Imagine being a pioneer in your field; proving the impossible was, in fact, possible. Instead of sticking with the “winning” formula, you decide to mix it up. That is exactly what Walt Disney did when he released Fantasia. Only three years after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he brought an even more unique film experience to the masses. Described as a “on going project”, Fantasia set the bar higher for all animation pictures to come and brought some very memorable moments to our consciousness.
The concept for the movie, started in 1937, was partly that of a marketing idea by Walt Disney. With the focus on his other projects, he felt that Mickey Mouse was beginning to drift from the popular culture. Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the film, suggested to Walt the he expand the Silly Symphonies pieces into a feature-length film. Eight various classical pieces were chosen and developed with a very distinct story to accompany the music visually. Scores of artist worked tirelessly around the clock for three years to bring to screen what is one of the most excellent examples of hand animation. The film wasn’t a run away success when it first came out. However, it has become one of the most popular in the Disney Classics and has enjoyed healthy home video sales. Unfortunately, the idea of an ever evolving film was never fully realized until the release of Fantasia 2000. Using new pieces as well as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the movie brought the original Fantasia to the consciousness of a new generation.
My appreciation of the movie has gotten deeper with time. I can’t quite remember sitting down and watching the full film as a child, but know I had seen all the pieces. The lack of connected story and 2 hour run time was a little off putting for me. I was growing up in the ‘Disney Renaissance’ and had become used to the Three Act (thought I wouldn’t have called it that at 7) Structure. Before my parents would take me to see Fantasia 2000 in IMAX, they insisted I watch the original from beginning to end. The pieces, formally fragmented in my memory, came back in a big way. The gorgeous landscapes, brilliant music, and unique imaginings of the music captured my imagination. To this day, I have “Fantasia Moments” while listening to an orchestra performing.
To discuss each piece is a dissertation in and of itself. As a child my favorite was the Dance of the Hours; fondly remembered as the “hippo and gator ballet”. It’s the piece with the most traditional cartoon-y feel, which would greatly appeal to young me. The impossible way the larger then life hippo dances around on her toes to the beautifully airy quality of Amilcare Ponchielli’s score was always my favorite. Re-watching the piece still brings back the bubbly feeling I had as a child giggling over the comical turn these unlikely animals dancing took. It sits second to last on the program and really brings you up, only to smash you down with the last piece. Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria has always been the most frightening piece to me. Even now, as a 24 year old adult, watching the opening with Chernabog summoning the spirits and other ghouls hypnotizes me. The brilliance of the piece is the fact that it jolts you into this cold, dark world. The music and visuals make you feel unsettled and anxious. The frenzy of the dancing creatures and flames never fails to make me squirm in my seat. What is most unsettling about the piece is the moment where he creates the “fire women”. Like a magician he draws you in and holds you, transfixed on the flames flickering these images of dancing women. Smashing his hand down on them, he changes them into goat like creatures that run around, trying to not fall into the fire below. As Modest Mussorgsky’s score picks up it’s frenzied pace, it becomes interrupted by the sound of church bells. Unable to stop the dawn, Chernabog retreats back into his mountain.
Seamlessly from one piece to another, we flow into Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria. The darkness of the piece is lifted as the sun begins to light the morning. The light vocalization underscores the candle procession as the monks walk into the woods to greet the morning sun. What always catches me here is just the amazing beauty of the art in this part. The ethereal quality of scene becomes more beautiful to the viewer after “living” through the scenes before. Of course, the end tracking shot as the music swells would even make the Grinch’s heart grow. It’s at this point I feel the need to talk about something a little more technical with the film. The recent discovery of a notebook has shed some light on the process in which many of these visually appealing scenes were created. The Schultheis Notebooks, currently on display at The Walt Disney Family Museum, chronicle in great detail how the effects department jimmy rigged their way into creating some of the most unique visuals seen on film. Herman Schultheis was a German immigrant who was well versed in a variety of jobs. He moved into the effects department while Fantasia was starting production. Taking it upon himself, he kept a very detailed notebook of their creative process. The notebook itself is almost a work of art. Pictures, drawings, notes, and even bars of the music for the piece all sit within this amazing manual. There is a 15-minute video about the book and Schultheis himself on the Fantasia Blu-ray. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in animation or Disneyana.
The amazing thing about Fantasia is it’s ability to still seem as awesome as the first time you saw it. No matter how many times you watch it, there is always something new to see or experience. The nostalgic factor of the movie does aid in the devotion one might feel watching it, but I also think it stands on it’s own. In a world where animation has become almost exclusively computer generated, Fantasia stands as pillar of hand animation.