It’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve seen Fantasia and yet this is the first time I’ve seen it all the way through. There’s no denying this is the most ambitious work put out by Disney to date (and sadly has never caught on with audiences as evidenced by the low turnout to Fantasia 2000) with brilliant animation that’s never been topped. It’s both highly experimental and entirely conventional in the different stories that are told. Sadly Fantasia never elevates itself higher than being a pretty series of background images. Try as I might I just kept being distracted by the two-hour runtime and even when I turned away I was still able to understand the story making it seem even less important that I pay attention. I do applaud the artistry, skill, and need to branch out that Disney tried to showcase at the height of WWII but it doesn’t resonate with audiences like the narrative features.Introduced by music commentator Deems Taylor and conducted by Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia presents eight stories themed to music from several legendary composers.
A bit of introduction with this film. Fantasia was Disney’s attempt to revive classical music by presenting this “concert” film (sadly now our idea of a concert film involves tweeny-boppers like Justin Beiber and One Direction…I’d kill for Fantasia now). The film cost two million dollars back in 1940, over four times the cost of the average live action film of the period. It was a massive financial disappointment upon release and never really found its footing until the 1960s when it was embraced by the counter-culture who found enjoyment by watching it stoned (Alice in Wonderland would get a similar reception). Disney would put out a few more films themed to music including Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time but this was the only one of feature-length.
I would start the review by looking at opening credits but this movie doesn’t have any. The film truly sets itself up as a concert with the opening minutes introducing the members of the orchestra who come in, sit down, and start tuning their instruments. From there the first segment introduces Stokowski performing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. You truly are immersed in this concert experience regardless of venue. I watched this at home on my computer and was still able to feel as if I was seeing this live (about as much as anyone can watching this on home video). Narrator, of sorts, Deems Taylor presents the overarching theme or challenge of the film. Disney’s animators were given a piece of music and told to create an animated piece based on how they felt about the music. It’s an interesting premise for a film as all of the pieces are different as no two people can have the same thoughts about a piece of music.
Returning to the performance of Toccata and Fugue which starts off the film, it’s probably the most esoteric of the bunch revolving around the actual instruments of the performers and individual notes turning into splashes of color on the film-like canvas. The painted clouds in the background with the individual splashes of color are beautiful and set the standard for the type of animation and artistry presented throughout the 120 minute runtime. Watching Fantasia really makes one appreciate and miss hand-drawn animation. Regardless of how I felt about the movie I never felt that the animation was lacking; there’s a reason Fantasia is considered the high point of animation in the canon.
Moving on from Bach to my favorite piece of the film, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. It’s still a ways off from Christmas but watching this segment just took me back to all those different performances of The Nutcracker I’ve seen and yet this interpretation has nothing to do with Christmas aside from a winter scene. All six movements of the suite are presented in imaginative detail that is astounding, especially the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy featuring sprites spreading dew around the forest. I do have to ask, those mushrooms in the Chinese Dance…they’re racist right? I mean their tops are akin to the big hats of the stereotypical Chinese and their features are markedly Asian. It won’t be the first time I bring up racism with a Disney film, I think this might be the first (don’t recall anything overtly racist in Snow White or Pinocchio).
If you’ve never seen Fantasia I can bet you know Sorcerer Mickey which came to prominence with the segment The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Mickey’s appearance is what cements this as a Disney film more than again and really gives audiences a focal point in case they’re wondering what they’re watching. I’d also consider the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment the one with the clearest story. The animation for some reason really popped in this segment than in others. The blue of Yensid‘s (Disney backwards) hat and the way Mickey’s shadow fell on things just felt so rich with color. Maybe because the several of the other segments revolve around wisps and pastel like colors?
After the Sorcerer’s Apprentice the remaining segments are all known for the most part from the long Rite of Spring section detailing the formation of the Earth (I recommend watching this, in HD, for the volcano sequence ALONE), the Pastoral Symphony, Dance of the Hours (with the hippo and alligator), Night on Bald Mountain, and Ave Maria. I did find that the second half of the film was far more engaging than the first half, probably because the last segments are all fairly narrative in structure. The Pastoral Symphony is whimsical and beautiful if only because the female centaurs makes supermodels look ugly! I was beyond terrified watching a Night on Bald Mountain but in my defense, Chernabog from that sequence has always been frightening. I’m sure someone could contradict me but the Night on Bald Mountain sequence is possibly the most disturbing and frightening sequence ever depicted in a Disney film. I’m having a really hard time coming up with another sequence that truly scared me (although Disney’s short the Bone Dance is equally eerie). To make sure children don’t have nightmares the film ends with a gorgeous and heavenly rendition of Ave Maria. The blend of live singing and animation is exquisite and I’d be happy to show this at Christmas.
The overall problem with Fantasia, in my opinion, is that there’s very little rewatchability to it. I would not pop this in on a Friday night and expect to be wrapped up in the magic of Disney. Fantasia is beautiful but, especially in the early segments, it plays like a beautiful Windows Media Player background of animated images to gorgeous music. It’s incredibly easy to do something else and come back to this film missing little because there’s no connecting story. I didn’t hate this as I expected to but I didn’t love it. There’s a reason I had zero interest in purchasing this when it recently came to Blu-Ray. It’s a beautiful film but it’s not a Disney film.
Next Week: A little elephant with big ears and a magic feather, it’s the 1941 film Dumbo!
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.