…It’s my very pleasant duty to welcome you here on behalf of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and all the other artists and musicians whose combined talents went into the creation of this new form of entertainment, Fantasia.
As Deems Taylor, the music critic who served as the Master of Ceremonies for the picture, described it, Fantasia was a film unlike any other at the time of its creation. Released in 1940, it was only the third animated feature released by Disney, so animated features themselves were a relative novelty. And unlike its predecessors, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, Fantasia didn’t tell a single story. It had several small stories within it, but they were unrelated to each other, connected only by the theme of classical music. There was something of a connection to the Silly Symphonies short films that Disney had produced, but it was also something more. It was longer by far — just over two hours — and where the Silly Symphonies were mostly based on the popular music styles at the time (the first, “The Skeleton Dance” was to a foxtrot), Fantasia featured classical music directed by Leopold Stokowski and played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The artwork was even more elaborate than the shorts, and the stories — derived from the music itself — were mostly aimed more at adults than children, and had a strong sense to them of having been done for the sake of the artistry. Some were even abstract pieces.
The initial title Disney and Stokowski came up for the film was “The Concert Feature”, and that’s exactly what it was. It wasn’t meant to be run as a lead-in to a feature, it was a feature itself — and a unique one, with theatres revamped to support the new “Fantasound” stereophonic surround sound system (most theatres were mono prior to this time), and it was exhibited as a “roadshow”, in the same manner as ballets and classical theatre productions. Only a few shows were run per day, tickets had to be purchased in advance, and it was a treated like going to a play or an opera. Walt Disney’s expectation was that people would dress up for the production; Fantasia was viewed as not merely a movie, but an event.
Fantasia was obvious from the beginning as a huge labor of love for Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski both. With its innovative blend of music and animation, providing something people had never seen before in an experience that was unique to films, Fantasia had a reception that was beyond anything Walt Disney had expected: it bombed.
Critical reception was mixed. Some loved it, and applauded its innovations. Some didn’t understand it, or simply didn’t like it. Some — especially music critics — thought it was disrespectful to the music. The general audiences didn’t react any better. It was too avant-garde for most people, and there wasn’t a lot of “kid appeal”; some segments were downright terrifying for children. The “roadshow” concept didn’t really take off, and it was expensive to retrofit theatres for “Fantasound” — and that retrofitting often came at Disney’s expense. And the advent of World War II meant that the potentially lucrative European market was closed off. It played for a year in New York City and Los Angeles, where it was a critical success, but it barely played at all anywhere else, partly due to its reception and partly due to a lack of prints — the equipment for making prints largely being on hold due to the war effort. The end result was that Fantasia, which had a $2.3 million dollar budget (roughly on par with Disney’s previous features), posted a bigger loss than Pinocchio, which also was not a financial success initially.
RKO, Disney’s distributor, had not initially been on board for the “roadshow” plan. After the initial failure, RKO picked it up, ran a few roadshows of their own, but also edited the film down by nearly an hour, cutting out the introduction and abstract segments, and released it to theatres in mono. Walt Disney could not bear to do the editing himself, so musical director Ed Plumb and Ben Sharpsteen did the deed. The re-release brought in a little more money, but it remained unprofitable. After two expensive flops in a row, Disney put out Dumbo as a quick, cheap film meant to appeal more to the masses and make a profit in order to save the studio. He also took on requests from the government to make films to encourage national friendship with South America, resulting in Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. But his dream for Fantasia had to fall by the wayside. It was never meant to be a single film. Disney envisioned the creation of new segments on a regular basis, so that Fantasia would always be showing, and would always be different. Some of those new segments found their way into the “package films” Make Mine Music and Melody Time, which were essentially collections of shorts more in keeping with the Silly Symphonies. But Fantasia, as Walt Disney dreamed of it, was abandoned and never lived up to his hopes. As was common for Disney features, it was re-released several times, but by his death in 1966, it had yet to turn a profit. It was, reportedly, one of the bitterest disappointments of Disney’s career.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. As stated, Fantasia kept getting periodic re-releases, almost always with some tweaking to the format to alter run-time or aspect ratio (the original is full-frame 4:3), but re-releases nevertheless. And the money kept trickling in, slowly, but surely. We’re familiar today with “the Disney Vault” as a policy keeping home video releases of films in a staggered intermittent release schedule. But before VHS, there was a similar policy in play with the theatrical releases — not to keep demand high, but to keep the films periodically available. Any time Disney didn’t have a film ready for release that year, or if they just wanted more than one out, they re-released a classic. Fantasia‘s re-releases slowly added to its profitability until one fateful release in December 1969, where after nearly 30 years, it finally found its audience. The psychedelic scene was in full swing, and college students in particular fell in love with the film. The bomb… exploded. It played in art-houses and college theatres non-stop for the next seven years, gaining another nation-wide release in 1977. The film was finally profitable, and continued to be successful with every subsequent release. Perhaps the truest example of a film being ahead of its time, Fantasia was finally acknowledged as, not just a classic, but Walt Disney’s masterpiece.
The film consists of eight segments, and eight musical pieces. These are not quite synonymous, however, due to one segment that does not have an accompanying work of music, and another that uses two for different stages. The segments include a couple of abstract numbers, stories derived directly from the intent of the songwriters, and, primarily, stories that the Disney animators came up with while listening to the music. Fantasy themes abound in the stories, but each has its own distinct style and theme.
The first piece is Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, a piece which is familiar to anybody who has ever been in a haunted house or seen any number of horror films. While it has become associated with darker themes, in Fantasia the film creators have chosen to simply show its majesty. First the segment shows the orchestra playing their instruments, with colored lights and lighting effects that Stokowski himself thought up. This serves both to gradually prepare the audience and to give the Orchestra some on-screen reward for their effort. (The Philadelphia Orchestra Association would eventually sue Disney for a larger share of the profits; the amount they settled for is unknown, as is whether they agreed to take responsibility for a proportionate share of the losses the film had initially.) After highlighting the various parts of the orchestra, the scene gradually transitions into abstract patterns, but never purely abstract; as Walt Disney had made his career with representational art, he worked that into the design, causing abstract lines to become violin bows and abstract waves to become rolling hills in tune with the music.
Following is the famous “Nutcracker Suite”; amusingly, Deems Taylor says nobody plays it much anymore. It may have been true at the time, but it’s become a fairly popular ballet in the United States since. Here the artists completely do away with the story of the ballet, and instead populate the scene with a variety of faeries, representing each of the four seasons in turn, starting with with spring. As the song goes on, it continues with leaves and animated mushrooms and anthropomorphic thistles joining in the ballet. It’s bright, it’s colorful, and the visual effects are fantastic, especially when you consider that this was decades before computers were available to assist in the drawing. Every second had 24 frames, and every one of those frames had to be drawn by hand… and yet the animators had faeries skating on ice and forming frost patterns with nearly fractal precision, or setting off light patterns to rival any firework. Even by itself, this one segment is a triumph of animation.
The third segment is the famed “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” piece, taken directly from the musical work of the same name. It is easily the most iconic segment of Fantasia; if people know one thing from the film, it will be this segment. Further, it has become one of the most iconic views of Mickey Mouse himself; and considering we’re talking about the most recognized fictional character in the world, that’s really saying something. We see Mickey wearing the hat of the wizard (named “Yen Sid” by animators, and designed to look like a bearded Walt Disney) more often than in any costume except his basic look. Everybody knows the story, everybody knows what it looks like.
And if it’s the most iconic, this is only fitting, as it’s the most important segment as well. As with so many things at Disney, it all goes back to the Mouse. The popularity of Mickey Mouse cartoons had been waning, and Walt wanted something special to really bring him back into the limelight. A Silly Symphony cartoon to beat all Silly Symphonies. A chance meeting in a restaurant led to him discussing it with Leopold Stokowski, and coming up with the idea of a fully orchestrated Silly Symphony short. It all snowballed from there. The budget for the short reached $400,000 in short order, three or four times the typical amount, and far more than Disney could expect to make back on a single short… but Disney and Stokowski realized they could expand the concept and create something unique. While it may not have solved the profitability problem in the short term, the result was Fantasia, and their ambitious effort is every bit the masterpiece they aimed for — and incidentally did succeed in putting the luster back on Mickey’s star.
The comic antics of Mickey Mouse are followed up by a much darker work, to the tune of Igor Stravinki’s “Rite of Spring”. Actually a somewhat modified version of the tune, being truncated and having the beginning copied onto the end, which rather displeased Stravinski. But the average audience member would never know there were changes made, and (not being a classical music fan myself) I can only conclude that the change was for the best. Certainly the “Rite of Spring” segment plays out dramatically and effectively, showing the creation of the planet Earth, the development of life, and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. Although the scientific understanding of some of these things, particularly the dinosaurs, has changed since the release of Fantasia, for 1940 it was considered highly accurate. On a featurette, film critic Leonard Maltin reminisces about being shown the “Rite of Spring” segment in high school science classes. The “Rite of Spring” segment is unflinchingly dark and brutal, showing the majesty and terror of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the demise of the dinosaurs with equal honesty. It’s not a segment for the faint of heart, but it’s a great piece of animation.
After the “Rite of Spring” segment, the film originally had an intermission, as many concerts would (plus, after all, this was a two-hour film in a time when that wasn’t yet the norm; Disney’s two earlier features were each a little under an hour and a half.) The DVD release thankfully cuts the intermission to just a few seconds, and then resumes with the orchestra players returning, engaging in a brief jam, and then Deems Taylor introducing the sole segment to not have its own musical number. Taylor introduces the sound track itself as a character, a simple line that reflects the sounds that are made. People who are familiar with sound equipment will recognize the depiction as being a fairly accurate rendition of sound waves. The bit is short, and lightly humorous, and is the second abstract segment of the film; arguably being even more abstract as it doesn’t have a song to go with it. It may not be as strong as the other segments of the film, but considering the goal of the film was to bring classical music to the masses, to educate them about music in a fun way, it’s still a worthy bit to include.
Fantasia then returns to the storytelling aspect, this time taking Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and creating a scene in Greek mythology. Winged horses fly in, cherubs play matchmaker for centaurs, and Bacchus, God of Wine, holds a wild drunken party with all of his friends. The mood zig-zags from awe-inspiring to romantic to comic and then to fearful as Zeus decides to crash the party by throwing lightning down on the revelers. The multi-plane camera that Disney invented gets a work-out here, as many shots involve overlapping objects with transparency and at different levels of depth. The camera brings the audience into Mount Olympus, always making it appear that these hand-drawn animations exist in a world that has three directions and is more than simply a flat screen. And all of the fantastic characters are brought to life with expressive faces, fun designs, and bright bold colors. As with all of the other segments, not one word is ever spoken, but the personalities of the characters comes shining through anyway.
The next number is “The Dance of the Hours”, and Deems Taylor introduces it by explaining that it’s a ballet in which the dancers represent the four major times of day: morning, afternoon, evening, and night time. He states that the version in Fantasia holds to the same tradition, and he’s not lying there. He is, however, neglecting to mention that the dancers in question are ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. “The Dance of the Hours” was a very popular piece in ballet at the time — popular to the point that people were beginning to tire of it. Its inclusion in Fantasia was a deliberate act of respectful parody, injecting some humor into it by having some of the dancers be animals that aren’t traditionally considered graceful, and by giving the forbidden romance angle a twist of absurdity by having it take place between a hippopotamus and an alligator. It’s a delightfully fun piece, and a very memorable one.
The final segment of the film, the one that closes out Fantasia, uses two different pieces of music. As Deems Taylor says, it draws a contrast between the profane and the sacred. The first part is set to “Night on Bald Mountain”, and is one of the most chilling segments in Disney’s entire animation history, even all these decades later. A giant demon, identified alternately as Chernabog or Satan, looms out of the mountain and raises devils and damned souls, all on one haunted evening. Chernabog (this is Disney’s preferred nomenclature, for obvious reasons, though Deems Taylor refers to him as Satan in the original roadshow version) is one of the most visually striking of Disney’s villains, even though he technically doesn’t get up to much actual villainy. But he was purposefully designed to be as impressive as possible, to truly look like a being that could stand beside a mountain and make it look trivial by comparison. According to commentary from the animators, even Walt Disney himself was taken aback with the final result. He is perhaps the most striking characters in the film, and is certainly one of the most iconic. If people know one thing about Fantasia, it’s Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice; but if they know two, the second will assuredly be Chernabog.
With the sound of church bells, the scene transitions seamlessly into the “Ave Maria”. Chernabog is banished for another night, and holier activities take place with the light of day. The walk of the lantern-bearers through the forests is one of the most impressive shots in animation, when one considers how it was done. It was all done in a single take, one long shot. A few minutes of animation, with 24 frames per second. The multi-plane camera had to undergo special reconstruction for this shot; the rig, when completed, was as long as the studio itself. All because Walt wanted the shot to be perfectly seamless.
At the end of the segment, it ends with a sunrise, leaving people with a hopeful image for the end of the film. It’s a great ending for Fantasia, which above all else was meant to lift peoples’ spirits, even if there were some dark turns along the way. And though Fantasia may have taken decades to become recognized for the masterpiece it is, it’s a beautiful work that should have made Walt Disney very proud to have created it.
But, although Walt Disney himself would never know it, the story of Fantasia did not end there. A few short clips made their way into the package films, of course, but Walt’s idea of Fantasia as an ongoing thing was not quite as dead as he might have believed. Even after his own death, Disney executives kept looking at it, wondering if it was possible to bring it back again. An attempt was considered in 1980 to create a film called Musicana which would have been similar but would have featured cultural music and stories from around the world. Musicana never made it off the ground, but executives, including Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, kept thinking about it. And with Roy Disney producing, the rebirth of Fantasia finally came six decades after its birth, with Fantasia 2000.
It’s one of the few entries in the Disney Animated Canon to be a true sequel. While it was far too late to truly bring Walt Disney’s dream of an ever-evolving Fantasia to life in the exact way he envisioned it, Fantasia 2000 was an attempt to show that they could still honor the idea. Fantasia 2000 features different music, different stories, and in some ways has a different feel than its predecessor. It’s a bit more modern, though it’s still classical music (with one arguable exception), and it uses some computer-generated imagery in a couple sequences. It’s not a complete takeover — this isn’t “Pixar’s Fantasia” (and indeed the two segments were actually completed before Toy Story) — but it creates a different feel for the film by adding yet another visual style to the mix. The film is also more light-hearted than its predecessor. Rather than having a single Master of Ceremonies, with a music critic filling the role, the introductions for each segment are handled by various celebrities and musicians. These include Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, and even Penn & Teller. But although it has its differences from Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 is still about bringing classical music to the masses, and creating beautiful animation sequences out of the music. The music this time around is performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with James Levine conducting.
The film was released at the first minute of the year 2000. (IMDb lists the debut date as Dec. 31, 1999, but this is due to midnight showings being classified as the day before in IMDb’s reckoning.) It had a limited IMAX-exclusive run for several months (which included Disney building an entire IMAX theatre of their own in L.A. and demolishing it when they were finished), and then had a regular theatrical release that June. Unlike Fantasia, the sequel did not have to wait three decades to turn a profit. With worldwide sales (and a few venues posting records), it cleared its budget within a year. It wasn’t a smash hit, but it was a critical one; more importantly, this time around the audiences knew what to expect.
The film opens with snippets of the original film floating through space, and the voice of Deems Taylor explaining the concept of Fantasia through archive footage. It then immediately launches into Beethoven’s fifth symphony. It’s a brilliant choice; everybody knows the song (DUN dun dun DUN) even if they don’t know which number it is, or even who Beethoven is. It immediately primes the audience for the experience they’re about to have, and as with the original Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 opens with an abstract piece. Colored liquids splash down, flowers become butterflies, and a dizzying array of colors fly by in various patterns. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and it is the perfect way to open the film.
The second piece is to “Pines of Rome”, and as with several of the Fantasia pieces, the animators chose to go in a different direction. It shows the story of a group of humpback whales in the arctic; when a supernova occurs, the whales acquire the ability of flight, but one young whale finds itself separated from the herd. It may sound like a bit of a strange tale, but it’s an enchanting one; besides, how many films give you the opportunity to say “flying whale” with a straight face? And it works. The whales are animated with computer graphics, and appear to have then been partially painted over, creating a unique appearance. It’s very striking, particularly against the rich backgrounds of the sequence, and when the whole herd of whales takes flight at the end it’s absolutely breathtaking, especially if one has the luxury of seeing it on the big screen.
The third piece is George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”; it’s the only piece in either film that isn’t purely classical, but rather a blend of classical and jazz. It’s also the only song not in the public domain, requiring Disney to license it from Gershwin’s estate. It’s kind of amusing to think of Fantasia 2000 using a song that would have been considered relatively contemporary when Fantasia was first being developed, but it has its merits. It’s a different style, but no less “classical” to a modern ear. Here it’s paired with animation inspired by the art of Al Hirschfeld, in a story set in the Great Depression. Four characters who are unhappy with their lives try to make the best of it: A construction worker who wants to be a jazz musician; a man who is out of work and penniless; a young girl who wants to spend time with her parents instead of her strict governess; and a henpecked husband who just wants to have a little boyish fun. All have their hopes and dreams, and all get tangled up indirectly with each others actions and bring each other to what they desire without ever truly meeting. It’s a fun, hopeful piece, and Hirschfeld’s style lends itself surprisingly well to animation.
The next piece, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, is set to Shostakovich’s piano concerto no. 2, and is the other piece with overt computer animation. With the style it uses, and it’s subject, it’s impossible not to draw a visual comparison to Pixar’s first theatrical feature. Like Toy Story, the segment takes advantage of the artificial nature of its characters to gloss over the difficulties 3D animation had rendering realistic materials. Unlike Toy Story, it still tries to capture some of the warm tones of traditional animation. Subtle warm reds and cool blues infuse the background elements. Without disparaging Toy Story (brilliant film!), it’s style wouldn’t quite work here; the slightly different techniques create very different feels for the visuals. Toy Story is bright, colorful, and cheerful, like a child’s playroom. “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, while still involving a child’s toys, has a more romantic, melancholy feel to it. It’s softer, somehow. And that makes it fit in with the rest of Fantasia 2000, as even though it tells one of the most direct stories in the film, it still has elements of being a mood piece as well.
“The Carnival of the Animals” takes the opposite approach to animation. Back to traditional animation, it has an almost minimalistic approach for a representational work. There are few boundaries delineating one color from the next; they simply start or stop where they belong. Of course, it’s different in tone as well. The song is a joyous tune, and the animation plays right into it, asking — as James Earl Jones notes to his bafflement — “what happens when you give a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?” It’s the most purely comedic piece in either Fantasia film, and it’s very successful at that goal. It’s also worth noting that it uses several legitimate yo-yo tricks. Because authenticity matters when you have a flamingo yo-yo enthusiast.
The next segment is the return of the classic “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment, kept in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. It is the only segment of the original film to be included in the sequel, though both “The Dance of the Hours” and “The Nutcracker Suite” were considered for inclusion. It is, of course, the one they had to use; when you go to see Fantasia, even a mostly-new Fantasia, there’s still an expectation that you’ll be seeing Mickey Mouse don the wizard hat. As in the original, it is followed by Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski congratulating each other on their performances; Mickey’s voice has been redubbed by his current voice-actor (Leopold’s, we can assume, was not.) This was done to allow for a seamless transition with the next segment, as Mickey runs from one stage to the other to bridge the two pieces; from Leopold Stokowski to James Levine, the baton is metaphorically passed on screen. And then Mickey and Levine set up the next segment, featuring two other classic Disney characters.
The next segment is a retelling of Noah’s Ark, featuring Donald and Daisy Duck as Noah’s assistants, to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstances” (an abridged version of which is familiar to everyone who has graduated high school). It’s up to Donald to get all of the various animals onto the Ark (barring those unfortunates such as dragons, gryphons and unicorns which opt to just laugh at the idea). Using Donald for this segment was a natural choice. With Mickey being the face of Fantasia, it only makes sense to bring in a second classic Disney character for the sequel. And next to Mickey, Donald is the most popular character Disney has; everybody loves “the embodiment of frustration”, as he is described by one animator. Plus, using Donald allows what just might be the single-greatest sight gag in all of Disney animation.
The animation here is very reminiscent of The Lion King in its attempts at grandeur, and it hits the mark easily. And Donald himself has never looked better. All the details are wonderfully shaded, characters move perfectly, and the animals all look fantastic. The story sequence blends different emotional states so quickly you could get whiplash, but it’s all seamless and smooth. There’s a sense of awe at the Ark, a feeling of majesty with all of the animals loading in in an orderly procession. There are a lot of comic antics and little visual gags. And there’s even some pathos, with a missed connection that leads to Donald and Daisy each thinking the other perished in the flood. (The size of the Ark of course makes it possible for the two of them to not run into each other on board.) The sequence manages to blend all of the elements that go into the best Disney features into a story that spans only a few minutes. It is arguably the best piece in Fantasia 2000, with the closest contender being the final segment.
The final segment of Fantasia 2000 is Igor Stravinski’s “Firebird Suite”. As with Fantasia, it ends with a transition between darkness and light, despair and hope; in this case, however, it’s a single musical work. A spring spirit awakens at the end of winter, and begins reviving the plants in her forest. As she flies, grass sprouts, flowers bloom, and the forest comes to life. But she approaches a mountain that, for some reason, does not respond to her touch. Investigating the crater at the top, she encounters and accidentally awakens the Firebird, to a scare chord provided by the original music.
Like Chernabog, the Firebird is both majestic and terrifying. A primal force of nature, it seeks only to destroy, and quickly lays waste to all that the sprite has created, bringing forth a volcanic eruption inspired by that of Mount St. Helens. But the music changes tones again, and the sprite is alive, if weakened, and begins rebuilding the forest again. As it heals, she heals, and as she heals, it grows back stronger than ever; this time, the mountain winds up as green as the forest. Again like its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 ends on a note of hope.
And there, for now, Fantasia ends once again. For now. There were plans to continue Fantasia further, with a revival of the “world music” concept in 2006, but they did not come to fruition. Some of the segments were created, however, and have been included as bonuses on various Disney video releases. But as of now, there are no plans for a third Fantasia. Personally, I’d like to see it, and hope we don’t have to wait another sixty years.
While Fantasia did not meet with commercial success immediately, and critical reception was initially mixed, those who loved it, loved it fiercely. The 1940 National Board of Review Awards ranked it as the 5th-best film of the year; the Academy Awards gave it two honorary Oscars for the advancement of the field. It’s been included in the National Film Registry as being of cultural and historical significance, and it was #58 on the AFI’s original 100 Years, 100 Movies list. It was fifth on their 10 Top 10 list for animation. Fantasia 2000 hasn’t acquired honors quite as high as that, but it is still highly appreciated, and holds at 82% critical approval on RottenTomatoes. I have been fortunate enough to have seen both of these films in the theatre, thanks to the 1985 re-release of Fantasia, and though I was young for Fantasia, I found it incredible, and still do, and felt the same way when I saw Fantasia 2000 on its regular release. They are beautiful, moving films; art for the sake of art, but never pretentious about it. They are, for lack of a better word, fantastic, and they are both among my favorite films.
“Fantasia is timeless. It may run 10, 20 or 30 years. It may run after I’m gone. Fantasia is an idea in itself.” –Walt Disney