After twenty-four marvelous forays into what makes our choices the best and worth of the list, one film had always been in mind as the best out of the entire Disney Animated Canon. To this day, these films have inspired or been inspired by this one film and measured to it. Even films outside of Disney animation have been trying to get past the reputation and stakes set by this one film that is still hailed as a masterpiece, even if Walt Disney was personally burned by its box office failure, the money put into it and never truly coming close to it again. Yet, it is less about the behind the scenes factors of the film and more so about the film itself. Without further ado, the number one film in our Best Disney Animated countdown…Fantasia.
Fantasia is arguably the best film of the entire Disney Animated Canon for breaking so many of the rules set out and delivering a collection of stories without dialogue and only the music to guide each segment. The film goes more in the direction of a concert hosted by our master of ceremonies Deems Taylor in live-action set-ups in between scenes with the orchestra shown in silhouette to help set the scene in its slight Art Deco layout. The audience are then told by Taylor that tonight the images about to be shown are from the artists’ interpretations of the work at hand and what images pop into the head of those watching as the music plays. It’s only seven segments that are played out before the screen and each segment deserves their own review to sum up the whole.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, directed by Samuel Armstrong
In this segment, the Philadelphia Orchestra as conducted by Leopold Stokowski perform the piece by Johann Sebastian Bach as abstract lines, shapes and shadows forming as the music plays. It’s intricate as it starts off on an abstract level making one wonder what is going on until full figures start to form ending on a sunset coming into view. It’s a gorgeous mix of the abstract and the norm.
The Nutcracker Suite, directed by Samuel Armstrong
This segment is the animators letting loose on their interpretation of the classic Tchaikovsky suite with no resemblance of Christmas but rather a collection of snowflakes, flowers and mushrooms to go along with the stunning piece. One highlight in the segment is when the snowflakes dance and spin in the air as the piece builds and builds. There is also the meticulous choreography of the “Russian Dance” which delights and dazzles. It combines beauty of Snow White and the spectacle of Tchaikovsky’s master work.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, directed by James Algar
Mickey Mouse stars in this segment using Paul Dukas’ piece as a young apprentice for the sorcerer Yen Sid (Disney backwards if you could not tell). This is a classic not just for the film, but for Mickey Mouse in general. This brought him back to the mainstream eye and attention. The story comes to life with brilliant imagery and dazzling moments of intense fighting against the magic brooms and Mickey conjuring magic across the stars. It is the most memorable segment and the one most of the public conscience remembers.
Rites of Springs, directed by Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield
Evolution into the prehistoric age is show to us from the birth of the universe, the first cell in the sea transforming into life on the surface with Igor Stavinsky’s piece. When I was younger, I was not the biggest fan of this segment at all, but I’ve sense warmed up to it for being able to take a harsh look at the world of back then. It’s gritty, dark and pulls no punches on showing the harsh reality of that time period.
Following this is an intermission that goes on for a tad. If one wants to, just pause at this part for ten minutes to have the true intermission experience. The band returns after and the soundtrack of the film is shown via a line. As the band plays, the line starts to swirls and swivels. Think of it as a Richter scale on the screen harnessed by music.
The Pastoral Symphony, directed by Ford Beebe, Jr., Jim Handley and Hamilton Luske
With Beethoven’s work as its backdrop, this dives into the Greek myths even better than Hercules at times. It allows itself to be free and closer to a giant gathering of centaurs, Pegasus horses and other beings at the time to celebrate the god of wine until Zeus decides to interrupt it. For me, it always felt like one of the weaker segment and seems to still be one of the weakest segments out of the film despite the beautiful animation.
Dance of the Hours, directed by Norman Ferguson and T. Hee
This is just a cartoon on steroids with a collection of dancing ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators running amok. It’s fast-paced mayhem that even the composer Amilcare Pochelli could not fathom if he saw it. This where the Silly Symphonies slightly make their way back into the works of Disney, even if it for a small instance. It is vibrant and loud adding to the chaos that is unfolding.
Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria, directed by Wilfred Jackson
In this thrilling final segment, the battle of good and evil is shown with Mussorgky and Schubert’s colliding pieces. Chernabog (aka the Devil himself) reigning over the quiet village at night harnessing the ghosts and demons from hell for a party until the dawn comes in to stop the darkness. As the dawn comes, church goers walk through the village to the church in the woods to bring calm via “Ave Maria.” It is a fascinating contrast between both of the pieces and the animation. It goes from the macabre yet vibrancy of satanic imagery that is stunning to the somber blue and white hues of peace returning to the earth.
The film ends. No credits or bombast, just go home and enjoy the rest of the night.
Fantasia is the pinnacle of Disney excellence and the greatest film they have done that can stand next to the likes of the greatest films of all time. It broke barriers the other films had set. It takes a strong risk without any dialogue in its cartoons letting the animation and music do the talking. It is the measuring stick for every film in animation released after it and before. It also encompasses something that Disney has done since the beginning.
It shows off the imagination of the mind, the creativity of dreams and the wonders of the world, be it on paper or drawn. It draws us to the various worlds they create from the jungles of India, the streets of London, the modern metropolis filled with zoo animals or above the world that shines, shimmers and is splendid. It reminds us about why we love this animation and why we love Disney. It allows us to escape the world and invest our time into a world that is not ours. Disney is one of the mainstays that anyone can relate, drift to and come back to see what is new. It’s a home for all of us all and has been there since the beginning of our lives. Fantasia is a great reminder of why this animation studio has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.
And we all lived happily ever after.
Critic’s Quote: “Mr. Disney said himself the other night that there are many problems he has yet to lick, that “Fantasia” is a frank experiment. Perhaps so, but it is also the most original and provocative film in some time. If you don’t mind having your imagination stimulated by the stuff of Mr. Disney’s fanciful dreams, go to see it. It’s a transcendent blessing these days.” – Bosley Crowther, New York Times, November 14, 1940
Signature Moment: The Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segment make the film complete with a powerful end.