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From the Vaults: 'Fantasia'

April 4, 2011 |  1:52 am


For the last few days, the DVD player has been glowering at me. Over two nights, I worked my way through most of “Fantasia” and whenever I went near, it would scold me as if to say “Don’t forget, you still have to watch ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ and ‘Ave Maria.’ ” I always found some excuse for a delay. A long-postponed plumbing project, perhaps, or the laundry. I even tried bargaining with it: “Look what came from Netflix! ‘Yiddle With His Fiddle!’ ” But it was unyielding.

Finally, with all my other tasks out of the way, I sat down to finish the movie. And frankly, whatever Walt Disney expected of “Fantasia,” it certainly wasn’t supposed to be a chore.

My sudden interest in the film is all because of delayed advertising. I have gone through the 1941 stories and display ads for the local premiere of “Fantasia” – it had already debuted in New York -- and thought it might be a nice subject for Anne Elisabeth, who responded with a demur, ladylike “No thank you.” So with my curiosity aroused, I took on the film myself.


 “Fantasia” on the Daily Mirror


I haven’t seen “Fantasia” since the early 1980s, when I reviewed the disastrous re-release that replaced the original soundtrack (performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra) with a pickup group of studio musicians conducted by the otherwise obscure Irwin Kostal. Watching “Fantasia” once more, with the Stokowski soundtrack, reminded me all over again of what an incredibly dumb idea that was, despite the considerable aesthetic and acoustic problems of the original.

I skipped the 1970s incarnation, when “Fantasia” came out on the head film circuit with movies like “Reefer Madness.” Several sequences, like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” were inescapable TV fare for Baby Boomers, and I imagine that some doting relative carted me off to a theater to see “Fantasia” when I was a child, although the details are lost in the fog. But it’s no accident that I hadn’t watched it in nearly 30 years.


The ill-at-ease Deems Taylor introduces segments in “Fantasia.”  Hey, wait a minute! They moved the harpists!


See, the harpists are over here! Notice: There are TWO (count ’em, TWO) women in the orchestra! Better check the flute section to see if another one snuck in.

One of the obnoxious elements of “Fantasia” is that it’s much like a music appreciation class where the lowly unwashed can worship at the altar of “Great Art” with host Deems Taylor as the stiff, starched high priest and Stokowski as the deity himself.

Taylor is one of the reasons I dug up “Fantasia,” because despite all the times he’s mentioned in the original articles, I didn’t recall him as much of a presence in the film. His role was edited down in some versions of the movie, but in this cut, he’s everywhere, wandering through the orchestra and talking about what was called “absolute music” back in grandma’s day.

Trying to be folksy while wearing a tuxedo is probably an impossible task – at least it was for Taylor, a once-famous music critic and commentator who seems stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera. And his script only makes things worse. These aren’t the interpretations of trained musicians, Taylor tells us, adding that he thinks this is a good thing, presumably because classical musicians dwell on a higher plane far above mere mortals.

Understand that I love classical music and I love animation. What’s not to love about the fusion of the two in “Fantasia?” Quite a lot, actually. I suspect one reason Disney kept tinkering with the movie was because it’s problematic – and not just the caricatures of African Americans. But the question isn’t entirely where Disney went wrong or how the film is flawed. In part, seeing “Fantasia” is like returning to your childhood home and realizing how small it is and being reminded that pink bathrooms were one of the abominations of the 1950s.


Meet the soundtrack!

Let’s separate the unhappily married couple and talk about them individually, starting with the score: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; a suite from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”; Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”; Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “The Pastoral”; Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”; and the curious conclusion with Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” melting into Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”

As I write this, I have “Fantasia” playing in the next room so I can listen to the score without being distracted by the images, and it’s surprising to discover that the Philadelphia, with its legendary “Philadelphia sound,” is inferior to the orchestras on the Warner Bros. or MGM soundtracks from the period. The orchestra is bottom-heavy and tubby in the bass, the low strings are especially scratchy and overall, the playing is raw and unblended. I wonder how much is the fault of the orchestra and how much it’s due to the original multi-track recording being remixed down to two channels. Whatever the cause, it’s not pretty.

  Fantasia Stokowski  

Leopold Stokowski on the altar of “Great Art.” 

And then there’s Stokowski (d. 1977), a cult figure of the last century who has never been one of my favorite conductors. Some of his tempos, particularly in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” are quite odd and I think there were other conductors of the era who were better. Then again, can you imagine Pierre Monteux or Bruno Walter with Mickey Mouse? Probably not.

I will leave it to some industrious musicologist to analyze any tinkering Stokowski might have done in the various pieces except to single out two selections. The first is his dreadfully overblown Bach transcription, which has (thankfully) vanished from the repertoire. The other is his bizarre version of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” sung by a large chorus without words except for an occasional “Ave Maria” thrown in. (The “special lyrics” are credited to Rachel Field). Apparently Stokowski’s achievements include “elevator music.” 

But as soon as I say all of this, I’m reminded of how truly revolutionary “Fantasia” was in terms of the repertoire. All of the selections are mainstream and perhaps even a bit trite today but it’s interesting to reflect on how difficult “Rite of Spring” was for audiences even decades after its 1913 premiere. At the time the film was made, there were few recordings, and live performances in concert or on the radio were equally rare. Granted, the Philadelphia’s performance is shabby, and presenting the sequence as a scientifically accurate lesson on the pageant of life is appalling (oh, those clunky dinosaurs!) but that “Rite” appears at all is a testament to Walt Disney’s vision.

  RCA Victor  

RCA Victor’s cover for the Franck D Minor Symphony. Look! It’s Pierre Monteux!

Visually, “Fantasia” reminds me of the odd, surrealistic artwork that RCA Victor used on its classical 78-rpm albums in the 1940s, an unknown genre today except for people who spend lots of time in thrift stores. Dramatic, powerful super-realistic images that were completely unrelated to the music or to anything. A disembodied hand. A floating lyre. What did they mean? Who knows?

  Fantasia Butterfly  

Almost every sequence has something flitting, flapping or fluttering around. Even “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” has a butterfly!

And then there’s the animation.

“Fantasia” seems to have been made by people who were obsessed with flying. Nearly every sequence has something that is flitting, flapping or fluttering about, whether it’s pixies, fairies, cupids, butterflies, dinosaurs, horses or demons from the grave. Even “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” has a cameo appearance by a butterfly in the opening sequence.

And then, forgive me, there is the weird way some of the characters move. We all know that Disney was emphatic about having his artists study real creatures, so this may be blasphemy, but some of the characters in “Fantasia” ambulate in really odd ways.


I’m sorry, but the figure on the left looks like it was rotoscoped from a guy in a dinosaur suit.

For example, several figures in “Rite of Spring” look like they were rotoscoped from someone in a dinosaur suit. And in parts, the animation follows the music too closely. The volcanoes explode in time to the music, making them look like the ship’s pulsating smokestacks in “Steamboat Willie.”

The feet of some of the centaurs in the “Pastoral Symphony” seem to move out of sequence. One of the strangest moments is when a centaur gets out of a lake and shakes herself dry – exactly like a dog. I realize that dinosaurs and centaurs are extinct or imaginary creatures and nobody really knows how they moved, but these struck a false note. We may have never seen horses that fly, but we do know that they don’t float in water like swans.


In “The Pastoral,” horses not only fly – they float!

Where “Fantasia” goes off the rails – and it does – is in the stories. Disney’s other feature animation from this period – “Snow White,” “Bambi” and “Pinocchio” – was adapted from stories that were already honed and polished before being turned into movies. The stories in “Fantasia” are all original except for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which is probably one reason it has endured while the most of the film has lapsed into obscurity.

Granted, not all landmark animation has a strong story. Can anyone recall the plot of “The Old Mill” (1937) in detail? But one reason “Fantasia” suffers is because it’s a collection of weakly plotted pieces strung together with Taylor’s stiff introductions.

In this respect, each new segment of “Fantasia” makes the last one seem better.  The flashing lights and curving, abstract figures of the violin bows in the Bach, which might be the daydreams of a bored animator, aren’t as dreadful as the swirling goldfish (in the “Arabian Dance” sequence!) and scampering mushrooms (head film!) of “The Nutcracker.” The science lecture in “The Rite of Spring” makes “The Nutcracker’s” flitting pixies seem like high art.


Bacchus and “Jacchus” in “The Pastoral.”

Then “Fantasia” slides down to one of the weakest segments, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “The Pastoral.” There are so many annoyances here that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. The flying horses that land on water and gracefully float like swans rather than sinking up to their necks? The fat, soused Bacchus smooching his unicorn donkey?


In “The Pastoral,” female centaurs have vaguely defined mounds rather than breasts. But it’s OK to have boobs on the demons in “Night on Bald Mountain.”  Is there a subtext here?


Dreadful, to be sure, but not in a league with the centaurs, where everything seems to go wrong. First, there’s the prudish portrayal of the females, who have vaguely defined mounds instead of breasts.  But even in this idyll, all is not well. We have a couple of wallflowers, pining away, until a few rascally cupids get them together. Does a cupid’s butt turn into a heart? Oh dear.


Even in this idyllic setting, there is a wallflower. And excuse me, but
this character looks clumsy.

One breath of fresh air is “Dance of the Hours,” which seems to invite satire, whether it’s Spike Jones or Allan Sherman. One reason this has endured as a separate sequence is because, unlike most of “Fantasia,” it doesn’t take itself seriously. In fact, it’s a burlesque of the “Great Art” that we are supposed to be worshiping.

And at this point, I paused the DVD to take a break of several days. Part of my reason was to reflect on what I had seen and part was to prepare myself for whatever came next. I have always liked the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. How would it seem after all these years?  Would it hold up or would it be as campy as the rest of the film?

What a relief. It’s still great – with a few quibbles.



“Fantasia” would be a completely different movie if it ended here!

The greatness of the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence (and I do consider it great) is overwhelmed by the saccharine sentimentality of “Ave Maria.” Disney can even sneak in a naked boob as long as it’s a demonic one and is followed by a procession of worshipers accompanied by a big studio chorus oo-ooing something vaguely religious – but not too religious – for the essential upbeat ending. Surely half of a 1940s audience would have died of a stroke if “Fantasia” ended with “Night on Bald Mountain.”


But no.  “Fantasia” concludes ends with a chorus singing the elevator music version of “Ave Maria” for the obligatory happy ending. 

And yet.... after all is said and done, I have to wonder about the role of classical music in our lives today. “Fantasia” was made at a time when conductors were famous and known by one name: Stokowski. Toscanini. Monteux. Szell. Ormandy. Furtwangler. I can only think of one conductor today who even approaches the prominence that all of these men had in the 1940s: John Williams, and I don’t think anyone would put him in the same league.

And so “Fantasia” goes back on the shelf. If I’m still around  for the film’s centennial in another 30 years maybe I’ll see it at the assisted living center.  I just hope they’re also showing “Allegro Non Troppo.”