#30) Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia-poster-1940

#30) Fantasia (1940)

OR “Highbrowski by Stokowski (an actual proposed title for the film!)”

Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (as well as many many sequence directors)

Written by Joe Grant & Dick Huemer (and, again, many many sequence writers)

Class of 1990

A trailer that makes way too many promises.

NOTE: The version I watched was a restoration of the original film with two noticeable differences; one character was deleted from “The Pastoral Symphony” (see Other Notes section), and, because of audio issues involving restored footage, Deems Taylor is re-dubbed by Disney voiceover go-to Corey Burton. It’s not that distracting once you’re into the film, but anyone looking for Mr. Taylor’s actual voice will have to hunt down an earlier print.

The Plot: A complete departure from his previous two features, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” is a concert of classical music brought to life by animation. Performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, and introduced by music critic Deems Taylor, the program features eight pieces of music; Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite”, Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” (The Pastoral Symphony), Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria”.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “Disney studios’ most ambitious animated feature”, though declares some of the pieces “kitschy” and deems their take on Beethoven “an irreverent treatment”.

But Does It Really?: Oh yes. I can only imagine what audiences made of this back in 1940. “Fantasia” is way ahead of its time. Animation had just evolved to feature-length; the jump from “Snow White” to “Fantasia” must have felt like crawling out of the water and immediately walking upright. For its unique and revolutionary approach to what the animated medium could be, “Fantasia” earns a place on the Registry.

Everybody Gets One: Leopold Stokowski was a rarity; a conductor who crossed over into the mainstream. He left the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941 but kept conducting until the age of 93. At the time of “Fantasia”, Deems Taylor was known for his work as a music critic, and for providing commentary during the New York Philharmonic’s radio broadcasts. And that’s Walt Disney himself providing the voice of Mickey Mouse immediately following “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Deems Taylor mentions that “The Nutcracker Suite” is not very well-known and is rarely performed today (“Nutcracker” would not become a holiday tradition until the 1960’s). During “Rite of Spring”, the extinction of dinosaurs is referred to as a “gigantic dust bowl”. Also, the xylophone as a jazz instrument.

Seriously, Oscars?: While not nominated in a single competitive category, “Fantasia” did receive two honorary Oscars at the 1941 ceremony; one for Walt Disney, William E. Garity and J.N.A. Hawkins for their creation of “Fantasound” (a precursor to Surround Sound), and another for Leopold Stokowski for his work on the film.

Other notes

  • Stokowski conducts that same way I dry my hands in a bathroom when there’s no paper towels left.
  • There’s a shot in “Toccata and Fugue” that looks like someone’s tooth is walking away.
  • Pretty gutsy to do selections from “The Nutcracker Suite” but not the main march theme.
  • The ending of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” always gives me chills.
  • I can only imagine what theaters in Alabama would make of “The Rite of Spring” if Disney tried to release it today.
  • Just a reminder that every effect you see in this film is drawn by hand. No computers, just sheer manpower.
  • “Rite of Spring” was animated before the “giant meteor” theory of dinosaur extinction, which would not be first theorized until 1953, and not become commonly accepted until the 1990s.
  • My brother and I always got a kick out of the “soundtrack” as kids, especially when it replicates a bassoon sound.
  • And now we arrive at Sunflower. Sunflower is the incredibly racially insensitive black centaurette that primps all the other centaurettes for their dates. She is digitally removed from all commercial copies of the film, but her original footage is still out there.
  • My six degrees of separation from this film is that I am friends with the grandson of the woman who was one of the physical inspirations for the centaurettes – specifically this one. She was dating Disney animator X. Atencio at the time. Oh you crazy kids.
  • While the pieces in “Fantasia” have no unifying theme, a lot of the animation tells stories of light overcoming darkness, especially in the second half. I guess it’s Disney’s subconscious continuation of the good vs. evil story they’ve always been best at.
  • “Dance of the Hours” is Disney animation returning to its Silly Symphony roots, utilizing everything they learned from “Snow White” and “Pinocchio”. It is, for me, a highlight.
  • This film ends with Satan worshipping! No way it would get made today!
  • I always felt sorry for the people who live in the town at the base of Bald Mountain. That can’t be fun.

Legacy

  • A continuation 60 years later, “Fantasia 2000” is not without its charm, but I always thought it tried just a little too hard.
  • Sorcerer Mickey appears throughout Disney culture, most notably in Fantasmic!
  • There is a very, very loose adaptation of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” starring Nicolas Cage.
  • Countless parodies over the years, most notably Merry Melodies’ “A Corny Concerto” and Art Clokey’s “Gumbasia”
  • My favorite bit of tie-in for the 1990 rerelease; a “Fantasia” video game for SEGA.
  • And finally, “Dance of the Hours” got some long overdue lyrics in 1963 by Allan Sherman.

Listen to This: Igor Stravinsky was the only one of the film’s composers still living when “Fantasia” was released, and he did not like what Disney had done to his composition. The same year “Fantasia” came to theaters, the New York Philharmonic recorded their own version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. They not only presented the piece uncut (Disney’s version is about 8 minutes shorter), but they let the composer himself conduct it!

8 thoughts on “#30) Fantasia (1940)”

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