Classic Hollywood Spotlight: ‘Fantasia’

ALTI just finished with the orientation for the Creative Writing Department at the California State Summer School for the Arts. It’s a fantastic program. Every summer on the first weekend in July, 500 students descend on the campus of the California Institute for the Arts to get their compass set by a month at the premier arts training program for high school age artists. Some of the writing students got me on the subject of Harry Potter. Naturally they want to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, and just as naturally CSSSA is a closed campus, so they’re just gonna have to wait.

But we did talk about it.

Personally, I love Harry Potter. Not only because of the wonderful characters, the attention to detail, or J.K. Rowling’s exquisite story structure and excellent Jane Austin impression, but because of its depth. Rowling has said that the entire seven volume story of Harry Potter is haunted by the death of her mother. She’s also spoken about the way the overwhelming moments of depression surrounding her mother’s illness inspired the creation of the Dementors. During the time she was writing Harry Potter, she had to manage the anguish of mer mother’s passing. She couldn’t give in to fear of death, because she wouldn’t have had the strength to take care of her child, create her art and live her life. Fear of death isn’t a fight against mortality, it’s a denial of life. Having the strength to love in the face of death is the very lesson of Harry Potter, the moral of The Deathly Hallows and the lodestone of J.K. Rowling’s life.

You can tell this is true because Voldemort’s entire goal is to avoid death. Every murder he commits, every moment of torture, every evil act springs from the fact the he is, ultimately, a coward. And whenever Harry’s being a little jerk it’s because he’s acting out of fear. In fact Harry’s defining moment comes when he has to decide between love for his friends and fear of death. That’s the reason Dumbledore’s always babbling on about Harry’s greatest strength being his ability to love.

All of this naturally leads to a dark story. Harry Potter is dark from the beginning, even if the darkness is hidden, and by the end darkness is pretty much all you’ve got. The Deathly Hallows is certainly dark, and if haven’t read the books…prepare yourself. As you might imagine children’s movies have always had a thread of darkness running through them. It’s natural. Stories about childhood are about growing up, and growing up is all about coming to accept the realities of change and loss.

The Lawrence Hall of Science in the Berkeley Hills used to show movies every now and again. On one of these occasions my grandfather took me to see Disney’s 1940 movie Fantasia. Fantasia‘s unlike any other major motion picture ever produced. During the 1940 Academy Awards, Walt Disney himself called the film “A mistake, but an honest mistake,” but posterity has deemed Disney’s “honest mistake” to be one of the most innovative and influential children’s films of all time, and rightly so.

Fantasia takes eight pieces of classical music and sets them to animation. As you might imagine it’s strange, funny, beautiful and, at times, particularly dark. But at the same time it sticks to its mission of bringing the depth and power of classical music to kids .

The most famous sequence is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” bit, set to an original score by composer Paul Dukas — that’s the one with all the brooms. But for my money the other sequences are far engaging. Igor Stracinsky’s “Rite of Spring” — an iconoclastic composition upon its original 1913 release — is set to an animated retelling of the earliest days of the universe. I mean the thing uses Stravinsky’s radical and innovative piece to show images that move from the genesis to single-celled organisms to strange early sea life to the death of the dinosaurs. You know, for kids. Dinosaurs doing their best to escape drought and famine, only to collapse into the dust, all saurian skin and bones, dead.

But that’s nothing compared to “Night On Bald Mountain,” composed by Modest Mussorgsky. In this bit a mountain comes alive as a monumental demon who conjures up a riot of maniacal devils and dark angels as they swirls around in the night sky. I remember watching this, terrified, but unable to turn away from the beautiful images or close my ears to the darkly exuberant music.


“Night on Bald Mountain” gives way to one of the most astonishing pieces of animation ever filmed. For Franz Schubert’s eternally moving devotional “Ave Maria,” the Disney animators fashioned one of the most audacious shots in film history. During the course of the composition the camera slowly zooms in, without any cuts, over two hundred feet of film, in the longest continuous shot in animation up to that time.

As a child I was left overwhelmed and moved by Fantasia. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to grow up with Harry Potter only to see him at a moment where he must find the courage to overcome death itself, but I can only hope that the movie lives up to the gifts J.K. Rowling has given us. For myself, I can’t see it. I just can’t. I adore the end of Harry Potter’s story so much that I want to keep it between Rowling and myself.

But that’s me. If I want beauty and darkness in my kid’s movies, I’ll go check out early Disney all over again. And Fantasia is at the top of that list.