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'Dance of the Hours': Inside the tongue-in-cheek 'Fantasia' ballet tribute

Hyacinth Hippo Disney

Of course, Warner Bros. had to make fun of Disney's masterpiece Fantasia, releasing the short A Corny Concerto just three years after Fantasia's 1940 debut. The irony of the parody is that it did precisely what Walt Disney had explicitly told his animators not to do in their feature: create a string of goofy gags that turned the whole thing into a joke.

Disney's studio knew how to do that — they'd been doing it for years. Walt saw Fantasia as the studio's opportunity to move beyond straightforward yuks and explore the larger worlds that they were now capable of bringing viewers into.

"Excuse me if I get a little riled up on this stuff," he told his team, "because it's a continual fight around this place to get away from slapping somebody on the fanny, or having somebody swallow something."

That said, Disney didn't want Fantasia to be all bloodthirsty dinosaurs and pious angels. The film's penultimate segment, set to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours ballet, demonstrated just how precisely the animators were able to balance beauty and whimsy.

The segment is a parody of classical ballet, but what makes it a masterpiece of animation is the great respect and precise attention it pays to its subject matter. The animators used actual ballet dancers — including Russian prima ballerina Irina Baronova — to create their choreography.

The ballet, from Ponchielli's 1876 opera La Gioconda, progresses from morning through to night, and Disney's team brought on a different species of dancing animal for each portion of the day. Layout artist Ken O'Connor based each segment on a shape: horizontal and vertical lines for the morning (ostriches), ovals for midday (hippos), serpentine lines for afternoon (alligators or crocodiles, the animators were never quite sure which), and zig-zags for nighttime.

"Let's take these animals — screwy as they are — and stage this all as legitimate, done as a perfect ballet." said Walt. "Later, then, let the slips come — rather than in the beginning."

Indeed there are slips, including some of the funniest moments in the entire movie — for example, when "Hyacinth Hippo" comes leaping in and lands atop "Ben Ali Gator," who for all his slithering strength, can't quite manage to hold her up.

By and large, though, the humor in Disney's Dance of the Hours is organic rather than gag-driven: it emerges from the contrast between the animals' unwieldy shapes and their graceful motions. The classical setting proves as flexible as its inhabitants, perspectives ebbing and flowing to fit each individual shot.

The segment was directed by Norman Ferguson, a master of character animation who was responsible for making the character of Pluto come alive in the 1930s. Another key member of the creative team was Jules Engel, who helped create the striking ostrich opening and later went on to be an important member of the seminal UPA studio.

Really understanding the segment, additionally, involves understanding the music in its mid-century context. Conductor James Levine, who took the baton for sequel Fantasia 2000, admitted in a commentary for The Fantasia Anthology DVD release that the Dance of the Hours segment "may be the only idea in the film that has dated a bit."

What Levine meant was that a 1940 audience would have been much more familiar with Ponchielli's ballet than we are today — so a parody would have resonated more strongly than it does now.

"La Gioconda," Levine said on the DVD, "is one of those operas that was so popular for so many years, and has gradually receded in frequency of performance because it gets harder and harder to cast it and there are many other great works that weren't played so frequently before that have come more to the forefront."

Another reference that ballet fans in the '40s might have caught more readily than those today involved Hyacinth Hippo emerging from the fountain: that was a burlesque of dancer Vera Zorina in a famous scene from Balanchine's 1938 Goldwyn Follies choreography.

It's a moment that's somehow even more beautiful in the pastiche than in the original: as animation historian John Canemaker observes in the DVD commentary, it's the result of the animators' ability to extend their craft beyond what live action could have accomplished. Doing so, in this instance, required an absolute mastery of tone.

"With every laugh, there must be a tear somewhere," said Walt. "I believe in that."

Hyacinth Hippo Disney

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