Fantasia (1940). 126 minutes. Starring Deems Taylor (as Master of Ceremonies). Music conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Story direction by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Produced by Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen.
Fantasia is almost a complete anomaly in the Disney film canon. The third feature-length animated movie to emerge from Disney’s studios, it does not tell one overarching story but rather is a collection of eight short films inspired by and set to classical music. The sequences range from an abstract depiction of sound (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”) to a grim scientific odyssey (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”), from light comedies (Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”) to somber material (Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria”). The movie is one of Disney’s finest achievements, and it elevates animation by pairing cartoons with some of the greatest instrumental music in history. But due to its considerable budget, the onset of World War Two in Europe, and the cost of installing the theatrical stereophonic sound systems that were required for screening the film, Fantasia was considered in its day to be a commercial failure. Since then, however, it has become iconic. In particular, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment, which was designed to reinvigorate Mickey Mouse’s flagging career, has become one of that character’s most famous appearances.
The movie features eight musical segments, each one introduced by music critic Deems Taylor. The first (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”) consists of a series of shapes that evoke the orchestra’s sounds. Next, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” is interpreted through the movement of fairies, flowers, and fish in a woodland setting. The narrative pieces begin with Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which casts Mickey Mouse as an underling who uses his master’s book of spells to make his work easier. Then there is an intermission, and when we return from it host Deems Taylor introduces us to the soundtrack, a personified character who interprets the noise produced by individual instruments. Following that, we move on to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” which takes place in an ancient Greek rural environment, laden with winged horses, centaurs, and the gods. Then, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” addresses the origins of life on the planet and shows us the evolution and demise of the dinosaurs. Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” features hippos and alligators dancing through the hours of the day. Finally, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” presents a powerful demon who summons spirits to wreak havoc on a mountain town. At its conclusion, this segment segues into Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” during which we see a line of devout observers moving through a forest towards the ruins of a cathedral.
One of the movie’s strengths lies in its transformation of the animated short subject into something more refined, but without losing the humorous touches of Disney’s popular Silly Symphonies. Fantasia takes one of the most delightful aspects of short animated films—their reliance on classical incidental music to punctuate comic moments—and makes those incidental moments the main attraction. Much in the way that short subjects briefly quote well-known pieces of music to set a scene or underscore a joke, Fantasia relies to a certain extent on our familiarity with the works it employs. For example, the same audience that responds to a few bars of Dvorák’s “Humoresque” played in a Silly Symphonies short will probably chuckle at the sight of thistle plants performing the Russian trepak dance from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.” In that sequence, the movie assumes that we will appreciate the similarity between the thistles and traditional Russian costume—it takes for granted, in other words, that we know the music and its performance tradition. And yet the movie is also generous with those of us who lack real musical expertise. Master of Ceremonies Deems Taylor genially introduces each short by providing a bit of necessary background: information about the composer, a synopsis of the animation’s story (if there is one), even background on the history of evolution for the “Rite of Spring”/dinosaurs segment. Although Fantasia draws from highbrow culture, it makes its appeal to both insiders and outsiders.
The movie is also exceptional due to the exquisite nature of much of its animation. The “Nutcracker Suite” episodes in particular (which include the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Chinese Dance, “Dance of the Flutes,” “Arabian Dance,” “Russian Dance,” and “Waltz of the Flowers”) are beautiful. I am thinking especially of the “Waltz of the Flowers,” where fairies skid across a pond, spreading the ice of winter; the “Dance of the Flutes,” where falling flowers meet their underwater reflections on the surface of a pool; and the “Arabian Dance,” where beautiful, partially transparent fish billow their filmy tails in time with seductive, quivering string music. “The Dance of the Hours,” too, with its cartoonish ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators, is clever and highly appealing. In this segment, the animators take some of the least graceful animals we can imagine and turn them into ballerinas. I find myself chuckling every time I see the star hippo race toward the alligator prince, leap into the air, and land on him with a giant orchestral crash. “The Dance of the Hours” is one of the most iconic and frequently extracted segments in the movie, and certainly one of the funniest.
There is also an absence of beauty in some of the animation. For example, much as I adore Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” and although I love the idea of animating an ancient Greek scenario to it, some of the creatures in this segment do not appeal to me. The centaurs look like bros fresh from the centaur gym, and the centaur ladies resemble pin-up girls. Their styling looks dated, and the coloring of the trees and fields, although bright and lively, seems garish at times. For these reasons, I do not find the kind of timeless quality in the animation here that I locate in some of the other segments. An additional sad detail of the pastoral segment is that it originally contained a racist caricature of a black centaur who behaves subserviently to one of the centaurette beauties. Disney has edited out the offending scenes in subsequent years, but you can still see them here.
Perhaps the ambitious dinosaur piece set to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” also does not qualify as beautiful, but it is impressive. Deems Taylor more or less explains at its beginning that what we are about to see is the story of biological evolution, starting with the appearance of single-celled life on earth and progressing to land animals. Much of the imagery is stark and brutal: boiling hotpots and floating protozoa early on; menacing dinosaurs hunting, killing, and eating each other later; and all of the creatures that we are shown eventually dying in dried-out, meteor-stricken wastelands. The animation here is a great example of how in tune the art direction is with the music. As Taylor explains, Stravinsky sought to stir feelings of something primitive in his audience, by which the composer presumably meant something both old and integral to our being. Although Stravinsky had ancient pagans in mind, the movie’s look at the earliest days of life on earth is nevertheless in sync with the music’s premise, broadly speaking. The segment manages to capture the epic nature of early life while conveying a fair amount of unease and estrangement, which I think the composer would like.
Where the “Rite of Spring” segment underscores the movie’s strategic pairing of subject matter with music, the finale (“Night on Bald Mountain” paired with “Ave Maria”) is a great example of how strategically placed the individual musical pieces are. I remember as a child being truly terrified by the horrible demon perched atop Fantasia’s Bald Mountain and the lost souls that he directs from high above. He is the precise image of my nightmare idea of Satan: large, overpowering, winged and horned, pulsing red, and seething with malevolence. The animation nicely enhances Mussorgsky’s music, which is already creepy on its own but here becomes powerfully charged with explicit and eerie demonism.
Following this sketch with the parade of lamp-guided monastics that lead us into Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is one of the film’s most brilliant moves, a balance of the sacred with the profane. The recording of “Ave Maria,” like all of the music in Fantasia, is first rate, but the art direction in this segment is also truly inspired. The animation uses painted plate glass over animated cels, which creates astonishing depth in foreground and background detail—this technique was subsequently used in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). The effect in Fantasia is that the “Ave Maria” scene feels enchanted and holy. In contrast with the demon in “Night on Bald Mountain,” the small but steady line of vigilant observers lacks visible faces and appendages, but we do see the lights that they carry. Their anonymous constancy is moving. We feel relief at the sight of them, and that relief would not be part of our experience were we seeing the “Ave Maria” sketch in isolation.
I began this article by observing that Fantasia is nearly an anomaly in the Disney canon. There was Fantasia 2000, of course, which I rather liked and for many of the same reasons that I enjoyed the original movie. Fantasia was meant to be a recurrent, ongoing production for Disney. The idea was to revive it every few years with one or two older segments retained but with other, newly created segments added. Due to the financial failure of the original Fantasia, this idea was never realized. Perhaps the studio was also hesitant to revive the movie more often because it has less obvious child appeal than Disney’s subsequent productions, and that appeal became increasingly important to Disney as the years went on. Still, it is a pity that there is not more of an incentive to rekindle the concept as the movie’s format is extremely fertile ground, and Fantasia is infinitely more watchable than the fairy-tale narratives that Disney became preoccupied with in his feature-film work. The movie’s sense of adventure and its willingness to take risks places it among the finest cel-animated works of the Golden Age.