205. FANTASIA (1940)

“…action controlled by a musical pattern has great charm in the realm of unreality.”– on Fantasia

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Norman Ferguson, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Jr. Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen

FEATURING: Leopold Stokowksi and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Deems Taylor, Walt Disney (voice of Mickey Mouse)

PLOT: An orchestra files in to a concert hall, followed by classical music critic Deems Taylor, who introduces the film and describes the different purposes of classical music. The first musical selection, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor,” illustrates “absolute” music, and consists of a series of abstract images combined with views of the orchestra in silhouette. The six animated musical sequences that follow compose the bulk of the movie, following the adventures of fairies, Mickey Mouse, dinosaurs, centaurs, hippo ballerinas, and demons set to the music of Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky, and Schubert, all introduced by Taylor.

Still from Fantasia (1940)
BACKGROUND:

  • The meeting of conductor Leopold Stokowski and animation god Walt Disney, in 1937 at Chasen’s restaurant, is the stuff of legend. Disney was starstruck with the conductor’s celebrity, mysterious accent, and fierce mane. The seed of an idea for a “concert film” sprang from the meeting. At this time Disney had only produced and released one previous feature: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937). The idea of an animated feature had seemed risky and radical, with the naysayers predicting bankruptcy. The profits and critical acclaim from Snow White forever silenced those doomsday prophets. Now, Disney was ready to take another risk. 1940 saw the release of Disney’s second and third feature films. Artistically, it paid off as Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia are, to date, Disney’s two greatest films, released only nine months apart. The former was a critical box office hit. The latter did not make money for nearly twenty years.
  • Fantasia was an expansion of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series of musical shorts (which were set to original music commissioned by Disney studios rather than classical masterpieces). The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment, starring Mickey Mouse, was originally made as a Silly Symphony but cost over $100,000 to animate, and Disney realized the only way to recoup that budget was to make it part of a feature.
  • Fantasia was (mostly, despite some notable howls of derision) well-received by critics and audiences on release. It failed to turn a profit because of its enormous budget, difficulties in distribution (new sound systems had to be installed in any theater that wanted to play it, so it was rolled out piecemeal as a roadshow feature), and the fact the the onset of WWII cut off the foreign markets. Disney studios continued to re-release the film every five to ten years up until 1990, however. By the late 1960s, spurred by its discovery and embrace by the psychedelic generation, Fantasia had become both a beloved classic and a cash cow.
  • Bits from the original “Pastoral Symphony” sequence were later erased due to their depictions of black centaurs, who were caricatured and depicted as servants to the white centaurs.
  • Disney had planned more editions of Fantasia (one of which included a collaboration with ), but its initial failure laid such plans to rest until sixty year later, when Walt Disney Productions released Fantasia 2000Fantasia 2000 had fleeting moments of brilliance, but was mostly a disappointing sequel; too clean, too crisp, lacking the risk-taking intensity and provocativeness of the original.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  In an entire film of indelible images, alligators swooning over and dancing with hippos may have been the “eureka, it’s weird!” moment for the film’s 1960s acidhead crowd. We concur.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing mushrooms; Stravinsky dinosaurs; alligator/hippo romance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pinocchio may have had boys turning into jackasses, and Dumbo (1941) had it’s mind boggling “pink elephants on parade,” but Walt Disney’s Fantasia is chock-full of progressive strangeness and an ardent embrace of art for the sake of art. It’s Walt’s weirdest.


1956 re-release trailer for Fantasia (including part of the scene later deleted from prints due to charges of racism)

COMMENTS: Over a thirty year period I have seen Fantasia (1940) in theaters on a few occasions. During each showing I witnessed several members of the audience walk out. That is usually a good sign. There is little doubt that this experimental film (yes, Disney once was experimental) has unmitigated moments of lurid kitsch, with equal parts cinematic magic. It’s a flawed masterpiece, which begs the questions: does an infallible masterpiece actually exist? Fantasia represents it’s creator, Walt Disney, as utterly possessed by obsessive, artistic, and innovative ambition. It may be one of the most stand apart films ever crafted, which is why, seventy plus years later, it still has the power to provoke audiences who still look at artmusic with suspicion. Simultaneously, it also annoys insufferable academic elitists who cannot find it in themselves to embrace the film’s tawdrier moments.

Once the Fantasia deal was signed, conductor Leopold Stokowski was excited, and offered Walt Disney numerous ideas about the use of color. A biographer wrote that the conductor’s fascination with color was sincere, describing his various experiments with mixing alcoholic drinks for color effects. Stoki did a similar thing with “sound color” by incessantly changing the orchestra seating layout. Fantasia‘s opening number, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor,” is pure Stokowski. It is introduced via the superb narration of American composer Deems Taylor (to the public, he was primarily known as a commentator for the New York Philharmonic Radio Broadcasts). This “absolute music” is total abstraction. Entirely hand painted, at times the watercolors almost appear to still be wet. Vibrant with texture, this is as far removed from contemporary slick and soulless computer animation as possible. Stokowski used no baton, so his beautifully powerful long hands are highlighted, jabbing through the splashing backdrop, like a Big Bang God creating his abstract universe. The french horns are hauntingly lit in diaphanous color before the violin bows transform into silvery beams of light reaching for infinity. Sound and vision collide, producing crashing tides, ending in a literal fireworks display.

For those, like myself, who have overdosed on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Fantasia serves up a refreshing alternate vision, the most incandescent and sensual vignette of the entire program. Naturally, it is abridged and rearranged, like one of Stoki’s infamous “Symphonic Syntheses.” Unwittingly, Disney tailored this Nutcracker Suite for the upcoming hippie generation (who eventually elevated Fantasia to masterpiece status). Darting fairies, spectral spider webs, and psychedelic mushrooms are followed by larger, dew-shaking ‘shrooms engaged in a Chinese tango. Being a ballet,  there is plenty of dancing, but the Disney team imaginatively improve on the yawn-inducing holiday imagery that we have come to associate with Tchaikovsky’s most famous music (which, as Taylor reminds us, the composer himself detested). Disney’s egalitarian existentialism  embraces both nature worship and fairy mythology. Guaranteed, you will not find blue fairies, Russian Cossacks, pink fairies, waltzing flowers, orange fairies, or rhythmic goldfish mating with fairies (?) and swimming through an erotic esque aquatic Arabic dance sequence at your local ballet company anytime soon.

Long before J.K. Rowling or Hogwarts, Disney was exploring the religious aspects of magic. Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is justifiably Fantasia‘s most famous segment. Having a narrative (albeit a wordless one) to work with inspired the team to great heights. It is possibly the last time we will see Mickey Mouse before he succumbs to total blandness, Here, our once-favorite mouse shines in the expert choreography composed by the Disney team.

Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Le Sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”) is served up here for the eternal dinosaur-loving eight-year-old boy. Actually, the ballet is about pagan sacrifice and is so dissonant and barbaric that it caused a violent riot during its 1913 premiere at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Regardless of the ballet’s change of narrative (and the necessary abridgment), the composer (the only living composer chosen for the film) at first loved the Disney/Stokowski version. Years later, he did an about face (as he was apt to do), vilifying it. Still, given the time, the Darwinism included here was a damned provocative decision. This was only fifteen years after the Scopes trial, yet Disney and team are showing us the beginning of life on earth as science has revealed. Fish mutating into amphibious lifeforms show the artists clearly siding with Scopes and Clarance Darrow. Naturally, the dinosaurs come, and no Creation Museum is going to stop them. While the Le Sacre du Printemps (2004) film by the tragically short-lived Oliver Herrmann might be aesthetically truer to the avant-garde nature of Stravinsky’s masterpiece, Fantasia‘s interpretation is rousing (and exhausting). After carnivorous lizards and the extinction of much life on earth, we deserve an amusing intermission with the soundtrack and, again Taylor is the host for the job.

Fantasia‘s treatment of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphony as part of the Roman mythos has always been a point of debate. Skinny dipping centaurettes are lured (by mooning cherubs) to meet square-jawed, beefcake centaurs. Fortunately, the centaurettes manage to squeeze into their garland bras, because their male counterparts don’t seem to know what to do next. Confused libidos and a bacchanal (where the wine pours freely) is rudely interrupted by none other than Zeus himself (wielding a lightening bolt forged by Vulcan). This is the famous “storm” movement of the Pastorale. Helios’ chariot brings forth a much-needed sunset, and Selene tucks the Earth in with the night of her cape. Stokowski’s reading, like Disney’s animation, is anything but subtle.

The religious zeal found in “art for the sake of art” informs Ponichelli’s ballet “Dance of the Hours” (from the opera “La Gioconda”) in what may be the most eccentric burlesque in the history of cinema. This is also a highly debated segment, which is to be expected with an amorous alligator cavorting with a hippo, alligators riding ostriches, and elephants riding alligators. Perhaps the Fantaisa-loving acid heads of the 1960s had a point.

Satanism meets Christian Orthodoxy in the final sequence. Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” was part of Stokowski’s standard repertoire. He has his own arrangement, as opposed to the Rimsky-Korsakov edition used in most concert programs. The Witches’ Sabbath brings out the Satanic Chernobog (modeled, in part, on  and Wilford Jackson), descending on the town below like the Angel of Death terrorizing Egypt. Chernobog’s demons join their master in this violent, surreal nightmare, which, unfortunately for the victims, features a fiery pit to rival the worst of the gnostic apocalypses. The sadistic, phantasmagoric mayhem retreats with the chiming of the church bells that herald the segue into Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Some have held these last two conjoined segments as the film’s best.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world.”–Otis Ferguson, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“…dumps conventional formulas overboard and boldly reveals the scope of films for imaginative excursion. Let us temperately admit that Fantasia is simply terrific—as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen…  The final selections are Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ visualized with a weird and terrifying assortment of skeletons, ghouls and imps swirling around the monstrous devil of the mountain, and then a solemn, liturgical illustration of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria.'”– Bosley Crowther, New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…became a popular head film, because of such ingredients as the abstract first section, the mushroom dance during ‘The Nutcracker’ (one of the liveliest sequences), and the overly bright–somewhat psychedelic–color… the total effect is grotesquely kitschy.”–Pauline Kael, “5001 Nights at the Movies”

OFFICIAL SITE:

Fantasia | Disney Movies – There is almost nothing here but it is nice that a 75-year-old movie has its own officially-sanctioned web page while studios take down the official sites for movies that are 5 years old

IMDB LINK: Fantasia (1940)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Fantasia – The American Film Institute’s Fantasia page has extensive credits and notes

Fantastic ‘Fantasia’ : Disney Channel Takes a Look at Walt’s Great Experiment in Animation – Charles Solomon collects Fantasia tidbits for a Los Angeles Times piece

It Wasn’t Always Magic : Fifty years ago, Walt Disney dreamed ‘Fantasia’ would make animation an artform, but it wasn’t a legend in its own time – Another Solomon L.a. Times article, this time focusing on Fantasia‘s negative reviews

Future Fantasias, 1940 – Michael Crawford’s report on some of the pieces considered and rejected for animation in Fantasia

Changes in the restored version of ”Fantasia” – Report on the erasure of the racial stereotypes from Fantasia

Mickey Mouse Goes Classical – A 1941 Popular Science article focusing on the technical aspects of the production

Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) – A slightly different version of this essay, originally written in 2013 for Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

BIBLIOGRAPHY :

Walt Disney’s Fantasia – Book-length history of the film by John Culhane with extensive color illustrations

DVD INFO: You can say one thing about Disney: they do not skimp on their home video releases. You may still be able to find a used copy of the single-disc DVD edition (buy–extra features unknown) or the 3-disc “Fantasia Anthology” DVD edition with Fantasia 2000 and a disc of extra features (buy), the 4-disc DVD/Blu-ray Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 set (buy) is now the standard. The Fantasia DVD contains little besides the feature and the usual collection of Disney ads (the interminable previews, a plug for the Disney museum, a skit by twins from a Disney channel tween TV show, and other minor items of little interest to adults). There is, however, a very professional and informative commentary by “Disney historian” Brian Sibley.

The Blu-ray disc adds extra features above and beyond what appears on the DVD. Besides the improved sound and visuals, the Blu contains galleries of concept art from both the original and the 2000 versions of the film, plus a 13 -minute documentary on “The Schulthies Notebook,” which describes the special effects used on Fantasia. There are also two extra sets of commentaries: one compiled out of audio interviews and note readings from Disney himself, and the second with a team consisting of the restoration’s executive producer Roy E. Disney, restoration manager Scott McQueen, animation historian John Canemaker, and conductor James Levine.

The two Fantasia 2000 discs come with their own sets of extras and commentaries. We won’t detail them here, but we must mention the jewel which elevates this set from a “must buy” to a “must commit crimes to raise money to buy” purchase: the Destino short, a complete recreation of the abandoned Salvador Dalí/Walt Disney animated collaboration crafted from Dalí’s original storyboards. This animated exercise in classical Surrealism is a moving Dalí canvas, and is Certified Weird by this site.

3 thoughts on “205. FANTASIA (1940)”

  1. Hmmm….
    Might need to give this one a gander
    Pinocchio is rad
    Snow White is UUuuugggghhh, though.

  2. Critics who claim that Fantasia is middlebrow and kitcshy are correct, but that’s what gives it its strange power. Its vitality comes from the tension between high art and populist entertainment.

    Everyone has a different list of favorite segments. I’d personally order them

    Mussorgsky/Schubert (intense)
    Tchaikovsky (great music and the most beautiful animation)
    Bach (psychedelic!)
    Stravinsky (silly, but appeals to my inner 8-year-old boy)
    Beethoven (probably my favorite piece of music here)
    Dukas (not a fan of Mickey, or of the piece)
    Ponchielli (too cutesy)

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