“Fantasia” is my idea of comfort watching. I’ll re-watch it when I’m feeling especially down or stressed, because it makes me smile, cheers me up. there’s so much in there – humour, drama, beauty, spookiness, beautiful music and beautiful animation.

“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Johann C Bach, was the piece for the first segment. The narrator identified three different types of music – that which tells a clear story, that which implies a story, and music or its own sake. This is the third type, and so the animation is entirely abstract. Points of light dance across the screen. There are vague suggestions of violin bows. The patterns and colours fluctuate and change according to rhythm, volume and pitch. It’s a nice starter, easing you in to the films ideas before it gets started on the more realistic animations.

The music of Tchaikovsky comprises the next six stories. The fairies are just too cute! I love the way the music is interpreted with taps of the wands, or tiptoe steps, to bring the night dew. it’s magical music and is interpreted with a magical, and imaginative, scene. I am quite fond of the underwater scene, where the fish are seen going about their business, and then see that they are being watched, get startled, and disappear with a flourish of a tail, in time to a trill in the music. The languid pace of this scene, with the mesmerising music, is very relaxing. You could probably use it as a relaxation exercise, though the fish make me laugh so maybe not. Swirling flowers become dancers, mushrooms dance, and then the Autumn fairies turn leaves to gold, followed by the winter fairies who bring the ice, involving some Olympic-worthy figure-skating on the frozen water. Finally the snow comes down, and we see each crystal shape, themselves fairies. At no point does the music not seem to fit the animation. Both blend seamlessly.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas is music written to tell the old story that the animators depict here to great effect. Mickey Mouse in the starring role is fun, and the whole segment is fantastic to watch. There are a couple of jokes that you might not notice – when Mickey picks up the axe to chop up the animated broom, we see the actual chopping up in silhouette only. This is a nod to the film noir movies of the same era, where murders were often depicted in silhouette so as not to be censored. The other joke is in the depiction of the sorcerer. Apparently he was in part based on Disney himself. Where he is scowling down at Mickey and raising an eyebrow, this is apparently what Disney used to do to indicate he was not happy with someone’s work. The whole sequence is great fun, and all those marching brooms always make me smile.

“Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky is used to tell the story of the origins of life on Earth. This sequence has not stood the test of time as well as others. It is purported to be factual, and as much more is known now about the development of life on Earth and the dinosaurs, it is not particularly factual at all. It maintains its superb animation and story-telling, however.

Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” is the music for a story taking place in the Arcadia of Greek mythology. Satyrs, unicorns, centaurs, flying horses, and Eros-like cherubs frequent this paradise. We see female Centaurs getting all dolled up to meet men, and during this sequence there was unfortunately a rather racist moment that has been edited out of more recent editions. However it also contains a moment which made me laugh, though I am unsure whether the joke was intentional. When the male centaurs get together and come to find the girls, they look like a group of blokes heading out to the pub and hoping to score. I don’t know why but it cracks me up every time. There has been some conversation in the past about the appropriateness of the work of a German composer being illustrated with a Greek setting, but I think it meshes beautifully. Anyway, surely the greatest music is universal? I have a fondness for the winged horses in this, because I find the imagination used in their depiction quite fun, emphasising bird-like qualities by having the children in a nest, and having them on the water cruising like swans. There is a lot of Disney ‘cuteness’ in this scene, showing up mostly with the comic nature of Dionysus/Bacchus, and the depiction of the cherubs and young animals. Zeus’ appearance and his apparent desire to chuck a few thunderbolts around to alleviate boredom was fun. The goddess at the end using the new moon as a bow to shoot stars across the sky was a great touch.

“Dance of the Hours” by Ponchielli forms the backdrop for the funniest sequence in the entire movie. The music is from the ballet “La Giaconde”, and that is exactly how the animators portray it, except with animals instead of people. They were very keen to get the ballet aspects correct, bringing in ballet dancers so they could study their moves. The dance starts with ostriches, then hippos, then elephants, and finally crocodiles. What makes this extraordinarily funny is the animators created this as a proper ballet. Everyone’s wearing ballet shoes. The hippos are wearing tutus (which the main hippo struggles in vain to pull down to a more decorous level.) The elephants keep blowing bubbles. (I have no idea why). The crocodiles all wear capes and swirl them around melodramatically. The main hippo does a leap onto the main crocodile … and flattens him. Hippos and elephants hide successfully behind pillars which are nowhere near big enough. It is hilarious because it is absurd.

Probably the most infamous part of “Fantasia” is ‘A Night on Bald Mountain’ by Mussorgsky. I say infamous because it has over the years generated many complaints about it frightening children. (I don’t recall being frightened as a child, but I suppose some would.) The Devil comes out of the mountain – in fact, he is part of the mountain. As his shadow falls over the surroundings, the dead are pulled from cemeteries, execution areas, battlefields, to come before him. He forces them to dance and torments them for his amusement. There are many demon-like creatures cavorting around as well. it’sa powerful sequence and very well animated. It is quite creepy and compelling. But the Devil and his followers are repelled by the sound of church bells, and recede from the world. The ghosts go back into their graves and the Devil goes back into the mountain.

This segues beautifully into the final piece, Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. It’s the only segment that includes human voice, singing the words of the song. We see a peaceful procession of the faithful, carrying lights as they travel towards Paradise. There is an interesting technical note regarding this part which I found on IMDB, and I will copy here:

The filming of the final “Ave Maria” sequence was plagued by mishaps. To achieve the effect of moving through the scene, several panes of painted glass were used. The whole setup was over 200 feet long and had to be redone three times. The first time the wrong lens was placed on the camera, and the subsequent film showed not only the artwork but the workers scurrying around it. The second time around an earthquake struck the studio, and the shot was once again scrapped. The next morning the shot was redone, the film was shipped to the lab, processed and couriered to the premiere in New York where it was spliced into the final print with only four hours to spare.

That was film-making before computers, and impressively pulled off by the animators. It was a beautiful final sequence and a fitting end to an innovative merging of music and animation. It remains one of my favourite films of all time.

Please click the link below to buy the film.

Fantasia/Fantasia 2000

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