This has to be one of the most amazing films ever made. Almost 70 years later, in this age of CGI, it still has the capacity to astonish. It is even more mind-boggling when you consider the intensive labor and sheer innovation needed to bring some of the effects seen here to the screen. And it was a case of Walt Disney being far ahead of his time, because it was not a financial success when it was made. Because it was so expensive, its production put Walt and his studio in jeopardy for most of the 1940s. It didn’t get into the black until 1969.
Music critics were for the most part not too enthralled with the whole idea. Some were offended that great music was abridged (the Beethoven symphony is half its concert length); some just thought it was a dumb idea to put moving images to familiar music. I think we can say now that the critics were wrong, though the choices made to illustrate some of the music can still be debated. I guess it will be a matter of personal taste as to which of the eight segments you like best. Here’s my take on them:
Johann Sebastian Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. I’ve sometimes wondered if Walt made a mistake in putting this completely abstract piece right up there at the beginning. After a brief introduction by Deems Taylor, the orchestra itself is shown—quite artfully, with amazing colors swelling up with the music—and then the orchestra becomes abstracted, with the tips of violin bows moving geometrically across the screen, and finally the shapes become completely abstract. Also, this piece probably offended purists because it was written for organ, and performed, like seven of the eight pieces, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski, whose enthusiasm for Walt’s idea was apparently a big factor in the film being made at all. For myself, I’d put it in the middle range of the eight, neither the best nor the worst.
I first saw Fantasia in its third re-release, in 1969. People were dropping acid before they went into the theater. That never appealed to me; the power of acid, I always felt, was that it could make the real world look like Fantasia. I had heard about it for a long time, and had seen portions of it here and there, on the Disney TV show, and saw the Rite of Spring part in a school AV presentation, maybe in the 5th grade.
(Note: When my family got our first stereo—a monster piece of wooden furniture with 15-inch woofers at each end—the first LP I bought was the legendary Mercury recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture by Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony, the first version (I think) to use actual cannons and carillon. (I think my Mom would have been happier if I’d bought something quieter; our house reverberated with cannon fire for weeks afterward.) The recording was so revolutionary that Deems Taylor was brought in to explain how it was all done. So I view old Deems as a good friend.)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Nutcracker Suite. I wish they had included the “Overture” and “March,” but aside from that, this is one of my favorites. The four seasons are interpreted with very skinny fairies making plants sprout, flourish, wither, and freeze. It goes from the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the “Waltz of the Flowers,” and it enchants me every time.
Paul Dukas – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Everybody’s favorite. How can you resist? I understand that one reason it was done was to re-invigorate Mickey Mouse, who had been losing popularity to Donald Duck. I don’t know if it worked—I’ve always preferred the Duck to the Mouse—but he shines here. And this is clearly a piece that tells a story.
Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring. Probably the most impressive segment, to me. It was a pretty gutsy move to include this, as it was still controversial. Believe it or not, there was a riot when this ballet was first performed in Paris in 1913. (Can you imagine? Riot? What the hell, was there a mosh pit in front of the stage?) Disney’s version is nothing less than the creation of the solar system, and the evolution of life, culminating in the extinction of the dinosaurs. (And no, Sarah Palin, there weren’t any cavemen hunting the dinos, 6000 years ago, shortly after the Creation.) Sadly, I imagine this part of the movie would still be controversial today in some shit-for-brains quarters, because it shows evolution, though it stops short of positing man’s descent from apes.
Intermission/Meet the Soundtrack. A trifle, but an entertaining one. The soundtrack movies away from its invisible place at the side of the film, and shows fanciful interpretations of what various instruments might look like. There is also a brief jam session with the orchestra members. This seems like a good place to mention something I noticed early on in the orchestra: A contrabassoon. But what a contrabassoon! The ones I’ve seen are indeed large—it’s a deep-throated instrument—but this one is gigantic. It towers over everybody else. It’s a good thing somebody figured out how to fold it up a bit. You’d have needed a ladder to service the keys at the top. Also, I wonder if the Philadelphia Orchestra brass section really used Sousaphones? These were designed for marching bands, so you could rest them on your shoulder. Every symphony I’ve ever seen employed traditional tubas. I suspect it was a visual choice rather than reality.
Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 in F. One of my favorites. It might even have been my inspiration for the titanides in my Gaea Trilogy. Maybe some of it is overly cutesy, in particular the sexless cupids, but the centaurs are undeniably sexy. There has been some controversy over the brief appearance of two “African” centaurs accompanying Bacchus. They have zebra lower halves, and are clearly functioning as servants. That’s too bad, but it was standard for the day. And if there were black centaurs, it would make sense for them to be half zebra. (Late note: I just learned that in the original version there was a character called Sunflower, a black centaur, who waited on the female centaurs. This is a lot more offensive … and we’ll probably never see her again, as she was edited out of the film for the 1969 release. I despise this sort of historical revisionism, I think racism in a 1940 film should be used as a “teachable moment” rather than Bowdlerized. All Disney animated films have also been edited to remove scenes where characters were smoking—or, in “Pecos Bill,” just the cigarettes have been digitally removed, making for some very odd behavior … but don’t get me started on that.)
Amilcare Ponchielli – La Gioconda: Dance of the Hours. Easily my least favorite. It’s funny, no question, but hippos in tutus is not really my bag. Also, I have never particularly liked this music, and it must be mentioned that no one of my generation will ever be able to hear it without singing “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” the silly little hit by Allan Sherman, any more than most of us can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.
Modest Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain and Franz Schubert – Ave Maria. This one is (in my opinion) an unfortunate matching of one of the very best segments with the most boring one. I don’t really care for the Ave Maria in the first place, and the reverence and very slow pace here struck me as the wrong way to end the picture. But the first part … Wow! If I’d seen the demon Chernabog when I was a child, I’m sure I would have had nightmares. And Disney, after chickening out when it came to nipples on female centaurs, included them on some really, really ugly demons here.