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The power of classical music is known,
And here now Walt Disney has made it his own
With images striking in color and tone.
The instruments hum to Bach’s ominous beat,
And fishes and flowers and fairies petite
All dance to Tchaikovsky’s own Nutcracker Suite.
Poor Mickey, apprentice to wizard Yen Sid,
Enlivens a broom that he cannot forbid,
And only his mage can undo what he did.
Stravinsky is next, as the earth is beginning,
And life conceives dinosaurs, fighting and grinning,
But even T. Rexes do not end up winning.
Then Beethoven yields us a pastoral spy
At amorous centaurs and cute pegasi
And thunderous parties that never run dry.
The animals prance through a fanciful day
Of hippos and elephants, who soon fall prey
To covetous gators, who love their buffet.
At last, evil Chernabog reigns o’er the night
And every last hellion, phantom, and fright,
Until they are banished by heavenly light.

If any animated film deserves a 10 for artistry, it’s Walt Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia. Possibly the most well-known experimental film of all time, Disney’s efforts to immortalize classical treasures in an animated framework were not particularly successful with audiences in 1940, but the intervening decades have proven its unique combination of potent music and images.

I’ll be honest: it’s an excellent film to fall asleep to, but also equally excellent to scrutinize. Touching on a wide range of subjects, it presents a compendious view of mythology, popular “science,” and the struggle of good versus evil. Even at its cutest and most child-centered, Fantasia oozes imaginative virtuosity, such as the giddy symbolism of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours.

On the one hand, most of the vignettes tell a core story that sticks in one’s mind, particularly those who viewed it as a child: the romance and storm of The Pastoral Symphony, the traumatic dinosaur fight of The Rite of Spring, and especially Mickey’s most memorable escapade in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. On the other hand, some more than others indulge in dancing colors and beautiful shenanigans that don’t really follow a linear narrative. (The occasionally psychedelic images led to the film’s newfound popularity in the drugged-up ‘60s.) I’m not always fond of “art for art’s sake,” but the ways in which Disney complemented the music with his fluid and captivating animation are nothing short of genius.

Though some early music critics objected to Disney’s additions to their favorite opuses, most of the pieces of music used owe much of their iconic status to the images Disney so expertly provided. Disney had wanted to continue Fantasia in subsequent years with further sequences set to various other works, and it’s a shame that the film’s initial unprofitability left that plan unfeasible (though several reissues over the years have propelled it to both considerable fame and revenue). I would have liked to have seen his take on Sibelius’s Finlandia, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Holst’s The Planets, or Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (before Stanley Kubrick got his hands on it for 2001: A Space Odyssey).

There are a few images some parents might balk at, such as the Stegosaurus death, the centaur women’s nudity, and the frighteningly demonic Night on Bald Mountain, but nothing detracts from the overall majesty of Disney’s work. The final piece is probably the most effective, particularly the contrast between Bald Mountain and Ave Maria and the quiet but implacable dominance of the latter over the former. It may not be his most entertaining, but Fantasia is Disney at his most poetic.

Rank: 56 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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