Reflections on Fantasia (1940) and Fantasia 2000 (1999)

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000

Fantasia – Produced by Walt Disney, U.S. 1940

Fantasia 2000 – Produced by Roy E. Disney, U.S., 1999

The power of instrumental music comes from its ability to stir the imagination.  What I see in my mind’s eye when listening to Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky or Bach is different from what you see in yours.  Film hasn’t always taken advantage of this – after all, the music is usually set to the images, not the other way around.

Enter Fantasia.  Like its creator, Walt Disney, it was extraordinarily ambitious – setting animation to towering masterworks of instrumental music. The film itself is a masterpiece – highly influential and almost unique in the history of motion pictures.

Disney’s original concept for Fantasia was a traveling expedition that would be revisited every so often.  The poor cinematic showing of Fantasia’s first release, World War II, and Disney’s other projects (see Land, Disney) shelved revisiting the Fantasia concept.  While the original Fantasia became more popular with every re-release, re-edit, and re-issue, it would be sixty years before the studio got around to making another one.

The original Fantasia doesn’t really have any misfires.  Night on Bald Mountain is terrifying and a personal favorite.  The Dance of the Hours and Pastoral Symphony are great fun and beautiful examples of the capabilities of 1930’s animation (although early versions of the latter had some problems, since edited out).  The Nutcracker Suite and Rite of Spring are complete re-imaginations of these pieces that have little to do with the accompanying ballets.

Fantasia 2000 is inferior to the original, but not by much.    The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Mickey Mouse’s tour de force – appears in both versions, but otherwise the selections are different.  The Beethoven’s 5th segment is well animated, but doesn’t measure up to its score.  The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a bit strange as well.  None of the other segments are problematic.  Pines of Rome and the Firebird Suite are majestic celebrations of the natural world.  Pomp and Circumstance provides Donald Duck with his Fantasia moment as Noah’s first mate.  The Carnival of the Animals is almost as much fun as the dancing hippos.  Finally, Rhapsody in Blue is showcased as a love letter to New York City which could have come straight the imagination of Gershwin himself.

I hope Disney considers revisiting the Fantasia project in the coming years.  After all, there is a lot of ground to cover in the world of instrumental music.  It should be pointed out that while both Fantasias are “in the vault,” a live version is being played this summer by symphonies around the country.  I recently saw the National Symphony Orchestra’s rendition at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts outside of Washington, DC and it was well worth the price of admission to say the least.  I would highly recommend checking out a performance is one is available to you.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe