Picks and Pans Review: Fantasia
It is a mark of the genius behind this film that at 50 years old, it still seems astonishingly imaginative and audacious.
Fantasia is the result of a widely successful popular artist, Walt Disney, paying his audience the compliment of challenging them with something unexpected and in some ways difficult—a still unique blend of popular and classical culture. The film grew from a Mickey Mouse short designed to illustrate Paul Dukas's composition The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The Philadelphia Orchestra's Leopold Stokowski offered to conduct. Later the project was expanded and eventually included eight separate animated sequences. They range from the abstract shapes and color shifts seen over Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor to the extraordinary ballet of Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, in which the dancers—hippos, elephants, ostriches and crocodiles—are hilarious without undermining the integrity of the music. The animated choreography for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is more serious but equally striking, featuring a Pegasus family of surpassing grace.
The only unsatisfying section is the last, with Moussorgsky's ominous Night on Bald Mountain giving way to a sanctimonious depiction of Schubert's "Ave Maria," including an abstract sequence that looks like a baby's-eye view of the birth canal.
Disney originally discussed turning Fantasia into a series, with new compositions for every film. In its original release, however, Fantasia, which cost a then-huge $2.3 million to make, lost money. And critical response was mixed. Composer Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring is illustrated with a dinosaur story in the film, called Stokowski's version of his composition "execrable" and added, "I will say nothing about the visual complement, as I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility."
But the film, its deep, rich colors sumptuously revived and its sound track freshened for this rerelease, is still a marvel. It seems to generate a strange, hypnotic fascination even for today's videoized children. It is full of beautiful images and music. It is funny. And its spirit—let's take a chance on something different here, everybody—remains supremely rare and refreshing. (G)