Fantasia: A Night at the Opera With Disney & Stokowski

Fantasia film poster for Disney

There’s this film company called Disney you may have heard of. And they did this ambitious musical anthology film called Fantasia.

Its notable for its classical music score, which was led by British conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977). Plus, it features all sorts of (for the day) radical animation that must have warped minds in 1940. Let’s take a look at it!

Pushing the Boundaries of Early Animation in Fantasia

Fantasia is something of a Disney opera, even opening as a film with members of an orchestra seating themselves before the screen. In classic warming up style.

Then Master of Ceremony, Deems Taylor (1885-1966), introduces the show.

What follows are a series of shorts. Either live-action sequences or cartoon segments, all set to a classical music score.

Again, as conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The numbers are:

  • Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach
  • The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas
  • Rite of Spring by Stravinsky
  • The Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven
  • Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli
  • Night on the Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky

The Nutcracker opens proceedings, on a musical front. That’s from 1892. It’s a two-act ballet, with the score all by Tchaikovsky.

After those more abstract opening segments, we finally arrive at one Mickey Mouse.

His segment is based on Johann Wolfgang van Goethe’s 1797 poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling). In it, Mickey loses it a bit when he attempts to copy his master’s tricks.

That’s one of the most famous sections of Fantasia, with some dramatic animation adding a new lease of life to Disney’s trademark character.

Looking at it now, it’s very well done. This is 1940 we’re on about—the quality of the animation is way ahead of its time.

One of Fantasia’s most impressive feats follows Mickey’s section, right in the fourth act of the program.

When we were kids, anything involving dinosaurs was epic. Things like The Land Before Time (1988) were our generation’s equivalent of King Kong, The Lost World (the 1925 and 1960 versions), and various other dinosaur heavy larks.

Arguably the most famous section of Fantasia is the dinosaur scene, which has a long old build up.

Being obsessed with dinosaurs, this stuff was gold dust. We remember watching this bit in the early ’90s on a loop. This was in the land before Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) when things hadn’t reached peak dinosaur yet.

What’s interesting with that scene is the knowledge displayed of dinosaurs back in 1940. Palaeontologists know a lot more about these legendary creatures now.

But it’s quite charming to see what Disney envisioned, errors and all.

The depiction of Stegosaurus battling the T. Rex is off. The former had been extinct for 66 million years before the latter walked the Earth (indicating the staggering extent of time dinosaurs ruled the world).

However, also of interest is the depiction of a possible extinction scenario.

If you check our post on The Great 1972 Daylight Fireball, the idea a meteor could have killed off most life on Earth (and almost all dinosaurs) wasn’t proposed until 1980 by Louis Alvarez. Some 40 years after Fantasia.

Until that theory was more widely accepted into the 1990s, all sorts of wild concepts abounded for why dinosaurs were no more.

We remember one dino book we had as kids suggesting the animals “got bored” and decided to sleep themselves to death. Plausible!

Again, though, nods to the animation team. Some of it is just outstanding. Really world-class stuff—pioneering work.

The film ends with the devil Chernaboy summoning evil spirits, all set to Modest Mussorgsky’s classic Night on Bald Mountain. And this film concludes with a chorus rendition of Ave Maria.

This may all seem quite removed from more family-friendly Disney films from recent years, but the animation studio was a bit more brutal in the “good old days”.

Anyone who’s seen Bambi as a kid can attest to that. And Dumbo. And Pinocchio.

Viewed as a piece of animation, Fantasia was radical for the time. Its heavy leaning towards the phantasmagorical and the abstract aside, this film was a total landmark in animation.

Some of the work is quite incredible, bearing in mind how dodgy quite a lot of older animation from that era looks these days.

For 1940, Fantasia must have been mind melting. It met with significant critical acclaim in 1940 and quite rightly so.

Watching it now, there’s still a lot of merit to the film. Even if much of that is simply lauding the pioneering work from animation work over 80 years old.

But it certainly remains Disney’s most experimental work. And we can’t imagine the massive organisation trying something as creatively daring as this ever again.

Fantasia’s Production

Fantasia had a budget of $2.28 million, which was pretty enormous for the time.

It launched in cinemas on November 13th, 1940. Luckily for Walt Disney’s efforts, it was a big hit and went on to make around $80 million in North America.

In 1940, the New York Film Critics Circle handed the animation a Special Award.

But the Oscars initially ignored the film, only in 1942 did Walt Disney receive an Honorary Award. As did Leopold Stokowski.

The reason Fantasia came to be is Walt Disney, in 1936, was concerned about Mickey Mouse’s popularity. He wanted to give the character a creative boost.

He decided to do an animation of the moose alongside The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

But Disney wanted to move beyond the casual slapstick associated with its trademark character, instead heading off into more advanced fantasy.

When looking for a conductor for the music, he bumped into Stokowski by chance in a Hollywood restaurant. By then, Stokowski had been conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1912. He offered his services to Disney for free.

But the initial production costs went to $125,000, which Disney realised wouldn’t recoup its money as it was only a short.

And so, from that up went the budget to a full blown movie! The rest is history.

2 comments

  1. I remember being taken to see Fantasia when I was a kid – it was still being run on the cinema circuit, decades after first release. Seriously impressive bit of animation. Apparently the original had something not physically possible outside specified theatres: Fantasound, developed by Disney and RCA. My father, who was an electronics development engineer working for Western Electric (Westrex) in sound systems a little later, once explained to me how it worked – back then film used optical soundtracks, which were mono and printed in a little strip on one side of a 35-mm film, reducing the picture format to 3:4. While working for Westrex Dad invented and patented a method for getting stereo out of the same width of optical sound-strip without compromising fidelity, a patent now owned by Nokia AND NOT ME, but that’s an aside. Disney’s method was vastly more ambitious: they used a separate projector as a dedicated player to run multiple optical soundtracks printed across the whole 35mm width for multi-point surround sound, delivered to the auditorium via custom amps and potentiometers. Not bad for 1940, but of course the expense was colossal and any cinema running it had to be custom-fitted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the moral of that story is to sue Nokia for all it’s worth.

      Well, that’s some awesome info. I always like how people used to go to the cinema back then to watch the news and that type of thing. Bit of a lost artform these days, but good to see Disney pushing boundaries with what cinema could achieve. I feel they’ve not done that for a long while.

      I’d certainly love to see Fantasia run again in the cinemas, though! Only ever seen it on the small screen. I’m off to see Jaws this weekend, which sort of makes up for it. Feels like it’s 1975 all over again.

      Like

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