The Walt Disney Studio is responsible for some of the greatest films of all time, but it’s also responsible for a certain limited idea of what film can do, and has been since long before the current debate over their “theme park movies.” On the one hand, they’ve created many of the defining images of our collective childhood. But on the other, they did that by plundering past generations’ childhoods for source material, taking stories that have endured for decades if not centuries and sanding down their thorny complexities and mythic resonances to fit into a formula designed for light, disposable entertainment. They bastardize the art of visionaries like Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen to satisfy the demands of commerce — and yet, at its best, Disney is capable of artistry that’s equal to anyone else in the field, and superior to most. And if you ever need proof the studio is more than just a branding exercise, you can’t do better than Fantasia. It shows everything that Disney can be at its best, while mostly keeping a lid on what it can be at its worst, a film that contemporary critic Bosley Crowther describes says “dumps conventional formulas overboard and reveals the scope of films for imaginative excursion.”
That’s an odd thing to say about a movie that provided the central image for so much of Disney’s branding, of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which opened each of their VHS tapes for years. (When I tried to describe it to some high classmates in a high school film course, one of them said, “You just described all of them!”) But it’s also a deeply uncommercial project, often approaching art for art’s sake: a plotless anthology film, made up of segments that often had no plot in themselves when they weren’t completely abstract. The only throughline is classical music, which was an elite pursuit even in 1940. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that it was a massive flop that scared Disney into doubling down on their crowd-pleasing formulas through the postwar era and beyond. That’s not entirely on the audience: the Great War cut off the overseas market, and like John Hammond, Disney spared no expense in realizing his vision: he insisted on installing special “Fantasound” speaker systems in every theater screening Fantasia that made it almost impossible to turn a profit. Other ambitious projects like Disneyland and the pivot to feature animation with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs have been labeled “Disney’s Folly,” but maybe Fantasia has earned that title more.
If it has though, it’s a splendid folly. Fantasia shows the studio at its height, as it continued fine-tuning the animation process. With little more than ink and paint, they created a richness of texture that computer animation took years of technological innovation to equal. (And some scenes, like the floating violin bridges in Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, look eerily like CGI to the modern eye.) The rocks are as solid as rock, and the steam is as wispy as steam. The stars really shine, and the water really reflects them, and every single drop of that water is painted in detail and moves like it really would move. In many ways, what the animators accomplished here is more spectacular than what modern animators can do.
Fantasia doubles the tactility, letting us recognize the textures of what’s being represented and the medium used to represent it, which could be anything from watercolor to dry brush to pastel to pencil to transparent overlay. And that presence of the paint paradoxically makes the film more magical by revealing it’s all just a trick. Like I said recently, a good magician may not reveal his secrets, but half the fun is being able to guess what they are anyway. And “computers” is always going to be a far less satisfying answer. (That said, I feel a little silly going on an on about the technique without being able to actually describe it any detail, so it’s nice to know that was by design: Disney dismantled the equipment after completing Fantasia, and the effects were under debate for decades until an animator’s resurfaced decades later.)
Fantasia’s sensuousness is that much more unique because Disney would lose sight of it before too long. In the fifties and beyond, they’d ditch the watercolors and mixed media for flatter, simpler colors. The images wouldn’t regain their complexity until technological shortcuts made it more feasible in Disney’s nineties “renaissance” — and they’d finally embrace watercolor again for their swan song, Lilo and Stitch which is, not coincidentally, one of their best. No other film emphasizes the sensuousness of animation quite like Fantasia, though. It takes all the detail that normally occupies the background — glittering dewdrops, dancing flames — and puts it in the foreground, letting it mesmerize us with its minute and exacting reproduction of reality. There’s a reenactment on the old Disneyland show of animators dropping rocks into mud and playing back the footage frame-by-frame to create the churning lava in The Rite of Spring. And even if you didn’t know that, the result is so lifelike that, deep down, you probably already suspected it.
We shouldn’t overstate Fantasia’s status as fine art, though. It’s still pop art through and through, to a point that it’s far less beloved by fans of classical music than animation. We can’t know what most of the composers would think of what Disney did to their work, but the one living contributor, Igor Stravinsky, was appalled at how the animators chopped up and reassembled The Rite of Spring to better fit their images, and Pauline Kael agreed, dismissing the result as “kitschy.” Even conductor Leopold Stokowski, a committed anti-snob who loved the project so much he offered to work for free, could get fed up with Walt Disney’s philistinism. There’s a story that they listened to the score together with Walt constantly fiddling with the volume knobs until Stokowski finally blew up, “Let the loud part be loud and the quiet part be quiet!”
Still, it’s hard to find any commercial aspirations in Toccata and Fugue. Fantasia throws viewers straight into the deep end with a collection of abstract images straight out of an avant-garde filmmaker like Stan Brakhage or Norman McLaren; I was only a little surprised to discover that Walt was inspired by the experimental animator Len Lye. Fantasia was also one of the studio’s first forays into live action, and the images of the orchestra silhouetted against the blank wall, their instruments glowing with hues only Technicolor could reproduce, or casting long, multicolored shadows behind Stokowski as he conducts them, are just as striking as the animation. When the animation does show up, it’s the purest expression of what makes Fantasia so great, freeing the animators from the structure of stories and gags to glory in the beauty of images for their own sake.
From there, we only get slightly closer to traditional narrative with The Nutcracker Suite, which has recognizable characters but is less of a story than a mood piece on nature and the seasons. It begins and ends with fairies personifying seasonal transitions — and let me tell you, you haven’t really seen it until you’ve seen it while you’re babysitting a verbose five-year-old giving an impromptu but totally authoritative lecture on the subject. But most of the characters are hardly personified at all. A major part of the Disney formula, especially in the Silly Symphonies that were a kind of Fantasia prototype, was anthropomorphizing anything and everything. Often, they took it so far that the characters barely resembled what they were supposed to be anymore — as animator Ward Kimball said of Jiminy Cricket in the same year’s Pinocchio, “He was a cricket because we said he was a cricket.” This is one of the many reasons Fantasia is so much more artfully subtle than its peers. The animators don’t need to put a face on a flower to turn it into a ballerina — they just turn it inside out and trust our brains to do the rest.
In The Rite of Spring, the animators prove they can give even a primordial single-celled organism a cartoon personality as it noses around curiously and eskimo kisses with its flagellum, and the red dot floating inside gleams with intelligence like a human eye. Another chases after it, its amorphous shape forming into a mouth, and with a few carefully placed lines, this unknowable thing immediately resonates with every cartoon dog snapping at a cat. Maybe the animators did that just to prove they could before treating the dinosaurs with absolutely no human personality at all. There’s a few exceptions, with some cute little baby dinos exploring their surroundings. But for the most part, these dinosaurs, like Grizzly Man’s grizzlies, have faces that show “no kinship, no understanding, no mercy…only the overwhelming indifference of nature” and “a half-bored interest in food.”
This is the farthest thing from the sentimentalized version of nature we imagine when we think of Disney. This is the brutal, elemental world of eat or be eaten, as demonstrated when a pteranodon grabs a fish out of the water only for a water-dwelling monster to snap its neck and drag it, still kicking, below. This sequence deals with death, and even the death of all life on earth, far more brutally than you’d ever expect from Disney. Everyone remembers the fight between the stegosaurus and the T. rex. But what sticks with me most is a scene of the dinosaurs’ last moments, as the T. rex, now too weak to be any threat, walks side by side with the other species in search of water. It falls over dead, and we know it’s dead because as it falls, its neck bends backwards in a sickening way no living creature’s ever should.
In his exhaustingly long-winded introduction, composer/critic Deems Taylor says, “When Igor Stravinsky wrote his ballet, The Rite of Spring, his purpose was, in his own words, to ‘express primitive life.’ And so Walt Disney and his fellow artists have taken him at his word.” It’s harder to argue with that, except to say that “primal” might be an even better word. Because Rite of Spring resonates with our own dinosaurian lizard brains in its timeless struggles between elemental forces. Many of the most powerful scenes don’t feature the dinosaurs, or any living things at all, but the primal forces of the earth itself, reforming itself as lava glows brilliant red and mountains rise out of the earth, rough pencil shading shimmering as they do. And despite Stravinsky’s objections to how his music was rewritten, it’s hard to imagine that blood-freezing RRRROOONK! scoring anything else.
It’s no wonder the intermission is placed after Rite of Spring — any audience would need to catch their breath after that. At its best, Fantasia exists at this kind of earth-shattering mythic scale. Just look at Mickey Mouse calling down the stars in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or the devil summoning the forces of hell in Night on Bald Mountain.* It’s fitting that, as both characters gesture with their outspread arms, they look more than a little like Stokowski — music itself seems to be magic.
But Fantasia can’t keep that mythic resonance up forever. Ironically, it falls apart when it comes time to adapt literal mythology — and since that sequence accompanies Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Fantasia lets down its two most prestigious source materials at once. This is the Disney people are thinking of when they use “Disneyfied” as an insult, with everything intriguing and adult stripped away to make room for cutesiness intense enough to make a Care Bear retch.
Deems Taylor promises us a scene in the shadows of Mount Olympus, but what we get looks more like a Lisa Frank notebook cover. There’s a bacchanal, but the scene that’s become synonymous with wild debauchery looks about as debauched as a PTA meeting, and Bacchus himself doesn’t resemble an ancient divinity so much as the world’s oldest baby. Other characters from mythology are all here and all equally defanged, from Zeus and Hephaestos to satyrs, centaurs, and — here’s where Deems Taylor introduces to our language the one word guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of every Classical scholar on earth — centaurettes.
Even when Zeus attacks the party with literal thunderbolts from heaven, there’s no real sense of danger or drama. His heavenly blacksmith is a goofball hayseed, and Zeus himself lazily kicks the bolts off his cloud as he rolls over like a slob falling asleep on the couch. I’m sure Beethoven saw many great visions as he sweated over his great opus, but I doubt any of them involved a cute little baby angel’s butt forming the shape of a heart.
The animators seem not have been much more invested in the sequence than I did, because it shows far less painstaking effort than the rest. They couldn’t be bothered to fix a simulated panning shot where a bush in the foreground somehow follows the camera as it moves. And compare any other scene to the one here where a satyr frolics through a nauseatingly Pepto-pink meadow while the petals of each flower stay stubbornly in place.
In its sanitized, kid-friendly vision, The Pastoral Symphony only emphasizes the true ugliness that it can’t cover up: the original release famously included a hideously caricatured black centaurette shining a white centaurette’s hooves. And Disney’s very touchy about sanitizing its sanitization. Even the current release, proudly labeled “Uncut!” restores what seems like hours of Deems Taylor droning on and an inexplicable bit of comic relief where a set of chimes falls over. But they still couldn’t acknowledge the black centaurette: they restored the scene, but cropped her out of it. As our own Anthony Pizzo describes it, “I love the moment in The Pastoral Symphony where they crop the film so hard and do not care that it is so jarring because leaving the film unaltered at that point would be even worse.” (Not that Disney seems to care half as much about the Chinese mushrooms — they’re even on the cover of my DVD!)
This isn’t the only section where Disney lapses back into cartoon territory, of course; it’s immediately followed by a Dance of the Hours performed by increasingly unlikely species of zoo animals, and of course, we can’t forget Mickey himself. But The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has a deep magic and dignity to it that The Pastoral Symphony lacks, and that’s only accentuated by the dinky little figure at its center. I’ve mentioned the cosmic spectacle of Mickey’s dream sequence, but has there ever been a more perfect image of futility than the brooms continuing to fill the cauldron after it’s totally underwater? And then there’s the menacing figure of the wizard, based on Walt Disney himself — as anyone who’s played Kingdom Hearts knows, the animators even called him Yen Sid, or “Disney” backwards.
For a product of the studio that’s become synonymous with the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, Fantasia is a stunning example of the restless innovation it was founded on. Walt had even more experimental ideas for Fantasia — he envisioned it as a perpetual work-in-progress that could run indefinitely with a rotating selection of shorts. Its box-office flop pretty thoroughly squashed those plans, and what could have been a game-changer instead became a one-off. To this day, it’s still a strange, unique piece of film history that’s unlikely to ever be replicated, drastically underrated sequel aside. The desire to create animation this intricately beautiful simply for its own sake doesn’t often coincide with the resources to make it happen — and the film’s box office failure made sure they never coincided again, at least in Hollywood. All the more reason to treasure the film we have.
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* I’m sure there’ll be some corrections over my terminology here, since the character has always been officially described as “Chernabog.” And yes, his animator, Vladimir “Bill” Tytla has said he was inspired by childhood stories of the Slavic god of evil. But the film itself calls him “Satan,” so I can only chalk up the discrepancy to Disney knowing they couldn’t get mothers to buy little Satan dolls for their kids. That said, Tytla’s animation deserves a special mention. In contrast to most portrayals of devils as cunning and calculating, Tytla’s is, like the dinosaurs, all the more frightening for his animalistic unintelligence. He grins like some horrible ape or predatory animal, and doesn’t seem to have any evil schemes more complicated than playing with his followers for his own childish amusement and throwing them into the flames as soon as he gets bored with them.