History of Animation

Post #5: Fantasia

Posted on: February 23, 2010

An advertisement poster from the 1940's

The third film produced by Walt Disney and his studio, Fantasia was completely different in terms of style: it was simply animation set to famous classical music pieces with no dialogue provided except by the host of the film, Deems Taylor, who just introduces and sets up the music and the animation that’s set to the music.

Fantasia started off from Walt Disney trying to create a cartoon starring Mickey Mouse that would be his comeback to the mainstream audience, since around the time, Mickey was losing popularity with movie audiences. As the animators were producing the cartoon that would eventually become “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Leopold Stokowski suggested that Disney expand “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from a cartoon short into a concert feature along with several other animated sequences in the same kind of style of animation set to music. As “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” neared completion, the rest of Fantasia was produced in 1939, and released in theaters about a year later. Sadly, when it first debuted, Fantasia was met with mixed reactions, and failed to generate a large commercial audience, leaving the Disney Animation Studios in a financial crisis.

However, as time went on and Fantasia was re-released in theaters between 1946 to 1977, it was met with positive acclaim from critics. Today, despite the initial commercial failure, Fantasia is now considered a classic and one of the most popular films of all time.

The film is divided into roughly 8 segments, including an intermission. The first segment that starts Fantasia off is Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which simply starts off featuring colorful, stylized, and superimposed outlines of the orchestra performers. The piece then goes onto feature very abstract forms, shapes, and lines which keep in time with the flow of the music. Its goal isn’t so much as to tell a story as it just visualizes what one can picture in their mind from the music.

The second piece features music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”, while depicting the changing of the summer, fall, and winter seasons made by fairies and sprites, also features dance numbers performed by flowers (and even mushrooms) that depict the ethnic types of dance (the Chinese/ mushroom dance, the Russian flowers dance, etc.). It’s simply amazing how the Disney animators can give the cultural flair and personality to the flowers as they do their dance routines, as well as give them defining characteristics, as well as that the animation comes full circle with the fairies welcoming summer, and then turning autumn into winter.

The third animation piece, and perhaps the most famous of the set, is Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Originally the animators wanted to have Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the leading role, but Disney saw this as Mickey Mouse’s comeback opportunity. The story follows Mickey as a bit of a lazy apprentice to a sorcerer named Yensid, stealing his master’s hat and commanding a broom to life so he can get his chore of fetching water done easier. However, as one can imagine, the situation gets out of hand, and soon Mickey finds himself with an army of sentient brooms concentrating on fetching water. Definitely a great comeback short for Mickey Mouse, the outfit that he wears in this cartoon is possibly one of his most iconic appearances as well.

The fourth animation, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, depicts a condensed version of how scientists believe the Earth was formed; from the Big Bang, to the first primordial creatures as they evolve into dinosaurs, until environmental conditions causes their extinction. On a personal note, this has always terrified me on a sort of a primal level; the music is very melancholic and nigh-Pagan-esque. The animation also contains scenes of pretty graphic violence, such as the climatic fight between a Stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaruus, and the depiction of dinosaurs dying from heat, exposure, and starvation. An interesting note is that Disney wanted to actually end the animation by showing a group of cavemen discovering fire and dancing happily, but executive meddling prevented that, and instead the animation ends on a down note, with a shot of a barren Earth as the sun sets.

After a much-needed lighthearted and humorous intermission, the next animation features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6- “The Pastoral Symphony” depicted in a light-hearted, whimsical story featuring creatures of Greek myth such as centaurs/ centaurettes, fauns, unicorns, and winged horses gathering for a festival honoring Bacchus, the God of wine and festivities, only for Zeus to crash the party by causing a storm and throwing lightning bolts just for sport.  The strongest aspect of this piece has to be the art and animation, which is so colorful and fluid; even looking at it about 70 years from now, the animation doesn’t look dated or jerky. The ending scene of the gods changing from sunset to night-time is probably the most sublime and beautiful endings I’ve seen, and it brings tears to my eyes even to this day. However, “The Pastoral Symphony” is probably the animation segment that has had the most controversy over time, mostly for a small scene depicting a racially stereotyped African American centaurette named Sunflower acting as a handmaiden, while also being part human-part donkey. The scenes depicting Sunflower have been edited with the camera panning and zooming to cut her out from the scene, though you can find the clip easily on YouTube.

The sixth animation, “Dance of the Hourse” focuses on a more humorous note in characters and story-line. The “dancers of the morning” are depicted as ostriches, hippos are the “dancers of the daytime”, elephants as “dancers of the evening”, and the “dancers of the night” are played by alligators; each group of dancers starts off with their own comical scenes and dances, which leads up to the lead alligator falls in love with the lead hippo. From there on, it goes completely into chaos, as all dancers ensue in a chaotic battle as to who will lead the dance, eventually deciding to all dance together.

Finally, the seventh and eighth animation pieces are probably the second-most famous pieces in Fantasia. To start off with probably the scariest and darkest piece out of the movie is Mussorkgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”. The animation takes place on Walpurgis Night (or “Devil’s Night”), with the demon lord Chernabog awaking and summoning ghosts, skeletons, demons, harpies, and other hellish creatures from a town. As he controls the actions and movements of the damned summoned creatures, as well as destroying them by just crushing them with his hands, he summons fire and lava to throw some in to, as well. It goes on to show the demons fly and dance around as Chernabog turns women spirits into filthy demonic animals before dropping them in the lava with a nightmarish grin on his face. However, the frightful merriment is interrupted by the Angelus bell, which causes Chernabog and the damned to retreat; which follows into the final piece, Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. As the piece begins, the camera retreats from Bald Mountain, to a procession of robed monks carrying lighted torches, following them through a forest, then through a gothic cathedral, finally out through a thicket of trees to reveal the sunrise as the film ends. This is probably one of the most sublime moments that Disney has ever created; from the transition from the nightmarish world of Bald Mountain, to the gentle, calming procession of “Ave Maria”. Both pieces usage of the color blue are quite striking in these, most specifically in “Ave Maria”, as it shows the gentle dawn approaching.

Honestly, one can’t really give their own personal opinion on this, as Fantasia was meant to have so many interpretations to each individual. However, I can personally say that I’m saddened that not many animators try and do animation projects such as these anymore; it’s quite amazing how the music and animation influence the whole setting and atmosphere of the movie, which is what Disney did strongly in Fantasia. It’s quite ironic how Fantasia is now revered as one of the greatest animated masterpieces today, despite being a failure when it came out. If you haven’t seen Fantasia, watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

I replied to Sarah Askiri and Erica Rose.

Sources:

Fantasia’s Wikipedia page

Fantasai on TVTropes.org

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