Disney By the Numbers: Fantasia (1940)

One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.

This is Disney by the Numbers.


fantasiamickeyleopold

The Disney brand was founded on two things; two concepts that when married together form the bedrock that every piece of animation, live action movie, or theme park ride was built on. Those two things?

Technology and music.

Sure, we like to say that it was ‘all started by a mouse’, but what made that Mouse take off in popularity back in the twenties was the fact that he could sing and dance perfectly in time with music and sound effects; the technology to do so being bleeding edge at the time.

That was the initial key to Mickey’s success, it all but formed the backbone of the company, and it’s what led to everything else. All 55+ animated features, all who-knows-how-many live action films or cartoon shorts, all stem from the marriage of music and technology.

So with that mind, it’s not only obvious that Walt Disney would have made a movie like Fantasia, it was inevitable.

However, for as inevitable as it was, it was also controversial and in a lot of ways would still be so today if it were to be released now. Fantasia was an experiment. With Snow White and Pinocchio, Walt had already convinced audiences that they could invest themselves in a cartoon character’s story for the length of a movie. Now he wanted to convince audiences that animated movies were more than just cartoons, but actual art. This is still something audiences and critics grapple with.

fantasiasquarepants
Can’t imagine why.

More seriously, at what point does a work of popular media surpass its usual limits and becomes something more? And if a film produced by Walt Disney Animations manage to do so, does it still remain a Disney movie? Or is it also something else? Let’s find out!

Story Telling

  • Theme 1
  • Tightness of Script 0
  • Dialogue 0
  • Use of Comedy 2
  • Use of Drama 2

One of the many things that separated Disney from its competitors, especially in the early days, was Walt’s obsession with stretching the boundaries of story telling through animation. When he first started, cartoons were little more than sight gags. Even Mickey Mouse in Steam Boat Willy was little more than a dancing caricature bouncing along with the music that everyone could finally hear due to the advent of sound.

Snow White further pushed the envelope, introducing audiences to feature length animation. And Fantasia may have represented Walt’s most ambitious attempt yet. A full length feature animation telling a story with nothing but classical music and cartoon motion.

No one can deny it was a gutsy gamble. And it was one that, in terms of creating art, succeeded immensely.  A great deal of the segments excel at communicating a narrative without a shred of dialogue, with animation and music conveying all the plot beats, character and emotion. Rite of Spring, The Pastoral Symphony, Night on Bald Mountain, and especially the Sorcerer’s Apprentice all stand out in this category. From beginning to end of these segments, the music transports you to a mythical ancient Greece, a magician’s lair, or a haunted mountain.

These segments represent true, undiluted, pure narrative.

But then there are other segments that either don’t do that as well… or really at all. That isn’t to say those are even necessarily bad, but it’s impossible to judge an animated segment about how well it tells a story when it’s just literally the visual representation of a sound wave moving across the screen.

However, even if we only focus on the more narrative pieces, it’s impossible to really score this movie well in the story telling category. Apart from a few bits and pieces of exposition between segments and a cameo from Mickey, there’s no dialogue to speak of. Theme is something barely covered in most of the segments and the only stand outs are bits of comedy and drama that sneak into it.

So while the film is ambitious in its attempts to convey story through music and pictures, the limitations of this format also preclude the movie from scoring particularly well in our categories.

Total 5/15

Music

  • Lyrics 0
  • Score 5
  • Number of Songs 2
  • Notoriety of Songs 4

It would seem that a film built completely around highlighting music and animation should have a perfect score, but even here we have to, reluctantly, take a few points.

The musical selections in Fantasia are transcendent, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and any other number of superlatives I could come up with. They were classics well before Disney got his hands on them and they remain classics today.

But also none of them have lyrics so we can’t even give it a partial point there.

This isn’t to take away from the majesty of these classic pieces of music; it just goes to show how important Disney felt about holding to his concept of producing an art piece to try and elevate the medium. And given that this was the stated goal, it didn’t hurt that they chose genuine musical works of art to do that with.

tony.out.20190424-040657
What more do you want? They’re some of the greatest pieces of music ever, not much more for me to say about them!

Total 11/15

Animation

  • Fluidity of Animation
  • Use Of Color
  • House Style
  • Character Design
  • Breaks New Ground

I know the animation category is beginning to sound like a broken record here. Thus far each movie has only topped the movie that came before it. Well let’s not bemoan good fortune because believe it or not… this trend won’t last forever when we’re looking at Disney films.

And as far as this movie is concerned, it is somewhat of a given that a film dedicated to showcasing the power of music and animation combined would have first rate animation. This is one of those films where Walt Disney’s animators pulled out all of the stops. The depth of color, the flawless movement, and the creativity…

fantasiaicefairy

… the Creativity…

fantasiahippos

… The CREATIVITY…

fantasiamushrooms

What I’m trying to say is that this movie really excels in its creative and conceptual endeavors.

And frankly, it should. Back when this movie was being produced, one of the animators referred to it as a mere cartoon and he was solidly rebuked by Walt telling the man that they weren’t making cartoons, they were making Art.

Now that was probably a bit harsh. But arguably, of all the early Disney movies, Fantasia reigns supreme as the piece that most solidly falls into the Art category and not simply pop art.

 

Total: 15/15

Love Story

  • Character Interaction 0
  • Importance To Overall Plot 0
  • Complexity 0
  • Pulls At Heartstrings 0
  • Overcomes Obstacles 0

Oh… well this is embarrassing.

There’s no real way around it. Fantasia has many things: An epic score, perfect animation, iconic moments, and the literal devil himself. But one thing it doesn’t have is a love story.

It isn’t even like Pinocchio  where we can get something of an average score from all the “semi-villains”. The closest Fantasia gets is a few scenes of some amorous centaurs frolicking in the pastoral symphony or perhaps some familial love between a mother Pegasus and her baby pegasuses… pegasusi? Pegasusen?

fantasiapegasus

Baby Flying Horses.

Total Score 0/15

Hero

  • Sidekick 1
  • Charm 2
  • Goodness 1
  • Emotional Transformation 1
  • Comedy 2

As with the love story, the unique structure of Fantasia almost prevents it from scoring anything in the hero category. With each little vignette much more focused on conveying atmosphere and mood over structured narrative, there just really isn’t room for a protagonist or antagonist, much less a hero to root for. Most segments barely have anything that could be considered actual characters.

Except for one.

You may have heard of him before; young guy, big round ears, pointy hat, possible probable overlord of all entertainment someday.

fantasiasorcerermick
Oh Gosh! Cut it out!

Yes, Mickey Mouse’s very presence manages to get this movie some points in the hero category. In a movie full of iconic imagery his “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment manages to be perhaps the strongest.

Mickey has all the attributes we look for in a Disney Hero; it all started with him after all. He’s funny, he’s charming, he’s good, (and since this is still fairly early in his career he hasn’t had all of his mischievousness stripped from him yet.) And he also undergoes a small emotional transformation in the course of the segment.

That said, the nature of the Fantasia format limits Mickey’s attributes; he has to be literally and figuratively muted to fit in.  Fantasia is all about mood and ambiance and much less about narrative. In some ways Mickey fits right in there because that’s all his initial cartoons were. But both he and the genre had come a long way since 1928 so we’re only seeing part Mickey. But it’s one of his best sides so there’s little to complain.

Like I said, he still has more personality here than he will be allowed to have for decades.

mickeywink
Don’t worry, he gets it back.

So all in all, Mickey’s Fantasia appearance merely puts him in good company with the other Disney Heroes of this early era. He has charm to spare but isn’t particularly good as the entire story of his segment is him disobeying his master and dabbling in the dark arts. But it is damn fun to watch and if you could only watch one sequence from the entire movie… Mickey’s is most likely the one you would choose.

Total 7/10

Villain

  • Evilness 2.5
  • Comedy 0
  • Sophistication 2.5
  • Henchmen 1
  • Poses A Threat 2

Speaking of dabbling in the dark arts…

Just like in the hero category, Fantasia is largely carried by one character. One figure that looms over all as a supreme villain. A character so vile, so cruel, and so imposing that he alone manages to score points in a category when no other characters really exist in the film to do so. That character is of course…

disneytrex

Yes, the Tyrannosaurus from the “Rite of Spring” segment! Not only does this evil hellbeast summon lightning and thunder to serve as his back up singers, his very presence shifts the tone of the segment entirely from a droll, plodding scene of herbivorous munching on leaves to a nightmare vision of predator and prey engaging in a deadly dance of tooth and claw. All the while he’s on screen the music picks up tempo and becomes terrifying, wondrous, and awe inspiring. Truly this creature is worthy of the epithet King and the undisputed villain of this feature.

And everything I just said would be 100% If “Night on Bald Mountain” didn’t exist.

Yes, for as terrifying as the Tyrannosaurus is. For as majestic as he can be. And even for as much energy he injects into his segment. He unfortunately pales in comparison to one that some consider to not just be the best villain in Fantasia, but the best in all of Disney Canon.

fantasiachernabog
Hail to the King

And let’s be fair, it’s hard to beat the literal devil when talking about the best villains. Though from an actuarial standpoint, and in spite of what the narration tells us, this isn’t the literal devil but rather the accursed slavic deity known as Chernobog. So that makes it better I guess?

Whether or not he’s Satan isn’t actually important though. For our purposes he more than serves as a villain that can be judged. And in that respect, he does pretty good. Now, we can’t really give him full points as there’s more to being a Disney Villain than being evil. He doesn’t exactly exude charisma or have even a hint of comedy. But he makes up for it with sheer presence.

And while the musical format of Fantasia holds back characters like Mickey Mouse from being quite as heroic as he could be, the looser narrative structure actually favors Chernobog. Freed from the constraints of dialogue and plot, Chernobog is allowed to simply just be. He doesn’t need to explain himself, the music and the visuals tell us everything we need to know about the guy.

fantasiachernobog
He’s a people person

So while the music and animation of Fantasia are nothing short of amazing, the most memorable segements remain the the ones that involve a plucky hero and a terrifying villain. Because while Fantasia was an attempt at fine art, true art in film has always been characterization.

Total: 8/10

Supporting Characters

  • Comedy 2.5
  • Inventiveness 2.5
  • Clear Help Or Hindrance 1
  • Strength of Relationship with Main Character 1

It would be impossible to sort out all of the supporting characters in Fantasia. If the character’s name isn’t Mickey Mouse or Chernobog then the character is serving a supporting role. But there’s hardly a lack of them.

From broomsticks to centaurs, from ostrich ballerinas to shrieking banshees, the film is full to bursting with iconically designed characters. Heck, in some cases theses supporting characters have supporting characters to help them. The centaurs have little cherubs, Dionysus has a donkey, and Zeus has Hephaestus supplying him lightning bolts.

But the question is, if every character that isn’t a Mouse or Satan is a supporting character, who or what are they supporting?

In this particular case, it’s the music.

Every gag, every ounce of drama, even every character design is there to highlight the music. When the Stegosaurus defends itself against the T-Rex, it’s in perfect sync with the music. When the foals cry out against the storm, they do it with a brass voice. When the army of brooms march against Mickey they do it in time to the nasally honk of the bassoon. Music is so important to the animation that they turned the physical representation of sound into a supporting character.

fantasiasoundtrack

Can you find stronger Disney supporting characters? Absolutely, but these characters do exactly what they’re supposed to do, amuse the audience and convey the emotions necessary to move the scene forward. And this regard, probably no Disney characters support more than these.

Total: 7.5/10

Disney Magic and Legacy

  • Theme Park Presence 1
  • Timelessness 2
  • Impact On Culture 2
  • Scope of Audience 1
  • Disney Feels (Or Did It Make Us Cry?) 1

The scope of Fantasia’s legacy stretches far past cartoons, far past animated features, and even past the Disney Corporation itself. The next time you’re in your car and you listen to music in stereo, or watch a movie with surround sound, you have Fantasia to thank for that.

Upon it’s initial release the film failed at the box office. There were a number of reasons for this but one of the primary reasons was that Walt wanted the audience to be able to hear the music  from all directions. He wanted them to feel the rumble of the drums as thunder moved across the screen, or experience the crash of the cymbals as a dinosaur struck another. So, at an incredible cost, he developed the first theatrical stereo system and paid to have it installed in any movie house Fantasia was shown in. This limited release combined with the European market remaining closed, led to the film losing even more money than Pinocchio did.

That sound system, “Fantasound”, is the direct ancestor of most audio-mixing technology still in use today as well as stereo and surround sound. So even discounting our usual criteria used for judging a films legacy, Fantasia acquits itself quite well.

And while it didn’t initially take off, through subsequent rereleases, both in theatrical and in home video, the film has become a bonafide classic. Sorcerer Mickey is a mainstay at Disney Parks, even being recreated in what is the greatest live action Disney show of all time.

fantasiafantasmic
I got no brooms to hold me down!

Furthermore the fact that it’s one only four animated features Disney has made a sequel to goes to show how enduring this grand experiment of Walt’s was.

 

Total: 7/10

Grand Total: 57.5

 

Most the time, when a film scores this low, it means two things: It doesn’t achieve being a traditional Disney movie, and we really don’t like it very much.

In this case only the former is true.

Because Fantasia isn’t a traditional Disney movie. Even being the third theatrical release it stood out from the pack. It was meant to. As said before, it was intended to be viewed as art, an Animated Concert. During its initial run viewers were given programs just as they would be if attending the symphony.

It’s completely debatable as to whether or not a film like Fantasia was necessary for the field of animation to be viewed as more than just cartoons. Snow White and Pinocchio had already blazed that trail to certain extent. But even if Fantasia is few Disney Fan’s favorite film, it’s almost impossible to not admire the ambition and passion on display in this movie. Disney rarely shot this high again and wouldn’t match the technical and artistic achievements of Fantasia for decades to come.

So while Fantasia is far from a perfect film and largely fails to meet our criteria for judging a Disney film. There’s no denying how much of an achievement it remains to this day. Perhaps Disney overshot in this particular instance, but you know what they say about shooting for the moon.

fantasiastars
It returns fire…

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