Fantasia – Frolicking fauns, dancing hippos & Mickey Mouse as a would-be wizard: Disney’s 1940 classic

Walt Disney’s animated classic Fantasia has just got a high-definition spruce-up on Blu-ray for its 70th anniversary – and watching it is like opening up a time capsule.

Originally released in 1940, Disney’s film is both unmistakably of its age – and daringly ahead of it: a groundbreaking venture that married animation and classical music, popular culture and high art, Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski.

In creating animated settings for eight well-known works of classical music, Disney and his team deployed all manner of revolutionary techniques, not just in animation but in sound as well – the film even won an Oscar for its use of multi-channel sound, a process the studio called Fantasound.

Fantasia - Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice

But there’s also something charmingly fusty about the film too. Take the presence on screen in white tie and tails of narrator Deems Taylor (well-known  at the time for his radio broadcasts with the New York Philharmonic), who provides introductory and explanatory commentary for each of the musical sequences. In effect, he’s holding the audience’s hand as they encounter this high-brow stuff.

Beginning with the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, seen in silhouette, taking their places and tuning up, the film takes the form of a concert programme, opening with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue (set to abstract images) and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (a series of ballets for fairies and flora that follow the changing seasons) and concluding with Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain (a thrillingly visualised Witches’ Sabbath) and Schubert’s Ave Maria (processional, pious).

The film’s centrepiece is the work that inspired the whole enterprise – Mickey Mouse as the over-reaching neophyte magician in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dukas’s famous setting of the poem by Goethe based on the age-old story. This used to be a staple of the BBC’s Disney Time at Christmas and on Bank Holidays, and it’s still great fun seeing the lazy Mickey’s attempts to get a broom to perform his water-carrying duties spectacularly and soggily backfire. (After the sequence, Mickey – voiced by Walt himself – scampers up to the conductor’s podium and shakes hands with Mr Stokowski.)

Fantasia - Mickey Mouse shakes hands with conductor Leopold Stokowski

Seen today, much of Fantasia’s animation continues to take the breath away – for all the leaps and bounds made by computer animation, at its best, traditional hand-drawn animation has a unique magic.

Fantasia isn’t consistently enchanting from start to finish, however. The individual sequences vary enormously. Some bits are breathtaking, others dated; some bits are tooth-achingly twee, others still raise a smile. Give me the ostriches in ballet shoes and the hippos in tutus in Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours over the cute fauns and unicorns frolicking in a pastel landscape in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony any day.

Fantasia - Dance of the HoursFantasia - Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

Originally, this segment of Fantasia was even more unbearable thanks to the racially-stereotyped image of a black female centaur, a servant figure seen shining her mistress’s hooves. Named Sunflower, this subservient part-human, part-donkey centaurette has been censored from the film since 1969.

Of course, Hollywood wouldn’t dream of putting a figure like Sunflower on screen today, thank goodness, but in some other respects the US has moved backwards since 1940. Would a mainstream American film today embrace the theory of evolution? Fantasia does this in the sequence set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which animates the origins of life on Earth from one-celled organisms to dinosaurs. God doesn’t get a mention.

Fantasia’s filmmakers were clearly aware of the shocking nature of this section of the film – but back then it was Stravinsky’s music that was the cause for alarm, not the content of the animation. When Taylor announces the title of the work, the orchestra’s musicians play-act shock. One even stumbles and sets the tubular bells jangling, reminding us that when the film was made less than three decades had passed since Stravinsky’s revolutionary score had set off a riot at its Paris premiere.

When it comes to the subject of evolution, however, no one’s hair is ruffled. Here’s what Taylor says by way of introduction:

“When Igor Stravinsky wrote his ballet The Rite of Spring, his purpose was, in his own words, ‘to express primitive life.’ So Walt Disney and his fellow artists have taken him at his word. Instead of presenting the ballet in its original form, as a simple series of tribal dances, they have visualised it as a pageant, as the story of the growth of life on Earth. It’s a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet’s existence. So now, imagine yourselves out in space, billions and billions of years ago, looking down on this lonely, tormented little planet, spinning through an empty sea of nothingness.”

Can you imagine a Disney narrator saying this today?

Fantasia 2000

Stravinsky’s music doesn’t ruffle any feathers these days. And his 1919 Firebird Suite features – without any hullabaloo – on the 1999 sequel Fantasia 2000, which is included on Blu-ray in the special edition of Fantasia.

There’s no Deems Taylor in white tie to educate the masses this time. Instead, a series of joshing, joking celebrities, including Steve Martin and Bette Midler, introduce the film’s musical numbers, which range from Beethoven’s 5th and Respighi’s Pines of Rome to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals.

The animation is blander and less enthralling than that of the original Fantasia (check out, though, the 2003 realisation of the aborted 1946 Walt Disney-Salvador Dali collaboration, the truly surreal Destino, among the extras). That the animation doesn’t rise to its predecessor’s heights is probably to be expected. What is depressing about the sequel, however, is the fact that where Disney felt confident to tackle evolution, his heirs give us the story of Noah’s Ark. To the strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, a bumbling Donald Duck helps get the animals on board. How times have changed.

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