Production- (If you want to read about the segments skip down to Segments)
In modern movies typically we see a hit followed by a million imitators. Not the case with Disney. Even in later, more commercial years they followed Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with the different feels of Aladdin and Lion King. However, this was never more true than in the early years. A mammoth hit of Snow White was followed by 4 films that couldn’t be more different- Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi.
Fantasia was the 3rd animated feature film by Walt Disney Studios and it is a bold undertaking to be sure. Originally Walt was worried the character of Mickey was going to be forgotten by the public and even the studio. As his master creation Walt didn’t want this to happen and had developed an idea for the Sorcerers Apprentice. Music had been written and the concept had been drawn.
Unfortunately Disney was left with only a short, so he got the idea to create a series of shorts that would build off of his Silly Symphonies series- pairing animation with classical music.
In the end Fantasia was 8 sections including intermission and 8 pieces of music (the intermission has notes but the last segment has 2 numbers Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria)
The music was recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra which was led by famous conductor Leopold Stokowski. Evidently he and Disney had met in a restaurant and Walt mentioned his idea of the Sorcerers Apprentice. Leopold told Walt Disney he ‘liked the music’ and would be willing to conduct the piece at no cost.
Then Disney later ran into Stokowski on a train and they shared ideas for the short. Disney told him later he was ‘all steamed up over the idea of Stokowski working with us’ and that it would ‘lead to a new style of motion picture presentation’.
So work on the Sorcerers Apprentice began in 1937 but by January 1938 the cost had climbed to 125,000 so Disney realized a short could never make that back. A feature film of a series of shorts was discussed. Roy Disney wanted to keep the budget low because of the ‘experimental and unprecedented nature’ of the production.
However, Walt Disney became energized and “saw this trouble in the form of an opportunity. This was the birth of a new concept, a group of separate numbers- regardless of their running time- put together in a single presentation”
It’s clear Walt liked the idea of the combined short subject feature film because after Bambi there are 6 such features (a portion of this project I must admit I am not looking forward to but it should be fun)
Each of the shorts in Fantasia involved different techniques. In Toccata we see an homage to abstract art. In the Nutcracker Suite professional ballet dancers were brought in, filmed and then sketched. In the Pastoral Symphony we see almost a watercolor effect.
The music was recorded in 1939 and took 42 days, 33 microphones, and 483,000 feet of film.
Fantasia was also released in Fantasound which was developed by the engineers at Disney and RCA which had 2 projectors rolling- 1 with the sound, another with the film.
Fantasia has one of the most interesting stories at the box office of any Disney film. Initially Fantasia struggled at the box office because it was rolled out slowly with Fantasound having to be implemented in theaters and the beginning of WWII in 1941
Eventually it was released to the general public with 20 minutes removed and then 45 minutes taken off. It was then released again in theaters 9 more times, finally making money in 1969 release. In that release 4 scenes from the Pastoral Symphony showing black pegasus waiting on a white one were deemed racially insensitive and removed.
In 1982 a new soundtrack was recorded and in 1990 the live action scenes and original uncut film was released. I saw Fantasia in 1990 and it grossed $25 million.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
It’s neat but probably not my favorite as there is no story at all.
Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky
This is my personal favorite probably because it is the music I am the most familiar with. This shows us all the seasons through the eyes of fairies waking the forest up.
The Sorcerers Apprentice
This is probably the section that is enjoyed by children the most as we see lazy Mickey take the wizards hat so the brooms will get the water from the well. All bedlam breaks out until the Wizard returns.
The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
In this piece we see the galaxy, creation of the world, the planets first creatures, and the life and death of the dinosaurs.
Yes there is an intermission in a Disney film but you kind of need it to absorb all of the beautiful images and music. We do get one brief segment called Meet the Soundtrack where different notes make visual vibrations.
Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven-
I would never have thought to put Greek mythology with Beethoven but Disney does and it is beautiful. We start with introductions to the centaurs, cupids, fauns, pegasus and other figures.
They are falling in love and having a festival for Bacchus, the God of Wine. However, Zeuss decides to rain on the parade and sends a storm and throws lightning at them.
I really enjoyed watching the Pastoral Symphony. My favorite image was the depiction of night as a woman with a giant cloak covering the sky. Beautiful.
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli
Next to Sorcerer’s Apprentice this is probably the most famous segment. It is a ballet with characters representing all parts of the day. Ostriches are morning, Hippos are afternoon, Elephants are evening and Alligators are night.
This is the routine that will probably entertain small children the most with the comical hippos and strange looking ostriches dancing.
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
The last segment continues Disney’s early trend of embracing darker themes and messages with bald mountain being the home of Satan. We get the Devil and all his bloody minions.
But then we see a light and it gets wider until we see a tree, a forest and a band of people holding lights. It’s a beautiful contrast.
It should be clear from all the work I put into this post I think Fantasia is pretty spectacular. And yet, I remember seeing it in 1990 and as a 9 year old I was kind of bored. So, is it an animated movie for adults only?
Maybe but I think there is a strategy which could make this work for kids and adults who perhaps don’t love classical music and art as much as lovers of this film do. I’ve noticed with children enjoyment of any activity comes down to timing. Fantasia is not the movie to play when the kids are driving you nuts and you need 2 hours of free time. It is not the film that will entertain kids.
It is a film that can educate kids (and adults) and should be treated like other educational experiences. Find a time when you can sit down and explain what is going to happen the way you might before going to an art museum or a play. Children under 5 are probably not going to enjoy it even then but older kids should be able to understand the difference between art and entertainment.
The film is split into segments so dividing it up may also be a good way to go. There is no reason why all 2 hours must be seen at once. You could learn about each composer and then watch their segment and I bet everyone would enjoy that.
I look at Fantasia kind of the way I saw Tree of Life. They are both art pieces more than movies. In a world of cookie cutter films how great to see something that transcends entertainment. Something that makes you want to be creative- and Fantasia will inspire you in both your ears and eyes.
I admire Walt Disney so much for making such bold films. Fantasia was such a risk and you rarely see such risks. It can be a little slow at times but I still think it is a masterpiece. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and feel inspired after watching it today. I bet you will too.
Overall Grade A+