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“In our ordinary stuff, our music is always under action, but on this … we’re supposed to be picturing this music-not the music fitting our story.” — Walt Disney
Walt Disney was not a music buff. He could appreciate it, sure, but classical music was not really his thing. So one day, he came up with the idea of putting classical music to beautiful animation, thereby making it accessible to a wider audience. So, did Walt Disney succeed in bringing culture to us common rubes?
During the production of Snow White and Pinocchio, the Disney studio was also continuing to work on shorts. Several of those, including The Wise Little Hen and The Whoopee Party, introduced a slew of new characters to the Disney lineup. Donald Duck in particular was threatening to eclipse the popularity of Walt’s beloved Mickey Mouse. This just would not do.
To boost Mickey’s flagging popularity, Walt and his team started on the creation of a new kind of Silly Symphony. Normally, music was added to the animation. This time, animation would be added to the music. It was going to be a masterpiece, something that would completely revolutionize the field of animation. Again.
Roy E. Disney, ever the pragmatic one, took one look at the massively expensive short and probably had about nine heart attacks. The thing was about four times more expensive than anyone had anticipated, and as usual, it was the businessman’s job to reign in his brother’s crazy dreams. There was just no way a simple short could ever make back such an astronomical budget.
Undeterred, Walt declared that if The Sorcerer’s Apprentice couldn’t make back its budget as a short, then it would make it back as a feature. He’d string together a whole bunch of shorts inspired by thoughts and ideas his animators had while listening to various pieces of classical music. Not only that, he was going to make the whole experience of seeing this feature feel like a trip to an actual concerto. He devised a primitive version of surround sound called Fantasound that had to be set up to replace theatres’ existing sound systems. He even wanted smells to be piped into each theatre to make moviegoers feel like they were actually in the story. And every year, Fantasia was to be rereleased with shorts swapped in and out to showcase new stories and new techniques.
Fantasia debuted as a roadshow, further underscoring how unique a feature it was. It debuted in New York City’s Broadway Theatre, and only twelve other theatres were outfitted to show the film as intended. Moviegoers were given actual programs like they were at a real concert. Except for the one famously scathing one who likened it to have a nervous breakdown (some people), critics absolutely adored it, praising the combination of music and visuals and the overall unique experience. So, with that and the cultural juggernaut this film has become today, you’d think it was a huge success, right?
Fantasia flopped hard. Not only was it, like Pinocchio, released while the European market was distracted with a little thing called World War II, only releasing a movie in thirteen theatres turned out to be a very bad idea. I mean, way to limit your audience, guys. Also, the costs of making the movie and installing the Fantasound system in every theatre was astronomically expensive and the film was kind of a niche thing even back then. It’s a real shame, too. You can only imagine what the worlds of film and animation would have been like if the incredible technical marvels in this movie had taken off.
There’s no point in dwelling on what-ifs, I guess. As it stands, Fantasia didn’t really find its audience until 1969 when hippies got really into it due to its psychedelic imagery. Yeah. Really. Disney was understandably not thrilled about this new periphery demographic but between this and Alice in Wonderland it made them a ton of money so whatever I guess.
Subsequent rereleases have launched parts of it, especially Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Night on Bald Mountain, into public consciousness and now it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time. Walt’s dream of reusing the Fantasia format was finally realized in 1999 when Fantasia 2000… also flopped. But we’ll get there when we get there. Another sequel, Fantasia 2006 was planned but ultimately scrapped.
Because this one is a series of shorts, I’m going to review it more like I did with the Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Shorts than like I did Snow White or Pinocchio. Each segment does stand alone and frankly, all I have to say about the sections narrated by Deems Taylor are that they’re boring and unnecessary. You don’t have to summarize the shorts, man. I’m going to watch them. I’ll get the story that way. Thanks.
Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor (Johann Sebastian Bach)
The first segment in the film depicts what the film calls “absolute music.” It doesn’t tell any kind of story. It’s supposed to represent what the general audience sees when they let their minds wander. To which I reply… what.
You know, I don’t even think I can summarize this one. Either the general public has some crazy synesthesia or I can see where those hippies came from. It starts with the orchestra’s sillouhettes backed by different colors including a really neat shot of the timpani lighting up as it’s hit. And then… after that it’s kind of like watching Windows Media Player for eight minutes.
In fairness, it’s beautifully animated, but not my favorite segment, that’s for sure.
NUTCRACKER SUITE (PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY)
This one is much more enjoyable! It tells a definite story, albeit not really the one that people associate with this music. As a writer, it’s much easier for me to sit through something without dialogue if there’s a narrative, even if it’s something as simple as the changing of the seasons. This is probably actually my second favorite piece in Fantasia. We’ll get to the first later.
Interesting thing, Taylor says that the original ballet was a failure and no one performs it nowadays. For years I thought that line was tongue-in-cheek because of course, the Nutcracker is performed every Christmas and is incredibly well-known. But upon doing research for this review, I learned that it was obscure in 1940. The more you know.
The short opens with pretty sparkly fairies putting pretty sparkly dew on pretty sparkly leaves and flowers. The animation here is stunning, especially on the dandelion fluff and the spider web. It’s so brightly colored, and to think that all that glittering dew was animated by hand blows my mind. Old hand-drawn animation does that a lot. I loooove the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies. Love it love it love it.
The fairies dance and do their thing, finally colliding in a burst of glorious glitter. When the fairy dust clears, the camera closes in on… mushrooms. And the Chinese Dance segment begins.
Ohhh, the Chinese Dance. The sequence is simple enough, with the bigger mushrooms dancing and little Hop Low trying to catch up. But with the pointy hats and slanty eyes, there’s no mistaking these guys are a racist caricature of Chinese people. The animators swear the scene was inspired by The Three Stooges but… well, you can see the picture. It’s amazing to me that these guys feature on pins and topiaries around the parks. You’ll see later in the film that they recognize the 40’s studio’s racism was unacceptable. But this bit… yeesh.
We then uncomfortably move past the dated stereotypes and take a left turn back into the land of the abstract for Dance of the Reed Flutes. Flower petals float on the water, then invert themselves and start twirling around. They spin and spin and are eventually joined by bubbles until they throw themselves off a waterfall. Yeah, that’s it. It’s pretty and I can see where it inspired future Disney films. The part I chose for the picture bears a striking resemblance to a similar sequence with napkins in the Be Our Guest scene of Beauty and the Beast. That said, I feel like it’s weirdly out of place in the Nutcracker segment, though that may be because it’s not nearly as well known as the fairies or the mushrooms.
After the flower petals pull a Pocahontas and dive off the waterfall, we follow the camera down into the bottom of the… river? Lake? Ocean? Man, I don’t know. But the Arabian Dance is populated by Cleo’s cousins, flipping around and flashing their fins. The animators have drastically improved their underwater animation since Pinocchio, which is really saying something because Pinocchio looked amazing. Apparently it caused so many headaches that they refused to do another underwater sequence again until the 80s, but at least this looks spectacular.
I found myself mesmerized by the movement of the fish’s fins, which were fittingly inspired by the Arabian veil dancers the animators hired as a reference. That said, fish making bedroom eyes at me has not become any less uncomfortable since the last movie. It’s weird. Pls stop.
After being propositioned by a fish there is a REALLY jarring transition that almost sounds like a scare chord. The Russian Dance is a fun little segment with colorful thistles and posies doing that stereotypical Cossack dance. This one’s almost exactly the same thing as the Chinese Dance, but it doesn’t get nearly as much flak. I guess blatant stereotyping is okay if they’re caricatures of white people. That said, it’s a bright, fun, uptempo piece with bright, fun, uptempo dancing that is a blast to watch.
We transition back to our fairy friends for Waltz of the Flowers, which is also gorgeous. They turn the forest foliage into their fall colors. Then the orange and red leaves dance with some white floofy things which is totally the technical term. And then we get some more truly exquisite glitter effects as the fairies cover the forest with frost. They freeze over a pond and ice skate over it and pretty spiky icy pattern follow their feet. And it is a joy to watch and I love it. The fairies fly into the sky and join with snowflakes that fall down in front of the camera.
While I was researching, I found out that those snowflakes were actually filmed in live action. The snowflakes were built and sent down this roller-coaster looking track. The animators then drew the fairies directly over the footage from that. It’s another example of the fascinating special effects that wowed critics and pushed the limits of the medium.
Nutcracker isn’t super prominent in the parks, but it’s there if you know where to look. One room in the Days of Christmas store in Disney Springs features the fairies peeking down from the ceiling. Hop Low and his mushroom friends appear as topiaries during Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival in the springtime. I’ve also been hearing the music more often because the live action Nutcracker and the Four Realms came out recently, though that may not last long because apparently that movie was terrible.
I’m very, very fond of this segment, in case you couldn’t tell. The fairies are so much fun to watch and glitter makes everything better. The dancing flowers and especially the mushrooms can be a little cringey, but they’re still enjoyable because they’re so well animated and exude so much personality.
THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (PAUL DUKAS)
You’ve probably seen this one. Or at least parts of it. Based on the poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (hey, look I found some source material to share!), it tells the story of a boy who tries a little of his master’s magic and gets in way over his head because he doesn’t know how to stop it. As previously mentioned, this short is the one that inspired the whole idea of Fantasia, and it totally worked to bring Mickey back into the public eye.
It’s not often anymore that you see Mickey portrayed as mischevious and flawed, but it makes him so much more interesting to watch. I’ve always found it interesting that modern portrayals of Sorcerer Mickey tend to make him look like he’s actually super powerful and amazing. That’s not what really happens at all. He’s a screw up. That’s the whole point. Then again, Fantasmic! wouldn’t really be the same without that awesome finale with Sorcerer Mickey on the mountain so whatever.
The other central character in this short is the Sorcerer himself, Master Yen Sid (for a bit of trivia that every Disney fan worth their pixie dust knows, spell it backwards). The animators created the stern and scary sorcerer with their boss in mind. The disapproving eyebrow raise was a perfect replica of the one Walt gave them when he wasn’t happy with his work. I’m not sure if Walt ever actually knew what they did but it seems too obvious for him not to. Hopefully he took it well!
The short begins with Master Yen Sid casting spells. In a movie with a plot, the smoke bat he created would have been foreshadowing for Chernabog because I swear it looks just like him. Side note, a lot of merchandise actually makes it look like Mickey was going to fight Chernabog. That, of course, doesn’t happen, but it would have been awesome. Anyway, the bat turns into a beautifully animated smoke butterfly, then disintegrates into magic sparkles (SPARKLES!). Satisfied with his day’s work, Yen Sid yawns and sets his hat on the table before retiring.
While he’s doing what he’s doing, his apprentice Mickey is carrying buckets of water to a basin. He picks up the hat and mimics Master Yen Sid while ordering a broom around. He uses the power of the hat to animate the broom. Satisfied with his work, he falls asleep in Yen Sid’s chair. There’s a dream sequence where Mickey’s on top of the world conducting the very heavens. It’s the scene that’s always in everything when the parks or merchandisers are showing off how great and powerful Mickey is. But that’s not what’s actually happening literally at all.
What’s actually happening literally at all is that the brooms are flooding the whole castle dungeon thing. Mickey wakes up when water splashes over his face. Panicking, Mickey tries to cancel the spell but the magic doesn’t work. Panicking more, he seizes an axe and in a frenzied rage that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie (funny how old-time Disney keeps doing those), chops the broom to bits.
The use of color and shadow in this part are incredible and terrifying. As he’s chopping the struggling broom, the colors go bright red and caustic yellow, contrasted with the black shadow. As Mickey sighs in relief, everything turns completely black and white. And when the broom reanimates, the color slowly bleeds back. It’s one of the most perfect examples of the animation fitting the music in the entire film.
Not only does the broom reanimate, each of the splinters morph into a whole new broom. Hundreds and hundreds of brooms stomp right over Mickey on their endless quest to carry a ludicrous amount of water. The castle now resembles nothing as much as an actual ocean. Mickey seizes a floating spellbook that somehow hasn’t gotten waterlogged and flips frantically to find the spell to make them stop. He’s caught in a whirlpool and ends up grabbing it in a desperate, futile attempt to keep floating above water.
Naturally, since his whole castle is flooded, Yen Sid wakes up. He storms down because how dare anyone interrupt his beauty sleep, and flings the water aside like Moses. Walt’s eyebrow arches at Mickey, asking him exactly what he thinks he was doing. Mickey smiles sheepishly and hands back the now-inanimate broom. The short ends with Yen Sid whalloping his disobedient apprentice with it.
It’s a fun little morality piece about the dangers of starting things you can’t start. The music is so iconic and brings back so many memories, even though I don’t think I actually saw Fantasia in its entirety until I was in college. The dark yet playful melody is almost as iconic as When You Wish Upon a Star, and it’s not even technically a Disney song! The animation here is incredible too. Colors and shadow alone tell the story almost as well as the music does, and not just in the scene I was just gushing about. When Mickey’s on top of the world, his shadow takes up the whole wall. And when everything’s falling apart, there’s splashes of bright white light interspersed with the water. It’s a nice reversal of the usual tropes the likes of which we won’t see again until Tarzan.
Naturally, since it’s Mickey, Sorcerer’s Apprentice has an absolutely massive park presence. The hat used to be the icon of the entire Hollywood Studios park for goodness’ sake! As far as things that are still there go, Disney’s All Star Movies Resort in Orlando has an entire Fantasia section of rooms. One building is The Steadfast Tin Soldier from Fantasia 2000, and the other is Yen Sid’s Hat. The main pool is Sorcerer’s Apprentice, too, naturally, with Mickey on the cliff rising above the pool.
Sorcerer Mickey is also the central character of Fantasmic! at Hollywood Studios, Disneyland, and Tokyo DisneySea. The latter has a really cool sorcerer’s hat water float in it, too. Also in Hollywood Studios, Mickey greets guests in- you guessed it- his sorcerer get up, complete with dancing brooms. That park also features topiaries of Mickey and his brooms outside the park. Mickey’s Philharmagic in the Magic Kingdom centers on a plot of Donald stealing the hat and being sent on a wild journey through several Disney scenes, one of which is the brooms. And finally, Yen Sid plays a large role in the Mickey and the Magical Map show over at Disneyland. There are tons and tons more, but if I list all the Mickey Mouse appearances in the parks, we’ll be here all day.
After Sorcerer’s Apprentice, there’s a weird little interlude where the animated Mickey runs up to the stage to shake Stokowski’s hand. This is unintentionally hilarious because Stokowski clearly is not an actor. The way he delivers his lines makes it sound like he has no idea what just happened and it makes me laugh every time. Also a guy drops his tube bells and they left it in the final cut of the movie. Good job, bro.
RITE OF SPRING (IGOR STRAVINSKY)
The Rite of Spring was meant to show a tribal peoples’ ritual involving a young girl dancing until she died. Somehow, the animators decided that wasn’t appropriate for a film aimed at all ages and decided to make it a story of evolution. Walt actually wanted to go all the way up until man’s discovery of fire, but was overruled for fear of offending creationists. And I’m not touching that one with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole.
Deems Taylor gives us the longest intro yet in which he refers to dinosaurs as gangsters which is about the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard. And then we fade to… nothing. Nothing at all. Darkness. No parents. Continued darkness. Then, a galaxy that HAS to be a photograph of spilled glitter or SOMETHING because there is no WAY that is a DRAWING comes into view. Some pretty colors dart across the screen and for a second I thought I was accidentally watching Toccata and Fugue again. The music hits and a volcano erupts with each musical sting. It’s perfectly timed and looks great.
But then another volcano erupts. And another. And another. And then you get like ten minutes of erupting volcanoes and bubbling lava and lava floes. It looks great but my God there’s only so much I can take. And also? Lava doesn’t flow like waterfalls unless it’s really really ridiculously hot. This was just like red waterfalls. That’s not how lava works. For shame.
Finally, the lava flows unrealistically down a cliff and into the ocean. Now it’s the water’s turn to splash around. Which it does. For quite a while. Along with wind and thunder that, like the volcanoes, hit in perfect unison with the music. We dive into the ocean and watch some amoeba and stuff float around in the ocean and a fish evolve legs. I’d go into more detail about this, but frankly this is the point where I just got bored. This is a massive detriment to this segment, I think. Everything about it looks fantastic but it just goes on for way too long. Maybe it’s my 21st century short attention span not appreciating art, but the reason I enjoyed Nutcracker Suite was that things were happening. There may not have been a narrative, but things were changing. It was so much more pleasant to watch.
As if the movie heard my cries, suddenly, the ocean fades out. And…
Ugh, it’s such a relief when you finally see the dinosaurs start. They’re not doing much, just eating, being eating, looking after their eggs, living their lives. They’re also a weird mishmash of dinosaurs from completely different time periods. But stuff is happening. And another neat thing is that this was one of the first times dinosaurs were shown living in family groups or being quick and agile. It did a lot to change the modern perception of dinosaurs.
Oh, yeah, and the fight between the stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus is awesome. Everything about it (except for the fact that they didn’t live anywhere near each other in time or space) is beautifully staged, dramatic, even a little scary. The part where the T-Rex chomps on the stegosaurus’s neck and the stegosaurus flails around until it dies is intense for a Disney film. Spoilers, I know. But it’s just so, so good.
And then everything goes wrong. The dinosaurs walk across a terrible, bleak landscape. They mouth at dried out vegetation as the sun blazes above them. They drink from mud just to get some kind of water. They step into tar pits for some relief from the sun and end up getting stuck until they die. You actually see the dinosaur’s bodies give out, watch them collapse dead on the sand. It’s very sad, especially when you compare it to the fantastic show of power just a minute earlier. It’s also very reminiscent of the Dust Bowl that ravaged the midwest just a year or two before the movie came out.
Clouds eclipse the sun and suddenly the drums start rolling. The whole screen starts shaking with a massive earthquake and a flood of Biblical proportions sweeps across the screen. The camera pans back up to the sky and the short fades out.
When this short is good, it’s really good. When it’s not it’s really not. Even Igor Stravinsky, the only then-living composer with work in the film, hated what they did here. He said they chopped up his work and gave it a story completely alien to what he’d intended as an artist, which, honestly? Fair. Mostly, I just think it drags. Should have stuck to the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are cool.
Even though it’s a little lackluster, Rite of Spring does have some presence in the parks. The Primeval World sequence on the Disneyland Railroad features the battle between the stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus, which until last year was also displayed on the Universe of Energy ride in Epcot. The Restarauntosaurus quick service location in Disney’s Animal Kingdom has prints from the film scattered around the walls among other pieces of dinosaur memorabilia.
MEET THE SOUNDTRACK
… why? I get that they wanted to add a little levity to the film, especially since we ended the last piece on such a bleak note. But this just feels so silly and shoehorned in. Even Deems Taylor feels uncomfortable with the dialogue on this one. His introductions of the different instruments the soundtrack produces feel even more dry and stilted than his introductions- and this is him trying to be funny.
Beyond that, it just feels unnecessary. The movie has already established that “every beautiful sound produces an equally beautiful picture”. That’s literally the entire premise of Fantasia. Waveforms look cool and all, but… why?
I do like the little jazz interlude that happens right before it, though. That’s a lot of fun.
PASTORAL SYMPHONY (LUDWIG VON BEETHOVEN)
This is another piece I’m very fond of. It’s just so sweet and brightly colored in my opinion perfectly encompasses what Disney is all about. I’ve also always been a big fan of Greek myths, and this was the first time they were depicted in animation (but not the last!). Sure, the piece is extremely problematic, but this is a case where Disney recognized that and took steps to fix it (we’ll get there when we get there). What’s left is absolutely charming. I know a lot people think this is the weakest segment, but I am not one of those people.
After another interminable introduction in which Deems Taylor mixes up Greek and Roman gods to my great annoyance, we see a lovely sunrise over Mount Olympus. And what’s next is just the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Cute little baby unicorns run across the plain and a bunch of little baby satyrs prance around and the unicorns run around ’cause they wanna dance too and they play tag and a unicorn licks a satyr’s face and oh my god it’s so cute!!!
And then we get to see the PEGASI!!! And they’re EVEN CUTER! They’re all flyin’ all graceful and proud and stuff behind their pretty white Mama and their big scary black Daddy with his scary glowy red eyes. And but the little black Pegasus keeps falling down and he ends up tumbling into a bunch of blossoms and snorts one over his nose. Mama Pegasus picks him up with a look that clearly says “I love my idiot son” and the idiot son keeps trying to fly with his lil legs flailing and he actually gets airborne and picks his own lil booty up with his tail and he’s so cute I want to die.
All the Pegasi fly around majestically and the lil black one flails his lil feets. They land in the water and swim around like beautiful graceful swans. The family is joined by more Pegasi and the animation on their reflections in the water is stunning. The babies play in the water and a lot of them dive under and come up different colors but I’m not even about the animation mistakes because these things are just the cutest frickin things I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’ll stop with the baby talk now. I’m not even sorry. I just REALLY LOVE THE PEGASI.
The camera tracks a flower over a waterfall and reveals a pool where lots of girls are bathing. One of them steps out and we see she’s a “centaurette” which is not a real word shut up Deems Taylor. She and her friends have their hair braided and brushed by a bunch of weird creepy little cupids. Aaand this is where the problematic part happens.
Or, rather, happened. Originally, the above screencap was a wide shot of the centaurette having her hooves polished by one of the worst racial stereotypes Disney’s ever done. Like, Sunflower was up there with the Natives from Peter Pan. Sunflower was a little African-American centaurette girl with the big stereotypical lips and wild hair and the lower body of a donkey. She’s completely subservient to the white-coded centaurettes, polishing their hooves and braiding their tails along with the cupids. I’m not linking a photo of this. It’s rough.
Fortunately, someone in Disney noticed her before the 60s rerelease and had the good sense to cut her out. Normally, I’m not one for censoring art. I think the Looney Toons team has the right idea with putting a disclaimer before their work, and I wish Disney would do the same with some of their other works instead of banning them outright. (EDIT: In the years since this review went up, Disney+ has done exactly that!) But Sunflower is appalling, and what’s worse, she seems to be in there for no reason at all other than to mock African-American people. She’s not plot relevant like the crows from Dumbo, she’s not even really a character. She’s just offensive, and the short is far better without her inclusion.
Okay. Now that I want to curl up and die, let’s move on.
The centaurettes finish getting ready, and the cupids gather the male centaurs who are shaped weird. I guess Disney hadn’t mastered the art of animating men by this point. The cupids part the weird flower curtain that separates the centaurs by gender for some reason and start their courtship ritual. I don’t know why there’s a courtship ritual when they all end up pairing off by color. But there is, and it’s aided by the cupids playing the role of wingmen (I’m not even sorry).
A blue centaur and centaurette sit alone on the sidelines, sighing sadly because they’re still alone. The cupids decide this just won’t do and lure them in each others’ general direction by playing horns that sound weirdly like flutes. Funny, that. They find each other and now they’re happy and the cupids congratulate each other on a job well done. As Melinda and Brutus who apparently have names enter a random gazebo, the cupids pull the curtain back down between them and the audience. One particularly pervy little cupid tries to peek and then the camera turns his butt into a heart as the scene fades out in the weirdest scene transition ever.
Moving SWIFTLY on, we move back in on veritable waterfalls of wine. Everybody stomps grapes into more wine, centaurettes scatter petals, and everyone’s having a grand old time. Then the main event: Bacchus, god of wine, arrives, already white girl wasted and not even trying to hide it. He’s riding his faithful adorable donkey unicorn, who is the main reason I can forgive the animators not using the name Dionysus. The donkey unicorn’s name is apparently Jacchus and that is beautiful. They’re also flanked by two Nubian centaurettes with zebra lower halves, which is only marginally less racist than Sunflower but at least they have some dignity.
The centaurs dance around some more and pour wine directly into the mouths of Bacchus and Jacchus. A red carpet rolls itself out because that was another Sunflower scene and no, and everyone leads Bacchus up onto his throne. Despite Jacchus headbutting him to keep him going the right way, Bacchus tumbles right off his throne to keep right on drinking. Everyone dances wildly and has a grand old time at a G-rated Bacchanalia!
Or… maybe not so G-rated. One of the centaurettes does a veil dance and bats her eyelashes, and Bacchus flies into a frenzy. He lunges for her, falls because he’s drunk off his head. His crown falls over his eyes and blinds him but he grabs for the closest thing to him to give his “centaurette” a big kiss.
Suddenly, clouds roll in and everyone starts running for shelter. A big unicorn stands tall and strong to protect his lil brothers from the rain and it’s so cute and majestic and this poor baby. And then a musical sting plays and Zeus plays peekaboo over the crowd. This is the most utterly ridiculous design I’ve ever seen and Vulcan, seen making Zeus’s thunderbolts, is even worse. I’m so glad they improved on them by the time Hercules came around because they are rough.
Anyway, Zeus acts like a Jacchus because he’s salty that he didn’t get invited to the Bacchanalia which is just a crime. You can’t stop Zeus from getting down with some pretty centaurs! Everyone scatters but OH NO A BABY UNICORN IS STUCK ON A ROCK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOD SOMEONE HELP! Luckily a centaurette saves him but OH NO A PINK PEGASUS IS CAUGHT IN THE RAGING WIND AND HE’S TOO LIL TO FLY ON HIS OWN! Mama Pegasus plucks him out of the air and flies him to safety.
The storm is actually a really intense scene. The animation on the wind and rain is incredible, even if the gods are kind of doofy looking. It’s one of the more emotional pieces of Fantasia, in my opinion. That may just be my undying love for the pegasi. I don’t know.
Anywho, Bacchus tries to pull Jacchus to safety on a lead that he pulled out of the ether. All his concern disappears when a thunderbolt blasts a vat of wine to smithereens. Suddenly, the whole valley is flooded with wine! They happily start bathing in it, not giving a fig that Bacchus’s dad is being a jerk for no real reason. Zeus suddenly tells Vulcan he’s tired of being a jerk for no real reason, and he lays down and takes a nap in the cloud. Well, all right, then.
With Zeus done throwing his tantrum, the sun comes back out. The colors in the valley really pop out now after a whole lot of black and dark blue, and everyone creeps out of their hiding spot. Iris flies over the scene to spread a rainbow like a bad 80’s toy commercial cartoon. And then there’s more wonderful happy scenes of the pegasi, cupids, and unicorns splashing in puddles and playing in the pretty colors and being the cutest things ever.
Everyone migrates to a cliff to watch the sunset. Apollo waves goodnight and takes his chariot away, Morpheus spreads his cape of darkness over the sky which sounds a lot less awesome than it is. Everyone settles into sleep among the clouds and temples and in the case of the cute lil pegasi, under mama’s wing. The short ends with Diana shooting an arrow of stars using the moon as a bow.
Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful piece, but it’s very uneven in tone. The centaurs and centaurettes are weirdly animated and the courtship thing is weird. It loses massive points for Sunflower and the zebras, too. However, it’s always cool to see Greek gods and there are no words for how much I love the little Pegasi and unicorns. They’re too cute and the fact that I don’t own a plush of the little black one is a crime.
Speaking of crimes, there is very little park presence to be had for this one. The biggest one is the Fantasia Carousel in Shanghai Disneyland, where the horses are all the unicorns and the pegasi. That’s it. That’s all I got. Who do I have to cry at to get a pegasus topiary, I ask you?
Here, have more pegasi.
DANCE OF THE HOURS (AMILCARE PONCHIELLI)
Our penultimate piece is the famous dancing hippos. It’s a loose adaptation of Ponchielli’s ballet La Gioconda as done by an amateur cast of animals that represent different times of day. They’re not terribly skilled, but they take it so seriously you can’t help but like them. This is the most overtly comedic short in the film, and the one that feels the most like a Silly Symphony. I also cannot watch this one without thinking of this K9 Advantix Commercial. Darn you good advertising!
The curtain opens, and Madame Upanova, the owner of this weird ballet studio, wakes herself and her troup of ostriches who represent the morning. They shake and stretch and start doing their warm ups with a surprising amount of grace considering they’re, you know, ostriches. Upanova tosses fruit to her dancers, and they get stuck in their long throats. Even a banana. Which cannot be comfortable. Madame Upanova herself has a bunch of grapes which she tries to eat a lot more daintily than the others. The other ostriches aren’t having any of that and so begins a wacky chase sequence. Poor Upanova drops her grapes into a fountain and they run off squabbling.
The grapes aren’t forgotten, though! Hyacinth Hippo raises her fabulous self out of the pool and swallows the grapes whole. She shakes off her little ballet slippers and her tail and poses for the camera. This girl is a body image icon. She’s hot and she knows it and so do all her hippo handmaidens, who represent the daytime. They rush over with her tutu and makeup. The animators brought in a 200 lb woman to study her movements for Hyacinth’s solo and that attention to detail shows in every curve and jiggle of the hippo’s body.
Tired after a long day of being fabulous, Hyacinth falls asleep on a comically small chaise lounge. Elephanchine and her troupe of elephants, representing evening, tiptoe in with a look on their face that usually says they’re up to no good. It’s all cool though. They’re just here to blow bubbles. Really, really solid, strong bubbles. They can hold up both the dancing elephants and a hippo on a chaise lounge. I don’t even know. I actually forgot the elephants were in this. They’re that memorable.
Just as suddenly as they appear, the elephants are gone, blown away by a gust of wind. Yes, really. I don’t know what kind of wind storms this theatre gets but jeebus. Once they’re out of the way, some creepy alligators creep in to represent night time and are wearing capes for some reason. They swarm around the still-sleeping Hyacinth who did not get swept away by the wind that can blow away elephants. Their leader, Ben Ali Gator, dives off the roof in his excitement to meet Hyacinth, and the other gators scatter.
Ben Ali Gator is rightfully smitten because Hyacinth is awesome. Hyacinth, when she finally wakes up, is less smitten, is anyone would be if they woke up with an alligator leering at them. She runs away as he postures and does a mating dance of some sort, but wait! She wasn’t running away at all! She was getting a running start so he could lift her up into the air like the graceful ballerina she is.
She sasses off and he chases her throughout the theatre. The other gators block every exit which is totally kosher and not sketchy at all and if you can’t tell I’m being sarcastic. The movie doesn’t make it entirely clear if she’s just playing hard to get or if he’s being That Guy and not taking no for an answer. Either way, not cool, dude. More hippos and gators materialize out of the ether, the ostriches and elephants come back, and the whole thing ends with a wild and wacky chase scene that brings down the house. Literally.
It does get a fair amount of stuff in the parks. The now-defunct Spectromagic parade from the Magic Kingdom featured Hyacinth and Upanova on the floats. There’s luggage with her name on it at the train station at Storybook Circus. She also appears on a porthole on the Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Magic ship, and she used to show up in Disneyland Paris’s Toon Circus parade.
Dance of the Hours is undoubtedly my least favorite segment in the film. The visuals are nothing groundbreaking like Nutcracker or Pastoral Symphony. The narrative isn’t strong like Sorcerer’s Apprentice. With one notable exception (I love Hyacinth Hippo so much), the characters aren’t interesting. There’s a lot of skeevy undertones that rub me the wrong way. You can tell by the fact that this section was a little shorter that not much really goes on except for some generic cartoony chase sequences that could happen in any Silly Symphony or even a Looney Toons short. It’s just… here.
The other reason I’m a little less than thrilled about this section is because it’s sandwiched between my precious pegasi, and the best sequence in the film. And that is…
NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN (MODEST MUSSORGSKY)/AVE MARIA (FRANZ SCHUBERT)
You guys. I love this segment. It’s so dark and so different from anything Disney’s ever done before or since. Walt wanted Fantasia to be his chance to move away from being seen a cartoonist and into being an artist, and it shows. The animation here is phenomenal and terrifying all at once. And as someone who likes the darker side of Disney (Pinocchio notwithstanding), you can’t go much darker than having frickin SATAN just show up to party.
Oh, sure, they give him the name Chernabog, after the Black God from Slavic mythology. But even Deems Taylor in his endless narration calls him Satan. Even Walt called him Satan. He’s Satan. And he’s awesome.
Even the music’s going berserk as Deems Taylor finally shuts his mouth and the short begins. There’s a shot of the craggy peaks of Bald Mountain under a full moon, which is eerie enough. And then the man-bat-demon-thing himself opens his wings and raises his arms and it doesn’t sound like much but the way he does it with that music behind it is so powerful I’m getting chills.
With every sweep of Chernabog’s arms, darkness spreads across the village. Skeletal spectres soar through the sky to their sire, through the nooses that hung them and out of the river that drowned them. It’s yet another one of those moments that had my jaw on the floor because all this is hand drawn oh my god. They used techniques like dry brush and overlaying reflections off pieces of metal to achieve these effects and it works so so well and I cannot right now.
Chernabog laughs at his handiwork and raises his arms again. As cymbals crash, fire bursts out of the mountain peak, surrounding the devil and cracking the very rock. The camera pans down to the fiery depths and the demons dancing within. A smiling Chernabog scoops a handful of demons up, then hurls them unceremoniously back into the volcano. They don’t seem to mind too much, though, as they keep right on dancing.
Smoke and flickering flames cloud the screen and it sounds boring but oh my god guys it’s hand-drawn. Chernabog’s clawed hand descends into the flames, which reform into beautiful dancing ladies. I cannot find anything to confirm or deny that these fire sprites either inspired or were recycled in the Hellfire sequence in Hunchback but man do they look like it. Suddenly, though, the not-Esmeraldas twist into a pig, goat, and wolf, then into a bunch of little blue demons. I think it’s showing that none of the grand things the Father of Lies promises are real and there’s an ugly reality of Hell behind the riches and pleasures he promises. Which is a really neat thing for Disney to tackle.
There’s more awesome heart pounding animation of the flames including the above epic shot of Chernabog’s eyes through the smoke. And then the music just speeds way up and goes absolutely nuts and stuff starts just FLYING at the screen. DEMON FACES! SKULLS! FALLING DEMONS! HARPIES! BOOBS! MORE DEMONS!
Chernabog performs more epic arm motions that were clearly inspired by having Bela Lugosi of all people model for the animators. Then a church bell rings. He looks around, wondering what that was. Then it rings again, and he recoils. With every chime of the church bells, they cringe more and more, until finally he folds his wings and returns to his slumber. The holy has overcome the profane.
The Ave Maria is a beautiful, if short, section. Monks step out of the mist, carrying candles. They move slowly through the forest. The color contrast and the misty effect are stunning here, as is the work of the soloist singing the only actual words in the movie. Fantasia ends on a magnificent sunrise to the last strains of the soprano’s voice.
I don’t have much to say about the Ave Maria except that it’s beautiful and very calming. It was a real bear to make, though. Most of the procession of monks was one single long shot. If one little thing went wrong, that was it. So, naturally, the first time they tried to shoot it, the wrong lens was on the multiplane camera and the second time a small earthquake damaged some of the animation cels. By the time the third attempt was finished, the animators only had four hours to get the reel from Los Angeles to New York and splice it onto the rest of the film before it was due to premier. And they did it!
Chernabog, being a gem of a Disney villain, gets almost as much play as Sorcerer Mickey in the parks. His theme music is often used as the theme for all the villains, especially Queen Grimhilde and Maleficent because they don’t have theme songs of their own. He’s present on the villains float in a lot of parades, including the Boo to You Halloween Parade in the Magic Kingdom, and several that are no longer with us (Spectromagic….). Attractions like the Nightmare Experiment in Hong Kong (which sounds AWESOME) and World of Color in California Adventure put him with the other villains, too. Chernabog appears on a ruined tower on the Disneyland Paris version of the Storybook Canal boats, in Walt Disney World’s Fantasmic!, and in Magic Kingdom’s Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game. Because nothing says magical vacation like seeing Satan pop up.
THEME PARK PRESENCE
I know I did this as I went. But there are a few places worth mentioning where characters from all the shorts are combined. One of Walt Disney World’s two miniature golf courses is called Fantasia Gardens, where every segment except Night on Bald Mountain is given at least two holes (and Chernabog does make an appearance). Disneyland Paris’s Disneyland Hotel is home to the Fantasia Cafe hotel bar, and the entrance to the park is a garden filled with topiaries and statues of the different characters, also called Fantasia Gardens. The Disneyland Hotel in California and the Contemporary Resort in Florida feature Fantasia themed gift shops with art of the characters and statues of the brooms everywhere.
Full disclosure: I didn’t watch this in one sitting. I don’t have the attention span to watch something with no narrative and no dialogue for a full two hours. There are some sequences, like Night on Bald Mountain and the Nutcracker Suite, that are absolutely absorbing, don’t get me wrong! But Rite of Spring and Dance of the Hours never end. Also, I had to work a lot.
All that aside, though, Fantasia is a gorgeous piece of art that I definitely recommend every Disney fan to watch at least once. I think it succeeds in making classical music accessible to the average audience, even today when classical music really isn’t in the public eye anymore.
Favorite scene: Did I not make that clear? Night on Bald Mountain is awesome.
Final Rating: 7/10. I knocked off three points for Rite of Spring and Dance of the Hours for being so boring (dinosaurs aside), and for Deems Taylor being insufferable. The rest of it, though? It’s a lot more engrossing than people give it credit for, with stunning animation that even Disney never really matched again. Definitely worth the watch.