactly). Consider again that this is the most popular story from this movie, repeated exactly as it is in its sequel and probably the only sequence that most kids still watch today. Removing a racist scene is obviously the right thing to do, but promoting authority and superiority couldn’t be viewed as less problematic than it is shown here.

The Rite of Spring segment is a retelling of the origins of Earth and life on it, ending with dinosaurs and their eventual extinction. As we have seen already in the earlier movies, there is also the clear distinction between good and bad animals here, exemplified by the scary Tyrannosaurus complete with red eyes, just like it would be repeated almost 50 years later in the non-Disney A Land Before Time. It reinforces the idea of the binary world view our culture always embraces, which in turn helps us to justify control over animals and nature as they are so easily categorized.

In The Pastoral Symphony we meet a group of centaurs who have a kind of party for their drunken god Bacchus. The female centaurs are just like the fish and fairies before, stereotypically beautiful, thin, with long hair, perfect bodies and lots of make-up. There is no doubt that are supposed to be seductive and they obviously have nothing else to do. They passively sit and lie around, waiting for the men to take them home.

They are dressed up by cutesy, butt naked cupids and parade for the men who don’t have to prove anything, they just have to figure out who can take which female. To see the female centaurs take part in this ritual, seductive and coy at the same time, but ultimately leaving with the men to be deflowered somewhere behind the scenery, or serving them food, or acting as virgin, underage playthings is really disturbing and a good reason not to show this movie to kids, especially as it, naturally, presented in the Disney style that makes everything look pretty cute so that you don’t see the offensiveness right away.

The post-coital party includes lots of alcohol and some leftover racism that obviously is still tolerable today, as the black centaurs look like zebras.

It is interrupted when Zeus decides that he doesn’t like this kind of partying, so he starts attacking them with lightning. Everyone hurries away in panic, but Zeus seems to really enjoy himself. Even if afterwards everything is fine again, everyone laughs and looks at a rainbow, this interruption still reminds the audience that there is always a higher authority that might stop you if you have too much fun. Because you have to be able to control yourself and if you can’t, your parent, president, god from above will show you how things are supposed to be. And you have to accept that, even if that god seems erratic and irrational at times, he is the authority so you follow his orders.

Which brings us to the last segment of Fantasia, Night on Bald Mountain, which ends the movie in a bizarre way I think. It shows a desolate world full of death and decay, ghosts and skeletons and a huge demon (Chernabog, which seems to be some kind of Satan) reigning over all of this. It’s scary and terrifying, invariably making you wonder what its place is in this movie that also features hippo ballet slapstick.

The horror ends, though, when the church bells are ringing as all the demons and ghouls hurry away and Chenabog is encased in the mountain he was sitting on, as we see a parade of monks bringing light into the darkness again. The last images seem straight out of romantic paintings, with the monks wandering through forests and ruins until the movie ends with the sun coming up behind the mountains. Just like the images recall the era of romanticism, so does this last segment recall the idea behind fairytales that were so popular during this time. While it has a happy ending, the horror that comes before it still serves us as a reminder to not feel too comfortable, to be aware of what is lurking everywhere if we don’t follow the good sides inside ourselves. The hope that it delivers in the end is only superficial insofar as the previous horror will haunt us more than the sun will give us comfort in the long run. Just like in other Disney movies, we are served a superficial harmony but are still supposed to be somewhat hardened by the cruel images we saw too. It is a double standard that fits right into our culture, proofing again just how essential Disney movies mostly are when describing the voice of our Mother Culture.

So, Fantasia, despite its revolutionary storytelling and animation (until today, I’d say), still follows the principles we have seen again and again in the previous movies I discussed. And I’d be surprised if our next movie, Dumbo, will be any different. I hope it won’t take as long again until we get there.