HEAR THE PICTURES! SEE THE MUSIC!
Walt Disney became so enthusiastic about this project that he allegedly planned to have Fantasia rereleased each year with new music segments. His exaggerated belief in the movie is a sign of the folly surrounding it. Fantasia may be regarded today as one of the studio’s greatest technical achievements, but it was never loved by American audiences. I can see why. If a film that breaks new ground would automatically earn the top rating, Fantasia would be a prime candidate. But viewed as a cinematic whole, it is flawed.
The now-classic story behind the film puts Mickey Mouse in focus. He was fading in popularity (according to polls), falling behind not only Donald Duck but the rivaling studio Fleischer’s Popeye. Mickey’s comeback was planned for a “Silly Symphonies” cartoon where he would appear as an apprentice to a powerful sorcerer. The piece would be set to classical music, “L’apprenti sorcier” by Paul Dukas. One of the most famous conductors at the time, Leopold Stokowski, was hired to score the piece and out of the collaboration grew an honest interest from Disney in making a whole feature film with animated sequences set to classical pieces. In the end, it was decided that eight pieces should be used: Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” suite, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”, Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. The animated sequences that accompany the music are greatly varied, a sign of how many truly talented artists the studio employed at the time.
Much criticized over the years
Many of the scenes are colorful explosions, exercises in technical brilliance. Some of them are genuinely entertaining, such as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” where Mickey learns a watery lesson or two about the power of his master’s magical prowess. Other highlights are Disney’s attempt at showing the early days of planet Earth as scientifically correct as possible (aptly set to the dramatic “Rite of Spring”), complete with the evolution and eventual demise of dinosaurs, and the final segment where the intimidating devil Chernabog sits atop Bald Mountain on Walpurgis Night and summons every demon conceivable… until the forces of good push them back to the tunes of “Ave Maria”. Other sequences are certainly creative achievements, but a little too sweet or thematically uninteresting. Every scene is introduced by a music critic, Deems Taylor, who stands among the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and tries to steer our imagination in the right direction ahead of every piece. At the time he was actually known for his learned and humorous comments regarding classical music on radio, but his appearance in this film, looking slightly awkward in a tuxedo, trying a little too hard to both educate and entertain us, has been much criticized over the years. Still, it should be said that those scenes are beautifully shot, showcasing the orchestra and Stokowski in a blindingly original way, using shadows and colors to great effect.
Fantasia was made for all of America, but loved only by the highbrows. For fly-over country, there was always Dumbo the following year.
Fantasia 1940-U.S. Part Animated. 120 min. Color. Produced by Walt Disney, Ben Sharpsteen. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen.
Trivia: The first American film to use stereophonic sound. Bela Lugosi posed as a model for the evil Chernabog. Stokowski and Disney, William E. Garity and J.N.A. Hawkins received honorary Oscars for their work in advancing the art of cinema. Followed by Fantasia 2000 (2000).