Fantasia (1940) – The 3rd Walt Disney Animation Feature – Directed by Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norm Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson – Starring Deems Taylor, Leopold Stokowski, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
FANTASIA is a brilliant movie, but it’s best savored up close or far away, and not in that middle distance where you usually watch a movie – as a narrative arc that builds drama and resolves conflict. The movie, now shockingly 70 years old but still as gorgeous as any animated movie made today – whether that animation is rendered by hand or computer – offers 8 animated shorts, stitched together by connecting scenes of Leopold Stokowski and the Philly Orchestra playing and Deems Taylor serving as host, introducing the music the Orchestra will be performing.
FANTASIA is that rare movie that works best when you take its parts and view them separately. Designed originally as a roadshow event, it purposely invites you to think of this movie as a big night out at the theatre, from the live-action shots of the conductor (Stokowski) and orchestra warming up and playing, filmed largely from the angle of a person with really good seats in the audience.
As this kind of event, FANTASIA is brilliant filmmaking, with seven of the eight individual segments (generally running around 10-12 minutes) visually gorgeous and narratively compelling. This is not to suggest that each of the segments tells a story, but the sequences are short enough that those, like the Nutcracker Suite, that don’t attempt to offer a strong narrative still work. Where FANTASIA falls short is that sequences don’t comprehensively build on one another so it didn’t sustain my interest.
FANTASIA is like a collection of unrelated short stories – and does anyone sit down and read a collection of unrelated short stories from start to finish? When the short story is over, it’s so much easier to put the book down and think on something else. A collection of short stories doesn’t live with you the way a chapter break in a novel stays with you because each new story is just that – a new story, often with new characters and certainly in new scenarios.
When we reach the point in time where all our movies are kept on a drive instead of on a shelf, FANTASIA will be the perfect movie to call up when you’re dropping a quick lunch into your gullet and you don’t want to check in with your daily dose of propoganda disguised as news or the pretend arguments they’re having on ESPN about whether someone or something is the greatest or worst thing we’ve ever seen.
Let’s take the sequences in order:
1. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, otherwise known as The One That Does Abstraction.
“Toccata and Fugue” is a less-than-stellar opening that starts with live-action and segues into abstract images. There’s no narrative here and the impression is of the music pushing the animation to move here and depict that. I get what they’re doing and attempting, but it works better conceptually than in practice. When I teach, I will tell my students that a text will tell you how to read it; that is, if you pay attention to what a book or movie or comic is doing and how it is doing it, it will help you critically assess it. This is what “Toccata” is attempting by showing off the interplay between sound and image, with its emphasis on color and motion. Its effective but not compelling, especially since the bulk of sequences to follow offer a narrative.
2. The Nutcracker Suite, otherwise known as The One With Dancing Mushrooms.
I would have started FANTASIA with “Nutcracker” instead of “Toccata,” as the visual imagery is much stronger and the lack of a narrative is better balanced with six short segments featuring various Dances performed by mythical creatures and slightly tricked up flora and fauna to resemble the particulars of each Dance subject. There’s mushrooms fashioned to reflect Asian garb in the “Chinese Dance” and plants given a Russian spin in the “Russian Dance.” The imagery doesn’t descend into condescending stereotype, but instead stays focused on an amalgamation of plant life and wardrobe. It’s a very successful and enjoyable sequence but the directors seem to realize that the lack of a narrative runs the risk of losing the audience, so it keeps its sequences short, colorfully diverse, and packed with action (as one would expect from a sequence of dances). “Nutcracker” works, too, because even though there isn’t a forceful narrative, the sequences relate to one another through their shared focus on the Dance as they don’t between the imagery here and in “Toccata.”
One of the really interesting bits, too, is the introduction by Taylor is his info-drop that Tchaikovsky’s Nutcraker “isn’t performed anymore.” According to the Never Wrong, there wasn’t a full staging of the ballet until 1944 when the San Francisco Ballet did it up for Christmas audiences. So thanks, San Francisco Ballet. Deems Taylor will hate you forever for making people wonder what the hell he’s talking about.
3. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, otherwise known as The One With Mickey Mouse, or alternatively, The One You Know.
If there is one aspect of FANTASIA that continually amazes me is that it’s not filled with Disney stars. Now, granted, this is the third animated feature, so there’s no Ariel or Simba or Rescuers to populate the film, but there’s also very little attempt at creating new characters, either. That lack of tie-in might with FANTASIA a few points with the art crowd, but as a business decision, it’s weak. “Apprentice” is a fantastic short that sees Mickey as the titular protagonist who uses magic to animate brooms into doing his chore for him. It starts out fine and then turns into a disaster as he can’t get the broom to stop filling the basin with water from the outer well. His attempts to break the broom wind up creating multiple brooms that bring in multiple buckets of water and flooding the place. Eventually, the actual sorcerer comes in and puts a stop to it and sends the ashamed Mickey on his way.
Mickey’s appearance in the third sequence does give the film a sense of momentum as each sequence, to this point, has offered something more than the previous sequence, but after blowing the guest star in sequence three, there’s still a whole lot of film to sit through.
4. The Rite of Spring, otherwise known as The One With Dinosaurs.
While not offering a simple narrative like the “Apprentice,” “Rite of Spring” gives us a compacted history of life on the planet Earth, from formation through the fall of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are faithfully rendered as they were understood at the time – which means we still get the idea of the T Rex being the biggest bad ass monster in the dinosaur kingdom instead of being the world’s largest vulture. There’s a solid, gruesome fight between a T Rex and a Stegosaurus, and while I like the sequence, I like it better as a stand alone short instead of a follow-up to “Apprentice,” which was shorter, tighter, more whimsical, and more vibrant. “Rite,” though, is so blessedly not what Disney animation became, however, that it gets a few bonus points for its realistic approach to characters.
5. Intermission, otherwise known as The Intermission.
After “Rite” comes the intermission break and we see the orchestra getting up to leave and then coming back, spontaneously breaking into a jazz-flavored jam session. Sitting in my living room and watching it, yeah, it’s pretty boring, but as an intermission piece, the jam session works as a solid holdover while we’re all waiting for the audience to come back to their seats.
6. The Pastoral Symphony, otherwise known as The One With Nudity.
Who can’t get behind naked female centuars, eh? Um, yeah, nevermind.
“Pastoral” is the true centerpiece of FANTASIA, offering a throughly enjoyable sequence of centaurs, pegasi, cupids, and Greek gods. It is a fantastic sequence that gives you a wonderful “slice of life” representation of what these mythical beings do on a daily basis living in the shadow of Mount Olympus. Which means lots of dancing and frollicking and courting and not a lot of responsibility.
There’s some potential racialist arguments you could make about how the film continually pairs up the green-skinned males with the green-skinned females, but these are decisions that reinforces the color pallet and not a coded message to date within “your own kind.” (And there are some different-colored centaurs that flirt and dance.) There was one completely offensive racial aspect to the sequence, a female black centaur named Sunflower that served a white centaur, but she’s wisely been edited out of the film.
Like Song of the South, you can dog the Disney Corporation for ever creating the image, but also give them credit for taking the imagery out of circulation. As an academic I want access to these scenes but releasing them to the public does infinitely more harm than good.
7. Dance of the Hours, otherwise known as The One With Dancing Hippos.
“Hours” is the sequence that suffers most from its placement in FANTASIA, as it is a perfectly enjoyable but not overly memorable sequence. Starting with ostriches performing ballet, and then moving into sequences starring hippos, elephants, and alligators, “Hours” is sort of narrative-less at the start and then narrative driven when the gators show up for a snack.
While fine on its own, it doesn’t compare to either the sequence that comes before or after it, and as a dancing piece, it’s not as visually pleasing as “The Nutcracker Suite” sequence.
8. Night On Bald Mountain /Ave Maria, otherwise known as The One With the Devil.
The final sequence is also the darkest piece in the film, and I have to wonder why it was placed here. Don’t you want people leaving happy? “Bald” is another great sequence, with the big black demon that lives on a creepy mountain overlooking a small village a dramatic and powerful villain. In so many ways, Chernabog is the villain other Disney villains cannot be because he is so decidedly morbid and evil. This dude raises spirits from the grave without any sense of humor or cartoonish panache.
The demon’s night of terror ends with the ringing of church bells and the switch in music to Ave Maria. It’s a bit clumsy – I don’t think the transition really works all that well, but there’s two powerful (if dark and then dour) sequences on either side of the awkward musical transition.
If there’s one theme that ties FANTASIA together it’s the animators frequent use of the weather. Whether its fairies coating plants with dew or the raging storm whipped up by a demon, weather is employed frequently as the visual showcase.
A legendary film that still looks beautiful and fresh and decidedly non-commercial, FANTASIA sees Disney’s animators at their creative best, and not shoehorned into either a house style or formulaic story.