Review: Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia

Fantasia

Rating



Director

James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield

Screenplay

Multiple

Length

125 min.

Starring

Deems Taylor, Leopold Stokowski, Julietta Novis

MPAA Rating

Approved (PCA #5920)

Buy/Rent Movie

Soundtrack

Poster

Review

When Fantasia was released in 1940, it was a huge success. Taking classic music and setting it to animated sequences, Fantasia was a breakthrough in filmmaking. The film covers seven sequences ranging in styles from abstract to humoresque. What results is a fantastic piece of cinema history that lends itself well to the visual memory of the audience.

The film opens with narrator Deems Taylor introducing the film and its purpose. Disney would present eight classical compositions and set them to animated sequences that were not often the original intent of the composer. Taylor inserted commentary throughout the production, introducing new segments while an orchestra and conductor Leopold Stokowski were featured in silhouette tuning up or, in the case of the first segment, participating in the piece.

Opening the film was the Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”. Through abstract animation, using symbols and lines moving in time to the music, “Toccata” moved from simple timed lighting changes with the orchestra to actual animation. Lines roll like hills across the screen as the music rumbles along. While there isn’t a single thread of a plot involved, the amazing way the animation perfectly moves to the score is astounding and makes a fantastic opening introduction to the power of animation.

The movie then moved on to a section of “The Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky. Traveling from the birth of spring through the Death of winter, the segment followed various dancing flora and fauna (fairies, mushrooms, flowers, etc.) mimicking the ballet styles of the original “Nutcracker” production. This fanciful segment is perfect to engage little children, while adults can be satisfied by how brilliant the colors are and how easily everything is timed to flow together.

We then finish out the pre-intermission set with two of the film’s least impressive works. The first is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas. This segment is the only one that features a pre-established character, Mickey Mouse, follows him through one of the most renowned stories in the Disney canon and is the film’s first plot-driven story

Wanting to be a powerful sorcerer like his master, Mickey dons his mentor’s cap and bewitches a broom to carry water for him and, in traditional style, the broom gets out of his control. I’m most annoyed at this segment for its complete commerciality. Disney wanted his creation to have a role in the film despite creating a segment that feels out of style with the rest of the piece. It is certainly a fun tale and stands well on its own, but feels unnecessary in the grand scheme of the film.

“The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky is a majestic piece that when performed as a symphony is dazzling, but when accompanied by the slow movement of dinosaurs as they move towards extinction, the production skids to a screeching halt and drones on for nearly 25 minutes. The animation is good and if you can keep your eyes open, you’ll be impressed by that majesty, but it takes so long to get to the conclusion that you can’t help but be slightly bored by the whole scene.

For the intermission, animators created a segment to show how sound was rendered as waveforms and used a single line to represent the sound and then gave each sound a distinct style. After this, the film resumed with its three final art pieces, set to four different tracks of music.

The first was a simple story of Mount Olympus and the cherubs, pegasi and other mythical creatures who danced, cajoled and trembled to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “6th Symphony”. This segment is quite cute in its depiction of Olympus and the subtitle of the symphony, “Rite of Spring” is set perfectly to the springtime frivolity of its subject.

Returning for one more bit of comedy before the film’s conclusion, Amilcare Ponchielli’s “La Giaconda: Dance of the Hours” is put to celluloid. This sequence is probably one of the most memorable for any child and adult who saw this film when they were young. Who can forget the hippotami, ostriches, alligators and elephants performing ballet, running towards and away from one another? Along with the distinctly human characteristics, Ponchielli’s bouncy music creates a rather entertaining segment.

Thankfully, the film’s final act is its most provocative and powerful. There are two compositions attached to it, each blending effortlessly into the other. It begins with the Modest Mussorgsky piece “Night on Bald Mountain” set to the movements of the demon Chernabog as he attempts to conquer the night by bringing the ghosts and spirits of the dead from the ground to serve him. As the morning comes, the bells of the church, creating the segue to the melody of “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert, begin to drive the demon back into his pit. The spirits are also driven back into the ground as the scene transitions to a processional of monks with lighted torches moving through the forest and culminating in a glorious sunrise signifying to the sleepy world to awake.

This final segment is so gorgeous to watch when accompanied by the music that it’s hard to conceive of anything more perfect. The imagery remains with you long after you leave the theater, wiping away much of the more frustrating aspects of the entire project.

Fantasia is a landmark of filmmaking history. It set a benchmark for similar projects to come and very rarely have any such films or programs been able to approach the quality and craft the original produced. Even the modern update of Fantasia/2000 couldn’t completely compete with the marvelous masterwork of Fantasia.

Review Written

June 9, 2007

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