The Influence and Power of Disney’s Most Ambitious Project, ‘Fantasia’

The concept of the work of art that is unappreciated by the masses immediately, but gains a passionate and overwhelming following decades later is almost as old as time itself. A book, or piece of music, or painting, or sculpture, or film is unveiled to an indifferent public, save a few devout fans, and is only revived once newer generations approach it with fresh eyes. So many films we now consider to be the greatest of all time were not as warmly received (if they were received warmly at all) upon their initial release. Some classics, such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo, benefit now primarily from home media releases, repeated airings on Turner Classic Movies, and the impassioned voices of critics and historians to emphasize to general audiences how important and daring and dramatically satisfying these films truly are. Then there are the films that received a second wind of adoration thanks to theatrical re-releases years after the fact, well before home media releases were possible. Such is the case with Fantasia, the 1940 animated film from the fledgling Walt Disney Company, a 125-minute opus that may be the most ambitious cinematic project of Walt Disney’s career, if not one of the most ambitious American films ever produced.

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Fantasia, amidst the controversies and imperfections inherent in its design and format, is a classic that expands in greatness as modern Hollywood flees from its impact. It is a timeless picture, unable to be connected purely to one year in the 20th century. It was released in 1940, but only grew in popularity in the decades to come; in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Disney shrewdly played into the film’s more psychedelic elements—most of the company’s animation before it was contracted by the U.S. government to make propagandistic work during the Second World War has a healthy dose of the intentionally, colorfully strange—to the young-adult audience that was enjoying the hallucinatory effects of recreational drugs. At the time of its creation, Fantasia was a massively expensive film (and, though it may be a greater achievement, it is more folly than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ever was), and ended up being such a failure for the Walt Disney Company that Bambi was delayed and Dumbo was chosen as their next animated project specifically because it could be made on the cheap. It would take too long for the promise of Fantasia to pay off, but Disney, ever the innovator, was proven right in what animation could accomplish when matched with music as opposed to dialogue, and even in how the technological elements of filmic sound design (this film was initially going to be presented in Fantasound, which is something of a progenitor of the now-standard Dolby sound system) would progress throughout the century.

Fantasia is so utterly memorable and special partly because it fundamentally could not exist today in the same form. (This applies equally for the sequel-of-sorts Fantasia 2000, about which more in a future article.) A 2-hour film comprised of eight animated shorts, all of which are introduced by an opera commentator, with only one recognizable preexisting character making what amounts to an extended cameo appearance, cannot happen anymore. Hell, it barely happened in 1940. There are myriad reasons why, though the chief ones are as follows: though it is a forebear of the 40s-era package films, such as Melody Time and Fun and Fancy Free, that Disney would make, Fantasia is the longest film in the company’s animated canon, by nearly a half-hour; the opera is not absent from our culture, but the time when throngs of people would crowd around their radios to listen to such artistic commentary has long since died; and while no single character in Disney’s history may be as symbolic as Mickey Mouse, he’s only recently been revived in animated-short form, and on a much smaller scale. Creating pieces of animation that are scored to specific pieces of classical music is no doubt a novel concept—and an ancestor of the modern music video—but spending nearly 30 minutes on the Darwinian evolution of the Earth is an unthinkable idea for a short in 2014. (As, frankly, would be a nakedly religious short, such as the climactic “Ave Maria” sequence.) Emphasizing the abstract possibilities of animation, too, is something you can’t find in the mainstream anymore. Who knows what the world of animation or film would be like if, say, Fantasia had been a massive success upon its first release. While the image of Mickey Mouse as the mischievous sorcerer’s apprentice is possibly the most iconic in the character’s lifespan, the film surrounding that short is more challenging, flawed, and admirable than some may remember or choose to realize.

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From “The Rite of Spring” to the “Pastoral Symphony,” there’s a vast tonal and visual spectrum on display in Fantasia. Unlike with the entertaining, but much lighter, sequel, this film offers a thrilling and unique variety. The abstraction—at least, as abstract as any of the shorts here get—in the opening number, scored to Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” transitions to a nature-themed retelling of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.” The later transitions are no less stark. There is, arguably, something for everyone in Fantasia, even if that generous spread doesn’t make for the most coherent film. (The post-intermission bit where Taylor interacts with an animated version of the soundtrack is aggressively cute in ways that the rest of the film, thankfully, is not.) Yet even as a full-length feature, the various parts of Fantasia make for a phenomenal whole; only one aspect of its pleasure is that the film was conceived and created to begin with. Better still are the primal and visceral entertainments within each short.

The one-two punch of “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria,” for instance, is a similar balance between polar opposites; instead of high and low culture, we have light and dark, good and evil, as basic a struggle as has been depicted in stories for centuries. The purity of the day beating out the grim blackness of night is a simple and direct tale, presented similarly. The images in the first half of this interconnected finale provided a template for future Disney animated features. Consider the sight of Maleficent’s minions dancing gleefully around a flame in Sleeping Beauty, which owes a great debt to the scenes of winged ghouls acting out a sick and twisted ballet for the pleasure of the muscular demon Chernabog here. “Night on Bald Mountain” is, in effect, the stuff of nightmares; there is no rhyme or reason to why Chernabog exists or how he can conjure up all manner of specter and spook to do his bidding (or willingly be thrown into a fiery pit for his satisfaction). Our eyes play tricks on us in life, and so they do here: is that a looming mountain overhead, or the tips of Chernabog’s wings ready to spring open? As he leers at the miniature ghosts splayed in frightening positions on his hand and around his heaving torso, Chernabog supersedes any childhood nightmare, entering a terrifying realm of iconography. Interestingly, he has lasted far longer in the annals of Disney characters, as “Night on Bald Mountain” has endured in Disney’s animated canon, far more than anything in the resulting “Ave Maria” animation. The imagery in the latter half of this climactic sequence is certainly less memorable and iconic than the former; there aren’t any defined characters, just a series of figures shuffling to a higher plane.

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But it is no less important and breathtaking to behold; as we see Chernabog flinch and then fold in on himself at the sound of a gonging church bell, and his minions travel back below the Earth, the animation shifts to something more pleasing and deliberately simplistic. The depiction of true believers walking single-file to paradise, sure-footed and unwavering in their faith, is a surprising, religiously coded image for the animators, as guided by Disney, to conjure up. (Debates about Disney’s personal life and beliefs aside, direct visual or verbal sermonizing is hard to find in his films.) It is undoubtedly a more secularized vision of paradise—the build from the faceless faithful making their pilgrimage along the countryside with their candles in hand, to the sunny and bright paradise past a canopy of trees is nature-based—but the music invites a comparison to various faiths. That the harmonic, uplifting final five minutes of Fantasia have not acquired the same level of iconography as Chernabog’s malevolent and gleeful gaze (or, frankly, of most of the sequences in the film) is perhaps a testament to its calming influence. Fantasia may exist outside of the common structure of storytelling—although a few of its shorts do, as Taylor says in the introduction, tell a “definitive story,” none operate in the three-act structure so fondly adored by screenwriters—but if the climax of the overall experience is coming face to face with the spawn of hell, then the falling action is the counterbalance struck by “Ave Maria” and its pilgrims.

Although Deems Taylor describes the various shorts of Fantasia as belonging to three styles of storytelling (or lack thereof), they all represent one or another extreme. There is the intentionally cold “Rite of Spring” sequence, the longest in the film, balanced out by its predecessor, the cheeky and thrilling “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” as an example. In one case, “Dance of the Hours,” the balance is represented within the one short. Even before it descends into cartoony madness, as alligators tug on the necks of ostriches and hippos, both hiding behind the same thin column, “Dance of the Hours” is nothing short of a snappish parody of effete high culture. Though Fantasia was created in an era when a fusion of classical music and populist animation seemed more financially viable (if only because classical music appreciation was in vogue), this short seems aware of the way that such high culture would be perceived by current mainstream audiences. The sight of a tutu-sporting hippo in the midst of dainty, balletic movement is a comic pinnacle in the film, inspiring the parody on display in the widely beloved Looney Tune “What’s Opera, Doc?” (Granted, by 1957, Disney’s animation style was ripe for lampooning, but to presume that “Dance of the Hours” is void of a sense of humor is to altogether ignore its charm.)

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“Dance of the Hours,” which precedes the “Night on Bald Mountain”/”Ave Maria” twofer closing number, is possibly the most accessible sequence in the film while still feeling appropriate to Disney’s initial goal when he began working with conductor Leopold Stokowski in the late 1930s on the project, originally known as The Concert Feature. While “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is very digestible for those audience members who are averse to classical music (even the immediately familiar pieces chosen for the film), it’s slightly divorced from the rest of the animation in part because its existence was the impetus for Fantasia. Even in 1940, when Mickey Mouse was as much a character as a symbol for the company that created him—keeping in mind that his popularity was on the wane, hence Disney’s desire to craft a new short in which he could star—his presence slightly mutes the overall power of Fantasia, as being a Disney product. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a brilliantly conceived bit of animation; while it can be lauded for being the catalyst for the entirety of Fantasia, it feels ever so slightly out of place, even though other sections are, perhaps, more kid-friendly. “Dance of the Hours,” with its deadpan vision of ballet as performed by the least likely creatures, fits the bill a bit better than “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The latter story may be enjoyable if Mickey Mouse wasn’t the title character, but our previous knowledge and relationship with the character is necessary for maximum entertainment; that’s not the case with “Dance of the Hours.” On a visual level, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” far exceeds “Dance of the Hours,” but the hilarity of the latter supersedes any horror-movie qualities the former exudes. (Though admittedly, the moment directly after Mickey destroys the enchanted broom with an ax, as he breathes heavily and the color evaporates into gray with each exhalation, is a fine example of delaying the inevitable twist.)

Like a number of Disney’s earlier films, Fantasia is tainted ever so slightly with the issue of blithe racial insensitivity. (Dumbo, a more beloved film by children worldwide and from the same era, is perhaps a bit worse, considering that one of the crows who comes to mock Dumbo after he’s flown up to a tree is named Jim, and was voiced by the white actor Cliff Edwards.) The “Pastoral Symphony” sequence originally featured a black centaurette polishing the hooves of a white centaurette; this was later excised from prints because it was seen as overtly racist. Walt Disney was an imperfect person, in spite of his mythic status, and it’s in moments like these, or in the gag in the “Three Little Pigs” animated short where the Big Bad Wolf dresses up like a stereotypically Jewish peddler to scare off the eponymous swine, where he allowed his lack of awareness—less than blatant racism—shine through in his animated works. It is telling that most conversation around the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence centers on this excised character’s appearance, and less on the pastel-color design or lighthearted story. While the piece of music used to score that sequence is a fine and lilting composition, the sequence itself is perhaps a bit overlong (even compared to the “Rite of Spring” number, which is a few minutes longer) and slack in its pacing.

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The core idea of Fantasia was for Walt Disney to prove that animation was not solely a children’s entertainment. Children may laugh at Mickey’s antics in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence, but so too would adults. And adults would likely appreciate “The Rite of Spring” more, with its chilly and distant attitude of presenting the global shift before the dawn of man. There are undoubtedly juvenile segments in Fantasia, from the interlude where emcee Deems Taylor chats with the literal “soundtrack” to the “Dance of the Hours” sequence, an ultimate marriage of high and low culture as hippos, ostriches, and alligators destructively pirouette their way around a stately setting. However, whatever elements may be present that would appeal to children don’t exist solely to cater to the younger audience. The intentional immaturity, say, of “Dance of the Hours” appeals as much to the high-culture viewer for its outrageous parody of ballet. In fact, Fantasia succeeds for its universality; yes, the visually overwhelming “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, which then segues into the transcendent, uplifting,  and spare “Ave Maria” sequence, may terrify youngsters, but adults wouldn’t be able to deny the power of its horrific imagery either. This is a film that emphasizes the primal and often-imperfect power of animation. There is a sense of catharsis in watching many of its sequences; the culmination of the “Nutcracker Suite” or “Ave Maria” is almost literally uplifting, as the swell of music is accompanied by a swell of beautiful imagery. There must also have been catharsis for Disney himself, in the very act of completing this monumental project. Fantasia is the crown jewel not only of Disney’s first five features, and is possibly one of the finest pieces of American filmmaking ever.

— Josh Spiegel




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