Fantasia (1940), a Disney animated feature-length “concert” film milestone, is an experimental film integrating eight magnificent classical musical compositions with enchanting, exhilarating, and imaginative, artistically-choreographed animation. The conceptual framework of the individual pieces embraces such areas as prehistoric times, the four seasons, nature, hell/heaven, the themes of light vs. darkness and chaos vs. order, dancing animals, classical mythology, and legend.
This Disney production was an ambitious experiment to try to popularize classical music, especially by accompanying it with animation. Originally, the film was to consist of only The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, but it was expanded to include the full anthology of shorts. And it was slightly controversial for its depiction of bare-breasted centaurettes in the Pastoral Symphony segment and other stereotypical racial depictions. [At the request of the Hays Production Code, the figures were garlanded with flower bras for cover-up after swimming in a brook. Also, in later releases of the film, in the Pastoral Symphony segment (again), two black Nubian/zebra centaurs who attend the Bacchus celebration were edited out, along with a female pickaninny centaurette with braided hair who shines the hoof of a white female centaurette.] Other segments, such as Ride Of The Valkyries, Swan of Tuonela, and Flight of the Bumblebee were storyboarded but never fully animated, and thus were never put into production for inclusion in future Fantasia-style releases.
As the film begins, musicians (cellists, violinists, brasses, wood-winds, etc.) of the Philadelphia Orchestra (to be conducted by Leopold Stokowski, the orchestra’s conductor from 1912 to 1938) are displayed in shadow and color and are silhouetted against a blue backdrop in the opening as they take their accustomed places and tune their instruments. Screen narrator Deems Taylor (popular musical commentator with the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts) welcomes the audience to a “new form of entertainment,” and in his introduction sets the scene:
What you’re going to see are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians which I think is all to the good.
The resident presenter of the NY first explains that there are three kinds of music: music that tells a definite story, music that paints a series of pictures, and “absolute music” that exists simply for its own sake.
There are eight memorable animated fantasies/sequences of the entire film.
1. J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
2. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite.
3. Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
4. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
5. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony.
6. Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours.
7. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.
8. Schubert’s Ave Maria.
– Tim Dirks