It’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve seen Fantasia and yet this is the first time I’ve seen it all the way through. There’s no denying this is the most ambitious work put out by Disney to date (and sadly has never caught on with audiences as evidenced by the low turnout to Fantasia 2000) with brilliant animation that’s never been topped. It’s both highly experimental and entirely conventional in the different stories that are told. Sadly Fantasia never elevates itself higher than being a pretty series of background images. Try as I might I just kept being distracted by the two-hour runtime and even when I turned away I was still able to understand the story making it seem even less important that I pay attention. I do applaud the artistry, skill, and need to branch out that Disney tried to showcase at the height of WWII but it doesn’t resonate with audiences like the narrative features.Introduced by music commentator Deems Taylor and conducted by Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia presents eight stories themed to music from several legendary composers.
A bit of introduction with this film. Fantasia was Disney’s attempt to revive classical music by presenting this “concert” film (sadly now our idea of a concert film involves tweeny-boppers like Justin Beiber and One Direction…I’d kill for Fantasia now). The film cost two million dollars back in 1940, over four times the cost of the average live action film of the period. It was a massive financial disappointment upon release and never really found its footing until the 1960s when it was embraced by the counter-culture who found enjoyment by watching it stoned (Alice in Wonderland would get a similar reception). Disney would put out a few more films themed to music including Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time but this was the only one of feature-length.
I would start the review by looking at opening credits but this movie doesn’t have any. The film truly sets itself up as a concert with the opening minutes introducing the members of the orchestra who come in, sit down, and start tuning their instruments. From there the first segment introduces Stokowski performing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. You truly are immersed in this concert experience regardless of venue. I watched this at home on my computer and was still able to feel as if I was seeing this live (about as much as anyone can watching this on home video). Narrator, of sorts, Deems Taylor presents the overarching theme or challenge of the film. Disney’s animators were given a piece of music and told to create an animated piece based on how they felt about the music. It’s an interesting premise for a film as all of the pieces are different as no two people can have the same thoughts about a piece of music.
Returning to the performance of Toccata and Fugue which starts off the film, it’s probably the most esoteric of the bunch revolving around the actual instruments of the performers and individual notes turning into splashes of color on the film-like canvas. The painted clouds in the background with the individual splashes of color are beautiful and set the standard for the type of animation and artistry presented throughout the 120 minute runtime. Watching Fantasia really makes one appreciate and miss hand-drawn animation. Regardless of how I felt about the movie I never felt that the animation was lacking; there’s a reason Fantasia is considered the high point of animation in the canon.
Moving on from Bach to my favorite piece of the film, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. It’s still a ways off from Christmas but watching this segment just took me back to all those different performances of The Nutcracker I’ve seen and yet this interpretation has nothing to do with Christmas aside from a winter scene. All six movements of the suite are presented in imaginative detail that is astounding, especially the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy featuring sprites spreading dew around the forest. I do have to ask, those mushrooms in the Chinese Dance…they’re racist right? I mean their tops are akin to the big hats of the stereotypical Chinese and their features are markedly Asian. It won’t be the first time I bring up racism with a Disney film, I think this might be the first (don’t recall anything overtly racist in Snow White or Pinocchio).
If you’ve never seen Fantasia I can bet you know Sorcerer Mickey which came to prominence with the segment The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Mickey’s appearance is what cements this as a Disney film more than again and really gives audiences a focal point in case they’re wondering what they’re watching. I’d also consider the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment the one with the clearest story. The animation for some reason really popped in this segment than in others. The blue of Yensid‘s (Disney backwards) hat and the way Mickey’s shadow fell on things just felt so rich with color. Maybe because the several of the other segments revolve around wisps and pastel like colors?
After the Sorcerer’s Apprentice the remaining segments are all known for the most part from the long Rite of Spring section detailing the formation of the Earth (I recommend watching this, in HD, for the volcano sequence ALONE), the Pastoral Symphony, Dance of the Hours (with the hippo and alligator), Night on Bald Mountain, and Ave Maria. I did find that the second half of the film was far more engaging than the first half, probably because the last segments are all fairly narrative in structure. The Pastoral Symphony is whimsical and beautiful if only because the female centaurs makes supermodels look ugly! I was beyond terrified watching a Night on Bald Mountain but in my defense, Chernabog from that sequence has always been frightening. I’m sure someone could contradict me but the Night on Bald Mountain sequence is possibly the most disturbing and frightening sequence ever depicted in a Disney film. I’m having a really hard time coming up with another sequence that truly scared me (although Disney’s short the Bone Dance is equally eerie). To make sure children don’t have nightmares the film ends with a gorgeous and heavenly rendition of Ave Maria. The blend of live singing and animation is exquisite and I’d be happy to show this at Christmas.
The overall problem with Fantasia, in my opinion, is that there’s very little rewatchability to it. I would not pop this in on a Friday night and expect to be wrapped up in the magic of Disney. Fantasia is beautiful but, especially in the early segments, it plays like a beautiful Windows Media Player background of animated images to gorgeous music. It’s incredibly easy to do something else and come back to this film missing little because there’s no connecting story. I didn’t hate this as I expected to but I didn’t love it. There’s a reason I had zero interest in purchasing this when it recently came to Blu-Ray. It’s a beautiful film but it’s not a Disney film.
Next Week: A little elephant with big ears and a magic feather, it’s the 1941 film Dumbo!
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Fantasia is a film I admire in theory but can’t really stand to watch. I always find myself wanting a bit more story or at least more energy about most of the stories. Night on Bald Mountain, however, is magnificent.
I felt bad giving it the grade I did but I agree with you wholeheartedly. Disney excels at story and Fantasia seems like a disjointed series of pretty pictures questing for a story.
I used to love Fantasia when I was a kid. But I also like the new one too because it has Beethoven’s 5th
I’ve never seen Fantasia 2000 although considering how bored I was watching the original I don’t think I’d fare well with the other lol.
Aren’t blogs fun, such divergent perspectives. I absolutely love Fantasia. Repeated viewings not a problem. (OK, not everyday.) The abstract opening is a favorite. Just light, forms and music. Some segments preferred over others. Bald mountain is dramatic to the chiming bell segue to Ave Maria the sublime.
Don’t allow your experience with Fantasia to dissuade you from Fantasia 2000. It’s been awhile (where are your repeated viewings now?), but there are segments in 2000 that are gorgeous. When the whales in Pines of Rome lift out of the water to ‘swim’ in space is breathtaking. The Donald Duck segment to Pomp and Circumstance is sweet. And the story of rebirth in the finale, to the music of the Firebird Suite, is magical. This segment is loosely based on the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, which is in Washington State, where I reside. So that strikes close to home.
By the way, I did have to look up some of the details. I don’t know/remember them THAT well.
And, as we have discussed before, it’s always best to see either one in the theater! Immersion is good.
I can understand people loving this movie for its imagery. You’re right about Bald Mountain being amazing, it still resonates with me. In vowing to watch all the Disney films, I will be watching Fantasia 2000. You’ve definitely intrigued me with the descriptions of it, and we appear to be cousins as I live in California!
I find this one very rewatchable. Not often, but something about the beauty and ambition always moves me. It’s a miracle that this was made at all. For my money, 1940 was Disney’s golden film artistically speaking: Fantasia and Pinocchio are the most beautifully animated DIsney features.