Disney: Fantasia

Funnily enough, Fantasia is one of the lesser regarded of the Disney classics, having been labelled everything from ‘relentlessly inventive’ to ‘kitsch’ to ‘downright insane’ during its fifty year lifespan. It certainly is not comparable to other Disney films; it has none of the sentimentality, none of the moral undertones and most notably, none of the storyline which one expects from its contemporaries, including the magnificent Snow White and the utterly charming Pinocchio.

Fantasia was Walt Disney’s attempt to revive the flailing popularity of his cornerstone character, Mickey Mouse and this it certainly achieved – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of the few excerpts which is not only at the forefront of people’s minds when they think of the film, but which can legitimately be called one of Disney’s finest cartoon moments to date, albeit for reasons unintended by the creative minds behind Fantasia.

To the critic who dubbed Fantasia ‘downright insane’, I would guess that you are not alone in this sentiment, but I would say that this is because the audience pitch for the film is all wrong, and the root of this comes before one even looks at the content of the film itself. Mickey takes pride of place on the film’s original poster, and the rating for the film has been set as ‘U’ [Universal], meaning it is suitable for all audiences, when in reality it is far more of a niche production, and far from being suitable for all should be aimed specifically at those with a keen interest in classical music. The reason why the Sorcerer’s Apprentice caused such a positive stir is that it is one of the few segments in the film which is purely carried by story, the music being almost secondary to the action. Audiences who enraptured with this will perhaps be less than enamoured with the fifteen minutes of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ set to the dramatic and ultimately hopelessly tragic sequence showing the emergence and destruction of the dinosaurs; a narrative story, certainly, but one without the charm and general appeal of the misadventures of Mickey as the apprentice.

Fantasia is as much about its music as it is about its imagery, and if you fail to connect with the music then the accompanying animation will fall short and seem bizarre at best, and ‘downright insane’ at worst. Think of it as a modern day pop video: with all the will in the world, Ne-Yo’s biggest admirer is not going to win over a Led Zeppelin fan through showing him the video to ‘Beautiful Monster’ any more than he is through playing them the track alone (incidentally, if any Led Zep fans could youtube this video and comment with their thoughts, it might be interesting!), and this is the case with Fantasia. If a person is less than taken with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony on CD, then showing it to them with the addition of frolicking centaurs and adorable baby unicorns is not going to help the cause, and in fact will worsen their impression of the piece as the context in which the animators have set it will come across as irrelevant and shallow.

Incidentally, this particular section of the film is perhaps the most controversial of all the segments, even for lovers of the piece, the animation having been referred to as ‘vulgar absurdity’ and ‘grotesque’ to name but a few tones of criticism. It has been cited many times that the use of this piece is inappropriate, particularly in the light of Beethoven’s own description of this symphony as “more the expression of feeling than painting,” apart from which, many people over time have commented that the shaving down of the piece by twenty minutes (therefore nearly halving it’s full length) is a travesty.

In an attempt to placate such arguments, I would defend the sixty animators and eleven directors of the film as follows: whilst the core of Fantasia is its music, the film is not a live recording of a concert or an homage to any one composer, and as such it is startlingly revolutionary as it represents a completely new form of media.

Never before the film’s release had animation and music merged so flawlessly, and with such accessibility. There have been paintings of music, and music of paintings, and music set to animation (and of course film) but with Fantasia the two are mutually dependent one another, and this is precisely why the directors are entirely within their rights to cut music down or interpret any piece in any way they choose. It is taken for granted that since the music came first, it should take precedence over whatever accompanying medium it exists alongside, but this is far from the truth.

Let us take Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ as an example. This piece, for the purpose of the film, has been stripped of its prescribed story line which was given to it by the composer himself and instead shows the graceful and sometimes not so graceful dances of nature. As such, those who object to the (mis?)use of Beethoven’s Pastoral should be in uproar about this reassignment, for surely the composers word is final! At this point it is advisable to take a step back from the piece and ask what is music if not interpretation? Is a child listening to Debussy’s ‘Blue Danube’ and imagining a story, say, about a bird any less legitimate than the piece’s original intent? Without these individual imaginings, the music fails to exist in a sense any more profound than the mathematical symbols on the page on which it is written; it loses all personal meaning and becomes mere snobbery, to put it bluntly. Even the composer’s own interpretation is not interwoven with its music to the extent where it cannot be looked at afresh, and that is exactly what is being done with Fantasia.

The film is original beyond belief for its constant reinvention of old, set in stone classics, and if this goes against the nature of convention then it can only be applauded for giving convention a much needed shake-up. Classical music was never about stoicism and for those who would oppress evolution and artistic expression, they will soon find that they are stunting their own enjoyment of what is at points the most light-hearted of flits and at times grave, unforgiving drama but at all times what can only be described as the starting point of a beautiful and lifelong appreciation and involvement with the true essence of classical music.

Dani Singer

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