I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Fantasia is my all-time favorite animated Disney film. I’ve seen this one more times than I can count, certainly more than any other in the Disney catalog. It’s where I first realized how truly beautiful animation could be on its own, divorced of or otherwise downplaying the storytelling element. Due to my interest in film scores from a young age, this movie was my gateway to traditional classical music, just as Walt Disney himself intended. I’d heard classical music before in cartoons, absorbing it subconsciously through many Saturday morning viewings of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, but the focus was rarely the music for Warner Bros. Disney packaged it for me in a way that made me sit up and take notice. That means that this film was also my formal introduction to the incomparable Beethoven, whose work I consider to be the pinnacle of musical expression. In October of 2016, I was beyond privileged to experience the wonder of it all live in conjunction with pieces from its later and equally extraordinary companion film, Fantasia 2000, thanks to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. At long last, it’s my honor to dive into this masterwork and share with it with you from my perspective. That’s what this Mouse Magic project is all about, after all. Of course, there’s far more to talk about than I could ever discuss on a blog, the learning never stops, and there are a lot of people out there who know this stuff far better than I ever will. None of that matters. The point is simply to peel back some of the layers and hopefully inspire some new appreciation in the film.
The story behind Fantasia is one of the most elaborate tales in all of Disney history, one that’s immensely satisfying in itself, but opens questions of what might have been. To Walt’s mind, the movie was never finished. It was never supposed to be. But let me go back to the beginning so that this will make sense if you don’t already know the story.
The concept of matching animation to classical music began for Disney in 1928 with the Silly Symphonies, designed to go beyond simple slapstick, marrying up pure fantasy with the fledgling idea of a synchronized soundtrack. As always, Disney wanted to go bigger, to really push the limits of what he felt an animated cartoon could do. And as is typical, it began with a mouse. The mouse, in fact. Since his debut in 1928, Mickey had taken something of a backseat to newer characters such as Goofy, Pluto, and Donald Duck. In 1936, Walt decided Mickey (being something of a lucky talisman and Walt’s alter ego) needed a popularity boost. He decided to do a deluxe cartoon based on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, both the poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the orchestral work by Paul Dukas inspired by it. Disney had previously met Leopold Stokowski, longtime and world famous conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, quite by accident at a restaurant in Hollywood. The two talked about Walt’s idea for the Mickey short. Stokowski was happy to collaborate, being as much a fan of Disney as Disney was of him, and offered to conduct the piece at no cost. He even had some ideas regarding instrumental coloring that would be perfect for animation. If that’s not the foundations for awesome, I don’t know what is. Once Disney confirmed Stokowski’s involvement, the rights to the music were secured by the end of July 1937. But a funny thing happened later that same year…
With the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt pretty much had a license to print his own money for the first time in his life, and he went a bit nuts with it, as many creative types in his position naturally would. His studio came into its own, he hired more animators, and he began work on both Fantasia and Pinocchio, the latter of which got pushed ahead due to delays. What would ultimately become Fantasia, you see, kept getting bigger.
Disney gave Stokowski free reign to select and employ a complete orchestra for the recording by the end of 1937 and hired a stage. Recording began at midnight, January 9, 1938, running for three hours. The orchestra was 85 members (some sources say 100). Total production costs climbed to $125,000. Keep in mind, this is just the one piece of music. It was double the length of the standard Silly Symphony, and three to four times the cost. Walt’s brother Roy, who was in charge of the studio finances, became convinced the piece would never make its money back on its own, but he stressed that Walt needed to keep any additional costs to a minimum. Seeing opportunity where others saw doom, Walt created a new concept: a complete animated concert consisting of different pieces of varying run times, presented in a single, high quality feature event. Dubbing it The Concert Feature, Disney made inquiries about extending Stokowski’s contract, and the two of them considered the idea of presenting the film with an on-screen host. Composer and music critic Deems Taylor was ultimately chosen, having provided running intermission commentary for the New York Philharmonic on radio. By this point, the new Burbank studio’s development kept Disney too busy to work, as did work on Pinocchio and Bambi. While Pinocchio inflicted Disney with all manner of anxiety, he offset this with his enthusiasm for Fantasia. Accordingly, the process went forward, and Taylor was scheduled in for September 1938.
Animation for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice began in January 1938 when virtually nothing else about the feature had been cemented in stone. This one segment, however, serves as a turning point in Disney history as this is where Mickey Mouse was redesigned by animator Fred Moore into the character as we recognize him today. Gouache paints were used for bolder color and lighting effects than in any previous Disney short. To Mickey himself, pupils were added to his eyes, allowing for a wider range of facial expression. It really doesn’t sound like much, but in terms of animation, it’s the difference between a sprint and a marathon.
The segment was filmed first in live action, an athlete from UCLA being asked to run through a sound stage filled with barrels as reference for Mickey moving through water. By late September, the other pieces and their stories were still being decided upon. Debussy’s Clair de Lune was excised from the lineup (more on that later), and an estimated 60 artists gathered around a piano for two and a half hours while Disney provided a running commentary about the ideas he’d conceived in the interim. By January 1939, Cydalise et le chèvre-pied by Gabriel Pierné was removed, but the mythological elements that had attracted Disney to the piece were being reconsidered. Disney ultimately opted for Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, which met with opposition from Stokowski. The conductor objected on grounds that the symphony had nothing to do with mythology, and he was concerned about the reception from classical music enthusiasts. Taylor, on the other hand, saw “no possible objection,” and Disney boldly claimed that his feature would “make Beethoven” for modern audiences. The idea he had for this entire project was to bring classical music to those, like himself, who had “walked out on this kind of stuff.”
Of course, animation alone wouldn’t be enough to bring classical music to the everyman. It still had to sound good, and for this Disney listened eagerly to Stokowski’s ideas. Fantasia would become the first film to be screened in stereophonic sound, but even that short changes it. As the ideas developed, the setup used to record The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was abandoned for a new multi-channel recording arrangement that would change film soundtracks forever.
Stokowski signed an 18-month contract with Disney to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, and recording lasted seven weeks beginning in April of 1939. Philadelphia’s Academy of Music was chosen for its acoustics. 33 microphones were placed around the orchestra, capturing the music onto eight optical sound machines placed in the hall’s basement. The first six machines represented an audio channel focused on different sections of the orchestra: celli and basses, violins, brass, violas, woodwinds, and tympani. Channel seven was a combination track of the first six channels, and the eighth provided overall sound at a distance. A ninth track was added later for a click track, allowing the animators to sync their work with the music. Artists working on each segment were allowed to listen to Stokowski’s arrangements and suggest alterations to the sound that would work more effectively with their designs.
Recording the music in multi-channel would not be enough, however. It was equally important for audiences to hear those efforts at their local movie theaters. A collaboration with RCA resulted in a wide variety of setups and experimentations, ultimately leading to the development of Fantasound, a stereophonic surround sound system that led the way for much of what we understand today. The system utilized two projectors running at the same time. One contained the film with a mono soundtrack for backup purposes. The other ran a sound film mixed from the eight recorded tracks down to four. Three of these tracks ran audio for left, center, and right channels, with the fourth becoming a control track that would restore the signal-to-noise ratio to the dynamics of what Stokowski thought they should be. A device known as the “pan pot” achieved the illusion of sound traveling across the speakers. Stokowski directed each level and pan change, and remembering the earlier criticisms about feature-length animation before the release of Snow White, Disney used oscilloscopes with color differentiation to minimize eye fatigue. The end result was about three million feet of sound film and nearly a fifth of the budget dedicated to recording.
RKO, Disney’s new distributor, believed the feature’s running time of two hours and five minutes plus intermission was too long for general release. Disney understood the costs required for theaters to upgrade their systems for proper presentation of his feature, so the distribution contract was relaxed from a general release to a limited-run roadshow attraction. A total of thirteen of these roadshows were held across the United States, two screenings daily with higher priced reserve tickets and a fifteen minute intermission. Everything about the presentation was micro-managed down to theater marquees, curtain and lighting cues, and hired staff trained by Disney to usher patrons to their seats with an illustrated program booklet. The first roadshow opened at the Broadway Theatre in New York City on November 13, 1940, fully equipped with Fantasound that required a week to install with crews working around the clock. Why? Because Fantasound required the installation of 90 speakers with precision placement throughout the auditorium. Proceeds made that night went to the British War Relief Society for efforts in the Battle of Britain. Additional telephone operators were hired to keep up with ticket demand. The film ran for forty-nine weeks, with the continued run lasting a total of fifty-seven weeks. combined average receipts from each roadshow was around $325,000, placing Fantasia at a greater loss than Pinocchio. You can see where this is going. Throughout the war, with the reduced overseas audience and the studio hemorrhaging funds on these pictures, it would be time to tighten up the wallet again. The studio would soon find itself on “war rationing,” with Roy Disney exercising greater financial control and the studio taking on government propaganda contracts to help ends meet. Later general releases of Fantasia (in 1942, 1946, 1956, and 1963) resulted in the film eventually making its money back. To make this happen, RKO was given carte blanche to edit the film down any way they wanted because Disney couldn’t bring himself make the cuts. This brought the run time down first to an hour and forty minutes, then to an hour and twenty minutes by removing most of the commentary tracks. Popular prices were restored with the use of the mono soundtrack and by placing the film at the back of a double bill with the Western film Valley of the Sun. When the film was re-released in 1946, a more complete version of one hour and fifty-five minutes offered the complete animated sequences and restored but shortened versions of the scenes with Taylor, Stokowski, and the orchestra. This would be the standard for later re-releases and the basis of the 1990 restoration.
The original sound negatives had begun to deteriorate by 1955, but a four-track copy survived in good condition. using the Fantasound system at the studio, a stereo copy was transferred to magnetic film at RCA via telephone wire. Disney engineers were able to switch from a standard 1.33:1 ratio to a widescreen ratio of 2.35:1 utilized by the new Cinemascope format, and both versions were ultimately released in 1963, the final release before Disney’s death in 1966.
It wasn’t until 1969 that Fantasia finally made a profit on its $2.28 million budget with subsequent re-releases. At this time, the film was marketed as a “head trip,” complete with psychedelic posters, and many audience members found new appreciation for the film under the influence of popular drugs. Animator Ollie Johnston recalled talking to students after the fact who were curious to know what the animators were on when they were making the film.
It was this release that’s noted for the controversial removal of four equally controversial scenes from Beethoven’s 6th Symphony for racial stereotyping. Later re-releases would feature simulated stereo sound, and in 1982 a completely new Dolby Stereo recording from noted film conductor Irwin Kostal using a 121-piece orchestra and 50-voice choir, costing another $1 million. The 1990 50th anniversary release of Fantasia ultimately restored as much as humanly possible to Disney’s original version, including a remastered Stokowski soundtrack, and went on to gross $25 million domestically.
Disney had wanted to release the film’s soundtrack at the time of original release, but it didn’t happen. It was first released as a mono three LP set and stereo 8-track tape in 1957. The Kostal recording was released in 1982 on dual CD, LP, and cassettes. The remastered Stokowski recording was re-release on CD and cassette for the 1990 anniversary release, where it ultimately went platinum. Both recordings were released for the 75th anniversary as a four-CD set, the fifth volume of Walt Disney Records: The Legacy Collection, which includes the deleted Clair de Lune and a recording of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Peter and the Wolf (from Make Mine Music) which include added narration by Disney vocal veteran Sterling Holloway. I have this set myself, and it is an absolute must for Disney or film score fans. Even so, modern audiences will never know what it was like to experience Fantasia as Disney originally presented it. The current Blu-ray release is as close as we’ll ever get.
(Notice that the concept art on the book cover uses the older version of Mickey, before his redesign.)
Upon the film’s original release, it was a critical hit, with some hailing it as a masterpiece. Some commented negatively upon Stokowski’s musical arrangements and abridgments, most notably Igor Stravinsky, the only living composer whose music, The Rite of Spring, was featured in the film. Some resisted paying roadshow prices for children, and many complaints were filed saying the Night on Bald Mountain sequence frightened them. Some suggested that the animation “robbed” the music of its integrity. Some political fallout resulted in highlighting the music of Beethoven at a time when Nazi Germany reigned in Europe. Dorothy Thompson’s review for The New York Herald is probably the most harsh. She claimed to have left the theater nearing a nervous breakdown because the film was a “remarkable nightmare.” Its “abuse of power” and “perverted betrayal of the best instincts” led her to compare the film directly to rampant Nazism and called it “caricature of the Decline of the West.” She claimed to be in such a state from the film’s “brutalization” that she walked out before the final two pieces, Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria. The film has been appraised since in subsequent releases with mixed reviews from a wide variety of sources, but it’s been awarded and honored like nobody’s business over the decades. Even so, it failed to even be nominated for the 1941 Academy Awards, much to Disney’s consternation. It hadn’t been released in Los Angeles in time to be eligible. Both Disney and Stokowski received special Oscars for Fantasia the following year, recognizing their contributions the art of sound motion pictures.
So… now that we have all that backstory in place, let’s talk about the pieces themselves, shall we?
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
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”. Even the title has no meaning beyond a description of the form of the 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.
— Deems Taylor, from the introduction to Toccata and Fugue, Disney’s Fantasia
Modern audiences would likely not understand this, but the opening sequences of Fantasia, and indeed much of what the film accomplished, were difficult to achieve and like nothing ever seen on screen to that time. The trick was to make it look effortless, and the opening sequences appear deceptively so.
Our Master of Ceremonies, Deems Taylor, attempts to put the audience into a relaxed state of mind through subtlety. Tossing away the idea of a stodgy, stuffed shirt presentation, Taylor puts his hand in his pocket. It’s the kind of throwaway gesture that no one in a general audience would catch, but it’s a breach of etiquette completely unheard of in a concert hall, and it sets the stage for everything that follows. As he talks, he explains the premise for the film, keeping in mind that animation is still an esoteric art form at that point, and until recently had been regarded as “kid’s stuff” in the mind of the average movie goer.
As the feature begins, individual shots of the orchestra members and their instruments are presented with an array of light and color that, while simplistic by today’s standards, were incredibly difficult to pull off at the time. It gave an air of sophistication and wizardry designed to engage the audience before hitting them with the animation.
Toccata and Fugue was presented as abstract animation, something Disney had been interested in doing since he saw Len Lye’s A Color Box in 1935. It’s perhaps easy to see what a risk it would be to put this sequence up front as it challenges general audiences right out of the gate. The preliminary designs came across as “too dinky” and were discarded. Disney’s original idea for this segment was to make it an experimental three-dimensional film, requiring audiences to wear cardboard stereoscopic frames that would be provided with their souvenir programs. Ultimately this concept was abandoned, but you can see how forward-thinking this was for 1940. The end result was achieved by translating some of those 3-D ideas into two dimensions, with the camera moving through the picture plane using processes developed for Snow White.
This musical piece was Stokowski’s signature piece. The conductor had made a career of arranging Bach’s organ works for full orchestra, and this one had become something of a showstopper in his years with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Disney, who was used to full control, once toyed with the idea of switching this out for another piece. Stokowski’s measured response: “Over my dead body.”
Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Before Fantasia, The Nutcracker wasn’t a terribly popular ballet. That’s perhaps difficult to imagine in our modern world. The 20-minute suite of dances that Tchaikovsky adapted from his work became better known, and it’s from this suite that Disney pulled. The dances were rearranged from their original order, and a couple were excised, but by and large this is where The Nutcracker gained new life, becoming more popular with subsequent re-releases of Fantasia until the ballet itself was reborn to popularity in the 1960s.
If you really look at Fantasia, the overall themes of time are played out, be it in the passing of seasons, the time of day, or a look at bygone eras. The Nutcracker Suite sets the stage for this, using the seasons as its motif. It begins with the dawn of spring in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Everything about this sequence begins with darkness being illuminated, with the fairy being self-illuminated as a force of nature. The color palette in play relies on soft pastel colors. Animator Marc Davis would go on in Disney legend as the animator of the studio’s signature fairy, Tinker Bell.
According to popular tradition, animator Art Babbitt credits The Three Stooges as the visual guide used to animate the dancing mushrooms in the Chinese Dance.
The circular spin of the mushrooms suggests time passing, though it should be noted that the little mushroom who steals this piece is never completely in step with his friends.
This is counterpointed with the Dance of the Reed Flutes. Here, spring has turned to summer, and all of the flowers surround the prima ballerina at their center. The piece becomes more abstract as it goes, but never loses its ideas in the minds of the audience.
The Arab Dance is noted for its seductive nature. It calls upon a classical Egyptian style of belly dance known as raqs sharqi. The grace and mystique come from keeping the form hidden, save for the eyes, then slowly unveiling it. Translate that into a goldfish with an impossibly luxurious tailfin and surround it with equally impossible bubble animation, and you’ve got the general idea. The animation has less in common with Western notions of belly dancing than it does with the kind of control you might find in Eastern forms such as Tai Chi… not that most Westerners would ever think about such things. Say what you will, the animation is extraordinary, using overlapping color fades and “transparencies” for effect. An Arabian dancer was brought in for the animators to study. To my mind, the animators absolutely captured her grace.
High summer fades into autumn as thistles and orchids take center stage in the Russian Dance. There was originally supposed to be more to this piece in the background, but it was decided along the way the figures themselves were intricate and captivating enough on their own. I truly admire the design on these. Perhaps it’s a bit too on the nose, but it just works for me.
The Waltz of the Flowers finishes out this segment and bringing some of the themes back around for symmetry. The delicate flower blossoms as autumn ball gowns play on earlier ideas…
…and winter comes with the return of the fairies.
What’s truly interesting to me is that these snowflakes are, in fact, practical effects. They were animated over footage of gears and wheels, which is why they appear so precise. Disney is the one who suggested turning them into the skirts of the winter fairies. This connects up all of the previous ideas together of dancing, spinning, fairies, flowers, dresses, and the turn of the seasons. Thematically, it makes the whole of this segment immensely satisfying from an artistic perspective as much as from a musical one.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas
As discussed, this is where Fantasia got its start, as a showcase to return Mickey Mouse to the spotlight.
These days, it’s often shocking to audiences that Mickey would ever pick up an axe, let alone use it on someone. Such was never a concern in Mickey’s early days, but as time went on, Disney gave marching orders that his animated alter ego should be the figurehead for goodness and kindness. This marks Fantasia as a transition point, not only in Mickey’s visual appearance, but in his character as well.
Trivia for those who love this sort of thing: the wizard Mickey is serving in this sequence is named Yen Sid (or sometimes Yensid, depending on whom you ask)… Disney spelled backwards. Animators modeled the wizard on Disney himself, taking special note to mark his trademark raised eyebrow of criticism.
As the piece ends, Mickey rushes the stage to shake Stokowski’s hand. Disney had always insisted that cartoons could be as realistic as the real world, and the overlap between the two fascinated him to no end. Factor in the mutual admiration that he and Stokowski had for one another, and… well, it’s just a nice little touch for me that Disney’s alter ego gets to interact with the maestro who helped to make this happen. Gives me a grin every time I see it.
Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
The theme of time is revisited, this time exploring the beginnings of the Earth, the development of life, and the most memorable coming of the dinosaurs. Pay no attention to the fact that the dinosaurs sharing the screen are separated in biology by millions of years. Once they’re on screen, it really doesn’t matter anymore.
Until 1993’s Jurassic Park, Fantasia was the film credited with inspiring scientists and artists alike as the most “realistic” dinosaurs ever created. Before this point, dinosaurs on screen were largely seen as a comical gimmick, regardless of original intent. For the first time, Disney helped audiences to take them seriously. It’s weird to consider, but without Fantasia, there might not be Godzilla or The Land of the Lost.
As previously noted, Igor Stravinsky was the only living composer whose music was used for the film, and according to reports, he was none too pleased with the end result. However… if you listen to the commentary track on the Blu-ray, Stravinsky sat in on the early “sweat box” sessions at the studio when all of this was still in rough pencil form, and according to this source, Stravinsky not only approved, he was delighted at how well his ideas translated to animation. To support the claim, he offered Disney the rights to two additional pieces on the spot, one of which, The Firebird, would be utilized for the grand finale of Fantasia 2000.
My take away from this is that he loved the power of theme in play, but he still took some issue with Stokowski’s arrangement of his music. I suppose that’s understandable. All I know is, without Fantasia, I might have never learned to appreciate Stravinsky on his own merits. Knowing what I know now, that’s ironic considering how much Stravinsky influenced a great many film composers from Bernard Herrmann to Dmitri Tiomkin to John Williams.
At this point in the program, the audience would take a 15 minute intermission. Of course, it’s not nearly quite so long on home video.
Meet the Soundtrack (Interlude)
Upon returning from intermission, Deems Taylor reintroduces us to the film by way of an animated representation of the soundtrack. It’s one of the few times in history (before the advent of home video bonus features) where general audiences are treated to behind the scenes type footage. In this case, the animators play up the idea of the sound wave as a character with color and personality. It’s similar to the Toccata and Fugue in its abstractness, save for the fact that there is a defined purpose behind the visual design. The original idea called for the use of an oscilloscope, but Disney thought his team could do far better than that. I tend to agree.
The Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) by Ludwig van Beethoven
In his own time, Beethoven was a controversial and often mythological force of nature. It seems only fitting that in his wake, Disney would continue that legacy. Reinterpreting Beethoven’s Pastoral as mythology was controversial enough to the mind of Stokowski, but as mentioned before, Disney felt his film would “make Beethoven” for the modern, general audiences. Seeing as how this is my introduction to Beethoven and still my favorite of his symphonies as a result, it’s really hard for me to argue Disney’s point.
Controversy didn’t stop at the music, however. The censors had a field day when it came to warning Disney about the bare-breasted centaurettes and naked little cherubs.
Other such notes that resulted in deviations from the original designs were the male centaurs being toned down so as to be less imposing and, almost three decades later, the removal of four shots of a black centaurette character named Sunflower due to perpetuation of a racial stereotype. In the original release, she could be seen polishing the hoof of another centaurette. I would argue that the character design itself is even more offensive than her actions, which is probably why the black zebra centaurettes tending to Dionysus still remain in the film. Despite the fact that they’re serving him, they’re considerably more elegant in their design than poor Sunflower. Ordinarily, I’m against such edits for the sake of preserving history, and I still feel such things should never be completely lost so as to remain a teaching point. But in this case, such edits restore Fantasia to its otherwise timeless beauty, and it’s really hard to argue a case to allow such a negative caricature to stand unaddressed. My hat’s off to the editing team on this one. If you don’t know what to look for, you’d never know anything was different, especially given that everything still lines up with the musical cues.
The critics and censors had some issues with Dionysus as well, but Disney apparently had no compunction about a drunken little fool of a god ushering in the revels.
Just as Fantasia informed audiences of the credibility of dinosaurs, it also gave us realized presentations of mythological creatures that would inspire artists and filmmakers for generations. The winged horses featured here are often considered to be the one of the film’s highlights. They would go on to inspire Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion interpretation of Pegasus in 1981’s Clash of the Titans as well as the logo of Tri-Star Pictures.
The character touches are beyond amazing as the little pegasi learn how to land on water with varying degrees of skill while the bigger ones do so with grace, folding their wings, swanlike.
Obviously, themes of nature play heavily into both the music and the visuals for this segment, the idea of an eternal spring contrasting with the previous turmoil of the Rite of Spring sequence. Likewise, the power of raw nature in that sequence is contrasted here with the embodied power of nature, personified by the Olympian deities.
The animation for the thunderstorm sequence is perhaps the closest to Beethoven’s own interpretation of his music. I love the little touches as it ends, where lightning bolts fall away as Zeus rolls over to sleep. From there we get to see Iris and her rainbow, Apollo and his sun chariot, and Artemis with her bow.
By the time I saw this film, I was already familiar with Greek mythology, having dropped down that rabbit hole following a screening of Clash of the Titans. Music and visual conspired here to further influence me in ways that I never fail to appreciate.
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli
Dance of the Hours is the ballet from the Act 3 finale of Ponchielli’s opera La Giaconda. I consider it a missed opportunity that I still haven’t seen the original opera to this day, so it’s a foregone conclusion that when I hear this music, I think about dancing animals.
The themes in play tie in nicely. First, it’s a ballet. Recall that Rite of Spring is also a ballet, as is The Nutcracker. Animated ballet dancers are likewise echoed here from The Nutcracker, this time in animal form. The theme of time is explored, the day being divided into morning, afternoon, evening, and night, represented by ostriches, hippos, elephants, and crocodiles respectively. As the day progresses, so too does the lighting. And as the segment progresses, so too do the gags.
This sequence is undeniably the funniest part of the entire film, allowing for visual gags and character screwiness befitting a cartoon. But the sophistication is still there. Just to illustrate the point, it often pays to see direct influences. Keeping in mind that Disney animators created and perfected visual goofs and gags in addition to the amazing animation effects that no other studio could match, and keeping in mind that all other animation studios looked to Disney as the industry standard of their art, it’s inevitable that the competition should acknowledge the high points… and poke fun at them accordingly. In the case of Warner Bros., the animation team did exactly what Disney ordered his animation team not to do: they relied on gags that turned the whole production into a joke. To be fair, it’s what they do at Warner. Exhibit A: 1943’s A Corny Concerto. You know you’ve hit something truly special when the best your competition has is a parody.
Suddenly the beauty and grace of the Dance of the Hours is revealed as considerably more sophisticated, no? One need look no further than Walt’s original directive: “Let’s take these animals — screwy as they are — and stage this all as legitimate, done as a perfect ballet. Later, then, let the slips come — rather than in the beginning.”
And who doesn’t remember this?
Credit where it’s due… nobody beat Warner Bros. for sarcasm and irreverence. Touché, Mr. Bunny. I do love me some Looney Tunes. I’m sure this was a bigger slap in the face at the time of its release, especially with Fantasia being the box office failure it was. But on the long haul Disney just ends up looking even classier by comparison.
Back to the program…
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
If you’re going to create the idea of Hell on Earth, it stands to reason you want your Prince of Darkness to really make an impact. It’s a known fact that Disney animators use character models, often basing their characters on the voice actors who portray them. But when your star player is silent, you go for visual impact. In the case of Chernabog the demon, Disney animators turned to the most memorable caped villain on film at that time: Bela Lugosi. Why not, right?
My understanding is this sequence depicts Walpurgis Nacht, also known as “the other Halloween,” April 30. As with Halloween itself, this is when the veil between this world and the next is thin, and the evil things punch through to walk the Earth. The imagery in this is absolutely terrifying and in sharp contrast to the beauty of the Pastoral or the whimsy of the Dance of the Hours. There are so many different characterizations of goblins, witches, ghosts, and other denizens of the Otherworld that it makes my head spin. I freaking love this sequence.
I recall that the idea of Chernabog himself basically forming out of and back into the mountain really messed with my mind when I was a kid. Today I see it as a different kind of comparison of nature and the supernatural. It’s a contrast with the Olympian deities of the Pastoral. After all, Hades was a scary concept, even if he didn’t make it to this film, but he was never really supposed to be a personification of evil. Was Chernabog a mere demon, or was he something more?
The grand finale wouldn’t be complete without a restoration to peace. From the profane, the sacred…
Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
When Fantasia was set to premiere in New York, this piece — the grand finale of the film — wasn’t quite finished. The reel arrived at the theater with a mere four hours to spare and spliced onto the rest of the film on the spot. Decades later, people would shake their fists at George Lucas and demand why digital filmmaking needed to be a thing. He pointed back to this.
There are several pieces from different composers with the title of Ave Maria. This is by far my favorite, and I still find the arrangement of it to be exquisite, even if the full power of the recording is lost to time. Somehow I’m able to transcend that limitation when I listen to the recording.
The animation itself is, to my mind, just as beautiful. This sequence represents to me the pinnacle of Disney animation, regardless of how many experts lay that honor upon Pinocchio. The design work here of nature as cathedral isn’t something I truly appreciated as a kid, but the older I get, the more this resonates with me.
Likewise, the inter-reliance of the sacred and the profane upon one another just speaks to me on some level. That the peace can be restored by mere faith in something greater… it’s a timeless message, regardless of your personal beliefs. Everyone believes in something, even if it has nothing to do with religion or the supernatural. Sometimes concepts like peace or love are enough. However one wants to interpret it, it works here, be it because of the imagery or in spite of it. When this film ends, I’m always left with a feeling of tranquility that no other movie I can name offers to me.
Now that we’ve gone through the film piece by piece, let’s talk about what didn’t happen, and what Disney might have liked to have done. Fantasia was designed as a roadshow, and the original intent was that the individual pieces would, over time, be interchanged for new pieces. Many were bounced around. Six are known to have been illustrated on some level:
Richard Wagner – Ride of the Valkyries
Jean Sibelius – Swan of Tuonela
John Alden Carpenter – Adventures in a Perambulator
Carl Maria von Weber – Invitation to the Waltz
Frederick Chopin – “Berceuse,” Op. 57 (for a segment called Baby Ballet)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Flight of the Bumblebee
The unfortunate fact is that there is a lot of concept art out there for these unused segments that I’d love to share here. There’s a lot of it. In the interest of sharing, I’ve found a good selection of the unused concept art at this Disney Wikia page. I invite you to listen to these pieces while looking at the concept art, to imagine what might have been.
Of all the unused ideas, only one actually got realized.
Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy (unused)
Though originally excised from the final film, cut for time, this sequence was fully animated. It would later appear in 1946’s Make Mine Music, scored to the song “Blue Bayou.” The original Stokowski recording appears on some special edition DVDs and Blu-rays, restored to full glory. Because I can, you can see it for yourself right here:
Hopefully as long as this post was, it was worth it to you. Odds are good that the rest of this series will be considerably shorter, at least until I get to Fantasia 2000. At any rate, even with the warts and unfortunate missteps, Fantasia continues to enchant me at every level for all the right reasons. And despite the degeneration of the original sound recordings, I feel it has aged rather well, all things considered. In terms of animation, I can’t point to a great deal being done today that can compete with the quality, and certainly none of that is hand-drawn. That’s still the thing that impresses me the most, that when you strip it back to basics, each frame of art still comes down to an animator with a pencil and a dream.