Fantasia (1940)

  • Release date: 13 November, 1940
  • Run time: 126 mins
  • Director: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson
  • Cast: Deems Taylor (narrator)
  • Inspired by: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Johann Sebastian Bach); The Nutcracker Suite (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky); The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Paul Dukas); Rite of Spring (Igor Stravinsky); The Pastoral Symphony (Ludwig van Beethoven); Dance of the Hours (Amilcare Ponchielli); Night on Bald Mountain (Modest Mussorgsky); and Ave Maria (Franz Schubert)

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Just three films in and I have made an interesting discovery; my perception of the ‘typical’ Disney film is radically out. The idea that these movies are light and frothy – watered down versions of classic stories has already proved to be very wrong. There doesn’t seem to be a template; in fact, Walt seems to have been keen to explore and push the boundaries in his art. And it is very much an art form – something that really comes to the fore in Fantasia. Combining classical music with imagery, this was a daring project that moved from its conception as a short to one of Disney’s longest movies. So, with some adjustments to the questions, let’s take a look at this anthology which brilliantly combines two distinct disciplines into a breath-taking whole.

Original idea? It depends on what you think of as ‘original idea’. True, the music inspired the artwork – and none of the music is new (despite Stravinsky, the only living composer to be used, offering to write new material for the film). But the concepts that are developed by the artists based on the musical work are staggeringly high. They take a notion suggested by the notes and allow their imagination to run free. As a result, what is witnessed on the screen is often very different from the original thoughts behind the music. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sees abstract art, suggesting the nature of an orchestra, fill the screen; Dance of the Hours, on the other hand, moves more towards the comic, with the ballet dancing hippos, elephants and crocodiles (or are they alligators) hilariously interpreting the tunes through the medium of dance. Because there really is nothing funnier than a ballet-dancing hippo. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is truly an original idea.

Family situation? I’ve changed this question slightly, as I don’t think it does credit to the many ways in which family is portrayed in Disney films. Of course, in Fantasia, it doesn’t really count at all. Or does it? True, most of the eight sections have nothing to say on family. But Beethoven’s The Pastoral Symphony, interpreted through Greek mythology, sees Pegasus’ children learn to fly and play together. In fact, with the backdrop of the Gods fighting in the sky (well, Zeus throwing lightening), this is a wonderful depiction of a family unit enjoying fellowship together, as they play and laugh. Elsewhere, you could even suggest that the wizard in Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (nicknamed by the animators as Yen Sid – Disney backwards – because of his likeness in looks and, some would say, temperament to the company’s founder) is something of a father figure to Mickey, even if he is one who has to show discipline to the mischievous mouse. Which brings us neatly on to…

Y’know – for kids? Let’s see. Starting with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it seems child-friendly enough; young Mickey gets into trouble by trying to cut corners on his task of collecting water. But there is something a little bit terrifying about the brooms – not just in the way that they seem to be unstoppable in their task, flattening the poor rodent when he tries to stand in their way, but even chopping them into bits (a frightening moment in itself) has no effect. It’s like Disney does Terminator; hasta la vista, Mickey! The relentlessness is enough to scare the smallest child. Elsewhere, there is the Rite of Spring, showing a vicious dinosaur fight (even if the stegosaurus and T-Rex actually lived millions of years apart – but never let facts get in the way of a good story) while Night on Bald Mountain, revealing a demon reaching his shadowy claws down from the top of a rocky pinnacle to the sleeping town below, comes straight out of a horror movie. Perhaps this is proof that animation isn’t just for the kids; this is one scary ride.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Again, it’s not really that type of movie, but that’s not to say that there aren’t elements of all these things. On the one hand, you have the centaurs and centauresses (which isn’t a word but which the Disney animators insisted on calling the female centaurs) acting as princes and princesses in The Pastoral Symphony; Mickey is a mixture of everyman hero (haven’t we all dreamed of having the ability to magic hard work away) and fool as he discovers that with great power comes great responsibility; and the Devil in the final section can only be described as a nasty villain. But really, that’s trying to make the film work with the sections I have created for this blog; sort of like answering an exam question based on what you have revised rather than what is being asked.

Sing-along a showtune? There are definitely some hugely recognisable musical pieces – although perhaps calling them ‘tunes; is rather disingenuous. Everybody can hum along to The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy or tap their foot to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In fact, Mickey and his brooms have become so synonymous with Dukas’ classic that it is impossible not to conjure up the young mouse the minute that you hear the opening bars. But, in terms of a classic song to sing along the lines of, say, Whistle While You Work or Hey Diddle Dee Dee, then no. These are classic pieces to appreciate, not some jolly number to play in the car. Honestly, we’re not heathens…

Feel-good factor: A difficult one to answer. In terms of concept, this would easily be a 9 (I’m dropping a point for the Rites of Spring which, even after the rearrangement of the music – much to Stravinsky’s annoyance, does drag somewhat and isn’t the easiest to listen to). In terms of animation, it would definitely be a 10. But in terms of feel-good… well, there is something endearing about some of the sections, but it doesn’t follow a particular narrative which allows emotional engagement. As a result, it is more about detached appreciation of the art than trying to illicit a specific feeling. So, for feel-good alone, I’d give it a 4 or 5. But, that said, if you’re not after an easy Sunday afternoon movie to cheer you up, but want something a little more cerebral, this is certainly a must-see.

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: We take to the air with the adorable Dumbo (1941)…

Published by Ben Evans

Film fan; music lover; avid reader; culture snob.

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