Fantasia (1940) movie poster

(1940) directors James Algar (segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), Samuel Armstrong, (segments “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and “The Nutcracker Suite”), Ford Beebe, (segment “The Pastoral Symphony”), Norman Ferguson, (segment “Dance of the Hours”), Jim Handley, (segment “The Pastoral Symphony”), T. Hee, (segment “Dance of the Hours”), Wilfred Jackson (segment “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria”), Hamilton Luske, (segment “The Pastoral Symphony”), Bill Roberts, (segment “Rite of Spring”), Paul Satterfield (segment “Rite of Spring”), Ben Sharpsteen
viewed: 01/21/11

It had been years, decades, since I last saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  In fact, it may well have been back in its re-release in the mid-1980’s when I last saw it.  When I saw it playing at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, I was eager to get a chance to see it.  However, so were a good many other people, and I wound up sold out of that event.  As much as it would have been nice to see it there on the big screen, the film has been just recently re-issued on DVD by Disney and so watching it at home with the kids was not a bad alternative.

It’s really a remarkable film, by far the most avant-garde that the Disney studio ever attempted, in its non-linear, mostly non-narrative animation set to some of the greatest hits of classical music.  It nearly ruined the studio when it came out because I guess that people had already gotten the notion of what a feature animated film should be like from the studio’s prior output, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1939), and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the film started being appreciated properly.  Of course, in the intervening 70 years since it was released, the Disney brand has been further codified and monetized in ways that Walt could never have imagined.  It’s an artifact from the studio’s greatest heyday in talent, as Disney hired off the best animators in Los Angeles, and before greater compromises would be imposed on the process of film-making.

The film’s most avant-garde sequence is its first sequence, set to Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”.  The far more truly avant-garde abstract animator Oskar Fischinger worked with Disney on the early concepts for this sequence.  Fischinger’s work is typically non-repesentational, but Disney’s team cuts a closer to representation, suggesting images of violin bows dipping and zipping.  Still, it was hard work for Clara, who would not have sat through the entire film if it had all been that way.

As the film moves through its different sequences (there are 8 altogether), the film is cut with the explanations by Deems Taylor, some of which are helpful, but are a combination of pandering and condescension, which also is quite dated as well.  Felix thought the film would have been better without the explanations.  I have to agree.

As for favorite pieces, the most conventional is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” starring Mickey Mouse.  It’s a pretty straight-forward Mickey Mouse cartoon, though, obviously without any speaking.  But it’s also a terrific Mickey Mouse cartoon and it’s one of the film’s signature images, Mickey in his red robe and pointed starry cap.  I also enjoyed “The Dance of the Hours” which is perhaps one of the more straight-forward ones as well.  Clara loved “The Pastoral Symphony” segment, with all its flying Pegasuses, fauns, cherubs, centaurs and Greek Gods.

I was also brought to mind of Bruno Bozzetto’s send up of Fantasia, Allegro Non Troppo, which I’ve seen more recently than I’d seen Disney’s original.  I was struck by how Disney included a Darwinian evolution of life on Earth, ending in the death of the dinosaurs, set to Stravinsky’s “The Rites of Spring”.  In Allegro Non Troppo, Bozzetto has a similar, more successful version set to Ravel’s “Boléro”, which I always thought of as that film’s best sequence.  But it’s been years again since I last saw Bozzetto’s film.  It would be interesting to watch it again, especially having just re-viewed Fantasia.

The kids both liked the film, though as I said, Clara wasn’t digging it right away.  Felix enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact, he liked the more challenging parts of the film perhaps more than the others.  It’s funny but I don’t know if they would have enjoyed the film quite as much had them been much younger.  For me, I actually found myself appreciating it more than I had thought or remembered.  I appreciate the films of Disney, particularly the early ones, but Fantasia does stand alone, while not by any means a perfect film, certainly an interesting and pleasurable one.

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