Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940) Review

Image: Disney, Wikipedia.org

… Just visuals and music.

No sound effects.

No words…

That’s what this film is about. An inner look into the mind of Walt Disney when he is not hampered by a screenplay or a story. This film is imagination at it’s purest, unfiltered.

PLOT –

There is no story, at least, one that does not have a clear through-line that lasts the entire runtime. Instead, the series of vignettes is framed by Deems Taylor as the Master of Ceremonies (MC for those in the know), and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

Insofar as plot, this film is more like “watching events happen” instead of thinking ahead about where the story will go. As a result, the film is a delight to watch. Not having forethought about the plot lets the viewer relax and take in the images. If there were a through-line to speak of, it would be life itself.

As the separate events unfold, we are treated to line art constantly evolving with each vignette. The lines turn into colors and shapes, then eventually characters, and with each scene, the animation grows not only in scope, but in depth. The film goes from birth to death in the span of two hours, and the organization of the segments makes sense.

Some segments have no story and we just watch nature run its course but others like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the entire post-intermission segments have loose narratives with clear heroes and villains. These are simple plots, but effective ones. If I may say though, the internal logic in these plots (the finales of “Apprentice” and “Dance” come to mind) sometimes does not make sense, yet I can also attribute it to “Disney magic” at work here, and some segments take a while to build up.

My PLOT Rating is 3 / 5.

CHARACTERS –

The characters in the film are vast and varied, and I will attempt to succinctly fit them within this section.

The orchestra gets some character in an intermission scene of fun, having a small improvised song by the players, and Deems, the MC, is a bystander, an omniscient narrator, if you will. While he usually provides stoic facts, he does also have some moments of laughter and enjoyment, having as much fun as we are watching.

The various inanimate objects in the film don’t really have a character, they’re just personifications of nature. In “Rite of Spring”, some dinosaurs have “character” as far as antagonism towards each other, but again, they’re more nature. Those dancing mushrooms are adorable though, and the Soundtrack being it’s own character is a stroke of genius.

In “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Mickey Mouse is in top form here. Hard-working, disciplined, caring… Lazy, prone to anger, incredibly flawed… Wait, that’s not right… Oh, but it is. This is a hybrid of the old, and new Mickey Mouse as we know him. Mickey used to be WAY rougher around the edges, a far cry from the kind, sweet, courageous Mouse we have come to know and love. Here he is the cause of, and not the solution to, the problem.

Yen Sid is his answer to that problem, and man, has a character ever been so rightfully hyped. He just exudes power, mystery, wisdom, and discipline. He is the progenitor for many of the “wise master” character, and it shows, all without any words said; his actions speak louder. His iconic sorcerer’s cap is the source of the conflict in this segment, and I believe that he left it for Mickey to use on purpose rather than accidentally.

“Pastoral Symphony” has many characters, from the helpful cherubs, to the black and white horse couple (in 1940 no less, good job breaking barriers, Walt!), to the young Pan playing their flutes, to the unicorn family with the steadfast mother, the centaur/ess lovers, to the always-drunk Bacchus and his mule sidekick, to the antagonistic (what a shock.) Gods Zeus and Hephaestus in the clouds above. They all play their roles well and serve the story, even the small cameos of other Gods that appear and help round out the cast.

The various animals in “The Dance of the Hours” are a different story. I have no clue what is going on, other than, in a twist, everyone just wants to dance. This bait-and-switch happens a few times where a character is picked on or antagonized, but it’s all just part of the dance being performed. This is made more and more unclear as the segment goes on, and ends in utter chaos, and it always makes me give up on trying to understand and just laugh about it.

Chernobog (called Satan in the film, but now marketed as Chernobog), from “Night on Bald Mountain” is the devil himself, raising the dead, crushing his demon followers, and rebirthing them into more twisted forms until the church bells ring. He basically throws a party that gets shut down nightly, and while that is a modern interpretation, it does not take away from this character’s scariness. Pure black, yellow eyes, grimy and sharp teeth and claws, it’s a wonder how many children that saw this slept peacefully at night.

His character is the most memorable, and most effective, in his segment. Aside from Mickey being the de facto hero, and Chernobog the de facto villain, no other scene in this film really stands out in memory. There is a reason why “Apprentice” and “Mountain” are still memorable (and referenced by popular culture) years later, even today.

My CHARACTERS Rating is 5 / 5.

DIALOGUE –

The only dialogue in the film is by Deems Taylor, given almost as if by teleprompter, yet still interesting and insightful to understanding the context of the next segment.

I dare not spoil the only two other characters that talk, but it was heartwarming and fun to see.

There is also sung dialogue in “Ave Maria” and it is hopeful and swells in waves excellently.

My DIALOGUE Rating is 5 / 5.

EFFECTS –

The effects in this film are brilliant. “Ave Maria” in particular has great use of the multiplane camera, layering, water ripple effects, and lighting. Lighting in particular is beautiful, not only being applied to large objects such as Chernobog and the sun, but smaller objects like lightning bolts and tiny sparks. The lava in “Rite of Spring” is mesmerizing to watch, and the water effects in the climax of “Pastoral Symphony” are nothing short of stellar.

My EFFECTS Rating is 5 / 5.

MUSIC

The music is perfectly set to the visuals. What do you expect when you have master composers and Walt Disney himself working on a project? There even is an improvised portion where the orchestra is just having fun, and clearly everyone loved working on this film.

My MUSIC Rating is 5 / 5.

OVERALL –

I never expected to give this such a high grade. I had forgotten how breathtaking this film was. It is a feast for both ears and eyes. The music, effects, and characters are perfection, the dialogue is intelligent and unafraid to speak to adults, and while there are some minor plot and pacing issues, especially as the film goes on, this masterpiece is worthy of a watch for all ages.

Image: Disney, tv.azpm.org

My OVERALL Rating is 92%.

——*——*——*——*——*——*——*——*——*——*——*——

Segment Key:

Framing Device – Deems Taylor, Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor –  Johan Sebastian Bach – Lines and Colors and Shapes

The Nutcracker Suite – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Fairies, mushrooms, fish, and winter

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Paul Dukas – Mickey Mouse, Yen Sid, Brooms

Igor Stravinsky – Rite of Spring – Dinosaurs

Intermission and Soundtrack

Pastoral Symphony – Ludwig Van Beethoven – Centaurs, Bachus, Zeus, Cherubs

The Dance of the Hours (from La Gioconda) – Amilcare Ponchielli – ostriches, hippos, elephants, crocs

Night on Bald Mountain – Modest Mussorgsky – Chernobog

Franz Schubert – Ave Maria

Next Up – Disney’s “Dumbo”

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