A dramatic collision of popular entertainment and serious art, Fantasia is just as strange a beast today as it was seventy-five years ago when Walt Disney and his animators finally crested the animation medium. Who is it for? Kids don’t listen to classical music; good luck getting them to sit still for two full hours of it. Adults don’t watch cartoons unless they come equipped with verbal humor; good luck with them, too. And what, exactly, is Fantasia anyway? In the simplest terms, it’s a concert with visual accompaniment. A decade earlier, Disney cartoons had introduced the concept of “Mickey Mousing,” synchronizing the animated movements with music. Fantasia, which was originally intended to be just a short film based on Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is Mickey Mousing on the grandest scale. Each segment constructs a world that moves to the tune of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky and Schubert. These orchestral works cover three centuries and various styles. As a child, I never put much thought into what relationship these segments might have with each other. Now, every time I see the movie, I seem to find new connections.
John Culhane’s book Walt Disney’s Fantasia was what first alerted me to the primary visual motif in the film: the conductor on the podium. Leopold Stokowski, head of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is of course the first such figure to appear, a looming silhouette who commands great power with the waving of his arms. The exercise of power over natural forces is a consistent theme, and the film can certainly be seen in part as a monument to itself. The fairies of the Nutcracker suite decorate flowers and spiderwebs with dew and change the colors of the leaves. Mickey himself (in his imagination) controls the stars in the sky and the waves of the sea. Zeus casts down thunderbolts. Chernabog beckons the dead and his fiendish minions to Bald Mountain. Smack dab in the middle of all this is the Rite of Spring sequence, which asks the question, “What if there is no Conductor?” Walt Disney, the man behind the curtain, used this film to stretch his resources as far as they could go. To him, animation could be a source of loveliness, silliness, or abstraction, the enlivening of both science and faith. He wanted it all, and he got it.
Technologically, Disney was a relentless pioneer. The stereophonic “Fantasound” system is the most famous innovation tied to the film, but the use of color shouldn’t be overlooked just because Fantasia wasn’t the first animated film to have it. From the very first moments, color asserts itself as a distinct force, the bold backgrounds enveloping the exaggerated shadows of the musicians. When the Toccata and Fugue segment shifts entirely to animation, colors and shapes are employed to convey subjective associations. In “Waltz of the Flowers” from Nutcracker, white is used as a symbol of movie stardom, the figure that stands out in the crowd. The winged horses and centaurs of the Pastoral Symphony have bright pastel hues, and cupids slide down a rainbow. What this majestic palette communicates is abundant life. The only time the film fades into black and white is when Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice believes he has destroyed his enchanted broomstick. The shards rise again in full color.
Time is another recurring concept. The Nutcracker suite, so often used as a Christmas program, is envisioned here as a pageant of all the seasons. The Rite of Spring covers eons, the Pastoral Symphony and Dance of the Hours a single day. Night on Bald Mountain is just what it sounds like. Throughout, natural cycles are transformed into dances that can be innocent or mischievous, spirited or demonic. In the case of the dinosaur scenes (ever the exception to the rule), the march of time plays out as a series of terrifying Darwinist dramas: predator and prey, and predators of predators, but all finally withering under the remorseless power of the sun. The film’s bookending segments each conclude with the golden rays of that same sun. Music, like movies, is a temporal art form, a way of expressing the feeling of duration. It’s only fitting that Fantasia would so often concern itself with time’s passage.
These constituent elements add up to what is probably the closest thing to a true animated epic in the history of cinema. I read or heard once (I wish I could remember the source) that what makes a story an “epic” is the attempt therein to explain the entire universe and humanity’s place within it. Fantasia, to be clear, is about the Western world, Western culture, only taking a few typically fumbling stabs at Asian culture. But the breadth and intensity of the animation makes the film a truly encompassing experience. What it has to say about theology and science isn’t entirely consistent, although Christianity gets the last word in the form of the Ave Maria sequence. What is consistent is the ambition of the animators themselves: tap-dancing on top of sacred cows, projecting their own dreams for us to share. Despite emcee Deems Taylor’s early description of the images as something that “might pass through your mind if you sat in a concert hall listening to this music,” several of the pieces were clearly intended by their composers to be program music, and the animators seldom get with the program. The gravest offender is probably the Pastoral sequence, but I can’t bring myself to dislike it, no matter how kitschy or offensive (even in its censored form) it may be. It’s still Beethoven.
I loved this movie as a kid, and I’m finding that my connection to it is only deepening in adulthood. Far from some boring piece of cinematic homework, Fantasia contains uproarious humor in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Dance of the Hours, not to mention the unjustly forgotten “Soundtrack” vignette. The entire film calls attention to the act of creating moving images, and the Soundtrack highlights an obviously essential component. It is a Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, as it were, a series of Rorschach blots to visualize each sound. One of the animators’ experiments in this film was a daring attempt to convey personality through minimal detail. You can’t get any more minimal than a line down the center of the frame, but the Soundtrack is a wonderful character. In addition to these kid-friendly moments, Fantasia contains horrors both natural and supernatural that haunted my childhood. This film is a soul-filling experience for those with the sensibility for it. I am overjoyed that Walt Disney was sufficiently drunk with power to see it through to the end.