This week’s Disney movie watch is none other than Fantasia, a bold experiment that started initially as a way to promote a certain famous mouse.
Studio/year released: Walt Disney Animation, 1940
Ah, Fantasia. The third film from Walt Disney was both an ambitious undertaking and unfortunately, a financial flop- but to this day endures as one of the most iconic and noteworthy pieces of animation ever created. As the war in Europe was in full swing at this point (the German blitzkrieg overrunning France at this point in time), this was the primary cause of the financial woes for the film and the studio at the time, given the inability to screen the production overseas.
As for the movie itself, it was a groundbreaking achievement in the field of animation. Crafted as a meeting of classical music and the animated form, Fantasia was crafted to “picture the music…not the music fitting the picture,” according to Disney himself. Originally conceived as a way to get Mickey Mouse back in the spotlight (yes, at one point the mouse had flagging popularity and needed a popularity boost), the now-iconic sequence with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice evolved from an elaborate Silly Symphony into the centerpiece of an entire feature film. For the first time here, Mickey was redesigned with pupils in his eyes- to give him more expression- and this was clearly the most classic animated short in what amounted to the first feature-length animated anthology film.
The visualization of music that Walt Disney foresaw was some groundbreaking work, forged as a collaboration between Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, and the studio, was not only borne of a mutual desire, but the ballooning costs of the already ambitious Mickey Mouse-standalone piece. In turn, the idea for what would initially be called the “Concert Feature” came into being as a feature length film, with each animated segment being see to famous classical pieces, complete with a master of ceremonies in Deems Taylor, a famous music critic at the time.
From this writer’s perspective, Fantasia continues to hold its luster nearly 80 years later, as innovative and creative now as it was then. Water animation- a technique unveiled earlier in the year by Pinocchio, was on full display in a number of the shorts through this film, and extensive research was done for each segment, from the dances in Nutcracker Suite to the animal designs in Dance of the Hours. Each segment could probably be a whole essay in itself, but each embodies the idea Disney saw fit for the film- and is truly a unique sort of animated film even now.
Animation: Classical 2-D animation, with highly innovative techniques for the period. There was a real push to bring the music to life in animated form, and Fantasia succeeded at that; there was a mix of classical and abstract ideas together on the screen and the animation laid all out clearly; it worked in lockstep to drive each story with the music. This film is still a masterpiece in that regard. 5/5 points.
Characters: In contrast to the majority of films (not just animation), this category is difficult to evaluate for Fantasia largely because of how the movie is structured and the content of each segment. It’s more of classical music set against these sweeping set-piece ideas, and aside from Mickey Mouse himself in the one segment, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to evaluate characters in the traditional sense.
However, the ideas performed on screen, and the innovative marriage of a live orchestra doing this program set to all these worlds and ideas was truly something else from Walt Disney. In lieu of a traditional character evaluation, I must give credit to the sheer creative ambition that was executed on screen in bringing these ideas to life with cutting-edge animation of the day and the musical collaboration. 5/5 points.
Story: This is actually an anthology film- the first of its kind in animation. Each individual segment focuses on a different famous classical song (or two) and sets its action in a way that personifies the music. It’s much more of a thinking man’s kind of movie in that it’s not actually about something insofar as it is about creative ways in which music tells its story. Think about this example: people always are thinking about what music means, or what images it stirs up in their head, or what the message might be. This is a visual representation as done by Disney and that is creative to this day. Now that said, some segments are definitely stronger than others- though of the non- Sorcerer’s Apprentice ones A Night on Bald Mountain may be the most famous. 4.5/5 points.
Themes: This thematic evalution is what you make of it, and what you get out of the music, I suppose. There isn’t a lot of themes, per se to dig into aside from whatever the action on screen portrays, and while entertaining, I’m not sure there’s a lot to pull from dancing hippos or happy cupids. 2.5/5 points.
Don’t Insult the Viewer: Creative, masterfully animated and meticulously crafted, there’s no doubt of the care that went into this film. It’s got some minor pacing issues for the modern viewer probably, but overall it’s meant to be essentially a full concert program set to animation. 4.75/5 points.
Overall: 21.75/25 (87%): A visually stunning masterwork for its time, this film is quite unlike any other Disney production before or after, and perhaps embodied the spirit of Disney’s innovative nature better than any other film in the canon. While difficult to evaluate in its entirety, it is an essential piece of animation history and a key part of the Disney story.
Like what you see? Are you a Fantasia fan? Leave a comment!