Fantasia (1940) Review

Fantasia (1940) Director: Various

“What you’re going to see are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians which I think is all to the good.”



Remarkably, Fantasia is only Disney’s third feature animated film. It was the first film released with stereophonic sound (a.k.a. “fantasound” for which it received a special Academy Award in 1941). The idea for the movie grew out of the early “Silly Symphonies,” and out of a desire to revive the popularity of Mickey Mouse.

The film is an experimental cartoon-re-imagining of classical music told in eight different segments, each directed by Leopold Stokowski, the English-Polish conductor who became a famous Hollywood composer. Seven of the segments in Fantasia were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The so-called “Dean of American music” Deems Taylor serves as the emcee, or master of ceremonies, for the movie. He mentions three types of music: music that tells a definite story, music that paints a series of pictures, and “absolute music” that exists simply for its own sake. Amusingly, the film is written as if to be a live recording as the orchestra performs in silhouette front of a solid blue background. It is an unexpected delight.

  • The first segment features Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” with a non-narrative, abstract series of images, such as rippling hills and vibrating lights. It is brilliant and an example of “absolute music.”
  • The second segment features Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” beginning with the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” in a variety of seasonal and animated ballet dances by animals and plants. Apparently, Tchaikovsky despised the number in his lifetime. He much preferred his “Sleeping Beauty” music.
  •  The third part is the famous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” piece, based on Goethe’s 1797 poem entitled “Der Zauberlehrling” (or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). The original poem is fourteen stanzas long and in the Disney version Mickey plays the apprentice, and the sorcerer is named “Yen Sid” (or Disney spelled backwards). The chief distinction from the poem is that in the film the sorcerer is angry with Mickey when he rescue him. The story is about a sorcerer who retires for the evening while he leaves his young apprentice to tidy up the shop, but the novice apprentice attempts to use magic to enchant a broom to clean up but the broom quickly makes a mess of water so the apprentice chops up the broom but the pieces come to life and create a disaster until the sorcerer and undoes the spell at the last moment. The music is Paul Dukas’s most famous classical piece.
  • The fourth segment tells a beautiful story of earth’s origins up until the death of the dinosaurs set to the “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky.
    • Next, we encounter a wonderful intermission with the orchestra while we learn about sound put to film. This is the fifth segment which features a brief jazz session among the players.
  • The sixth segment is my favorite – it features Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” as we are treated to a wonderful panorama of classical Greek mythology at the start of a party hosted by Bacchus until Zeus interrupts the celebration with thunder.
  • The seventh segment features the “Dance of the Hours” by Ponchielli as featured in his opera, “La Giocanda.” The music is put to screen with a cartoon ballet: Madame Upanova and her ostriches (Morning); Hyacinth Hippo and her servants (Afternoon); Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe (Evening); and Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators (Night).
  • With the previous ballet ending at night, the eighth and final segment features the dark and twisted “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky as a devil (apparently named Chernabog) rises spirits from their graves high up in the mountains until morning comes and the Angelus Bell (a Catholic bell ceremony commemorating the incarnation) ends their demonic revelry. A chorus of monks sings Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as they march into the cathedral.

Upon its release, Fantasia was released as a theatrical roadshow, but it failed to turn a profit in the World War II economy. It was an extraordinary expense and a box-office failure, forcing Disney to create a lower budget production for its next animated feature: Dumbo. There were controversies surrounding topless centaurettes bathing in a certain scene, as well as accusations of racism with a black centaurette named Sunflower unfortunately portrayed as a caricature but these were removed. In the ’60s the film gained newfound popularity as the hippies used it for a psychedelic experience. A remake of the film was released in 1999 (Fantasia 2000) with seven new classical segments, as well as the full original score and cartoon of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

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