REVIEW: Fantasia [1940]

“Now there are three kinds of music on this program”

Our screening of the original uncut 1940 Roadshow, 35mm Disney Studio Archive Print, (yes, it came from the “vault”), of Fantasia was introduced by Disney historian and author John Culhane. He relayed a story about when he spoke with Walt in 1951 and mentioned how great he thought this mix of sound and images was. Walt responded by saying, “but it hasn’t made any money yet”. And that was ten years after its release. He did say that Disney still held strong to his convictions that it was what he needed to make at that time. In 1940, he believed that showing a visceral experience like Fantasia was just what the medium called for; it was the natural evolution of animation in his mind. You have to respect that, no matter how much money he lost after its four-year creation process, employing thousands of animators, it was all about the craft. When you look at the state of the genre today, with about ten films a year from multiple studios, many of them drivel, it is definitely a treat to go back seventy years and see what actual hands drew for the world to see. Frame by frame, note by note, you really can’t deny the brilliance of this film, even if you probably will fall asleep at least once each viewing.

I remember the first time I had seen Fantasia, I was young and it was one of the few Disney films I had yet to experience. I hated it. It was the most boring thing I’d ever seen. Even when Mickey Mouse finally showed face, with that wizard hat I had seen in so many pictures, I could care less. Truthfully, I might not even have finished it, (when intermission came halfway through, I told my friend that I couldn’t even remember what else there was, all my memories had played in Act 1). But I kept thinking about the film each year later. As I grew older and started pursuing a career in the arts, it nagged at me that I didn’t appreciate the feat. Then Fantasia 2000 came out and I began to see what I missed in the original so many years before. So, when it was announced that Fantasia was coming to Buffalo’s premier theatre Shea’s, it was an invite that was tough to pass up.

Admittedly, I almost nodded off a few times during the two-hour duration. But that is not meant to detract from the wonder this film instills, not at all. From the narration amongst the Philadelphia Orchestra by Deems Taylor, in partial silhouette, complete with a prologue to each song, (whether they be the kind of music that tells a definite story, the kind that has no specific plot, or that which exists simply for its own sake), to the image of conductor Leopold Stokowski standing alone on his platform, to the animation onscreen, working from the music, telling its story, you will be transported to a different world. It is not for everyone—especially little children this day and age with no attention spans, (many parents left with their offspring early on)—but if you’re willing to let it wash over you, and enjoy the works of Bach, Tchaikovsky, etc., you won’t be disappointed. It’s a concert film above all else; you’re just watching animation rather than the musicians and their instruments.

And you cannot deny the artistry of it all, oftentimes harkening to future films Disney would be making. You can see the precursors to Tinkerbell in the naked fairies flying around as well as the donkey used that same year in Pinocchio. The abstract illustrations are intriguing, but my favorites are definitely the ones steeped in some biomorphic form. I absolutely love the “Nutcracker Suite” vignette, find the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to be wonderful, and really get blown away by some of the finale, the combo of “Night On Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria”. In that final sequence you get to see some amazing artwork in the devilish, winged creature as well as the architectural forms during the “light” moments at the end. At times you see frames with immense amounts of gradation and depth, moments where the stark flat colors usually seen, meld into still frames gorgeously painted as though works of art, not something to be seen for a fraction of a second. I’m not sure exactly what causes this, but those freeze-frames are my favorite part of the film.

So, is Fantasia a great film? I don’t really know how to answer that question. I can appreciate it for what it set out to do, and deem it a complete success in that regard, but would I rather watch it then the likes of Disney classics like Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, or Robin Hood? No. That said, though, I would recommend it to anyone out there with an open mind and ability to see past the commonplace and mainstream. Some may say you can only truly enjoy your experience if you are on drugs, that the creators themselves were at the time, but that is a disservice. Fantasia is a world that needs to envelop you and become your sole visual focal point for two hours. If you are willing to put in the time, Disney’s epic will not lead you astray.

Fantasia 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


3 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Fantasia [1940]”

  1. Andrea

    I do not remember seeing the movie when I was younger until I recently saw it from “the vault.” I enjoyed the art as well as the music. Some of the graphics may require some explaining for a younger audience, but that goes to show how our society has changed over time.

    1. Quinton Cole

      Hello. I am trying to recreate the Original Theatrical Version of Fantasia. The VHS Tape that I own doesn’t have the complete Deems Taylor introductions. So, where can I find the print that you reviewed? Thank you.

      1. I actually saw it as a repertory screening in a theater during a festival. So sadly not sure how you could find that version on home video.

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