FANTASIA (1940)

  • Directors: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson
  • Writers: Story by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, with Music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Amilcare Ponchielli, Modest Mussgorsky, and Franz Schubert
  • Starring: Leopold Stokowsky and Deems Taylor
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#58), 2 Honorary Oscars
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, Buy with Amazon Video, YouTube and Apple TV

Rarely will you find a mainstream film that feels more sincere and less calculated than Fantasia. Maybe it’s ironic that it is now part of the sprawling Disney IP empire, even to the point of an eventual “sequel.” Yet Walt Disney seems to have thought he was performing a very important public service, bringing high culture to the masses. It probably didn’t hurt that he was getting to test out “Fantasound,” the first stereo sound system ever created for movies and the director ancestor of modern day “surround sound.” If your theater wanted to show Fantasia right, they had to install the sound system, the same way if you wanted to show Avatar 70 years later you had to install the right 3D projector. In any case, there’s a certain unexamined self-importance to this whole thing, but at least it’s semi-earned self-importance.

Anyway, perhaps what’s most striking given Fantasia’s position as the movie equivalent of a trip to symphony hall in a suit and tie is how freaking weird it is. Yes, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence with Mickey Mouse has gone down as a classic, and most kids will recognize the lengthy ballet of alligators and hippos set to “The Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda, though most are likely ignorant of the actual origins of the music. But there is a lot of other stuff in here, from the pure abstractions of the opening Bach Fugue to the genuinely horrific battle between heaven and hell in “Night on Bald Mountain.” Was this supposed to be a kids movie? Did they not expect every single kid to get nightmares? Meanwhile, the “centaurettes” of the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence have so much obvious sex appeal I found myself, like the Dean from Community looking at a guy in a Dalmatian costume, saying “I hope this doesn’t awaken anything in me.” I’m reminded of the scene in The Muppet Christmas Carol where Rizzo asks Gonzo if this might not be all a bit intense for some kids, to which Gonzo replies, “It’s OK, this is culture.” This seems to be the attitude of Fantasia.

If you haven’t watched it, Fantasia consists entirely of a series of animated sequences set to well-known pieces of classical music. The movie opens with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, in silhouette, walking on the stage and tuning their instruments, and they then launch into the program at the direction of conductor Leopold Stokowski. Each segment is introduced by music critic Deems Taylor, who sounds like he’s narrating one of those old educational film strips. Each segment has its own themes, such as the Greek mythological setting of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or the presentation of the Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” through various dancing plants and animals. The animation is, of course, top notch throughout, and several of the segments have become cultural touchstones to various degrees over the years.

The most famous of the segments, of course, is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (music by Paul Dukas) in which Mickey Mouse plays the part of a young apprentice who enchants a broom to carry water up the stairs, only to find that he doesn’t actually know how to unenchant it, leading to disaster. This is a fairly straightforward telling of the old myth on which Dukas based the music, just with Mickey stuck in the middle. In fact, Disney was originally inspired to create Fantasia by the ongoing production of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which was originally intended as a freestanding cartoon short before the production costs of its detailed animation started to balloon. It has since been vaguely the basis of a 2010 live-action CGI-fest action(?) movie with a manic Jay Baruchel as the apprentice and the great Nicolas Cage as the sorcerer, which includes exactly one scene where Baruchel enchants and then loses control of a mop. The movie was critically panned but I mostly thought it was… fine?

For me the best segment is, far and away, the “History of Life on Earth,” featuring some pretty epic dinosaurs, set to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Stravinsky was the only composer featured in the movie who was still alive at the time of its release, and found himself mostly nonplussed by Disney’s, um, unique take on his material. But as a child obsessed with dinosaurs, this was my thing. The absolutely brilliant moment where a Tyrannosaurus fights and eventually kills a Stegosaurus was 100% one of the defining cinematic experiences of my childhood. This isn’t cutesy Disney stuff, it is all taken 100% seriously.

For the first few segments of Fantasia, I found myself thinking it might be a chore to sit through. But once things really get going, I definitely enjoyed myself, either on a level of “wow, this is really good,” or on a level of “what the hell is going on here,” depending on the segment. It seems worth pointing out that in only 12 years, Disney went from “Steamboat Willy” to the undisputed high art of Fantasia. If you are expecting things from your childhood to remain exactly the same, they shouldn’t. Art changes and grows, and if Disney had stuck to just making silly cartoons we would never have had Fantasia.

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