If Snow White was the coming out party for Walt Disney and for feature animation, then Fantasia is the wild, slightly drunk, and fearless after-party in which all caution is thrown to the wind and the Walt Disney company simply decided to go for broke. It is hard to understate just how bizarre a movie Fantasia is. There was nothing in the history of cinema that would’ve suggested that a two-hour long movie of voiceless animated shorts set to classical music should’ve worked. And the fact that nothing has come after like Fantasia (Fantasia 2000 notwithstanding) suggests that perhaps it never would’ve worked either.
The interesting thing about Fantasia is that is was a highly experimental project that from a conventional standpoint didn’t work. Commercially the thing was a failure, forcing the Disney company to exhaust its loan limits to keep itself afloat in its wake. Part of the issue is that from a marketing standpoint, it’s just never certain exactly who this film is for. The presence of the company mouse front and centre on the promotional material would suggest that the movie was for kids, but I doubt that there is any kid who has watched this thing without at some point becoming bleary eyed, fidgety, and wondering if somehow they caught the wrong movie. But that presence of the mouse and the stabs at gentle humour in between suggests that perhaps kids are EXACTLY who Walt intended to watch this (and the adults second).
© 1940 Disney.
But if the movie’s success is questionable from a conventional standpoint, there is an undeniable level in which this film is a success. This movie represents a high-water mark for animation in which the possibilities for animated film are really and truly pushed to their absolute limit. In this respect, the movie is much more an art house film than anything else. It is an experimental project that, if problematic in places, is still fascinating to watch. This is because, even though there are some patchy segments that are less successful than others, this experiment has still managed to produce some of the best work to ever come out of the company.
The movie is divided into eight roughly equal segments pairing classical music with animation. Unfortunately for the movie it opens with one of the shakier segments, a highly abstract depiction of the orchestra set to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It immediately sets up this movie as completely different and alien from anything Disney had produced before, but not in a welcoming way. The abstraction is interesting for about 30 seconds but then starts to drag almost immediately. As you can see after awhile it feels like a second-rate planetarium or a Windows ’95 screensaver:
© 1940 Disney.
After that initial early misstep Fantasia does regain some momentum with the rest of the first half. Although even then with the second and fourth segment (The Nutcracker Suite & The Rite of Spring) there still is the sense that the movie hasn’t completely found it’s footing yet. Part of that has to do with the fact that the classical music that was chosen here is such iconic music and is music designed for well-known ballets that the animation struggles to make us forget those associations. The Nutcracker sequence in particular has suffers especially as the source material also is so closely related to Christmas. Disney’s marriage of dryads and fairies with the music thus always feels a little discordant.
© 1940 Disney.
Don’t get me wrong becuase the both animation sequences here are stunning, with The Nutcracker Suite set to a changing of the seasons complete with gorgeously rendered fairies while The Rite of Spring imagines the creation of the earth with an intensity befitting the music. But I just don’t feel like they are ever able to transcend their source material, making me wonder if the sequences would’ve been more successful either by doing an animated adaptation of those ballets or by choosing different music for the animation altogether.
But all these problems are almost solved because halfway through the opening half, we get the most iconic sequence in Fantasia. It is a shame that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the only feature film appearance of Mickey Mouse, but it is a worthy appearance. It is no surprise that this was the sequence that was formulated first by Walt and became the inspiration to make the movie. From beginning to end the animation and the music are such a perfect marriage that they have become permanently entwined in my head so that I cannot hear the music without picturing Mickey and those broomsticks, and any appearance of Mickey in his robe and hat immediately causes me to hear that symphonic poem.
© 1940 Disney.
In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Walt was able to elevate the animation while still feeling very much like a Disney picture with its warmth, playfulness, and humour. And by managing to balance the two, you see exactly how Fantasia could’ve worked as an unqualified success. Had the film manage to strike this balance for its entirety, I doubt that I would have any of the reservations that I had at the start of this piece. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is without a doubt high art, but it is high art that remains so easily accessible to people (and children) of all ages. I openly wonder if the rest of the film would’ve just faded into obscurity had this sequence not been included.
The real shame of Fantasia is that the second half of this movie (outside of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) is much stronger than the first. This strength is apparent right from the offset with the introduction of the “soundtrack” character as a way for viewers to familiarize themselves with the orchestra. While still being an abstract segment, it at least throws a bit more whimsy and fun into the mix. And mercifully it is also a much shorter segment.
The next two segments – Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with mythical creatures and The Dance of the Hours with an animal ballet – are where Disney really starts to show the full potential of the format. Both of these segments work because the music themselves don’t have any prior visual attachments to distract us from the animation. But they also work because from an animation standpoint they are just heightened Silly Symphonies. Critically, both segments have a strong narrative viewpoint with easily identifiable characters to them and have elements of humour in them (or in The Dance of the Hours almost exclusively are humorous). With these elements, the animation feel much more in the Disney wheelhouse and less like avant-garde experiments, and it is this sense of familiarity that helps these segments soar.
© 1940 Disney.
This strong second half is capped though by the second true masterpiece of Fantasia. This is the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria medley which is simply stunning from every angle that you look at it. From a musical standpoint, the pairing of two classical pieces may be somewhat anathema in classical music circles, but the blending of these two work seamlessly as they are strong counterpoints to one another. From an animation standpoint, it is a fitting finale as everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at this piece and every tool in the animation toolbox is utilized. But it is the subject matter that is the most stunning aspect of this segment and elevates it to some of the best Disney animation ever done. The Night on Bald Mountain is depicted as a demonic celebration in which the Devil himself appears on bald mountain and summons up ghost, ghouls, and demons to terrorize a town and to engage in an orgiastic celebration on top of bald mountain. This is as far from a “family-friendly” concept as you can get and the images are no less terrifying:
© 1940 Disney.
The animation is frantic and frightful, and it is both curious and exhilarating to see the animators embrace a darker side to them. It is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a horror animated movie from Disney and it still frightened me as an adult on this viewing. It is a very effective and very powerful piece of art. And no less stunning is the shift that happens in tone when the riotous Bald Mountain gives way to the quiet and serene rendition of Ave Maria. The violence and evil of the devil is defeated not by an equal show of violence from the forces of light but by the quiet but telling power of a bell tolling. And slowly and gently, a processional of candlelights slowly causes the darkness to fade away, reminding me of John 1:5, “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
© 1940 Disney.
Indeed the last five minutes of Fantasia are some of the most meditative passages of not just this feature, but of any movie. And the whole sequence is strikingly jaw-dropping because the animators have managed not only to convincingly animate the depths of evil and despair but in the same sequence are also able to create something approaching transcendence. While The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the crowd-pleaser of the movie and rightfully so, it is this final sequence that is undoubtedly the crown jewel.
Though the second half of the movie rewards those who survived the first, I have always been intrigued by the sequencing of the segments in this movie. When Walt first conceived Fantasia he saw it as something that could tour the country continuously, with individual segments taken out and new segments put in every once in awhile to keep fresh. So in a sense the sequence we have today was never meant to be permanent, but due to the lack of financial success effectively it became permanent. But I have always wondered if rearranging the segments would alleviate some of the issues the movie faces. For instance, would moving the Pastoral sequence to the first half, and the Nutcracker sequence back at least help build some goodwill initially to carry the movie through its more avant-garde sequences? Or would moving The Sorcerer’s Apprentice give kids more to look forward to, instead of having it done barely a third the way through? Since the Fantasia sequences were never meant to be set in stone, this is a legitimate but eternal question to ask.
Fantasia is thus an enigma. There is no other animated feature (or regular feature for that matter) that has ever come close in terms of ambition and scope. And in many parts of the movie, they do manage to produce something meriting that ambition. There are moments of the movie that are transcendent and breathtaking, in which image and sound are perfectly married. There are sequences of this film that rank amongst the best animation ever done. And even the parts I consider less than successful missteps are at least interesting and intriguing. The animation throughout is of the highest quality, even when it can be narratively frustrating. And as a visual spectacle, the movie is an unqualified success. But in the end it is a challenging movie, and perhaps for that reason alone it tends not to have the same status status that other Disney movies have. But if it not beloved, it is at least a movie that commands and deserves our respect.
Individual segment ratings:
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – ★★★
The Nutcracker Suite – ★★★★
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – ★★★★★
The Rite of Spring – ★★★½
Intermission/Meet the Soundtrack – ★★★★
The Pastoral Symphony – ★★★★½
Dance of the Hours – ★★★★½
Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria – ★★★★★
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
(Note: In the original release there was a sequence in the Pastoral Symphony that apparently featured some truly horrific racist depictions. Sometime in the ’80s the Disney company made the decision to remove those scenes entirely from the movie. As a result I have never seen it, and thus can only judge what remains. Obviously the racism can’t be defended and rightfully should be condemned. The removal of the footage perhaps represents the least problematic of several imperfect solutions, but seeing as it allows us to still show this film to children today I can’t complain too much. But to write a review without mentioning the overt racism in cuts past would be egregious on my part.)