Walt Disney wasn’t the first person to incorporate sound and animation, but he was the first to build animation around sound. Whereas earlier shorts would tack on the soundtrack as an afterthought, Steamboat Willie was animated with the rhythms of the musical score in mind. This introduced a certain balletic quality to American animation which is often overlooked, and which allowed for Fantasia to be an artistic success (in contrast, Japanese animation always dubs in the sound after the animation is completed, which, far more than the big sparkly eyes, is why anime feels viscerally different from its western counterpart).
Fantasia, Walt Disney’s third feature film is the closest approximation to ballet in cinema – moreso than actual dance movies. And not just because it employs a fair amount of ballet music. In ballet, the emotional thrust is carried more by the choreography and the physical accomplishment of the dancers than by plot and characterization as such. Character is formed by motion, which itself is shaped by the music. Similarly, the vignettes that compromise Fantasia are light on story, instead allowing the weight to fall on the animation itself, as it keeps in time with the music.
The film began life as a short: Disney wanted to rehabilitate Mickey Mouse, who was beginning to get overshadowed by other Disney characters. This led to the idea of a collaboration with conductor Leopold Stockowski in setting Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to animation, putting Mickey in the titular role. This, (in addition to giving us Mickey’s ‘modern’ redesign) wound up costing enough money that the short could only turn a profit if it were incorporated into a feature film. And so Disney got the idea of making an entire movie consisting of shorts set to classical music. The result ultimately turned out to be an even bigger money sink, and, when it flopped, threatened the company with bankruptcy.
And it’s not difficult to see why it flopped. On the one hand, it’s easy for your average moviegoer to be put off by the apparent highbrow association with classical music, and, on the other, for classical musicians and intellectuals to sneer at the project as demeaning to the music it used.
But while Fantasia could have been joyless and pedantic, it is instead as lively and fun as anything the studio put out in its prime, again because it was only seizing on the balletic elements that people already enjoyed in Disney; which is perhaps why the movie plays so well for kids who aren’t old enough to know that classical music is uncool.
And, although some inevitable editing was done to the music used, for the most part the film shows a remarkable amount of respect for the integrity of the music and its ability to carry things for its duration (and also, implicitly, a faith in the interest of the audience itself).
Anyway, Fantasia is framed as a sort of night at the symphony, with music critic Deems Taylor acting as MC. Taylor begins by explaining what Fantasia is supposed to be before sliding into his role of introducing the individual segments. Now, an experimental movie that feels the need to explain itself would in most situations come across as condescending or lacking a degree of faith in itself, but here it actually works. The atmosphere is a wide-eyed one of, “gee whiz, isn’t this wonderful?” And the framing device is also used for some nice flourishes: a meeting between Mickey Mouse and conductor Leopold Stockowski, a musical gag at the announcement of The Rite of Spring, and a surreal little bit where Taylor has a conversation with the film soundtrack (it makes more sense when you see it).
1. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
Things start off on a bold note with the most abstract piece. The animation makes no attempt to tell any sort of narrative whatsoever, instead engaging in an extended exercise in synesthesia, pairing the music with all sorts of colours and shapes and movements. Not every image “works,” but this is an instance where just seeing the concept getting executed is interesting in its own right.
2. Nutcracker Suite, by Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky
While the Nutcracker comes prepackaged with a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Fantasia wisely jettisons this, instead making little character pieces about dancing plants, faeries and the like. I don’t have much to say about it other than that it is inexpressibly lovely.
3. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Paul Dukas
This one comes with a story by Goethe, which Fantasia wisely keeps: the titular apprentice is forced by his master to carry water. When the master (not named in the film, but dubbed Yen Sid by the animators; guess what it means) slips off for a nap, the apprentice gets the idea of stealing his magic hat and casting a spell to animate a broom and get it to carry out the menial task. Except that it turns out the apprentice doesn’t know the spell to get the broom to stop. Cue the expected hijinks. The whole thing is, in addition to being entertaining, a breathtaking exercise in dramatic lighting and water effects.
4. The Rite of Spring, by Igor Stravinsky
Stravinsky was the only living composer whose music was used, and, although he was initially enthusiastic about the idea, his piece got the most carved up by Stockowski, which he was less pleased by. Aside from that, the infamous, arch modernist Rite is certainly the ballsiest musical choice Fantasia makes. And the animation’s theme of the rise and fall of the dinosaurs is frankly more cool than the ballet’s own primitive tribal dancing theme.
But I do somewhat agree with Stravinsky on this: the alterations wind up making the Rite more meandering than it is, which in turn makes the short itself a bit meandering. And the Philadelphia orchestra doesn’t seem up to Stravinsky’s score here; it’s the most lifeless of all of the performances.
5. Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”) by Ludwig van Beethoven
The Pastoral is one of the earlier instances of “program” music in the repertoire – purely instrumental music which is deliberately meant to depict something – attempting to capture the feel of a trip to the countryside. Fantasia opts to make this instead about the denizens of Greek myth: we see Pegasus, Zeus, Dionysius, centaurs, satyrs, etc. all hanging out and having a good time.
This is, of all Fantasia‘s interpretations, the most baffling one. And it’s also the one where the animation borders on kitsch: the centaurs in particular suffer from a case of Barbie and Ken-itis.
But I can’t bring myself to dislike it. The animation does some pretty memorable experimentation with colour (and, incidentally, this is probably the earliest example we have of candy-coloured equines).
6. Dance of the Hours, by Amilcare Ponchielli
My own favourite of the bunch, and incidentally the only short which is straightforwardly presented as a ballet. Only the dancers are portrayed by the most awkward animals possible: ostriches, hippopotami, elephants and crocodiles. In addition to being the most immaculately cartoony of all the shorts, I also love how it affectionately pokes fun at ballet, an artform which is not without its campy elements.
7. Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky/Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
The narrative result of pairing these two pieces together is the depiction of Satan being defeated by prayers to the Virgin Mary, making this one of the most explicitly Catholic shorts in animation history. The image of monks making a candelight procession through cathedral-esque woods is one of the most beautiful images the multiplane camera ever produced.
Disney’s ultimate ambition for Fantasia was for it to be a continuous project: the studio would crank out new shorts that would form part of future installments and re-releases. Failure at the box office killed that insanely optimistic plan, and it took a good six decades for a sequel to emerge (Fantasia 2000). But ignoring that, for a moment, what pieces would I, Josh W., select to be used in a future Fantasia?
1. The Overture from Don Giovanni, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Don Giovanni’s opening chord would be a thrilling note to open the film on (forget the fact that Amadeus did it already), and it could be used for a more lively reprise of what the original attempted with Bach.
2. La Mer by Claude Debussy
I actually kinda can’t believe that Disney never seized upon this in either Fantasia. My advice would be to pair this most famous piece of impressionist music with some Monet inspired animation.
3. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, by Bela Bartok
A good choice for a modernist piece which is already semi famous. The second music is practically a cartoon soundtrack waiting to happen.
4. Swan Lake Suite, by Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky
It would make a nice, melodic chaser to Bartok, in addition to forming an analogue with the Nutcracker suite in the original.
5. Verklarte Nacht, by Arnold Schoenberg
Even the composer agrees that the story this was originally supposed to depict is dumb and should be ignored. The intense drama of the first half becoming transfigured into the sunny happiness of the second would make it a high note for the movie to conclude on.