At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Fantasia

MPAA Rating: G/ Genre: Animated-Family-Fantasy/ Stars: Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor/ Runtime: 125 minutes

In 1940, long before the “billion-dollar phenomena” that supposedly is Frozen, Walt Disney released a movie called “Fantasia”, a movie that was only the third feature of his studio, but undoubtedly is still one of his most ambitious projects. Indeed while it may not have the humor of Finding Nemo, the simple message of Dumbo or even the soundtrack that Frozen claims to have Fantasia is still one of the absolute BEST animated films ever made. Indeed it may be very different from anything else the House of Mouse has ever created before or since, but it may also very well be one of the best as well.

Here’s how best I can describe what Fantasia is about: Fantasia is a collection of short subjects with little or no plot, but what makes the compilation unique is that it’s all matched to classical music that is beautifully conducted by Leopold Stokowski, and bridged by live-action footage of the silhouettes of an orchestra, narrated by Deems Taylor. Besides these live action sequences however, there is not a single word of dialogue. As such there cannot be one single verdict on “Fantasia”. Instead there must be eight: one for each of the seven animated segments, and an eighth for the film as a whole because as varied as the seven segments are they still undeniably belong together. So I will be doing something different with this review and I will be going through each of the segments individually and giving you my thoughts on each of them as well as a brief description and then finally tying it all up at the end with my thoughts on the film overall.

So let’s get started: We start off with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: This is honestly nothing but an abstract piece of animation and you get to see the strings of the cello, the violin, and lots of stripes and shapes that leave trails of color in their wake and it truly is magnificently matched to the music. There’s not really that much to explain, just images.

Next is The Nutcracker Suite: An ode to nature based on Tchaikovsky’s six dances with the fascinating thing being that each dance is performed by the most unlikely dancers including fairies, goldfish, thistles and many more, but best of all is Art Babbit’s Chinese Dance sequence, with of all things possible, mushrooms with the highlight of the sequence being Hob Low, a little mushroom who seems to lag behind the rest of the impeccable act and with it being brilliantly animated by Babbit, this is one of the best sequences in the movie.

Next is undoubtedly the one that EVERYONE and their mother knows: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: This one is an old story starring Mickey Mouse and the intimidating wizard Yen Sid (3 guesses and the first 2 and half don’t count as to what that spells backwards!), matched to Dukas’ symphony. This is without a doubt one of Mickey Mouse’s greatest performances as he really conveys the eagerness of the student who wants the magical abilities of his amazing teacher, but then when things get wildly out of hand the look of the person who realizes that they really do still have a lot to learn after all. Also the animation, especially Ugo O’Dorsi’s brilliant effects, is truly impeccable and phenomenal. Funny and dramatic at the same time, everyone who’s ever heard of Mickey Mouse should see at least once The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Next is The Rite of Spring: While Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre was originally meant to signify prehistory Disney has taken it much further than a series of old tribal dances as The Rite of Spring starts out at the dawn of the planet, zooming in on our tormented home, spewing lava and rocks with powerful scenes of the elements that ran amok, all without utilizing computers at all mind you (even though to be fair they hadn’t been created to do that yet but still!). We then skip to the beginnings of life, from the life and death struggle of big bacterium vs. little bacterium all the way to the dinosaurs, and the constant tyranny of the tyrannosaurus with many powerful dramatic scenes, beautifully set to the music, until soon desertification, starvation, a tidal wave and an earthquake wipes out the dinosaurs all of which makes for an absolutely marvelous and indeed one of the best shorts in animation history.

Next is The Pastoral Symphony in which Ludwig Van Beethoven’s masterpiece, instead of portraying the countryside, takes place in a mythological setting where we find ourselves dealing with Pegasus’ family, and the adventures of the little black baby Pegasus plus the attempts of a bunch of butt-naked baby cupids to try to bring together single centaurs and centaurettes (I hope that is a word) and also the exploits of the amorous and extremely drunk Bacchus and Jacchus (I honestly do not understand how the Greeks came up with those names), who join in the centaurs’ wine-making, but soon all is interrupted by Zeus, who chucks lightning bolts at the lot till he’s bored at which point order is restored, the sun sets, and Diana fires a comet into the sky. All in all wonderfully animated, and perfectly matched to great music.

Next is The Dance of the Hours which features ostriches, elephants, hippos and alligators dancing to Ponchielli’s ballet, in a nobleman’s castle, and which primarily revolves around (I kid you not) the leader of the gators’ crushing on and attempting to dance with a beautiful Hippo dancer. All in all its beautifully animated, and wonderful comic relief amidst a storm of serious art. Indeed this segment would’ve been just as successful as a short cartoon. Hilarious!

Finally we come to A Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria and all I have to say here is just one word: Chernabog. Indeed you have to see it to believe it. Honestly IS Bald Mountain REALLY a mountain? No, it’s the crouching figure of something called Chernabog which is a demon who calls all manner of grotesque, undead, and demonic things to himself, and then tortures them in a hellish manner, disposing of them at will with absolutely terrifying cacodemonic animation coupled with Moussorgsky’s dramatic, intimidating score aiding him (?) in his endeavors. However it isn’t long before dawn approaches, and torch-bearing pilgrims, with Schubert’s Ave Maria in the background, subdue Chernabog and the demons, and they return to the Underworld as a masterpiece ends. Indeed Vladimir Tytla is the only man who could possibly have pulled off this dramatic, spell-binding horrific sequence that truly is one of the best pieces of animation ever.

All in all Fantasia is something special with absolutely timeless music, thoroughly enjoyable comedy, and at the end horrifyingly unadulterated evil making for a strange mixture and yet two hours of these elements manage to come together to make what may be one of the best movies ever made. Indeed Fantasia is absolute and total genuine movie magic and will amaze you. On a scale of 1-5 I give Fantasia a 5 out of 5