Yes, you read the last post right, today I’m talking about my favorite animated scene. The best animated films draw us in differently than a live-action film, because the rules are all different. Animated films get to zig where others zag. Sure, there are plenty of great animation studios, but the most imaginative animated scenes almost always come from Disney and Disney/Pixar.
Where else can you see a scene quite like the gorgeous first ten minutes of Up? Who can create a musical number half as fun as “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book (not Jon Favreau)? No other scenes can enchant as much as the “Bella Notte” sequence from Lady and the Tramp or the ballroom scene from Beauty and the Beast. You could pick any scene at random from the first half of The Lion King and it would be great (not that that rest is bad), but the opening “Circle of Life” sequence is particular awe-inspiring. Disney even creates incredible tense horror with the Headless Horseman scene from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. However, there is no animated scene quite like the “Night on Bald Mountain”/”Ave Maria” sequence that closes out Fantasia.
Just look at how much is going on in that opening shot. There’s smoke passing over the ominous Bald Mountain. The village looks minuscule compared to the looming mountain that overshadows it. Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” starts with its enormous sound, led by the strings.
As we zoom through the smoke to the very top of the mountain, we get the reveal of one of most imposing Devils ever put on film. Yes, he’s officially called Chernabog now after the Slavic deity the animators based his style off of, but the narrator who introduces the sketch outright calls him Satan. He makes spirits rise from the ground, and the way they fly seamlessly through the air is both creepy and strangely beautiful. The backgrounds of the village are so fully realized in their depth that we completely forget we’re watching a movie. It’s tough for any movie to do this, but it’s even more amazing that an animated film can shatter this illusion.
The Devil toys with the tortured souls for a while, showing perhaps the darkest imagery ever used in a Disney film. It’s grotesque and pure evil, matching the sounds of the music perfectly. Then, church bells ring out. The Devil tries to continue torturing the souls, but the sound literally stops him, eventually turning him into the mountain as morning comes.
Schubert’s “Ave Maria” starts out slowly as we gradually see lights shining through the early morning fog. We soon see it is a group of people holding lights and walking through the woods. It is hard to describe the feeling that the animation and music creates here, but the closest I can come is saying that the viewer literally feels morning. It’s the washing away of everything evil and dark, replacing it with pure goodness.
Just look at the beauty of that shot. It captures that feeling right before the sun has fully come up, and again, the music is suited perfectly. You could argue it’s just scenery and music, and in a way it is, but as The Sopranos‘ Little Carmine Lupertazzi would say, it’s “the sacred and the propane.” (Yes, I know it’s profane.) Like the end of basically every Disney film, it’s good defeating evil, but it’s subtle and runs solely on emotion.
At the end of this scene, Fantasia just ends with no closing narration or credits, but just a fade to black. The scene is just so powerful that anything else would have lessened it. It’s probably the most beautifully animated film ever made, and the closing scene is a perfect way to end it.
We’re past the halfway point, and tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at my #4 scene.