Fantasia was a unique movie upon its release in 1940 and remains a unique movie now. Rather than telling a traditional story like Snow White or Pinocchio, Fantasia is presented as a series of animated segments with no dialogue, but pieces of classical music instead. Like many of Walt Disney’s earlier ideas, this had never been done before and was an enormous risk, both for his studio and for himself personally. At the time, audiences didn’t think of animation as “art”, the way they did a painting by van Gogh or Monet. Disney and his animators wanted to change this, and employed a variety of art styles throughout the feature to showcase what they were capable of doing. As had been proven by this time, music and animation were made for each other and by carefully choosing well-known pieces of classical music, the intention was to allow them to complement one another and present that new creation to audiences. Initially, the film was only to be The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but the high cost could not be justified for a short, so it instead became a full feature.
Since its release, Fantasia has had somewhat of a rocky history. The initial run of the film was not a hit, something that greatly saddened Walt Disney and something that, frankly, he never completely got over. His vision for the film was to play in a Roadshow format and be distributed by his usual distributor RKO. Unfortunately, RKO would have none of it and refused to distribute the film. Therefore, Walt decided he would distribute it himself, and demanded that the film be given the grandest of treatments: a fancy new sound system, aptly called Fantasound, a 15-minute intermission, and special programs for each member of the audience. He wanted it to feel like a special performance of a concert. Popular radio host Deems Taylor was the host of the evening and famous conductor Leopold Stokowski conducted the orchestra. Each segment was broken up with a detailed introduction by Taylor, who detailed the piece of music chosen and the intention of the animation. This original version of the film was screened in 13 cities and then wasn’t seen again until 2000. After its roadshow release, it was re-released several times with shortened or cut introductions from Deems Taylor. It wasn’t until after the release of Fantasia 2000 that these original introductions were reinstated and brought the film back to its roadshow version. The only problem was many of the original Deems Taylor audio tracks were damaged beyond repair, so they brought in Disney voice artist Corey Burton to dub over the original tracks. This is the current version found on Disney+.
Fantasia is a property that the company is largely unsure what to do with, particularly in recent years. The majority of children today are likely to find this “concert feature” to be boring and not something that they will want to sit through. Historically, Disney has given The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the most attention, and for good reason. Not only is this the most fun of the segments (with Dance of the Hours being a close second), but it has the distinct advantage of having the recognizable character of Mickey Mouse front and center. Without him, I would argue that this film, despite its brilliance and historical importance, would fall into the category of other, similar outings such as Make Mine Music or Melody Time. Those are largely forgotten by the average audience today and the company does virtually nothing to market them.
The segments in Fantasia are as follows: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, The Nutcracker Suite, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Rite of Spring, The Pastoral Symphony, Dance of the Hours, Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria.
Among these segments, there are highs and lows. My favorites? Like most people, I love The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It is magical, fun, and gives us Mickey in one of his best roles. Rite of Spring is also incredibly powerful. Walt Disney and the animators attempted to show the creation and evolution of the Earth based on modern science at the time. The images range from beautiful to heartbreaking, with the dinosaurs being a highlight. My absolutely favorite segment is Night on Bald Mountain. The demon character of Chernabog outdoes all other villains in my opinion and the whole sequence is genuinely scary.
One segment that has been considered the weakest, even since the films release, is The Pastoral Symphony, which features Greek gods, centaurs, and other magically creatures. Though the animation is undeniably gorgeous, the segment overall is somewhat of a bore. Originally, there was a character called Sunflower in this sequence. She was a centaurette, who tended to some of the other characters. However, because she was rife with offensive racial stereotypes, she has been removed from all official versions released by Disney.
Live-action remake: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment was reimagined as a live-action film in 2010 starring Nicolas Cage. There have been talks to make the Night on Bald Mountain segment into a live-action film as well.
Fantasia in the theme parks: Sorcerer Mickey is a popular piece of merchandise and is featured in the parks in the form of hats, dolls, and more. Fantasmic!, the fireworks show with projection and live characters, features clips from Fantasia including Mickey from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Chernabog from Night on Bald Mountain.
Sequel: Walt Disney had envisioned Fantasia as a continuous experience, with new segments being created and the film having a rotating roster that could be adapted for years to come. This idea finally came to fruition 60 years later with Fantasia 2000, which I will be discussing later on in these 20 Weeks of Disney Animation.