It took some great filmmakers - Hitchcock, for example - many, many years before they let success get to their heads and started thinking of themselves as "artistes". It took Walt Disney three features. FANTASIA started out modestly, as a short based on Paul Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" that was to serve as a comeback vehicle for Mickey Mouse, whose stardom had been eclipsed not only by Donald Duck but also by other non-Disney characters such as Popeye the Sailor and Bugs Bunny. When the short proved to be overly costly, Disney, with help from famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, conceived of an entire "concert" film, with the Mickey short included, that would put animated visuals to some of the more popular classical pieces.
Whatever faults FANTASIA may have, and it has more than its share for a classic, it was groundbreaking. Abstract, surrealistic visuals, a concise history of the planet earth from its formation through to the extinction of dinosaurs, God versus the devil's minions... the film had everything, including hippos in tutus! And when Disney found himself disappointed with the quality of the sound recordings that were to be used for the film, he asked his technicians to do something about it - and they went out and invented four-track stereo, called "Fantasound".
Reactions to FANTASIA can range from "greatest movie ever!" to "ZZZzzzzz". For me, the major problem with FANTASIA lies in the fact that the greatest classical music is so evocative, it should produce pictures in your mind anyway, without the need for Disney artists to create them for you. Disney artists being what they were, the animation is always excellent, but not always inspired or appropriate. In some cases, the music outshines the drawings, such as in the "Nutcracker Suite" segment, which only comes to life every once in a while (those little Chinese mushrooms!), leaving you and your ears to wonder just how Tchaikovsky could come up with so many unforgettable little dance themes, one after the other, in a single ballet. In other cases, such as the "Rite of Spring" segment, the animated dinosaurs overwhelm Stravinkski's discordant music. And Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (Symphony #6), one of my favorite pieces of music ever, always conjures up images in my mind of beautiful German countrysides, and festivals in quaint little towns, so Disney's mythological centaurs, nymphs and cute little flying horses completely miss the mark.
However, there are times when FANTASIA achieves sheer perfection. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" showcase for Mickey Mouse showcase ranks with Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and the 2004 Red Sox ALCS win over the New York Yankees as one of the greatest comebacks in history. Completely redesigned from the scrawny little mouse he used to be, Mickey shines in this tale of an apprentice using his master's magic hat to automate his chores by creating a living broom - leading to disastrous results when the mouse falls asleep and the broom goes haywire. The other major highlight is also the film's funniest, as ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators cavort about the screen like refugees from a Warner Brothers cartoon to the strains of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours". (Later generations know this melody from Allan Sherman's recorded parody "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah").
The film ends with a stunning depiction of evil in the figure of the bat-like demon Chernabog, who, to the eerie melodies of Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain", summons all kinds of nasty things from the depths of the earth and creates havoc until subdued by church bells and Schubert's "Ave Maria". To turn on a dime from the ridiculous - those great dancing hippos in tutus - to the sublime (evil but sublime) showed just how good Disney and his animators were, achieving levels of emotion and artistry that made other animation studios stand in awe and throw up their hands in defeat.
Yes, there is greatness in FANTASIA, but greatness only in pieces. In truth, it is a film you have to see if you are a movie historian or animation student, but it is often difficult to slog through. Like a novice attending his first classical concert, you may find yourself nodding off now and then. The concept is wonderful, the execution is often lacking.
Still, if Disney had to make FANTASIA, good things did come from it. Because it cost so much and was a box-office bust, Disney scaled down his next major feature, the hour-long DUMBO, which ranks with PINOCCHIO as the most entertaining Disney film ever. The experimentation of FANTASIA returned in DUMBO in the fantastically surreal "Pink Elephants on Parade" scene, and it didn't hurt the film that the Disney animators had already perfected animating elephants in the "Dance of the Hours" segment of FANTASIA. The blend of pastoral beauty set to music found in FANTASIA returned in the superior BAMBI. At Warners in 1943, Robert Clampett directed a hilarious FANTASIA parody titled "A Corny Concerto" featuring Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd as the orchestra conductor ("Gweetings, music wuvvers!"). It is highly likely that the animators of the The Beatles film YELLOW SUBMARINE were partially inspired by FANTASIA, and that film's cult success brought FANTASIA back into the theaters in the late sixties.
Some fans may hate me for this rating, but I gotta go with my gut. I appreciate FANTASIA for what it is and absolutely love parts of it. But give me PINOCCHIO, DUMBO or even THE LITTLE MERMAID any time when I feel the need for a Disney fix. As I said, beautiful concept, but some of the interpretations are just not my idea of a good time. ½ - JB