USA 1940, 125 minutes, Technicolor, Walt Disney Productions. Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures. Master of Ceremonies: Deems Taylor. Music performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Plot summary: Modern animation meets classical music, from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert.
Review: In the late 1920s and ’30s, Walt Disney first mixed animated pictures with classical music in a series of cartoon shorts called Silly Symphonies. As an advancement of this concept, he soon started working on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, based on Goethe’s famous poem and Paul Dukas’ composition. Created to boost Mickey Mouse, whose popularity had suffered in the shadow of the Silly Symphonies, the piece was colorful and lavish, and thus soon burst the budget. Without much ado, Mickey’s short was included in another production, a film Disney’s favorite mouse was destined to become the signature star of. Designed as a concert with a Master of Ceremonies, a famous conductor and a real orchestra, Disney’s third feature broke new ground. By combining live action scenes with animated stories, Fantasia blurred the lines of reality and imagination, of classical music and pop culture imagery.
Released on November 13, 1940 the film was received with mixed reviews and mild audience approval. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, the majority of moviegoers were looking for funny cartoons rather than sophisticated culture. Unfortunately, Fantasia didn’t attract music lovers either. Instead, they turned up their noses at Disney’s picturesque concept. For them, the animation destroyed the power of classical music and its most appealing effect, the stimulation of the human mind and its imagination. It presented prefabricated pictures rather than create an atmosphere that allowed the audience to form their own inside their heads. That form of criticism may sound peculiar to film enthusiasts. After all, a movie is nothing but a sequence of moving pictures. But it is also a fair argument for anyone who appreciates the fine art of music and all the emotions it evokes.
Re-released to theaters several times during the war and after, Fantasia had a hard time making enough money and was presented in different versions and shorter cuts. Released as part of the Walt Disney Classics collection in 1990, the film ultimately found everlasting success on VHS and laserdisc. It was available in its full glory on DVD and Blu-ray as a compilation with Fantasia 2000, a film that finally continued what Walt Disney himself had once planned to be a series of motion pictures inspired by the best of classical music and tales. Unfortunately it has since gone out of print.
Melanie Simone is a writer with a degree in American Studies and English. On Talking Classics, she savors her love for vintage Hollywood.
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