The troubled history of Walt Disney’s great experiment, and the grotesque implications of the live-action remake of “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The first time my mom saw Fantasia was at the Stanley Theatre, a Vancouver cinema and Vaudeville House that first opened 1930’s. The Stanley’s this glamorous neoclassical building with an art deco crust. These days, it’s difficult to imagine that kind of space as a movie theater. Fantasia was the last film to play at the Stanley and, as a swan song, it was a perfect choice. The film had multiple theatrical re-releases and had become a programming staple. Furthermore, Fantasia would have been the perfect showcase for the Stanley’s impressive projection and sound systems, which were among the best in the city. I can’t imagine a more gracious denouement than the Franz Schubert “Ave Maria” sequence, which, in addition to featuring one of the most ambitious shots in animation history, is nothing short of transcendent.
It’s easy to understand why Disney is pilfering its back catalog. Alice and Wonderland made over $1 billion worldwide and this year’s Beauty and the Beast raked in $1.2 billion. That’s not exactly a deterrent. I suspect the live-action Mulan, Tim-Burton-helmed Dumbo, and Lion King remakes will do just fine at the box office. And sure, there’s something flagrantly money-grubbing and creatively fetid about Disney’s self-cannibalization, but these films are mostly harmless. That said, there’s something particularly odious about Disney adapting segments from Fantasia, as is intended with “Night on Bald Mountain.” Conceptually, Fantasia is utterly unique; it’s cinematic poetry, not linear storytelling. To mangle and contort torn-up parts of Fantasia into a live-action feature-length film would be to fundamentally and grotesquely alter what set it apart.
Fantasia was Walt Disney’s brainchild: a logical extension of the Silly Symphonies, and an ambitious demonstration of what the studio (and animation) could accomplish. What began as a cartoon short to signal boost Mickey evolved into a feature film. For the three of you that are unfamiliar with Fantasia, the film consists of eight distinct animated sequences set to classical music arranged by Leopold Stokowski (or rather, his shadow), performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra (with the exception of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” which was performed by session musicians at Culver Studios). When the film opens, players take their places, instruments are tuned, the lights go down, and we are greeted by music critic, and master of ceremonies Deems Taylor. The familiarity of the concert hall disintegrates into a liminal space, accented by colored light and shadow, and slowly, we are transported; to dreamy miasma, to the dawn of life, to a mythic past.
The film holds the distinction of being the first commercial motion picture to be shown with stereophonic sound. “Fantasound,” a collaboration between Disney and RCA Records to create a high-quality multichannel soundtrack, was revolutionary, prompting one Variety review to herald it as “[eclipsing] anything previously attempted in mechanical sound entertainment.” It was also hilariously expensive. To play the soundtrack, Disney technicians had to equip theaters with the elaborate Fantasound system, which meant Fantasia had to be booked as a touring road show. This, coupled with the fact that the film couldn’t be released overseas because fucking World War II was happening, resulted in a disappointing opening box office. A handful of re-releases later and Fantasia has grossed $76.4 million in domestic revenue, making it the 23rd highest-grossing film in the US when adjusted for inflation. Even so, Fantasia’s reputation as a flop that lost the modern equivalent of $15 million on its initial release persists.
Walt Disney had planned to keep Fantasia in permanent release. The idea was that as new sequences were created, they would be exchanged for one of the original eight and the viewer may never see the same film twice. Preliminary work was done for several pieces including Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumble Bee.” But the idea was scrapped due to the project’s scope and mixed critical and audience response to Fantasia itself (The Nation’s Franz Hoellering called it “a promising monstrosity”). The closest approximation to Walt’s vision was in 1947 when “Peter and the Wolf” was shown as Fantasia’s opening feature. The short was originally included in Make Mine Music (1944), which like Melody Time (1948), is not so much a conscious Fantasia successor as shit we need content, but all our animators are either drafted or making propaganda. And so, Disney ditched his dream of an evergreen Fantasia. To quote Walt: “Fantasia is an idea in itself. I can never build another Fantasia. I can improve. I can elaborate. That’s all.”
In 1980 the LA Times reported that a new version of Fantasia was in the works from integral Disney animators Mel Shaw and Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman. The tritely named Musicana was to be an international tour de force, featuring music, imagery, and folklore from around the world. True to form, a segment set in China based on professional childhood ruiner Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Nightingale,” and animated by none other than John Lasseter, was to feature Mickey. Unsure of Musicana’s commercial viability, Disney execs passed on the project for Mickey’s Christmas Carol. A featurette about Musicana, which foregrounds the artwork created during development, appears on the Blu-Ray of Fantasia 2000. Speaking of which…
In the winter of 1999, by the grace of Fantasia’s successful 1991 home video sales, a true-blue sequel arrived. Fantasia 2000 was the pet project of Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney. The score was provided by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of MET conductor James Levine. In the place of my beloved, charming Deems Taylor, a roster of celebrities introduces each segment. Their presence is often cited as the film’s weak point, and while this is entirely justified criticism, I’d like to remind the jury that there’s a gag in Fantasia where some members of the orchestra loudly struggle a massive percussive wind chime.
Developed during the late-millennium CGI overthrow of traditional animation, Fantasia 2000 awkwardly (*cough* “The Pines of Rome”) acts as “a case study of shifting artistic techniques at the studio.” Notably, while the intention was to realize Walt’s vision of a continual Fantasia with the film being a “semi-new movie,” in the end only a restored version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” was retained. Like its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 featured technical innovations and was the first animated feature-length film to play in IMAX Dolby Digital surround sound. While critically well-received, not unlike the original, Fantasia 2000 was grossly expensive and tanked at the box office. From a financial perspective, it was, to quote then-CEO Michael Eisner, a “folly.”
Meanwhile, development of a third film was shelved in 2004 for reasons unknown (read: a cocktail of the great and terrible Eisner being a skeptic of the Fantasia concept and his indirect ousting of Roy Disney). The segments, some of which began development in the 1940s, were later released as standalone shorts, including, “Lorenzo,” “One by One,” “The Little Matchgirl,” and Salvador Dalí’s beautifully bonkers “Destino.”
There are presently three bastard live-action spin-offs. The first is 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a film that somehow stars Nic Cage and Alfred Molina and still succeeds at being frightfully dull. Named after the original segment and featuring one scene about it, the film is primarily about a MacGuffin ring and some hum drum about being the chosen one. Roger Ebert called it “a much better film than The Last Airbender, which is faint praise.” But there it was: “Jay Baruchel taking over a role once played by Mickey Mouse,” in one of the first films of Disney’s back catalog strategy. The second film is called The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and it’s slated for 2018 and is directed by Lasse Hallström of A Dog’s Purpose infamy. Now, I hear you: this is clearly an adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann novel, not the “Nutcracker Suite” sequence from Fantasia with its seasonal dancing fairies, fish, flowers, and mushrooms. Be that as it may, the public reaction disagreed. And while I want to credit Fantasia for having so successfully cemented the Suite in the cultural conscience, it’s both telling and troubling that folks are assuming that the film is a live-action remake.
Which brings us to the live-action adaptation of “Night on Bald Mountain.” Now, I love Satan as much as the next girl and would be the first in line to see a feature-length film about the Slavonic Chernobog (it could premiere on Walpurgis Night!). And I love the sequence: I love his deliciously articulated hands; I love the weightiness of Bill Tytla’s animation; I love the gradual creep, the Boschian frenzy, and the enormous satisfaction when a recoiling Chernabog hears the bell toll as dawn breaks. I don’t particularly like that the writers of the upcoming adaptation were responsible for Gods of Egypt. I’m not into their alleged plan to retcon my beloved mountain-satan-party-god into a misunderstood anti-hero. But what worries me most is that this project threatens to jam a round-shaped peg into a square-shaped hole. That its existence, and more importantly, the creative regurgitation it represents, cheapens the source material and delegitimizes any potential for another bonafide Fantasia film.
If there’s no dialogue in the live-action adaptation, I’ll happily eat my shoe.
In a 1940 review, The New York Times described Fantasia as “something which dumps conventional formulas overboard and boldly reveals the scope of films for an imaginative excursion.” In the adjacent review for Sky Murder, the critic observes: “Let a Hollywood producer launch a film series and very shortly the stories, as they appear, become as formalized as…checkers.”
Well. There it is.
Perhaps, as a swan song, “Ave Maria” singled the close of more than just the Stanley Theatre.