Fantasia: Disney’s strange experiment with music and animation

January 6th, 1942: Disney’s Fantasia opens in theaters (not to be confused with its official New York premiere in 1940)

Seventy-four years ago, a strange movie opened in American cinemas. Fantasia was far from the typical feature film, beacause rather than telling a unified story, it was separated into a series of musical segments, some told stories, others consisted of abstract images. Disney originally intended for Fantasia to be the first in a recurring series of films that would continuously update itself by including old segments and adding in new portions as time went on. Although Fantasia 2000 attempted to follow this model, the plan ultimately fell through. Nonetheless, Fantasia is nowadays considered a masterpiece of animation and of musical talent.

The film is divided into eight musical segments and they are as follows:

Of all the segments in Fantasia, the Toccata and Fugue is by far the most abstract segment of them all. The Toccata consists of the camera panning through the orchestra, with occasional shots of conductor Leopold Stokowski’s back (seen in the picture above). The Fugue section is when things get interesting (or weird, depending upon how you feel about classical music). The viewer is taken through a medley of rolling red and purple hills, endless staircases and fantastical landscapes, all before plummeting back to earth and the orchestra as the piece finally comes to an end.

Despite it’s name (and the host informs the audience as well), the titular Nutcracker does not appear in this segment. What does appear are a number of dances from the ballet, namely: “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”; “Chinese Dance”; “Dance of the Flutes”; “Arabian Dance”; “Russian Dance”; and “Waltz of the Flowers.”

This is the only segment to be brought back in Fantasia 2000 and one of the most famous, mostly because of its famous star: Mickey Mouse is the titular apprentice, who works tirelessly for the wizard Yen Sid (Disney spelled backwards). Once the wizard departs for bed, Mickey decides to create some “help” to get his chores done quicker, but things quickly get out of hand…

  • The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

This segment is usually the one kids remember because this is “the dinosaur segment” (at least that’s how I always remembered it when I was growing up). Disney took Stravinsky’s ballet about a group of primitives performing ritual sacrifice (not kidding about this) and transformed it into a story about evolution, starting with the primitive Earth boiling in lava, through the creation of microbes up until the mighty dinosaurs themselves. The climax of the segment (before the extinction anyway), is a terrifying segment where a T-Rex attacks a group of peaceful dinosaurs and the T-Rex squares off against the Stegosaurus (keep in mind that T-Rex was viewed primarily as a hunter in those days, and not believed to be the scavenger we now suspect he might have been).

The two square off, but you just know Stegosaurus doesn’t stand a chance
  • Intermission/Meet the Soundtrack

Now comes an interlude where first, we see the musicians having an impromptu jam session and then our host introduces us to the soundtrack, personified as an animated string standing in the center of the stage. This animated string is used to demonstrate the different sounds the orchestra makes. Below is just one example (it’s really funny to watch):

  • The Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 6) by Ludwig van Beethoven

Now into the second half of the program, we see Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (also called the Pastoral Symphony). Beethoven wrote this symphony as his deafness was progressively getting worse and so he deliberately evoked the landscape of the country in his musical writing and the Disney animators took these sounds and created a fantastical Greek world where all the creatures of mythology live. For instance you have (in no particular order):

The whole program revolves around a day in the life in this little paradise. We see the life of a Pegasus family, courtship among the centaurs, a huge wine party hosted by Dionysus, a gigantic thunderstorm created by Zeus (apparently because he can), the aftermath and a spectacular sunset (with a brief cameo by Apollo no less!)
Apollo waving goodbye
  • Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli

Next comes the ever hilarious Dance of the Hours, an allegory of the progression from Day to Night. The segment starts with Madame Upanova waking up her ostrich dancers (they represent the Morning)


Truthfully? I did NOT know these characters had names
The ostriches are frightened away by Hyacinth Hippo and her servants (and they represent the Afternoon)
While Hyacinth takes a nap, several elephants (led by Elephanchine) come in and do a bubble dance (and they represent the Evening)
Finally, the Elephants are (literally) blown away by the evening wind and Hyacinth remains asleep, unaware that Night has now fallen and she is being observed by Ben Ali Gator (get it?) and his troop of gators. Somehow, Ali Gator falls hopelessly in love with Hyacinth and she seems to reciprocate (an alligator and a hippo?!?!) and they share a brief dance together before Hyacinth gives a brief glance of “come and get me if you want me” and Ali Gator gladly gives chase, leading to the wild finale where the other alligators chase throughout the palace, pulling out ostriches, Hippos and Elephants, all while Hyacinth and Ali Gator dance oblivious. The finale is SO tremendous in fact, that it literally brings the palace crashing down at the very end.
  • Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria by Modest Mussorgsky and Franz Schubert respectively
The climax of the program now comes with Night on Bald Mountain. On a distant mountain in the Eastern European countryside, the black demon Chernabog awakens at midnight and begins his devilish plan of wreaking havoc upon the world below.
This scared me so much when i was a kid!!
Chernabog summons ghosts, witches, lesser demons and who knows what else and all converge in a riotous dance of death on the mountain top.
But just as Chernabog has gathered his full power and is about to attack, a bell rings and the demon stops. The bell continues to ring, and each time a white flash appears to blind him. It is the early hour and a nearby church is calling the monks to prayer. It is the holy power of prayer that stops Chernabog and forces him to go back to sleep for another night. Meanwhile, the monks continue to pray, and the segment gives way to Schubert’s Ave Maria
And that is how Fantasia ends. After the segment ends, we see the musicians departing the same way we came in, but there’s no more narration, no more music.
*all images are the property and copyright of Walt Disney Studios
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1 thought on “Fantasia: Disney’s strange experiment with music and animation

  1. Pingback: Disturbing Disney #14: Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia (1940) | Film Music Central

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