Disney Animated Marathon: Fantasia (1940)

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Film #3 in the Disney Animated Marathon!

Story By: Joe Grant & Dick Huemer
Directed By: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield & Ben Sharpsteen

I don’t think I can put into words how big of an impact Fantasia had on me as a child. Essentially, there was pre-Fantasia Bill and post-Fantasia Bill. Fantasia didn’t just teach me about how awesome movies really could be, but it introduced me to music. My mother was never a very musical person and my Grandma loved music but for whatever reason didn’t think I was ready to listen to Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley at any point during my formative years. Fantasia brought real music to my ears for the first time in my life. I won’t claim to have become a huge classical music buff, but I do have certain classical works that I am fond of. But, it wasn’t just the style of music, it was the idea of music, the idea of a movie that showed me everything but made me put all the pieces together. In my young mind Fantasia was a revelatory event and it was mine and mine alone.

When I first brought Fantasia up to a friend of mine they didn’t know about it, but I kept going down the line of every fellow eight year old I knew, avoiding all the girls of course, until I finally found some other boys who had seen it. They hated it with a passion and as young kids are prone to do I went home and watched Fantasia again because if other kids thought it sucked then it must suck, right? The next lesson Fantasia taught me was that there’s nothing wrong with differing from popular opinion, that second viewing only confirmed how awesome Fantasia was in my mind and how wrong the other boys were. For as long as I can remember Fantasia remained my movie, it wasn’t until High School that I found some others who liked it even the littlest bit.

Usually in my reviews I like to break down movies on the whole, what worked, what didn’t. Actors, actresses, cinematography, certain scenes, the feeling I received from the film, etc.. But, and I really mean this, Fantasia is the epitome of the “experience” movie and breaking it down in my usual fashion won’t suffice. So, I will go through every musical segment and give my take on them individually.

First we have the human intro, and following buffers, as I like to call it. The narrator sets the stage, lets us know that we are in for something special. This may not seem like much of an important moment, but I believe the human segments are crucial to the entire film. The basics of information are bestowed upon the viewer, but we also get a look at the orchestra, the conductor and can place a source for the music, ensuring it is different from all other instances of music in film we have experienced. There’s also some rather cool use of darkness and blue hues over the musicians and bright exploding colors when the conductor gets going.

The music begins with Toccata And Fugue In D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. This piece is incredibly abstract, starting with only human elements and then slowly morphing into animated lines, dots and all sort of abstract figures. This piece is the table setter, the music is recognizable to just about anyone, except for an eight year old boy in his Grandma’s basement of course. But, the music is universal for a reason, and I remember even as an eight year old immediately being struck by how powerful the music was. This segment doesn’t really speak to anything per say, it’s more of an exhibition of what is to come, to let you know this isn’t your average animated film, or any type of film for that matter.

Next up is Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. At this point the animation really kicks into high gear. We get fairies, fish, my favorite the dancing mushrooms and more to emphasize the changing of the seasons. It’s a dance number, and signifies even more than the first abstract piece did that the animation will be in tune with the music. It’s delightful to watch the mushrooms twirl around, the fairies tap flowers as they bloom with light and the fish swimming through gloriously rendered waters. All of which is done in complete harmony, oh I am good, with the music.

Third on the docket is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. This is unquestionably my favorite of all the segments, and it’s very simple why that is the case, Mickey Mouse. I loved Mickey just like any kid should love Mickey, he really was, and still is, an incredibly fun character. It’s no surprise that the image of Mickey in the sorcerer’s hat became the default logo for Disney over the years. Now, the animation in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the most traditional of all the segments, but for me it was the style I could most identify with. Everything about this segment is gorgeous, the way the water flows, Mickey’s gasp under said water, the way the sorcerer snubs the side of his nose, the walking brooms, this segment is a veritable treasure trove for the child in all of us. This is also the first segment to feature any real message, with Mickey obviously symbolizing the need for restraint and wisdom and the problems that can arise when you bite off more than you can chew. It’s Mickey, in Fantasia, that’s all I really need to say.

For the fourth segment we shift gears to The Rite Of Spring by Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky. I may not always talk about the music, and that is a bit odd since the music is such an integral part of every segment. But, in every way imaginable it is a given that the music employed is tremendous, so it would get a bit redundant if I talked about it in every single segment. But, The Rite Of Spring is especially powerful by its own and that is only doubled when paired with the creation of the universe. This is another segment that is beautifully drawn, of particular interest is the splendid Tyrannosaurus/Stegosaurus fight as well as the sequence involving the Pterodactyl’s learning how to fly only for one of them to suffer a gruesome death when flying too close to the ocean. That is what I took most from this segment, the visceral nature of that death wasn’t what you would get in a mainstream film targeted for kids. That earmarked this as a more grown up feature in my eyes, one that wasn’t afraid to show me the truth, this is also evidenced in an animated feature foregoing any reference to god and instead showing evolution.

Next is the Meet The Soundtrack segment. It’s not long and it isn’t meaningful or anything, but it is incredibly cool. The waves and shapes that the soundtrack makes as various instruments are played is plain snazzy to look at.

We move back into the music proper with The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. This is the first segment where I noticed something interesting regarding the animation. It is tremendous animation, but it has an almost unfinished feel to it. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it feels and looks sort of hollow. I believe this was a stylistic choice, to make sure that the animation as great as it may be never fully overshadows the music. The two work hand in hand and by leaving some of the animation with a negative space vibe it makes sure that people focus on the music along with the animation and not just the animation. The two combine for one great picture, it is music and animation in agreement with one another, not one overshadowing the other. The music has natural buffers built in to make sure this happens, pauses, moments of silence and such, and I may be completely wrong but that was the feeling I got from the animation. Once again the characters move in perfect synchronicity with the music and now we have some nudity as well, further entrenching this as more of an adult excursion. This was a good choice to follow up Meet The Soundtrack, because The Pastoral Symphony is lighter fare, a lot of fun, and features the excellent drunk god and his drunk donkey.

Segment number seven is Dance Of The Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli. Of course the first thing to point out is all the dancing animals in the form of ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators. They are the substitute for ballet dancers and you couldn’t ask for better substitutes. There is a high paced energy to Dance Of The Hours that isn’t present in the rest of the film. The entire segment is a lot of fun, makes sense with the different animals being introduced at different times of the day and proving the message of harmony in how they come together at the end.

The last segment on our long journey is Night On Bald Mountain by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Peter Schubert. Night On Bald Mountain is incredibly dark and mesmerizing. All sorts of characters you would never expect to find in a Disney film are present, from the demon Chernabog to restless souls fresh from the grave. Night On Bald Mountain is intense, and full of dark and scary imagery, even more nudity, to accompany the dark and foreboding music. Chernabog is a beast of a presence, almost taking over the entire film and making you forget about all that you have previously seen. This is in stark contrast to the serene nature of Ave Maria, a long procession of townsfolk marching to a heavenly, but Gothic in appearance, forest. Not only is this segment beautiful from start to finish, with some dynamic characters and true depth, it’s message is timeless, light will always beat back the darkness and nature will not abide unnatural intruders in its midst threatening its people.

There you have it, a segment by segment breakdown of Fantasia. Maybe that was a bit too much, but this is a film that I feel is worthy of such treatment. I am sure that others have and will break down the film even further and with more of a critical approach that will put my critique to shame. Hopefully all of the above gives you a sense for why I love Fantasia so much, that’s all I ask. It is superfluous to say it, but I will anyways, the music is powerful, the characters are unique and interesting, the animation is breathtaking and the end product is all that one can ask for in a work of art. Well, unless you are a bug that mated with a gelatinous blob of meat at some point, and you know who you are! I don’t need to recommend Fantasia, I think I did enough of that in the review proper. Fantasia impacted me immensely in a cultural sense, and if you haven’t yet done so give it a watch, it’s a tremendous experience and maybe it will impact how you view culture as well!

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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5 responses to “Disney Animated Marathon: Fantasia (1940)

  1. I LOVED (and still do love) Fantasia. It had a profound effect on me, as well. I have two nephews – 3 yrs old and 1 yr old. Since the 3yr old was born, I played March of the Brooms on my cell phone for him (it’s a ringtone). He calls it the ‘doo do doo song’ and asks me to play it over and over and we even have our own little dance to it. Now the 1 year old demands it over and over by pointing to my phone and wiggling his bootie. So, at 38 years old, Fantasia has connected me yet again to people that I love. It’s amazing and I am thrilled to read your shared adoration of it!

  2. Glad to read Fantasia has had such an effect on you Michelle. I do consider it an underrated or forgotten animated classic, it belongs being remembered right alongside Snow White, Bambi, et al.

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