Saturday, March 15, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 13th November 1940

After the enormous success of Snow White, Walt Disney set a number of future projects into production. Pinocchio and Bambi would be the spiritual successors to Snow White, but there was one other piece that Walt was especially passionate about; a film unlike anything that had ever been seen before. This would be the cinematic equivalent of a night at the concert hall, only more magical. Not only would audiences be able to hear beautiful classical music performed by a symphony orchestra, they would also be watching state-of-the-art animation to accompany the music.

The concept solidified in Disney's mind as an upcoming Silly Symphony was being completed: a short cartoon using the music of Dukas's "Sorcerer's Apprentice" starring Mickey Mouse. Walt wondered what would happen if he created a collection of classical music-based cartoons and packaged them together. The result was Fantasia.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski worked closely with Disney in choosing the music and concepts for the picture. Always looking for ways to innovate and improve the experience of the cinema-goer, Disney worked tirelessly with technicians to invent "Fantasound," the first stereo cinema concept ever created. Disney figured that by pumping individual soundtracks through separate speakers, it would give a much better impression of listening to a live orchestra. While very impressive for its time, this venture was complicated and prohibitively expensive, and it also reduced the number of cinemas that could show the picture, since the sound equipment had to be specifically installed to play it. In April of 1941, R.K.O. (distributors of the film) re-released the film with a mono soundtrack, which meant it could be seen in ordinary cinemas.

The film was critically acclaimed on its release, many viewers baffled and gobsmacked at the absolute originality, unbridled creativity and overall bravery of Disney and his artists. They had gone way out on a limb to create something that nobody was expecting from the company that created Donald Duck and Goofy. Regardless of the praise though, the film was a financial failure, even more so than Pinocchio. No doubt World War II had an effect on the amount of countries the film could be released in. It was also not the usual "fun night out" for small children, especially with its 2-hour running time. Walt was allegedly heartbroken that Fantasia wasn't the overwhelming success he had planned it to be.
The original concept was that Fantasia would not simply be a single movie event; it would grow and evolve as the years went on. Perhaps there would be a new Fantasia concert every year or two, including some old classics that people would be excited to see again, and also some newly-added animated sequences. This, of course, never came into being. It took 60 years for Fantasia's sequel to come along, and there are no known plans to create a third film.

In that respect, the original Fantasia is seen as somewhat of an enigma; an odd experiment that never really took off in the direction it was intended to go. Over the decades though, it has become revered as one of the world's most stunning examples of animation as an art form. It is unlike anything else Disney created, but wow, it is fantastic!

SEGMENT ONE: Toccata and Fugue in D-minor (Bach)
 The concert opens with its host, music critic Deems Taylor, who explains the different types of music we are going to hear in Fantasia. The first is "absolute music," which exists purely for its own sake. Toccata and Fugue begins not with a lot of traditional animation, but with shapes, silhouettes and impressions of the orchestra itself. This slowly melds into abstract animation forms. This is not music designed to tell a story, but to give impressions and ideas.
IRVYNE: It's very interesting that they chose to put this one first. It's almost like a test. You'd think the logical choice would be to put Mickey Mouse at the start. That's what a lot of people would have been coming to see, especially children. By putting Toccata and Fugue first, it's like saying to the audience, "You know what...? You're getting classical music. Deal with it."

HAKU: But on the other hand, the people who had been poo-pooing the concept of animation and classical music working together might have been more interested after seeing the opening number. They might have thought, "Well this IS quite a bit like going to see an orchestra."

JESS: I don't think it's a strong enough opening. It's not catchy.

ANNA: I prefer the Vanessa Mae version of this piece. I did like some of the animation though. The criss-crossing violin bows through the clouds looked nice.

HAKU: And it all got quite cathedral-like at the end, didn't it?

WENDY: It was really dramatic.

SHENZI: I love how the music connects to the colours.

PASCAL: See, that just confused me. I was looking at the colours as cold and hot. They had the blues and the greens, and then there were the reds and oranges. And I was thinking that the music wasn't making me feel those things. It wasn't going the way I was expecting.

HAKU: To me, the music is more about shape than colour.

WENDY: I agree with that. Though I did feel like I was being dictated to a bit, like "this is how you should be seeing this music." Classical music is more about feel for me, than what I see, but anyway.

IRVYNE: I think your enjoyment of Toccata and Fugue is decided first of all by how much you enjoy the music, but also how much you appreciate the animated freedom on display. It must have been pretty exciting for the animators to be told, "Make art." That's all. "You're not going to be drawing funny little characters. Make a painting that moves." That's pretty much what we've got with this piece.
SEGMENT 2: The Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky)
 Deems Taylor informs us that Tchaikovsky actually "detested" The Nutcracker, even though it became arguably his most famous work. It might have been easy for Disney to animate the ballet's story, but instead the animators used the isolated music as inspiration for the imaginations to go wild. Consequently, we have fairies, fish, dancing mushrooms and thistles. It has a lot more character than Toccata and Fugue, but not much plot.
IRVYNE: The Nutcracker is one of my favourite parts of Fantasia. It is just beautiful. Each section is different, but they all have something that is uniquely interesting. I also LOVE the music.

PASCAL: The music was good the whole way through.

ANNA: It just makes me want to put on a tutu!

WENDY: Yes, it's very ballet. I like that it doesn't use the Nutcracker story though. There's no Christmas trees here!

HAKU: I think I prefer the Toccata and Fugue piece to this. Wendy mentioned before that she didn't like being told what to feel. That's even more obvious with The Nutcracker.

IRVYNE: It's not the story or the visuals that the music was written for though, by any stretch of the imagination.

PASCAL: The mushrooms are so cute!

SHENZI: The underwater scene looks really nice. There's some great water effects.

HAKU: When the fish swim away and you get that ripple effect. That's really clever.

PASCAL: That fish looks a lot like Cleo from Pinocchio. It's a very sultry and seductive piece of music!

IRVYNE: The original name of that music is The Arabian Dance. In the story, there are all these international visitors who dance for the queen, so there's the Arabian Dance, the Russian Dance, the Chinese Dance, etc. etc.

PASCAL: Ahhhh, that makes sense now!

ANNA: I loved the ice-skating fairies during Waltz of the Flowers.

PASCAL: They were beautiful!

IRVYNE: The animation on those snowflakes was magnificent. Again, it's very much like the next evolution of the Silly Symphonies: using effects and colours to create mood and emphasize the music, without telling a definite story.

WENDY: I'm sure we all saw the link to Frozen.

IRVYNE: I'm not sure it would really fit if Queen Elsa suddenly burst through the ice and started singing "Let It Go..." Anyway, I love The Nutcracker. The effects animation is astoundingly good, and the music is excellent.

SEGMENT 3: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Dukas)
 The most famous cartoon in Fantasia, and the only one to make an encore performance in Fantasia 2000, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is an absolute masterpiece of animation. Originally designed as a standalone Silly Symphony, this cartoon became the foundation stone for the entire Fantasia project.

Mickey Mouse himself went through a complete redesign for this movie, thanks to animator Fred Moore. He now had caucasion-coloured skin, the shapes of his body had been more defined, but most noticeably his eyes now had whites and pupils. This design is still being used for the character to this day.

This piece of music tells a definite story, and the cartoon follows this. An old sorcerer (who in this version is named "Yen Sid" - Disney backwards) leaves his magic hat on the table as he goes to bed. His apprentice, who is looking for a way to get out of his chores, steals the magic hat and brings an old broom to life so that he can have some sleep as well. Things go very wrong though, and the apprentice is not only concerned about getting into trouble, but staying alive as well!

WENDY: The Sorcerer's Apprentice is definitely the most memorable out of all the Fantasia films.

SHENZI: Absolutely. When I think of Fantasia, this is what I think of.
IRVYNE: You know, I've watched this cartoon SO many times. But I don't get tired of it. It's almost perfect. The animation is just out-of-this-world. The WATER!

SHENZI: It's just incredible, isn't it?
IRVYNE: I thought the water in Pinocchio was good... but the water effects in this are outrageously good. I don't think it's ever been bettered. And to think that it was all animated by hand! It blows my mind.

SHENZI: You've got the whirlpool, you've got the splashing out of the buckets... So good.
IRVYNE: The other thing that's just phenomenal in this, is the use of shadows. If you take the effort to notice the shadows in this cartoon, you'll notice how well done they are. Not just like, here's your character and the shadow is on the wall behind him, but the shadows go around columns and corners, and they have a three-dimensional shape to them. It's amazing.

WENDY: I think Mickey's facelift definitely worked for him.

PASCAL: Thank goodness he's got normal eyes now, and he doesn't look possessed anymore.

IRVYNE: Again, it's interesting that... I mean, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is undoubtedly (and literally) the poster-child for Fantasia. But they didn't put it first, they put it third. I wonder if anybody left the cinema before they actually got to Mickey.
This film is just brilliant, I can't fault it. No wait, I can... And I will! There's one odd jump-cut and it annoys me every time. There is a shot where you see the water level reaching the bottom of a window. Mickey's hands appear from underwater to toss a bucket full out the window. The next shot shows the same window, but now it's completely underwater. It just sticks out as really bad editing, like there's a shot in the middle missing somewhere.

HAKU: I found the bit where it turned black-and-white a bit odd.

WENDY: It's symbolic. Mickey's in a bad place at that moment.

IRVYNE: It is a strange choice. But I think they just wanted to give the impression of "it's dead." "It's all over." So they went to black-and-white. Then as the danger begins to return, the colour starts to seep back in.

ANNA: It's like they're being jolted back to life with electricity.

WENDY: It is weird. It seems out of place. And I've got to say, it's strange to see Mickey so angry and violent. He's usually such a cheery character. Again, I would never hire him. He never does his job.

IRVYNE: The animators went above-and-beyond for The Sorcerer's Apprentice. There's so much in this that they didn't NEED to do, but it's a stunning example of masters of the craft at the very top of their game.

SEGMENT 4: The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky)
In this, the longest sequence in Fantasia, we have a piece of music originally written to indicate primitive human life. The animators take this even further back, to the genesis of life on Earth, leading up to the existence and eventual extinction of the dinosaurs.

It's interesting to note that paleontology was still a (relatively) new concept in 1940, and although scientists had uncovered a lot of information about the giant lizards who once roamed the planet, we have learned so much more about these creatures since Fantasia's time, so there are glaring inaccuracies to be seen. One major example is the Tyrannosaurus Rex having three fingers. We now know that it definitely had two.

SHENZI: Too long! Way too long! The introduction goes forever!

HAKU: I feel that the opening sequence with the planets doesn't really seem to fit the music.

ANNA: The water animation was nowhere near as good as The Sorcerer's Apprentice!

PASCAL: The animation on the dinosaurs was really good though.

IRVYNE: Okay, casting our minds back to 1940, and imagining that we're seeing this for the first time... Remember that dinosaurs were a relatively recent discovery. They'd only been properly studied since, what? The late 1800s? There was so much still unknown about them. So for a lot of people, that would have been the very first time they had really seen dinosaurs "alive," as it were. Moving, interacting. That would have been very, very exciting to see. But I agree, it took a very long time to get there.

PASCAL: There was a part where the dinosaurs were calling to each other and the music sounded like their call. That was clever.

IRVYNE: A similar thing happens when the T-Rex gives his big "Get away!" bellow after he kills the stego. I think everyone loves the dinosaurs in this film, but yeah, the issue with The Rite of Spring, being that it's right in the middle of Fantasia, is that it's slow and it's long. I'm sure they could have made that half the length and it would be all the better for it. Perhaps JUST focus on the dinosaurs and make a different film for the creation of the Earth, I don't know.

SHENZI: I found most of the music boring!

WENDY: We were okay with the jump cuts in this one. A billion years. Snap. Done.

MALEFICENT: Well I think you're talking nonsense. I love The Rite of Spring. The animation of the dinosaurs and the use of colour and effects is stunning.

IRVYNE: The effects are very good, and they came up with some really clever ways to achieve them. For example, the smoke rising up out of the volcanoes was actually paint being poured into a tank of water. They filmed it upside down, recoloured it, and voila! Volcano smoke. The animation is great, it's just pacing issues that bog this one down for me. It's probably my least favourite part of Fantasia.

Since Fantasia is supposed to be a genuine concert experience (and also due to its long running time) Disney saw fit to include an interval after The Rite of Spring. Upon their return, the audience would be introduced to the Sound Track, a clever little animation device that shows how a simple line can be given personality, and more importantly, how it could respond to music.

MALEFICENT: I love the Sound Track! It's nothing more than a simple line, but it is shown to be a character. I love the way the colours and shapes change depending on which instrument is played.

In the first major sequence after interval, we see Disney's first foray into Greek mythology, which is perfect subject matter for animation. Using Beethoven's playful and dramatic music as a backdrop, the vague story opens with a menagerie of mythical creatures: centaurs, pegasus, cherubs, fauns, etc. etc., all having a lovely day in the countryside. The tone moves on a bit when the female centaurs try to impress the boys as they come to choose a mate. After they have paired up we are introduced to Bacchus, the god of wine, riding on his trusty steed, a unicorn donkey. He gets the party started with wine flowing freely. All is going well until Zeus wakes up from his bed in the clouds and decides to wreak some havoc on the little people below by tossing thunderbolts at them.

This short movie was hit with a lot of controversy for a couple of scenes which have now been removed from all releases of Fantasia. These brief shots showed racist caricatures of African centaurs which many found extremely offensive, especially since one of the centaurs (whose name is apparently "Sunflower") was acting as a slave (or at the very least, a servant) to one of the other very beautiful (and white) centaurs.

You will never find this shot in a version of Fantasia that you can own. The last time it was officially screened in public was in 1963. It's hard to believe now that these racist images could have come out of such a family-friendly company like Disney, but back in the 1940s stereotypes like these were relatively common.

IRVYNE: Although it's probably a bit too long - though not as drawn out as The Rite of Spring - Pastoral is a very enjoyable piece. It's got a beautiful, very bright and saturated colour palate, giving it an "otherworldly fantasy" feel.

SHENZI: The little horses are so cute! I want one!

WENDY: The boy centaurs didn't look very masculine. They were a bit girly for me. The donkey unicorn was also a bit strange.

IRVYNE: He might be a reject from Pleasure Island.

WENDY: I'd be interested to see how similar the design on Zeus is, between this and Hercules.

IRVYNE: It's not an exact copy, but there are definitely similarities.

HAKU: Well I thought this was a huge improvement on The Rite of Spring.

ANNA: It was still boring.

HAKU: I didn't think so. I liked it. Though I think they could have done more with the Greek theme. I would have liked to have seen more ancient Greek style architecture.

PASCAL: It was cute at the start, with the pegasus babies, but then it dragged on.

IRVYNE: As far as pacing goes, what you have to understand is that the animators can only follow the music.

MALEFICENT: I love the colour they used in this film. The way it shows the different moods is wonderful.
Dance of the Hours is a madcap ballet featuring four species of animal most definitely not suited to ballet. The music's four movements depict the four times of the day: morning, afternoon, evening and night-time. In the morning, the ballerinas are ostriches. In the middle of the day the ostriches are frightened away by hippopotamus ballerinas. When sunset emerges the hippos leave and a group of elephants enter the stage. Lastly, in the middle of the night a band of sinister-looking crocodiles complete the day by attempting to capture all of the ballerinas.
IRVYNE: Apart from The Sorcerer's Apprentice, this is probably my favourite part of Fantasia. It's so insane, I love it! Such bizarre and hilarious concepts!
WENDY: It's delightfully absurd.
SHENZI: I love the hippo ballerina's modesty, making sure that her tutu is covering her properly!
IRVYNE: What a challenge it must have been, to take all of those ballet moves and somehow have them performed by hippos and ostriches!
MALEFICENT: I think their dancing is beautiful!
HAKU: The weight transfer is really good on all the animals, isn't it? I've got to say though, it once again proves that classical music is set to a timing and pace that doesn't necessarily fit with animation. That could have been a couple of minutes shorter.
WENDY: Really? I like the length.

IRVYNE: So do I. I think it works because it's divided up into the four very definite movements. If you took one of them out, it wouldn't work. Anyway, it's very very funny and some of the best character animation to come out of the company in this era.
 For the final piece of Fantasia, we have a combination of two very different pieces. First is Night on Bald Mountain, where the demon Chernobog summons dark creatures from the grave to join him on his cursed mountain. Only when the dawn comes does he shy away from the sunlight. Then, through the dawn, a line of hooded figures carrying torches walk through a forest towards the sunrise.
HAKU: I think this was very meaningful for the time it was released. It reminded me of the war that was going on. You've got the evil power taking control, but then once it's gone, you're left with what could be wandering souls marching towards a new dawn.
IRVYNE: Wow... I'd never even thought of that! That's deep. It's a really interesting piece, because it's got such strong, vivid imagery, but there's still a lot that's left up to interpretation. We never really see WHO these people are, or what they're walking TOWARDS. Isn't that the sign of great art though, that different people can see different things? Okay, well let's talk about the Night on Bald Mountain part first. Creeeeepy!
PASCAL: It was a clever effect, how the spirits would rise out of the grave and go through the hangman's noose.
IRVYNE: All the effects on those spirits were really original. Did you see how the buildings in the town would stretch and lean? The methods they must have used to come up with them... Mind-blowing. And the animation on Chernobog himself! That is a master-force of animation right there. And he was animated by one guy: Bill Tytla. He was the same guy who animated Stromboli, Yen Sid and the upcoming Dumbo. Amazing stuff. Then we get to Ave Maria.
HAKU: I really liked this. REALLY liked it. There was a peacefulness to it that matched the music just right.
IRVYNE: Hmmm... Ave Maria always felt a bit "meh" to me. Artistically and musically, it's beautiful, no doubt about it. But at the very end of a 2-hour programme, it's very slow and plodding. Deliberately so, definitely. It's a contrast to the frantic chaos that precedes it. But I've always felt it's a very "soft" finale.
WENDY: It's a well-known piece of music, so it's nice to end with a bit of familiarity.
This is a pretty difficult movie to rate against the more traditional "story-based" ones. I mean, many of the sequences here don't even HAVE characters. But the character animation in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Dance of the Hours and Night on Bald Mountain is very very good. As good as anything the studio had done up to this point.
I don't think you'd get many arguments here. Fantasia is an absolute masterpiece of animation. Every frame is a work of art, from the abstract to the cartoony characters. One of Disney's greatest achievements, and the lengths to which they went to get the special effects is outrageous. It was all worth it.

Again, it's hard to rank this amongst the other Disney films - none of the music here was written for Fantasia - but the collaboration between Disney and Stakowski certainly paid off. Their choice of music was inspired, and the adaptations to fit the screen were excellent.
Since Fantasia was so ahead of its time, parts of it have aged remarkably well. Over my years as a teacher I have shown The Sorcerer's Apprentice to many children, and they all adore it as much as any movie they might see at the cinemas today. Some aspects are not so user-friendly to 21st century audiences, mainly in relation to the film's length and pacing.
IRVYNE: So, what did we think of Fantasia?
ANNA: Worst. Disney. Movie. Ever.
WENDY: No! Not at all!
IRVYNE: Surely that award goes to Chicken Little! Fantasia is magnificent! I love it!
WENDY: I'll admit, It's aged a bit. And it's probably too long.
HAKU: That's why I think the Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria sequence works so well. It's of the era that it was made in.
MALEFICENT: I think Fantasia is brilliant. It appeals to artists and anyone with an appreciation of classical music. Using Mickey as a lead character was a clever way to attract children to what was potentially a very dry film, but then they would have been amazed by dinosaurs, fairies, dancing flora and fauna, ghosts and ghouls, cherubs and satyrs!
IRVYNE: It's kind of difficult to package Fantasia all together in your head, because the sequences are all so varied. For me, Dance of the Hours and The Sorcerer's Apprentice are just magnificent pieces of animation. Cream of the crop. Other parts are perhaps not so accessible, like Toccata and Fugue and The Rite of Spring. If you're not into classical music or you have a short attention span, these would test your patience. Instead of thinking of Fantasia as an animated film, it's better to think of it as a concert, which is what it was designed to be. So if you're ever thinking the visuals are boring, you should close your eyes and let the music speak to you, just as it would in a real concert hall.

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