Maestros and mice in Disney’s biggest gamble…

Fantasia review

The music – Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky – scores five out of five.

The animation – radical, imaginative – warrants top marks, too.

So how come Walt Disney’s groundbreaking combo of the two doesn’t quite match the sum of its parts?

Put simply, Fantasia is a contradiction. Disney’s topsy-turvy pitch proposed “seeing music and hearing pictures,” a calculated form/ content mismatch designed to fast-track artistic credibility by bolting cartoons onto classics.

Yet this apparently noble agenda only came about when Disney overspent on short ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ after hiring revered conductor Leopold Stokowski to handle the score.

Commercial logic, not artistic ambition, gave Disney the brainwave of supersizing the concert concept, but the end result didn’t go quite as planned: too educational for mainstream audiences, too vulgar for the elite.

Even today, the film gets caught between poles. Ironically, the most successful of the eight segments are the most predictable. ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’’s narrative verve thrives less on Mickey Mouse’s stunt casting than Goethe’s witty story or Dukas’ urgent music.

The climactic ‘Night On Bald Mountain’ delivers a chilling vision of Satantic rites that aptly counterpoints Mussorgsky’s score.

It’s where Disney freestyles ideas that the gap widens. Bach’s ‘Toccata And Fugue In D Minor’ is a fidgety lightshow. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ becomes florid kitsch, marred by prancing fauns. Ponchielli’s ‘Dance Of The Hours’, a ballet between hippos and alligators, borders on self-parody.

Sound investment

Yet even when the content falters, Disney is vindicated by the animation. Spectral chalk-drawn ghosts in ‘Bald Mountain’, trippy luminescence in ‘The Nutcracker Suite’, painstaking realism in ‘The Rites Of Spring’... The animation team left nothing to chance.

Live dancers were studied to replicate sinuous movement. Physical effects were double exposed with animation to create perspective and depth. Disney even toyed with using 3D.

Whether hit or miss on-screen, the central idea proved seismic, Disney collapsing the barriers between cinema and music, as it’s tonal variety made it a touchstone for music promo-makers.

Behind the scenes too, Disney’s Fantasound system pioneered multi-track sound, an innovation still palpable today as Stokowski’s orchestra bounds out of the speakers with immaculate crispness.

This edition focuses on the hows and whys of development; but perhaps the best ‘add-on’ (in the double pack) is Fantasia 2000, a sequel/reboot that throws the original’s singularity into sharper relief.

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