Disney Hall of Fame: Fantasia
Fantasia is not a film, at least not in any of the conventional ways we tend to use the word. It has no plot. It has no dialogue. The only “character” who sticks around for more than five minutes is a scholar who lectures us about the experience of watching the very thing we’re watching. Even calling it an anthology would undersell the singularity of its vision. It’ not quite a film, but it’s one of the purest examples there is of what can be achieved by the moving image, and maybe the most experimental work ever released by an American studio. Fantasia is not a film. Fantasia is Fantasia.
It holds up to a modern eye and ear, but Fantasia is even more incredible when you consider its historical context. Premiering in November of 1940, it arrived three years after Disney’s debut feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and just nine months after Pinocchio. And while those were both stunning achievements in about a dozen different ways, Fantasia was an undertaking so bold in concept and monumental in scope, that nothing quite like it would ever truly be attempted again.
Though it started humbly enough, with the budget for a Mickey Mouse “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” cartoon spiraling beyond what could be recouped by a short, Fantasia quickly became a grand passion project for Walt Disney. With it, he hoped to elevate the medium he had popularized to fine art, while bringing his other love, classical music, to the masses he had already enraptured. Working closely with famed conductor Leopold Stokowski and musicologist Deems Taylor, Walt scoured mountains of pieces to assemble the perfect program. He then set the full creative powers of the studio to visualizing what they called “The Concert Feature”, no small feat when they only had one film under their belt and would be working on the second and third simultaneously.
The biggest thing that elevates Fantasia above the “package features” Disney would churn out in later years of meager wartime budgets is that it was never envisioned as a collection of segments, but as one visual concert. Taylor plays live-action master of ceremonies, giving cultural context to each piece and introducing the audience to the workings of an orchestra. Stokowski brings us in and out of the animated excursions with his iconic batonless conducting style, and our palate is cleansed by each return to the musicians dressed in formalwear and drenched in mood lighting.
As crucial as this cohesiveness is to Fantasia’s appeal, equally important is the variety of moods and styles represented by its eight marriages of sound and vision. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor leads us in with shadows and silhouettes of the orchestra that gradually become less representational, until finally we’re lost in art far more abstract that studio animation usually allows. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is reimagined as a dance of season-changing fairies, with motion so delicate and intricate that custom-made gears turning in precisely-calculated patterns were required to bring them to life. The Mickey Mouse vehicle that had planted the seed for Fantasia becomes its iconic centerpiece, as Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice provides Mickey with a stage to be at his most endearing, getting into magical mischief with the unspoken charm of Charlie Chaplin. Igor Stravinsky was still alive to grant his blessing to Disney’s production of his avant-garde piece The Rite of Spring, which explores the origins of life on Earth through the fall of the dinosaurs. Its effects animation is as stunning today as its concepts were controversial in 1940.
After a brief intermission, Taylor introduces the film’s soundtrack, the line of optical print on celluloid that carries audio information, here personified as a wiggly scamp. It’s a brief and often overlooked interlude, but it’s a testament to animation’s ability to give life to even a straight line. Next, the Disney artists revel in their medium’s penchant for lighthearted fantasy worlds as they imagine a colorful romp among the Greek pantheon set to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Physical comedy blends seamlessly with a sincere study of ballet in Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, starring a cast of animals heralding each time of day. Finally, Fantasia builds to a mesmerizing “sacred/profane” finale, as a dance of death and decay set to Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is interrupted by church bells and a solemn procession marching to Schubert’s Ave Maria, into a cathedral of trees and a blazing sunrise of hope that mirrors the Toccata and Fugue’s opening burst of color.
Fantasia was doomed to financial failure, a victim of both its own ambitions and the circumstances of its release. In an effort to make the concert hall simulation more immersive, Walt tasked his engineers with inventing a multi-channel audio recording and playback system, decades before surround or even stereo would become the norm. This “Fantasound” system had to be custom installed in any theater that was to exhibit the initial roadshow tour of Fantasia. These showings were lavish black-tie affairs, with reserved seats, ushers, and lush programs. But it was an unwieldy way to roll out a film, and Disney’s then-distributor RKO soon prepared the film for wide release by reverting the soundtrack to mono, cutting Taylor’s interstitials, and even lopping off the entirety of Toccata and Fugue (after all, Fantasia clocks in at a daunting 125 minutes, Snow White having set the standard at 80). Though its New York and Hollywood premieres were lauded by critics, the rest of America was largely bemused. Many found it pretentious, while others felt it denigrated the classical masterworks. Most damaging of all, the vital European markets, which would have been the most prepared to embrace Disney’s heady masterwork, were closed by the escalation of World War II, making Fantasia a massive money pit and scuttling Walt’s plans for further exploration of the project as a new form.
A whole history could be written on the various iterations of Fantasia that existed through the decades, as RKO cut and re-cut it to appeal to a general audience, through its resurgence as an underground experience in the ‘60s, to its reappraisal as a true masterpiece after Walt Disney’s death. One change has thankfully stuck, as a couple of embarrassing racist caricatures disappeared from The Pastoral Symphony segment for good after 1969. For its 60th anniversary in 2000, Roy E. Disney paid homage to his uncle’s vision with Fantasia 2000 (a lovely experience on its own merits that could never match the towering achievement of its predecessor), and Fantasia was at last restored to something resembling the original roadshow presentation for DVD.
This DVD set was a turning point for me, personally, in my lifetime enthusiasm for film and animation. I had been enchanted by Fantasia as a child, but the restored DVD landed in my hands in high school, and its bottomless vault of behind-the-scenes material ignited my passion for learning what makes movies tick. I marveled at the layers of airbrushing that went into each one-twenty-fourth-of-a-second frame of the nature fairies, wondered at the inventiveness of its handmade special effects, delved into the hours of animator discourse. Later, Fantasia would be the release that single-handedly convinced me to buy a Blu-Ray player. The 75th Anniversary theatrical reissue blew me away anew. If you want an idea of how much I’ve studied this film, let me just tell you I didn’t have to do any new research to write this appreciation.
Masters of film, animation, music, and illustration all around the world have been citing Fantasia as an influence for generations. You can write a verbose essay on how it was made (I note nervously as I check my word count), but its power can never be expressed by talking about it. Fantasia is a towering monolith of technical achievement, bold ambition, and stunning innovation. It stands as a tribute to the emotional connections art can make through sound, color, and texture. Words, frankly, don’t enter into it, because Fantasia isn’t really something you talk about. Fantasia is something you experience. Fantasia is Fantasia.