For clarification purposes, this review is mostly based on the 124 min restored Road show version of Fantasia, released on Blu-ray in the UK in 2010. The screenshots are taken from the 118 min cut of the film, released on DVD in the UK on December of 2000.
So the character that pretty much made your company and that you just so happen to be the voice actor for has had his thunder somewhat stolen from him by a rambunctious duck and a goofy, erm, goof. What’s a film producer to do.
Create a new short to bring the fellow back into the spotlight. of course.
Originally Fantasia was one short, a method of bringing Mickey Mouse back to the spotlight that had been taken from him by the now more popular Donald Duck and Goofy. The reason for the change of fortunes for the mouse is fairly obvious if you go through the cartoon that started Mickey’s career and follow through.
At the start Mickey was a rambunctious youth, just as capable of causing mischief as any other character, but his prominence as the face and mascot of the studio caused Disney to tone him down considerably over the years, until he became a character that reacted to the situations that he was put in, seriously limiting his comic potential. He was doomed to be over shadowed by the temper of Donald and the comedic antics of Goofy, they were just more interesting characters that could be put in much more varied roles.
So Disney set of with the intend of putting the mouse in the role of the titular character in an adaptation of Paul Duka’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. A chance meeting between Disney and Leopold Stokowski brought the famed conductor on board, and work on the short began – and then spiraled out of control, taken on a negative cost of $125,000. Told by his brother Roy that the expensive short would never make its money back, Walt got the idea to make a feature film of animation set to music, inviting Stokowski to act as the conductor and radio announcer Deems Taylor to introduce each segment.
Fantasia is a difficult film to analyse, in some ways it’s little more than a writ large version of the Silly Symphony cartoons, with higher production values. It stands as the first package film that Disney produced, yet it has very little in common with any of the series that started with Saludos Amigos and ended with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad except the marriage of music to animation. It is more of a vast experimental work that would only be repeated by the company some 34 years after Disney’s death, with the release of Fantasia 2000.
I cannot see that there is any other way to review Fantasia than to look at each of the film’s segments as individual pieces of work, go through the merits and deficiencies of each and then see if the parts equal an engaging whole at the end. A method which I will also probably adopt for the package films later down the line.
While the title card doesn’t appear until half-way across the movie (unless you’re watching the 118 minute version), the beginning of the film nonetheless is set up in a way that will be familiar to those who ever been to a concert hall – or these days just watched one on the telly. The orchestra take their seats, tuning their instruments and practising some of the parts of the pieces they’ll play. Soon enough Deems Taylor, a popular radio announcer of classical music at the time of Fantasia’s original release – though probably an unknown these days, is our host and introduces each segment as well as introduces The Philadelphia Orchestra and then world famous conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
by Johann Sebastian Bach
Fantasia starts with a piece of music that was – and still is, although maybe not as much – familiar to a lot people and is certainly a good way to start. Stolowski had famously re-adapted the organ-centric piece to be played by an orchestra. The idea of the piece is to express the idea of what someone listening to the audience might picture as they listen to the music. As Deems notes, at first you might be more conscious of the orchestra playing then be actually putting pictures to the music.
However the end result of this theory is that we spend a good chunk of our time staring at the silhouettes of the various musicals before we get to anything resembling animation, which comes along eight minutes into the start of the film (or about three-and-a-bit minutes into the segment).
Given that this is a animated Disney film, is a problem. When we do get to the animation, it stilted by the limitations enforced on it by the intent (and by Disney’s evident dislike of abstract art). Bows and strings fly pass the screen followed by circles, all timed to the music, but it’s a series of underwhelming, though beautifully rendered, shapes and circles. By the time the animation kicks up a notch, with the distinctive figure of Stokowski conducting large abstract waves with his hands in front of a glowing, the piece is all but over.
It doesn’t help that I’m not keen on Stokowski’s re-organising of the piece to fit an orchestra, the results sound weak by comparison to now I’m used to listening to it. Toccata and Fugue will always be best suited to the organ it was wrote for.
The start of Fantasia just leaves me under-whelmed, what could have been an interesting delve into the abstract manages to only subsist of a splash in the pool.
The Nutcracker Suite
by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Unlike the first, Fantasia’s second segment gets right into the animation at the first chance it gets, something much needed after the initial misfire. Bringing us a series of ballets with a nature theme motif. There’s no real narrative to speak of, something that can be said for most of Fantasia, yet The Nutcracker gives us some context, with the changing of the seasons. At the beginning, dew drops are put onto flowers by a group of elegant fairies with dragonfly wings, as if they are painting the drops onto the flowers like delicate artists. This culminates in an scene where a spider-web’s is coated in dew, making it sparkle like a radiant diamond. The animation is beautiful and timed, which is continued throughout the sequence.
Next up, is the most remembered part of Fantasia’s version of the Nutcracker, The Chinese Dance. A group of seven mushrooms – animated by Art Babbit – perform a short version of the titular dance. This small part of the segment is charmingly animated, with a much needed comedic element coming from a small mushroom who cannot quite keep in step with the quickening tune, or his dancing partners, but darn if doesn’t try his best.
Then things get a bit weird, as blossom petals act like spinning tops while dancing downstream along a river, turning inside out as they go, their stems acting as elaborate head-dresses, their petals as a ballerina costume. It’s as well animated as the rest of the segment, but without any context it just plays through and leaves me perplexed.
From here we go underwater to an underwater ballet, some very long-tailed fancy goldfish reminiscence of Cleo from Pinocchio given us the fish equivalent of a Arabic dance (in a manner suggestive of belly dancing). The fish all have eye shadow applied in a strange manner but their form seems more for their elaborate tails, which shimmer delicately as they swim their dance than for any other purpose, still they are beautifully realised.
We get a dramatic tonal shift with the Russian Dance bringing some thistles to life to perform the Cossack Dance with gusto, that are soon accompanied by some orchids that join them for a finale that lasts only slightly longer than the time it take for the audience to adjust before coming to an abrupt end.
Finally we come to autumn, as more fairies come to turn the leaves a golden yellow, at which point they fall off their trees and dance in the wind, soon to be followed by their seeds, also loosened by the autumn sprites, which act as ballerinas, skirts billowing as they float across the landscape. For the finale comes winter, and some more pixies come along to put frost on the fallen leaves and plant life and skate across the pond, covering it with ice.
The animation of this part is as wonderful as anything else in The Nutcracker Suite segment. Yet as one of the more beautiful parts of the film as it may be, the segment feels as though it has little to offer the audience in terms of engagement besides its ethereal beauty.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is one of the few pieces of Fantasia where the music itself has a definite story, as Deems Taylor is quick to tell the audience. What follows is a short that actually has a narrative for the audience to hold on to.
Mickey Mouse stars as the apprentice of the powerful Sorcerer Yen Sid, and is busy gathering water for his master whilst watching the wizard at work. When the Sorcerer decides to take a quick nap, he leaves his hat behind, which Mickey then uses to bring a broom to life to do his chore for him while the mouse takes his own nap.
The mouse dreams of being a powerful wizard, able to bend the stars and oceans to his whim, but is soon awoken by reality. Finding the broom is too taken by its work and is threatening to flood the dungeon. Mickey finds out too late that he cannot control the broom, and his attempt to stop it by hacking it to pieces – something seemingly out of character for the otherwise wholesome mouse – just makes the problem worse, as the broken shards all reform to create an army of bucket fetching, animate brooms.
Easily a stand out part of the film for me, with a strong narrative hook to keep the animation progressing, and a nice, if straightforward arch, helps to provide something which Fantasia had thus far failed to deliver.
Mickey is sporting a new look created by artist Fred Moore, which due to the protracted development of Fantasia meant that audiences had already seen Mickey’s new design by the time the film came out. While the short was originally meant as a vehicle for the mouse, his popularity continued to fall over the years to come.
The Rite of Spring
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, was meant to suggest primitive tribal dances. Disney’s artists changed it into a retelling of the dawn of the Earth. It’s fascinating to hear Taylor stressing “according to science” in his production, as if such a thing was an embarrassment to proclaim – although given the time Fantasia was released, this is probably close to the truth of the matter.
The segment starts of slowly, partly due to the nature of the music, as we travel through the void of space into the Milky Way, pass a star and some nebulous clouds, before making its way toward a barren Earth. While the start is slow and serene, the Earth’s surface offers powerful animation of erupting volcanoes and flowing rivers of molten larva, bubbling with frightful intensity.
From here, we get brief – and I do mean brief – interludes into primitive sea life, starting from single cell organisms. We are essentially getting snapshots of advancement of evolution, that go as quickly as they come, far too truncated to mean anything. A brief scene in his barrage is memorable for the strange sight of a very cartoony electric eel beating captured and consumed by a much more realistically rendered jellyfish. The way its presented seems to be to get to what the filmmakers must of thought was going to be the big hook of the segment….
Namely the Dinosaurs.
At the time of its Fantasia’s release, this was as close as anything had come to bringing these powerful creatures back to life in anything resembling a realistic depiction. Like the rest of the segment, the dinosaurs go about their various everyday lives of finding food and water. We see some newborns hatched from their eggs, and a pterodactyl plucked from the skies in mid-hunt. Yet with nothing really to hold this together, its not particularly interesting beyond the impressive animation of these majestic beasts.
Then we get some action courtesy of Wolfgang Reitherman, who directed the animation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex as it takes on a Stegosaurus in a battle to the death, providing one of the more powerful pieces for the segment, as well as one of the most memorable parts of the entire film, even if, like much of Wolfgang’s work, it delves deeply into the melodramatic.
Next we are shown the dinosaurs pondering their way through a world which has become nothing more than a dust bowl, with the dinosaur trying to find whatever water they can find before succumbing to the draught. Finally we witness the continents shift and change in violent fashion for a climax, during a total eclipse of the sun no less. Yet everything’s dead, and there nothing around for the destruction to threaten, leaving it just as empty spectacle.
At this point the 124 minute version of the film takes an impromptu intermission for 15 minutes, the intend to give the audience and orchestra time to rest. On the blu-ray this lasts a few mere seconds before we’re back to the fold. A few members of the band play a jazzy number before Deems Taylor comes back and introduces us to… the soundtrack.
A simple distraction, the soundtrack segment only serves as padding in an already long feature film. While it is interesting how the animators draw the various instrumentals out, it is a completely superfluous additional to the film.
The Pastoral Symphony
Ludwig van Beethoven
Getting back into the film proper, we have Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, his Pastoral, which was meant to describe the German countryside of his homeland. Here, it has been re-imagined as a land of Greek mythology gardens, full of unicorns cherubs and the like.
We first spend some time with some multicoloured unicorns and Pegasi, who perform ballet to the music as their way of frolicking. As far as I’m concerned, these flying equine make up the highlight of this otherwise pedestrian section of the film.
We then introduced to the centaurettes and their cubby cherub friends who help them get made up to meet with some nearby male centaurs. It feels like American teen characters preparing for the prom, something weirdly out of place in a film over wise void of modern cultural influences (and especially Americanisms).
Bacchus, the god of wine, comes a-calling to a wine party that the cast thus far have come. He rides a horned donkey that gets almost as drunk as he is and is briefly accompanied by two zebra centurettes (who quickly disappear from the film shortly thereafter). Bacchus is something of a womaniser, chasing the centurettes around in a impromptu game of blind man’s bluff as his crown of grapes covers his eyes.
The party is cut short by the arrival of the king of the gods, Zeuz – whose comic appearance predates and possibly influence the Zeuz in Hercules years later – and his assistant Vulcan, forger of lightning. Zeus attacks Bacchus for some never explained reason, and makes the land run red with wine, much to the latter god’s delight.
Pastoral is the weakness link in Fantasia. In comparison to the rest of the film, the animation is quite poor, even if the backgrounds are nice. It feels the most like a cartoon, rather than a part of the art and is the most pronounced in terms of feeling like a silent movie, or a particularity poor Silly Symphony. That it is over twenty minutes in length only allows the film to hammer its own issues home.
The piece is so boring a sequence that I noticed a part of the foreground didn’t track in one scene with the rest during one pan. The whole thing is sickly saccharine and artistically not up to par with anything else in the film.
Dance of the Hours
Dance of the Hours is the lightest part of the entire film, a comedic parody of ballet starring animals that you wouldn’t have thought of prior to Fantasia as creatures of dance. Ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators give us one of the more whimsical portions of the film’s run-time.
Starting with a flock of ostriches having a hearty breakfast before bickering over some grapes, the animation makes every use of them to juxtapose the grace of ballet with the lack of such with the gangly birds. A herd of elephants later cause mischief by blowing bubbles every such where (some of which encircle them as makeshift tutus).
The hippos are the clear standouts, elegant in sheer contrast to their bulk. When the lead Hippo does her pirouettes, the animation makes it almost believable. Free from the requirements of the rest of the film, it is also apparent that the animators greatly enjoyed their time on the segment as well.
A group of alligators conclude the segment, coming out to “court” the central hippo before her true suitor, the head ‘gator comes to claim her. The two have a comic duel where the male has trouble with the whole lifting his much heavier dancing partner comes into play. And it all ends with an explosive finale that literally brings the animated house down.
Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria
Modeste Mussorgsky & Franz Schubert
Walpurgi’s Night, a event similar to the modern day Halloween, is the setting for Fantasia’s penultimate number, the powerful piece of Night on Bald Mountain. This night Chernobog the Slovonic god of evil, emerges from the titular mountain to raise the forces of evil in a dark and macabre dance of the dead.
Demons, seductive fire spirits and Harpies dance for their demon’s favour, flies across the screen, all at the whim of their master, who throws those who do not please him into his flames to burn. Chernobog himself is a towering and menacing being of malevolent power, superbly animated by Bill Tytla, the best at creating such a physically imposing creature of all the Disney artists.
The demon’s party ends when the church bell tows the dawn, and force Chernobog and his spawn and the restless dead back into the shadows, or their graves. Chernobog himself resigns himself to his lack of power against the bell with impotent rage, before retreating. Maybe thinking that, one day the bell will fail to sound.
This would have been a great way to end the film, with a powerful and dramatic piece that would stay in the minds of audiences. Disney though, didn’t fancy letting the children in the audience traumatised by the dark and scary imagery of Bald Mountain, and a final section was added.
By the time Ave Maria reaches the screen, I’ve generally tuned out or turned Fantasia off. A dull and insipid piece from beginning to end, Ave Maria is a dull wash of blues and greens whilst hopeful choir music plays in the background. After the magnificence of the prior Bald Mountain, it feels like being dropped in a bucket of lukewarm water.
The slow melodic tune that accompanies it seemingly threatens to put viewers to sleep. A coven of nuns moving through the forest on a pilgrim to some holy place seems to move at a snail’s pace, dragging the film to its ending.
Through my viewing for this review I learned that I like a narrative in my animation, something that I can grip onto during the ride. In much the same way as a few of the non-narrative led shorts in the Silly Symphonies cannon, Fantasia leaves me wanting something it just was never really designed to give. The thing that really bugs me is that I feel I really should like it more, being a fan of both animation and of classical music, but the marriage of the two as it is here, just leaves me with a taste of indifference from which the film is mostly unable to reclaim me.
Does this mean that I think Fantasia is a bad movie, no, not at all. At its best moments, like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Nutcracker and Bald Mountain, it is a powerhouse of animation and music brought together. Yet at its worst, in particular The Pastoral Suite, it might as well be a prolonged episode of the more sugary – and forgettable – of the Silly Symphonies.
I admire the skill of the artists that made the short, from the dew drops on the spider-web to Bill Tytla’s colossal demon king. I love the attention to detail in almost every frame of animation. Yet an animated film is meant to be watched in motion and I cannot say that I enjoy the act of doing so.
Fantasia feels more like a product of its time, at time even more so. In his book, animation historian Michael Barrier compared it to a silent movie with a musical accompaniment, looking to the past even upon its release. A statement which I happen to very much agree with.
It’s not a film for everyone and it’s one I usually only watch when I’m in the mood for it – and even then I skip the bits I least like more than not these days – yet I’m more likely to pop its sequel, Fantasia 2000 into the blu-ray tray than the original and there’s something almost tragic in that.
6Film Scoring Policy
Fantasia was a failure on its initial run in the States, and like Pinocchio, was unable to be sold to Europe at the time because of the war. Even when the war ended, It would take the film until its 1956 reissue – its third – to finally break even.
The film did however introduce audiences to stereophonic sound in film, and it was the first film of any kind to use Surround Sound, years before Dolby came to the scene.
Walt Disney intended for the film to be an ongoing project, which new pieces of art could be added to keep it circulated while always offering something new. Due to the film’s failure, these plans did not come to pass. That is until Walt’s nephew Roy Disney, decided that he would make his uncle’s dream of Fantasia being a continued series a step closer to reality, by producing Fantasia 2000, 34 years after Walt’s death.
Studio/Distributor: Walt Disney/RKO Radio Pictures
Runtime: 125 mins (118 mins cut version)
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Technique: 2D Animation
Country of Origin: USA
Budget: $2.28 million
Producer: Walt Disney
Fantasia © The Walt Disney Company
- The 118 minute version has the title card at the start of the film, rather than in the middle, the introductions by Deems Taylor are also greatly truncated down for time.
- When the roadshow version of the film was restored in 2000, Deems Taylor’s voice recordings for the roadshow version of the film were deemed too deteriorated to use at the fidelity that The Disney Company wanted. Subtitles were original thought of, but the dialogue was re-dubbed by voice actor veteran Corey Burton.
- Sega released a videogame adaptation for Fantasia for their Sega Mega Drive in 1991, the game was developed by Infogrames and starred Mickey Mouse as the main character. It went down poorly with both critics and players alike.
- The broomstick and Hyacinth Hippo made cameos in the 1988 film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
- A segment was cut out of the final film, a piece set to the courtship of two swans, set to Claire de Lunie, the sequence was later re-edited and added to Make Mine Music under the title – and music – Blue Bayou
- Certain scenes of The Pastoral Symphony featured a couple black centurette, one that acted as a helpers to a white centurette and another as one of Bacchus entourage. They were both edited out – either completely or via zooming and cropping the scenes they appeared in – on all the future versions of Fantasia.