Disney’s “Fantasia” at 80, in Four Movements

David S. Heineman
17 min readMay 29, 2020

Deems Taylor introduces Walt Disney’s Fantasia by explaining that the film will offer “three kinds of music” — the kind that tells a story, the kind that paints a series of definite pictures, and a third kind that is considered “absolute music” or “music for its own sake.” In that spirit, I want to take my authorial cue for this essay from Fantasia’s treatment of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, perhaps the most abstract and impressionistic piece of the film (a segment about which the companion essay to this one, by Sam Scott, offers a great take).

So, instead of writing a more standard film critique, I want to discuss how, over time, the film has worked to, as Taylor put it, suggest things to my imagination. In Toccata and Fugue in D Minor those suggested things might be, Taylor tells us, “colors or geometric objects floating in space.” In this essay I want to show how, for me, Fantasia is a film that has continued to suggest things about how intersections of art and public culture can function to create new, sedimented meanings over time. Thus, this essay is very much a personal one, but it is also one that I hope resonates with others’ experiences with any film they’ve chosen to revisit over time.

Also, because Fantasia is, among other things, a wonderfully pretentious piece of self-indulgence from a studio that by its third feature film believed it could afford to take risks, I thought it would be appropriate to structure the remainder of this essay as a symphony, complete with four movements, and titled in Italian. (Yes, I realize that some of you will likely stop reading here.)

Allegro con Gioventù

Fantasia came into my life as it did for many people my age, on its 50th Anniversary VHS tape. I was about ten at the time, and was immediately drawn to the film by the presence of Mickey Mouse on the cover, his prominent placement in Disney’s advertising blitz around the film’s semicentennial, and a curiosity curated by many years of exposure to the clip from The Sorcerers’ Apprentice Disney used to introduce so much of their fare in the 1980s.

I have distinct impressions of my earliest viewings of the film. I remember thinking that thiswas an “Important Movie”. (The prestige/nostalgia-baiting marketing blitz that Disney has honed to perfection over time was super-effective even then). I remember thinking that all the live-action scenes of the orchestra members (who were, in fact, Disney employees) and of Leopold Stokowski in Toccata and Fugue in D Minor were sterling examples of how impressive and inventive Disney’s animators could be. (Part of this impression, in retrospect, was probably due to the washed-out details on our low-quality VCP VHS player and outdated 13” color TV.) But more than anything, when I think of my earliest viewings of Fantasia, I mostly remember the disappointment and the shock.

Contrary to what I had been led to believe, this was not a Mickey Mouse film at all. In fact, he was only in the film for about ten minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime, and those scenes weren’t exactly the kind that I had hoped for. Not only did Mickey not talk in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he wasn’t even a very funny or sympathetic character — he was, in fact, kind of an idiot. I also remember thinking that the segment took forever to begin and, despite it being a let-down, was nonetheless over too quickly. I had bought into the hype, I had expected to experience that patented Disney and Mickey magic, and, after having those hopes dashed, I was now expected to sit through more scenes with boring music and unfamiliar characters. I was crushed.

By the end of the film, my disappointment would morph into something else: shock. Even at ten, one of the things I understood about Disney as a company was that it produced family-friendly entertainment. My devout Christian parents were particular about their children’s entertainment choices but nonetheless regularly took me to see Disney films in theaters, regularly watched The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights on ABC, and a few years before my viewing of Fantasia, they took the family on a trip from the Amish countryside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the “play of illusions and phantasms” that is Disney World. None of this, however, could have prepared me for Night on Bald Mountain.

The animation during the Night on Bald Mountain sequence featured a fairly menacing representation of Satan, a cast of supporting demons, devil worship, a few moments of full-frontal nudity, erotic dancing, ethereal ghosts and spirits, and more than a few gleeful reactions to eternal death and damnation. I don’t recall that, prior to that point in my life, I had ever seen all of those things onscreen before (and certainly not at once). The segment was full of the kind of occultic imagery I’d seen in Jack Chick’s tracts and Crusaders comic books in my church library, was accompanied by the film’s most brassy, bombastic, and dissonant music (courtesy of a composer from our Cold War enemy, Russia!), and was entirely the antithesis of everything my ten-year-old brain had come to associate with Disney. I don’t know if I even registered the segment’s accompanying Ave Maria, or the idea that it offered a sort of retort to the darkness of Bald Mountain. I was dumbstruck, enthralled, exhilarated, and confused. I loved it.

I wouldn’t have thought about it this way when I first saw Fantasia, but the Bald Mountainsegment absolutely worked to introduce the idea that art can disrupt a worldview (e.g., “Disney is safe”), that it can be disorienting or unsettling (e.g., celebrating blasphemy), and that it can do these things best when it sneaks up on you. To this day, I enjoy art that unsettles, provokes uncomfortable introspection, confuses, challenges, or otherwise disorients. The idea that a Disney film (of all things) sparked that interest is, itself, wonderfully unmooring.

Adagietto con Ebbrezza

I would guess that Fantasia came into my life around the time I was ten not just because of Disney’s marketing blitz around the film’s 50th, but also because I was at an age when my parents and grandparents wanted me to develop an appreciation for classical music, which was an important part of their own lives. My mother was an award-winning multi-instrumentalist who taught music classes as a side gig and regularly performed at church and community functions. My father played guitar, wrote music, and would also play for others regularly (sometimes with my mother). My grandmother had once been an accomplished opera singer in the Philadelphia area and had even cut a record or two before her career was cut short by the demands of a growing family. I grew up listening to a lot of instrumental music — classical works, church service music, big band tunes, and the like — but I didn’t really “take” to this music in any way as a kid. Fantasia, despite its somewhat dramatic introduction into my life, did indeed work to help me reconsider the value of and the possibilities within the kinds of music my family had exposed me to for years. And while I never seriously worked at learning how to play an instrument, Fantasiawas the starting place for my own lifelong enjoyment of classical music. Walt Disney’s words, at least in my case, were prophetic: “This film is going to open this kind of music to a lot of people like myself who’ve walked out on this kind of stuff.”

By the time Fantasia celebrated its 60th anniversary, I was in my senior year at Syracuse University. By then, I had worn out my old VHS tape and left it at home, but I am certain I had an AVI rip of Night on Bald Mountain sitting on the Gateway computer in my dorm room when I arrived at school. I distinctly remember watching it with a roommate during one of the first times I ever tried smoking weed and being, like, totally blown away, man. I am sure I was an insufferable stereotype.

Fortunately, the surging popularity of the DVD format and the 60th anniversary of the film was an incentive for Disney to trot out both a sequel and even more prestige/nostalgia-oriented marketing for another rerelease of the original, and I would soon have all the high-quality Fantasia media that I might desire. I saw Fantasia 2000 on an IMAX screen its opening weekend, and as soon as possible, I preordered the Fantasia Legacy Collection DVD box set, which to this day contains one of the most exhaustive sets of extras I’ve seen for any Disney release.

Just as my initial viewing of Fantasia had sparked an interest in classical music and the possibilities of animation, acquiring the Fantasia Legacy Collection was an important step to further developing my interest in both the construction of film and the history of the industry as it shaped (and was shaped by) culture more broadly. A few years prior, I had begun hitting up video rental stores and libraries in the hopes of hunting down all the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies titles I hadn’t yet seen. At school, I took advantage of opportunities to catch campus viewings of classics like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Hughes’ Breakfast Club and promotional campus screenings for films like Aronofsky’s π and Natali’s Cube. The PlayStation 2’s built-in DVD player was a huge incentive for me to purchase the console upon its North American launch in October 2000, and by the end of that year, I quickly had more movies than games in my collection. I spent hours poring over the making-of featurettes on releases like Fight Club, Terminator 2, Citizen Kane, The Matrix, Lawrence of Arabia and, of course, the Fantasia Legacy Collection. I wasn’t in school to study film, but I nonetheless spent a lot of free time doing just that — and I found it an increasingly rewarding hobby.

By watching the Legacy Collection I first learned of the importance of Herman Schultehis’ notebook in documenting the work at Disney’s Process Labs during the making of the film. His sketches, photos, and notes pulled back the curtain on the techniques the lab used to create the special effects wizardry in Fantasia. Many of the extras on the set cover details of how animators employed redesigned multiplane cameras, extensive matting work, double exposure techniques, and improvised construction to create everything from steam coming out of a volcano to snowflakes spinning through the air. Likewise the collection introduced me to the work of Danish artist Kay Nieisen, whose work on Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria would define the segment’s look. I also garnered interesting historical and contextual tidbits from the box set — such as that the studio eventually axed extensive work on a Ride of the Valkyries segment because it would likely be received as “too Germanic” by an American audience that was entering into World War II. Most importantly, I discovered that learning about Disney’s organizational structure and creative process in its early years was in and of itself an interesting pursuit (the Legacy Collection encouraged me to seek out the similarly historically-minded Disney Treasures sets as well).

Because it took so many hours to go through the extras on that set, I likely watched Fantasia more at this time in my life than any time before or since. A decade before,Fantasiahad expanded my horizons and challenged my expectations about the power of film and music. Similarly, the film’s DVD rerelease, timed perfectly as I was moving my way through college and developing an academic interest in film, meaningfully contributed to the development of what would soon become some of my professional interests and skills.

Scherzo Sublime

By the time the film’s 70th anniversary rolled around in 2010, I was a recently minted Ph.D. who was still very new to my tenure-track appointment teaching undergraduate courses in rhetorical criticism, media studies, and political communication in a Communication Studies department at a mid-sized state university in Pennsylvania. Aside from the occasional screening, I had not spent much time with Fantasia through my time in graduate school — I was focused on other films and media in my scholarly work. However, for the film’s 70th, Disney again rereleased the film, this time on Blu-Ray as a “Diamond Edition.” I picked it up, eager to experience the film in higher quality and on a much better audio/video setup than I had managed to cobble together in my dorm room.

While the restoration work itself was a revelation — the film looks amazing in 1080p and the DTS-HD audio sounds fantastic with a set of good speakers — a decade of reading and writing critical theory made this viewing of Fantasia very different from any of my prior experiences. On this viewing, I noticed things everywhere in the film that could make for compelling research topics, think pieces, article treatments, etc. I remember thinking, for example, that it would be fascinating to write about the relationship between Walt Disney’s own worldview and the inclusion of elements of the film that were either controversial at its release or have been considered so in the time since. For example, I wondered about rumors of Walt’s anti-Semitism and the film’s investment in reifying the Western canon of classical music during a national depression and at the outbreak of the Second World War. Similarly, I remember thinking that it would be worth researching the film’s approach to animated surrealism, especially in light of the Blu-Ray’s inclusion of the Dali/Disney collaboration Destino. The enhanced image quality made me reconsider the framing function of the introductory and transitional segments’ use of shadow, color, light, and deep, resonant, authoritative narration. I was also attentive, for probably the first time, to the film’s representations of femininity, masculinity, heteronormativity, gender identity, race, body shape and size, and other aspects of identity, especially in segments like The Pastoral Symphony and Dance of the Hours. I was better able to understand how these visuals were articulated to larger matrices of aesthetics, ideology, visual culture, situated and sedimented meaning, etc. I never screened the film for my students in the “Persuasion in American Cinema” course I taught over the first few summer sessions of my career, but these kinds of questions would have made for a compelling and lively discussion.

Along these lines, one segment in particular stands out for me from this viewing, and it is one that I had previously thought of as a kind of afterthought: the film’s Ave Maria finale. I had long considered Ave Maria the slow, ethereal (and boring) back half of the devilish cacophony found in the much more titillating Night on Bald Mountain. I had certainly fallen asleep during the Ave Maria segment more than once over the many years of watching the film, and I don’t believe the AVI file I had kicking around on my computer a decade before even attached this piece of music to the rest of the Night on Bald Mountain clip. By contrast, when I watched the Ave Maria segment in 2010, I was for the first time watching it after having been made familiar with theoretical conceptions of how “the sublime” functions ideologically through its aesthetic expression. For example, Edmund Burke’s influential writing in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautifulsuggests that our human experience with the sublime aesthetic, which emerges most often when we make physical connections to nature and its immense scale, creates a sense of astonishment — “astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” Being on top of a mountain might invoke this feeling, as does entering a grand cathedral — one literally feels sublimated by the grandeur of the space, especially if it is accompanied by other markers of symbolic significance (e.g., an approaching storm, religious iconography). Fantasia’s Ave Maria, especially in its immediate juxtaposition with Night on Bald Mountain, is a kind of exemplar for how to craft this type of sublime experience in animated cinema.

There is a deliberateness to the Ave Maria segment that feels distinct from much of the rest of Fantasia: the camera pans very slowly away from the vaguely Seussian town towards the banks of the dark river and forested hills that border it, taking the viewer farther and further away from Satan and towards the grandeur of nature and the eternal light of the sun. To make this composition work, the animators use a number of clever tricks: the reflections in the water, the subtle movement of the twinkling lights, and the slowly pulsing pastel colors all work together to obscure any identifying details amongst the scene’s candle-holding figures, who are shrouded in strategically placed shadows that invite the audience to identify broadly with the individuals in the procession. There is a particular moment in this segment (right around the 2:01:50 mark) when we first hear Julietta Novis’ voice that is especially affecting in this way — the animators use the kinds of abstract colors and floating geometric objects that introduced the film in Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (blue and purple lighted streaks, a thin, triangular beam of light cutting up the middle of the screen, etc.) to transition the viewer from a distanced identification with the line of figures to a perspective that invites them to directly experience the journey as one of them, moving as they do through the dark corridor, towards the light, over a threshold, and into the heavenly splendor of nature. Today, this may be my favorite moment in the film.

Finale Allegro

My view of Disney has evolved a lot in the last decade, and I am much more interested in the company’s growing stake in our collective sense of national identity and morality than I am in any specific symbolic nuances or narrative beats that might be found within any particular Disney film. At this point, I have read scores of college students’ essays about Disney princesses, watched more than a few Disney movies with my own children, and generally don’t have a lot of interest in viewing, teaching about, or writing about Disney’s canonical films. Today, I would rather spend time assessing the construction and circulation of popular visual commentary about Disney (Banksy’s Napalm, Kenneth Anger’s Mouse Heaven, etc.) than I would be in analyzing Disney’s own creative output. Nonetheless, I watched Fantasia again in preparation for this essay. Mostly, it made me remember the evolution of my own impressions of the film over time, impressions which have served as an inspiration for the structuring of this essay.

Additionally, screening and writing about the film during a global pandemic has prompted two disparate observations that seem worth closing with. Each of them speak to the larger idea that the film continues to offer insight about the intersection of art and public culture these many decades after its release.

I was struck, perhaps for the first time, by Deems Taylor’s repetition of and vocal emphasis on the word “science” in his introduction to the Rite of Spring segment, wherein he mentions that the animators highlight “what science thinks went on” during events millions of years ago. Taylor’s emphasis is clearly meant to assuage the concerns of (especially) American audience members who might have otherwise been upset about the implicit religious commentary offered by the film’s Darwinian take on the natural world (after all, Fantasia’sdevelopment started only about a decade after the conclusion of the Scopes Monkey trial). Listening to Taylor’s introduction during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when many Americans (including the President) are willfully and brashly ignoring scientific knowledge and guidance at the heavy cost of many thousands of lives was immensely disheartening. The same virulent streak of anti-intellectualism broadly (and anti-scientism specifically) that was present in the early part of twentieth-century American life is still, despite decades of scientifically based advancement, innovation, and general improvement of human health and well-being, alive and well in early twenty-first century America. Disney would likely still face some type of backlash from contemporary religious groups and political ideologues for presenting Darwinian ideas, even if they are far less taboo than they were in 1940. (I did find some solace in this essay by Charles Pence, which argues convincingly that Rite of Spring was, in fact, an important moment in educating a public that had been unable to encounter Darwinian ideas about biology in school.) In hindsight, perhaps the Rite of Spring segment has, in the long run, functioned as a more disruptive and unsettling segment than Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria could hope to achieve, even with all its religious grandiosity and overtones of the sublime.

The other thought that occurred to me as I rewatched Fantasia is a bit more meta and concerns writing about one’s own media history. To the extent that this essay might be connected to any future professional scholarly work, this would be the likely jumping-off point.

As an undergraduate, I took an introductory writing course that encouraged us to create a “literacy snapshot” by considering what, why, and how we had read in our time before college. I haven’t thought about that assignment much in the many years since, but last year — as I started compiling lists of favorite media to mark my arrival at 40 — I was reminded of the point of that assignment (even if it eluded me at the time): our identities and worldview are, in significant and lasting ways, shaped by our experiences with media. Kenneth Burke, a mid-twentieth century rhetorician whose work helped establish the current version of my field, talked about how our encounters with drama (whether in the form of a play, a poem, a friend’s story about their evening, a film, etc.) function as “equipment for living” as we move through life: we accrue notions about proper and improper responses to varied phenomena and situations that we have not yet encountered in our own lives through our exposure to and analyses of similar scenarios in the dramas we engage with. Similarly, a basic conceit of public memory theory (a related academic interest of mine) is that when we reconstruct the past for public audiences (i.e., erecting a memorial or monument, delivering a commemorative speech, penning a reflective essay, etc.), we do so primarily to illustrate the ways in which that past still relates to the present. Both of these ideas are operative in understanding why I have chosen to write about Fantasia as I have.

During the pandemic, I have been using media to document my experiences. I have been keeping a journal of what has been happening in the world as it relates to my own local and personal experiences, and I have chronicled my shifting reactions to alternately tragic and confounding headlines. A couple of weeks ago, I bought a GoPro-style camera and started taping walks in the woods with my family. I have recorded and shared a bunch of improvisational synth/noise music and accompanied it with altered photos that, when combined with the journal, are meant to collectively function as a kind of illustration of what has been going through my head as I’ve navigated the shifting terrain of the pandemic. Some of this activity is probably subconsciously tied to the idea that, whether I pass away during the pandemic or in some distant time in the future, I will have left behind some kind of accessible media documentation for my family, friends, and any other interested publics about what it was like to be in this moment in time, with them, and in this place — a document complete with a soundtrack, videos, and photos to flesh out my thinking in the hopes that it might be useful for them at some future time, in some future crisis. This brings me, finally, back to Fantasia.

Fantasia, as most of its fans will already know, was meant to be a constantly evolving project for Disney — a travelling roadshow film that added and removed segments as the audiences revisited it year to year. In part because of the background of global tumult at the time of the film’s release (it first screened about a year before America’s formal entrance into World War II and many of the sound systems that were designed for those screenings became scrap for the war effort), Fantasia’s success as a long-running, evolving, travelling feature never happened in the way that Walt had originally hoped. But his central conceit — that we should reconfigure, reconceptualize, recut, reframe, and re-present works of art and imagination in ways that adapt to the needs of new audiences who seek new ideas from their films — is the same ethos that can be traced in every nostalgia-tinged re-release his company has offered in the decades since. On its 80th birthday, Fantasia remains a provocative experiment that, because of its grounding in this notion of adaptability, can still function to offer new perspectives on our present moment.

  • This essay originally appeared on The Solute as part of their “Year of the Month” series. Thanks to Sam Scott for editorial assistance.

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David S. Heineman

Professor & documentary filmmaker whose research and teaching focuses on rhetorical and critical theory, new media, and visual culture. | www.davidheineman.net