by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, May 9, 2011


My continuing foray into Disney's fifty official Animated Classics. (For my Introduction/Part One, see here. For Part Two, see here.) Again, don't hesitate to share your thoughts/memories below.

Title: Fantasia (1940)

The Plot: A succession of animated segments set to classical music, conducted by Leopold Stokowski and narrated by Deems Taylor.

The Segments: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Johann Sebastian Bach), The Nutcracker Suite (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky), The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Paul Dukas), The Rite Of Spring (Igor Stravinsky), The Pastoral Symphony (Ludwig van Beethoven), Dance Of The Hours (Amilcare Ponchielli), Night On Bald Mountain (Modest Mussorgsky) / Ave Maria (Franz Schubert)

A Little History: Walt Disney had originally planned on revitalizing the popularity of his Mickey Mouse character with a new Silly Symphonies entry, scored to The Sorcerer's Apprentice by French composer Paul Dukas. In 1937, however, at dinner with renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski, Stokowski suggested that Disney expand this idea to feature-length format, using a variety of musical pieces animated to film. (The selections used in the final film were chosen by Disney, Stokowski, narrator/radio personality Deems Taylor, and various studio staff members in September 1938). While the animators set about their assigned individual sequences (studying real-life comets, animals, and even The Three Stooges' Curly Howard as inspiration for their designs), Disney also sought to create a new, immersive sonic experience to accompany the images, called "Fantasound." Nearly three dozen microphones captured the orchestra's recording sessions, which were transferred onto nine different tracks and later mixed down to four; speakers were then placed around the theater to produce directional surround sound. About $400,000 of the film's $2.28 million budget was used to develop Fantasound, though only 12 venues were able to show the film this way, due to the high cost of installing the proper equipment in theaters. As a (partial) result, Fantasia failed to catch on with audiences during its initial release. (It would later turn a profit when it was re-released during the psychedelic '60s, for reasons explained elsewhere.)

How It Broke New Ground: The first commercial motion picture released in stereo, recorded on a multi-channel soundtrack (Fantasound). The first American film to be released without credits, save for a title card that comes halfway through the movie. Also the only Disney Animated Classic to run longer than two hours in length. Animator Fred Moore had originally redesigned Mickey Mouse for Apprentice's targeted 1938 release date (giving him white eyes with black pupils for the first time), but by the time Fantasia finally had its debut in 1940, Mickey had already sported his new look in four separate animated shorts.

How It Holds Up Today: It's ambitious, you have to give it that – Disney trying again to alter the public's perception of what animated films could actually
say and do. They could be artistic. They could appeal to film snobs as well as the kiddie crowd. More than that, they could stand toe-to-toe with the live-action studio extravaganzas of the time. (That was the goal, anyway.) Despite the best of intentions, though, Fantasia is kind of a drag. It's an interesting idea in retrospect, I suppose, this marriage of classical music and (for its time) state-of-the-art animation. But too often it feels like an experiment in audio/visual abstract-ness. Also, the structure feels a little off: one minute you're drowning in transcendental imagery (swept up in, say, the Philadelphia Orchestra's dynamic performance of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, as mushrooms and thistles boogie past you on the screen), and the next you're giggling at the sight of anthropomorphized hippos and alligators, pirouetting to Ponchielli's Dance Of The Hours, while Deems Taylor's pompous interstitial narration helpfully explains it all. (You may also find yourself a little shell-shocked to find so much live-action footage mixed in with the animated stuff.) Watching Fantasia today, it's easy to see why the movie took as long as it did to find an audience, because it seemed so ahead of its time. It still feels that way: a film you appreciate more than you actually enjoy.

Grade: B-


  1. I was kind of a drag. I love classical music but I'd much rather listen to these great songs WITHOUT the distractions of the movie. The newer Fantasia isn't much better either!

  2. That's true. It's definitely more fun talking about the FANTASIA movies than it is to actually to watch them. Because there are no end credits for this one, you're also left with a "Wait, that's it?" kind of feeling, like you accidentally pressed the "Menu" button on your DVD remote or something. That's if you're still awake by then.

  3. As a child I Loved Fantasia- so fun to watch and to dance to. I watched it again and again.

  4. Thanks for the comment! I remember as a kid liking the elephant/ostrich/hippo/alligator stuff, but other than that I don't really think I understood what was going on. Do you love FANTASIA now? Or has it gotten stale for you over time?

  5. I've always hated Fantasia. I don't think I've ever made it all the way through and I don't intend to. And I like Classical music.