We gave it an A
Outside of Caesar’s Palace and a few of Andy Warhol’s yummier silk screens, I can’t think of a more perfect fusion of beauty and vulgarity than Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Fifty years after its original 1940 release, this one-of-a-kind animated epic remains a spellbinder, an orgy of middlebrow American pop art. The movie may have been conceived as a patronizing attempt to bring classical music to the masses, but it was Walt Disney’s genius to recognize that general audiences would have no trouble ”appreciating” Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, and others. This was, after all, the music 99 percent of Hollywood composers stole from every time they whipped off a new sound track.
As it turned out, classical music was a natural for Disney; in Fantasia, it became the chewy center for his candy-colored cartoon graphics. And the animators, who were suddenly freed from the constraints of narrative, responded by inventing some of the wittiest, gaudiest, most deliriously baroque pop visions ever to parade across a movie screen. In the newly restored print that has been prepared for the film’s 50th anniversary rerelease, the colors are richer and more delicate than before. The restoration took two years and included a frame-by-frame hand polish of the original nitrate negative, with a razor blade used to scrape off particles of dirt.
The best episodes in Fantasia are indelible: the Nutcracker Suite sequence, with its pearly, twilight images of fairies flitting through the woods like supernatural fireflies; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which Mickey Mouse — his ear-to-ear grin radiating a hilariously cockeyed optimism — unleashes black-magic forces he can’t begin to control; the Rite of Spring evolution-of-the-earth sequence, which revives all the awe and wonder you ever felt about dinosaurs back in grade school; and the Night on Bald Mountain dream scape, a majestic vision of evil and dread that evokes more than a few German-expressionist paintings.
Fantasia was so expensive to produce that it didn’t actually turn a profit until the 1969 reissue — when, of course, it took on new life as a G-rated head film for the psychedelic generation. (The dancing mushrooms were often taken as a knowing in-joke.) The great thing about the movie is that it’s a head film that doesn’t require drugs. The Disney animators take care of heightening your senses; the film is really about the intoxicating pleasures of sound and color and movement.
It is also, in several cases, about the outer limits of bad taste. The clinker episode is undoubtedly the one set to Beethoven’s ”Pastoral.” The outlandish images of prancing beefcake centaurs and their blushing nymph girlfriends — they look like they all met at the Mount Olympus Health and Racquet Club — are too icky for words. And the much-beloved Dance of the Hours sequence, where hippos, elephants, and ostriches enact a gloriously galumphing two-ton ballet, goes on way too long. (By the end you want relief from all the comic relief.) Still, the film’s lapses are easy to forgive; in a funny way, they’re part of its guileless, all-American charm. Call it art, kitsch, the original trip movie, or a longhair version of MTV — Fantasia remains as magical an animated film as you’re ever likely to see. A