Movie Review: Fantasia (1940)

Title: Fantasia
Release Date: November 13, 1940
Director: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

When I was a kid, my family never bought prerecorded VHS tapes of movies, and yet we somehow ended up with a copy of Fantasia.  And with no urgency to return it to the rental store, it sat on the shelf unwatched for years. Still, somewhere along the way I saw portions of Fantasia elsewhere, particularly The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  This was my first time watching the movie in full.

The movie features the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, performing on a backlit stage so that the various instrumentalists appear as large shadows as they perform.  This blends into the first animated segment Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which builds on the music with abstract imagery.

The remaining segments include:

  • The Nutcracker Suite – a ballet performed by various plants and animals.  Amazingly, master of ceremonies Deems Taylor introduces this piece as “rarely performed.” The Nutcracker being popularized by Disney is even more amazing than “Aquarela do Brasil” being made popular by Saludos Amigos.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the most famous segment stars Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice whose attempt to use magic to avoid doing his cleaning work leads to a comic disaster.
  • Rite of Spring – a depiction of the primeval world from the first single-cell organisms to the dinosaurs.
  • The Pastoral Symphony – Unicorns, pegasus, fauns, centaurs, and cherubs frolic about in scenes from a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life (albeit with more bare breasts than you’d expect from an animated movie made in 1940).  Bacchus tries to celebrate but Zeus disrupts the proceedings by throwing lightning bolts.
  • Dance of the Hours – perhaps the other most famous sequence, this is a comedic ballet featuring ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants, and alligators.  And then it gets weird.
  • Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria – just a wild party featuring various demons, followed by a peaceful lantern-lit procession.

For what it is, an experimental combination of music, movement, color, and imagination, Fantasia is fantastic.  What it isn’t is a family movie you can watch with your kids, although individual segments may be worth watching alone if you’re introducing your kids to music appreciation.  The movie is on the long side and Deems Taylor’s lengthy introductions don’t help it move along.  Fantasia may have worked better as a shorter feature with fewer segments, or even just short films, that carried on as anthology series as Walt Disney intended.  Nevertheless, it remains a spectacular combination of sight and sound.

Rating: ****