Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (film)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Released: 1940

Rated: G

Length: 120 – 124 min. (varies depending on what version you have)

Age: some parts 3+, others 5+ (see below)  Commonsense Media sez: 6 +

Scary Factor: Mickey attacks renegade broom with an axe and savagely chops it to bits; battle to the death between two dinosaurs; a gigantic devil rises over a mountain commanding a host of demons, the dead rise from their graves

Also: some modest (dare I say artful) nudity among fairies and mythological creatures; much wine drunk by very tipsy god Bacchus

Interests: classical music, fairies, mythology, dinosaurs, ballet

Next: the movie Fantasia 2000; live symphony concerts for children; Nutcracker ballet live or movie version

A series of unrelated animated shorts, each set to pieces of classical music.

Walt went highbrow here, or tried to. Unfortunately his attempts garnered more than a little criticism for being pompous and kitschy. The design of some segments does make me cringe right out of my chair (those cupids!). And he took many liberties with the original scores, which infuriated purists, particularly Igor Stravinsky, the only living composer at the time whose music appears in the film.*

And yet… the experiment is at times pretty intriguing. It’s fantastically ambitious, both artistically and technically. It feels like Walt went so far out on a limb with this film he couldn’t even see the tree anymore. The animation is stunningly beautiful in places, the effects extremely advanced for the era. The biggest problem is how uneven the whole thing is, as some sequences work beautifully and others feel outdated, clunky and embarrassing. Some sequences are wonderful for the very young, but others are much too scary. This may cause parents to stay away from the film as a whole, but I feel very strongly that – when split up into pieces – it’s a great film for introducing children to classical music. You can just let it play or use it as a springboard for discussion.  (ie. how does this piece make you feel? are the low notes scary? does fast music sound happy or sad? etc etc)

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

1. Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Johann Sebastian Bach – 9:35 – age 3 +
The first 3-1/2 minutes simply show the conductor and orchestra players in silhouette as they play the piece – a full orchestral version of the original organ piece, which may be familiar to you as the scary music the Phantom of the Opera is usually playing. A good time to explain what a conductor does as you watch a great one at work (Leopold Stokowski).

The next part consists of rather abstract visuals. I explained it to my daughter as being what artists drew to show how the music made them feel. Being non-narrative, it may be a challenge for some children to stick with it for 6 minutes and not lose interest. On the other hand, it may be hypnotic enough to draw them along…

2. The Nutcracker Suite, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky –  14:21 – age 3 +
Six short segments. This is one of the most successful sequences, and is brilliant for the very young, featuring some of the most well-known tunes in classical music. The Nutcracker Suite is also a very common pick as a first ballet to take children to see at Christmas time. Knowing a few of the tunes beforehand, via Fantasia, may help keep your child engaged throughout a live performance.


Nutcracker Suite

Nutcracker Suite

a) Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy – 2:35 : fairies in the woods at night sparkling up the place. This one is probably my favourite, magical and gorgeous, just like the music. A nighttime glade full of fairies and magical light effects. Even after 70 years this sequence still has a significant ‘wow factor’, and should enchant every fairy enthusiast.
b) Tea (Chinese Dance) – 1:10 : the very funny dance of the mushrooms.
c) Dance of the Mirlitons – 1:50: dance of the spinning flowers.
d) Coffee (Arabian Dance) – 3:10: an underwater ballet of languid, even sultry goldfish. While it irks me that they had to ‘Betty-Boop’ up the fish – complete with eye shadow, mascara and pouty lips – it’s still pretty lovely and atmospheric, with nice underwater effects.
e) Tepak (Russian Dance) – 1:13 : lively Russian thistle dance.
f) Waltz of the Flowers – 4:23 : the fairies are back, and the daylight makes it much easier to see that they are completely nude! But it’s all so beautiful and artful that it’s not too problematic. Blowing leaves and gossamer seeds, and then the little blue winter fairies creating frost and ice  – gorgeous! These are lithe and ethereal fairies in the old style, before the more curvaceous and earthy Tinker Bell came along in 1953.

Sorceror's Apprentice

Sorceror’s Apprentice

3. The Sorceror’s Apprentice, Paul Dukas – 9:19 – age 5 +
One of the most famous sequences, this is the only one which also appears in Fantasia 2000. Mickey Mouse is the apprentice, and takes liberties with the magic hat when the boss is away. He magics up the broom to haul buckets of water for him and then settles in for a nap, dreaming he is a great magician. When he wakes the room is flooded – the broom won’t stop hauling water. Things then turn violent, as Mickey goes after the errant broom with an axe and chops it to pieces. When the splinters rise from the dead, transforming into an army of bucket-carrying, automaton brooms, well that could be pretty intense for some viewers. (My daughter refuses to watch this sequence, she finds it too upsetting.) The room becomes a whirlpool and Mickey is very nearly drowned. Fortunately the Sorceror returns in the nick of time and quickly puts things right. Mickey’s punishment is slight – the wizard merely raises an eyebrow and gives him a thwack on the backside with the broom.

Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring

4. The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky – 22:33 – age 5 +
“The Story of Life on Earth” begins with a lonely little planet spinning through an empty sea of nothingness. Stars and planets give way to volcanic landscapes and the age of the dinosaurs. I like that this ‘challenging’ music is being attempted at all, and that it works in such a filmic way. The volcanoes are a little alarming, but there are no characters in the scene, so it’s not exactly threatening to anyone. This is followed by what appears to be courting amoebae, or the start of life on earth. On to increasingly complex sea creatures, then a jump forward to the age of the dinosaurs. Again, the passage of some 70 years since this was made shouldn’t diminish the fascination these scenes will hold for dino-loving kids. And thankfully the prehistoric beasts are not cutesified but rendered in a fairly ‘realistic’ manner. It’s rather a frightening landscape, but we are not ‘identifying’ with any one of them in particular – there’s no heroic main character or darling young one for us to empathize with – so even the stegosaurus vs. tyrannosaurus battle isn’t too upsetting. The ‘thunder lizard’ is pretty scary though, and the battle is quite violent. After that there’s a drought and the obviously starving dinosaurs stagger across an endless dessert. Some collapse along the way, others perish in tar pits. Not very cheery. All that’s left in the end are bones in a forbidding landscape. Then a dramatic earthquake, the waters rush in, the sun sets and the whole sequence ends.

It’s long, slow and unrelentingly bleak. Some kids may not stick with it all the way to the end.

5. Introduction to Mr. Soundtrack – 3:13 – age 3 +
As a bit of an intermission, the narrator introduces us to the soundtrack. It’s kind of funny, as the vertical line translates sounds into shapes. Sadly, it’s not a depiction of what a real soundtrack actually looks like, but it’s an interesting concept nonetheless, and nicely isolates the sounds of different instruments in the orchestra.

6. Pastoral Symphony, Ludwig van Beethoven – 22:00 – age 4 +
I would venture to say that this sequence is not suitable for anyone at any age… but that’s just my personal taste. It made me feel like Alex in A Clockwork Orange: “No! Not lovely lovely Ludwig van!” Children may be more forgiving, my daughter certainly is.


The opening with flying horses is all right, though too cutesy wutesy, with Pegasus soaring through rather gracious, storybook landscapes. Then it goes downhill rather quickly. An insufferable band of cherubs conspire to groom lovely centaur maidens before their beaux come calling. (Both males and females are bare breasted but weirdly have no nipples.) Then follows some rather icky teenage courting, preening and strutting, with very old-fashioned gender stereotypes at play. As Commonsense Media puts it, “The females bat their eyelashes and weaken in the presence of the strong, protective males.” Then the section ends with (I kid you not) a bare cherub bum forming a heart! Ew.

Next is a frathouse party with tipsy buffoon Bacchus drinking wine by the vatful. Drunken silliness and dancing. Then Zeus appears, taking some kind of malicious delight in breaking up the party with thunderbolts – could be slightly scary for some. It ends with our centaur boy and girlfriends waving to Apollo as he drives his chariot across the sky. Darkness falls, the stars come out, and those damn cherubs curl up for the night in their fluffy cloud-beds.

tumblr_lyv7mey69q1qazs5qo1_500 images

Pastoral Symphony

Pastoral Symphony

I am not enamoured of this sequence, to say the least. And I feel certain that Beethoven is spinning in his grave over it. It’s so dated and unrelentingly kitschy it’s unwatchable. The five-year-old girl review however is two thumbs up for being beautiful and cute and full of magical creatures.


Dance of the Hours

7. Dance of the Hours, Amilcare Ponchielli – 12:15 – age 3 +
A pretty funny sendup of the ballet, starring ostriches, elephants, crocodile cads, and some very seductive hippopotami. The ostriches dance at dawn, the hippos in the afternoon, the elephants blow bubbles at twilight, and crocodiles dash about in capes after dark. A crowd-pleaser for all ages – lively and appealing.


Night on Bald Mountain

Night on Bald Mountain

8. Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky / Ave Maria, Franz Schubert – 14:00  – age 5 +

And then, yikes! This segment features some intensely dramatic music, and an immense demon Chernabog rising out of the top of a mountain. He conjures up ghosts, demons, and skeletons, who rise from their graves and ascend the mountain. Devils and other voluptuous figures dance in the flames. Chernabog leers and tosses minions into the fire, or transforms them into grotesque beasts. After six minutes of cavorting however, the dawn comes and the demons retreat as church bells sound in the village below. Ave Maria plays over a solemn and peaceful ending as monks form a candle-lit procession to the church.

Age Level Recap: If you pick and choose which parts to watch, made easier through DVD scene selection, then certain sequences are certainly suitable for age 3 +.

age 3: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Nutcracker Suite, Introduction to Mr. Soundtrack, Dance of the Hours

age 4: Pastoral Symphony

age 5: Sorceror’s Apprentice, The Rite of Spring, Night on Bald Mountain

Notes about video and DVD versions¨: My review is based upon the VHS copy I have from 1991. The 2000 – 60th Anniversary edition has had the Deems Taylor narration entirely replaced by another actor’s voice – so if you want the old narration you’ll have to go to the 1991 VHS.

There were visual edits made to the Pastoral Symphony to remove a couple of racially insensitive characters – black centaurettes, one of them polishing the hooves of a white centaurette (source: Wikipedia). These cuts were made as early as 1969, so I don’t think you will find any VHS or DVD editions that include those images.

The film was a financial disaster in its first theatrical runs, but by its 1969 run it found a new popularity, boosted by a reputation as a great film to watch when stoned. Its 1991 video release was wildly successful, with over 9 million advance orders placed.

If you’d like to read more about the complicated history of the making and release of this film, the Wikipedia article on it is extremely comprehensive.

(60th anniversary DVD available on amazon.)

Photoportrait of , Russian composer.

Igor Stravinsky


* Stravinsky’s response to Fantasia: “In 1938 I received a request from the Disney office in America for permission to use Le Sacre in a cartoon film. The request was accompanied by a gentle warning that if permission were withheld the music would be used anyway… I saw the film with George Balanchine in a Hollywood studio at Christmas time 1939. I remember someone offering me a score and, when I said I had my own, the someone saying, ‘But it is all changed’. It was indeed. The instrumentation had been improved by such stunts as having the horns play their glissandi an octave higher in the Danse de la Terre. The order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated – though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable. I will say nothing about the visual complement as I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility; I will say and repeat, however, that the musical point of view of the film sponsored a dangerous misunderstanding.” (Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959, p. 145-146)


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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