Disney's Fantasia a Work of Film Art

Article in Daily News (New York, New York) 14 November 1940

By Kate Cameron (edited)

Review of "Fantasia" presented at the Broadway Theatre, 53d St. and Broadway 1940

Screenshot of Trailer of Fantasia 1940
Screenshot of Trailer of Fantasia 1940

Walt Disney's "Fantasia" left a glittering audience at the Broadway Theatre breathless with excitement and wonder last night. The theatre was filled with people who had come to see a moving picture cartoon from the Disney animating studio and were given the surprise and treat of their lives by being permitted to sit in at the inauguration of a new art form.

"Fantasia" is visual music. Disney himself speaks of it as "seeing music and hearing pictures," but the eyes and ears are so closely affected by what is seen and heard on the screen that it is hard to tell which of these organs first perceives the colour or the sound.

Stokowski Conducts

With the assistance of Leopold Stowski whose conducting of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in eight classic pieces of music is a superb accomplishment. With the advice of Deems Taylor and his aid as an interpreter of the new form. Disney has produced a picture that seems to come from another world. It is like nothing else in heaven or on earth in its inspirational blending of colour, light, motion and sound.

The film is made up of eight integral parts of which Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, the Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Beethoven's 6th Symphony, Ponchielli's ballet, The Dance of the Hours, Night on Blad Mountain by Moussorgsky and Franz Schubert's Ave Maria from the musical background.

The artists of Disney's staff have let their imaginations run riot with the music and brought forth a different set of pictures for each musical number, as the artists' interpretation of the various pieces of music.

The men and women of the orchestra are seen in silhouette on the screen. Stokowski's extraordinary head and sensitive hands are highlights at times as he goes through the motions of leading the orchestra with his back to the audience. But for the more significant part of the picture, the musicians are heard and not seen. Taylor meets the audience face to face, as he replaces the maestro on the podium between each musical number, to comment, seriously and in a humorous vein on the wonders yet to come.

Light and sound

One of the wonders is the new way in which light and sound are used on the screen. Great progressive strides have been made by Disney and his men in the projection of sound through the RCA "Fantasound" apparatus, and in the use of light and colour to produce a perspective depth never before obtained on the screen.

Accompanying the Bach fugue, which opens the picture and which Deems Taylor calls absolute music since it neither tells a story nor presents a picture to the imagination, is a series of lines and colours in various forms, a visual abstraction of the artists' interpretation of Bach music. This might have been inspired by the fountains at the World's Fair, as the colour and line suggest the waterspouts that were played in harmony with the tinted lights and music in Flushing Meadows during the exposition.

Fantasia opening at Cinema New York
Fantasia opening at Cinema New York

The pictures accompanying the Nutcracker Suite are sheer delight. They form a series of ballets the like of which have never been performed by humans. The dance of the sugar plum fairy, the Chinese mushroom dance and water ballets, the frost fairies dance and the snowflake ballet on ice are particularly lovely.

Mickey Mouse Returns

Mickey Mouse makes his appearance in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and it was the familiar little figure of the Disney short cartoons that lured Leopold Stokowski to the Disney Studios and prompted him to try his hand at a new art form.

Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is used as the background of a series of pictures showing the evolution of the universe and the hardening and the cooling of the earth. It is a wildly colourful series in which the first cells are gradually developed into the terrible monsters scientists tell us once possessed the earth. This and the pictures accompanying Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain which represent evil at work in the world are so terrifying that they make "Fantasia" taboo for young children.

The Beethoven Pastoral is accompanied by a lovely fantasy in which Pegasus, the Centaurs, Zeus, Vulcan, many fauns and cupids, Diana, goddess of the moon, Apollo, Iris, goddess of the rainbow, and a tipsy Bacchus cavort on Mount Olympus in the misty realm of mythology.

Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours is a burlesque on the ballet, with its galumphing ostriches, adagio hippos, bubble dancing elephants and a maitre de ballet represented by a poisonous alligator. This sequence, funny as it is, runs much too long.

A Forest of Arches

The picture closes with Schubert's Ave Maria. Julietta Novis as a soloist and the Charles Henerson chorus gives voice to the soft and sacred strains of Schubert's music as the artists picture a processional of the faithful through a forest of trees that form themselves into a series of Gothic arches.

Disney is overly generous with his material. At least two of the symphonies might have been saved for another series of pictures. But he has done so much toward the progression of motion pictures that we who are permitted to witness the amazing results of his latest work salute him as the greatest genius of Hollywood.

You may be interested

Walt Disney's Fantasia Hardcover – December 1, 1999

A noted film historian presents an informative look at Disney's innovative animation classic, with more than 170 dazzling illustrations capturing the delightful Disney characters as they dance to the world's great music.

Buy on Amazon >

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