Original US release date: January 29, 1941
Production budget: $2,280,000
Worldwide gross: $76,408,097
Walt Disney’s Fantasia is the most atypical film I’ve covered, yet, and possibly that I ever will. Broken up into eight (if the intermission is counted) musical, dialogue-free segments, the film plays like an animated night at the orchestra. The symphonies are accompanied by animated interpretations ranging from the abstract to the more straightforward to the nightmarish. It was a truly revolutionary idea and quite a bold move to present it in theatrical form. This was Disney’s third feature-length animated film, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. Those were both smash hits, so it might have seemed a bit early to be thinking so outside the box. But Walt Disney himself felt that Mickey Mouse needed a high-profile showcase and placed him front-and-center in Fantasia‘s main attraction, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.
That segment has lived on in infamy. Merchandise featuring Mickey in his apprentice gear still permeates the culture and he’s almost as easy to find under the guise of that character as he is in his natural, mouse-next-door state. But what about the rest of the film?
The movie checks in at a few minutes over two hours long, which seems a bit much for this type of film, but it never really drags. Each segment is crisp enough to hold the attention of the viewer and short enough to not overstay its welcome. The movie is rather timeless as there’s not a single reference to the culture of 1940/1941 and each story takes place in a land of magic that could exist at anytime, anywhere. Conductor Leopold Stokowski is the glue that holds the film together, introducing each segment and giving some context to the musical piece that is chosen as well as a slight framework for the animated interpretation of said music. It’s a smart move by filmmakers who understood that their likely audience would consist of animation lovers, not classical music aficionados.
The tones of the segments vary, as I alluded to, earlier. Beginning with a trippy visualization of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and ending with a battle between good and evil set to the melodic pair of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert, the film offers a little something for everyone. I enjoy “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as much as anyone, but I’m partial to the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, largely due to its use of uncharacteristically frightening imagery for an animated Disney film. It’s moody, atmospheric, and haunting, making it a perfect visualization of Mussorgsky’s piece.
All of this music is conducted by Stokowski and performed brilliantly by the Philadelphia Orchestra. During the fifteen-minute intermission, there’s a fun piece where they essentially jam. Stokowski then interacts directly with the audience, making it worth their while to stick around if nature isn’t calling too badly.
Fantasia is obviously unlike any other film out there (except for its sequel, Fantasia 2000, of course) and it’s not going to be for everyone. There is no traditional narrative and – outside of the introductions by Stokowski – no dialogue. The audience is required to watch consistently and engage mentally in order to achieve any sort of understanding or appreciation of the events that occur in each segment. Modern audiences would especially struggle with that idea as many of them enter severe Device Withdrawal after about six or seven minutes. But the film’s very concept required great creative initiative on the part of Walt Disney and that simply can’t be overlooked. He truly was a great visionary and set the bar for everything to come. Fantasia isn’t a concept likely to be replicated, or even borrowed from, anytime soon, but it’s a fascinating lesson in alternative methods of storytelling and should be required viewing for anyone who hopes to be a storyteller of some form, themselves, at any point in their life.
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