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Original ‘Fantasia’ remains timeless classic

Observer Scene | Monday, September 11, 2006

Few films can boast of featuring dancing mushrooms, mousy magicians, hippopotamus ballerinas and mythical monsters yet still be considered classic pieces of cinema. Walt Disney’s masterpiece film and iconic cinema experience “Fantasia,” which plays in the Browning Cinema this weekend as part of the PAC Classic 100, is one of these films.

This 1940 animated film is an anthology of eight animated segments set to classical music. It begins with Bach’s “Tocata and Fugue in D Minor,” which accompanies a scene where impressionistic depictions of musical instruments move in time with the music and blur into colors that eventually come together to form a sunset.

As the sunset completes, conductor Leopold Stokowski comes into focus and introduces himself as the host of the picture and conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the group set to perform each piece. Stokowski, conducts superbly here and adds the perfect combination of seriousness and playfulness to “Fantasia.”

Other memorable pieces of the film include Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” a beautifully animated segment where fairies and mushrooms dance in time with the suite. Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours is fondly remembered because of the ballet performed by hippos, elephants and crocodiles.

Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” is coupled with Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as a striking juxtaposition of good and evil to close the film. The mythical, Slavic creature, the Chernabog, makes an appearance as a representation of the devil, raising the souls of the dead from graves. He is vanquished by the sound of a church bell at the beginning of the “Ave Maria” when haloed people proceed to church.

While these scenes are memorable in their own right, the highlight of the film, and indeed one of the most unforgettable moments in all of cinema, occurs in Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Here, a playful Mickey Mouse dons the hat of a magician and tries to control broomsticks to do his work, but loses control in what has become an iconic scene in popular culture. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” combines wonderful music with seamless animation and has made the image of Mickey Mouse wearing a red robe and blue sorcerer’s hat known worldwide in the form of toys, television and theme parks.

Walt Disney saw “Fantasia” as an opportunity where he could experiment with unique and often ground-breaking animation techniques. His love for classical music prompted him to pursue what began as a pet project even though most people believed he was doomed to failure. The “Fantasia” project cost nearly $2 million, more than live action films of the day, and featured the first use of stereophonic sound, which has since become standard in film presentation.

Walt Disney originally intended to produce new versions of “Fantasia” every several years to include new pieces of music and animation. However, a lack of critical and commercial success in the film’s first several years of release made this a financial impossibility. The movie developed a strong cult following and was in a sense “rediscovered” in the 1970s and 1980s and heralded as a classic.

At the turn of the new millennium, “Fantasia 2000” was released as an attempt to carry on Walt’s dream of updating the “Fantasia” series. This new version, however, lacked the grandeur of the first and suffered because it missed the vision of Walt Disney’s creative genius.

In spite of the failing at a second go-around, the first “Fantasia” film will always remain as a testament to Disney’s brilliance and ability to create memorable, lasting moments in cinema.