Category Archives: Artistry

Art vs Animation

No, this will not be a long post about if animation can be considered art or not. There is no question for me, an animation is a form of artistry. When I talk about art in this article, I am writing about the composition of the whole, while animation is the movement or the picture the art creates. Both elements are important for an animated movie, and you often have to combine the talents of different people to get the perfect result. Mary Blair for example might have been Disney’s greatest Artist. Her work influenced the studios profoundly during the 1940s and especially 1950s. But she was not an animator. Ward Kimball was Disney’s best character animator and I think there has never been one who could created characters as expressive as he could, but his paintings are in my honest opinion nothing to write home about. There have been a lot of examples of animators who are great in both, art and animation – Glen Keane immediately springs to mind – but just was often an animated movie is the result of a great artist working together with great animators. “Sleeping Beauty” is a prime example of that.  But today I don’t want to talk about Disney, but about two movies which came out in recent years: “Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea”.

I admit it outright: I am not a big fan of “Secret of Kells”. It’s a movie I respect deeply for what it is trying to do, but when I watched it, I found the movie lacking. And I think my biggest issue with it is the animation.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, “Secret of Kells” is beautiful to look at. You could take stills of any part of the movie and it would work perfectly as a painting. But the movement of the characters are very stilted, their faces nearly without expressions and some animation and art is reused in a couple of scenes. The geometrical shapes of the characters fit into the style, but they also spare the animators a lot of extra-lines. It’s like the production cut corners wherever they could without being too obvious about it in order to afford the art in the movie. I don’t blame the studio for that. It is hard to realize a movie project and for a first try, the movie was outstanding. Nevertheless I stand by my opinion that the movie has great art but barely decent animation.

“Song of the Sea” is another matter though. The artistry is still there, but the animation has improved tremendously. The movements are so fluid it is a joy to watch (and I could watch this particular video all day):

Also the characters are so expressive, it is easy to route for them. The story is less told in words and more in expressions, art and symbolism, it’s the perfect use of the medium. Here we have an example of a movie which does deserve to be mentioned side-by-side with the most memorable animation out there. In addition the studio also improved on the storytelling. The way legends parallel real live and issues like grief get addressed is thoughtful and very, very well done. I don’t begrudge “Big Hero 6” the Oscar win, it was well deserved for multiple reasons, but if there should have been an outrage for another movie out there, it shouldn’t have been for “How to train your dragon 2″ and certainly not for ” The Lego Movie”. It should have been for “Song of the Sea”.

My Top Twenty Fantasia Segments

You might wonder how I intend to do a top twenty of Fantasia segments when there are only 15 overall in Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. For this list I’ll also consider the “Forgotten Segments”, meaning every segment every created for a Fantasia movie, weather it actually became part of it or not. That includes the segments which were made for the abandoned Fantasia 2006 project (if you have never seen them, I created a playlist with all the segments which are not part of either “Fantasia” or “Fantasia 2000”. You can find it here: . And if you count those, then you’ll end up exactly with twenty existing segments overall.

Feel free to share your own favourites and discuss the segments, but keep in mind this is only my personal opinion.

20. “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”

This is the only Fantasia segment I actively dislike, and not just because I consider the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major-I. Allegro by Dmitri Shostakovich a bad pick. It’s not exactly one of the most memorable music pieces out there, but above all it doesn’t fit the story by Hans Christian Andersen at all. If Disney had cared to understand what the story is actually about. The inclusion of a villain, the happy ending, all this is very Disney, but it destroys the very core and meaning of the story without offering anything more than a run-of-the-mill plot as replacement. I also dislike the animation, not because of the use of CGI, but because everything looks a little bit too much like plastic.

19. “Pines of Rome”

Okay, I admit it, I have in general a problem with the use of CGI animation for Fantasia segments, mostly because of two reasons: One, CGI ages way faster than traditional animation and two, it has the tendency to limit the creativity of animators. Fantasia is an opportunity to go crazy with colours and shapes, to do something different, something which would have no or only little room in a standard movie. In this case the creativity stops with taking Ottorino Respighi’s music and pair it with a bunch of flying whales.

18. “Rite of Spring”

I know, I know, many people call this their favourite Fantasia segment, especially fans of dinosaurs. I think this is the kind of piece you either really like – or not. I lean towards the latter for various reasons. The most obvious one: The segment is way too long. Most Fantasia segments have a length of something around ten minutes, fifteen minutes top. The “Rite of Spring” has 25 minutes and lacks the kind of variations in the visuals the longer pieces tend to have.
But above all I consider this a very poor interpretation of what I consider Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece. There are ballets which you can take apart and rearrange without any problems and sometimes even a better end-result. This is not one of them. The way the music crescents to a riveting staccato has purpose which is lost by Disney throwing the different music pieces of the ballet wherever they needed them, and the high point of the ballet was even cut out. It just doesn’t do the source material any justice at all.

17. “Lorenzo”

When I originally wrote this article, I had this one on place 12. The reason for it was because back then, it wasn’t easily available, so it was the one I had go by memory for. Back then it got a pretty high placement due to its unusual animation style and its unusual dark humour, though even back then I noted that the conclusion of the segment was a little bit too dark for my taste. I recently had the opportunity to watch it again and realised that it isn’t just dark, it is downright mean-spirted at places. Hence it considerably down the list. I still stick to the opinion that is is an artistic masterpieces which uses the Tango Bordoneo y 900 von Osvaldo Ruggiero to great effect, but it is just not the kind of masterpiece which truly speaks to me on an emotional level.

16. “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”

Of all the segments from the original Fantasia, this is the one which aged the worst. The abstract patterns and shapes used to interpret the music by Johann Sebastian Bach were kind of revolutionary back in 1940, now the audience is so used to the computer generating similar compositions that it loses a lot of its impact. Not that a computer can create something as creative and perfect as this, but there are other segments which stand out way more.

15. “Symphony No. 5 in C minor-I. Allegro con brio”

There reasons for this placement are more or less the same I citied above. It was kind of a toss-up which segment would get the higher placement, and if I had judged them in the context of their respective movie, this one would have lost on the grounds of it not really fulfilling the task of not telling a story and just allow the music by Ludwig van Beethoven to be, but instead kind of telling a story about butterflies being chased by dark bats. Isolated though it is visually slightly more interesting so it got the higher placement this time around.

14. “The Pastoral Symphony”

There was a time when this was one of my favourite Fantasia segments. But I think my love for it steamed mostly from the music by Ludwig van Beethoven. But while I like the mystical setting, the segment is kind of pedestrian compared to other pieces. This is Olympus, why not going all out instead of sticking mostly to prancing centaurs? Plus, I have to take the original version of the segment into account. There is really no excuse for adding racist images into the setting. If Disney hadn’t fixed that for later releases, the segment would have been at the very bottom of this list. As it is, I go for the bottom half.

13. “One by One”

This short moved up and down this list multiple times. Intended to be one of the segments for the proposed but never completed Fantasia 2006 it is set to the song written and performed by Lebo M. Originally part of The Lion King, the song was cut from the movie but became later part of the musical. Now I have two reasons for the placement, and at least the first one is not a particularly good one: I resent the idea to use a song for a Fantasia segment which is already closely connected to another and very famous Disney movie.
But mostly I have trouble to really get into the story, because I feel that its message lacks substance. Now, I am all for Disney’s message of hope and believing in a better time. But to have an impact, it should be connected to a good story with levity. In this case though, I don’t feel the impact. It feels more like someone uses a big brush of colour to hide a dire situation. Speaking of colours: They are the best part of the short. They are so vibrant that they sometimes overwhelm the shapes, but in a deliberate and intriguing way.

12. “Firebird Suite”

To be precise the 1919 Version by Igor Stravinsky. This visually stunning segments expertly creates a contrast between destruction and rebirth. It would be close on the top of this list if not for the fact that it is in its core the climax of “Fantasia” all over again. I can never watch it without comparing, and this segments always comes short. If you redo a concept, you should do it either different enough that it doesn’t matter, or you should do it better.


11. “Clair de Lune”

This segment is just beautiful. It was originally part of Fantasia but cut for time before the original release. To the music of Debussy two egrets are flying through a swamp in the shine of the moon. It perfectly blends a realistic scene with more abstract patterns created by water and light, loses some points though for being a little bit obvious. Everything involving the moon would have been.

10. “The Flamingo with the Yo-Yo”

The title is usually given as “The Carnival of the Animals”, Finale by Camille Saint-Saëns, but let’s face it, everyone remembers this as the answer of the question: “What would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?” It is the shortest Fantasia segment to date, and often criticised for its comedic tone. I think it is hilarious. But that is not the reason I put it so high. The reason is the way the short plays with shapes, colours, light and shadow. It might be comical, but that doesn’t make it any less artistic.

9. “Intermission/Meet the Soundtrack”

I pondered long if I should count this as segment, and to be honest, I mostly did because “Top 20” sounds better than “Top 19”. The next problem was the placement. The jam session is nice, but nothing to write home about. But I love the concept of turning the soundtrack in a character, a straight line which changes shapes based on the sound it makes. So much creativity deserves a place in the top ten.

8. “Pomp and Circumstance”

There are often complains that the piece reminds the audience to much of a graduation ceremony. Perhaps that is true. Not being American I never attended one which used this particular melody. But to be honest, I wasn’t even aware that there is more to this piece by Edward Elgar than the bit which is sometimes shown in TV Shows or Movies. Hearing Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4 gave me a new appreciation for this piece. Normally I would take points for not being particularly artsy, but the animation meshes so perfectly with the music that it kind of makes up for it. While the story is predictable, it does manage to tap into my emotions.

7. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

To be honest, I think this segment is kind of overrated. It might be the most iconic of all the original Fantasia segments, but I think this is less a matter of it being the most memorable, and more a matter of Disney constantly using scenes from it to advertise both for the movie itself and for Mickey Mouse. In this segment based on Goethe’s 1797 poem “Der Zauberlehrling” and accompanied by Paul Dukas musical version of it, Mickey Mouse plays the role of the young apprentice who attempts some of his master’s magic tricks but doesn’t know how to control them.
Part of me thinks that it is kind of crime to rip the poetry from the story, because Goethe manages to play so masterfully with words and special sounds, that one can practically hear the water waging (notice what I did there?). Disney kind of makes up to it with going all out in Mickey’s power fantasies. Still, I might have put it one place lower if not for the artistically merit of the animation. The play with shadows and perspective, the way the brooms become more and more threatening (they are freaking brooms!!!!!!) make this segment special in its own right.

6. “Dance of the Hours”

I guess it is mostly my German humour which makes me love this one so much. Yes, contrary to popular believe Germans have humour. They even have different kinds of humour. The kind which speaks to me the most is taking a normal situation and then adding one element to it which pushes the situation to comical. Like taking a standard ballet and adding some unusual dancers. I doubt that Amilcare Ponchielli ever considered the possibility that one day ostriches, hippos, elephants and crocodiles would perform on his music, but the result is hilarious. I especially love the way the animators considered the way those animals can move before turning them into dancers. But one shouldn’t overlook how carefully every detail is arranged, either. Especially the night segments is just unforgettable, with the way black and red is used there to create a threatening atmosphere.

5. “The Little Matchgirl”

This segment is what “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” should have been. This time Disney captured the spirit of the famous Hans Christian Andersen story perfectly. Set to the third movement of Nocturne from String Quartet No. 2 in D Major by Alexander Borodin, it has all the sadness but also the spark of hope of the original tale, while not disguising the tragic of a little girl dying during the bustle of Christmas preparation. Remember what I wrote above about levity? This is exactly what I meant. No matter how many matches this little girl lights, it will still die in the end if nobody helps her. There might be hope in this world but it doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from humans who open their hearts to other humans.
The art style is kind of anime-inspired, with an emphasis on the expressive face of the little girl and softened in a way that it fits perfectly into the Russian setting Disney picked. The setting and time are, btw, the only changes to the original story, which is set at a non-specific place (but most likely middle-Europe considering the origin of the author) and during New Year’s Eve, not Christmas.

4. “The Nutcracker Suite”

I adore Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, especially his ballets. And I admit, for this reason alone I am inclined to give this segment a high rating. The other reason is that there are still many elements from the original ballet in the animation, even though Disney changed the story of the Nutcracker a fairy dance of the seasons. Especially recognisable are pieces like the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, the “Chinese Dance”, the “Dance of the Flutes”, the “Arabian Dance”, the “Russian Dance” and the “Waltz of the Flowers” (it is kind of fun that Disney took that literally) which are presented with fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves. More than any other segment this is animation dancing over the screen, and hence one of my favourite pieces.

3. “Destino”

Remember Bette Midler mentioning in Fantasia 2000 a Salvador Dalí based “idea that featured baseball as a metaphor for life”? That project, on which Walt Disney was originally working with Spanish Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí in 1945, was picked up again by Roy Disney for Fantasia 2006 and the result is stunning. Featuring music written by Mexican songwriter Armando Dominguez and performed by Dora Luz it is one of the few segments which are paired with a song instead of an instrumental. The short takes full advantage of animation as medium, plays with forms and perspectives and the result is (not surprisingly) surreal. I would never dare to even try to interpret it apart from it having something to do with time, love and destiny, but it is a fascinating watch which will stay with you for a long, long time. An animated piece of art.

2. “Rhapsody in Blue”

Combining George Gershwin with the art style of Al Hirschfeld to capture the spirit of New York City in the 1930s was a stroke of genius of Disney. This is one of the true stand-out segments, in which every elements fits together perfectly. Depicting a day in the lives of four people within the Depression-era bustling metropolis, the segment perfectly captures the mood during the time, the big gap between rich and poor, the underlying sadness while at the same time the city is growing into the sky.

1. “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria”

I hate being predictable, but this is one of Disney’s most daring pieces. Chernabog is one of the most memorable figures of Fantasia, and the dance of the spirits is always fascinating to watch. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more dynamic performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, and the spirit in this piece just underlines the uplifting calmness of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”.

Overall I like most Fantasia segments. but especially those which take advantage of the subject matter and for which the animators thought out of the box.  And looking at what was planed for “Fantasia 2006”, I am very disappointed that the project was cancelled. It had the potential to be better than both “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000”. A part of me is still hoping that one day they will pick it up again…if with or without the finished segments (I hope with – I really want to see “Destino” on the big screen), “Fantasia” should never truly end.