Beethoven in 'Fantasia': Awesome, or awkward?

'Fantasia' centaursDisney

October 29, 2015

When Disney's Fantasia was originally released, the most controversial segment wan't the bit about evolution — it was the segment that had the temerity to change Beethoven's story for his Sixth Symphony.

As the film was being developed, Walt Disney knew he wanted to include a segment featuring characters drawn from mythology. Initially, Pierné’s Cydalise was to provide the soundtrack, but Disney ultimately decided that he wanted something longer and more dynamic — a composition, one might say, of Olympian sweep. Naturally, he turned to Beethoven.

It's telling, regarding the classical music world of the 1930s, that when one of the country's most popular entertainers decided to set animation to a Beethoven symphony, there was a minor uproar over the fact that he wanted to take liberties with the plot Beethoven laid out for the symphony: a series of "recollections of country life."

It's also telling regarding the then-status of Beethoven, who's still revered but then was considered a titan among men. Although the composer had been dead for less than 75 years when Boston's Symphony Hall was built in 1900 (James Joyce has now been dead longer than Beethoven was then), his name was installed on a permanent medallion high atop the proscenium. To mess with Beethoven was to mess with Music Itself.

Still, Disney decided to press forward with the Pastoral, after dismissing a colleague's suggestion to commission original music from Stravinsky or from Pierné himself. ("These guys don't work that way," said Walt.) The Sixth Symphony's dramatic transitions would provide the framework for the animators' gallivanting centaurs and flying horses.

Many viewers at the time thought the often-comical characters diminished Beethoven's music (Time described the segment as "Olympus in diapers"), and even today, the segment is typically seen as the feature's weak link. ("The centaurs are Fantasia's nadir," writes historian John Culhane.) Still, there's a lot to enjoy in Disney's Pastoral, especially for fans of character animation.

One reason the segment seems awkward is that moreso than any other individual section of Fantasia, it tries to marry the cute and the commanding. There are successes on both sides—think of the adorable little flying horse, yanking his own tail into the air; or the stunning golden chariot of Apollo, riding into the sunset—but there's a lot of room in the middle.

The centaurs and "centaurettes" are indeed odd, drawing as they do on the kind of cheesecake illustrations that were commonly seen on service-station walls. The centaurettes, in particular, were adapted from the curvaceous young women that Freddie Moore made an off-the-clock specialty of drawing for the pervy purview of his fellow animators. We see them emerging nude from their woodsy bath...but where are their nipples?

Also nipple-less are the male centaurs, who come jogging along in a pack to be paired with their like-colored counterparts. Bill Tytla, the animator who properly should have taken the reins here but was needed for Night on Bald Mountain, said the centaurs "looked gutless," like "castrated horsies."

Then there's Bacchus, the god of wine who was animated by Walt Kelly (later of Pogo fame) into what one studio source called a "Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon." In the view of Culhane, there was a great deal lost when the impressive early designs for Bacchus, Zeus, and other characters were put into motion by animators like Art Babbitt, a master of comic details who's best-known for creating the character of Goofy. The majestic concept, for many, just doesn't quite sync with the distinctly cartoonish animation.

A more generous assessment of the segment might see the Arcadia of Disney's Pastoral as a bustling village, a place where the silly and the sublime coexist — as epitomized by the graceful early images of the chiseled winged horses taking their cherubic children for flying lessons. As in the Nutcracker segment, the transitions among disparate scenes are elegantly handled; and (ironically, given the criticism it faced) perhaps no other segment of Fantasia is as sensitive to the underlying score.

The segment is also exploding with color. At the time, the studio had an exclusive contract to use Technicolor for animation, and they didn't hold back — right down to the purplish trees inspired by an animator whose wife serendipitously sent a jar of boysenberry jam for lunch just when the studio was finalizing background colors.

"At last!" Disney had exclaimed in 1932 when he was first introduced to three-strip Technicolor. "We can show a rainbow on the screen!" In Fantasia, that rainbow made a majestic appearance, followed by a fiery sunset created by animators commanded by their boss to "burn up the screen."

For his part, Disney defended his decision to mix the playful and the profound in his Pastoral. Beethoven, he thought, would have approved. "When he inserts a cuckoo bird in the score," said Disney, "you know he's trying to be funny. It creates a whole new feeling — a whole new sympathy for this music."

Though Disney wanted the segment to be funny, he didn't see it as a joke. "I feel it's in a lighter vein," he said, "but we're not going to be slapstick. There's a certain refinement in the whole thing: we'll go for the beautiful rather than the slapstick."

"What impresses me most," animation historian John Canemaker has said about the Pastoral segment of Fantasia, "is the reach that it attempts." Even if the studio overreached itself, there's something to admire in that sheer ambition.