Produced by Walt Disney
Walt Disney Animation Studios
From 1929 to 1939, Walt Disney produced 75 short features called Silly Symphonies, which were separate from the usual Disney productions that involved recurring characters like Mickey Mouse and his gang (although Donald Duck premiered in a Silly Symphony.) The Silly Symphonies featured animations set to musical works, either original or adapted. Disney threw a lot of experiments and innovations into the series. And they were a long trial run leading up to his first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and also leading up to the animated settings of classical music that form Fantasia.
Fantasia was not always the beloved classic that it is today. It was Disney’s 3rd feature length animated film, but it had a rocky start financially after the resounding twin successes of Snow White and Pinocchio. It was more experimental than the prior two films, and it was, after all, like spending the evening at the symphony (only with pictures), so the little ones were going to squirm between the scenes that had Mickey Mouse and the scenes with hippos in tutus. Also, the war in Europe kept the film away from its potentially more appreciative audiences. Nowadays, Fantasia has been a huge cash cow for Disney, but it took decades for it to earn back its initial investment.
You ask, is Fantasia any good? It has its fans, and it has its detractors. Some critics detest the often sappy images that Disney pastes onto otherwise timeless music (Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony does not fare well in this regard.) Others find it to be just disrespectful. Can anyone hear “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” after this film without thinking of Mickey Mouse, or Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” without conjuring up hippos en pointe? However, it is a testament to the power of this film that some of Disney’s images have cemented themselves to these musical works. One should not hold it against Disney that the movie is memorable any more than you should hold it against Stanley Kubrick if you think of spaceships when you hear Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz.
In some ways, Fantasia was the end of an era of artistic experimentation and improvisation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. That spirit did not completely disappear, but it was very dampened after this. That becomes apparent in films like Bambi with Walt Disney’s slavishly representational nature art dominating the film (with a few cartoonish comic relief animals thrown in for laughs, as if they were in the wrong movie.) A sense of abstraction and artistic freedom did not creep back in until 1953 with short features like Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom and 1961 with the feature film One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
For me, the highlight is probably the Stravinsky, depicting the death of the dinosaurs. The music already came pre-loaded with a firm visual presence as a ballet about pagan rituals, so Disney’s vision is just one possible variation and does not supplant the original concept. It took a leap of imagination to take this particular music and put dinosaurs to it, and that, for me, was a brilliant leap.
Disney originally planned to have new short features cycle in and out of Fantasia to keep the film evolving, but that concept was abandoned. Then, after years of contemplating a sequel, Disney came out with Fantasia 2000. In the meantime, Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto came out with Allegro non troppo (1976), which is a very fine homage/parody of Fantasia that actually boasts a better score on the Rotten Tomatoes website than Disney’s own sequel. It is worth seeking out the Bozzetto film, because it is really quite good.
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD