Fantasia is one of my all-time favorite films, and I believe it is the crown jewel of all animation. As a kid, I rewound its VHS tape over and over so much that the Night on Bald Mountain sequence is more warped and scratched up than the rest of the tape. Now, I’m just a big kid, watching it on Blu-ray and usually moved to tears a few times before the end. The mix of stunning animation and beautiful music is still astounding over seventy years later.
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of Fantasia, it is all explained. The film begins with the screen opening to an empty orchestra. Slowly the musicians go to their seats, their silhouettes dancing on the blue screen behind them. We hear a few warm up, play a few notes, tune their instruments. The light reflects off and seems to illuminate the instruments as they play, with warm colors. I always had this idea of the musicians bringing their instruments to life at this point.
Deems Taylor enters and explains that what we are about to see is a new form of entertainment where the artists (not musicians) have developed images and stories inspired by music. There will be three types of music: the kind that tells a definite story (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), the kind with “more or less definite pictures” but no sustainable plot (The Nutcracker Suite), and “music that exists simply for its own sake” called absolute music (Toccata and Fugue).
Then the fun begins, and we are sent on a musical journey, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. It starts out slow, taking a while to move away from the musicians playing, then onto abstract colorful images set to Toccata and Fugue. The Nutcracker Suite shows a beautiful twist on nature, featuring a variety of dancing flowers and glowing fairies who change the seasons. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice features Mickey Mouse, and is usually the most recognizable sequence. The Rite of Spring shows the scientific journey through evolution on Earth, up through the dinosaurs. We are shown a scene full of mythological creatures in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, The Pastoral. Dance of the Hours becomes a comic ballet with ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators. And the finale brings the forces of light and darkness together in beautiful balance in the spooky Night on Bald Mountain, followed by the uplifting Ave Maria.
Between the musical numbers are introductions and fun moments. During the intermission, we watch the musicians walk off the stage, and come back afterward. They have a bit of fun, starting an impromptu jazz session, showing that they don’t always have to play classical. After the intermission, we are introduced to The Soundtrack, a simple visual representation of various instruments, with a slightly shy personality.
Walt Disney was over ambitious with Fantasia and intended it to be like going to the symphony and hoped to add on new sequences every year. He even played with the idea of releasing scents into the theaters to correspond to different moments in the film. Unfortunately, the film flopped financially and gained popularity in the late 60’s.
Fantasia is a unique film experience. Its blend of music, movement and color were revolutionary at its release and still captivate viewers today. For those who enjoy classical music, Fantasia is a must see. For those who seem skeptical of beautiful animation set to symphonies, keep an open mind and let yourself become immersed in the music and images on the screen. Though my Blu-ray gives me plenty of enjoyment at home, Fantasia is the one film I would most love to experience in a theater.
“Go on. Go on; drop the other shoe, will you?”