Mixing cartoons with classical music sounds like a surefire formula for financial and aesthetic disaster. At least, that’s what people said when animation mogul Walt Disney, in late 1937, announced his plans to turn a proposed Mickey Mouse short based on the Paul Dukas symphonic piece “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” into an omnibus feature set to works by the great composers. After some budget crises, passed deadlines and more than a few changes, his dream project, Fantasia, debuted on this date in 1940.
The first film to be released in stereophonic sound (the cost of installing sound systems in theaters added to Disney’s money woes), Fantasia received generally favorable reviews, but it failed to meet box office expectations in the U.S., and the loss of European and other foreign markets due to World War II meant it would be several decades, and several re-releases, before the picture would eventually show a profit. Don’t worry about the House of Mouse, though; the studio had a cartoon hit the following year with Dumbo.
Unfortunately, Disney did not see fit to release a 75th anniversary edition of Fantasia on DVD or Blu-ray this year (although our proud parent company, Movies Unlimited, does offer the original film soundtrack on CD for purchase). I couldn’t let such a milestone in animated cinema go by without some notice, however, so for those of you who have seen it, I’d like to hear from you about which musical segment of the picture is your favorite. In order, they are:
Overture — The picture above is Disney’s most famous ambassador welcoming famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to the podium. While the original soundtrack featured MovieFanFare’s hometown Philadelphia Orchestra, under Stokowski’s steady baton, the musicians you see in Fantasia’s live-action segments were filmed in Southern California with local musicians.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor — Written by Johann Sebastian Bach as an organ piece (and later to become associated with horror films), the itroductory segment lets viewers watch as the lights surrounding the orchestra slowly morphs into abstract representations, lines and geometric shapes of the melody and rhythm.
Nutcracker Suite — Several parts of Tchaikovsky’s Yuletide standard–including “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, “Chinese Dance”, “Russian Dance” and “Waltz of the Flowers”–are featured as the animators depict the changing of the seasons with autumn leaves, frost-spreading fairies, and adorable (if somewhat racist) dancing mushrooms. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only part of Fantasia to meet with controversy over racial stereotypes (see the Pastoral Symphony below).
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — Hands down the best-known selection to come from Fantasia was the one that inspired the film in the first place. Tired of lugging heavy buckets of water for his master, a powerful wizard (dubbed Yen Sid by the animators), Mickey Mouse “borrows” the mage’s hat and brings a broom to life to do his work for him. What could possibly go wrong? On a personal note, I love how in the final scene, after Mickey’s magical mess has been straightened out, a slight grin crosses the sorcerer’s face as he reprimands his errant assistant.
Rite of Spring — Did you know that Russia’s Igor Stravinsky was the only living composer to have his music featured in Fantasia? His tempestuous orchestral work, which inspired actual riots when it was premiered in 1913, was turned by Disney’s artists into a depiction of the evolution of life on Earth (although the original plans to include early man were curtailed so as not to offend religious moviegoers). Renowned explorer/paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews was consulted to make sure the prehistoric animals are depicted as realistically as possible (for 1940, anyway).
Intermission/Meet the Soundtrack — A stylized line comes to life and changes to fit the mood and the instruments as a melody is played.
Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) — Beethoven’s sixth symphony, an ode to the German countryside that inspired him on many a walk, is turned into a Classical Greek romp along an Olympian paradise that includes mischievous fauns, love-starved centaurs, a drunken Bacchus, and a lightning bolt-tossing Zeus. Until a 1969 re-issue, this sequence also, unfortunately, included shots of black “centaurettes” serving as maids and beauticians.
Dance of the Hours — Already one of the world’s most-performed ballet works in 1940, Amilcare Ponchielli’s gained new popularity when Disney set it to a dance company whose members included ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators. By the way, the head ostrich is Madame Upanova, the main hippo is named Hyancinth (remember her in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), that’s Elephanchine leading the bubble-blowing elephants, and one Ben Ali Gator is the lead reptile.
Night on Bald Mountain — If Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is evocative of screen horror, then Modest Mussorgsky’s musical depiction of an otherworldly gathering has become synonymous with the genre, with a link of one of Hollywood’s most famous fright icons. When the aniamtors needed a live actor for photo references so they could draw the Slavic demon Chernabog, they fittingly turned to Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi. Years later, studio artist Bill Tytla would say that the Lugosi footage was found to be unsuitable, and that director Wilfred Jackson wound up serving as Chernabog’s model (a claim that, according to horror movie maven Forrest J. Ackerman, was discounted by Walt Disney himself). Looking at the bat-winged monster come to life on the screen, however, it seems clear that Bela definitely had some influence on the final product.
Ave Maria — After the near-palpable presence of evil in “Night on Bald Mountain,” the coming of the dawn and the ringing of church bells that leads directly into Schubert’s “Ave Maria” comes as a welcome relief and an elegantly sublime conclusion to the film, as a torch-carrying procession of monks walks through the forest to worship at an old cathedral.
Happy 75th birthday, Fantasia. I saw you in 1969 or ’70 as a pre-teen, and you managed in two hours to help me enjoy classical music more than years of classes in school. Here’s hoping that Disney will come out with a 76th anniversary edition in 2016.
Which Fantasia segment is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.