by Jeric Llanes
When Walt Disney started his animation company in the 1920s, a great deal of the short films he produced matched up fun and silly animations with renowned classical music in the background. Almost two decades later, Disney looked to push new ground with an ambitious film, where the studio would branch out of its comedic roots in order to fully capture and portray a world full of fantasy and awe. The concept eventually became the iconic Fantasia (1940), an animated film containing eight separate segments accompanied by classical music conducted by Leopold Stowkowski.
Do you ever close your eyes when listening to music and try to imagine a scene that encompasses the song you’re hearing? That’s pretty much how this film plays out, but with Disney providing the visuals and interpretation. This is very much a symphonic concert as it is a movie, with time given for introductions to the music pieces right before the animated feature plays. There isn’t a plot to follow, as the film chooses to go with separate vignettes instead of an overarching story, but it’s interesting to note that the animation gets more complex and thorough with each subsequent segment.
Perhaps the most famous of all is the segment near the middle of the film titled The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an on-screen interpretation of Goethe’s famous poem where a training magician struggles to get things under control after he enchants a broomstick to do his tedious chores. The apprentice is played by none other than Disney’s own Mickey Mouse, and for you Disney enthusiasts out there, this is where he dawns the red cloak and iconic blue hat! Out of all the segments this one probably has the clearest storyline, but I think it’s worth mentioning that it’s able to do so without any dialogue. In fact, minus the music introductions by the host and the orchestra, there are no spoken words throughout the entire film!
The animation and the music are enough to carry a story and convey a specific feeling and emotion. I have to give credit to the amazing animators who worked on this film. Keep in mind that these aren’t actors doing the work, and there aren’t quirky voiceovers behind the art that helps us get a grasp of its characters. The brilliance is in the art, and how the movement and facial expressions of these cartoon characters stay in tune with the orchestra in order to tell us what is going on. For the most part the animators were able to humanize a lot of the non-human characters, from dancing animals, to deities and forces of nature, and even inanimate objects.
What amazed me about this visual experience wasn’t just how the animators were able to bring these things to life, but how they were also able to make the overall picture feel real. Seriously, the attention to detail is absolutely incredible in this animated feature. In particular, I loved the way water was drawn. Shadows and reflections in the water are in the right spots in relation to their characters, even when in motion (definitely check out the Pastoral Symphony segment for this). Rain drops fall fast and splatter over the animal characters. Of course, the greatness of the animation doesn’t fall solely on the way water is animated, but finding small details like that add to the realism of the visuals and makes you forget that you’re watching 2-D animation.
This is definitely a film that is unconventional compared to its contemporary classic Hollywood movies. The absence of dialogue and a structured plot may make it feel slow-pace, especially when paired with classical symphonic music and a two-hour runtime. But overall, I like to view Fantasia (1940) as an ambitious art experiment that really set the standard for future animated films to follow. With booming color and a great emphasis on such fine details, the picture still holds up today and continues to encapsulate a fantastical visual experience that everyone can admire.
Where to Watch this Film: Fantasia (1940) is currently available for stream on Netflix and can be rented/purchased on iTunes.