Welcome to Animation for Adults, proving that cartoons ain’t just kid’s stuff. Originally I was going to start a review trilogy this week, but that’ll have to wait. Because while at my local library, I came across something that I knew I just HAD to review. With that said, let’s take a look at the Disney classic, Fantasia.
Widely considered to be Walt Disney’s magnum opus, 1940’s Fantasia was like no other movie ever released at the time. The idea of synchronizing images to music was relatively new, and in a lot of ways it was a precursor to the music videos of today. Even though it wasn’t well received by critics upon its release, it captured the imaginations of millions over time and has since earned its place as one of the most important and revolutionary animated features in cinematic history. The classical score covers a wide pallet of composers from Bach to Beethoven to Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, and the stories vary from dancing flowers, to the age of the dinosaurs to Satan bringing Hell to Earth. Surely there was nothing quite like it.
Fantasia is one of those movies that you can appreciate both as a kid and an adult, and it translates differently to various age groups. When I was a child, I had a vast collection of Disney movies on VHS and among them was Fantasia. While it wasn’t quite my favorite Disney movie at the time (that honor belonged to Peter Pan, but has changed since then), this was probably the one that had the biggest impact on me. It’s what sparked a short lived fascination with classical music, and has directly fed my love for wordless storytelling. Now that I’m older and haven’t seen the film in over twelve years, I was able to see what a groundbreaking piece it was, both in its composition and direction.
Because Fantasia has no coherent story, I am going to review each of its seven segments individually (excluding the introductions in between and the segment about the sound-track) and do a little compare and contrast to how I reacted to it as a kid to how I react to it today. There will be minor spoilers ahead, so if you have not seen this movie but are interested, you might want to turn back. For the rest of you, let’s dive into our first segment.
Tocotta and Fugue in D Minor: This segment is incredibly different from the rest, as it is the only one that doesn’t tell a concrete story. Instead what we’re shown is a multitude of colors, shapes, lights, shadows, geographical landscapes and God knows what else. It starts out with silhouettes of the orchestra illuminated by multicolored lights, then transitions into patterns and cloud formations. I like this segment because it’s a good representation of what we think about when we listen to music at a concert hall, kind of like on a subconscious level. Because we the audience are not quite sure exactly what these things are supposed to be, we’re open to many interpretations of what they are and we’re allowed to pour our own imaginations into them and create whatever we want from it.
The Nutcracker Suite: Most of us are probably familiar with the famous ballet “The Nutcracker”, a Christmas story about a prince who is turned into a toy nutcracker doll and saves a girl from the rat king. Fantasia, on the other hand, decided to take a different route with the music. Of course we’re given a ballet, but instead of dancing dolls, mice and sugarplum fairies, we’re given dancing flowers… and sugarplum fairies. There’s a dandelion dance, a mushroom dance, a leaf dance, a water lily dance, and even a fish dance. It all follows the changing of the seasons starting with the blooming flowers in spring, to the falling snowflakes of winter. While it was a favorite of my sister’s (for obvious reasons), I was still impressed with this even as a kid. Although looking at it now, the mushroom dance seems to be yet another not so subtle sign of Walt Disney’s anti-Semitism. While it’s my least favorite segment, it’s by no means bad. Girls will definitely enjoy this part more than boys, but it’s still a very interesting twist on the classic ballet.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Arguably the most iconic episode of the movie due to it featuring Disney’s mascot, Mickey Mouse, this is what most people associate with Fantasia. The original piece by Paul Dukas was inspired by an ancient tale of a young magician who tampers with powers beyond his control, and in this particular piece we’re given the same story. In this one, Mickey play’s a young wizard’s disciple who uses the power of his master’s hat to bring a broomstick to life and do chores for him. As he dreams of being a great wizard capable of controlling the stars and the heavens, the magic goes uncontrolled for too long and becomes unstoppable. While this is obviously one of the more cartoony segments of the movie, it’s still a classic and as I already said, the most famous part of the movie.
The Rites of Spring: Now this is where things get really good! To me, this is the strongest part of the film. The strongest part of it is, of course, the music. The Rites of Spring by Igor Stravinsky is my favorite musical score used in the whole film, and quite honestly, one of my most favorite classical pieces of all time. It’s complex, progressive, intense, cryptic, ominous and at some times even violent. In fact when it was first performed in 1913, it caused one of the biggest music related riots in history. Disney decided to use this piece to tell the history of our Earth up to the death of the dinosaurs. It starts off in the emptiness of space, flying through the stars and the Milky Way until we reach the uninhabitable red mass of stone and lava that was Planet Earth. Then we go to the first single cell organisms, and follow it until they evolve into fish and other underwater creatures. Fast forward a few million years to the age of the dinosaurs and we’re treated to an intense and brutal example of the food chain. Then the sun dries everything up and makes the land uninhabitable again. Once the last dinosaurs are wiped out by heat and starvation, Pangaea splits and the continents are born. Earthquakes crumble and rip the landscape apart with massive fissures. Mountains burst from the ground in violent eruptions. The wind and the sea sweep up in a battle of the elements. And then darkness. The Rite of Spring showed that the genesis of our Earth was as dramatic and abrupt as the cycle of nature now, and provides some of the movie’s most intense and overwhelming moments. It was my favorite part as a kid, and is still my favorite part now.
The Pastoral Symphony: After the monumental intensity of The Rite of Spring, this segment seems to be a return to the cartoonish atmosphere of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It portrays several creatures and characters from Greek mythology, including cherubs (which really aren’t from Greek mythology, but I digress) unicorns, pegasi, centaurs, and the gods themselves. It’s divided into three acts. First we’re introduced to a pair of flying horses teaching their children how to fly while fauns and unicorns frolic in the meadows below. Next we’re presented to a group of female centaurs and their cherub assistants preparing for the season of courtship. Finally we’re brought to the season of harvest, where all the creatures pay tribute to the Bacchus, the god of wine, only to have their party crashed by Zeus. This is the one that simply wasn’t taking itself too seriously, but there are a lot of weird things about it. There’s a scene where the Pegasus babies are playing in the water, and when they go in they come out different colors. And once again, signs of Walt Disney’s anti-Semitism are visible, especially during the pairing of the centaurs. In fact, if you look for it on YouTube you can find a deleted scene that features a white girl centaur being tended to by a stereotypical black girl whose half donkey. While it was really weird at times and some of the scenes are incredibly distracting, the artwork is brilliant and everything fits the music well.
Dance of the Hours: Another one that wasn’t taken too seriously, the Dance of the Hours was based on the ballet that follows the hours of the day. With this one, the dance is played out by animals for each of times of day: ostriches for the morning, hippos for the afternoon, elephants for the evening and alligators for night. The only one to stay through through the majority is the main hippo, who sleeps through the elephant’s bubble dance and is chased by the lustful alligators. Then they all come together in a grand finale that becomes a clash of colors and dancing. Like the pastoral symphony, it’s really silly and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it brings some much needed hilarity and warms our spirits before presenting us with a drastic change in setting.
Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria: When I was a kid, this part scared the ever loving crap out of me. Whenever I watched it as a kid, I usually stopped the video right before it got to this segment, and every time I did make it through, I felt really proud of myself. (I was 5, give me a break!) Besides The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, this is probably the most popular and recognizable part of the whole movie. It combines two pieces of music that are so different in structure, tone and mood, that they compliment each other perfectly. The first song, Night on Bald Mountain, is menacing, loud, and provokes oncoming doom as the devil Chernabog rises from the mountain, summoning spirits and demons from their graves just to play God with them as they dance and fly around him right before hurdling them back into the depths of Hell in a blazing inferno. He turns beauty into filth, joy into pain, and cries for help into consumption and greed.
But then the heavenly light of proves to be too much for him as he and his minions are banished back to the fiery pits from whence they came. We are then treated to a line of shadowy figures walking single file through the forest torches in hand at the break of dawn. Compared to the rest of the segments in the movie, this last part is the one with the slowest pacing. But then again, that’s how it’s supposed to be. It lets you take the time to soak up the serene imagery and obverse the soft choirs of Ave Maria. While there’s barely anything going on, this part is the most powerful, most beautiful, and can even be somewhat religious or meditative. It’s all atmosphere, building to the tranquil rising of the morning sun, and the end of our picture.
Well. that’s Fantasia. So how does it hold up? Impeccably. Even seventy years after its creation, Fantasia still manages to fascinate anyone who gazes upon it. Don’t forget that this was made in the 1940s, so there were no computers or special effects. Everything in this movie was done by hand. Of course a few parts are a tad dated, but they weren’t too distracting. There’s no plot or dialogue, but it has more beauty and drama than any other Disney movie past or present. There was nothing like it then and there is nothing like it now. It truly is and will always be a masterpiece.
I give Fantasia 10/10.