Disney have gained a slight reputation for making very similar films. They make films that are safe, usually adhering to a formula that usually boils down to a hero, a princess, a comic relief sidekick and an over the top villain. But the third entry to the Disney Animated Canon doesn’t fit this formula at all. It doesn’t even fit a typical film formula in general. Fantasia is Disney doing experimental film-making.
There is no plot to Fantasia. It’s simply a series of shorts tacked together on a single theme – classical music. The shorts are all wordless, instead animated entirely to a classical music soundtrack. Some are experimental, such as Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue”, while others tell stories, such as Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, featuring Mickey Mouse as the titular character bringing a broom to life to do his chores for him.
Fantasia is certainly an interesting experiment. Its place in animation history is pretty much sealed because there is little else like it out there. While animation to music existed before this in various forms, there was nothing as extensive as this beforehand. It’s a project that celebrates the music rather than just using the music as a tool.
The problem is, the concept doesn’t really stretch out to a full two hours. While it’s certainly impressive to watch, with the animation being of the same high standard expected of Disney productions and all, the initial wow factor fades quite quickly. Some segments are certainly fun, but others feel like little more than warm-up exercises for Disney’s animators.
First, the good segments. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the most well-known of all the shorts, and it’s easy to see why. Essentially a silent Mickey Mouse short, it’s the segment with the clearest story and the one that progresses the most naturally. Mickey being such a likeable character helps massively too. I also have praise for “Dance Of The Hours” and “The Pastoral Symphony”, the former being an entertaining comic ballet and the latter being a visual feat with plenty of fun moments that really helps make the music come alive. If more of the movie had been like these segments, I would have enjoyed it more.
However, I’m less impressed with the likes of “Toccata & Fugue”, the opener that spends half its time showing little more than shadows of the orchestra players before switching over to an abstract art piece that seriously outstays its welcome. Its meandering, and is little more than the cinematic equivalent of a child’s kaleidoscope.
Elsewhere, “The Nutcracker Suite” is a hit-and-miss mix of stuff, some of it entertaining (like the adorable dancing mushrooms), some of it not so much (the fairies placing dew everywhere kind of drags a little). And while the interpretation of “Night On Bald Mountain” is thrilling to watch initially, it peters out a little when it fades into Ava Maria, morphing from a terrifying blend of surreal hellish imagery into shots of vague scenery and figures walking with candles.
There are also some seriously outdated and inconsequential skits dropped into the orchestra segments between the shorts that tend to feel fairly awkward. Mickey Mouse meeting the conductor seemed completely pointless largely due to the conductor seeming utterly bored to be meeting a cartoon mouse, and a section where a percussion section fell over felt completely out of place. If it was staged, it felt unnecessary and if it wasn’t, it felt like it should have been cut out.
Fantasia is certainly an interesting concept and it’s nice to see a Disney film distance itself from its usual formula, but it wears thin. Not enough imagination really went into each segment and most feel like a small concept stretched longer than it should be. It’ll certainly wow children, and animation historians will appreciate it, but ultimately, Fantasia isn’t all that fantastic.
Written by Joe Grant & Joe Huemer
Directed by Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norm Ferguson & Wilfred Jackson
Produced by Walt Disney
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Amilcare Ponchielli, Modest Mussorgsky & Franz Schubert
Cinematography by James Wong Howe
Favourite Scene: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, a genuinely fun and entertaining short that is easily the film’s key selling point
Scene That Bugged Me: “Toccata & Fugue”, which does not make for a good opener due to it being entirely plotless and meandering
Watch it if: You’re an animation historian
Avoid it if: You’re aware of more entertaining Disney movies