Animation Past, Present, and Future: The Scope of Fantasia

| Daniel McCabe |

Mickey Mouse beckons to a cartoon broomstick carrying two water pails

Mickey Mouse animates a broomstick in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Fantasia plays at the Trylon Cinema in glorious 35mm from May 3rd through May 5th. Visit for tickets and more information. These screenings are presented in partnership with the Cult Film Collective.

Imagine, if you will, that the art of animation disappeared. You had to choose one film to reconstruct the entire art form, from the silliest children’s YouTube video to the most profound Studio Ghibli opus. You get to choose one film to base this reconstruction upon. While there might be other fine choices, Fantasia (1940) would be mine.

This isn’t to say that Fantasia is a perfect film. Indeed, there is no such thing. While Disney edited the film in the 1960s to remove some particularly troubling clips, it still bears a content warning when you queue it up on Disney Plus. Furthermore, even famed classical music announcer Deems Taylor, the movie’s narrator, found the bathing centaurs in the Beethoven section to be tasteless.1 That said, every section contains pieces that have influenced subsequent animated films.

With the exception of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, Fantasia does not have a traditional plot or story structure. I don’t necessarily think the concept of spoilers applies here. That said, if you want to view the film de novo without any preconceptions, here is your opportunity to close your browser.

The Abstract in Toccata and Fugue

Fantasia’s opening sequence begins with no animation at all, but soon images of the orchestral silhouettes fade into a glorious pageant of abstract images moving along with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Filmgoers in 1940 would have been as familiar with Bach’s most famous piece as we are today, but Disney’s artists would give them a first: a way to see the music rather than simply watch the orchestra play it. 

By abstract, I don’t just refer to something one would see on Adult Swim at 3 am, but the power of animation to convey a familiar concept differently than we are used to experiencing it. A child speaks in silly sounds instead of words in UPA’s Oscar-winning short Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950). A computer motherboard turns into a dangerous grid in Tron (1982). The Bach sequence heralds these subsequent works by turning sound into artwork.

Before the Dance: A Vision of the Nutcracker Suite

 When you watch Fantasia today, Deems Taylor’s introduction seems odd. “No one performs it much nowadays,” he says about what would later become the single most-performed ballet of all time. But before the Nutcracker Suite became a staple of the holiday season, Disney’s artists imagined it as something completely different.

When I hear Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, I don’t think of the toys or the Christmas trees. I think of spinning flowers, shy goldfish, and dancers made of ice. Well-known works become something new with different art applied. This is how animation turns Hamlet into The Lion King (1994) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) into Rintaro’s Metropolis (2001). 

Mickey Mouse stands above the ocean beckoning a wave towards him.

Mickey conducts the universe.

Conducting the Universe: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Animation can create new symbols for familiar ideas and new art from existing art, but what about story and character? Well, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice stars one of the best-known characters in all of animation, Mickey Mouse, in one of his best known stories.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice came first, inspiring the entire Fantasia project. The core of the sequence is not when Mickey’s young apprentice loses control of the brooms he animated with his boss’s hat, but when he falls asleep. In his dreams, he conducts the universe.

Walt Disney voiced Mickey Mouse through the 1950s, so one can view the scene as Disney “conducting” his symphony of artists. But Mickey also dreams of conducting without a baton, like Leopold Stokowsky. Mickey Mouse is the apprentice losing control of his boss’s magic, but he also embodies both of Fantasia’s conductors, creating his own. Later animated films with bold symbolism like Inside Out (2015) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988) can trace their origins to scenes such as this.

The Power of Nature and the Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky was still alive in 1940 and is said to have had mixed feelings about his groundbreaking ballet The Rite of Spring lending its sound to a vignette about fish and dinosaurs.2 He is said to have liked it at first, but went on to criticize it later in his life. With due respect to one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, I have to disagree.

Before the days of computer effects, live-action films were limited in their ability to use the effects of nature to tell their stories. Animation never had such restrictions, and The Rite of Spring section consists of only the power of the natural world. The thundering volcanoes, mysterious ocean creatures, and mighty dinosaurs foretell the forest fire in Bambi (1941), the English countryside in Watership Down (1978), the poisoned wasteland in Nausciaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), and of course, the primeval world of The Land Before Time (1988). 

The Pastoral Symphony and Mythology

The Pastoral Symphony sequence has its critics, and for good reason. But I want to focus on the beauty of the section. It uses familiar mythological imagery to create lasting images. 

Take the beginning, when the satyrs play their flutes and the unicorns gather in the meadow. The combination of music accompanying the gathering of mythological beings would be echoed later in the opening of The Little Mermaid (1989). The scene where Apollo drives his chariot across the sky brings to mind the climax of Spirited Away (2001).

We Can Have Fun, Too: The Dance of the Hours

Fantasia isn’t only about deep symbolism, stunning artwork, and unlocking the potential of animation. The Dance of the Hours is just plain enjoyable as ostriches (morning), elephants (midday), hippos (sunset), and crocodiles (night) frolic in a Venetian palace. Taking highbrow art and making it silly would be done again with great effect in the Looney Tunes classic What’s Opera Doc (1957), of course, but The Dance of the Hours honors Disney’s own Silly Symphony shorts as well. After all, Flowers and Trees (1932) is also a frolic. And of course, the most successful animated tale of anthropomorphic beings having a good time is Toy Story (1995).

A large monster with bat-wings stands on top of a mountain.

The demon Chernabog prepares to summon his followers.

Angels and Monsters: Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria

Deems Taylor introduces the last section of Fantasia as a contrast between the profane and the sacred. The monster Chernabog summons demons to his abode, where they dance to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Daylight sends Chernabog and his minions back to the depths as daybreak brings Schubert’s Ave Maria.

The way that these scenes have affected us over the decades showcases the potential of animation to provoke a deep, emotional response from audiences. Chernabog is horror personified, done in through beautiful catharsis. Decades later, audiences would be devastated by monsters like Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959), and they would cry tears of joy watching films such as Coco (2017).

Fantasia, of course, does not represent every subsequent animated film. You have to stretch to find comparable scenes for classics such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Wall-E (2008), and Ghost in the Shell (1995). Even so, it’s fun to look at Disney’s opus and pull out bits and pieces that reflect what animation would become. It can inspire how animation can transform itself and its audiences in the future.

1 Kothenshulte, Daniel. The Walt Disney Film Archives (Cologne: Taschen 2022), 144.

2 Kothenshulte, 140.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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