abstract, adventure, alligator, animal ballerinas, animated, animated movie review, animation, Arabian Dance, Ave Maria, Bacchus, bald mountain, ballerina, ballet, Beethoven, bells, Bill Tytla, cartoon review, cathedral, centaurettes, centaurs, Chernabog, cherubs, Chinese Dance, classic disney, classical, classical music, crocodile, Dance of the Hours, Dance of the Reed Flutes, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, dawn, Deems Taylor, demons, devil, devils, dinosaurs, Disney, disney animated, disney animation, disney review, elephant, expressionism, fairies, Fantasia, fantasound, fauns, flowers, Franz Schubert, ghosts, herman schultheis, hippo, holy pilgrimage, Igor Stravinsky, La Gioconda, Leopold, Leopold Stokowski, lost notebook, magic, Mickey Mouse, Modest Mussorgsky, movie review, mushrooms, music, musical, musical review, nature, nature ballet, Night on Bald Mountain, Nutcracker suite, ostrich, Pastoral Symphony, Paul Dukas, pilgrims, Rite of Spring, Russian Dance, slavic folklore, slavic gods, snow, snowflakes, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, soundtrack, stereo, Stokowski, Stravinsky, Sunflower, Tchaikovsky, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Toccata and Fugue, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, unicorns, Vladimir Tytla, walpurgis night, Walt Disney, Waltz of the Flowers, witches, Woolie Reitherman, Zeus
And now we come to the final piece of Walt Disney’s original animation trifecta, Fantasia, and it’s one I’m both anticipating and dreading. Fantasia isn’t just one of the crowning jewels in Disney’s canon, a landmark in motion picture animation, and second only to Snow White in terms of influential music and storytelling in the whole medium, it’s one of my top three favorite movies of all time. Discussing it without sounding like an old history professor, a pretentious internet snob, or a hyper Disney fangirl is one hell of a daunting task.
Anyway, it’s no surprise Sorcerer Mickey is what people remember the most from Fantasia, and not just because he’s the company mascot. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was the reason we have the movie in the first place. It began as a pet project between Walt Disney and renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski.
However, between the upscale in animation and the use of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the cost grew too high to justify the creation of only one short. Over time more sequences featuring animation set to various pieces of classical music were added in what was initially dubbed “The Concert Feature”. Later it was wisely changed to the more memorable “Fantasia”. It works not only because it’s derived from the word “fantasy”, but because “fantasia” is a term for a musical composition that doesn’t follow any strict form and leans towards improvisation. Combine the two meanings and you get the whole movie in a nutshell.
And this leads us to –
Things Fantasia Fans Are Sick of Hearing #1: “It’s SOOOOOO boring! Nobody’s talking and nothing ever happens!”
You know, few recall that decades before Warner Brothers was known as that studio that made rushed prequels to beloved fantasy franchises and a hastily cobbled together superhero universe, it had humble origins in the music business; their Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts began as music videos made to sell their records. Disney’s Silly Symphonies followed in the same vein, though they focused more on pushing the envelope in animation technique and character resonance than selling music, as did the lesser known Harman-Ising Happy Harmonies.
And if that’s the case, then Fantasia is the Thriller of animated music videos. It’s the result of years of technological advancement and trial and error, all culminating in the flawless weaving together of visuals and some of the greatest music mankind has created to tell seven stories and elicit an emotional response for each one.
Let me repeat that: FANTASIA. PREDATES. THRILLER.
By the way, if you’re watching the current version of Fantasia that’s available, do me a favor and pause the movie to watch the original Deems Taylor intros; while they’re shorter than the ones on the blu-ray, they have Deem’s original voice. All later releases have him dubbed over by Corey Burton because the audio for these parts hasn’t held up as well over time. Now Corey Burton is a phenomenal voice actor who’s done countless work for Disney before, but there’s a problem I have with him taking over these segments: One, he and Deems sound nothing alike, and Two, he makes him sound so dry and dull. Not to mention the longer intros practically spoil everything you’re about to see whereas the cut versions give you just enough to build some intrigue for what’s to follow.
Regardless of whichever one you’re watching, Deems gives us the rundown on what Fantasia is all about and lists the three categories that the sequences fall under.
- A concrete story
- Clearly defined images with something of a narrative
- Music and visuals that exist for its own sake
And the very first of these parts falls directly into the last one.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – Johann Sebastian Bach
Some hear this tune and attribute it as stock horror music, but for me it’s the start of a grand, dark, fantastical journey through realms of the imagination. While it is intended as an organ piece, this full orchestration blows me away. Capturing the orchestra in bold hues and shadows with colors specific to certain highlighted instruments was a brilliant move, setting the stage for what’s to come.
And if the previously referenced Bugs Bunny cartoon was any indication, the real Leopold Stokowski is one of the main draws to this segment. Stokowski’s claim to fame was that he ditched the traditional conductor’s baton and used his hands to guide the orchestra. His passion and restraint is plain for all to see, even in silhouette.
Ultimately Stokowski and the orchestra fade away into the animated ether. The idea behind Toccota and Fugue was to show a gradual transformation from the conscious world to the subconscious, providing a literal and figurative representation of what you see and hear with the music. That’s why the first animated images resemble violin bows sweeping over strings. Over time those distinct objects evolve into abstract geometric shapes.
Honestly, no amount of stills can capture what it’s like to watch this sequence play out. It’s a radically unique experience, almost like a dream.
Things Fantasia Fans Are Sick of Hearing #2: “It’s the world’s first screensaver/musicalizer!”
This is something I hear often from people (ie. the people making the complaints I’ve chosen to highlight). First, read the previous Thing. Second, Toccata is not so much about recreating a story as it is capturing a feeling. And yet a story isn’t out of the question. I always saw at as glimpses of a battle of light versus dark, heaven versus hell, albeit not as overt as the opening of Fantasia 2000. That’s the beauty of this segment. It’s all up for interpretation. You can let the images and sounds wash over you as if you were dreaming it, or attach whatever meaning you find.
And on that note (ha) –
Things Fantasia Fans Are Sick of Hearing #3: “God, all these animators must have been so fucking high to come up with this shit.”
I tell ya what, if you’re one of those people who think that, take whatever drug is handy, grab some crayons or whatever you feel comfortable doodling with, and when you’re comfortably high, draw one full second of animation. That’s 24 consecutive drawings that need to flow, squash and stretch into each other realistically. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be a ball bouncing, a flower blowing in the wind, an eye blinking, but it has to work.
Not so easy, huh?
Classic Disney animators who lectured at art schools received comments like this all the time. While there were some like Fred Moore who would go for the occasional beer run on breaks, there’s no record of narcotic or alcoholic influence on the animators’ turnout. I’m pretty sure Walt would’ve fired anyone who turned in work produced while high because it’d be awful. Animation was still a fairly new medium at the time, and Disney was constantly experimenting with what it could do, which is why we got things like this, the Pink Elephants, and other delightfully trippy moments throughout the 40’s, not because of drugs. Isn’t that right, classic Disney animator Bill Tytla?
The Nutcracker Suite – Pyotr Illich Tchaichovsky
Things Fantasia Fans Are Sick of Hearing #4: “Yawn. Nutcracker is SO overplayed. Of course Disney had to jump on the bandwagon with their version!”
Ironically, the extended Deems Taylor intro has him mention how nobody performs Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; in light of its modern seasonal popularity, the sentiment is rendered archaic. True, the ballet wasn’t an initial critical hit and Tchaikovsky himself virtually disowned it, but much of its ubiquity is largely due in part to Disney adapting it for Fantasia. It eschews the title character in favor of a nature ballet portraying the cycle of seasons. Initial planning included the overture and the famous march featuring woodland critters, though they were eventually cut. Walt considered pumping scents into the theater during this part, but was unable to figure out how to do it naturally. If they had Smell-O-Vision that might work, but what scents would you have to scratch off for the other Fantasia segments? Wood resin? Wine? Wet hippo? Brimstone?
The sequence begins with The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. In the night a group of fairies dance like fireflies, gracing spring flowers and spiderwebs with delicately timed dewdrops.
The scene is atmospheric with beautifully rendered pastel backgrounds. After the fairies comes The Chinese Dance performed by a group of little mushrooms. It’s a cute number, and just another that was parodied more than a few times in other cartoons – wait do those mushrooms have slant eyes? And they’re prancing around nodding like extras in The Mikado…
Dance of the Reed Flutes follows. Lilies gently float on to the surface of a pond before inverting themselves to resemble twirling dancers with long, flowing skirts. And since I’m not always one to take the easy route, enjoy this niche reference instead of “You Spin Me Right Round”.
A gust of wind blows the spinning lilies over a waterfall into some moody underwater caverns, where a school of unusually sultry goldfish perform the Arabian Dance.
A novel idea, using the basic swimming motions of a goldfish and their naturally diaphanous tails and fins as veils to resemble exotic dancers, though like other animated characters in a similar vein, this has led to some…”interesting” reactions from certain people.
Right, well, bubbles transition us into the penultimate movement, the Russian Dance. Thistles and orchids resembling dancers clad in traditional Russian peasant clothing spring to life in this brightly colored energetic minute. You’ll be chanting “hey!” along with it.
And finally, the Waltz of the Flowers. As a little girl I would often hold my own “ballets” to this scene, which mainly comprised of me in a ballet costume or fancy nightgown spinning around in circles for family members with this playing in the background. Top that, Baryshnikov.
Fairies similar to the ones from the beginning transform the leaves from fresh summer green to autumn orange, brown and gold. Milkweed seeds blossom forth and float through the air like waltzing ladies. This piece above all else is what really shows the beauty of nature. I feel more emotion watching the leaves pirouette in the wind than any plain live-action drama.
Fall turns into winter, and the fairies, now snow sprites, skate across a pond creating ice swirls while even more spiral down from the sky as snowflakes. The secret of animating these snowflakes was nearly lost to time. Several years ago a notebook by technician Herman Schultheis was rediscovered, revealing how many of the special effects in Disney’s early films – Fantasia in particular – were brought to life. The snowflakes were cels on spools attached to small rails from a train set that were filmed falling in stop motion and black and white, then superimposed on the final picture.
In conclusion, The Nutcracker Suite is a lovely piece of animation and music, and I’ll pop in Fantasia at Christmastime just to watch it. This was my introduction to The Nutcracker, and it’s an excellent and unique one.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Paul Dukas
The symphonic poem of the same name now gets a proper name with Mickey Mouse stepping in the title role. It’s impossible to imagine any other character in his shoes, but for a time there were other considerations.
As we all know, Mickey was given the part since his popularity needed a boost. He doesn’t talk here, and I know those who find his voice grating wholeheartedly embrace that fact, but what we’re given is proof that Mickey works just as well silently as he does speaking. Very few cartoon characters can pull off that kind of versatility.
And while we’re on the topic of sound, Walt was so determined for the sound quality to match what was happening on screen that he devised a system he dubbed “FantaSound”, where it would seem as though the music would move around the the theater instead of just blare out from one speaker.
You read that right. Fantasia is the movie that invented SURROUND SOUND.
But that’s not the only technological leap Fantasia is responsible for – this is the first time we see Mickey with sclera.
Before Fantasia, Mickey had what we refer to today as “pie eyes”, a relic of the era he was created in. As the art of animation progressed, animators found it increasingly difficult to create believable expressions with two little dots. Fred Moore is responsible for the mouse’s welcome redesign. Mickey as the apprentice serves the sorcerer Yen Sid, named after his real world counterpart.
Mickey’s craving a taste of his master’s power, so he borrows his magical cap after he goes to bed and enchants a broom to finish his work of gathering water. It’s fun and bouncy, though the part where Mickey dreams he can control the cosmos, seas and sky is something to behold.
But Mickey is jolted from his dream of ultimate conquest when the broom begins flooding the place. Unfortunately the sorcerer’s hat doesn’t come with a manual so Mickey doesn’t know how to turn it off. He resorts to violently chopping the broom to pieces with an axe. The animation originally called for the massacre to happen on screen, but was altered to showing it through shadows instead. I think it’s much more effective this way. The implied violence is more dramatic than what we could have gotten.
One of my favorite stylistic choices in Fantasia is what follows. The color is sucked out, drained if you will, mirroring Mickey’s exhausted emotional and physical state after committing broomslaughter. But it slowly returns as the broom’s splinters rise up and form an army of bucket-wielding drones. They overpower Mickey and catch him in a whirlpool until Yen Sid returns and parts the waters like a pissed off Moses.
Mickey sheepishly returns the hat, and I have to give credit to the animators for the subtle touches on Yen Sid. He appears stern at first glance, but the raised eyebrow borrowed from Walt? The slight smirk at the corner of his mouth? Deep down, he’s amused by his apprentice’s shenanigans. Even the backside slap with the broom, while rendered harshly due to the sudden swell of music, is done less out of malice and more out of playfulness.
The piece ends with Mickey breaking the barriers of reality to congratulate Stokowski on a job well done.
If you haven’t already guessed, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is easily one of my preferred sequences. It’s energetic, perfectly matches the music, and features my favorite mouse in one of his most iconic roles. I joke about the scene where Mickey controls the waves and the sky due to Disney’s far-reaching acquisitions in the past decade, but within the context of the film it’s one of the most magical moments. Some theorize that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an allegory of Walt’s journey to create Fantasia itself, and there’s some merit to it – Mickey’s always been Walt’s avatar after all, and here he dreams big only to wind up way in over his head. But you don’t need to look for coincidental parallels to enjoy this part.
Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is admittedly my least favorite part of Fantasia, though I don’t hate it by all means. Thematically it’s the furthest from the original work’s intent: instead of a pagan ritual involving a virgin sacrifice, we witness the earth’s infancy. I was never really into dinosaurs as a kid (I didn’t even see Jurassic Park until I was in fourth or fifth grade), and the thundering, threatening music put me off. I found it too long (twenty-two minutes is an eternity in child time), uninteresting, and dour compared to the other sequences, with the exception of one moment. I can appreciate it now that I’m older, though.
A solitary oboe echoes through the vast darkness of space. We soar past comets, galaxies, suns, and down into our lonely little planet still in the early stages of formation. Volcanoes cover the earth. They spew toxic gas, but their magma bubbles burst in precision with the music. Once again this is due to Herman Schultheis. He filmed a mixture of oatmeal, coffee grounds, and mud with air pushed up through a vent, and let the animators go to town on it.
The volcanoes erupt simultaneously. Lava flows and the ensuing millennia of cooling form the continents. But deep in the sea, the first protozoan life wriggles, divides, and evolves into multi-cellular organisms. One of them crawls up on to land, and finally we’re back in the time where dinosaurs weren’t just confined to zoos.
Things Fantasia Fans Are Sick of Hearing #5: “Dinosaur inaccuracies…brain melting…”
True, most of the dinosaur and plant species here never shared the same period of existence, but try telling that to the animation studio or John Hammond. They mostly went for whatever looked cool and prehistoric regardless of scientific accuracy. Some of the designs themselves are a bit off, but the animators did their best considering how much we knew about the creatures in the 30’s and 40’s. Heck, we’ve only recently discovered that most dinosaurs were covered with feathers or fur, and I don’t see anyone harping on Jurassic Park for omitting that detail. Thank God Steven Spielberg doesn’t harbor George Lucas’ affinity for reworking his past movies with extra CGI.
Believe it or not, this scene was once considered the height of accurate dinosaur depictions on film, because nobody else had done it before with this level of research and care in animation. Without Rite Of Spring, we wouldn’t have The Land Before Time or Jurassic Park in the first place. Look at Land Before Time’s bleak, orangey atmosphere and the Sharptooth fights and tell me this didn’t influence it in any way.
The dinosaurs themselves have little character and, while fascinating to see how they might have lived, are not particularly engaging. Until…
Yes, when the king of all dinosaurs makes his entrance, bringing a thunderstorm along with him no less, all the others are wise to run and hide from him. I would hide under a quilt but still peek through the holes in awe. He snaps about throwing his weight around, but when it goes toe to toe with a stegosaurus? That’s when things get real.
This battle, by the way, is animated by Woolie Reitherman, who had a knack for bringing gargantuan characters to life. He was responsible for animating Monstro in Pinocchio, and was behind Maleficent’s dragon form in Sleeping Beauty.
Though what follows is far from triumphant. The earth has become a hot, barren wasteland. The dinosaurs trudge through deserts and tar pits, their fruitless search for water turning into a slow death march. Not even the mighty T-Rex can survive this.
Some time later, the dinosaurs are all gone. Only their bones bleaching in the sun remain. Without warning, a massive earthquake hits and the seas flood through, washing away the remains of the old prehistoric world. The sequence comes full circle as the lonely oboe plays over a solar eclipse, which sets on an earth ready to step into the next stage of life.
If Walt had his way, the segment would have continued with the evolution of man and ended on a triumphant note with the discovery of fire, but he was worried about the possible backlash from zealous creationists. And I don’t blame him for wanting to avoid a confrontation with that crowd.
Subsequently, those edits made to Stravinsky’s score pissed off the composer so much that he considered suing Disney for tampering with his work. He opted not to, yet the experience turned him off animation for good. A crying shame; Stravinsky, apart from being the only classical composer alive to see his work made part of a Fantasia feature, was excited to work with Walt. The two deeply respected and recognized each other as artists ahead of their time. Who knows what else could have come from their collaboration if things ended better?
With that knowledge, it makes sense that one of Stravinsky’s most famous pieces, the Firebird Suite, was included in Fantasia 2000: perhaps on some level Disney wanted to apologize for how the finale of Rite of Spring was mishandled by making Firebird the grand finale (though knowing Stravinsky he would have hated the little changes made to his music there as well).
Following the intermission, the orchestra reconvenes and has a fun little jam session. Deems Taylor takes a moment to introduce us to the most important – but rarely seen – figure that makes Fantasia and most music in movies possible, The Soundtrack.
Once again, Disney does what it does best and anthropomorphizes what no one thought was possible. Think about it: giving personalities to animals is one thing, but they’ve successfully done the same for plants, planes, houses, hats, and here, sound itself. It may seem silly and out of place, but I think it’s brilliant and charming. The visuals it creates to represent different instruments are perfectly matched; some of them harken back to Toccata and Fugue. This, combined with the improv from the orchestra, is a good way to ease us back into comfort after the harshness of Rite of Spring.
Pastoral Symphony – Ludwig Van Beethoven
There’s a famous story about Walt Disney while he was pitching this segment. When met with complaints that it wasn’t working, he cried out This’ll MAKE Beethoven!” In a way, he was right. This was the very first piece of Beethoven I ever heard, even before the famous “da da da DUUUUUN” of Symphony #5. And as far as I know, it was for a good many Disney fans too. We still get a romantic depiction of the countryside as was the composer’s intent, but instead of an rural utopia, we see the Fields of Elysium at the foot of Mount Olympus. It’s home to a variety of mythical creatures from the golden age of Greece: fauns, unicorns, cherubs, centaurs and Pegasi.
If there was ever a Disney world I wanted to spend a day in, this would be it. It’s so innocent, laidback and colorful; it takes me right back to my childhood. A great portion of this sequence was used in my favorite music video in the Simply Mad About the Mouse anthology album, “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” sung by Ric Ocasek from The Cars. Whether that was my favorite because it featured Pastoral Symphony or Pastoral Symphony was my favorite because it was featured in the video I don’t know. There’s nothing that could ever destroy it for –
Things Fantasia Fans Are Sick of Hearing #6: “RACIST. FUCKING. CENTAUR. EQUALS. RACIST. DISNEY… RACIST!!!”
Yes ladies and gents, that image is real. Meet Sunflower (or Otika, I’m not sure which one she is) one of the the censored centaurettes (for very obvious reasons). I’m of two minds when it comes to their inclusion. First off, yes, they’re crude and demeaning blackface caricatures that have no place in a Disney movie, let alone one of the best ones and in one of my favorite sequences. But my inner art/film historian that despises censorship feels that erasing these depictions is the same as pretending they and other prejudices of the time never existed.
As time and the civil rights movement marched on, all traces of the Sunflower squad were removed from later releases of Fantasia. The downside to that was editing techniques at the time weren’t as high-tech as they are today; I was lucky to see a film print of Fantasia at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015 that must have dated as far back as the ’60s because she wasn’t there, but the cuts were very noticeable. Sad to say the amazing remastered tracks done by Irwin Kostal in the 80’s used a similar print because the shift in the music is very jarring at points in this segment. It wasn’t until Fantasia’s 50th anniversary that they were able to zoom in and crop the scenes that had Sunflower in them while recycling other pieces of animation over parts where they couldn’t get rid of her, eventually managing to digitally erase her from some of the film entirely (look carefully at the part where the red carpet is being rolled out for Bacchus on the blu-ray. Unless he got it from the Cave of Wonders, carpets normally don’t roll themselves…)
I completely understand the reasoning behind Sunflower’s removal, but can also see why animation aficionados would try to pressure Disney into bringing her back with each new re-release for Fantasia, possibly with one of those great Leonard Maltin intros putting everything into context like in the tragically out-of-print Disney Treasures dvds – though the chances of that happening are as likely as Song of the South being made public again (the Disney+ promo should have made that clearer when they claimed Disney’s entire back catalogue would be available for streaming, but I doubt the tag line “We have everything except Song of the South” would hook people). It’s an issue I’m very torn on. So if there was ever a chance that a version of Fantasia with a restored Sunflower was possible, either through Disney themselves or fan edits, my thoughts on it would be a very resounding…
The first movement of the symphony is “Awakening of Pleasant Feelings upon Arriving in the Country”, and this part does just that. As the sun rises and we get our first glimpse of the technicolor fantasyland. Pan flute-playing fauns and unicorns frolic with each other while a herd of Pegasi take to the sky. Again, going back to other notable movies taking cues from Fantasia, Ray Harryhausen carefully studied the movement of the Pegasi here when creating his stop-motion Pegasus for Clash of the Titans. They canter through the air as they would on land, but in the water they move with the grace of a swan.
The second movement, “Scene by the Brook”, takes place exactly where you think it does. A group of female centaurs, named “centaurettes” by the animators, doll themselves up with the help of some cupids (and the aforementioned Sunflower) in preparation for mating season.
The male centaurs arrive and hook up with their conveniently color-matching counterparts. The cherubs help set the mood for their flirting interludes until they discover two shy, lonely centaurs (Brudus and Melinda, because I’m that big of a Disney nerd that I know their actual names) who haven’t found each other yet. They lure them to a grove with some flute music a la The Pied Piper and it’s love at first sight.
One of my favorite details throughout the Pastoral Symphony is that we keep coming back to Brudus and Melinda. They’re a cute couple, one of the closest things we have to main characters in this sequence, and it’s nice to follow them.
Our third movement is “Peasants’ Merrymaking”. The centaur brigade prepare an overflowing vat of wine for Bacchus, god of booze and merrymaking. Bacchus, forever tipsy, arrives backed up by some black zebra centaurettes serving him. Maybe they were considered attractive enough to avoid being censored.
The bacchanalia is in full swing with everyone dancing and getting loaded. But Zeus, who appears more sinister than Laurence Olivier or his future Disney counterpart, crashes the party with a big thunderstorm. I used to think he was a jerk for endangering his subjects just for kicks, but in light of recent revelations maybe he had ulterior motives.
“The Storm”, our fourth movement, provides some stunning imagery against the torrential backdrop, from the centaurs being called to shelter to the pegasus mother braving the gale to rescue her baby.
Ultimately Zeus grows tired and turns in for the night, ending the storm. Iris, goddess of the rainbow, emerges and leaves her technicolor trail across the sky. The creatures revel in the effects it has on their surroundings, then gather on a hill to watch the sunset, driven by Apollo and his chariot. Everyone settles in to sleep, and Artemis, hunting goddess of the moon, shoots an comet across the sky like an arrow that fills the sky with twinkling stars.
Pastoral Symphony was the one part of Fantasia that always received the most derision from critics, but racist characters aside I simply don’t get the hate for it. It may be longer than Rite of Spring but feels nowhere near as drawn out. I love the colors, characters, and the calm, bucolic fantasy world it creates. This was my first exposure to Beethoven and the world of Greek mythology and I still hold plenty of nostalgia for it. I admit it’s not perfect, and not just for the reason you think. Out of all the Fantasia pieces, this is the one whose quality is closest to an original Disney short than a theatrical feature. It’s a bit more cartoony and there’s some notable errors, particularly when the baby Pegasi dive into the water and emerge different colors. Also, Deems and the animators flip between using the gods’ Greek and Roman names, and the stickler in me wants them to pick a mythos and stick with it. But for all it’s flaws it’s still among my very favorite Fantasia pieces and nothing can change that.
The Dance of the Hours from the Opera “La Giaconda” – Amilcare Ponichelli
Like I said before, Disney was a master of the art of anthropomorphism. And nowhere is this more true than Dance of the Hours. Animals portray dancers symbolizing morning, noon, dusk and evening – only they’re the most unlikely ones for the job. The characters of our penultimate act are as cartoony as any you’d see in a Disney short from the era, but what puts the animation above it is the right balance of elasticity and realism. The exaggeration is on point, but there’s enough heft and weight to the animals that I can buy them being grounded in (some semblance of) reality. The animators studied professional dancers and incorporated their moves and elegance flawlessly. Half of the comedy derives from this.
The other half comes from how seriously the mock ballet is treated. We’re never informed who the dancers will be, leading anyone who hasn’t seen this before to assume they’re people. The ballet itself is a parody of the traditional pageant, but the performers carry on with the utmost sincerity. It doubles the laughs when it comes to moments such as Ben Ali Gator trying to catch Hyacinth Hippo in a dramatic pas de deux or an elephant getting a foot stuck in one of her own bubbles as she prances around. The familiar lighthearted refrain of the dance provides wonderful contrast to the caricatures on screen, particularly if you recall its other most famous iteration beyond Fantasia.
Morning begins with a troupe of uppity ostriches in ballet gear waking up, exercising and helping themselves to a cornucopia of fruit for breakfast. They fight over some grapes only to lose them in a pool. Something bubbles up from beneath and the ostriches run away in terror, but it’s only the prima ballerina of the piece, Hyacinth Hippo. She prepares for the day with help from her handmaidens and dances around a bit. Then she lies down for a nap, but no sooner do her ladies in waiting leave than some playful elephants come out of hiding and dance around Hyacinth unawares.
The elephants are blown away by a gust of wind (must be a really strong breeze), and with the coming of night a sinister band of crocodiles sneak up on Hyacinth. They scatter at the sudden arrival of their leader, Prince Ben Ali Gator, who immediately falls in love with Hyacinth. Surprisingly, the feeling is mutual.
The climax of the piece has the crocodiles returning to wreak havoc on the palace and pulling the ostriches, elephants, and hippos back into a frenzied dance which brings down the house.
No bones about it, Dance of the Hours is a comic masterpiece and one of Fantasia’s crowning jewels. And the moment it ended was always the signal for younger me to stop the tape and rewind it to the beginning, due to what follows making a complete and terrifying 180…
Night on Bald Mountain – Modest Mussorgsky / Ave Maria – Franz Schubert
At last we come to our final part, two radically different classical works that blend perfectly into each other. And brother, what a note to end on.
Composer Modest Mussorgsky passed away before completing his masterwork “Night on the Bare Mountain”, a tonal poem depicting a witches’ sabbath from Slavic mythology. His friend, the great Rimsky-Korsakov, finished it for him while adding his own personal touch. The result is some of the most iconic and terrifying music ever created, and the accompanying animation, with the exception of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is the most faithful to its source material.
The scene takes place on Walpurgis Night, which is the closest thing Europe has to a real-life Summerween (those lucky so-and-so’s), on the titular mountain. The mountain’s peak opens up revealing Chernabog, the Slavic deity of darkness.
Chernabog is a masterclass in design and form. It’s easy to mistake him for Satan himself – Walt Disney and Deems Taylor both refer to him as such – though considering he’s technically Slavic Satan, there’s not too big a distinction. Chernabog radiates power, terror and pure darkness from his intro alone. You can imagine him influencing all other Disney villains to do his will, essentially filling in the horned one’s hooves. Chernabog was skillfully handled by Bill Tylta, an early Disney animator with enough talent to create characters as diverse as Stromboli and Dumbo. Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula, posed for reference pictures in the early design stages, though Tylta ultimately discarded them in favor of some different inspiration – sequence director Wilfred Jackson as model, and Tytla’s own Czech heritage. He grew up with folktales of Chernabog, which served him well during the production.
Chernabog unleashes his might on to the sleeping village below and raises the dead from the cemetery. A cabal of witches, wraiths and demons gallop on the wind and take part in his infernal revelry. Yet they are but playthings to the evil being. He transforms the creatures into alluring sirens and wretched beasts, sics harpies on them, condemns them to the flames, and lustfully embraces the hellish blaze. It’s an in your face pageantry of pure malevolence that you can’t look away from
Things Fantasia Fans Are Sick of Hearing #7: “This is too scary for kids!! What the hell were they thinking?!”
I think it’s time we made one thing clear: Fantasia was NOT made for children – or to be more accurate, not EXCLUSIVELY for children. While Disney movies are made to be enjoyed by both kids and adults, Fantasia is the only one who dared to appeal to a more mature audience, and Night on Bald Mountain is proof of that. It had the audacity to explore some of the most darkest, ancient depictions of evil in a way that no Disney feature has before or since. Most importantly, it’s not done for shock value like any random horror movie you could name. It’s meant to show the juxtaposition between the darkest depravity and purest good; combined with Ave Maria it makes for the perfect symbolic climax to Fantasia. Light versus darkness, chaos versus order, life versus death, profane versus sacred, and the quest to master them all are the themes that unify the seemingly disparate sequences, and this finale is the apotheosis of that.
I stated in my Mickey’s Christmas Carol review that Bald Mountain was one of my first introductions to the concept of eternal damnation at the tender age of…I wanna say four, five? It was easily one of the most petrifying things from my childhood, but at least I could avoid some exposure to it thanks to its position at the very end. Though now I adore Night on Bald Mountain for how bold and striking it is. Tytla’s animation, Kay Nielsen’s stunning demon designs, and Schultheis’ effects culminate in harmonious diabolical artwork that’s impossible to extricate from the music. It’s a shame Schultheis left the studio after Fantasia. He met a mysterious, tragic end in Guatemala, right around the time Bill Tytla left too as a matter of fact…
Yet at the height of his power, one thing stops Chernabog cold – the sound of church bells. Disney historian John Culhane saw Fantasia during its original theatrical run (lucky so and so…) and he recalled how much having FantaSound affected his screening: when the bells rang, he could hear them coming from the back of the theater and slowly course their way up front as their power grew. It was an awe-inspiring moment that took the Bald Mountain experience one step further into reality.
The bells and the rising sun drive Chernabog and his minions back into the mountain and the restless spirits return to their graves. In the misty morning a procession of pilgrims glides through the woods like a parade of tiny lights, and thus the Ave Maria begins. It’s one of the rare times Disney has gone overtly Christian. Maybe Walt wanted to get back into the God-fearing American public’s good graces after the sorcery, paganism, devil worship and evolution theory we’ve witnessed in the past hour and fifty minutes. It does relieve the tension from the previous turn of events.
The first pitch had the march enter a cathedral, but Walt didn’t believe recreating something people can already see in Europe. So instead they move through a forest with trees and natural rock formations resembling the Gothic architecture of a cathedral. It’s the stronger choice in my opinion. The implication speaks greater volumes than a specific location, subtly connecting nature to the divine. It’s difficult to make out most of the hymn’s words, but regardless it sounds beautiful, especially those final triumphant notes as the sky lights up over a view of the verdant hilltops.
And with that, Fantasia comes to a close.
Really, what else can I say about it at this point. I keep forgetting this movie came out in 1940. It’s virtually timeless, and a must-see for anyone who loves animation and classic film and wants to jump into either one.
Fantasia was a critical and box office success…sort of. Despite the praise and high box office returns for the time, it sadly wasn’t enough to make up for the cost of putting it all together. Like Pinocchio before it, the war cut off any foreign revenue. And not every theater was willing or able to shell out for that nifty surround sound so the effects were lost on most people. Then there’s the audience response, which is the most depressing of all. The casual moviegoers still viewed Walt as the guy behind those wacky mouse cartoons and called him out for being a pretentious snob, while the highbrow intellectuals accused Walt of debasing classical music by shackling it to animation. The poor guy just couldn’t win.
Fantasia marked the end of an era. Never again would Walt attempt a feature so ambitious. His plans of making Fantasia a recurring series, with old segments regularly swapped out for new ones, would not be seen in his lifetime. There’s been the occasional copycat (Allegra non troppo), a handful of spiritual successors (Make Mine Music, Yellow Submarine), and of course the sequel which I’m sure I’ll get to eventually, but through it all, there is only one Fantasia. And no amount of my ramblings can hope to measure up to it. Fantasia is one of those movies you simply have to experience for yourself, preferably on the biggest screen available with a top of the line sound system. I know it’s a cliche for Internet critics to name this as their favorite animated Disney movie, but…yes, it’s mine too. It opened a door to a world of culture and art at a young age. The power of animation is on full display, and it’s affected the way I look at the medium forever. Fantasia was, and still is, a film ahead of its time.
Thank you for reading. I hope you can understand why this review took me nearly three months! If you enjoyed this, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters get perks such as extra votes and adding movies of their choice to the Shelf. If I can get to $100, I can go back to making weekly tv show reviews. Right now I’m halfway there! Special thanks to Amelia Jones and Gordhan Ranaj for their contributions.
You can vote for whatever movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at email@example.com. Remember, unless you’re a Patreon supporter, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
To learn more about Fantasia, I highly recommend both John Culhane’s perennial book on the film and The Lost Notebook by John Canemaker, which reveals the long-lost special effects secrets which made Fantasia look so magical.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to be spending the rest of the month with my handy dandy garlic, stake and crucifix and pray Bill Tytla doesn’t visit me this Walpurgis Night. I suggest you do the same.