Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Fantasia

In various interviews over the years, George Lucas, a filmmaker who will eventually have dealings with the studio under consideration in this column, has mentioned his apparently life-long desire to make experimental, avant-garde films. As recently as the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Lucas told Stephen Colbert that he’d be focusing on experimental filmmaking now that the burden of running the Star Wars Cash Printing Machine® had been passed to the House of Mouse.

Assuming he’s actually making these movies (and that’s a pretty big “if”…he’s been talking about it for several decades now), don’t expect to see them any time soon. He claims he’ll only be showing them to his friends. Frankly, that kind of makes sense. After all, who would expect the creator of one of the most populist entertainments of all time to make an experimental, art-house film and release it to a wide audience?

And yet, in 1940, that is exactly what Walt Disney did when he released Fantasia, his most ambitious feature to date and arguably the riskiest project the studio has released to this day. Where Snow White and Pinocchio aimed to showcase animation’s potential as a storytelling medium, Fantasia wanted nothing less than to elevate the form to the realm of pure art. This wasn’t just another cartoon. This was an event. This was something new.

It didn’t start off that way. Disney’s original plan was simply to create a deluxe Silly Symphony to help boost the flagging popularity of his signature star, Mickey Mouse. He acquired the rights to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and set to work adapting the story as a starring vehicle for Mickey. By chance, Walt happened to meet Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, right around the same time and told him about the short. Stokowski liked both the music and Disney and agreed to conduct the piece.

As Walt continued to get more excited by the possibilities of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the budget kept going up. Going over-budget seemed to be a recurring theme for Disney in these days. But unlike the feature-length Snow White or Pinocchio, it quickly became apparent that there was no way a short film like this would be able to recoup its costs at the box office. So it was decided to make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice one segment of a longer concert feature (imaginatively titled The Concert Feature at the time). Disney and Stokowski contacted music critic and radio personality Deems Taylor, who would end up providing on-screen commentary throughout the film, to help the Disney story department with the music selection.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remains the one thing everyone remembers from Fantasia. Even if you haven’t seen the movie (and I’d wager that it’s probably the least-seen of the movies widely considered to be top-tier Disney Classics), you’ve probably seen this one segment. Disney wisely put Mickey front-and-center in most of the advertising materials and the Sorcerer Mickey look has been widely merchandized. And it is a terrific piece of animation. The music is wonderful, the animation is lovely and Mickey is his usual fun and friendly self. It’s also kind of scary, especially for little kids. The Sorcerer himself is an imposing figure and the sight of Mickey axe-murdering a sentient broomstick is pretty intense, even in shadow. But it’s just one small part of Fantasia and it takes some patience to get there.

The movie’s first segment, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, is either startlingly bold or mind-numbingly boring, depending on your perspective. As an animation fan, it’s a stunning display of abstract visuals and state-of-the-art effects work. But if you’re a kid or even a more casual movie fan, it’s a bit of a litmus test for how you’ll respond to the rest of the movie. If nothing else, Disney sequenced Fantasia brilliantly. You’ll know within the first ten minutes if this movie’s going to be your jam or not.

The next segment is slightly less abstract as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite is brought to life with flittering fairies, dancing mushrooms and flowers, and cascading leaves. Again, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the artistry on display in this sequence. But you can admire the craft and still be left finding this all a little dull. It’s lovely to look at but not much more. The last time I saw Fantasia theatrically, one impatient little girl spent much of the sequence asking her mom, “When’s Mickey coming?”

Mickey does finally show up next, only to be followed by another lengthy, ambitiously abstract piece, this one set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Again, this is a stunning piece of animation depicting nothing less than the dawn of life on Earth up to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But the rhythm of the sequence is very different from what most people expected from animation, especially at that time. Most animated shorts and features had a predictable gag structure: loosely connected vignettes with set-ups and punchlines. The Rite of Spring has none of that. It simply flows along at its own pace, making big leaps here and there before settling back into its languid groove.

Most of the highlights of Fantasia are found in its second act. Following an intermission and a fun “Meet the Soundtrack” vignette, we find ourselves in the mythological world of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. This is done in a more traditionally cartoonish style and it’s cute, if not particularly memorable.

(I should add that this is also one of our earliest examples of Disney’s long line of revisionist history. In the late 1960s, a few shots depicting stereotypical black female centaurs were removed. You can find images of them online if you’d like. I’m somewhat torn on the subject in this case. On the one hand, I think art should reflect the time in which it was made and shouldn’t be altered after the fact. But on the other, I think most modern audiences would be completely thrown out of the movie if these racially exaggerated characters suddenly popped up out of nowhere. So I do think the studio made the right call here. Disney’s complicated history with race will definitely come up again in this column.)

Fantasia saved its best segments for last, starting with Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. If there’s a major criticism that can be leveled at Fantasia it’s that most of the segments feel exceedingly self-serious. Even Mickey Mouse feels like he’s straining for artistic credibility at times. Coming toward the program’s end, Dance of the Hours, directed by Disney veterans Norm Ferguson and T. Hee, feels almost like a parody of the rest of the film. A slapstick ballet performed by ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators, Dance of the Hours is genuinely inspired.

Finally, we come to the grand finale: a proto-mash-up of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Night on Bald Mountain is a masterpiece of animation: intense, stark and unforgettable. In the late 1960s, a new generation discovered Fantasia for…let’s say, completely different reasons than Walt Disney had intended. What’s surprising is that the Disney studio made no effort to discourage that audience. Instead, they leaned into it with a new psychedelic ad campaign that emphasized Bald Mountain‘s demonic Chernabog over Mickey Mouse.

Fantasia debuted in November of 1940 and played around the country roadshow-style utilizing an early stereophonic sound system called Fantasound. Critically, it was a resounding success. Film critics hailed it as a significant milestone, not just in animation but in cinema in general. The Academy couldn’t figure out how to squeeze it into one of their usual categories, so they gave it two Honorary Oscars.

Audiences packed houses for months but even with the more expensive roadshow admission prices, Fantasia didn’t turn a profit. Part of the problem was the expense of installing the new Fantasound system into theatres. As World War II broke out, plans for a European release were cancelled and the Fantasound equipment was given over to the war effort.

Not everyone was impressed by Fantasia. Classical music critics took issue with everything from the music selection to Stokowski’s arrangements to the very idea of the film itself. The only living composer whose work was represented in the film was Igor Stravinsky and he absolutely hated it.

Despite these setbacks, Walt remained proud of what he’d accomplished. He envisioned Fantasia as an evolving program that could be refreshed every few years with new segments added and old ones taken out. He kept the story department busy developing potential new segments for months. But when the US formally entered World War II, Walt was forced to drop his ambitious plans for future Fantasias. More than 50 years later, a new Fantasia program would finally arrive in theatres. But we’ll get to that later.

In the end, Fantasia is a movie that you can’t help but admire even if it remains a difficult movie to truly love. It’s an audacious experiment and a dazzling showcase for some of the finest animation the medium would ever produce. But it’s also an anthology film, which means that as a movie, it’s only as strong as its weakest segment. Sure, Fantasia can be a little boring, a little saccharine, even a little cornball. But in this case, it’s the effort and intent behind the film that matters more than the movie itself. I may not love Fantasia. But I do love that Fantasia exists.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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