Should I Watch..? 'Fantasia' (1940)
What's the big deal?
Fantasia is an animated musical fantasy film released in 1940 and was produced and released by Walt Disney, only the third animated feature film in history. Instead of following one narrative, the film is a series of animations to accompany eight pieces of classical music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The film is most famous for its sequence The Sorcerer's Apprentice which sees Mickey Mouse attempt to master his teacher's spells to chaotic effect. The first film to be released in stereophonic sound, the film initially lost money due to World War II cutting the European market off. After numerous re-releases over the years, the film went on to earn $76.4 million worldwide and has become considered to be one of Disney's greatest films as well as one of his most experimental.
What's it about?
The film has no single narrative. Instead, the film offers animated sequences alongside eight pieces of classical music - Toccata & Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas, Rite Of Spring by Igor Stravinsky followed by a brief interlude, Beethoven's iconic Pastoral Symphony, Dance Of The Hours by Amilcare Ponchielle, Modest Mussorgsky's imposing Night On Bald Mountain and finally Franz Schubert's Ave Maria.
Each animation is a direct reflection of the piece it accompanies so The Sorcerer's Apprentice sees Mickey Mouse perform as a wizard's apprentice and struggle to master his tutor's spells. The Pastoral Symphony is a vision of Greco-Roman gods and myths such as centaurs, fauns, Zeus and cupids while Night On Bald Mountain is a terrifying vision of the demonic Chernabog, unleashing his undead minions at the stroke of midnight. The orchestra is conducted by Leopold Stokowski and the film's program is narrated by Deems Taylor - the only individuals (aside from the odd member of the orchestra) shown in live action, albeit in silhouette.
50th anniversary trailer
Himself, Master Of Ceremonies
James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr, Norman Ferguson, David Hand, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield & Ben Sharpsteen*
Joe Grant & Dick Huemer
Release Date (UK)
21st July, 1941
Animation, Family, Fantasy, Musical
Honorary Award (Stokowski) - "For their unique achievement in the creation of a new form of visualized music", Honorary Award (Walt Disney, William E. Garity & JNA Hawkins) - "For their outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures"
What's to like?
While the likes of Dumbo or Pinocchio might be more cherished, I maintain that it's Fantasia that has the most amount of Disney magic contained within. Freed from the restraints of having to stick to a single narrative, the film is literally a beautiful explosion of colour and ideas that simply overwhelms you. From dancing mushrooms to ballet-dancing hippos, the film is awash with visions that are both alien and yet entertaining because they fit with the music so perfectly. And I do mean perfectly - in many cases, it's impossible to hear the music again without thinking of the animations displayed here. And they are magnificent, powerful reminders of the real artistry that made Disney the premier producer of animation for decades. Personally, I think this is one of Disney's best looking films ever.
The other thing about the film is without a narrative, you don't need to pay it as much attention as you might other films. Not that you don't pay attention to it but you can relax and just let the experience wash over you like a cultural tide. And given how little exposure children these days get to classical music, the film is somehow more important and relevant today than it was in the early Forties. Together with the traditional hand-drawn and hand-painted animation, Fantasia feels like the last of its kind - a stunning marriage of artwork and music the likes of which we simply don't see these days.
- The wizard in the Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence was secretly modelled on Walt Disney himself with the animators adding a raised eyebrow as an apparent giveaway. The character was also called Yen Sid - Disney backwards.
- The film remains the longest animated feature film Disney has ever produced and is still the only such film to last more than two hours. It's also believed to be the first film not to feature any on-screen credits at all - only the intermission title card is shown. The credits listed on IMDb are derived from the 1990 re-release.
- Disney still receive complaints about the sequence featuring Chernabog during the Night On Bald Mountain scene, even after all this time. Part of the reason may be because Dracula actor Bela Legosi posed for the animators during the character's creation. However, the animator of the sequence Vladimir Tytla was unhappy with the results so he asked sequence director Wilfred Jackson to pose instead.
- Although he had been appearing in cartoons for Disney since his debut in 1928, this marks the first feature film appearance by Mickey Mouse. To date, his last theatrical release was Fantasia 2000.
What's not to like?
It is apparent why Disney chose the Night On Bald Mountain to finish the film because it is legitimately one of the most troubling and disturbing animated sequences they have ever produced. It is the sort of dark and macabre nightmare that Bruce Wayne would wake up from in a cold sweat and I'm not joking. It is a shocking, almost violent twist in the film's tone and atmosphere that is only relieved by the closing segment based around Ave Maria. But I can still remember the shock watching the film as a kid and after witnessing this huge demon envelop his mountain and send his undead hordes forth to do untold evil, the sudden burst of holy light and angelic voices did little to calm me or my crying sister down.
Aside from that and the possible need to modernise the animation techniques, there really isn't much wrong with Fantasia. It remains one of the most essential and important films Disney has ever produced and it's testament to the vision of the story-tellers and animators that the film is still utterly bewitching today. It restores your faith in a company that today tends to dwell on its past glories and become corporately motivated instead of pushing artistic boundaries.
Should I watch it?
Fantasia is still one of the greatest films Disney has ever produced. Wonderfully scored and stunningly animated, the film is a wondrous flood of image and sound that is still totally absorbing to audiences of all ages. Unlike almost any other film Disney has produced, this is more of an experience that adults and children will love. It might be about old-school animation and classical music but the film is just as appealing and beguiling as it ever was, if not more so.
Great For: adults, children, artists, classical music enthusiasts
Not So Great For: the unimaginative, anyone not interested in classical music (you're missing out!), knuckle-dragging and inattentive parents
What else should I watch?
Fantasia really stands out among the other films Disney have produced with one notable exception. Fantasia 2000 was a simple revival of the concept, animating sequences alongside pieces of classical music. As well as including the original Sorcerer's Apprentice scene, the film includes pieces by Beethoven, Elgar, Shostakovich and George Gershwin. Sadly, critics were more divided as to the film's merits - some scenes were derided as banal or too abstract. This, combined with the film's less-than-impressive box office earnings, led to the cancellation of a proposed third film - another indication of the strength of the original.
Disney's original strategy of animating a string of fairy tales and children's books brought massive success in the beginning but things eventually went sour as audiences tired. It wasn't until the late Eighties that things began to turn around for the studio - The Little Mermaid was a smash hit the likes of which the company hadn't experienced for some time and it was followed up with similar hits like Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King. Today, the company has moved away from traditional animation towards CG-based movies and have enjoyed great success with films like Frozen, Zootopia and Moana. Whether this marks a new age of dominance for the studio remains to be seen - after all, they have plenty of competition these days.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox