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 innovative) 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 dumbed-down 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.
Another supposed “strike” the film has against it is its choice of conductor: Leopold Stokowski. Stoki was the P.T. Barnum of transplanted Euro conductors residing in America. Mention him to any “serious” classical music lover and he’ll make a face like he’s heard fingernails scraping down a chalkboard. Stokowski was known for his Bach transcriptions, one of which—”Toccata and Fugue in D minor”—opens the film. Essentially,he romanticized Bach, making him sound more like Tchaikovsky. One wit described such tampering as “High Cholesterol Bach.” It’s a dishonest reaction, molded by unimaginative attachments to “historical correctness” and hyper-realism. Avoid such persons like the plague (they probably started life by pulling the wings off butterflies). For those of us who have no qualms admitting that we like plenty of syrup on our musical flapjacks, embracing this wizard’s transcriptions presents no problems. Seeing only Stokowski’s brazen self-promotion amounts to blindness. This former organist had one of the most prodigious gifts in drawing color out of every orchestra he worked with, which made him the quintessential choice for Fantasia. Compare his achievement in this film, awash in personality, to the comparatively monochromatic conducting of James Levine in Fantasia 2000.
The meeting of Stokowski and 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 constipated 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 (yes, I said that), released only nine months apart. The former was a critical, box office hit. The latter did not make money for nearly twenty years. Disney had proven one can go indeed broke overestimating the American public.
The Fantasia deal signed, Stokowski was excited and predictably offered numerous ideas about the use of color. A later 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. Even visually, “Toccata and Fugue” is pure Stokowski. The opening piece is introduced via the superb narration of American composer Deems Taylor (to the public he was primarily known as a commentator for the NY 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 far removed from contemporary slick and soulless computer animation. Stokowski used no baton, so his beautifully powerful long hands are highlighted, jabbing through the splashing backdrop. 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 acidhead 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, naturally 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). 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 Busby Berkeleyesque aquatic Arabic dance sequence at your local ballet company anytime soon.
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.With its narrative of white magic and sorcery, it is remarkable that the evangelical zealots of the day did not hone in on this segment (the way they did more recently with the Harry Potter series). It’s either that such types are somehow even more de-evolved than they were seventy years ago (possible, but not likely) or they stayed away from anything with the tag of “classical music” attached anyway. Since they didn’t see it, they didn’t know to get their feathers riled. Regardless, Stokowski had no such qualms. This being a tone poem, it is tailored for his bag of tricks. Even the most art-constipated among us can enjoy our once favorite mouse 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 one of the biggest scandals of music history in the form of a violent riot during the 1913 premiere at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Regardless of the ballet’s narrative change (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 has always been a point of debate. Skinny dipping centaurettes are lured (by mooning cherubs) to square jawed, beefcake centaurs. Fortunately, the centaurettes do 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.
Ponichelli’s ballet “Dance of the Hours” (from the opera “La Gioconda”) becomes 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.
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 Bela Lugosi and Wilford Jackson), descending on the town below like the Angel of Death terrorizing Egypt in the Moses narrative. 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.
Walt Disney had planned more editions of Fantasia (which included a collaboration with Salvador Dali), but its initial failure laid such plans to rest until sixty year later when Walt Disney Productions released Fantasia 2000. Fantasia 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. 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 weirdness and an ardent embrace of art for the sake of art. It’s probably the only Disney film that could be a contender for the List.