Fantasia (1940)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice makes some magic of his own.

As a kid, I will admit, I hated this movie with a passion. The film has no story line, barely any dialogue, no engaging characters. The music didn’t even have any lyrics! In short, my eight-year-old self found it completely boring. What I’ve come to realize now is Fantasia is no kid’s movie. It’s art in every sense of the word. And, after viewing the film for the first time as an adult, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for Walt’s crown jewel. Indeed, The New York Times review in 1940 said, “Motion-picture history was made.” And that’s no exaggeration.

William, on the other hand, has loved this movie since his first viewing. He has tried many times over the years to get me to watch it with him, but my eight-year-old memories turned him down every time. He’s likely pretty excited now to know that I’ll be up for several more viewings over the course of our lives.

Fantasia, in many ways, is a collection of the first ever music videos, merging some of the most famous classical arrangements with the beautiful animation for which Disney is famous. Musical numbers include Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours and a selection of pieces from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

Perhaps most interestingly, the film features the comeback of Mickey Mouse, who was apparently waning in popularity to characters like Donald Duck and Goofy at the time. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Mickey as the impressionable young apprentice of Yen Sid (Disney spelled backwards) who tries to imitate his master’s power but eventually loses control, was originally intended for release as a short all on its own. But growing production costs forced Walt to reconsider, and instead he set the piece as the focal point of Fantasia and built the rest of the film around it.

The Sorcerer's hat in Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has become one of the more famous reiterations of Mickey Mouse that even an entire theme park (complete with broomstick topiaries) at Walt Disney World in Florida has been built around that iconic hat. The images of the chopped broomsticks returning to life even became the subject of an Itchy and Scratchy spoof more than a half century later.

But the animation achievements aren’t all that’s groundbreaking about Fantasia. The film showcased a new sound system called Fantasound, a three-channel (left, centre and right) technique to boost the experience of a concert hall in a theatre and to improve volume and clarity. The effort was rewarded with an honorary Oscar in 1942. It was the only film to ever use Fantasound, but gave birth to a new generation of sound innovation. But much like today’s 3D technologies, each cinema hoping to show Fantasia had to modify their projection equipment and then hope to recover the cost of doing so through ticket sales.
Due to these considerations, and that recording became enormously complex and time-consuming, only 16 Fantasound prints were ever made and only 12 venues presented the film in this format. For its 50th anniversary, the 1990 release of the film used digital technology to embed the original Fantasound audio in the VHS versions of the film. It did not make it to subsequent DVD or Blu-Ray releases as far as anyone’s been able to tell, though.
Fantasia was originally set to mark another theatrical first: wide-screen picture. Up to that point, all films were created in the typical 4:3 aspect ratio, which remained common through the home video era. Walt Disney thought that might be too restrictive and Fantasia was going to be released in widescreen formats. The idea was ultimately canned, though, and the film was cropped to 4:3. Widescreen, however, would return to Disney in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp, and remained the standard for all releases thereafter.

Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski

Mostly due to the Second World War, the film’s critical success didn’t initially translate at the box office. Many Americans felt it was too high-brow and pretentious for the era. It has since gone on to gross $76.5-million over its lifetime, and, when adjusting for inflation, clocks in as the 22nd highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S.

And to add to the fun facts about this film, it marks the first time an animated character had contact with a human on film, as seen in the final moments of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence when Mickey shakes conductor Leopold Stokowski’s hand. It is also Disney’s only animated feature to hit the two-hour mark in length.

The film is widely regarded as Walt’s greatest creative and technical work, continuing to resonate with audiences over 70 years later. Fitting, then, that the film also marks the last time Walt himself would lend his voice to his beloved mouse, which is poignantly captured when Mickey congratulates Mr. Stokowski on the masterpiece that is Fantasia.

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8 thoughts on “Fantasia (1940)

  1. I didn’t grow up on this film and watched it for the first time in 2011-2012. And I, like you when you were young, didn’t like it at all! It’s too slow and boring for me! I actually prefer “Fantasia 2000” over this.

  2. […] original 1940 production continues to be admired by millions. It was so brilliant because filmmaking stood aside and let […]

  3. […] its inspiration loosely from classical mythology — a first for Disney, outside of some shorts in Fantasia. The birth of Hercules to Zeus and Hera throws a wrench into Hades’ plan to take over the […]

  4. […] States when he was only a child. He began working at Disney as an animator in 1934 on Pinocchio and Fantasia. He then joined the United States Air Force during the Second World War and flew missions in […]

  5. […] Right to the point, I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one. If you’ve seen Fantasia, or Make Mine Music, you’ll know what to expect. It’s more of Walt’s tried and […]

  6. […] also came at an important crossroads for Disney. The studio was broke. Pinocchio and Fantasia didn’t do well commercially, the war in Europe was cutting off their international markets, […]

  7. Ryan W Isenor says:

    Interesting post, with some fun facts I didn’t know! You guys are not only enjoying these, you’re doing your homework on them as well! Looking forward to little known classics like Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free!

    • Danielle says:

      Ry! We can always count on you for a comment 🙂 Your support means a lot to us, so thanks for reading and sharing so far! Disney through the 40s is going to be a new experience for both of us; only two more films to go until then.

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