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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Disney Does Darwin

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/04/10 at 12:13 PM


Another post examining Disney’s Fantasia. Here’s one about the entire film; one about Dance of the Hours; one about The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; and one about Ave Maria (dialog with Mike Barrier).]

Disney’s Program

Just how and why Darwin came to be on the program for Disney’s Fantasia, that I do not know, though perhaps the question could be answered though a trip to the Disney archives. There can be no doubt, however, that Darwin was on the program, even if he, and his theory of evolution, wasn’t mentioned by name. Here’s what Deems Taylor says in his on-screen introduction to Disney’s presentation of The Rite of Spring:

When Igor Stravinsky wrote his ballet The Rite of Spring, his purpose was, in his own words, “to express primitive life” So Walt Disney and his fellow artists have taken him at his word. Instead of presenting the ballet in its original form, as a simple series of tribal dances, they have visualized it as a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth. It’s a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet’s existence. So now, imagine yourselves out in space, billions and billions of years ago, looking down on this lonely, tormented little planet, spinning through an empty sea of nothingness.

He goes on to add that “Science, not art, wrote the scenario of this picture. . . .  Finally, after about a billion years, certain fish, more ambitious than the rest, crawled up on land and became the first amphibians.” From there we see the age of dinosaurs, and their demise in a great heat wave. Disney had originally intended to present evolution from the beginning to the dawn of humankind, but pressure from Christian fundamentalists led him to abandon that idea.

Still, the basic idea is there on the screen. The damage, if that’s what it is, has been done.

To be sure, what we see could easily be interpreted as Lamarckian rather than Darwinian evolution.  After all, the Darwinian idea is a subtle one, and presenting it on screen, without any explanatory narrative, would have been difficult. In any event, Lamarckian evolution is no more acceptable to fundamentalist Christian than Darwinian evolution. What is offensive is that one species derives from another. And that idea is on the screen.

And in the sound track. Or, just barely in the sound track. For Disney makes the point, not simply through what we see, but also through what we hear. The relationship between the two is critical to our understanding of this matter. Thus, before launching into the analysis, I want to think about the relationship between image and sound in cartoons in general and in Fantasia in particular.

Sights and Sounds

In the Fall of 1928 Roy Disney sold brother Walt’s car to finance a recording session for Disney’s third Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie. The cartoon was a success and it made Disney’s career. Dialogue was minimal but the music was closely synchronized to movements on the screen. The film’s highlight was a barnyard scene where Mickey played on barnyard animals as though they were musical instruments, with Mickey’s movements synchronized precisely to the sound track.

Why were these cartoons so popular? Novelty value no doubt accounts for some of the initial impact. But I believe that more that mere novelty is at issue. These cartoons were new in a very special way: they presented the human sensorium with a new kind of multi-modal stimulation. It is one thing to experience a new taste or smell, a new melody or a new musical instrument, or a new kind of story, e.g. a trip to the moon. Those are all new examples of familiar kinds of experience. These sound-synchronized cartoons provided a new kind of experience. 

Think of the relationship between images and sounds in the natural world. Sounds, of course, are very important. We have the vocal cries of communication. We also have sounds as indicators of things unseen. But how often do you both see something and hear it in tight synchrony? If something falls to the ground while you are watching and makes a sound, that’s one case, and there are others like it. If any animal moves in a noisy way, again while you are watching, that’s another case. But it is not, in general, the case that what you see and what you hear are tightly synchronized. Steamboat Willie changed that and thus afforded people an arena of novel, and thus exciting, experiences.

Fantasia was created as a virtuoso demonstration of this new kind of experience. Only one of the eight segments has a conventional narrative, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; none of them feature characters that speak to one another, nor do any have naturalistic sounds. All the action is in what you see, the music you hear, and the relationship between the two.

The relationship is perhaps most striking in the opening segment, in the toccata section of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The visual world is semi-abstract, with no well-defined three-dimensional space through which the camera moves. The overall effect is that what you see is being driven by what you hear. That effect is lessened when the images depict identifiable objects and creatures moving in coherent 3D spaces, which is the case for all of the other segments (except, perhaps, for part of Night on Bald Mountain). Still, the interplay between music and imagery is important in all the segments, and Disney puts it to particular use in The Rite of Spring.

Of Volcanoes, Dinosaurs, and Fish

At almost 23 minutes long, The Rite of Spring segment is the longest in the film, and is the most daring piece of music, with its off-kilter rhythms and dissonant harmonies. Other than the Bach, the rest of the music is in the late Classical and Romantic style that provided much of the musical vocabulary for film scores and Broadway musicals. While the Bach is austere and even cerebral, Stokowski’s lush orchestration relieves the austerity – though the semi-abstract imagery must have been off-putting to many in the audience.

The Rite of Spring segment uses a wide range of imagery, perhaps the widest of any segment in the whole film. It begins with a view of the Milky Way galaxy in the distance, a zooms-in to earth, which is hot and volcanic. We then see volcanic eruptions, single-celled life in the sea, the emergence of animal life on land, and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.

The volcano sequence ends with enormous storming at sea. The music becomes calmer and dissipates until there is nothing left but a quiet tremolo in the strings. The screen fades to black and the music stops entirely for a second or two. The music then restarts with a slow melody in the woodwinds; the screen lights up blue flecked with white. We are under water:


At this point the music is very slow and languid, with no strongly marked beats. It will remain this way through the end of this seqment and beyond. While any action can move along at more or less the same pace as the music, there is nothing in the music to mark clear and obvious points of synchrony, such as the strong rhythmic beating during the earlier volcano eruptions or the footfalls of T. Rex in a later sequence. There are no ticks or thumps or KABOOMS in the music. The only exception to this occurs when two or three plangent chords are synchronized with what appear to be underwater eruptions of some sort (the dark cloud to the bottom left in the image below).

dark cloud.jpg

After each of these sequences, we see new kinds of animals. This sequence, then, is relatively quiet but not necessarily peaceful. Disney shows these little animals busily chasing and eating one another.

liquid contact.jpg

Disney makes no attempt to show the emergence of living cells from inanimate matter. They are simply there. Shortly after the sequence begins two living cells take the foreground, the smaller of the two probing the other. Note that Deems Taylor mentioned single-celled organisms in his introduction, thus ensuring that the audience had a way of interpreting these otherwise strange, and probably, novel images. But that is all the help the audience gets. There is no voice-over lecture on cell biology.

This is followed immediately by a sequence where we see two cells mingling, then dividing into four cells, the four into eight (see image at right above), eight into sixteen, and so forth.

5 divide.jpg
Two Cells

7 eight cells.jpg
Eight Cells

Then we see multi-celled creatures and, shortly, some small fish. One of these fish will, in the course of twenty seconds or so, grow larger and change form at least three times. At the end of the sequence it walks up the bank and pokes its snout above the water’s surface. The following set of images is from this sequence.

1. Notice the small fish at the right center.

2. It is larger and has a different form.

3. Still larger, a different form.

4. A new form.

5. Walking up the bank, fins have become feet.

At this point the screen goes black while the music continues, still slow, still languid. Then we see this scene:

4 turtle.jpg

With large dinosaurs in the water in the background, it is obvious that millions of years have elapsed in the interval during which the screen was black.  The music has transported us deep into the age of dinosaurs, which will continue through the rest of this segment until the dinosaur’s are no more.

Evolutionary Music

But let us return to the metamorphosis sequence. Obviously this sequence does not depict Darwinian evolution in any direct way. If one did not know what it was meant to depict, the sequence would be mysterious. The important point is that, given the various implicit conventions Disney has already established in the three previous segments of Fantasia, we have no choice but to understand this metamorphosis as something that has been driven from within the animal itself. There is no external force acting on the animal, no Divine Designer.

Why do I say that? Because, if Disney had wanted to show that, he could easily have done so in this medium. In The Nutcracker Suite we see fairies causing dew to form and causing Summer to give way to Autumn, and Autumn to Winter. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice we saw magic at work: smoke assumed a butterfly form; a broom is brought to life; and water is dispersed. Disney could easily have done something similar to show the emergence of animal life from the water to land. But he did not do that.

And I take the absence of strongly marked rhythmic music as a further indicator that the change is imminent Deep Within Life Itself. In the previous volcano sequence strong beats marked eruptions of smoke and lava. One can easily read, no, experience, those beats as the motive force driving volcanic eruptions. Later in the segment we’ll see a fight-to-the-death between two dinosaurs; strong beats in that music mark the movements of the animals. One can easily experience the music as the animal motive force, the energy and intentionality, in those movements.

Such animal movements as there are in this evolution sequence, and there are some, are not strongly marked – the movements of small microorganisms, jelly fish movements, fish movements, fins, tail, body torsion, then walking up the sea bottom toward the shore – and all these movements are more rapidly paced than any audible changes in the music. I assume, but do not know, that these movements are, in fact, timed to subdivisions of the musical pulse. If so, one cannot consciously see and hear such synchronization. It doesn’t wallop you over the head like the earlier volcano bursts or the subsequent titanic dinosaur battle. That is to say, there is no reason to link the music directly to anything the animal is doing intentionally. If the music is marking anything, it is marking something else.

Nothing is strongly marked by the music except long periods of time – those plangent chords – that transpire between the segments we see on screen. This languid music continues through the emergence of animal life on land. As the turtle nears the shore (see the previous image) the camera moves in and focuses on what’s happening in and above the water. Visually, there has been a very sharp transition, from the blue-dominated under-water world, to an above-water world, with oranges, yellows, and whites in the sky, and animals swimming on the surface and, before long, pterodactyls flying and swooping from above.


We’ve seen one form of life evolve into another – fish to amphibian – and we’ve moved from one major environment, under water, to the earth’s surface and above. We are thus left to regard this segment of music, slow slow long patient tones, as the force of Evolution Itself, operating on a time-scale fundamentally different from that of volcanic eruptions or battles-to-the death. 

Before long the camera will shift its gaze to the land, we’ll move into the jungle, the music will pick up the pace and we’ll have the climactic battle between T. Rex and the Stegosaurus. And then, then heat, death, earthquakes and convulsions, and more heat. The dinosaurs are gone.

But Disney has done it, put evolution up there on the screen, in a cartoon, set to music by Igor Stravinsky. All in an effort to bring high-brow music to middle-brow audiences. Disney did Darwin.

10 hot sun.jpg


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