Music and Moving Paint: Disney’s Fantasia

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has very fond memories of the original Fantasia. Over at, Mari Ness has posted one of her nostalgia-inducing posts, this one (as you might imagine) about Fantasia.

Perhaps more than any other film discussed in this Read-Watch/Watch-Watch, Fantasia was a labor of pure love, a lavishly animated work of over one thousand artists, technicians and musicians. In making it, Walt Disney was determined to prove that animation could be more than just silly cartoons: it could also be high art. High art that included, not always successfully, dinosaurs, centaurs, elephant ballerinas, and terrifying demons. The result was a strange yet almost always beautiful film, arguably the studio’s greatest accomplishment, and certainly its greatest technical accomplishment until the advent of the CAPS system and computer animation in the 1990s.

I’m not into the technology of special effects enough to just automatically remember how primitive the equipment was when animators were making Fantasia, as opposed to when they’re making movies today. Given what people had to work with in 1940, isn’t it fair to say that Fantasia is still Disney’s greatest technical accomplishment?

It turns out that Fantasia received some mixed reviews . . . from music critics:

If Stokowski lost control over the final music selection, he still retained responsibility for the final orchestration and scoring. He also directed the Philadelphia Orchestra in performance … His interpretations failed to win universal approval, with music critics particularly decrying the butchered versions of The Nutcracker Suite and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. A few critics also complained about the decision to have Schubert’s Ave Maria sung in English instead of Latin or German. Others were distressed by the decision—made by Stokowski, not Disney—to use an orchestral version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, originally scored, according to most scholars, for organ. The idea was not entirely new: Stokowski, who apparently had some doubts about that scoring, had created and recorded an orchestral version years before.

Well, gosh, sorry about that butchered version of The Nutcracker Suite. I, as a mere child at the time, loved the Nutcracker as presented in Fantasia. Also the Ave Maria. Since I would hardly have gone out of my way to listen to any kind of classical music when I was a tot, I wonder if the music critics might have done better to cut Stokowski a break.

However, I do find myself remembering the parts of Fantasia I particularly loved — the fairies spreading frost across the world, the dancing fish with the trailing fins, the pegasi and centaurs (I admit the little cupids struck me as twee even when I was much younger), Night on Bald Mountain followed by Ave Maria — and simply forgetting about the sections I didn’t much care for — the dinosaurs marching off on their uber-depressing death march (and that was before I knew how incorrect the dinosaurs were), the silly hippo-and-ostrich thing, and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which (sorry) I always disliked.

Anyway, as always, Mari Ness does a great job making me look back on a childhood favorite with a new and broader view. Click through if you want to read the whole thing.

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1 thought on “Music and Moving Paint: Disney’s Fantasia”

  1. I saw it as a more or less adult, and parts were boring, parts were interesting. It didn’t start growing on me until someone gave the DVD set of both when the Teen was much younger & the DVD brand new. I’m rather fond of the Dance of the Hours, now – there are so many references in how it’s done that I totally missed before seeing other old films, and the hippo is so pleased with herself. Love BALD MOUNTAIN and AVE MARIA, the juxtaposition is great. Parts of the rest like the Arabian fish and the dancing mushrooms, and the pegasi. Some of the new one is darn good, too. Some less so, but in an anthology type composition, that’s to be expected.

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