Amongst the shorts that Disney Studios made before going feature length were the rather fantastic Silly Symphonies, where they took a piece of music and animated a story to that music. Fantasia, their third and perhaps most daring film, is the Silly Symphonies concept turned into breathtaking art. It’s a film that encompasses classical imagery, the apocalyptic visions of Revelation and pagan mythology all in the space of two hours. This is Disney at their most abstract, taking eight pieces of classical music from different periods, and telling a variety of stories set to them. There is no clear narrative here, no princesses being rescued or or wicked witches brewing potions. It’s a film that begins with a series of colours and shapes, and ends with Schubert‘s Ave Maria heralding the victory of angelic beings over Satan. One suspects Disney would not make this today.
Each section of the film is introduced by an orator, who explains a little bit about each piece. The man himself is rather dull, but his little tidbits of information are great ways into understanding classical music for younger children. So we learn that some pieces are written with a story in mind and that Tchaikovsky hated the Nutcracker Suite, whilst he also outlines the stories and basic themes of each vignette. It’s an approach that steadfastly refuses to talk down to children, something which is representative of the film as a whole. There are big ideas being grappled with here, and more artistry in some of the animation than goes into the majority of films for adults today. This is a mature, engrossing piece of work, but on face value it is not especially child friendly. The film as a whole is a magnificent, dazzling work of art, but the segmented structure means that some sections obviously work better than others. As such, it seems to make sense to approach writing about the film in that way, so I’ve highlighted the most impressive of the vignettes below.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
This is a piece of music, we are told, that has no story; it’s music for the sake of it. It’s a series of impressions and images, an abstract realisation of the thoughts and emotions that the music evokes. Bach‘s sinister, dancing strings and deep, thrumming brass instruments are rendered, at first, in shadows and silhouettes, coloured lights bringing out the shapes and movements of the orchestra in disorienting, expressive ways. As the music progresses, the animators get to work for the first time, but still in a distinctly impressionistic manner. Each flutter of a violin becomes a flickering of light; colours and shapes dance by, bringing the music to life in beautiful and unique ways. As the first sequence of the film, it lays the foundation for everything else that will follow: music is more than just instruments being plucked meaninglessly; it has the power to speak to us, to evoke emotions and feelings in us, even if sometimes it is hard to express exactly what they are.
The Nutcracker Suite
The Nutcracker Suite must rank, alongside Beethoven‘s 5th and most of Mozart‘s work, as one of the most famous pieces of classical music out there. In the hands of Disney and his animators, it becomes a tribute to the magic of nature, opening with fairies coating the night with dew, before showing the dervish like rituals of flowers, translucent fish flitting nervously away from the camera and Kossack thistles energetically dancing to the most upbeat part of the music. This sequence contains some of the most beautiful images of the whole film, most notably as the fairies bring on the change of seasons, dancing around on ponds and freezing it as they go. The imagery here is pastoral, rooted in European pagan imagery of nature and showing the world to be full of life. It also transforms the quite grand music into something far more intimate – every sequence is shot in close up, some even in spotlight, leaving the rest of the screen dark. It’s an imagined version of what nature looks like if you stop and look at the details.
The Sorceror’s Apprentice
The sequence from this film so famous it inspired an Itchy and Scratchy spoof and its own Nic Cage starring spin-off, The Sorceror’s Apprentice is the bit that most people remember even if they forget about the dinosaurs and unicorns. The music (by the least famous composer of the group, Paul Dukas) is instantly iconic, the deep, playful ‘bom boms’ (you know what I mean) instantly conjuring up the image of a thousand brooms collecting water. It works so well because, as with all the sequences, the animators have so perfectly matched the music to the images, here to far more comic effect than in any of the other vignettes, excepting the Dance of the Hours. It’s also Mickey Mouse‘s feature length film début, as the eponymous apprentice who lets laziness get the better of him.
Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria
If you were in any doubt, by the end of the film, that there was more to Disney than cutesy visions of rural idyll and anthropomorphising animals, then this final, breathtaking scene should put those doubts to rest. Mixing the dark, ferocious sounds of Mussorgsky with the choral worship of Schubert to create a tale of heaven’s triumph over Satan, this is powerful cinema on a metaphysical scale. To get to heaven’s ultimate victory, however, the film passes through the horror of Satan calling up all his minions in a diabolic dance of damnation. Here, the animators return to the almost abstract images of the opening Toccata, depicting a whirling mass of bodies and faces in worship of the dark one. It’s a deeply unsettling vision, matching the violence of the music with epic, eschatological images. What follows is the Ave Maria, a beautiful choral piece that marks heaven’s restoration of earth after Satan’s party. Unlike the devil, we don’t actually see any of the angelic beings, here. The camera stays at a distance, reverently, before transitioning to grand images of mountains and light breaking through clouds. It’s an astonishing finale to the film, creating scenes that carry sacred meaning with them. Which, for a film made in the ’40s that also features Greek Gods and evolution, is a powerful, beautiful end to the film.
Fantasia is a film that celebrates the beauty and power of music, but in all its variety. It’s light-hearted and carefree, brimming with wit and intelligence. Yet it’s also dark, enthralling and spectacular, a tribute to artists throughout the centuries, be it the Greeks, Milton or composers from different eras of classical music.. Music and images come together in a way that is so rarely seen in animation, as it becomes expression in its purest form: everything the animators feel is entirely up there on the screen. Whilst there are many hugely talented composers out there, and memorable scores being written for animations, the synthesis of sound and image here is entirely remarkable. Thi is a celebration of art that is a work of art in and of itself, and there hasn’t been anything quite like it ever since. Except maybe Fantasia 2000.