Recommended Viewing Situation:
As a soundtrack to savagely beating everyone who says ‘classical music all sounds the same’ with an animated broomstick.
Running Time: 126 minutes.
Format: 35mm Film.
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr., Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen.
Writers: Joe Grant and Dick Huemer.
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe.
Awards: Two Academy Awards USA (Honorary) (1942): Leopold Stokowski and his associates for their unique achievement in the creation of a new form of visualised music, Walt Disney, William E. Garity, and J. N. A. Hawkins for their outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures. See more.
I grew up with classical music. My dad would sometimes ‘get it into his head’ that spending whole evenings listening to Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ with the stereo turned up on full was an acceptable family event. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the ‘1812’, it has cannons in it. It is awesome. This is probably why I absolutely cannot understand why some people feel classical music is boring, and that it ‘all sounds the same’. I suppose this is in part because of how we are taught music in schools, which quite frankly is boring and I barely even remember it. Not everyone is lucky enough to be exposed to it from a young age and there remains a distinct elitism around the subject.
Enter Fantasia (1940). I’m not saying this one feature film is a cure-all for snobbery and class difference, but it certainly has made an impact on the accessibility of classical music. I have never been a fan of Disney films. I find them, at best, problematic. But this is one Disney film has benefits and values that far outweigh its problems. I would even go so far as to say that the Disney empire itself has a positive impact through this film. Simply because it has Disney stamped on it, it is far more likely to have a wider audience than, say, a Don Bluth film (which on a side note I feel is a mighty shame). More to the point, it’s fun and I certainly don’t think you can still believe classical music is boring after watching it.
Fantasia grew out of an attempt to re-boot the waning popularity of Mickey Mouse, with an animated short set to Paul Dukas’ ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. What it turned into was a visual accompaniment to some of the most popular classical pieces ever written. Stokowski agreed to compose orchestral arrangements to some of the pieces that had been written for solo instruments and to conduct the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra for the feature. It is a credit to his immense ability that his arrangements of Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’ and Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ have stuck with me throughout my life as personal favourites.
The animations in this feature are not the interpretations of musical experts, they are the imaginings of the artists, depictions of how the music affected them. Some of them tell a definite story, others do not. The opening animation, for example, set to ‘Toccata and Fugue’, is an arrangement of abstract images that portray the sense and feeling of the music. Then you have a selection from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’, which contains a beautiful tapestry of various forms of animated natural phenomena.’The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, by contrast, is a piece of music inspired by Goethe’s 1797 poem of the same name and is a cautionary tale of an apprentice who gets a little too ahead of himself, thinking he’s got this whole magic thing figured out, only to cause havoc with his inexperience.
By far the best animation, though, is set to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’. As you learn in the film, Stravinsky intended the ballet to be a depiction of primitive life. So, the animators took this idea and ran with it. They consulted leading scientists, palaeontologists and even Edwin Hubble himself about the formation of the planet and the evolution of life on it. The end result is spectacular, awe-inspiring, and terrifying. Despite Stravinsky himself being less than pleased with their interpretations, his music lends itself remarkably well to a depiction of the evolution of life, from our nebulous beginnings in the universe, to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Also, the T-Rex is utterly terrifying.
Ultimately, despite its problems, controversies and the fact that it’s a Disney animation, Fantasia is a celebration of the cerebrality, adaptability and emotional potency of classical music. After all, modern music owes its very existence to classical music, not to mention all those film scores that enhance your viewing pleasure. It also makes it accessible to a much wider and more diverse audience than has traditionally been the case. If this film had a political statement, it would be that the enjoyment of classical music is not, and should not, be restricted to the wealthy and the privileged.