The groundbreaking feature-length animated film “Fantasia” celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and it will be screening at the Main Art Theatre two days this week.
The film consists of eight animated segments set to pieces of classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski, seven of which are performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Music critic and composer Deems Taylor acts as the film’s host, providing a live-action introduction to each animated segment.
First there is Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which starts off with live action shots of the orchestra, then transitions into abstract animation, with moving lines, shapes and cloud formations. The sequence was designed by German abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, who quit without credit because Disney altered his designs to be more representational.
Next we have Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”, which has absolutely no elements of the famous ballet within the piece. Instead there are scenes depicting the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn to winter. A variety of dances are presented with fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves, including “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, “Chinese Dance”, “Dance of the Flutes”, “Arabian Dance”, “Russian Dance” and “Waltz of the Flowers”.
Then we have the first piece that was planned for the film, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas. Originally it was supposed to be featured as a separate piece, but it had been quite expensive to make. Walt Disney had approached Leopold Stokowski to conduct the piece in 1937, which he happily agreed to do and talks for a concert feature film occurred a year later when inquiries were made to extend Stokowski’s contract. In the piece, Mickey Mouse is the apprentice of a great sorcerer. He attempts some of his master’s magic tricks but is unable to control them.
Following is the spectacular “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, which depicts science’s interpretation of the creation of the world, to the first living creatures, and to the era and ultimate extinction of dinosaurs. Afterwards is the intermission piece, which includes an impromptu jam session by several members of the orchestra, then Taylor introduces us to “the soundtrack”. The “character” appears as a straight white line, changes into different shapes and colors based on the sounds played.
The second half begins with the whimsical “Pastoral Symphony” by Beethoven. A Greco-Roman setting introduces us to colorful centaurs and “centaurettes, cherubs, fauns and other figures from classical mythology. A gathering for a festival to honor Dionysus, the god of wine, is interrupted by Zeus, who creates a powerful storm and directs Vulcan to forge lightning bolts for him to throw at everyone.
One of the most comical pieces follows in Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”. This ballet of the hours of the day starts in the morning with a corps de ballet of ostriches, Hyacinth Hippo and her attendants in the afternoon, bubble-blowing elephants in the evening, and Ben Ali Gator and his alligator minions at night.
The film concludes with the chilling “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. At midnight a demon awakes and summons evil spirits and restless souls from their graves to Bald Mountain. The spirits dance and fly through the air until driven back by the sound of an Angelus bell as night fades into dawn. It is immediately followed by a chorus singing Ave Maria as a line of robed monks is depicted walking with lighted torches through a forest and into the ruins of a cathedral.
Originally the film was released as a limited roadshow attraction and included “Fantasound”, a pioneering stereophonic surround sound system which innovated some processes widely used today, including simultaneous multi-track recording, overdubbing, and noise reduction. It was not a box office hit on its first release, but when it was re-released several times over the years (with some parts cut out), it eventually became a great success and became one of Disney’s best known films.
The 75th anniversary edition also includes a newly recorded behind-the-scenes look from the orchestra’s rehearsals, including a selection of pieces from the film. Also, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s current music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin will lead an exclusive, up-close-and-personal discussion about the history of Leopold Stokowski’s tenure with the orchestra.
Show times are Sunday, November 15 at 11 A.M., and Wednesday, November 18 at 7 P.M. Advanced tickets may be purchased here.