Time has been kind to Disney’s ultra-ambitious Fantasia — time and the 1960s, that is. When it was released in 1940, old Walt’s huge vision of popularizing classical music was a huge disaster, and it only came to be embraced as a “classic” much later — not least in part because it fit the psychedelic mood of the ’60s. (Well, sort of, and the rest could be shoehorned in. This was the same mindset that thrust Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here — with its giant banana number and kaleidoscopic climax — into greatness.)
In fact, when I finally caught up with Fantasia in 1976 and expressed mixed feelings about it, I was asked — quite seriously — if I’d taken LSD prior to watching the film. I hadn’t had the presence of mind to indulge in this apparent requisite, which, I was told, explained why I wasn’t as impressed as I should have been. Ah, well.
I still have mixed feelings about the film, but I unreservedly admire the scope of the attempt and the vision behind it. A lot depends, I suppose, on how completely you respond to the images of crocodiles and hippos cavorting to classical music, or of Mickey Mouse personifying Paul Dukas’ “The Sorceror’s Apprentice.” But even if that doesn’t do it for you, the film includes unquestionably brilliant sequences.
Though marred (to my tastes) by the requisite censorship, the bacchanal set to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is wonderfully achieved (and it had a heavy influence on the Bacchus fantasy in Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend in 1971). And the dinosaur-inhabited world set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a stunning rethinking of the ballet.
Best of all is the sequence set to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a striking and powerful piece of filmmaking. The mix of imagery and music is simply perfect, and this remains quite the most unsettling thing Disney has ever done, eclipsing even the famous scenes in Sleeping Beauty that terrified children in 1959 (I was 4 at the time, and can spent a good portion of that film’s running time under the seat).
As the story goes, part of the reason the sequence is so effective is that the studio used Bela Lugosi as a model for the demon’s movements. Comments from Walt Disney himself tended to support this idea, though it’s been disputed in some quarters. Whether or not Lugosi was directly involved, it seems obvious that his movements served as a source of some kind.
Purists may take issue with certain other aspects of the film. For example, it may seem a bit cloying to find the great conductor Leopold Stokowski “shaking hands” with a grateful Mickey Mouse and saying, “Thank you, too, Mickey,” following “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” segment. But let’s remember that Stokowski was not above playing the personality; he’d already appeared in a Deanna Durbin picture — One Hundred Men and a Girl — and dated no less a film luminary than Greta Garbo.
Besides, the outspoken and very individualistic Stokowski probably liked the idea of shaking Mickey’s gloved paw. After all, it was just the sort of thing that would annoy the same folks who raised their eyebrows at his status as one of the great interpreter conductors (did anyone else ever take the opening of the Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony at Stoki’s pace?).
Some aspects of the film do seem a bit dated and unnecessary now. The whole business of Deems Taylor explaining how the optical soundtrack works is not only of doubtful practical and aesthetic value, it’s also no longer completely applicable in age world of Dolby Digital and DTS and SDDS systems.
Such reservations to one side, Fantasia is a film like no other and a milestone of filmmaking.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke