Fantasia was Walt Disney’s baby from start to finish. Financially, it was a disaster for the animation studio, and it would take them years to recover. At some point, Walt Disney had decided that he wanted to see a film that joined classical music to animation, elevating his studio’s medium to one of the high performance arts. So he made Fantasia. Although at first the idea seems radical and new, it’s actually a logical extension of some of the things that made Disney famous. Early cartoons (think Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) were often animated shorts set to music; many of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” were also musical pieces, and they were tremendously successful. But a five minute cartoon and a two hour film are two different beasts, as Walt was most unhappy to learn. His dream of a Fantasia that constantly renewed itself, replacing animated shorts through the years as it played again and again in theatres around the world would never materialize.
There are eight sequences in Fantasia. Each segment has an introduction by Deems Taylor, a composer and music critic who worked primarily through radio. Taylor gives a bit of background on the musical selection, placing it in an easy to understand context very useful for an audience who is unlikely to be familiar with every piece. His narration is also the only thing really holding the animation together; otherwise, viewers are just watching a bunch of random short stories set to music. (This became pretty standard with Disney films of the 1940s, an unfortunate legacy of the box office blow Fantasia dealt the still-struggling animation firm.) I’ll talk about each sequence individually.
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: This is an extremely abstract attempt to bring to life the images one might imagine if listening to the music in a concert hall. Images of the musicians and the orchestra float across the screen before fading into shadows and cloud formations with lines and shapes dancing across them. It grows increasingly surreal as stringed instruments become rolling hills that look like they fell out of a Dali painting. In terms of experimental animation, Toccata and Fugue is interesting to watch, but after a while I always start squirming and wonder when we’re gonna get on to something resembling a story.
Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite: When I was a little girl, I was one of those little ballerina princess-types whose father generously took her to see The Nutcracker every year around Christmas. (He also took me to see every production of Swan Lake, proving he was a dedicated father; by the time I was a teenager he had those sets and costumes memorized and would sleep through the show without missing a thing.) I’ve always loved the suite of dances from Nutcracker; the music is catchy and during the ballet, it’s a great opportunity for the costumers and dancers to have fun. Not surprisingly, the fairies and animals that populate the Disney fantasy were my favorite segment when I was growing up. The fairies are beautifully animated. I can’t help but marvel at the delicacy of the animators’ drawings when the fairies place individual dew drops on a spider’s web or float through the sky on snowflakes.
Some people might think I’d find the Chinese Dance/Mushroom Dance sequence offensive. It’s rather racist, after all. But I just think those mushrooms are so darn cute, and the character design and movement matches the mood of the music so perfectly that I just love it. The Russian Thistles later on are just as spot-on. Nutcracker Suite is one of the loveliest bits of animation ever produced by Disney studios, and I love watching it every time.
Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: This is the best known piece from Fantasia, and with good reason! It is the most successful marriage of music and narrative in any Disney piece, and the adventure of Mickey attempting to be a sorcerer is so funny and immediately accessible that it appeals to every audience. From start to finish, its storytelling at its best – and Mickey in the best role he’d ever have, too.
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring: This is an unusual piece that I believe is also the lengthiest segment in Fantasia. There are some elements that work and some that don’t. I always get bored while I’m waiting for the dinosaurs to show up – the music is good but watching tiny objects float on a black screen is a snore. But I always start to perk up when the volcanoes appear and start pumping lava all over the place. Then we go back to tiny bacterias and I drift off again until we get DINOSAURS! Once the big monsters are on the screen, I’m hooked ‘til the end of the sequence – although given the evolution in our understanding of how dinosaurs looked and moved compared to what we knew in the 1930s, I have to laugh at how ridiculous certain sequences now appear.
Meet the Soundtrack: This segment follows an intermission (certainly necessary at this point in the movie!) and it’s mostly pointless. The ‘soundtrack’ of the film, a white line, changes shape and color based on what instrument or sound it plays. It interacts with the orchestra and with Taylor, and I guess it’s different from what we’ve seen before, but usually I think of it as a forgettable extension of the intermission.
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: If Nutcracker Suite is my favorite segment of Fantasia, then Beethoven’s piece is a close second. I always loved the frolicking mythological characters when I was a kid. The playful baby unicorns, the family of winged horses, and the ridiculous fashions designed by the naked Cupids and ‘centaurettes’ all delight me. I know that this piece is highly controversial due to the inclusion of Sunflower, a black servant-centaurette who helps the others get ready for the arrival of the centaurs, but ultimately doesn’t get paired off. Her character is clearly based off the Golliwog doll. By the 1960s, Disney recognized just how offensive she was and have been editing her out of the sequence ever since, but thanks to the Internet and its ability to restore to public knowledge that which Disney wishes forgotten, this segment of Fantasia is forever tainted.
Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours: Oddly enough, I never liked this ballet-themed sequence when I was a kid. Today, I can appreciate the mindless playfulness of the dancing animals, which is quite refreshing after the semi-serious tone of the preceding pieces. Plus, the design is excellent and the character animation is wonderful and expressive. I do think the piece suffered a bit by being so late in the show; by the time the music begins the movie’s already been going for over an hour and a half and I’m always really restless and ready for things to wrap up.
Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert’s Ave Maria: Always end with your best work, right? Night on Bald Mountain has some of Disney’s best animation. Every time I watch the opening scene, I get chills. I just love it. As an adult, this is definitely my favorite piece in Fantasia, but as a kid it scared me. When I imagined the Devil, it wasn’t some silly guy in a red jumpsuit with horns and cloven toes – it was the scary, mountain-sized monster Chernabog who raises the dead with a wave of his hand and can summon demons and harpies from the underworld. Now that’s terrifying. There is one thing I have always wondered – there’s a scene where Chernabog creates three beautiful women from flames, only to transform them into swine and demons and ultimately into tiny corrupted devils like himself. Did he transform them into embodiments of ugliness instead of beauty because, as a creature of evil, it delights him to destroy loveliness or is it because it is the nature of his magic that he can only create ugly, evil things? For a creature with no spoken dialogue and very little actual screen time, Chernabog has become one of Disney’s most iconic villains because more than any other, he represents all that is frightening and terrible in the night.
So that’s Fantasia. It has its good moments and its bad ones. When a sequence works, it works really well, but it’s hardly a consistent film. I think it would have been interesting if Fantasia had become a standard at the movie theater, cropping up year after year with some old and some new stories to tell. But it’s hard to imagine that coming to fruition, and after the disaster of the initial release Walt Disney was probably the only one who still wanted to see it happen. His dream would finally be realized sixty years later with Fantasia 2000, which I’ll eventually get around to watching and writing up, I’m sure.
While some segments are certainly 10/10, the weaker sections and unnecessarily long run time drag Fantasia down.