When it is late at night, especially on a Thursday or a Sunday, and I am grading, I like to find something that I can put on in the background. I am not paying complete attention to it because my work is my priority. What I want is something to look up at when my eyes need a break from looking at my student’s work. Enter Fantasia (1940). It is perfect in this regard. I subscribe to the theory that classical music helps the brain. I do not listen to it often enough, and I find that when I do, my productivity increases. I happen to currently be on a trip-hop kick while I write, but I will likely soon get back to classical. At the same time, when it is well into the deep of night, I need something to distract me once in a while. Looking up and seeing nothing is not useful for me, at least not while I am working. Without something on the screen in front of me, my mind will wander off into the woods of my imagination, and who knows when it will return? Seeing something going on allows me to look up, reset, take a deep breath, and get back to it. I can think of few better films for doing this activity. And yes, it is a film. If the American Film Institute (AFI) lists it as number fifty-eight in its 100 greatest films of all time, then I can discuss it on my blog.
For a long time I have debated whether or not I was going to review Fantasia for The Legionnaire. After all, it is not a traditional film, with a main character and a plot. Instead, it is a collection of short cartoon pieces done by Disney studios, the art for which being done by their animators. The animations are meant to directly speak to the collected classical music pieces. To discuss the short stories behind each one would be tedious. Instead, I will list the pieces in order of appearance, and if you are familiar with them, so much the better: Toccata in Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach; selections from “The Nutcrack Suite” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” by Paul Dukas; “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky; “The Pastoral Symphony” by Ludwig van Beethoven; “Dance of the Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli; and “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky, which ends with “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert. In between these shorts, there are innovative interactions with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra playing the music, including Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney) seemingly sharing the stage with conductor Leopold Stokowski. What people remember most from these bits is the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which is based on a poem by German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In it, the pride of Walt Disney Productions, Mickey Mouse, portrays the title character. If you dig further into Disney lore, you will find that the magician Mickey is serving is named Yensid. Spell that backwards, and you will further understand what the Mouse did with the source material. In it, the humble Mickey is left unsupervised by Yensid to continue doing his chores of carrying water. Seeing an opportunity to use some of the magic practiced by his boss to cut corners, Mickey dons the be-starred wizard hat, points at his broom, and gets it to carry the heavy buckets for him. He then dozes off and dreams of conjuring other forces of nature, even commanding the waves around him on a seaside cliff. Wait, that is not sea water coming up, it is the water from the broom that had continued filling the well while Mickey slept. Things go from bad to worse when his desperate attempt to put a stop to the spell with an axe instead results in the shattered pieces becoming an army of anthropomorphic brooms and carrying on with their original command. Soon, Mickey is floating on a spell book frantically trying to find the correct incantation to end the madness, all as the music begins to reach a crescendo. This is when Yensid reappears, and with a gesture of his arms, banishes the lake filling his quarters. He then angrily takes back his hat, and shoves Mickey out the door with a smack of the broom.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, people remember Fantasia because Mickey Mouse is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. When it came out, Mickey was the face of Disney. I am not sure that is true today, although I am sure there are Disney purists out there that will disagree with me with no small amount of rage. I like this portion of the film because the music is good. Mickey does not do a lot for me. If the classic Disney characters had been in every short, I think it would not have been as good. Doing it the way they did, it gave their animators freedom to branch out a little more from their usual mode of drawing their familiar characters. Walt Disney, no matter what you think about him, had an eye for art. This film is a testament to that fact, and that he did not need to focus on a mouse to demonstrate his ability. As such, I appreciate all of it, other than just “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and the music selections are great, too.
If you noticed a couple paragraphs ago when I listed the pieces in Fantasia that Schubert’s “Ave Maria” closes the film, then you will not be surprised by the next paragraph. It provides a fresh contrast to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” In this part, the demon Chernabog summons evil spirits from a graveyard in a village at the bottom of the title mountain. What halts their macabre revelry is the sound of the Angelus bell from the church below. This is particularly interesting from a Catholic perspective. The Angelus is a Marian prayer that is done at 6:00 am, noon, and 6:00 pm, and it is said more in religious communities than by lay people, though I do make it a point to pause at noon to lift it up. If I do not have access to the words, I say a “Hail Mary.” Ironically enough, this is what “Ave Marie” literally means. The film does not include the words, which is slightly disappointing. If it did, you would hear the Latin version of a prayer that every good Catholic has practically written on their hearts. Nonetheless, the music is beautiful, and the animation features a candlelight procession of people heading into a church. There are few better ways of dispelling the darkness and demons than signing out your praises to God and going to church. And Mary is a great way of pointing the way to God.
If you watch Fantasia on Disney+, you will notice that at the beginning there is a disclaimer about some of the material in the movie. I think this pertains mostly to one of the movements in “The Nutcracker Suite,” and how it presents a stereotypical representation of Asian figures. Apparently there were worse aspects that have been cut out of the original. It is important to be aware of such moments, but overwhelmingly this is something that can be seen by any audience, even those not seeking a momentary respite from their evening’s labors.