When Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck gave way to Bach and Beethoven, the results were as far out as Pluto.
Fantasia, the newest Walt Disney production, is a promising monstrosity and an experiment containing many lessons. There is enough in it to make up for the shocks one suffers. And to be shocked in these times of blood and tears by the handling of a problem of art is in itself an experience of temporary relief.
The essentially new and essentially problematic in Fantasia is the use of great music as accompaniment for Walt Disney cartoons. To be sure we are told that it is the other way around, and no doubt the intent was the opposite one, but the effects achieved are nevertheless Walt Disney plus Bach or Beethoven. And the audience applauded exactly where it would have applauded if the score had been composed by a Hollywood musician. Specific pictorial innovations of characteristic Walt Disney charm delighted most. Yet to have the Pastoral Symphony interrupted by applause for sugar-sweet centaurettes is painful.
The program tells us that Walt Disney and his staff, “faced with the tremendous problem of translating the music of Fantasia [Bath, Beethoven, Dukas, Stravinsky, Ponchielli, Moussorgsky, Schubert] into pictures, simply listened and tried to capture the moods, movements, situations, colors, and characters which the music painted on the canvas of their imaginations.” The result is, the program continues, “that kind of entertainment which has been described as ‘seeing music and hearing pictures.'”
I belong to those who had no need of that kind of entertainment, being content with seeing pictures and hearing music. And I was never particularly concerned whether I had to hear, see (read), or smell in order to have a great experience. In Fantasia the paintings on the canvas of Walt Disney’s and his staff’s imagination did not help but most of the time disturbed my appreciation of the music they tried to make me “see.” One of two reasons, or both of them, may be chiefly responsible: either these imaginations did not live up to Bach and Beethoven and Schubert, or the whole idea of adding pictures to music composed to be appreciated best with the eyes closed is fundamentally wrong. I am sure of the first reason, not so sure of the second. There is a short moment in ‘Fantasia” when picture and music fit admirably together, and the experience is heightened by the combination; this is the moment in “Night on Bald Mountain” when the Black God reaches down into the village (art direction by Key Nielsen). But generally the discrepancy between pictures and music is deplorable, especially between the Pastoral and the sweet Olympus of the scene, or between the “Rite of Spring” and its popular-science illustrations, or between the Ave Maria and the Kisch landscapes. And no wonder! There just does not exist – not even in Hollywood and not even in Walt Disney’s admirable company – a staff of geniuses. One would need a Michelangelo or a Breughel to “picture” the music of Beethoven.
Where the music itself deals with a more or less conventional story, like Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (Goethe’s Zauberlehrlzng), there is of course no problem, and one can enjoy Disney at his known best. Mickey Mouse as apprentice is a natural, and more delightful than ever. The same holds for the picturing of such ballet music as Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” Disney uses this score for an unforgettable parody, his dancers being elephants, rhinoceroses, and ostriches. Profoundly sound, too, is the visualization of the “Nutcracker Suite,” music also written around a story. It does not matter that Disney’s fantasy is different from that of the original Nutcracker tale. In certain details he achieves here the best effects he has ever achieved. The mushroom dancers will be loved all over the world – may the whole world soon be able to see them!
In technical respects the picture is of unsurpassed quality. New methods and tricks of all kinds had to be invented to produce the hundreds of new effects never seen before. In the color photography, in the lighting – everywhere one notices great progress.
‘Fantasia,” in spite of shortcomings partly due to the exploring character of the whole, partly to fundamental errors, is a work of promise. One day, one feels, Walt Disney and his people may produce a film which will truly combine all the different branches of art.
Leopold Stokowski, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Deems Taylor, functioning also as the film’s commentator, are responsible for the musical aspects of the picture, with which Mr. Haggin will concern himself. I leave to him also discussion of the new technique, “Fantasound,” especially designed for the recording and reproduction of Fantasia.