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Fantasia (1940) - Illustrated Reference
Fantasia was produced by Walt Disney and premiered on 13th November 1940. Music by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky and Schubert. Conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Written by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Narrated by Deems Taylor. 125mins.
Eight animated segments set to famous classical music compositions.
Walt Disney (1901-1966) had some success with the Alice comedy shorts in the 1920’s, mixing animation with live action. But it was an animated mouse that would change his fortune forever. Mickey Mouse made his first appearance on screen in Steamboat Willie in 1928 it was the first cartoon with synchronised sound. By the early 30’s Mickey would become the most popular cartoon character in the world.
Disney would introduce more cartoon characters over the years, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Chip ‘n Dale and by the late 30’s a duck named Donald would eclipse Mickey as the worlds most popular cartoon character.
In the mid-30’s Disney started planning a feature length cartoon based on the fairy tale Snow White, critics thought it would be a major disaster and dubbed it “Disney’s Folly”. Some thought it would hurt the eyes looking at a cartoon for more than an hour. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1938 and broke all records, by May 1939 it had become the most successful film of the 30's.
Disney’s next animated feature was Pinocchio released in 1940 to rave reviews but it wasn’t a big hit, the film would finally make back its cost from successful re-releases in the late 40’s and 50’s.
The origin of Fantasia started to form when Disney had an idea for a Mickey Mouse special titled The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the cartoon would be in sync with Paul Dukas famous music. Realising this would be an expensive cartoon that may not be able to recoup its costs Disney decided to expand on the concept and make a full length movie featuring various classical pieces set to animation.
The Musical Segments
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1870) – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Abstract patterns and shapes and shadows of the orchestra.
Peter Tchiakovsky (1840-1893) – Nutcracker Suite
Dancing flowers, leaves, mushrooms, fish and fairies.
Paul Dukas (1865-1935) – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Mickey Mouse is the sorcerer Yen Sid’s apprentice, after the sorcerer retires for the day Mickey grabs his hat and casts a spell on a broomstick, bringing it to life and things soon spiral out of control.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – The Rite of Spring
The beginning of life on Earth, primitive life in the sea evolves into fish and than to animals on land. Prehistoric animals hunt for food, it ends with the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Meet the Soundtrack,
narrated by Deems Taylor.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Symphony no.6 (The Pastoral Symphony)
A mythic setting, there are flying horses, centaurs, nymphs, fauns etc. A festival honouring Bacchus the God of Wine is interrupted by a mighty storm and Zeus throwing thunderbolts at fleeing mythological creatures..
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) – The Dance of the Hours
Ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators dance in a comic ballet.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) – Night on Bald Mountain
It is Walpurgis Night and the devil Chernabog awakens on his mountain, he summons forth ghosts, witches, spectres and various demons to dance for him. When dawn arrives the church bell drives the spirits back to their graves, Chernabog is repelled by the sound and hides back into the mountain.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) – Ave Maria
A procession of robed monks walk through a forest and into a cathedral.
Referred to as The Concert Feature, after hundreds of suggestions for a title Disney settled on one of the working titles, Fantasia.
Production started on the film while Disney was still finishing Pinocchio, a pressbook for Fantasia noted that its production had involved "751 artists, 103 musicians, 600,000 celluloid drawings and 508 new characters."
Disney had envisioned Fantasia as an ongoing project, where he would add new animated sequences and music and remove old ones at each re-issue of the film so viewers would have a different experience of the film each time. But Fantasia failed to turn a profit on its initial release and many critics panned the film, so that idea was dropped.
Fantasia was the first film shown in theaters with stereophonic sound, the process was called Fantasound, basically directional four-track stereo sound.
The final Ave Maria sequence required a setup using multiple panes of glass and the camera on a 200ft track.
Bela Lugosi was one of the inspirations for the look of Bald Mountain’s resident evil, Chernabog.
Chernabog was a demon in Slavic mythology, the name is translated as “Black God”
One sequence planned, partially animated and finally abandoned was a segment featuring Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, a restored version is included as an extra on the Fantasia DVD and Blu-ray.
Originally the Rite of Spring sequence was to have continued showing the evolution of life on Earth right up to the appearance of primitive man and the discovery of fire but the idea was dropped in case it upset religious groups.
Igor Stravinsky hated the way his music Rite of Spring was edited for the film and wasn’t happy seeing it used as a setting for dinosaurs, he said at the time “The order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated, though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable. I will say nothing about the visual complement, as I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility."
Fantasia cost $2.5m to produce, it was not one of the year’s top box office grossers. After the failure of both Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Walt Disney was heartbroken and was starting to wonder if people had already gone off feature length animated films and that Snow White would be his only major hit.
Rescue came in the form of a flying baby elephant in 1941, Dumbo which was a smaller production to the previous films was a big hit and Bambi was a success too in 1942, Disney had reason to smile again.
Fantasia would ultimately become very profitable and one of the studios biggest hits in reissue after reissue over the decades. When it was released on VHS in 1992 it became the biggest selling video of the year, 14,000,000 video cassettes sold in the U.S. alone.
In the 1960’s re-release of Fantasia the film was censored, black centaurs were removed from the Pastoral Symphony sequence. They were said to be objectionable stereotypes and were acting as servants to the other centaurs. Some shots were zoomed in so as not to show the black centaurettes in the frame.
In 1982 the music of Fantasia was re-recorded in digital sound to bring it up to date with modern sound equipment. The film was re-released successfully around the world. The rescored music, conducted by Irwin Kostal, was clear and sharp with more bass but it did not always match up to the visuals like the original score did.
For its 50th anniversary in 1990 Fantasia was re-released in cinemas with its original 1940 soundtrack reinstated much to the relief of Fantasia fans worldwide.
The film was digitally remastered for DVD in 2000 for its 60th anniversary, unfortunately Deems Taylor’s interstitial narration track was in bad condition and could not be remastered, the decision was made to use a sound-alike narrator, Corey Burton, to redub Taylor’s narration and this dubbed version is also on the Blu-ray release.
A sequel, Fantasia 2000, was released in December 1999. It featured all new animation set to classical music with the addition of an old favourite from the first movie. The line up was – Beethoven’s Symphony no.5 - Respighi’s Pines of Rome - Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue - Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.2 (The Steadfast Tin Soldier) - Saint-Saen’s The Carnival of the Animals - Dukas The Sorcerer’s Apprentice - Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance 1,2,3, and 4 - Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.
Fantasia is ranked #58 in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films List, and #5 on the AFI’s 10 Greatest Animated Films list, Snow White is no.1.
It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1990.
Fantasia won Honorary Oscars for Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney – “For their unique achievement in the creation of a new form of visualized music in Walt Disney's production Fantasia, thereby widening the scope of the motion picture as entertainment and as an art form.”
The Critics Wrote –
"Motion-picture history was made at the Broadway Theatre last night with the spectacular world première of Walt Disney's long-awaited Fantasia. Fantasia is simply terrific—as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen. If you don't mind having your imagination stimulated by the stuff of Mr. Disney's fanciful dreams, go to see it." (Bosley Crowther, New York Times)
"A courageous and distinguished production but Disney is attempting the impossible. There are times when his breaking down of music into animated art strikes me as definitely pretentious. The images on the screen are not apt to match with your reactions to the score." (New York Herald Tribune)
"It is too long and some of it is too loud, and it will no doubt be improved upon next time it is done, but to Walt Disney now should go fresh laurels for giving us a new artistic experience of great beauty - another milestone in motion pictures." (The Commonweal)
"There is something in "Fantasia" for every taste. The eight individual compositions have been selected with an eye and ear to a wide audience.
The presentation eclipses anything previously attempted in mechanical sound entertainment and it was necessary to install special RCA reproduction equipment to cope with the recording innovations." (Variety)
"A promising monstrosity and an experiment containing many lessons. To have the Pastoral Symphony interrupted by applause for sugar-sweet centaurettes is painful... in technical respects the film is of unsurpassed quality." (Franz Hoellering, Nation )
"A masterpiece of filmcraft. Its colour photography is the best ever." (Daily Mail)
"Disney sometimes at his worst, often at his very best; and the best is on a level which no cinematographic designer has reached. It takes two hours, but somehow or other you will have to find the time." (Dilys Powell)
"Oh, Fantasia! Well, we made it and I don't regret it. But if we had it to do all over again, I don't think we'd do it." (Walt Disney, 1961)