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With: Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor, Mickey Mouse
Written by: Joe Grant, Dick Huemer
Directed by: Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director)
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 124
Date: 11/12/1940

Fantasia (1940)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Classical Illustrated

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Walt Disney's Fantasia has its fair share of detractors, even today. They decry its failure to bridge "high art" and "low art" and for its lack of understanding of classical music. It also has its share of champions, none more than Disney himself, who is quoted on the DVD box cover: "Fantasia is timeless" and "represents our most exciting adventure." Even in the middle of the movie, after "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment, Mickey Mouse and conductor Leopold Stokowski take a moment to congratulate each other. On what? On being in the middle of a masterpiece that hasn't even ended yet!

I first saw Fantasia on my birthday, in 1990, during the film's 50th anniversary re-release. I was enthralled during the viewing, but afterwards, it's hard to remember or even imagine what was so enthralling. When recalling it or describing it, it sounds like such a chore. The first segment is Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," accompanied by some non-linear animation, just shapes and colors, which is pretty fascinating. Even better is Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," with its images of faeries and fish and water beads on spider webs. Then we get the showstopper, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which originally started its life as an extra-expensive "Silly Symphonies" cartoon.

Next up is Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," set to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs for some reason, and it has to be the dullest and most depressing dinosaur movie ever made. Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" fares much better, with images of centaurs and unicorns and such. But Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" is another highlight, an energetic funny dance featuring flamingos, hippos, elephants, and alligators. Finally, we have the odd combination of Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and Schubert's "Ave Maria," both frightening and beautiful.

My favorite thing that anyone ever said about Fantasia comes from the great American film critic Otis Ferguson: "Dull as it is towards the end, ridiculous as it is in the bend of the knee before Art, and taking one thing with another, it is one of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world." This captures it all, I think. Ferguson understood that Fantasia is far from pristine, and far from a total failure. It's a reckless masterpiece, a foolhardy, expensive gamble that failed (at least until the 1960s, when the film found new popularity as a head trip for hippies and finally turned a profit). It showed Disney's delusions of grandeur, with the emphasis on delusions. It doesn't do -- can't do -- anything it set out to do (i.e. to make classical music more accessible to children, etc.), but it's his most personal and grandest vision. Watching the movie again proves that, of course, it's not a chore. It's a pleasure.

For 2010 -- the film's 70th anniversary -- Disney has released an amazing four-disc set. Fantasia comes on both a Blu-Ray disc and a DVD, with three commentary tracks. The set also includes the sequel, Fantasia/2000 (1999), also on Blu-Ray and DVD. Extras include the amazing 2003 short film Destino, which was based on an abandoned collaboration between Disney and Salvador Dali.

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