Film Review: Fantasia (1940)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Corey Burton – Narration (rerecorded to replace Taylor’s)

Walt Disney – Mickey Mouse

Julietta Novis – soloist in Ave Maria

Leopold Stokowski – himself, Conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra

Deems Taylor – himself, narrative introductions

Sources of InspirationThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment based on Der Zauberlehrling, an epic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1797

Release Dates

November 13th, 1940 at the Broadway Theatre, New York City (roadshow premiere, with Fantasound)

January 6th, 1942 (general release, in severely edited form)

Run-time – 125 minutes (the longest Disney film to date)

Directors – James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr., Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Ben Sharpsteen

Composers – Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Paul Dukas, Modest Mussorgsky, Amilcare Ponchielli, Franz Schubert, Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Worldwide Gross – $76 – $83 million

Accolades – 8 wins and 1 nomination, including 2 honorary Oscars

 

1940 in History

Food rationing begins in Britain

Hattie McDaniel wins first Oscar for an African-American

Germany invades Denmark, Norway and the Low Countries

1940 Summer Olympics are cancelled

Winston Churchill takes over as PM from Neville Chamberlain

First McDonald’s opens in California

Infamous Nazi death camp, Auschwitz, opens in Poland

Dunkirk Evacuation in France

The Battle of Britain occurs and The Blitz begins

Daisy Duck, Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny make their debuts

Charlie Chaplin stars in The Great Dictator

Births of Chuck Norris, Tom Jones, Ringo Starr and John Lennon

 


If Pinocchio was the closest Disney came to making an animated horror film, Fantasia was their art house film. Featuring a program of classical music from a variety of legendary Western composers, it was a remarkably highbrow film for a former Missouri farm boy, but Fantasia has stood the test of time to earn its place in the Disney “Golden era” as one of the all-time greatest Disney classics. So, how did this unlikely project come about?

In the late 1930s, when Walt was planning a “comeback” short for his beloved Mickey Mouse (whose popularity had started to decline), he met famed conductor Leopold Stokowski at Chasen’s Restaurant in Los Angeles one night. Stokowski was a huge fan of the mouse, and offered to conduct the music for Walt’s short, free of charge. Eventually, as the costs of the project mounted, the pair evolved a plan for the most ambitious animated film that cinema had yet seen.

Originally titled “The Concert Feature” while it was in development, the final name was a word chosen from Stokowski’s extensive musical vocabulary: a “fantasia” is a kind of freeform musical composition featuring a mixture of different styles, which, as it turned out, was exactly what the film was. This free tempo style would cause a few headaches with the sound department, whose usual method of recording sound by using “bar sheets” proved too impractical here. Ultimately, an early sort of mixing board was used to layer the various sections of the music together – Stokowski was said to enjoy this immensely, as he could more precisely control the balance of the instruments in his orchestra, something impossible to do live.

The renowned Philadelphia Orchestra was Stokowski’s natural choice for the film, as he had long been associated with them by then. With the exception of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (recorded by him with a studio orchestra in Hollywood), all of the music in the film was conducted with the Philadelphia Orchestra at its home, the Philadelphia Academy of Music, known for its excellent acoustics.

Stokowski
The maestro at work

In his usual manner, Walt spared no expense when it came to the sound: he presaged the development of stereophonic sound by nearly fifteen years with his pioneering Fantasound system. Although the required equipment would prove too costly for most theatres to install (and would be abandoned totally by 1941), it was still a remarkable achievement which brought unparalleled life to the music, for those lucky enough to enjoy it with the new system.

You might have heard that this film is a bit… well, hard to digest, but a lot of the selected pieces on the program are actually very popular ones which audiences were (and still are) familiar with. Even if you can’t put a name to the tunes, you’re bound to recognise parts of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. In the original run of the film, music critic Deems Taylor was used as the narrator, as he was familiar to audiences of the time from his Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Although he is still physically present in the film today, sadly, due to deterioration of the film over time, the bulk of his narration has had to be re-dubbed – most of what you hear in the current version is Corey Burton, though Taylor’s voice can still be detected around the middle of the film.

Taylor and Stokowski weren’t the only “big names” to be attached to the project, either – while it was in production, the Disney staff consulted with world-famous experts like Roy Chapman Andrews, Barnum Brown, Julian Huxley and even Edwin Hubble (the Hubble Telescope’s namesake), all of whom applauded the film’s commitment to accuracy in its more “serious” segments, like The Rite of Spring.

The artwork in the film is imaginative, varied, at times inspirational and at others, well, a little disappointing (but we’ll get to that later on). As with the previous two Disney films, the influence of German expressionism is strongly felt here, particularly in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Night on Bald Mountain, but the animation covers a range of other styles from pure abstraction through to romanticism. When choosing the music for the program, a whole host of composers and compositions had to be dropped, among them: Jean Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela, Claude Debussy’s Clair du Lune, Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from Der Ring des Nibelungen, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Jaromír Weinberger’s Švanda the Bagpiper, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, Niccolò Paganini’s Moto perpetuo Op. 11, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, and Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Op. 37a (or Troika). (Some of these were later used in the package films of the war years.)

Unfortunately, for all its efforts to bring art and classical music to the masses, Fantasia became the second film of Disney’s to fall victim to World War II. With nearly half of his potential market cut off by the war in Europe, national theatres struggling to accommodate the costly Fantasound systems, and having spent a whopping $2.2 million on the production, Walt once again found himself taking a loss. Still, he never once regretted making it, and would still speak fondly about the film in interviews decades later.

Now, in 2017, after many successful rereleases and multiple restorations, Fantasia sits atop a mountainous reputation. Some love it, some hate it – so let’s take a look at this epic and decide for ourselves where we stand. A small note: because of the unconventional structure of films like this, I’m abandoning my usual format so that I can look at each piece of the film one by one.

 

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 – c. 1703-1707, Johann Sebastian Bach

(The “BWV” number in the title of the piece refers to the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, a catalogue of his compositions first published in 1950).

Bach and abstraction – how much more highbrow can you get? The film’s opening piece is the oldest piece of music featured, set to a fascinating blend of abstract imagery inspired by the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Len Lye (A Colour Box), Joan Miró and Oskar Fischinger – the latter of whom actually worked at the Disney studio for almost a year on this film, before abandoning the attempt in frustration. Some of his influence can still be seen, though, for example in the “rolling hills” of music and the silhouetted Stokowski at the start and finish.

Fischinger waves

Taylor’s narration tends to run on a bit, and I can’t help feeling like his talents were rather wasted. With his background in music criticism he could have provided some interesting commentary on the segments, but instead, at the start of each segment, he merely explains (as bluntly as possible) what you’re about to see and hear, as though you wouldn’t be capable of working it out for yourself. Perhaps it’s something to do with the context: before World War II, abstraction wasn’t very popular, but I still feel that the simplistic style of narration underestimates the viewer somewhat.

Once Stokowski begins conducting, however, we get to experience the music for ourselves. It is gloriously performed, rich and powerful, with the accompanying imagery growing more and more imaginative as it goes along. To start off with, we simply see the instruments of the orchestra highlighted in coloured lights as they play with enlarged expressionist shadows behind them, but this gradually melds into a rolling, swirling mass of shapes and colours suggesting the soaring of the listener’s imagination. Colour is used vividly in this segment to produce psychological effects on the viewer; you can feel your emotions rising and falling with the music, which follows a “call and response” pattern typical of a fugue. I have to admit, I’m no virtuoso, so I didn’t realise at first that a “toccata” and a “fugue” are distinct musical terms. A toccata is a light and fast-moving piece of music for keyboard or stringed instruments, intended to show off the dexterity of the performer’s fingers, while a fugue is a repeated musical phrase or melody which is introduced in one part of a composition, and then woven in and developed throughout the rest. The more you know!

Walking stone

The most striking part of the animation, for me, was the strange “walking” stone that we see going down a sort of corridor, formed by the music, at one point. It made me think of an Easter Island moai statue, even though we never see if it has a “face.” There is a lot of nice brushwork, with the use of pastels paralleling the Ave Maria segment at the end of the film. Overall, it’s an enjoyable start to the film, but is perhaps a little overlong for modern attention spans (Fantasia would certainly be a tough film for a child to sit through).

Whether you’ll like this one or not is a very personal consideration; I don’t much care for abstraction myself, but I do enjoy the music. Critic Christopher Finch said of the film’s art: “abstraction here owes more to Art Deco motifs than nonfigurative painting,” and considered it a bit too light-hearted for Bach, noting that the animation emphasises “the superficial melodic highlights of Bach’s themes rather than the harmonic richness.” I don’t really know enough about music to be able to agree, but I know one thing: this was a bold and impressive experiment for Disney at a time when most animation was still limited to slapstick and shorts, and I think it should be appreciated for that.

 

The Nutcracker Suite – 1892, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I love Tchaikovsky. Since choreographer George Balanchine revived this ballet in the fifties, it has become a Christmas favourite around the world – but interestingly, in 1940, it had long since fallen out of favour (as Deems Taylor tells us, “nobody performs it nowadays”). It was therefore an unusual choice for the program of Fantasia, but I for one am very glad they included it. This segment features some of the most stunning animation in the film and arguably of the entire medium, infused with a delicacy and an intricacy that just take your breath away. Any one of the backgrounds alone are worthy of hanging on a wall.

For this arrangement, Stokowski dropped the first two movements of the suite and rearranged the other six to create a smoother narrative – this “meddling” with the classics produced a lot of criticism from the more die-hard music critics of the time, but it must be appreciated that when adapting music for cinema, a few changes to suit the narrative are inevitable and can work to the film’s benefit.

The look of the piece was inspired by the works of Richard Dodd, John Bauer, Richard Doyle, Arthur Rackham and Grandville, as well as some of Disney’s own talents like Sylvia Moberly-Holland. In the first movement, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” we see a graceful troupe of fairies making their way through what appears to be a forest, decorating and tweaking as they go. To give them their soft, ethereal appearance, a combination of airbrush, drybrush, stipple and transparent paint was used, with excellent results. Although the fairies are silent, they are given great character in their animation; just watch the orange fairy as she yawns and props herself on her elbow before adding dewdrops to a spider’s web.

Orange fairy

After this segment ends, we lead into one of Fantasia’s more well-known segments: the “Chinese Dance.” This short piece involves an adorable little mushroom named “Hop Low” and his much larger dancers. It must be admitted that the designs are rooted in unfortunate “coolie” stereotypes, with the mushrooms resembling old-fashioned Chinese rice farmers in conical hats. Believe me, though, there’s much worse racism in one of the later segments! In spite of the dated designs, Hop Low and his friends are given some hilariously animated choreography courtesy of Art Babbitt, and make for one of the film’s most light-hearted and fun moments. (Apparently, Babbitt drew inspiration from The Three Stooges!)

Hop Low

We then move into the “Dance of the Flutes,” which here becomes the “Milkweed Ballet.” It is exactly what it sounds like, featuring an elegant ballet performed by a group of anthropomorphised milkweeds. It’s a charming number with some more wonderful animation, but there’s not much more to be said about it than that.

Next comes the “Arabian Dance,” performed here by an assortment of strangely seductive fish (what was it with Disney and sexy fish characters at the time? Remember Cleo from Pinocchio?). This scene was particularly heavy with special effects, each of which had to be added over the final film cel in a separate layer – supposedly, the finished piece was over 100 feet long and contained more paper than one man could carry! It was thus divided up into three smaller scenes. The wonderful colours of this scene owe credit to colour coordinator Phil Dike, and an Arabic dancer named “Princess Omar” was responsible for the live-action reference footage the crew shot, to give the fish the right style.

The beginning of the “Russian Dance” segment almost counts as a jump scare! Featuring a lively bunch of Cossack-styled thistles and their partners in peasant dress, this is an exciting and bouncy segment and one of the most recognisable numbers from Tchaikovsky’s suite. The thistles were based on real ones, picked in a vacant lot near the studio – the animators at Disney could make just about anything work with their imaginations.

To close the segment, we have the “Waltz of the Flowers,” featuring more of the lovely nature fairies as well as the leaves and flowers themselves. As you watch the fairies ice skating on a frozen pond to Tchaikovsky’s delicate harp glissandos, it’s easy to forget that this is even a Disney film – this is truly some of their best work from that time. An interesting point is that the fairies in this piece (as well as the harpies in Night on Bald Mountain later) are all depicted nude, yet the infamously strict Hays Committee insisted that the studio cover the breasts of the “centaurettes” in the Pastoral Symphony section. Even there, though, not all of the girls are “covered up,” so perhaps Disney just decided to take a chance with it. It is art, after all!

After a rather abrupt end, one of the film’s strongest segments comes to a close, leading us into what is perhaps the strongest.

 

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – 1897, Paul Dukas

This is Fantasia’s pinnacle, the one part of it that everybody knows even if they haven’t seen the film. Based on an 1897 composition by Dukas which was itself based on a 1797 poem by Goethe (the story is said to date all the way back to the second century CE with Lucian’s Philopsuedes), this has been described by some as Mickey’s finest role. The entire film owes its existence to the idea for this short, although it is much more than just a vehicle for Mickey.

For his feature film debut, Mickey was redesigned into the form we know today by Freddy Moore – the most notable change was the addition of pupils to his eyes, to give him more expression, but his famous ears were left alone. Mickey was a beloved character for most of the 1930s, with even famed composer Arturo Toscanini said to be a fan (the studio staff initially used his recording of the Dukas piece while developing the short, but upon hearing that Stokowski was coming to the studio, they hurried to hide it!). However, by the end of the decade, his popularity was starting to be eclipsed by some of Disney’s other stars like Goofy, Donald Duck and Pluto the Dog. This appearance was Mickey’s “comeback.”

Expressionist Mickey

There’s some wonderfully evocative imagery in this segment, which owes its design primarily to German expressionism, with its use of exaggerated light and shadow. This chiaroscuro lighting could be seen as a precursor to the film noir movement that would develop later in the 1940s. Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 comedy Modern Times and Paul Leni’s 1924 horror Waxworks were said to be influences here, and Mickey’s acting was based on performances by Reginald Gardiner and Giuseppe “Great” Creatore.

The most impressive thing about this piece is that it is able to develop Mickey’s character more than was ever possible in the shorts. Although it is silent (he doesn’t speak until after it’s over), his personality is beautifully expressed in the animation; his caution after his master leaves the room, his tentative excitement as he brings the broom to life, and his boyish cockiness as it begins to do his chores for him are all portrayed through cleverly detailed expressions and gestures. In the middle of the segment, he falls asleep and lapses into grandiose fantasies, commanding the heavens and the waves of the sea in one of Fantasia’s most iconic scenes. Parallels have been drawn between Mickey and Walt Disney himself here, as the small-town guy who dreamed big.

Mickey dreams big

Things take a Frankensteinian turn at this point as Mickey awakes to find he’s lost control of the broom, which is beginning to flood the sorcerer’s cavern with buckets of water. In a panic, he chops the poor broom to pieces as the music swells to a dramatic crescendo.  But all is it not as it seems: the splintered fragments reawaken and form into a hilarious army of mindless brooms, all intent on filling the tiny well in the cavern, which of course is soon swamped in water.

The futility of Mickey’s struggle against the broom army is played to perfect comedic effect, and the scene features more of that striking expressionist lighting, as well as some spectacular water effects done by Ugo D’Orsi. Finally, in a heavily symbolic moment, the sorcerer – whose name is apparently Yen Sid (try reading it backwards) – returns, and parts the waters with a few sweeps of his hands. A shamefaced Mickey is left looking anxiously at his master, who raises a scolding but good-humoured eyebrow in an expression familiar to the staff from Walt, before giving him a last thwack with the broom (which is now thankfully back to normal). The segment closes with the animated Mickey running onto the podium to congratulate the live-action Stokowski, an innovative scene at the time and one of the last times that Walt personally voiced the mouse.

This is one of the strongest segments in the piece, perhaps because it is the only one to have a proper narrative structure to it. Even Stravinsky, who was infamously critical of the film, was said to have enjoyed this piece. It was also the only part popular enough to be selected for inclusion in the sequel, Fantasia 2000, almost sixty years later. If you only have time to watch one part of Fantasia, I would recommend this one – it’s a timeless delight that’s sure to please any Disney fan.

 

The Rite of Spring – 1913, Igor Stravinsky

Just before this section begins, there’s a random funny moment where a percussionist in the orchestra knocks over the tubular bells and struggles with them for a second, to the obvious amusement of Deems Taylor. I love the fact that they chose to keep this in – it’s like a blooper, and it adds a touch of warmth and humanity to the generally sombre narrative linking sections of the film.

So, we arrive at one of Fantasia’s more realist sections, featuring the newest piece of music in the program. Igor Stravinsky was the only composer still alive at the time of production, and made a visit to the studio just before Christmas 1939 to see how it was progressing. Although initially supportive of the Disney treatment of his piece, he grew to despise it after Stokowski made cuts and changed the order of the movements to better fit the narrative they were trying to convey. “Le Sacre du Printemps” had always been a controversial piece, ever since its tumultuous debut in Paris, in 1913, which caused a riot in the theatre. It was brought to the USA for the first time only ten years before Fantasia by Stokowski himself, where it enjoyed a warmer reception. The inclusion of the piece in the film as the score for a “dawn of life on Earth” sequence was the suggestion of Deems Taylor, as a more suitable alternative to another Stravinsky selection, Firebird Suite, which would end up being used decades later in Fantasia 2000.

The imagery and special effects in this section of the film were inspired by the films of legendary pioneers like Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) and Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, 1925), as well as artists like Georgia O’Keefe; the dinosaurs’ fruitless march through the desert mirrors her New Mexico-inspired landscapes.

Deems Taylor’s narration at the start of this section is rather melodramatic – he describes Earth as a “lonely, tormented little planet, spinning through an empty sea of nothingness” – but the animation is suitably dramatic in its scale and dazzles with its effects. Of particular note are the space scenes, where we watch as the camera zooms in on a primitive “Earth” and Moon. Remember, these were made six years before the first space photography, and more than twenty years before the first manned spaceflight, so nobody had ever seen the planet from space before: the animators were working entirely from their imagination. The Earth shot is actually a rare live-action shot in this largely animated film; it was a physical model suspended in a darkened room, with backlights “twinkling” through a screen full of pinholes to resemble the stars. Live-action effects were also used for the flowing lava later in the sequence, which was made of an oatmeal-like substance that was filmed and then animated over later. Josh Meador was responsible for these and other effects in the sequence – he really did a fantastic job.

The cinematography is exceptional here, with lots of wide shots and interesting angles on the world as it burns and shifts, before the beginnings of life appear in the primordial seas. The flagella changing into plankton is a particularly good piece of story-telling, with the music used to great effect (whatever Stravinsky thought) to create an eerie, “alien” atmosphere. Electron microscopes had only just been invented at the time, too, so this section involved more imagination from the animators.

Lost World 25
The Lost World (1925)
Fantasia dinosaurs
Fantasia‘s T-Rex
Land Before time fight
Compare with The Land Before Time (1988)

The middle of the sequence is dominated by its depiction of the dinosaurs going about their daily lives, building to a terrifying fight between a Tyrannosaurus and a Stegosaurus, and concluding with a futile march across the desert, to their deaths. Although the science of the scene was influenced by the latest research of the day, as with any scientific work, it is inevitably dated nowadays. The postures of the dinosaurs make them look like they have scoliosis, with dragging tails and arched backs, and the T-Rex has an unusually upright stance clearly based on The Lost World (1925). The filmmakers also got their geological eras confused, with fauna from all over the 180 million year Mesozoic jumbled together – in the words of Tim Urban, “the T-Rex is closer in time to seeing a Justin Bieber concert than seeing a live Stegosaurus.” There’s even a Permian-era Dimetrodon living alongside its reptilian cousins.

Despite these flaws, it is still a very compelling part of the film; it is surprising, considering this is Disney, to see how realistically and sensitively the dinosaurs’ behaviours are handled. Rather than being portrayed as monsters as they usually were, most of them (the T-Rex excepted) are shown to be quite gentle or agile, with some duckbills even exhibiting mothering behaviour towards their eggs. Of course, the poor sauropods are still stuck with the lumbering, doltish cliché more typical of dinosaur depictions at the time – I found it funny that all the dinosaurs kept trying to steal food literally out of each other’s mouths. This naturalistic depiction of dinosaurs would inspire a whole new generation of filmmakers, leading to the creation of such classics as Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time (whose stylistic debt to Fantasia is very obvious) and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (Spielberg has called this his favourite animated film). Jurassic Park would itself go on to inspire such works as the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs (1999), and lead to a huge boom in the popularity of palaeontology in the 1990s.

Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park (1993)
Walking With Dinosaurs
Walking With Dinosaurs (1999)

Although the two would never have met, the fight between the T-Rex and Stegosaurus is still a lot of fun, even if it does end up being unintentionally funny in its melodrama (I always get a giggle out of the exaggerated drumrolls and the brass going “DA DA DAAAA” as the poor Stegosaurus rolls over in defeat). Critic Christopher Finch considered the dinosaurs “ham-actors,” and I do agree, but I think it makes the scene more enjoyable in its own way.

There’s nothing funny about the finale, though, as we watch the dinosaurs struggling in a drought. It’s unsettling and bleak, especially for Disney, as the animals jostle over tiny mud pools and collapse in defeat one by one, with the insistency of the score suggesting the pressing heat. Georgia O’Keefe’s art is said to have inspired the look of this scene, and given the historical context, I would imagine the Dust Bowl problem of the 1930s was another source of inspiration (Deems Taylor does reference it briefly in his narration).  Given that this was made decades before the discovery of the Chicxulub Impact Crater in the Yucatán, the lack of a dramatic meteor to finish the beasts off is understandable. The sequence stops with at the demise of the dinosaurs, a decision made against Walt’s initial judgement; apparently, continuing on to depict the evolution of man from ape-like creatures would have been courting the wrath of the creationists!

It’s a shame this wasn’t done, as the actual ending of the sequence is comparatively weak. As we see the Earth continuing to rage with earthquakes and storms, it does start to drag a bit, although there is some nice brushwork on the waves of the sea. Overall, this section of the film has aged fairly well, despite the advances in science rendering much of it inaccurate.

Before the next segment, we get a “jam session” with some of the musicians of the orchestra showing off a little, a fun addition. Then, during the intermission, we are introduced to the personification of the “Soundtrack” by Deems Taylor. This brief but enjoyable segment demonstrates the skill of the Disney animators to its fullest – it’s incredible how much character and charm they are able to get out of a simple line.

Soundtrack fantasia
“Go on, drop the other shoe won’t you?”

 

The Pastoral Symphony – 1808, Ludwig van Beethoven

Sigh. We’ve arrived at last at what is widely considered the weakest section of Fantasia, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Not that there’s anything wrong with the music – it’s as sumptuous and perfectly performed as any other piece in the film, though of course it too was subjected to rearrangement. The problem, unfortunately, is the animation.

The sequence was originally planned to be set to Gabriel Pierné’s Cydalise et le chèvre-pied, but Walt decided to make the switch to Beethoven (against Stokowski’s better judgement) because the animators were having trouble matching the pacing of their work to the relentless speed of the Pierné piece. This change might explain the dissonance between the sweeping majesty of the score and the kitschy, phoned in imagery of most of the sequence.

The artistic influences for this part included Phillip Otto Runge (the cherubs), Franz von Stuck, Arnold Böcklin (especially Isle of the Dead), Albert Hurter and John Waterhouse.  Although these can be distinguished beneath the surface, the sequence suffers from some frustratingly dull and “cutesy” animation which doesn’t do justice to the music it accompanies.

Isle of the Dead
Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (Third version, 1883)

Fantasia horse family

The first movement of the symphony, “Awakening of Pleasant Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country, allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too fast)” becomes “Mount Olympus,” and stars a family of Pegasus-unicorn hybrids. The father is a strangely sinister-looking black steed with red eyes, but his wife and children are all done in ice-cream shades of pastel, reminding me somewhat of the My Little Pony toy line (I bet those were inspired by this to some extent). This isn’t the worst part of the sequence, but it certainly isn’t the best, either.

“Scene by the Brook, andante molto mosso (fast walking pace)” becomes “Centaurs and Centaurettes,” the latter word having been coined by the artists to describe the female centaurs – how very clichéd. This is the weakest part of this sequence and the film in general, with generous dollops of sexism and racism which the Disney company have tried (with mixed success) to hide over the decades. The centaurettes really date the film, with their 1930s winged eyeliner and wavy hairdos – in fact, from the waist up, they look like a cross between high school cheerleaders and Barbie dolls (although the film is nineteen years older than her). The centaurs are no better; they have me in hysterics whenever they’re on screen, prancing and mincing with silly grins on their faces as they look for their female “prey.” Christopher Finch compared them to “cart-horses” and “football players,” and indeed they do look very Americanised for such a classical setting. The animators were obviously still struggling to do justice to the male physique at the time, too, a problem which had dogged them since their Snow White days; the centaurs have shapeless boxy bodies with tiny heads stuck on top, robbing them of any macho dignity they might have had.

Preening centaurette
“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr Disney…”

The courtship/pairing off of the centaurs and centaurettes is rather nauseating, with lots of silly posing and preening as though they’re appearing in Fantasia’s Next Top Model, and obnoxious little cherubs flitting about trying to make sure everyone finds the right mate (this seems to be based on colour). The only named ones are Melinda and Brudus, the doleful blue pair from the end of the sequence, who are apparently so incapable of finding love for themselves that they must be literally lead into each other’s arms by the cupids.

As if all these rather sexist portrayals of empty-headed girls fawning over the blokes wasn’t bad enough, this sequence also includes (or did include) the infamous character of Sunflower. If you haven’t heard of her, that’s because Disney has done everything possible to prevent you ever knowing of her existence. Sunflower is a small, black centaurette who was animated in an offensive, “pickaninny” style commonly used in cartoons at the time, with overlarge lips and her hair in pigtails. In the original release of the film, she is seen several times serving as handmaiden to one of the most Aryan centaurettes, a white blonde, who is dismissive of her attentions and keeps brushing her off so that she can better watch the centaurs with the other girls. By the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had progressed enough that this depiction was recognised to be insensitive, resulting in an abrupt removal of Sunflower’s appearances from future releases. The cutting was badly done, throwing off the music and messing up the rest of the sequence, but in the 1990s Sunflower’s scenes were restored, except that now they were blown up to exclude her from the frame (when the centaurettes are peering through the bushes at the centaurs, Sunflower is offscreen to the bottom left). Naturally, the fact that Disney has tried so obviously to hide her from us has made Sunflower far more famous than she ever would have been had they left her alone.

Sunflower

After this awful section is finally over, we get to the more enjoyable “Bacchanal,” which corresponds to the “Peasant’s Merrymaking, allegro (brisk)” movement. It is just as silly as the previous part, but at least this time it’s on purpose. Bacchus and his donkey, Jacchus are fun to watch in their drunken antics, though they’re not particularly artistic and don’t really match the grandeur of the music – apparently, the main inspiration for Bacchus’s design were the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons!

This sequence leads into “The Storm, allegro,” which features some more of Art Babbitt’s entertaining animation. Greek gods Zeus and Vulcan make an appearance here, causing mayhem for the revellers of the Bacchanal by whipping up a tremendous storm and hurling lightning bolts at Bacchus (who takes it all in his stride, simply getting even drunker). Although the actual movements of the gods are well animated, their designs clash horribly with the tone; they’re much too cartoony, with goofy faces made all the funnier by the dramatic reveal through the storm clouds. Babbitt’s speciality was character animation, not design, and it shows; for all his talents elsewhere, he was badly miscast as the animator of this sequence. Compare Zeus here to his second incarnation in Hercules, in 1997:

The final movement is the “Shephard’s Hymn of Thanksgiving, allegretto (fairly brisk)” which becomes, simply, “Sunset.” This is arguably the strongest part of the sequence, featuring an assortment of better-designed gods such as Apollo, Iris, Morpheus and Diana (as well as a pair of unnamed wind gods, or Anemoi). The colours in Iris’s rainbow were specially created for the film and they look spectacular; one of the only times that I don’t dislike the cherubs is when they’re playing in the colours of the rainbow, which have splashed all over the ground. The brief appearance of Apollo is a little hammy, as he waves to the centaurs, cherubs and unicorns like an Olympic champion, but at least he has a better design than Vulcan. Morpheus, strangely, looks like a woman, as he draws his cloak of night over the land (could this be the first non-binary Disney character?). As the inhabitants of the world settle down for the night, we are treated to a random, beautiful shot of Melinda and Brudus asleep under a blossoming tree. Then, to finish, we see Diana and a hart amidst the constellations; she uses the new moon as her bow, firing an arrow across the heavens to draw the sequence to a close.

Melinda and Brudus

In the end, even the Disney studio didn’t much like this sequence. They did, admittedly, have quite a task on their hands: how do you successfully condense five movements of Beethoven down to about twenty minutes? In the 1950s, the Warner Bros. would manage to do a better job in shorts such as The Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc? The best that can be said about the Pastoral Symphony is that it’s an interesting example of what not do in a film which does so many other things so well. Take it for what it is, and I hope you find more to enjoy in it that most of its critics do.

 

The Dance of the Hours (from La Gioconda) – 1876, Amilcare Ponchielli

This sequence of Fantasia is another ballet, or rather, a parody of ballet, and I think it’s terrific. It’s probably the genuinely funniest part of the film, and that is due to one simple fact: the animals are all so sincere. Everything they do, from their dancing to their preening, is performed in the utmost belief that they are beautiful, graceful creatures worthy of your admiration, and I just love it.

The design of the sequence was influenced by the works of Heinrich Kley, as well as the choreography of George Balanchine in films like The Goldwyn Follies (Balanchine himself visited the studio during production and was apparently delighted by their work). In true Disney fashion, Walt also hired professional dancers from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to model for the animators, an experience greatly enjoyed by both parties, according to reports. (Stokowski once compared Walt to the Ballet Russe’s founder, Serge Diaghilev, for their similar methods of managing their artists).

We are first introduced to Mademoiselle Upanova (most of the animals have these great pun names), who is the prima ballerina of the ostriches. Naturally, she doesn’t let a little thing like her species get in the way of an elegant performance, and she proceeds to delicately awaken her avian corps de ballet to prepare for their number. In a wonderful piece of comic timing, we see Mlle. Upanova feeding fruit to the other girls from a cornucopia; they catch and swallow each piece whole and the shapes can be seen straining their way down their long necks (the little bows they wear emphasise this hilariously as the fruit gets stuck). The ostriches were modelled by Irina Baranova, and the choreography, exaggerated as it is, is excellent: the ostriches demonstrate the five basic positions of the feet with marvellous aplomb and Mlle. Upanova soon begins performing entrechats and jetés with great gusto.

Next, we meet the lovely Hyacinth Hippo, a ravishing ungulate reminiscent of Miss Piggy. She is somehow both modest and vain at the same time, and it’s a joy to watch her preening herself before dressing for her dance, totally convinced of her own beauty. For the choreography of the hippos, dancer Tatiana Riabouchinska acted as reference model – despite her own slender figure, she was said to be delighted with the animator’s results! The squash and stretch principle is demonstrated clearly with Hyacinth as she performs a dramatic plié; all the flesh on her frame whirls up into a mushroom shape, before slowly unravelling and swinging back around her like a sack.

Hyacinth hippo

After her dance, she drifts off to sleep on a chaise longue, and the next troupe of dancers arrives: the elephants, led by prima ballerina Elephanchine. This is definitely the funniest imagery of the sequence – what animal could be less suited to such a delicate, physical art? Yet for all that, they do a good job with their number, blowing bubbles like Dumbo would also do later, and incorporating their trunks into the choreography. For some strange reason, instead of making a normal exit from the scene, they are randomly blown away.

The final corps de ballet are alligators, introduced in dramatically lit poses (more of that German expressionist influence). The danceur noble is Ben Ali Gator (yeah, that’s really his name), who was modelled by Roman Jasinski. I love this guy – he makes his way towards the still-snoozing Hyacinth with his mates, all of them grinning in a lecherous sort of way, but it’s his simpering look of smitten romance as he looks at the “sleeping beauty” that really tickles me. She is of course rather startled upon awaking to find Ben standing over her, but she soon starts enjoying the attention and the pair engage in a wonderful sort of pas de deux, chasing each other about as the various other dancers look on. The standout moment is when Hyacinth performs a pirouette-en-arabesque; Ben sets her spinning en pointe, and then hops on to her outstretched leg and rides around like he’s on a carousel.

Ben Ali Gator

After this, the other dancers, be they pachyderms, ungulates, reptiles or ratites, flock into the room and enter a chaotic, climactic number full of comic energy, which finishes with a flourish as Ben throws down Hyacinth and stands over her in triumph. The camera flies backwards out of the room and the doors fall off their hinges, leaving the audience in stitches.

 

Night on Bald Mountain – 1867, Modest Mussorgsky

Fantasia’s final sequence is composed of two very different parts, so I will look at each separately. The first is a dark and powerful Mussorgsky piece, featuring some chilling animation of one of Disney’s evilest characters – the Chernabog. The “devil,” as he is often referred to, was done by Bill Tytla, who also animated Grumpy in Snow White and Stromboli in Pinocchio. Drawing on his Ukrainian background, he and the animators set this piece to a theme from Slavonic mythology, the struggle of good versus evil as personified by the Byelobog and the Chernabog (except without the good Byelobog). “Chernabog” comes from the Slavic “Chorni-bok,” or “Black Art,” and he is typically thought of as a dark and evil deity, although it is unclear whether the ancient Slavs considered him so. Whatever is true of the character elsewhere, he is exquisitely evil here, with the monstrous malice in his expressions enough to give goose-bumps to even the most seasoned horror fan.

Chernabog

The setting of the piece is Walpurgisnacht (“Witch’s Night”), an important date in Germanic folklore that is the rough equivalent of the Western Halloween. Although the witches are traditionally said to meet at the peak of the Brocken in northern Germany, the Disney artists drew their inspiration from Triglav in Slovenia, the highest mountain of the Julian Alps and a symbol of the nation. They also drew inspiration from their favourite expressionist sources, most notably F.W. Murnau’s 1926 work, Faust, as well as artists as diverse as Japan’s Edo-era ukiyo-e artists Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, Romantic master Caspar David Friedrich, and home-grown Disney artist Kay Nielsen.

Faust
Faust (1926)

This is some of the darkest Disney fare ever; we see departed souls flying through a noose and a variety of disturbing misshapen demons dancing frantically under Chernabog’s horrible gaze. There’s also more (very brief) nudity, as we see harpies flashing past the camera with bare breasts – they even have nipples! (How that got past the censors I don’t know; imagine Disney trying to get away with this today). The hectic sequence draws to a heavily symbolic end, as the tolling of church bells banish Chernabog and his evil spirits to prepare us for the Ave Maria.

 

Ave Maria – 1825, Franz Schubert

This final, soothing sequence brings the program to a close. It makes quite a contrast with Bald Mountain, but it’s a sensible choice; Walt clearly anticipated the horror that the previous scenes would induce in his audiences, and understood that he had to leave them on a more peaceful note. The German lyrics of the Ave Maria (called Ellens Dritter Gesang or “Ellen’s Third Song” in its original language) were translated from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, but the English was done especially for Fantasia by Rachel Field.

This was an immensely challenging scene to shoot, from a technical standpoint. The multiplane camera would be required to track across a far longer shot than anything previously attempted, so Disney had carpenters knock seats out of part of the studio’s soundstage, then constructed a dolly track for the camera along it, using markers on the floor to carefully position and time each section of the 220-foot-long shot. Just weeks were left before the film’s premiere, and the painstaking shot took six days of long shifts to accomplish. Unfortunately, once they’d finished, the animators discovered that they’d used the wrong lens on the camera! A simple mistake, but it cost them a lot in wasted time and money. During the second take, their bad luck continued, as the studio was struck by a small earthquake – everything survived unscathed, but the animators decided to risk one more take just to make sure there were no errors. This final take was completed and rushed to New York for the premiere, where it was spliced onto the finished film with just four hours to spare!

Ave Maria

I have to be honest, though; I personally find that story much more interesting than the shot itself. Even at the time, the staff had concerns that the sequence would bore audiences, but Walt apparently overrode them, convinced that the breathing room was needed after the drama of Bald Mountain. I see his point, but I still can’t get into this sequence – it just runs on and on and on, and then comes to a rather abrupt end with no further word from Deems Taylor to close the film. Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste, but it does come across as a little anticlimactic as the finale of such an outstanding feature.

 

Final Verdict

What a complex film this is! I had to prepare pages and pages of notes for this review, on everything from ballet and music terminology to details of Greek and Slavonic mythology; there’s a huge variety of art forms on offer here. Fantasia was intended to be a whole new type of art, experienced rather like a combination of a trip to an art museum and a classical concert.

The proceeds of the premiere in 1940 went to British War Relief (we were in the midst of the Blitz over here at the time), and audiences absolutely loved it, making it one of the highest-grossing films of the year. Despite this, it failed to recoup its astronomical budget, largely due to the loss of the foreign market and the expensive, ahead-of-its-time Fantasound system. It was initially released to just 14 theatres, the only ones able to install the necessary equipment (which was abandoned in all but one theatre by 1941), so to make things easier for the general release, the distributor – RKO – heavily cut the film down from 125 minutes to just 81, mainly by removing Taylor’s narration and the entirety of Toccata and Fugue. Although the film still did well, it’s awful to think of all those people seeing such a butchered version of the film in theatres – many of them might never have seen the original version.

Like most features in the days before home media, Fantasia was treated to multiple re-releases over the years: this was when it started to earn back its cost. After rereleases in 1942 and 1946, it finally managed to make back its budget (the tagline for the ’46 release was “Fantasia will amaze ya”), and by the 1956 release it was beginning to gain popularity, too. Releases in 1963 and 1969 met with huge success as the psychedelic crowd embraced it for its weird and wonderful abstract imagery, although ’69 was also the point where the racial problems of Pastoral Symphony caused the Sunflower parts to be removed. There was another release in 1977, and then a digitally restored one in 1982, featuring the first ever digital film soundtrack (with Taylor’s narration overdubbed by Hugh Douglas). Conductor Irwin Kostal oversaw this restoration, and he faithfully recreated Stokowski’s performances to the best of his ability – although he did make the decision to go with the wilder Mussorgsky orchestration for Bald Mountain, rather than the tamer Rimsky-Korsakov version used by Stokowski. Another release followed in 1985, and for the final one in 1990, Sunflower’s scenes were restored, albeit with her subtly cropped out of them.

Home media led to another surge in the film’s popularity; by January 1993, the restored Stokowski soundtrack (Kostal’s had been dropped by this point) became a platinum-certified CD, and in 1995, on the centenary of cinema, the Vatican declared Fantasia one of its top 45 films of all time. In 2000, the first DVD release featured another dubbing of Taylor’s problematic narration, the prints of which had begun to deteriorate by this time, with Corey Burton doing the honours. The 2010 DVD release kept Burton’s narration, so it is, for the most part, his enactment of Taylor’s original that you hear when you watch the film today. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though; home media releases brought lawsuits from the Philadelphia Orchestra Association and music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, over royalties and permissions regarding the music.

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the impact it had on cinematic history. It has been subject to endless parody – the highest form of flattery, perhaps – in such works as Warner Bros. shorts like A Corny Concerto and an entire feature by Bruno Bossetto called Allegro non Troppo. I’ve already discussed the influence the Rite of Spring sequence had on cinematic depictions of dinosaurs, and the film introduced generations of children to the joys of classical dance and music. Still, it has been heavily criticised over the years, even by its fans; critic John Grant describes Stokowski’s musical arrangements as “butchering of the originals,” even though they are “superbly performed and recorded.” Music critics seem to be the harshest to it, sharing Stravinsky’s anger at the “tampering” with the classic pieces.

As for me, being totally honest I actually found it very boring when I first watched it as a teenager – but I think it’s an acquired taste. Over the years, it has grown on me, and I think you appreciate it more if you take the trouble to first learn a little more about its creation. Hopefully, this review will enhance your next viewing of this excellent classic – it really is worth having patience with it.

My Rating – 4/5

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier

Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1983) by John Culhane

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney (2007) edited by Bruno Girveau

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas

Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules (1997 ed.) by Bob Thomas

http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/08/putting-time-in-perspective.html   – Putting Time in Perspective (2013) by Tim Urban

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032455/  – IMDB Profile

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasia_(1940_film)  – Wiki article

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3857239 – credit for Fantasia poster

By Arnold Böcklin – 0wFgMTIQ3kZCpg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13251755 – credit for Isle of the Dead

http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/File:Fantasia-1-.jpg – Sunflower image

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0016847/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_smFaust image

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0016039/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_smLost World image

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107290/mediaindex?page=2&ref_=ttmi_mi_smJurassic Park image

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0214382/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_smWalking With Dinosaurs image

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5 Replies to “Film Review: Fantasia (1940)”

    1. That’s fair enough, it is quite slow at times and some of the segments haven’t held up very well. All art is subjective; no two people will have the same reaction to it.
      Thanks for the comment, I hope you’re enjoying the reviews!

      Liked by 1 person

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