Hoooo baby, Fantasia. I had never seen this film in its entirety, and full disclosure-it took me 4-5 sittings to get through this movie. It was met with tough criticism when it was released…not a difficult idea to grapple with! Fantasia is very different from the traditional Disney animated film because it contains separate sequences, rather than telling one cohesive story. For the film, Disney took famous Western classical scores and animated vignettes to fit the music, an idea innovative and exciting for the time, but unfortunately my vote is that this film doesn’t hold up. The result is seven unique sequences, punctuated by narrations and commentary from composer and classical music enthusiast Deems Taylor. I’ve ranked the vignettes from worst to best, and included Taylor’s commentary segments as a vignette itself, because he’s a big component of this film.
Fantasia Vignettes, From Worst to Best:
8. Deems Taylor’s Commentary
Alright. Before each segment we get Deems Taylor. He’s like our vignette translator for the film, but the translator’s so invested that the jargon is losing you. He gives you a little background about the score, some historical context, and sometimes explains what you will see in the animation. He’s frontloading your viewing so that it hopefully makes more sense. This could be very helpful! However. At the risk of sounding daft– he can be a real bore. Now, Deems Taylor was an esteemed composer and accomplished music critic, once called “the dean of American music.” He was highly qualified to speak on the subject, and he had a lot to say. So much so that his commentaries have been shortened for the general release version of Fantasia. Also, I discovered that for newer releases of the film, his original commentary couldn’t be salvaged and his voice has been dubbed by a voice artist! So the voice we’re hearing isn’t actually his, but I imagine was selected and engineered to sound similar. Overall, if he were teaching a course on understanding composition I would enroll, but I’m not choosing him for my entertainment commentary, you know? . Hansen, Liane. “Algonquin Writers’ Work No Longer Lost”. NPR: Weekend Edition. September 20, 2009.
7. Toccata En Fugue
Lights, squiggles, shapes, clouds, blurs and blasts dance on the screen in time to the music. It reminds me of what happens when you close your eyes and rub them for too long–that abstract kaleidoscope effect on the inside of your eyelids. Good for introducing you to the concept of Fantasia, and otherwise not entirely memorable.
6. Dance of the Hours
A troupe of ostriches, hippos, elephants, and finally alligators twinkle and rumpus around in time to the symphony. This is one of the more recognizable vignettes from the film and, other than Sorcerer Mickey, this sequence felt the most “Disney”. The animals felt like they could have easily stepped off the set of The Jungle Book, Dumbo, or a Mickey cartoon. And they danced. The end.
5. The Nutcracker Suite
I am not a Nutcracker person. I’m someone who loves musicals and theater, but have never liked the Nutcracker. I have seen it a handful of times live, and if this offends you, I am sorry, but please don’t make me sit through it again. That being said–this sequence had the instantly recognizable Nutcracker score, with images entirely new. For that I was thankful! I thought that the creatures in this vignette, particularly the fairies, were beautiful and the way they danced on the screen, moving through the flowers and water to the music achieved exactly what Fantasia was aiming for. It brought a new life to the music, transcending what we traditionally know of The Nutcracker. I was into it!
4. Rite of Spring
We see the beginning of life, starting with a trip through space that lands on a fiery volcanic earth. Lava erupts and cascades into the sea where micro-organisms evolve all the way into great earth-roaming dinosaurs. We watch them live and die. It told a clear start-to-finish story and held my attention. The scene closes to black. “And now we’ll have a fifteen minute intermission.” WHAT? I guess one does need a break after all of that.
3. Pastoral Symphony
Back to greek mythology for this one, we see a family of unicorns, some seriously sultry centaurs (sans nipples…honestly felt a little weird?), playful cherubs, and gods in the sky. I liked this sequence! It moves you through the different cast of creatures enough to keep things interesting, and it harkened images of Disney films to come. In it I saw possible influence for Hercules and a mermaid lagoon.
2. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
“What kind of Disney person would I be if I didn’t rate Sorcerer Mickey number 1?” I worried about this momentarily because this rendering of Mickey is iconic. He’s in over his head with those bucket-wielding brooms, and he’s adorable throughout. When I think of Fantasia, I think of Sorcerer Mickey, but I had to be true to what I felt while watching the film. And there was one vignette that wowed me more than Sorcerer Mick did.
1. Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria
I am declaring this sequence the best in the film! I’ve rated this sequence so high because it’s the deepest, most emotional piece. It’s the piece that made me go “ooooh” out loud. A demon god rises from a mountaintop, pulling restless ghouls from the sea, swirling them around, throwing many into flames before retreating. Slowly the music changes, retreating into Ave Maria. The spirits float into graves in a misty graveyard and we discover that the singing comes from a candlelit procession of monks. It’s such a stark dichotomy between the two spiritual pieces you’ve just seen play out (hell-throwing demon vs. monks blessings), that this ending, while unexpected is so peaceful and lovely. After the Sorcerer’s Apprentice vignette I wondered why that scene hadn’t been selected as the finale, but once I saw this piece I instantly loved it as the closing scene for the film, putting to rest all of the emotions that had been stirred not just by this sequence but by the entire film.
So, how do my ratings stack up against yours? Am I way off? Will you be rushing to your Disney+ account to watch Fantasia this weekend? 🙂