Fantasia (1940): My Film Experience 3.5/4

Original 1940 Poster

Rather than criticize things I watch and read, I want to reflect and write about my overall experiences with them using a system I’ve adopted over the years. The questions I usually ask myself are these: What did I learn? How did I feel? How did it enlighten my mind? If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to read my post about it HERE.

Fantasia is Walt Disney’s third full-length animated film, who released it as an experimental film anthology showcasing animation to well-known classical masterpieces. After playing in limited theaters as a theatrical roadshow, it garnered mixed reviews amidst the music and film critical spheres. Some scholars like Edwin Schallert and Bosley Crowther immediately praised it as a masterpiece. Others, especially in the musical world, bagged it as either boring or a poor representation of popular, beautiful classical masterpieces. At its release, Fantasia’s initial revenue was not as high as Disney could have hoped because of World War II reparations. But after several theatrical releases, it accumulated 76 million dollars. 

Beyond its artistic contributions to animation, there were other notable innovations Disney and others created. To create the illusion of a live orchestra playing in the theaters, they built a system called Fantasound with a stereophonic surround sound, a feat which they could not replicate in future films. Sidney insisted on using this system so the audience could have a more immersive experience. (See the article “Fantasound: a step into the future” for more information.) This was also the film that cemented Mickey’s most iconic and well-recognized design. 

Now, I don’t have a pinpointed rating for Fantasia because it depends on the segment. Some of them I absolutely love others not so much. So I will go through each one and give an estimate at the end. 

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: 4

Image from opening sequence

This segment set to abstract imagery really surprised me this time. I remember being young and being so bored. Apparently, I couldn’t appreciate random rolling hills, strings, and colors set to music as a child.

As an adult though I really enjoyed watching it. I reflected on what Deems Taylor, the Master of Ceremonies for the film, said in this segment’s introduction.

Deems Taylor, Fantasia

Now there are three kinds of music on this “Fantasia” program. First, there’s the kind that tells a definite story. Then there’s the kind that, while it has no specific plot, does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. And then there’s a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake. Now, the number that opens our “Fantasia” program, the “Toccata and Fugue”, is music of this third kind, what we call “absolute music”. . . . What you will see on the screen is a picture of the various abstract images that might pass through your mind, if you sat in a concert hall listening to this music. At first, you’re more or less conscious of the orchestra. So our picture opens with a series of impressions of the conductor and the players. Then the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination. They might be… oh, just masses of color, or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space. 

I thought of an experiment I did with my students several years ago. For one particular assignment, I played three songs and asked them to write, draw or describe in words what each looked like. On a piece of paper they could put random thoughts, images, colors, or even memories that passed through their heads during the song. I’ve done as well and am surprised every time what songs feel and look like to me.

Select images from Tocatta and Fugue, Fantasia

Watching this segment, I paid attention to what Deems Taylor suggested about the imagery corresponding with the music. I was fascinated by the work that went into its animation, to bring to life through animation what the mind sees and feels listening to music. I thought of why Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the song, of what he might have thought of this visual interpretation. 

Since Taylor described Bach’s piece as “music that exists simply for its own sake,” I feel it is up to each of us to listen and experience it for ourselves. Music is a full-body experience only if we choose mindfully listen to it.

I thought a lot of the Creation, the meaning behind human emotion and creativity, and most of all, my place in receiving and engaging in life. The part which really touched me was when the imagery shifted and showed glowing towers of light as the music grew and swelled.

The Nutcracker Suite: 4

I really liked listening to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite and not just because I love Russia! I remember from my music history class years ago talking about how Tchaikovsky purposely contrasted bombastic movement in his music with soft, gentle stanzas. He was a very versatile composer and combined Western and Russian styles of classical music. 

Like any musician, he had a tragic life, and much of what he wrote helped him cope with depression. As a child, I really connected to him for that reason. Musicians need to stick together, I think. (Someday, I will see the Nutcracker Ballet, and my life will be complete.) 

Now, watching Disney’s animation placed next to Tchaikovsky’s music is really wonderful to watch. I can imagine the artists and animators behind it picturing flowers and leaves changing shape, fairies, goldfish, and even mushrooms dancing, shifting and falling to the music.

One of the reasons why I love animation is because one can artistically bring to life through music visual art. It isn’t limited by space, dimension, or time. As I watched this Fantasia segment, I felt I could step into it and see as the artists did, feel as the musicians felt, and glimpse what Tchaikovsky imagined when he wrote the music. 

Screenshot from Disney’s Fantasia, “The Nutcracker Suite”

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: 3

This segment was at the root of Fantasia’s entire project. Due to Mickey Mouse’s decline in popularity, Disney wanted to create this short, separate from his Silly Symphonies, to bring Mickey back into the spotlight.

This is one of the pieces Deems Taylor noted had a definite story. Paul Dukas, the original composer, based it on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s 1979 poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The story is similar to the poem and portrays an apprentice who foolishly tries to find the easy way out of work by stealing his master’s magic. 

Screenshot of Mickey in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

The music in this segment fits Disney’s animation very well. In my last viewing, I thought of how magical 2D animation is. 2D animation’s only limitation is the animator’s imagination. It is the only medium that makes impossible ideas possible because it feels like a living painting or drawing. For example, in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the broom, which suddenly grows arms and carries buckets, seems perfectly normal. This is because, in the world of art, anything is possible. 

Rite of Spring: 3

Confession, I have always liked seeing the realistic animation and how it blends with the music. Catch, I don’t necessarily like how I feel after seeing the full piece. Honestly, throughout the whole vision of our world’s creation, it feels empty to me.

Igor Stravinsky envisioned his Rite of Spring as a series of tribal dances, one of which depicts a young girl dancing herself to death as a sacrifice to the god of spring. This is Stravinsky’s most famous piece. He wrote it during a personal religious crisis after he estranged himself from the Russian Orthodox faith. He experienced, much like Leo Tolstoy, a spiritual awakening years later after his career reached its peak. 

I treat the Rite of Spring much like I do works like War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy), where I can catch glimpses of the writer’s faith, but overall it is overshadowed by more intellectual, artistic ideas. 

Thus, as I usually watch Disney’s interpretation, I marvel at the scientific theories displayed through animation. But in the end, I feel something is definitely missing.

The Pastoral Symphony: 2.5

Centaur from Fantasia, The Pastoral Symphony

Of all the segments, this is my least favorite. As a child, I didn’t really like the story. As an adult, I agree with my younger self. Ludwig van Beethoven originally wrote this piece as a tribute to his love of nature. However, the story and music don’t seem to grasp this. The dancing centaurs, unicorns, and satyrs don’t particularly fit my vision for one of my favorite composer’s masterpieces. But really, the animation and music are quite beautiful. Honestly, this segment is like the decorations artists made for Baroque palaces. Meaning, it had fluffy, needless embellishment. I tend to check out mentally when it comes on.

Bacchus, God of wine

Dance of the Hours: 3

Hippo and Alligator

I absolutely love this segment. Its music from Amilcare Ponchielli‘s La Gioconda, a ballet from 1880, is some of my favorites! It started because of this short. 

I love its character’s comedic irony. The lanky ostriches, the graceful hippo, and even the amusing male alligator try and fail to perform a very serious ballet. The original story for the ballet is dramatic and Romantic. It has forbidden love, suicide, and even dramatic flights into the night from evil forces. (Culture. Gotta love it.)

That aside, I cannot get enough of the witty humor in this piece. Ballet, and opera, tend to take themselves too seriously most of the time. This time, it fit to see the grace and beauty of such a dramatic ballet portrayed by usually ungraceful animals. I love imagining animators drawing animals and giving them humanistic mannerisms, especially with something as complicated as ballet, where each movement requires precision and years of practice and dedication.

Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria: 4

Lights of dawn vs. Chernobog

This is easily my absolute favorite portion of Fantasia. This is an incredible example of artistic dualism, or stark contrasts used in art and literature to highlight a moral ideal. As Deems Taylor stated in his introduction, Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria are “two pieces of music so utterly different in construction and mood that they set each other off perfectly.” In this case, Disney animators used the boldly sacrilegious vision of Chernobog, the Slavic vision of the devil sitting atop Bald Mountain, to contrast Christian believers walking towards the dawn’s light.

Select images from Night on Bald Mountain, Fantasia

“The triumph of hope and life over the powers of despair and death” (Deems Taylor) is one of the greatest truths we can find in this life. Sometimes evil and darkness seem so overwhelming. But as shown in this segment, evil is nothing but a passing shadow. As the character, Sam noted in Tolkien’s Lord of the RingsThe Return of the King

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Select images from Ave Maria, Fantasia

This duel segment in Fantasia has imprinted in my mind since childhood that God’s love and light dispel the confusion, temptation, and misery that Satan promotes. No matter how big evil presents itself, it is nothing compared to the promises which await a life of purity and light. 

Conclusion: Average experience 3.5

Chernobog on the mountain

I really enjoyed watching this film and encourage all those who have not watched it before and who have not seen it for a long time to give it a try! Much like a diverse art museum or a classical concert, this film gives viewers a chance to dig deeper, enjoy things of consequence, and ponder the different meanings behind each animated segment.

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