Movie Review – Fantasia (1940)

It’s been called a film ahead of its time.

It’s a masterful collection of classical music and fantastic animation sequences.

It’s Fantasia, a full-length feature film released by Walt Disney back in 1940.  Using eight animated sequences, Fantasia visually takes viewers into the world of classical music.  You hear some of your favorite classical pieces of music and see them presented in imaginative methods, telling a story while entertaining and relaxing you.

Fantasia (1940) - movie poster

Hosted and narrated by Deems Taylor, Fantasia includes musical pieces from Johann Sebastian Bach, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Amilcare Ponchielle, Modest Mussorgsky, and Franz Schubert.  You may only be familiar with a couple of those composers now, but by the end of Fantasia you might be fans of them all.  All of the pieces of music recorded for Fantasia were composed by the famed English conductor Leopold Stokowski, and seven of the eight segments were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Sit back and relax when viewing Fantasia.  Turn down the lights, lie back in your favorite chair, and sip a nice glass of wine.  As you’ll see, Fantasia is a completely different style of the other animated films produced by Walt Disney.

Fantasia (1940) - Deems Taylor guides us through the magical world of Fantasia.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Fantasia begins as if you’re attending an orchestra concert.  The curtains open, the musicians arrive and begin tuning their instruments, and our gust host, Deems Taylor, walks on stage and greets us.

Toccata And Fugue In D Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach

Fantasia (1940) - Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Toccata And Fugue In D Minor.'

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Our first animated musical segment is German composer Johann Sebastian Bach‘s “Toccata And Fugue In D Minor.”  This segment begins with live-action shots of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  The orchestra begins playing and we see various colors in the background.  The animation slowly takes over the screen and soon we’re seeing abstract colors and animations in synchronization with the classical music.  As the music grows louder and more intense, so do the fantastic animations moving around on the screen.

The Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The next segment is Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “The Nutcracker Suite.”  As Deems Taylor explains, “The Nutcracker Suite” is a series of dances taken from the full Russian play.  The scenes themselves flow through the seasons, starting with summer and ending with the winter.  The colors and actions beautifully match the music and mood of the music, and the end result is a wonderful look into one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous works of music.

Fantasia (1940) - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker Suite' - 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy'

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The Nutcracker Suite” begins in the summer with the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”  This segment of “The Nutcracker Suite” begins at dawn as fairies arrive and begin spreading their magical drops of dew throughout the plants and spider webs in the forest.

Fantasia (1940) - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker Suite' - 'Chinese Dance'

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Up next in “The Nutcracker Suite” is the “Chinese Dance.”  Here we have a family of mushrooms awaken from their slumber, shake off the drops of dew, and then dance around in a circle.  Joining the family is their child, Hop-Low, represented as a tiny little mushroom.

Fantasia (1940) - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker Suite' - 'Dance of the Flutes'

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Next in “The Nutcracker Suite” is the “Dance of the Flutes.”  This segment begins with flowers gently falling and landing in a pond.  Then we see the flowers rise and begin dancing around a white flower in the center of the group.  The flowers continue dancing and ultimately float off the edge of a waterfall.

The waterfall transitions to an underwater scene where we see fancy fish and other sea creatures dancing to the Arabian Dance” part of “The Nutcracker Suite.”

Fantasia (1940) - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker Suite' - 'Russian Dance'

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The Nutcracker Suite” jumps back into action with the “Russian Dance.”  Weeds and flowers join hands and jump to the famous beat in the Russian song.

Fantasia (1940) - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker Suite' - 'Waltz of the Flowers'

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Fall winds strip the leaves from the trees and winter quickly arrives in “The Nutcracker Suite.”  Now it’s time for the “Waltz of the Flowers” as the fairies return and leave a trail of frost and ice in their wake.  Watch as the magical spirits dance and ice skate on the top of the frozen pool of water.  Snow flakes fall from the skies and “The Nutcracker Suite” ends with the piercing cold weather of winter.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas

The next musical number in Fantasia is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by the French composer Paul Dukas.  Originally created as a separate cartoon to help restore the popularity of fading cartoon star Mickey Mouse, the production costs associated with the cartoon soared to high heights.  However, those problems led to the vision of the full-length film Fantasia, a film consisting of several animated segments set to different pieces of classical music.  “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was a perfect fit for this new film idea, and this segment is the only musical segment in the film to feature a famous Disney character.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' by Paul Dukas

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” begins as the powerful sorcerer Yen Sid (Disney spelled backwards) uses his magic to conjure fantastic apparitions.  His apprentice, Mickey Mouse, witnesses these magic acts and wishes that he too was a powerful sorcerer as Yen Sid.  But he’s merely an apprentice right now and Yen Sid has Mickey fetching buckets of water from a nearby well.

Yen Sid finishes his magical work and retires for the night, placing his sorcerer’s hat on top of the table before leaving.  Mickey quietly takes the hat and places it on top of his own head.  Now he has the ability to create magic like Yen Sid!  Mickey uses his magic to bring a wooden broom stick to life.  The broom stick grows arms and feet, and Mickey leads it to the well so it can fetch water.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' - Sorcerer Mickey has control of the cosmos!

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Pleased with his work, Mickey Mouse sits back and falls asleep on a chair.  He dreams of himself standing on a rocky outcropping and using his magic to control the cosmos.  Sorcerer Mickey has control of not only stars and comets, but also the Earth’s oceans as well.  He has a grand time playing with the mighty forces of nature before he suddenly awakens, floating in water right there in Yen Sid’s sacred chamber.

Mickey tries to stop the broom but he doesn’t know that part of the magic.  Despite his attempts the broom continues carrying water from the well and overflowing the chamber.  Mickey takes an axe and brutally smashes apart the broom, breaking it into dozens of tiny pieces of wood.  Unfortunately, that only made the problem worse.  Each fragment of wood grows and becomes a broom stick, and each one of them continues fetching water from the well in an endless pattern.

Again Mickey tries to stop the army of broom sticks, but nothing works.  Just when all hope is lost Yen Sid returns to the chamber.  The great sorcerer uses his magic to stop the broom sticks.  The water quickly drains and Mickey returns the sorcerer’s hat back to Yen Sid.  Yen Sid then uses a broom to swat Mickey on his butt and sending him running to fetch the water as originally instructed.

After the conclusion of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” there’s a brief clip where Mickey Mouse goes on stage to offer his congratulations to composer Leopold Stokowski.

The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky

Up next in Fantasia is “The Rite of Spring” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.  “The Rite of Spring” tells a brief history of planet Earth, from its fiery beginning to the first living organisms to the rise and ultimate fall of the mighty dinosaurs.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Rite of Spring' by Igor Stravinsky

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

In “The Rite of Spring” we see the Milky Way galaxy and then an early version of planet Earth.  Volcanoes erupt and lava pours across the surface of the planet, forming new landscapes in the process.  Water vapor condenses into massive clouds and trillions and trillions of gallons of rain falls, creating the world’s oceans.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Rite of Spring' - Rise of the dinosaurs.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

An eternity of time passes as single-celled organisms develop in the oceans.  These simple life forms evolve and become larger and more adaptive to their environment.  More time passes and those life forms continue evolving to the point where they crawl out of the oceans and live on land as dinosaurs, some 237 million years ago.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Rite of Spring' - A Stegosaurus tries to fight off a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The dinosaurs continue growing and evolving and soon we see familiar species such as the Pteranodon, Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and even the Stegosaurus.  One evening it begins to rain, and standing there in the thunderstorm is a mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.  The ferocious T-rex chases the other dinosaurs and gets into a fight with the Stegosaurus.  Both dinosaurs fight but the T-rex ultimately wins the battle.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Rite of Spring' - An early theory about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

More time passes and now the Earth is a hot and dry planet.  A scorching hot sun has baked the plants and dried the watering holes, leaving the dinosaurs both hungry and thirsty.  There’s no shelter or relief, and the dinosaurs become extinct (Remember that the comet impact extinction theory did not exist back in the 1930s and 40s.).  Even the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex cannot fight off the brutal climate change.  We see the skeleton remains of the dinosaurs before a massive earthquake rips open the landscape and allows the oceans to flood the plains once more, restoring the cycle of life on planet Earth.

Intermission / Meet The Soundtrack

Fantasia (1940) - The visualization of sound.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Fantasia takes a brief break during an intermission in the middle of the film.  When the film resumes Deems Taylor demonstrates how sound can be visualized on film.  An animated sound track, also known as a “character,” changes its shape and color depending on the nearby sound.

The Pastoral Symphony” by Ludwig van Beethoven

The next musical segment in Fantasia is “The Pastoral Symphony” by German composer Ludwig van Beethoven.  The visual representation of this beautiful work of music takes us into the imaginative land of ancient Greece and the classical mythology to accompany it.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Pastoral Symphony' by Ludwig van Beethoven

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The Pastoral Symphony” begins with half human-half goat fauns running around and playing with some baby unicorns.  The scenes transition and we see next with winged horses (like Pegasus).  Most of the baby horses know how to fly, but a little black horse needs some encouragement from its mother.  The horse quickly learns how to fly and soon the family of winged horses is gracefully flying through the Greek skies.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Pastoral Symphony' - Love is in the air with the centaurs.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Next in “The Pastoral Symphony” we see young lady centaurs bathe and prepare themselves with the help of little flying boys (young versions of Cupid).  The flying boys help the ladies look pretty before the young male centaurs arrive and claim their mates.  Most of the men and women centaurs pair up, but the flying boys help the last two find the courage to approach each other.  They do and all seems well for the centaurs.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Pastoral Symphony' - Bacchus decrees that it's time to dance and celebrate.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Now that everybody is joyous and happy, it’s time for the centaurs and fauns to help make barrels of wine for Bacchus, the god of wine.  Soon wine is flowing, Bacchus is pleased (and fairly drunk), and everybody dances and celebrates the event.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Pastoral Symphony' - The celebration ends with the arrival of Zeus.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The celebration concludes when dark skies arrive and it begins raining upon the creatures.  This is also the arrival of Zeus, and the mighty Greek god of sky and thunder sends the creatures running for cover.  Most of them seek shelter quickly but Bacchus is caught out in the open.  Zeus targets the god of wine and throws lightning bolts at him.  A final lightning bolt bursts open the reservoir of wine, sending a river of the celebratory drink through the town.  All of the activity tires Zeus and the god of sky and thunder lies in the clouds and drifts off to sleep.

Fantasia (1940) - 'The Pastoral Symphony' - Iris gives the world a beautiful rainbow.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

After the storm all the mythological creatures leave their shelters and step back into the sunshine.  The Greek goddess Iris flies across the sky and leaves a bright and colorful rainbow in her path.  “The Pastoral Symphony” ends with Helios descending in the sky, bringing night upon the world, and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon, transforming from a crescent moon into a hunter, and releasing an arrow like a comet across the starry night sky.

Dance Of The Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli

Next in Fantasia is the “Dance Of The Hours” by the famed Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli.  This musical segment is primarily divided into four sections, each of them representing a time of day ranging from morning to night.  At night all four sections are combined into a grand finale full of energy and colors.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Dance Of The Hours' by Amilcare Ponchielli

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Dance Of The Hours” opens with the morning segment featuring Madame Upanova and her fellow ostriches.  The large birds slowly awaken and begin their dance routine that suggests the hours of dawn.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Dance Of The Hours' - The dance of the hippos.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The “Dance Of The Hours” segment continues as fruit accidentally dropped into a pool of water reveals a hidden hippopotamus.  Now it’s time for Hyacinth Hippo and her servants to dance around the Venetian palace in the afternoon hours.  At the end of her dance routine Hyacinth falls asleep and the elephants slowly emerge on scene.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Dance Of The Hours' - Elephancine and her elephant friends.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The skies grow darker as Elephanchine and her fellow elephants dance around the sleeping Hyacinth Hippo and play with air bubbles.  These air bubbles have some tremendous strength to them as they can actually lift the elephants and sleeping hippo into the air.  This evening segment of “Dance Of The Hours” ends as a strong gust of wind blows away Elephanchine and the other elephants.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Dance Of The Hours' - The alligators have arrived.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Night descends upon the Venetian palace and hooded alligators arrive.  Their leader, Ben Ali Gator, has his eyes on the still sleeping Hyacinth Hippo.  They crawl down the columns and creep up to the hippo’s bed.  Ben Ali Gator falls in love with the hippo, but when Hyacinth awakens she’s frightened by the alligator.  She runs from Ben Ali Gator but changes her mind and returns to the alligator.  The two of them dance and then Hyacinth plays the classic game of hard-to-get.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Dance Of The Hours' - The grand finale with alligators dancing with their partners.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

It’s game on as the alligators chase after the ostriches, hippos and elephants.  There’s a massive dance routine as the music escalates and light battles darkness.  The alligators make a gallant stand but “Dance Of The Hours” ends as the powers of light ultimately defeat those of darkness.

Night On Bald Mountain” by Modeste Moussorgsky & “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert

Deems Taylor gives the audience one last introduction with the last two musical numbers: “Night On Bald Mountain” by Russian composer Modeste Moussorgsky and “Ave Maria” by Austrian composer Franz Schubert.  As Deems explains, as opposite as the two pieces of music are, they actually complement each other quite well and form a nearly perfect conclusion to Fantasia.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Night On Bald Mountain' by Modeste Moussorgsky

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

Night On Bald Mountain” begins as darkness descends upon a small village nestled in the mountains.  It’s Halloween night and as the clock strikes midnight the top of the highest mountain peak comes alive.  Hiding up there is the towering devil Chernabog.  He summons the ghosts from the town’s cemeteries, and they rise in the air and fly up to their master.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Night On Bald Mountain' - It's a nightmarish sight as the ghosts race to their master.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

It’s a horrific spectacle as ghosts and evil entities rise from the ground and fly up to the Chernabog in a massive wave of pure evil.  The devilish creature rejoices as the swarm of ghosts embrace and worship him.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Night On Bald Mountain' - The minions worship their devilish leader.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

After the ghosts have joined the Chernabog it’s time for the demons and minions to worship their leader.  Fire gives birth to more minions and they dance in the Chernabog’s massive palms.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Night On Bald Mountain' - The ghosts return to their graves as dawn arrives.

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

The evil celebration goes well until a church bell rings in the early morning hour.  With each ring of the bell more and more of the ghosts and minions turn away from the Chernabog and slowly drift back down to the ground and their graves in the cemeteries.  The Chernabog folds his mighty wings and resumes his previous shape of the mountain’s peak, returning to his slumber and waiting for his rise of power.

Fantasia (1940) - 'Ave Maria' by Franz Schubert

Fantasia (1940) – (c) Walt Disney Productions

As dawn arrives so does the transition to “Ave Maria.”  Beautiful music fills the air as we see scenes of an endless line of monks walking with lighted torches over a bridge, through a forest, and finally arriving at the ruins of an ancient cathedral.  “Ave Maria” ends as we exit the cathedral and see the sun rising through a forest of trees, thus ending Fantasia as well.

So is Walt Disney’s animated film Fantasia a good movie?

First of all, Fantasia is not geared towards children like the vast majority of Walt Disney’s animated film.  Don’t expect to find damsels in distress or love stories in this film.  Fantasia is a collection of animated segments choreographed to classical music.

That being said, most children will not be amused with Fantasia.  You really have to appreciate classical music and the art of animation to get the most out of this film.  Then again, many adults in today’s ADHD-driven world will also probably be bored with a film such as this one.

Personally, I love most of the segments in this film.  A few areas such as the “Arabian Dance” in “The Nutcracker Suite” along with most of “Dance Of The Hours” is slow and somewhat boring, the rest of the musical and animated segments in Fantasia are simply fantastic.  About 80-85% of Fantasia is a really great film.

Chances are likely that fans of the Walt Disney World theme parks will have a greater appreciation of Fantasia as parts of the film can be found throughout the theme parks and resort area.

For starters, the sorcerer’s hat from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is one of the park’s icons for Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  It’s easy to spot as the massive hat is standing at the end of Hollywood Boulevard directly in front of “The Great Movie Ride.”  In “The Great Movie Ride” you’ll find a brief scene on the ride where the sorcerer Mickey from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is standing on a pillar of rocks and summoning giant waves from the ocean below him.

It’s also in Disney’s Hollywood Studios where you’ll find “Fantasmic!,” a special night show that features sorcerer Mickey and other elements of Fantasia.  “Fantasmic!” replaced the fireworks show “Sorcery in the Sky,” which also featured music from Fantasia.  The ending of “Sorcery in the Sky” had a giant inflatable sorcerer Mickey that appeared on top of “The Great Movie Ride” and shot a shower of sparks from his finger.

In the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World you’ll find the 3-D show “Mickey’s Philharmagic” in Fantasyland.  In that 3-D show Donald Duck uses the sorcerer hat and accidentally goes into several classic animated cartoons.  He has to fight his way to recover the hat, but he fails and Mickey Mouse uses the sorcerer hat to restore everything back to normal.

For many years the Magic Kingdom used to have a special night parade called “SpectroMagic.”  “SpectroMagic” used a series of Disney characters and special floats and music themed to many classic films including Fantasia.  The Fantasia segment in the parade included dancing ostriches, a joyous Bacchus with his wine, a Chernabog that could fold its wings and become a mysterious mountain, and flying horses along with Artemis pulling back her magical bow and arrow.

Remember the Stegosaurus fighting the Tyrannosaurus rex during “The Rite of Spring“?  That very scene exists in Audio-animatronic form in the “Universe of Energy” attraction in Epcot‘s Future World.  During one part of the lengthy show / ride, visitors are taken through a massive dinosaur diorama featuring a variety of dinosaurs including Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex and Pteranodons.

Fantasia references also exist outside of the Disney theme parks.  On Disney property you’ll find the Fantasia Gardens miniature golf course, and while visiting the Downtown Disney shopping complex you may find special topiary and other decorations in the shape of certain characters from Fantasia.

Fantasia (1940) – movie trailer (with horrible audio)

Fantasia is an outstanding film for lovers of classical music and animation in general.  Those people looking for the classic Disney animation experience with captured princesses, evil warlocks, and princes who face evil and certain death may be disappointed with this film.  The same goes true for those people with an attention span rivaling that of an ordinary goldfish.

four stars

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