As much as I loath Walt Disney for the way he trivialized and sillified some of the great classics of children’s literature, his unrepentant commercialism and for his blatant and pervasive sexism, he had some amazingly talented people working for him over the years (not the least of them Walt Kelly*, whose amazing talent for drawing and caricature has brought me so much joy over the years). I call your attention to the challenge of animating ballet-dancing ostriches as they did here in Fantasia. Ostriches legs don’t bend the same way ours do, and yet the animators carefully and logically worked out all the moves — the classical ballet moves are all there, and recognizable to anybody who has even a passing knowledge of the art form. (The animators studied ballets on film and did life drawings from ballerinas who were brought into the studio for that purpose.) And the cherry on top is the inspired idea of tying those delicate little velvet ribbons around those very long ostrich necks. Putting hippos in tutus seems like an obvious absurdity, yet there’s a hidden message here — grace is every bit as much in the mind of the dancer as as it is in the eye of the beholder.** At the time (1940), these huge animals had yet to be filmed underwater, where their natural buoyancy supports their great bulk, and where they move every bit as gracefully as Disney’s animators imagined them to.
I might also point out to a younger generation that all the animation in Fantasia was done at a time (late 1930’s) when there was not only no computer animation, there were no computers. This was a very labor-intensive process and was all done by hand, by artists who used their own talents and knowledge of anatomy to make the drawings work, and by the cel painters who put that art onto celluloid to be filmed.
I was fortunate to be at the right age at the right time to be exposed to a “perfect storm” of animation art. My childhood and the childhood of television coincided. When our local television stations were starved for after-school content, they ran all those wonderful movie cartoons from the 1930’s and 1940’s — Popeye, Betty Boop, Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Silly Symphonies — in the days before television, a night out at the movies included not just a feature film, but a news reel and a cartoon. Those movie cartoons were witty, sly, subversive and satirical — and targeted for adults — which is why I loved them. Like the best of children’s literature and art, they were not dumbed down for children. I had the great pleasure and delight of growing into them over the years. Jokes and allusions sailed over my head, until I became tall enough (and old enough) for them to finally hit me. Not only were they topical, but they had music — classical music as well as popular music of the day. Disney’s Silly Symphonies (most of them were quite silly) had all the clichés — Strauss, Bethoven, Mussorgsky, Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Wagner. But my favorites were the great Warner Brothers classics: Their complete overhaul of List and send up of the classical pianist in “Rhapsody Rabbit” and the utter skewering of Wagner in “What’s Opera, Doc?” Not even Mozart was safe. So many wonderfully creative talents were involved – Mel Blanc’s wonderful voices, Carl Stalling‘s mastery of the timely musical quote, Michael Maltese and the inimitable Chuck Jones for sheer storytelling moxie.
But this is Christmas Eve, and the Nutcracker season, and despite the fact that Tchaikovsky’s incomparable music is practically inescapable at this time of the year and is practically a seasonal cliché, I still love it. Tchaikovsky lived at a time when being gay was a criminal, and in some places a capital offense. Trapped in a rigidly conformist and stultifying society, and with his personal life slowly but surely coming apart at the seams. he poured his soul into his music, producing arguably some of the most lyrical and moving — and accessible — classical music ever written.
In Fantasia, Disney’s animators had a go at selected bits of Nutcracker. Here is my all time favorite bit — who would listen to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian Dance and think “fish”? And yet, somehow, it’s just right. Remember, as you watch it, that the animators not only had to keep up with all those diaphanous fins, this was all animated by hand:
And here’s the Moscow Ballet’s amazing interpretation of the same music:
Aw, nuts. It’s Christmas Eve. I might as well give you the whole schmear. Here’s Michail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, both at the height of their powers, doing the deed. It’s an hour and 18 minutes of magic. Find a comfy chair, beverage of choice, snuggle back, put it on full screen and indulge yourself.