First Theatrical Release: November 13, 1940
First Home Viewing Release: November 1, 1991
My rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection (it’s the 2-disc edition and included Fantasia 2000, which I certainly couldn’t watch, as it would skip 50 years of animated history.)
Bechdel Test Score: Exempt. I’m going to abstain from rating this one as there is no dialog by which to judge the third prong of the Bechdel test.
My Childhood Experience
So, my first exposure to Fantasia was through this clip:
I remember sitting on the floor with my sisters as a child, watching again and again a VHS of the Disney Valentine special we’d taped off the TV. In the mid-80s, many Disney movies were still in “the vault” and being released every 7-10 years in theaters, so movies I had never had a chance to see always held an irresistible allure to me.
None moreso than Fantasia.
I was dying to know what Disney movie featured these beautiful centaurs. My sisters and I loved all things fantasy-horse related, with a room decorated with unicorn figurines, posters, and bed spreads. This elusive Disney movie seemed to be the one that was made just for us.
When Fantasia was re-released in 1990, I could barely contain my excitement. Watching the previews, I couldn’t puzzle out how a single storyline could include Mickey in a Wizard’s hat, the beloved centaurs, and dinosaurs. But I had faith that Disney could pull it off! I was 9 years old; my older sister was 13; my younger sister was 4. My parents — perhaps remembering their own experiences with Fantasia? — opted not to attend the movie with us. They dropped us off, then went to a different movie.
My mom loved Disney movies almost as much as I did, so perhaps this should have been my first clue.
I was perplexed to see the movie begin with an orchestra tuning. I kept thinking we were building up to something. That at some point there would be dialog. That these were just “shorts” and surely the real movie (with the centaurs!) was starting soon.
But those shorts ended up being … everything. And by the time I finally saw the centaurs near the end of the movie, I was bored out of my mind. My older sister and I were making wisecracks. My younger sister was squirming with impatience. Then the Night on Bald Mountain sequence began, and my younger sister got scared and cried through the whole thing, which embarrassed my older sister and me.
On the car ride home, my mom asked brightly, “How was the movie?”
In unison, my older sister and I proclaimed, “IT WAS SO BOOOOORING.”
I didn’t give Fantasia much thought until I was deep into my adolescent Disney craze, and corresponding with dozens of pen pals (pre-Internet) who were similarly devoted. So many of them seemed to enjoy Fantasia that I began to feel like a bit of a failure as a fan. So when I was 16, I decided to watch it again, sure that THIS time, I would appreciate it.
I WANTED to. This was a Disney masterpiece, after all. But by the second act, I was squirmy again, wandering into the kitchen for a snack, deciding I had put in sufficient time giving the movie a second chance.
I didn’t watch the movie again until last Sunday.
My Adult Perspective
I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting Fantasia for this project, but I am too much of a completist to skip over it. I looked at the run-time on the DVD case and groaned — it was over 2 hours, which is longer than any other Disney movie I could think of. I bemoaned to my husband, “This movie didn’t just FEEL long when we were kids. It IS long.”
But finally, I decided to at least get a start on it while I ate supper.
I finished my meal in the first segment. I kept watching.
Usually I get something else done while I watch these movies — fold laundry, put together my folder for the workweek, etc.
With Fantasia, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
This is a stunningly beautiful film, perhaps most of all in its more abstract segments — the very ones that seemed most pointless to me when I was a child. It is full of visual surprises, which is one of the reasons I couldn’t look away. And with no dialog to guide me through the story while my eyes wandered elsewhere, I knew that to do anything else would be to miss the experience.
Aside from the beautiful animation, I loved knowing how much of a labor of love this film was for Walt Disney, how he made it against the advice of his team, how he had faith that the public would appreciate his work of art. His team who cautioned him came out mostly right for its first run, with a public not being quite sure what to make of it, and earnings that fell short of expectations.
As I was watching it, I realized that this was an “arty” film that had come out of a mainstream studio — long before “arty” films were hip. While each Disney animated feature is a work of art, they have the mainstream appeal of silly sidekicks, beautiful girls, and catchy music, so that they can reach broadly across the population and pull in almost all types of people.
Fantasia is not that kind of movie.
It’s inspiring in its ambition and wavers between being sublime and awkward in its execution. After watching live reference footage for some of the other films, I noticed particularly when the centaurs or dinosaurs or other creatures for which there is no real-life model seemed to lose their artistic footing. I found myself charmed by Composer Deems Taylor’s self-conscious explanations of each segment; I felt a sort of sympathetic tenderness for this man who clearly seems as if he’d be more comfortable on a piano bench than in front of a camera. Still, his presence implies to me Walt Disney’s philosophy behind this film — that the music would take center stage and so the master of ceremonies must know the music; expertise was more important than glamor, and that is a choice I respect.
Sex in Fantasia
As an adult, I couldn’t help but notice the sexual overtones in several of the pieces, particularly the Pastoral Symphony and the Dance of the Hours. Where I had once found the “centaurettes” (yes, that’s what they’re really called in the film) so enchanting, as an adult I found myself disgusted at the blatant sexism in this sequence. We have to watch all of them primp excessively in preparation for the arrival of the centaurs, whose appearance on the scene is reminiscent of a cocky football team parading onto the field. They all pick an appropriately matching “centaurette” and the whole thing is essentially one big mating dance. Later in the sequence, such as when they are rushing for cover against Zeus’s storm, we see interactions that look a little more like love and a little less like posturing. Still, before that point, I felt the sort of disgust I often feel when couples are excessively showy on the city bus or waiting in line at McDonald’s.
And lest the sexism alone was not enough to put me off, there’s always the racially offensive cut footage from the sequence:
I find it a little sad that, out of the 53 animated films Disney has released, this is the best they have to offer in terms of the kind of movie I yearned for as a child — one in which Disney’s top-notch animation was put into the service of unicorns and other fantasy creatures, one that would help me BELIEVE, in true Disney fashion, that such things could actually exist.
The Dance of the Hours directly follows The Pastoral Symphony, and I found this sequence far more disturbing than the darker Night on Bald Mountain that wraps up the film.
It doesn’t help that I really despise the musical backdrop for this one, as it gives me traumatic flashbacks to this sorry excuse for an episode of the Aladdin TV series.
Still, when the hippos first began to dance, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of feminist glow. After sitting through the lithe fairy waifs in the Nutcracker Suite, here we have Disney showing us that big is also beautiful. I loved the hippos’ sense of drama and beauty, especially the prima ballerina’s sense of entitlement to adoration. This was not a segment in which fat was used as a cheap source of laughs, or to imply stupidity or laziness or evil, but one in which it was flaunted without self-consciousness, and I loved it.
When the alligators entered the scene, though, my feelings became more complicated. Their capes suggested vampirism to the extent that, before they opened them, I thought they were bats. And I’m just gonna say it — the way that they encircled the sleeping hippo prima ballerina had me immediately thinking of gang rape. I was scared for her. My discomfort wasn’t totally assuaged as the dance continued — although we do get to glimpse of the hippo as desirable to the opposite sex, which is somewhat affirming, the predatory nature of the alligators never quite goes away. At one point the hippos are rushing around frantically while the alligators block their exit from the room. And rather than plow through these bullies or crush them under their weight, what do the hippos do? They eventually succumb to their captors’ charms.
It’s all played off as rather cute, which is what probably disturbs me most of all, as there is nothing cute about predatory men harassing women who were perfectly happy on their own, thank you very much.
Lest this review gets too heavy, I’ll go all middle-school on it and mention that no fewer than three of the eight segments (almost half) show bare-breasted women (the announcement of which always brought my husband running from the other room). Don’t worry, though — it’s not sexism. It’s art.
So, what about the kiddos?
I think this is a wonderful film for kids. I love the idea of children being introduced to classical music, as well as Greek mythology and the Jurassic period, through this movie. I also like the way it can show them how a piece of music can tell a story, and that not all of us will imagine the same thing when listening to music. But will kids actually sit through it? Um, see above.
For further reading
A post by a guy who did a similar Disney project, and knows a lot more about Fantasia than I do.