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This New Form of Entertainment, Fantasia

January 30th, 2011 · 2 Comments

“Portmanteau” is French for “coat rack”. Lewis Carroll appropriated the word in 1871 for Through The Looking Glass to explain two words merged into one; “chortle” is a portmanteau Carroll invented, while “Internet”, “blog” and “sexploitation” are three he did not. In the month of January, I’ll take a look at portmanteau films, where we find different coats hanging in the same closet, whether tailored by one filmmaker or the collaborative effort of several.

Fantasia (1940)
Directed by Samuel Armstrong (segments: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, The Nutcracker Suite), James Algar (segment: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Bill Roberts & Paul Satterfield (segment: The Rite of Spring), David D. Hand (segment: Meet the Soundtrack), Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley & Ford Beebe (segment: The Pastoral Symphony), T. Hee & Norm Ferguson (segment: Dance of the Hours), Wilfred Jackson (segment: Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria)
Written by Lee Blair, Elmer Plummer, Phil Dike (segment: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Norman Wright, Albert Heath, Bianca Majolie, Graham Heid (segment: The Nutcracker Suite), Perce Pearce, Carl Fallberg (segment: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), William Martin, Leo Thiele, Robert Sterner, John Fraser McLeish (segment: The Rite of Spring), Otto Englander, Webb Smith, Erdman Penner, Joseph Sabo, Bill Peet, Vernon Stallings (segment: The Pastoral Symphony), Campbell Grant, Arthur Heinemann, Phil Dike (segment: Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria)
Produced by Walt Disney, Ben Sharpsteen
125 minutes (roadshow version)/ 88 minutes (general release version)/ 124 minutes (DVD version)

Like piano lessons or spinach, Fantasia wavers between arduous and unpalatable, at least for those kiddies notified that the program will be good for them. Revisiting the film as an adult is a revelation. In late 1937, flush from the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney hit on the idea of an animated short that would interpret a piece of classical music through the medium Disney’s studio was pioneering: motion picture animation. Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was selected, but the project grew from a short to a feature length portmanteau film, which Disney insisted be recorded stereophonically to mimic the acoustics of a concert hall. His engineers developed a stereo sound system dubbed “Fantasound”, but most exhibitors refused to pony up for its installation. Upon its U.S. release in November 1940, Fantasia was screened in only 14 theaters before being drastically recut for a general release.

Produced for roughly $2.2 million, Fantasia returned only $361,800 in its initial theatrical run, with World War II cutting off most of the international market. Despite winning two special Academy Awards, the picture was regarded as a failure by Disney himself. In 1969, the studio urged exhibitors to market the reissue the same way they would Easy Rider, “a special kind of trip”. Baby Boomers embraced it and today, the film is regarded as one of Disney’s milestone achievements. In essence, Fantasia is one of the boldest experiments (re: head-trips) Hollywood has ever produced. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite is the most dazzling segment, in both the playful mystery of the music and its singular visual interpretation, with sprites putting on a fireworks display for the unseen world. The more open the imagination — or the more inebriated the cerebellum — the more stimulating the film proves to be.

Joining the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in front of an immense canvas draped in blue light, emcee Deems Taylor introduces the first of eight classical music compositions conducted by Leopold Stokowski and interpreted by the artists of Walt Disney Studios. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue In D Minor is a thundering trip through rays of light, cloud forms and geometric shapes. Nature is explored through Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, with sugarplum faeries animating inanimate objects of the natural world. Paul Duka’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice tells the familiar story of magic and mischief with a mute Mickey Mouse as the star. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is set to the biggest story in the universe, the evolution of life on earth, from its creation in the seas to its near extinction in the age of dinosaurs.

Returning after a brief intermission, our emcee employs the unsung hero of the Fantasia program — The Soundtrack — to appear and introduce several of the instruments of a symphony orchestra. Next up is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, The Pastoral Symphony, with unicorns, fawns, centaurs and the creatures of Greek myth enjoying a bacchanal, which is threatened by the appearance of Zeus and a lightning storm brought down by Vulcan. Andre Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours from the opera La Gioconda finds a ballet dancing hippo wooed by a hungry crocodile. The final segment combines two contrasting pieces; Modeste Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain opens with Satan conducting the armies of darkness in a booming nocturnal festival, which is defeated by dawn and the bells of Franz Schubert’s reverent Ave Maria.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 104,499 users: 77% for Fantasia

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Animation · Beasts and monsters · Concert · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · End of the world · Golden Age of Hollywood · Master and pupil · Music · No opening credits · Supernatural

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jan 31, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    I find it interesting that Walt Disney originally intended for Fantasia to be a living thing. Every year or so, one or two songs would be taken out and others added, so that it would grow and change. There was a Fantasia II released, which was good, but not as good as the original. I still love this film. Always will. (But, I’m one of those weird folks who likes classical music).

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Feb 4, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Monica: Fantasia is the first movie I have any memory seeing in a theater, most likely the 1977 re-release. My aunt took me and allegedly, I was ready to go after eating some popcorn and sitting in the seats for a while. I wasn’t aware there was more to going to the movies than that. So this film will always carry a great weight for me, even without its giant contribution to the arts. Thanks for commenting!

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