They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
– Psalm 126:5
The closing sequence of Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney’s daringly conceived “concert feature,” may be the zenith of the studio’s animated output. In what the film’s narrator describes as “the struggle between the profane and the sacred,” the grotesque, hellish revels of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” give way to the majestic solemnity and quiet holiness of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” The sequence is so expressly religious it will likely be off Disney+ in a few years, and this is precisely why it is so striking. The demonic Chernabog of “Night on Bald Mountain” may be the single most terrifying evocation of evil in Disney’s long and storied history of animated nightmare fuel; he makes such a plausible devil, in fact, that the only possible rebuttal is the tolling of church bells, followed by a hymn and a pilgrimage to paradise.
By contrast, I have long held that the closing number of Fantasia 2000, Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” is a serious downgrade – not in terms of animation, per se, but from a rich, unambiguous Christianity to a trendily generic pantheism. Fantasia pits good against evil, heaven against hell; Fantasia 2000 merely presents life, death, and renewal as a sort of natural cycle. However, watching the final sequences of both Fantasia films last Easter, I became convinced that I was too hasty to dismiss “The Firebird Suite.” Although it may not equal the artistry and power of the “Night on Bald Mountain”/“Ave Maria” duology, it is – if I may venture an interpretation without straining to locate allegory where it was not intended – a rich and moving suggestion of timeless patterns in the Christian life. Easter Sunday is about far more than the changing of the seasons, but neither is its proximity to the vernal equinox mere coincidence. The passage from the death of winter to the new life of spring is one of the most potent pictures of the Resurrection because it is one of the most primal.
Like “Night on Bald Mountain,” “The Firebird” begins with a mountain, although this is not a parallel so much as a contrast. Bald Mountain looms ominously over a tiny village, aglow with a sickly green luminescence, accompanied by the anxious swelling of Mussorgsky’s strings. If the snow-covered, sunlit mountain of “The Firebird” evokes fear, it is fear of a wholly different kind. It is imposing and daunting, perhaps, but not horrific; there is no malice here, only majesty, and Stravinsky’s music is not dreadful but serene, pastoral. The most striking difference, of course, is that this mountain is not home to a devil. Quite the opposite: the first (and last) character we see in “The Firebird” is a stag (sometimes a symbol of Christ).
The stag is introduced descending – from the direction of the mountain into the forest below. It is winter; the stag is the only living creature onscreen. Coming to a hollow rock structure in the middle of a lake, he breathes on an icicle, warming it so that a drop of water falls into the pool. Upon hitting the water, the droplet takes on form, color, and a life of its own before rising as the sequence’s second character: a sprite. The sprite is most obviously a nature spirit – the spirit of spring – but it can also be read as a figure of the soul of man, animated by the breath of life, as in Genesis. (Here is a counterpoint to the stark Darwinian grandeur of Fantasia’s Rite of Spring, the other Stravinsky piece in these films and its own sort of creation account). Moreover, the watery cave suggests a womb, recalling the Psalmist’s declaration, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
The sprite embraces the stag, who lifts her out of the water, and together they look down a corridor of trees that seems expressly designed to recall the conclusion of “Ave Maria,” continuing to draw direct visual parallels between the two sequences:
Like “Ave Maria,” then, we might view “The Firebird” as a depiction of the soul’s ascent to holiness. Upon receiving the breath of life from the stag, the sprite begins to spread that life into the cold, dead world. Encouraged and occasionally directed by the stag, she cultivates the earth. The palette shifts from grey, wintry tones to earthy greens and browns, with hints of bright colors for flowers and butterflies. Almost imperceptibly, however, she leaves the stag behind and races up the slope of a dark, foreboding mountain, and here her ascent is thwarted. The flowers fade; nothing green will take root. Just as the stag descends into a cave to awaken the sprite, the sprite descends into the crater of the dormant volcano and awakens the firebird.
The firebird, perched on a mountaintop over which it spreads its vast wingspan, directly recalls the most enduring image of “Night on Bald Mountain.” However, unlike Chernabog, the firebird is not really a devil. It is destructive, yes, but too much of an impersonal force to be truly evil or even malicious. Moreover, while we might detect a faint suggestion that the sprite transgresses a prohibition by awakening the firebird, there is also a sense in which the two are simply natural complements to each other. Where she spreads life, it spreads death. (Note the visual similarities: both fly around the landscape, changing whatever their wings pass over.) When the sprite locks eyes with the firebird before it consumes her, the horror on her face suggests a realization of both responsibility and kinship. The firebird is as much a part of the natural order as the sprite; winter is no less natural than spring. To borrow terminology from Ignatius of Loyola, there are seasons of both consolation and desolation in the Christian life, and God makes Himself known in the one as well as the other.
The stag – unharmed, somewhat improbably, by the complete destruction of the forest – revives the sprite by breathing upon her again. (The resonances with Genesis are even more pronounced this time: with his breath, he forms her “out of the dust of the ground.”) Because of weakness or despair, the sprite cannot fly, but the stag bows his head again and lifts her up. As he carries her, her tears fall into the barren ground and flowers sprout from them. I am unavoidably reminded, once again, of the Psalmist: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Or, as Christ teaches: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” The scene of suffering is redeemed; in the end, even the volcano becomes green and verdant. Is this not a perennial pattern of the Christian life? Christ breathes life into us, we bring death upon ourselves, and He brings new life out of that death.
The conclusion of Fantasia makes excellent viewing for Holy Saturday. The movement from “Night on Bald Mountain” to “Ave Maria” perfectly complements the transition from the darkness of Good Friday to the hope that dawns quietly on Easter. However, when it comes to the unabashed feasting of Resurrection Sunday, “The Firebird Suite” is even better – a powerfully stirring picture of the overwhelming joy that springs from tears.