After over 80 years of making feature films, the Disney company’s third full-length animated movie remains the company’s crowning achievement. Combining multiple art forms in unprecedented ways, Fantasia conformed to no rules of 1940 filmmaking and introduced a world of beauty completely unlike any other work of art.
The first piece of classical music to be set to animation is Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” The animators present colors and shapes that try to evoke the same thoughts and emotions that the music does. By doing this, the movie appeared to break the cardinal rule of movie making in 1940, that every movie has to be a single story and all it’s parts have to be integral to that story. But, just as every story commands attention and a mental and emotional investment in how the story unfolds, Fantasia‘s first segment accomplishes this through its music, colors, lighting and shapes. It invites us to experience a completely new type of story telling. It’s a work of art that wants to reach our souls. And as a part of the whole film, it actually begins telling the very story of the human soul.
With a few highlights from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” the animators don’t tell a story at all like the one the ballet was first written for. But the sections of the piece they use (including “The Russian Dance” and “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”) have national origins that the animators highlight. Customs and traditions of the people groups represented are shown through wildly colorful and giddy animals and mushroom-like dancers. But however goofy the scenes get, the heart of each one is a look at how we identify ourselves as people.
The most famous segment of course has Mickey Mouse playing “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It’s the first section of the movie that tells anything close to a complete story. Mickey appears innocent enough in all his attempts to follow in his master’s footsteps, but everything that looks safe for him turns out to be a really big mess in this very simple fable about how we often think our motives are pure and don’t realize otherwise until we’re in the middle of a big mess.
Using Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the artists begin with a live-action clay set to depict the origins of life on earth. Then with the Big Bang, the animation begins. Not being one of those Christians who thinks that the Bible’s account of creation and the scientific theory of evolution are at odds with each other, I would’ve loved to see Walt Disney’s original intention for this segment that extended through parts of the evolution process into the beginning of humanity on the earth. But of course the 1940 creationists protested, and Disney eventually gave in even though he considered himself a Christian just like those creationists. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is still a wondrous picture of what the creation of the world may have looked like.
With Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” we’re taken to a world of Greek mythological creatures. There’s a nice romance between a couple of centaurs, but other that not much of a narrative in the traditional sense. Instead we’re told the story of imagination and invention of worlds that exist only the minds of artists. In other words, we’re told a story of how Walt Disney himself (as well as his animators, the musicians, and the composers responsible for the music in Fantasia) can introduce us to new worlds and new experiences through their art.
The segment using Ponchielli’s very short piece “Dance of the Hours” takes us briefly away from the high art we’ve seen up to this point. Hippos, elephants and alligators are all in tutus. Sometimes they dance. Sometimes they fight. Sometimes we don’t know what they’re doing. But it’s always delightful. It’s child-like in playfulness and innocence, just like the “Dance of the Hours.”
The final section combines two pieces that couldn’t seem less compatible with each other, but the combination ties together the whole movie in a way that shows us we have actually seen a story after all. We’ve seen a very tightly woven story that begins vague, without shape or form, just as the Bible says about the world before the act of creation. But in the last segment, all the shape and form has come together as we a final attempt of demonic creatures to gain control over the world to the sounds of Mussorgsky’s haunting and terrifying “Night on Bald Mountain.” But the sound of church bells and a few flashes of light into their dark and menacing existence show their defeat as we hear Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Alluding to the person through which Christ came into the world in the Schubert piece, the film concludes with the story of ultimate victory over all darkness.
Those themes of light and darkness permeate all of Fantasia and are the key to knowing what the whole story is about. So, we’re invited by various art forms to be reached in our souls. We experience aspects of cultures and traditions that influence how people become who they are. We get a fable about how dangerous our seemingly good intentions can be if they’re not acted out wisely and with pure motives. We’re transported to a world of imagination and creativity. We see a vision of the world we live in came into being. We embrace the joy and innocence of childhood. And we see the battle between spiritual forces of good and evil at work in the unseen realm of the world we live in. So, in Fantasia, we get a story like no other, but it’s nevertheless a complete and complex story. It’s the very story of the human soul.