Fantasia

Fantasia (1940)

Directed by Joe Grant, Dick Huemer and Ben Sharpsteen (supervisors)

Synopsis

Seven dialogue-free animated shorts, each inspired and accompanied by a piece of classical music, with introductions to each short done in live action featuring music critic Deems Taylor. The shorts are:

  • Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach, accompanied by abstract images
  • The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, accompanied by fairies and dancing plants as the seasons change
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, accompanied by Mickey Mouse and a lot of brooms
  • Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinksy, accompanied by scenes of dinosaurs
  • Symphony #6 in F Major (the “Pastoral” symphony) by Ludwig van Beethoven, accompanied by characters from Greek myth
  • Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli, accompanied by ballet dancing animals
  • Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, accompanied by demons and a black mass

Production Notes

The production of Fantasia starts with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the most famous segment from the film.  It was originally going to be a stand-alone short, intended to help boost Mickey Mouse’s popularity.  Mickey had started off strong, but Disney’s flagship character had faded a bit, being replaced by Donald and especially Goofy in audience’s affections. It ended up becoming one of the most expensive animated shorts ever produced, at $125,000 in 1930s dollars, and Disney realized it would never make its money back being sold as a short. 

Therefore, he decided to expand it into a feature, with other shorts set to classical music around it.  In order to show off the full orchestra that they’d assembled, they decided to install special equipment (called “Fantasound”) in select theaters, making Fantasia the first movie distributed in stereo.  The movie was loved by critics, some of whom proclaimed it a masterpiece. However, between the expense of the equipment and the war in Europe, the movie was a financial flop until it was rereleased in the late 40s and 50s.

Review

Well, it’s been one week and I’m already missing deadlines. In my defense, it’s been a particularly crazy week. Michigan is currently under a mandatory quarantine order, and I’ve been running around (metaphorically) in an attempt to get all of my jobs and finances sorted before locking myself in the basement for three weeks. Please forgive me if this review’s a little on the short side.

Anyway, Fantasia is a bit of an odd beast to review, in that it’s not really a film.  It’s more of a concert with visual accompaniment.  The music, conducted by famous orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, is uniformly excellent, even if music critics gave the film shit at the time for abridging and rearranging some of the pieces that were used (they were pretty much the only people who didn’t like the movie overall).  And the animated sequences are all masterworks of animation style, with a lot of innovative work being done.

However, it’s not really anything that I find myself able to just sit down and watch, especially at home with all of the myriad distractions that exist in 2020.  Since there’s nothing connecting the various segments other than the introductions by Taylor, the movie actually feels more like watching a playlist of Youtube videos than it does anything resembling a coherent feature film.  And of the seven segments, there’s only three that are really memorable.  Fantasia’s versions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (aka “the Phantom of the Opera” song), Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony all have various charms, but none of them really left any lasting impression on me (though I have a strong feeling that the Rite of Spring sequence, which features dinosaurs fighting each other before going extinct, directly inspired the Don Bluth’s Land Before Time).  In fact, I’ve read more than one modern review that confesses that the Rite of Spring sequence put the reviewer to sleep.

This one shot has more water than the entirety of Land Before Time

No, it’s the three remaining segments that I really feel are what the movie is worth watching for.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is rightfully famous, and the music, by French composer Paul Dukas, is now pretty much inextricably linked to the image of Mickey Mouse in a blue wizard’s hat.  It’s the image that graces the movie’s poster and DVD box art, and was the symbol of Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park for 14 years.  And the movie’s version of The Dance of the Hours, featuring ballet-dancing ostrichs and hippos who are attacked by crocodiles, is a comic gem, an exercise in pure physical comedy that actually did get me to laugh several times.

But the movie really saves the best for last: the famous Night on Bald Mountain sequence, featuring the massive demon Chernobog and the creatures that he conjures during a black mass.  Even tempered by the demon’s banishment, to the sounds of Schubert’s Ave Maria, it’s an audacious thing for Disney to have animated and shown in a mainstream film in 1940.  The composition, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov from Modest Mussorgsky’s unperformed original, was relatively unknown at the time, and is another piece of music that is now permanently linked with the visuals that Fantasia gave it.  Just try to listen to the main theme at the beginning of the tone poem without visualizing Chernobog unfurling his wings on top of the mountain.  I know I can’t.

Childhood nightmares commencing in 3…2…

Verdict

So overall, Fantasia is a really mixed bag for me.  I can’t really recommend it as a movie, as it really isn’t one.  It doesn’t even have the benefit of a framing device beyond a guy in a tux lecturing the audience every 15 minutes.  But many of the individual segments are masterpieces of short animation, and are well worth seeking out to watch.  Just don’t feel like you have to do all of them in one go.

Since this doesn’t really have a unified story, I can’t do my usual ratings based on characters. So I’ll give each segment a grade instead

  • Toccata and Fugue: C
  • Nutcracker Suite: B
  • Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A-
  • Rite of Spring: C+
  • Pastoral Symphony: C+
  • Dance of the Hours: A-
  • Night on Bald Mountain: A

Overall: B

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