Reviewing these early Disney animated features is a pain in the ass. I don’t say this because they’re a chore to sit through or that they’re bad films, but because it’s impossible to find a fresh angle to review them. Such is the case with Fantasia, often hailed as Walt Disney’s crown jewel. What’s been said of the film can’t be disputed. Yes, it’s beautiful, evocative, haunting–an undisputed masterpiece. If you’ve seen the film you’ll either agree wholeheartedly or fall into the camp that calls this film boring and lacking any real a narrative. It’s a shame if you fall into the later, but I’ll respect your opinion.
What’s truly captivating about Fantasia is how bold and experimental it is. Mind you, this is coming out of the era when studios dominated what was put on screen. Disney, fortunately, had the liberty that animation afforded. He wasn’t bound to a major studio, although he was up to neck deep in debt. While his financial worries would affect later films, no dollar was spared in assembling this triumph of animation.
Disney employed hundreds of artists to create what was essentially a collection of short films. Each segment had its own team, which meant they all had their own distinct qualities and charms. Normally such an assembly of different artists would result in an uneven product, but teams were all reined in by the singular vision of Disney himself. A crucial choice made by Disney, however, was to let the artists’ imagination roam as they figured out what to create to accompany the classical compositions. What resulted was an embarrassment of riches, each short a masterpiece upon itself.
Whether you see it or not, we’re all familiar with the images of Mickey Mouse donning a wizard’s hat and an anthropomorphic broom carrying a bucket full of water. Or who could forget a scary demon looking over a town, conjuring ghosts to a devilish dance?
And yet, despite all of the heaps of praise for the film, it was a box office failure. Part of the blame was the war going on. American films were cut off from being shown in Europe, a lucrative source of profit left untapped. But perhaps another underlying reason was that audiences weren’t receptive to a film that was just animation set to classical music. I remember being it as a child, around 4-years-old and crying because the film wasn’t a Mickey Mouse film. I can’t imagine Fantasia holding a child’s attention now or then.
And yet, this hardly matters. I’m hesitant to actually call the classic a children’s film. Yes, it’s animated, but this is a film where we see mythological creatures such as centaurs courting one another. It’s by far one of Disney Studio’s most mature works, a real feast for the adult imagination.
All of this praise, and yet so many haven’t seen it. I can only pitch as this: Disney achieved something rare with animation. He allowed the unimaginable to be seen, and he did so majestically. There’s a stunning segment where we see the formation of the universe and earth, and eventually the evolution of life on this planet. To a modern viewer spoiled by the computer and a glut of depictions, this is nothing extraordinary. But imagine an audience member in 1940 witnessing such wonderment. How many children that saw this would go on to become scientists or engineers? How many adults were captivated by such unimaginable sights? That was the power of animation. And that is the legacy of Fantasia. Going forward with my monthly review of the Disney animated features, I’m not sure how what comes next will stack up. But what I will say is that there’s a reason Disney was the king of animation, and Fantasia was him flexing his muscles.