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Disney’s Fantasia Turns 70

| November 13, 2010 | 0 Comments

On November 13, 1940, Walt Disney Productions premiered Fantasia at the Broadway Theatre in New York and introduced a whole new generation to classical music by pairing it with our favorite cartoon characters and filling our heads with visions of dancing hippos and yo-yoing flamingos.  At that time is was a two-hour and 20 minute “road show” presented in the multi-track “Fantasound” that required the largest outlay of sound equipment that has been used commercially in a theater to date. In the process it left Disney in financial straits before it was picked up by RKO in 1941 for re-release as a drastically cut 81 minutes.

The third feature-length animated film produced by Disney, Fantasia features eight animated segments set to classical music selections. The only dialogue is the introductions to each segment by composer and music critic Deems Taylor.

For its 70th anniversary today, I thought it would be fun to relive a little of the joy Fantasia has provided us over all these years.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

The first third of the Toccata and Fugue is in live-action, and features an orchestra playing the piece, illuminated by abstract light patterns set in time to the music and backed by stylized (and superimposed) shadows. The first few parts of the piece are played in each of the three sound channels (first the right, then the left, then the middle, then all of them) as a demonstration of Fantasound. The number segues into an abstract animation piece—a first for the Disney studio—set in time to the music. Toccata and Fugue was inspired primarily by the work of German abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, who worked for a brief time on this segment. The animation segues back into the live-action footage of Stokowski as the piece concludes, setting the precedent for the rest of the musical numbers.

Although the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the music for the film (except The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), they do not appear onscreen; the orchestra used onscreen in the film is made up of local Los Angeles musicians and Disney studio employees like James Macdonald and Paul J. Smith, who mime to the prerecorded tracks by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Originally, the Philadelphia Orchestra was slated to be filmed in the introduction and interstitial segments, but union and budgetary considerations prevented it.

Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker Suite, a selection of pieces from Tchaikovsky’s now-classic ballet The Nutcracker, is a personified depiction of the changing of the seasons; first from summer to autumn, and then from autumn to winter. Unlike the original Tchaikovsky ballet, this version of The Nutcracker has no plot. It features a variety of dances, just as in the original, but danced by animated fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves; no actual nutcracker is ever seen in this version. Many elements are rendered carefully and painstakingly using techniques such as drybrush and airbrush.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, perhaps the best-known Mickey Mouse short after his debut in Steamboat Willie (1928), was adapted from Goethe’s poem “Der Zauberlehrling.” It is the story of wizard Yen Sid’s ambitious, but lazy, assistant who attempts to work some of the magical feats of his master before he knows how to properly control them. Mickey plays the role of the apprentice.

After the music ends, Mickey and conductor Leopold Stokowski, seen in silhouette, congratulate each other with a live-action/animation handshake. In the original roadshow version, after Mickey leaves, Deems Taylor and the musicians are seen applauding Mickey and Stokowski.

The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
Part 1: Genesis

Disney’s imaginitive re-interpretation of the music to The Rite of Spring features a condensed version of the history of the Earth from the formation of the planet, to the first living creatures, to the age, reign, and extinction of the dinosaurs.

The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven

Part 1:

The Pastoral Symphony utilized delicate color styling to depict a mythical ancient Greek world of centaurs, pegasi, the gods of Mount Olympus, fauns, cupids, and other legendary creatures and characters of classical mythology. It tells the story of the mythological creatures gathering for a festival to honor Bacchus, the god of wine riding his horned donkey, Jacchus, which is interrupted by Zeus, who decides to have a little fun by throwing lightning bolts at the attendees.

Disney originally intended to use Cydalise by Gabriel Pierné as the music for the mythological section of the program. However, due to problems fitting the story to the music, the decision was made to abandon Cydalise for other music.

Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli

The dancers of the morning are represented by Madame Upanova and her ostriches. The dancers of the daytime are represented by Hyacinth Hippo and her servants. (For this section the piece is expanded by a modified and reorchestrated repetition of the “morning” music.) The dancers of the evening are represented by Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe. The dancers of the night are represented by Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators. The finale sees the chaotic chase that ensues between all of the characters seen in the segment until they eventually decide to dance together. The segment ends with the palace collapsing in on itself.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert

This is the only animated segment in the film that blends two entirely separate musical compositions by two different composers. The Night on Bald Mountainsegment is a showcase for animator Bill Tytla, who gave the demon Chernabog a power and intensity rarely seen in Disney films. The nocturnal Chernabog summons from their graves empowered restless souls, until driven away by the sound of a church bell. Noted actor Béla Lugosi served as a live action model for Chernabog, and spent several days at the Disney studio, where he was filmed doing evil, demon-like poses for Tytla and his unit to use as a reference. Tytla later deemed this reference material unsuitable and had studio colleague Wilfred Jackson perform in front of the cameras for the reference footage.

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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