Combining visual artistry with music is one of the distinguishing features of film. Still, it’s amazing to think that just thirteen years after the first feature length sound film there was anything so audacious and imaginative as 1940's Fantasia. Not that it was entirely without precedent, being essentially a feature length version of Disney’s own Silly Symphonies shorts. But those short films can’t rival the scale and majesty on which Fantasia operates or the imagination behind some of its modes of expression.
The first segment is its most abstract, consequently the most difficult for children to sit still for. Using Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”, which was already beginning to be associated with horror films, the animation is freeform, starting with colour and shape before moving to more concrete imagery. This is actually explained by the film’s somewhat superfluous host, critic and composer Deems Taylor. But it accomplishes just what he says, being a remarkable visual transcription of beautiful sound. The character of the more concrete images, clouds and musical notes, convey the majesty evoked by the composition.
Most of the musical choices and their animated accompaniments seem calculated to inspire awe. Even “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, originally intended as a Mickey Mouse short, is extraordinary in scale of terror when Mickey confronts the looming and crashing waves of his folly. The implacable, eerie broomsticks, marching continuously, are more nightmarish for the simplicity of Mickey himself as a character.
Most people prefer Donald or Goofy, their shorts lending themselves to better opportunities for comedy. They both have very straightforward flaws—Donald with his temper and Goofy with his stupidity. Mickey always felt sort of ill-defined. As the mute protagonist racing against embarrassment and death, his insubstantiality becomes another piece of the fearful patchwork in the turbulent sea, another source of instability.
Fantasia also features some of the sexiest women ever animated for a Disney film, beginning with the sensuous fairies populating the “Nutcracker” segment, followed later by the coquettish centaur women, or “centaurettes”, according to Wikipedia.
This is from the segment set to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”, the first piece of a Disney animated film I’ve noticed to be censored on Disney+, though this censorship actually goes back to the film’s 1968 rerelease. The original 1940 version featured stereotypical black child slaves tending to the white centaur women, giving the scene of ancient Greece an anachronistic flavour of the romanticised pre-Civil War American south and making the sexy centaur women into southern belles. In addition to the obvious racism, its a fascinating look at how women in the antebellum southern U.S. were dreamed of in the 1930s. Taken with Gone with the Wind, there seems to be a sexual piquancy in the folly of beautiful women in a lifestyle supported by slavery rather than a justification of the institution. The important thing for the artists here is that the women are beautiful, vulnerable, and spoiled. Like Clark Gable, a guy might fantasise about teaching these saucy creatures a thing or two.
The “Rite of Spring” presents another snapshot of the collective imagination of the time, in this case the contemporary impression of prehistoric Earth. The dark figures of the dinosaurs framed by sinister red glow are another inspiring nightmare. The doomed stegosaurus in his struggle with the tyrannosaurus is a concrete terror while the preceding chaos of volcanoes erupting and swirling slime is another example of strange, unstable majesty.
Perhaps the least effective segment is “Dance of the Hours”, with the hippopotami and alligators. It’s still pretty funny but sits oddly beside the other segments, the only one that seems to be more of a parody of classical music than a complement.
Of course, one of the best remembered images of the film is the mountain that transforms into, or reveals itself to have always been, a demon. In “Night on Bald Mountain”, the impressively oppressive music is fitted perfectly with the satanic figure surrounded by the dead compelled to rise and swirl about him. With “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, “Rite of Spring”, “The Nutcracker”, and the appearance of a thunderbolt lobbing Zeus in “Pastoral Symphony”, the film returns repeatedly to a contemplation of fate and the level of control one has or hasn’t over life. Whether it’s the random molecules in the primordial soup or an army of marching broomsticks.
Fantasia is available on Disney+.