Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Fantasia

Curse you, Nathaniel!

Choosing a best shot from Fantasia is (as I mentioned earlier), a fool's errand, even when you're allowed to pick one shot from each sequence. Not to mention the fact that I haven't seen the film since I was a child, and even then I tended to fast-forward through the entire middle (the entirety of Rite of Spring and portions of Pastoral Symphony, both of which have exciting moments but are far too long for a child's attention span). On top of that, the purpose of choosing Fantasia is to celebrate the centennial of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", which has always been my least favorite section of the movie.

And on top of all that, I have been super busy this week.

But rewatching some of the sequences over the past week, I've been reminded just how freaking gorgeous Fantasia is. Practically every frame is a work of art, even in the sequences I dislike. I mean, Disney itself has marketed just about every frame from The Sorcerer's Apprentice in one form or another, and for good reason. It's possibly the most iconic piece of animation in the Disney canon. Which is exactly why picking anything from Mickey's big moment would be way too easy. But upon watching the sequence again, I was struck by this moment:
Foreshadowing the last sequence in an anthology film? Has any other anthology film ever done that? Because, come on. Even if Yen Sid (heh heh) is conjuring a butterfly, in the beginning it totally looks like the malevolent terror Chernabog, the mountain/demon star of Night on Bald Mountain and scourge of countless childhood nightmares.

Speaking of which, if anyone who saw Fantasia as a child wasn't scared shitless by Night on Bald Mountain, they are either lying or a robot. I was always terrified of the sequence, to the point that whenever I watched Fantasia as a child, I would inevitably stop it right before Mussorgsky's music began. For me, Fantasia always ended with the comic ballet Dance of the Hours. However, even as a kid, I understood that ending with the peaceful requiem of Ave Maria was a necessary comedown from the hellish nightmare that preceded it. The way the two bleed together is practically seamless, but they each have a distinct style. Part of what makes Night on Bald Mountain so scary is the way the monsters and ghouls are drawn - the ghosts and skeletons aren't the typical pen-and-ink types that usually populate Disney animation, but instead appear as though they were created by chalk and charcoal, giving them a creepy see-through quality that makes them simultaneously more abstract and more real. Chernabog himself is a master class in How to Draw an Evil Character. Disney has always drawn their villains more memorably than their heroes (who tend to all look alike), but Chernabog probably takes the cake as the most well-drawn Disney villain.

Look at him. Even in that stunning establishing long-shot of Bald Mountain, he's menacing. When he fully reveals himself, the second shot is the most we ever see of him, lit by flames. But even then, his face is shrouded in darkness, ever a horrifying mystery. Mostly seen in silhouette, Chernabog is a figure of darkness, every childhood fear of monsters under the bed made flesh (or, rather, stone). He's basically a glorified gargoyle, but in his design and execution, you can see movie monsters like the Balrog from Lord of the Rings and sci-fi television creations like Doctor Who's Weeping Angels and many, many more.

But enough of all that, because my favorite sequence of Fantasia has been and always will be the Nutcracker Suite. That's partially because it's one of my favorite pieces of music ever written, but partially because it's basically a choreographer's wet dream. It's as though they went to every great choreographer they could think of, asked them what they would do with each section if the laws of physics ceased to exist, and animated it. The "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" is beautiful and appropriately magical, the "Chinese Dance" is the cutest thing you will ever see involving mushrooms, "Dance of the Flutes" is a prototype for Beauty & the Beast's "Be Our Guest", "Arabian Dance" is somehow both sexy and kid-appropriate, "Russian Dance" is like a fever-dream of a ballet, and then of course, there's the "Waltz of the Flowers", which brings everything back full circle to the beginning, and is even more beautiful.

But what of the Best Shot? One of the hardest things to do in dance is to create the feeling of gliding, so my favorite shot has always been this, which matches the music so well in a way the ballet never could:
But, the final shot of the Russian Dance is totally frame-worthy, and very underrated:
Gorgeous, no? Probably the most beautiful thing in the whole of Fantasia. But the Best Shot of the Nutcracker Suite, and my pick for Best Shot of the whole film, is this Busby Berkley-meets-M.C. Escher wonder from the "Arabian Dance":
Movement in general, and dance specifically, is so integral to the storytelling success of Fantasia, and this shot is the perfect meeting of the twin arts that guide the visuals: animation and dance. Fantasia is about visualizing music (one of the reasons I adore the Meet the Soundtrack segment), and this, to me, is the culmination of that idea in my favorite sequence of the film.

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