The “fantasmagorical” wonder of Fantasia.

Growing up, I was the very definition of a latch-key kid. And, as the oldest child, I spent many summers looking after my two younger brothers. We weren’t allowed to go outside when we were home alone, so much of our time was spent in front of the television, watching the scores of videotaped movies our parents would rent for us to allay inevitable boredom. My love for film was born from those summers, when I would watch at least one movie a day, sometimes perched in my childhood rocking chair, and other times curled up on the living room floor with pillows and a full contingent of stuffed animals (including my favorite, a gigantic stuffed Fievel Mousekewitz from An American Tail).

The early days: my rocking chair, Monchichi, and me.

My brothers and I didn’t share many of the same interests growing up, but we all agreed–nothing beat a good movie, enjoyed in the air conditioning with a Little Debbie snack cake or a bowl of piping-hot popcorn. We loved the Indiana Jones trilogy (though Temple of Doom gave me nightmares the first couple of times I saw it). E.T. was a favorite, as were the Back to the Future and Crocodile Dundee movies. We especially enjoyed sneaking views of our parents’ more “adult” fare, like Raw Deal (an Arnold Schwarzenegger bloodbath that my brothers watched gleefully while I peeked through my fingers) and Trading Places (boobies! on the television!).

More than anything, though, we loved our Disney classics. We had the old “clamshell” videos of Bambi, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Alice in Wonderland … oh, tons of them–the list goes on and on. Our Disney obsession knew no bounds back then. Case in point: when I was ten, we got our first dog, a Sheltie we adopted from the local animal shelter. I insisted that we name her Lady, after Lady and the Tramp (another one we watched repeatedly), even though our Lady looked nothing like the dog on screen.

But back in those days, my favorite Disney flick, hands down, was always the one Nick and John hated–Fantasia. I remember watching it over and over again–by myself, since the boys found it to be boring. In fact, it was the best way to clear the living room if I wanted some alone time:

Brandie: “Hey, guys, I’m putting in Fantasia!”
Boys: “Um, we’ll be in our room.”

I never understood their attitude, really. I found Fantasia to be far from boring; I was fascinated by the music and the beautiful animation. In fact, it was this movie that first exposed me to classical music, for which I remain eternally grateful. And I will (somewhat sheepishly) admit that, on more than one occasion, I’d jump up and dance around the living room during some parts of this film, pretending I was one of the flower fairies or, at times, even a dancing ostrich (oh, shut up; you know you wanted to be a dancing ostrich, too).

Who WOULDN’T want to be a dancing ostrich??

The one section my brothers would actually sit through was, of course, Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And yes, the image of Mickey Mouse in the star-spangled magic hat, directing the broomsticks and buckets to do his lowly chores, is an iconic one. And yes, this clip, set to the unmistakable strains of Paul Dukas’ immortal symphonic poem (which is itself based on a work by Goethe of the same name) is adorable and amusing and altogether entertaining.

Still, I could never make my brothers understand that there’s so much more to Fantasia than this brief ten-minute gem. Yet it’s important to note that, if not for this section, the film as a whole would likely not even exist.

Fantasia was the third full-length animated feature released by Walt Disney, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), and for all intents and purposes, it was an unintentional movie. Disney had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars producing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an obscene amount of money for what was initially intended to be a stand-alone cartoon short. In order to recoup what would likely be heavy financial losses, Disney decided to string together a series of musical vignettes into a feature-length production, focusing on animation and music in favor of dialogue.

Though the film was made in an attempt to avoid losing money, Fantasia did just that. Simply put, it was not initially successful in theaters–far from it, in fact. Part of this was likely due to its two-plus hour length, and perhaps part of it was that moviegoers, who had come to expect a certain kind of heartfelt, fully-realized, beginning-to-ending story from a Disney film, found themselves unable to accept or enjoy a loosely-connected series of individual shorts instead. Whatever the reason, though the film was edited down and re-released several times in the first thirty years after its initial opening, it did not find a wider audience (or even turn a profit) until 1969, when college students and young adults “rediscovered” its joys (with the help of a psychedelic drug or two).

Personally, I’ve never watched Fantasia with the aid of hallucinogenics, but I can only imagine it’s quite an experience.

Eight individual pieces make up the whole of Fantasia, blending live-action elements and animation in clever ways. We get to see a representation of the talented musicians who bring the soundtrack to life, including famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, whose orchestrations add so much to the final product (and he gets to shake hands with Mr. Mouse himself!). We get to hear music from some of the most famed composers of all time: Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ponchielli, and Mussorgsky. And we’re gifted with some gorgeously-rendered animation sequences: from fairies to dancing hippos to evil creatures of the night, each and every piece of flora, fauna, and backdrop looks lush and downright magical.

Why did I love this film so much, and why does it continue to fascinate me to this day? There are too many reasons to enumerate without writing a book, so let me just focus on a few …

The most adorable anthropomorphic mushroom you will ever see (“Chinese Dance,” Nutcracker Suite segment).

Gorgeous images like the winter fairies’ ice dance (“Watz of the Flowers,” Nutcracker Suite segment).

Pegasuses. Pegasi. Pegasae. However you spell the plural (The Pastoral Symphony).

Chernabog, the original Disney bad-ass MF … sorry, Wicked Queen (Night on Bald Mountain).

Interspecies cooperation. If an alligator and a hippo can put aside their differences and dance the dance of life, doesn’t that mean that there’s some measure of hope for the rest of us? (Dance of the Hours)

DINOSAURS!!!! (The Rite of Spring)

And music, music, music … always that wonderful, moving, simply awe-inspiring musical score.

I, for one, am seriously looking forward to the upcoming Diamond Edition Blu-Ray/DVD being released in January. Fantasia in high-definition. I can hardly stand the wait.

In the meantime, I look back on this film with a profound sense of nostalgia and more than a little fondness. I still love many of the old Disney classics, and having re-watched it recently, I’m glad to realize that, even after all of these years, Fantasia continues to hold a particular place in my heart.

It may sound odd, but I’m fairly relieved by that, to be honest. It’s kind of a perilous exercise, revisiting a movie that you knew so well as a child and seeing how it may have changed in your perception. Sometimes you get lucky, and in watching that film you recover even a small semblance of innocence you may not have realized that you had lost somewhere along the way. And sometimes, you sadly realize that the things you once loved so much are quite a bit more dingy or worn than you remember.

Looking at it through the somewhat cynical lens of adulthood, it’s remarkable to me that I can still view Fantasia with some of the same pure, unadulterated enjoyment as I did so many years ago. I still laugh at some of the crazier antics in Dance of the Hours; I still smile and bob my head along with the dancing thistles and orchids during the “Russian Dance” (Nutcracker Suite); I still shudder a bit as the ghouls and goblins come out to play at Chernabog’s command; and I still tap my feet in time with Mickey’s enchanted broomsticks.

And yes, a part of me still wants to be a dancing ostrich.

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4 thoughts on “The “fantasmagorical” wonder of Fantasia.

  1. This is one of my childhood favorites too. After the Night on Bald Mountain segment, I would rewind the tape and watch it over and over again. Last time I saw the tape, that segment was much more worn than the rest of the film. Good thing it will be on DVD soon. Awesome post!

  2. Pingback: When you wish upon a star. | True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film

  3. Pingback: Hippos and fairies and broomsticks … oh, my. | True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film

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