Fantasia is the most enchanting and perceptive of Disney’s animated features, interpreting the emotional resonance of song as bursts of radiant color and motion, personifying sound through image. Broken into seven segments and bookended by scholarly introduction, it has little in common with the children’s fairytales that preceded it, eschewing narrative structure in favor of formless abstraction, reimagining the orchestral symphony as stream-of-consciousness comic strip. What it loses in structural consistency, it more than makes up for in ambition and eclecticism, grasping at concepts as solemn as the genesis of Earth and the transformative power of faith, while maintaining a youthful whimsy and boundless imagination.
Easing the viewer into the unconventional format, the opening segment introduces us to the Philadelphia Orchestra as they tune-up, shrouded in mystery by backlighting and a moody, cerulean scrim. Commentator Deems Taylor clues us in on the players and the concept, explaining the three types of sequences to follow: the story, the portrait and the autotelic composition.
The opening number will be in the third vain, acting as “art for art’s sake” and demonstrating a collective chromesthesia, one that hypostatizes heard musical notes as splashes of ink or lines rolling over stenciled dunes. As the menacing strings of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor build, the shadow of the orchestra is shown illuminated in fuchsia light, changing in hue as the composition progresses, settling into a soft blue for the harp interlude. As the players intersect on screen and the rising sun encompasses the form of the conductor, the shot transitions to a bed of clouds where disembodied pieces of instruments and flecks of light symbolize sound. Each image is open to interpretation, welcoming you to see a face, jewels, the crest of a mountain or icicles amidst the formless mass of ink.
Shifting toward traditional cartoon animation, but not necessarily into a conventional narrative, the Nutcracker Suite segment imagines the change of seasons as a magical event, initiated by insectile fairies that adorn the plant life with a glistening dew of light, inspiring growth or death. Insignificant natural objects, ranging from spiderwebs to mushrooms caps, are inseminated with supernatural power, sparkling like translucent glass and wobbling beneath the weight of their oversized helmets. As temperatures cool and the ice nymphs prepare to skate on the surface of the water, flower petals wither and fall from their stalks, morphing into waltzing dancers in hoop skirts as they skim the frigid surface of the water.
The least engaging, but most ambitious, portion depicts the birth of life on Earth by way of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, encapsulating our planet from a swirling starscape of “nothingness” to the domain of the dinosaurs. As lunar orbs of heat and tufts of gas give way to a volcanic landscape, the music swells to meet a rush of hot magma, spewed upon the rocks and reshaping the terrain, giving way to water and much cellular development. Though the color palette is not as lustrous as the rest of the feature, focusing far too much on earth tones and muted greens, the concept is rather progressive, painting a “coldly accurate” origin story without the involvement of a deity or artistic modesty.
Fantasia saves the divine for the finale, depicting the struggle between the “profane and sacred” atop the mythical Bald Mountain. As Satan stands on the precipice of the towering mass of rock, enveloping the valley below in his baleful shadow, ghastly skeletons rise from their graves and ascend toward his beckoning hands. Monochromatic apparitions ride cadaverous horses in praise of the black, winged beast, rising with the build of strings into their master’s clutches, swept up in the wind of a nocturnal cyclone. As the demonic beings gyrate before him, morphing from men into swine, Lucifer flings their bodies into the foggy blue abyss of Hell, conceptualized through swirls of incandescent light and blasts of psychedelic nightmare imagery.
The fallen angel halts his reign in response to faint church bells and harsh blasts of blinding light, frantically receding into his realm of eternal darkness. In the valley below, a troop of chanting monks stoically traverse an arched bridge, illuminating the water beneath with the flicker of their kindled candlesticks. As the cooing of their vocals soars and the fog lifts above the treetops, each beacon of light shines a rosy glow onto the wooded backdrop, revitalizing the landscape. Our final glimpse is captured through a slit of rock, slowly zooming into a verdant forest at dawn. As angelic female voices sing the Ave Maria, the golden sun peeks from beneath the mountaintop, symbolizing the power of virtue over malevolence.
The slow build of these closing moments is profoundly moving, perfectly capturing the transcendent nature of the imagery and its accompanying symphony. Disney’s animators have created an illustration that reacts to notes of music and interprets their meaning, realizing that film need not depend on the written word, but function as a physical representation of our collective imagination through a union of sight and sound.
Fantasia (Walt Disney Productions, 1940)
Directed by Norm Ferguson (supervising director)
Written by Joe Grant (story direction) and Dick Huemer (story direction)