During the 1920s and 30s, while most animation was limited to short slapstick comedy bits featuring the wacky exploits of cartoon comedians like Koko the Clown and Mickey Mouse, a series of decidedly different animated shorts called "Silly Symphonies" came out of Walt Disney’s studio. Beginning with Ub Iwerks’s innovative 1928 "Skeleton Dance," the "Silly Symphonies" were a forum for Disney animators to experiment and explore the potential of their medium beyond the formula requirements of gag cartoons.
Then came the critical and popular triumph of Snow White, Disney’s groundbreaking animated fairy tale that proved once and for all that audiences were ready for feature-length cartoon films. Flush with victory, Disney next tackled an even more ambitious project, a natural extension of his popular musical shorts: an only occasionally silly symphony concert experience; an audiovisual union of the music of Bach and Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, with a full range of then cutting-edge animation techniques and effects.
Released in 1940, Fantasia was a critical and popular failure in its own day (Roger Ebert blames a war-related shortage of whimsical spirit); but with the passage of time it has gradually been completely vindicated. Endorsed in the 1950s by high-minded educators and culture critics for its popularization of classical music (as well as the "science" and "culture" conceits of the Rite of Spring sequence’s primeval history and the Pastoral’s use of Greco-Roman mythology); then embraced by the 1960s counterculture for its dreamlike, nonlinear imagery; and ultimately hailed by virtually all film critics for its undeniably glorious, groundbreaking, visionary animation, Fantasia has taken its place as one of the unquestioned all-time great animated films, indeed, one of the all-time great films, period.
Practically everyone knows something about Fantasia. Best known, of course, is the beloved Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence with Mickey Mouse and that unstoppable bucket-wielding broomstick: a cautionary fable about the dangers of having more power than wisdom. Then there’s the almost literally haunting Night on Bald Mountain with its enormous bat-winged Bela-Lugosi demon (Disney actually got Lugosi to stand in for the role so the artists could study him) presiding over a riot of cavorting ghouls. And, of course, the inexplicable, almost indescribable antics of the tutu-wearing ballerina hippos and ostriches, as well as the benign elephants and leering alligators who attend them, in the Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.
Striking images abound in almost every sequence. Take the brilliantly rendered dancing flowers and fairies of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (the "Chinese Dance" movement especially, with its solemn, broad-hatted coolie mushrooms bowing gravely to one another, made an indelible impact on me the first time I saw the film as an adult; and the joyously whirling tall-hatted Cossack thistles and swirling-skirted orchids in the "Russian Dance" are almost as memorable). Or the majestic winged horses and flirting centaurs and centaurettes in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Or the great stegosaurus-vs-tyrannosaur battle of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (quaint-looking when compared with Dinosaur’s computer animation, but far stronger emotionally).
Even the abstract imagery of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and the serene world of the candle-bearing pilgrims who accompany Schubert’s Ave Maria, are not without power. The film comes to a halt only for an unnecessary intermission with a dancing animated "soundtrack," and perhaps musicologist Deems Taylor’s introductions with their studied casualness.
Originally, Walt Disney boldly conceived of Fantasia not as a single static film, but as a "new form of entertainment" with a repertoire that would be regularly updated and rereleased, new sequences replacing old ones and perhaps old favorites returning from time to time.
Any such possibility died with the film’s initial chilly reception; although sixty years later Walt’s vision did receive a nod with the inclusion of the classic Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in last year’s IMAX sequel Fantasia 2000 — an uneven film whose mediocrity serves only to underscore the visionary brilliance of the original masterpiece. The slickest effects in the new Fantasia may make most (not all) of the original look dated and primitive; but the imaginative and conceptual force of the original makes most (not all) of the newer film seem uninspired and pedestrian. The modern Disney machine is just too wedded to formula and convention to approach the likes of Fantasia; indeed, today’s animation market in general is so homogenized that it seems a daring departure if someone even makes a feature-length cartoon without including show-stopping musical numbers, cute animal sidekicks, and an obligatory love interest (The Iron Giant is a rare example).
Thematically, the imagery in Fantasia is drawn from a far-ranging array of conceptual fields: nature and the four seasons (Nutcracker); legend and mythology (Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Pastoral Symphony, respectively); prehistoric times (Rite of Spring); even Christian concepts of sacred and profane, heaven and hell (the climactic Bald Mountain / Ave Maria sequence).
In this last sequence, while Disney’s animators were unfortunately unable in the Ave Maria to achieve the same level of emotional force as in the Night on Bald Mountain, they nevertheless did succeed in creating a beautiful allegory of the triumph of light over darkness, goodness over evil. Even before the first strains of the Ave Maria are actually heard, all the sound and fury of Bald Mountain’s raucous hellions is decisively cut short by the simple sound in the distance of a single church bell ringing: quiet, regular, inexorable. (I remember discussing Fantasia with a Fundamentalist pastor who cited the demonic imagery in the Bald Mountain sequence, along with the evolutionary motif in Rite of Spring and even the pagan imagery in the Pastoral, as the basis for his refusal to allow his children to see the film. When I pointed out that at least the Bald Mountain demons succumb to the light of the Ave Maria, his reply — I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming — was that a hymn to Mary was in his view hardly an improvement! Yet not all non-Catholic Christians will feel this way, even if they aren’t generally sympathetic to Marian spirituality.)
Like other pop-culture appropriations of classical music, Fantasia has actually altered our perception of the music itself: Just as those familiar trumpet notes from The William Tell Overture inevitably make us think of the Lone Ranger, so many of us can’t hear "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" from The Nutcracker without thinking of Disney’s dewdrop-sprinkling pixies. And yet, unlike most such pop/classical associations, Fantasia doesn’t diminish the older material. I might wish to hear The William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger; but I don’t think I would ever resent the inevitable mental pictures of Disney’s lovely Elysian Fields while listening to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.
If Fantasia failed to spark a hoped-for entertainment revolution, its achievement is all the more starkly singular. A joyous experiment in pure animation, an ambitious work of imaginative power, a showcase of cutting-edge technique, and a celebration of great music, it is without precedent and without rival. I’ve watched it far too many times to count, and I have yet to begin tiring of it.
Among a few Disney films deserving of the title “masterpiece,” Fantasia remains a unique achievement.
(Newly available on Blu-ray/DVD) Rather than a static motion picture, Fantasia was originally conceived as a repertoire, a selection of presentations that over time could be augmented by new pieces while old ones were retired, like an orchestra rotating its concert lineup … Ten years ago, amid the wreckage at the end of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, the Disney studio marked Fantasia’s 60th anniversary with Fantasia 2000, a film intended to honor in a way the original repertory conception of Fantasia.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.