Rewind film: Fantasia (1940)

Richard James Havis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm


Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra

Producer: Walt Disney


Fantasy films don't come much more fantastic than the Disney classic Fantasia.

Only the third of the company's full-length feature films, the 1940 movie is a bona-fide animated masterpiece that has never been matched in terms of concept, skill and execution. Those who think Disney's work is limited to the child-oriented fare it produces today should find the time to watch this remarkable synthesis of animation and classical music.

Fantasia is a true work of art. Although the film's most famous segment, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, features Mickey Mouse, the cartoon was created to appeal to adults. The overarching idea was simple: Disney animators took eight popular pieces of classical music and produced animated sequences to accompany them.

Walt Disney, who conceived the project himself, gave his animators a wide-ranging canvas. The opening animation, which illustrates J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, is a wholly abstract piece that draws inspiration from the German expressionist art movement. The final sequence, set to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, is a devilish affair, with scenes of a giant winged demon and various acolytes.

The musical performances are terrific, too. Disney hired famed conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra to play the works, and it proved a perfect fit. Stokowski had ideas for some extra orchestral colourations that would dovetail nicely with an animated film. The conductor and the orchestra appear in the film, notably in the opening section, swathed in shimmering, enchanting colours.

Fantasia was actually born of economics. Disney felt that the popularity of his main animated star, Mickey Mouse, was slipping at the end of the 1930s, and decided to do something special to relaunch Mickey's career.

Taking a cue from a Disney series titled Silly Symphony, he had the idea of putting Mickey into a short film with classical music. Disney wanted the film to have higher production values so he hired Stokowski - who was so eager he even offered to work for free. When the budget ballooned, and Disney realised he couldn't make his money back from a short, he expanded Fantasia into a full-length feature.

Fantasia has been released in different cuts over the years - a racist scene featuring a black centaur polishing the hooves of a white centaur was excised in the 1960s - and it is still held in high esteem, although the classic status it deserves still eludes it.