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Walt Disney’s musical epic started as a Mickey Mouse short and was transformed into a feature masterpiece. In seven segments, the Disney animators and artists make a truly cinematic experience setting gorgeous moving pictures to classical music. Nothing so bold or adult has come out from Disney animation since. Few major studios have ever attempted something so experimental.
The various segments are bookmarked by live-action introductions from Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski. The first piece is set to Bach’s “Toccata Fugue in D Minor.” Disney doesn’t ease the audience into his musical experiment, which ushered in stereophonic sound; he begins with an abstract piece. Shapes dance in synch with the music. While it doesn’t contain some of the abandon of the very best experimental animation from masters like Norman McLaren, the segment certainly builds to a freewheeling ending.
Next up is Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” which serves as an ode to Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” shorts. The most memorable moment is Chinese mushrooms dancing in a line, where a clumsy little mushroom , dubbed Hop Low, messes everything up.
The third segment was the film’s inspiration and it’s crowning achievement. Set to Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the sequence is the first with a defined story. Mickey Mouse, who was redesigned for the film, plays a wanna-be wizard who dons his master’s magic hat to help with his chores. Everything seems wonderful at first as brooms dutifully carry buckets of water to the well, but poor Mickey doesn’t know how to make them stop. The action is crafted around the music so perfectly it seems it was composed for the picture. The short segment is filled with iconic moments as Mickey commands the heavens one moment and hangs onto a spell book atop a tidal wave of water the next.
Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is used in the next segment to show the evolution of Earth from single celled organisms to the extinction of the dinosaurs. It’s another fine example of the music and story matching brilliantly. The violent power of the music drives the harsh conditions of the primeval world. The battle between a T-Rex and a stegosaurus to close the segment is thrilling.
After a call for intermission and short gag featuring a soundtrack moving to sounds, the film hits its low point. Set to Beethoven’s “The Pastoral Symphony,” the story follows Greek mythical creatures as they cavort in the woods. One could chronicle the origin of the term “Disney-fied” to the too cute designs of the male and female centaurs and cupids. The sequence tries to be innocent and fun, but it takes on a creepy vibe as a drunkard chases around the barely pubescent looking centaurettes, who appear in various forms of undress. But one doesn’t have to worry; those bare animated breasts have no nipples. Eventually, the gods starts toying with the creatures and by then the sequence has long worn out its welcome.
But the next sequence certainly picks up the stride again. Using Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” the segment wonderfully pokes fun at ballet. The animators do a precise job of recreating the dance style, but it’s all subverted by casting hippos, ostriches, elephants and alligators as the dancers. The hippos in tutus are simply a classic image.
The film comes to a rousing close with a medley of Moussorgsky’s “Night at Bald Mountain” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” This classic battle between good and evil has Tchernobog, the Slavonic god of evil, rise out of a mountain on Walpurgis Night to summon witches, ghosts and demons to dance in the skies. Once again the bombastic music matches the vivid imagery brilliantly. Unlike the design work in the “Pastoral” sequence, the character design perfectly fits the mood of the score. It does create a creepy feel. Then the sequence precisely transitions to the calm and slow build of “Ava Marie” summoned by the toll of church bells. The evil creatures of the night go back into hiding as monks carry candles into the horizon finishing at dawn. The film couldn’t have closed more grandly.
This unique feature is a landmark achievement in cinematic history. It’s cinema at its purest. It bridges language boundaries. Without words, through music and animation, FANTASIA attains visual poetry.
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