After two acclaimed animated features, Walt Disney decided it was time for something completely different. Disney and music, specifically classical music, is something that has always gone well together. It was a staple of the “Silly Symphonies” shorts, and choreographing animation to music, matching the mood and tone of a composition, these were things the Disney animators were quite familiar with by 1940.
Where “Fantasia” strikes out on its own however, is in the execution and presentation as a film experience. This was meant to be an experiment that would push the boundaries both for animated features and concerts in general. It was put together as a show unto itself, complete with programs for the audience and marketing as a new kind of concert event. Needless to say, it was neither well received nor enjoyed in its day. Music critics found it juvenile and insulting to the classical pieces while general audiences weren’t sure what to make of a 2 hour cartoon concert. It’s a shame, too. Imagine what the Disney filmography would be like had “Fantasia” been a runaway hit.
What the movie attempts is to showcase classical music with animation, creating images and stories that would capture the mood and feeling of the music, rather than simply tell a story. The greatest example of this is actually the first short of the movie, being the animation of “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s an iconic piece of music, but the manner in which it’s animated here stands out among the rest. Rather than tell a conventional animated short story or even focus on a set of characters to move in time with the music, this intro is literally how the animators imagined the music. How they perceived the sounds.
It begins with a live action shadow play of the orchestra, conducted by the famed Leopold Stokowski, and soon turns to abstract. We see clouds, colors, and lights dancing against shapes like musical notes floating through the sky. At times it resembles forms that are recognizable or can be associated with an instrument, but for the most part it’s just a mood piece. Of all that’s shown throughout the film, this intro is by far the most experimental bit of animation we get (although giving a personality to an animated audio track is something of an accomplishment).
The rest of the movie is essentially a collection of shorts, some more memorable and powerful than others. As I said, this style of animation was not exactly new to Disney, but doing it on this scale and presenting it as a work of new art certainly was. The major highlights include the seasonal and beautifully timed adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”, and interesting and moody look at the birth of our planet and the evolution of life (as conceived by scientists of the era), and of course the Mickey Mouse centric short, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. As far as Mickey solo animation goes, this one is classic, iconic, and about as good as it gets. As a trivial note, it was also the first time audiences were shown a Mickey with his newly designed eyes (before he had only black circles, from this point on they were far more emotive).
One of the most moving and incredibly animated of the shorts is the duel “A Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria”. They form the finale to the movie and shower the viewer with the extreme visual and audible battle between good and evil. We see the devil on his mountain, summoning a legion of spirits and demons to dance for him as he torments and destroys them for his own amusement. It’s an impressive looking devil, too. It’s one of those cartoon moments that’s guaranteed to stick in a child’s brain for years to come.
The darkness and the flashing colors are soon melted away with soft white light as “Ave Maria” begins. This is a somber piece and gives little by way of character. It depicts a row of people, carrying light through the forest in the distance. Their light pushes back the dark and lulls the audience into a state of peace. It’s an incredible end to the movie.
Sprinkled throughout the show is a silhouette of the orchestra and Leopold’s conducting, serving as bookends for every short. There’s also the addition of a host in the form of Deems Taylor, who goes through the needless trouble of explaining each piece before we get a chance to see it. This is part of the set up as a concert within the movie, but it’s a completely unnecessary and at times unwelcome feature.
“Fantasia” is one of the great experiments in American animation, and remains so to this day. It’s unfortunate that this didn’t exactly bring in the dollars for the company, because after its failure Disney never attempted another feat like this one again.