Disney didn’t bowdlerize this one.
The first movie that ever frightened me was a Disney movie. Weird right? Well, let me explain. Disney wasn’t always a kiddie culture brand-colossus that churned out toothless, G-rated snoozes that dumbed-down their source material and bolted it onto a formula that combined toy-transferable heroes with wisecracking animal sidekicks and insidious, merciless earworms, pausing occasionally to buy up fresher companies or demand tribute from the government in the form of trademarks to fairy tales that have existed for centuries.
No, Disney wasn’t always a behemoth. Disney, of course, used to be an actual person, a living, breathing artist who might have had some weird ideas about civil society, but was a bona fide creative genius who on occasion elevated animation to high art. Fantasia is one of those Disney films. Although Walt Disney didn’t direct any of Fantasia‘s eight segments, it was his idea to create a feature-length anthology of non-comedic animated shorts that would depict fantasies inspired by and set to great works of classical music, with the animation accompanying the music – not the other way around. It was like the 1940 equivalent of Heavy Metal or maybe Laser Floyd. My point is, for a variety of reasons, I think it’s safe to say this is a film that would not get made today. Disney used to push artistic and social boundaries.
My parents took me to see Fantasia during its 1982 theatrical run. I was three years old. I don’t remember where we saw it and neither does my Dad, though he suspects it was the then-giant seven-screen cineplex by the freeway. I have a fragmentary memory of passing a building with big, cuckoo-clock style figures over the door, which would indicate a downtown theater somewhere, but I might be conflating my memory of Fantasia with the Festhaus at Kings Island. I do remember the red curtain around the stage and the pink light cast on the screen as we waited and waited and waited for the movie to start. Dad hated to go to anything with a scheduled start time without arriving at least an hour early.
The only segment I remember watching that day was the last one, “Night on Bald Mountain.” There was a mountain, and the mountain had wings. It was a bat. No, it was the Devil! Bats and skeletons wheeled in a macabre riot as the Devil, bulging with muscles, smiled with delight, his horrible yellow eyes glowing. My heart raced as I gripped both armrests. I was frozen with terror.
While this was only the beginning of my lifetime of horror fandom, I decided to bring this post full circle. Like any other thoughtful and caring parent: I decided to show Fantasia to my three children and see if “Night on Bald Mountain” would scare the shit out of them too.
The film was a tough sell for our kindergartner, Boo Boo Bear, from the very beginning. Her younger sister, Caterpillar, was antsy. The movies and cartoons they watch don’t begin with a spoken introduction by a bookish emcee, nor silhouettes of a conductor and his orchestra in pink, orange, red, and blue.
“Dad, is this going to be music the whole time?” Boo Boo complained. I didn’t think we were going to get through “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
But Caterpillar burst with excitement at the sight of the first fairy in “The Nutcracker Suite.” This segment, with its dancing flowers, fish, and mushrooms, hooked them both. Their toddling brother, Superman, was also sucked in.
The kids were somewhat concerned about the wizard in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” They asked if he was a bad guy. I was explaining that he was just stern when the girls exploded with a shout of “MICKEY!” as the titular, budding mage appeared. There were other dark moments throughout the film, for instance the dying dinosaurs in “The Rite of Spring” or Zeus hurling lightning during “The Pastoral Symphony.”
The penultimate segment is “Dance of the Hours,” with its manic ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. It’s wild fun, the alligators chasing after the other animals in a crazed dance that brings the house down. Surely, however, the placement of this lighthearted fare was intended to set viewers up for the gut punch, the segment that flies in the face of Disney’s more recent image as a squeaky clean company that makes dull, moralizing cartoons peppered with pop culture references intended to make sitting through them bearable for parents.
“Night on Bald Mountain” begins with night falling over a mountainside village. One crag towers over the others like the spire of some blasphemous church. A leather wing darts out, then a second. Thus the horned demon Chernabog reveals himself, perched atop the mountain.
He casts his hands down, and where his shadow falls bats and phantoms rise from town, graveyard, and murky lake. Wraiths astride skeleton horses gallop upward through the night. Flames erupt from a mountain cauldron beneath Chernabog’s infernal throne. Lesser devils emerge from the fire. Chernabog picks them up adoringly, as skeletons caper, before casting them back into the conflagration.
Three burning vixens appear then melt and twist into a wolf, a pig, and a goat. The echoes of ancient paganism are unmistakable. Flame and smoke fill the screen. Ghastly faces, skulls, and harpies with erect hot pink nipples fly directly at the viewer. Paganism and blazing pink nipples. In a Disney film.
Finally, a church bell peels as dawn begins to break. The ghosts and imps fall silent and Chernabog is dazed. Eventually he falls into slumber, as a procession of monks, singing “Ave Maria,” make a lantern-lit passage through the forest. The segment ends, but for a little over 10 minutes Disney was metal as fuck.
So how did my kiddos do? Superman lost interest. He only pays half attention to anything they watch on TV, and this was the end of a feature film. He was smiling and playing with his toys. Boo Boo Bear made it through the segment, albeit with her arms crossed tight over her chest and her nervous eyes locked on the screen. Caterpillar, however, did what I could not do in that long ago darkened movie theater at the same age: She got up and noped the fuck out. As for me, I was left with a hankering to listen to Ghost.
Watching Fantasia again led me to reappraise my opinion of Disney movies. I really liked them when I was a little kid. I can remember going to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, and The Fox and the Hound, and I remember renting and repeatedly watching The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood on VHS. And now that I have kids of my own, I’ve seen some I either missed as a child or forgot about as I got older, like The Aristocats, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland. Maybe not every one of those is what you’d call a classic, but it’s a fine list. Many of them are also evidence of a willingness to take creative risks. I don’t think anything like Dumbo‘s pink elephants scene would get into a Disney film today, and Bambi‘s revelation that the enemy is man would probably get squashed for being too dark.
And yet the same studio produced shit like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, and Tarzan. And then they followed a string of total crap with Lilo & Stitch, which was fucking awesome. What the hell happened during the 1980s and 1990s? Those years do mostly coincide with Michael Eisner’s tenure as Disney’s CEO; maybe there’s something to that. My opinion of Disney during that time was probably also darkened by my emergence into adolescence. In school I was surrounded by a group of goody-goodies who continued to gush about Disney kiddie movies long after you might reasonably expect a person to outgrow them. They were the primary antagonists of my grade school years for a number of reasons. In the case of one girl, her mother was the leader of the local Upright Family Values Morality Police, and tended to clash with my Mom over things like trying to censor the Scholastic Book Fair, or proposals to have parent volunteers stand outside the school in the morning to catch kids swearing and report them.
But even realizing my own adolescent bias … I fucking hate Disney animated films from the mid-1980s and 1990s. They all seemed to combine a family friendly, no sharp edges story with an underdog who can succeed if he or she just looks inside and finds the something-or-other to try, one or two goofy but unfunny sidekicks, a memorable song, a product line, and a Happy Meal Toy. Aladdin was the worst, because in addition to all that horseshit, it had Robin Fucking Williams at the height of his “kid-safe but still out-sized, manic, and hammy as shit but not as funny anymore oh please please don’t make me watch Hook again” phase.
But they’ve been good lately. Frozen kind of followed the 80s-90s template, but my daughters love it, so I give it a pass. Wreck It Ralph was beautiful, hilarious, and novel. And maybe Disney’s purchases of other companies aren’t so horrible after all. Pixar movies are still good, and The Force Awakens was every bit the Star Wars movie I had waited 32 years to see. You could say the latter was J.J. Abrams’ doing, but I’d counter the company let him have creative control. I still hate that Warner Bros. lost their battle for cartoon culture dominance to Disney, because Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck beat the living hell out of Mickey any day of the week, and they deserved better than to be second banana to the Mouse.
Anyway. Fantasia was visionary and unflinching, and “Night on Bald Mountain” scared the living hell out of three-year-old me. It was my first encounter with the horror genre, and as I left the theater with Mom and Dad I wanted no more of Bald Mountain. The next encounter though was one I’d keep going back to.