Fantasia (1940)

Directed by: Samuel Armstrong/James Algar/Bill Roberts/Paul Satterfield/Ben Sharpsteen/David D. Hand/Hamilton Luske/Jim Handley/Ford Beebe/T. Hee/Norman Ferguson/Wilfred Jackson

Written by: Joe Grant/Dick Huemer


This is where things start to go wrong for Disney. Not through any fault of their own. Fantasia is a fantastic film that has influenced generations of filmmakers, musicians, composers and…um…stoners.

Unfortunately for Disney, there was this little thing called World War II. The Europeans were, understandably, not really going to many movies while bombs were bursting over their heads. So Fantasia bombed at the box office and put Disney in a tailspin for a while.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 1936, Disney wanted to do something special with Mickey. The little guy was starting to fade from peoples’ memories, so it was time to bring him back. He decided to go further with the Silly Symphonies concept and get a full orchestra to do a short film based on a poem by Goethe and set to music inspired by the poem. It was going to be a big, elaborate production. When Disney got conductor Leopold Stokoski involved, they decided to make a feature film based around classical music. They called up composer Deems Taylor to help select pieces to make a very special collection of short films that Taylor would introduce. It ended up being one of the most important animated films ever made.

The segments very in quality a bit but, for the most part, they’re pretty uniform. From the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the Rite Of Spring, I love them all. The weakest one was probably Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but only because it’s lost its innovation in the last 80 years. At the time, though, animation representing the sounds of an orchestra was revolutionary. This was heady stuff, back then! Now, it just seems quaint. Still fun, though.

Of course, there is some stuff that hasn’t aged well. The Asian mushrooms in Nutcracker Suite are pretty racist. And, without cutting the entire segment, they can’t really lose them.

The biggest one, of course, are the little black centaurs that shine the shoes of the other white centaurs in The Pastoral Symphony. It’s awful. It’s offensive. It’s racist. It’s a product of its unfortunate time. It’s been cut out of all releases of the film since 1964. And I completely understand that decision. I mean, it’s not QUITE depicting a racist stereotype of African Americans as slaves…but it’s pretty damn close.

Here’s my deal with ANY cut from a film for ANY reason: While I completely understand the decision and support it for a release for children…the original version should be available for adults who can discern the racism inherent in it. Personally, I would like to be allowed to have a copy of the original cut of the film. Not because I want to sit in my house and be racist, but because I’m an adult who is an amateur film historian. I like my movies without cuts, even if those cuts were made to make a movie more sensitive to every audience. I think it’s very important to be able to look at art from the past and see the beauty AND the pain. It needs the proper context. Absolutely. And put that context on there. Do what Warner Brothers did with the Looney Tunes cartoons and have Leonard Maltin explain the context to modern audiences. He did it with the Walt Disney Treasures disc. There are LOTS of racists stereotypes on those and he explains all of them before they’re shown. It’s awesome. Release a version of Fantasia that has both versions and have that sort of explanation on it. But also keep the children’s version out there so families can buy the expurgated version only. Let us have a choice.

(End soap box)

Anyway, Pastoral isn’t even my favorite segment. It’s hard to pick one, so I have a few:

Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Of course. This is Mickey at his finest. He’s mischievous (like he’s supposed to be) and lovable. Hell, man. He’s just looking for an easy way to clean the dungeon up! Who wouldn’t, when they’ve got a full book of magic spells in front of them?! Of course, it goes wrong and he ends up with a dungeon full of water and the Sorcerer (Yensid) has to come save him. It’s fun. It’s a little scary, but only because of the actions of one silly little mouse.

This is the first time that Mickey has pupils in his eyes! And he never looked back. (Ha. Haha. Ha.)

The Rite Of Spring: This is the one with the dinosaurs. It’s scary and actually kinda sad. Beautiful animation brings the dinosaurs to life and makes you really feel it when they’re killed by famine and drought.

The Dance Of The Hours: Crocs and hippos dancing ballet. What’s not to love? Some funny stuff here and cute animation.

Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria: Wow. Just…everything about this one is perfect. Terrifying. Dreadful. Powerful. Dark. And then, at the end, light. Inspired by the expressionist masterpiece, Faust, this one has brought nightmares for generations.

The innovation in this film is amazing. Not just in the animation and music, but in the presentation. Disney and his crew basically created surround sound (FANTASOUND!) to make the audience feel like they were actually at a concert. The film was put on a road show schedule and the sound system was carried around with the print to be set up each time it was screened. He wanted to film it in widescreen (which was in its infancy at the time), but couldn’t get the cameras built. He had to go with Academy ratio.

Disney’s original intent was to rerelease the film every few years with a new segment replacing one of the existing segments. Unfortunately, because the film was such a financial bomb, this wasn’t feasible and, until 1999, Fantasia stayed the same. That was the year of a big rerelease with new segments and Steve Martin as the master of ceremonies. We’ll get to that version later, though.

The Disney company was never quite the same after Fantasia. They had to scale back quite a bit and, while they would release innovative films in the future, it would take them years to do it and they would never be as experimental as this one. (They also wouldn’t be as long. At a little over two hours, this is the longest Disney animated feature.) There were a couple more classics in the pipes, but really only because they were already in production. Not because Disney was doing super well.