Disney's Fantasia (1940): History & Characters

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You're probably familiar with some of Walt Disney's most iconic creations, such as Mickey Mouse, but how much do you know about his 1940 film 'Fantasia?' This lesson explores the history of the film and its feature characters and musical pieces.

The Magic of Disney

Walt Disney is known for adorable characters like Mickey Mouse, evil villains like the queen in Snow White, and lovely princesses like Cinderella. As a true creative genius, however, Disney had much more up his sleeve than talking mice and friendly dwarfs. Throughout the 1930s, Disney dominated animated entertainment. Despite the crippled economy of the Great Depression, audiences still found a way to see Disney's motion pictures. Despite his high acclaim, many considered Disney's work to be a lower art form. His movies were just cartoons after all, nothing of true merit. This all changed with Disney's landmark film Fantasia.

Bringing Fantasia to Life

The idea for Fantasia began to crystallize in 1937 after Disney had a chance encounter with Leopold Stokowski, a conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Disney pitched an idea for an animated short paired with music, and Stokowski loved it. For about two months, the pair worked together to pick the perfect musical score. Instead of focusing on just a short animated feature, they wound up with music for an entire feature film.

Released in 1940, Fantasia was unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Disney's film brought classical music, whimsical characters, and abstract images together in one seamless masterpiece. The media's response to Fantasia was nothing short of glowing. Fantasia was a masterpiece, a complete elevation of the lower art form to something truly spectacular. Unfortunately, audiences didn't feel the same way. In fact, Disney's studios lost money on the film. Not until the 1960s did it really receive the appreciation it deserved.

Premise & Characters

Fantasia features the musical talents of Leopold Stokowski, as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra. The film includes eight musical pieces (not counting the initial introduction to the orchestra). Each of the eight pieces is brilliantly depicted by various characters and abstract images.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite

The first piece featured in Fantasia is Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. Instead of the traditional people (including those dressed as various toys and animals) that typically perform the Nutcracker ballet, Disney imagined a world filled with fairies and magical plants. The piece opens with a series of glowing lights that reveal themselves to be fairies. Throughout the rest of the scene mushrooms perform a Chinese dance while flowers skate across water to reenact the 'Dance of the Reed Flutes.' Thistles come to life to perform the 'Russian Dance,' following a sultry rendition of the 'Arabian Dance' by an exotic fish. Finally, the Nutcracker Suite ends with a series of fairies that transport the viewer through all four seasons.

Mickey & the Sorcerer's Apprentice

One of the most iconic depictions of Mickey Mouse comes from the second part of Fantasia. Set to Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, Mickey is the helper to a slightly sinister-looking sorcerer. After the sorcerer retires for the evening, Mickey is tasked with carrying water in a bucket. As a short cut, Mickey uses a bit of the sorcerer's magic to bewitch a broom to carry the water pail for him. Inexperienced with magic, the Sorcerer's Apprentice (Mickey) suddenly has a big problem on his hands: the brooms are multiplying, as are the buckets of water. The Sorcerer's Apprentice reaches a high point when the endless brooms and pails of water create an indoor tidal wave.

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

Following the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Disney takes us on a journey beginning at the dawn of time. Set to Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, viewers travel through space and watch the creation of Earth. As the music rises, life emerges from the sea, eventually evolving into dinosaurs. As the piece comes to an end, Disney's dinosaurs suffer extinction as a result of a large comet hitting the Earth.

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony

After The Rite of Spring, Disney creates an idyllic scene to accompany Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. The segment features various creatures and gods from Greek mythology. Unicorns and a Pegasus family frolic. Cupid flits around, striking centaurs with love. Meanwhile, Bacchus, the Greek god of wine engages in merrymaking. Shortly after, the festivities anger Zeus, the head of the Greek gods. Zeus then rains lightning bolts on Bacchus. As Zeus calms down, night falls across the scene as the gods Apollo, Morpheus, and Diana bring peace and darkness.

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