Friday, November 13, 2015

'Fantasia': A Live Action/Animation Triumph

Mickey Mouse: [Pulling on Stokowski's coat] Mr. Stokowski! Mr. Stokowski!

[Mickey whistles to get Stokowski's attention]

Mickey Mouse: My congratulations, sir!

Leopold Stokowski: [shaking hands with Mickey] Congratulations to you, Mickey!

Mickey Mouse: Gee, thanks! Heh heh! Well, so long! I'll be seeing ya!

Leopold Stokowski: Goodbye!

Classical music and cough drops. That's what I think of when I think of Walt Disney's "Fantasia," which premiered on this day in 1940.

I was a senior in high school when I saw "Fantasia" for the first time. I had seen other Walt Disney movies, of course, just not that one. And I probably wouldn't have seen it then, had it not been for the fact that I was in love and my girlfriend talked me into seeing it when it was being shown one night on one of the college campuses in my hometown.

I don't know why I hadn't seen it before. It doesn't seem to have been a conscious choice that I made, but maybe it was. Maybe I saw or heard about something that was in it that I didn't like and decided I didn't want to see the movie, but I honestly have no memory of anything like that.

And, while I probably wouldn't have said this at the time, it would have been a mistake never to have seen it.

If I did make a conscious decision not to see it, it was probably because of the classical music. I didn't care for much classical music when I was 17. My tastes have changed since I was a teenager — it happens to all of us — and today I am inclined to view "Fantasia" as a multimedia triumph.

The movie opened with a fellow named Deems Taylor, a composer/music critic, who explained to the audience that "Fantasia" had "three kinds of music ... First, there's the kind that tells a definite story. Then there's the kind that, while it has no specific plot, does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. Then there's a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake."

The composition that would open the movie, Taylor said, was of the third kind. It is called absolute music, and Taylor said it would be accompanied by images on the screen that might be like the mental images one would have while listening to the music being performed in a concert hall.

The result was a two–hour experience that was, simultaneously, like ones I had had at home and unlike any I had ever had.

My parents made sure I was exposed to all kinds of music when I was growing up. My mother loved bluegrass, my father liked Middle Eastern music, and they both liked classical music. I added some personal favorites to the list — rock music, of course, and jazz and blues. As a result, my music collection looks like a rummage sale — albeit a classy rummage sale.

The music wasn't entirely unfamiliar to me. But the Walt Disney animation was a new twist on things.

And there was no telling what kind of images would be conjured by the music.

Probably the most famous segment of the movie was the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" starring Mickey Mouse.

That, as I understand it, was the inspiration for the movie — a short cartoon of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice." Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski concluded that the concept of merging animation and classical music with live action imagery was too good to limit to a single cartoon so they went about putting together a two–hour movie.

I had no complaints about the music that was included in the movie, but at the time I would have liked to have seen "Peter and the Wolf" included. As a child, I remember listening to a recording of "Peter and the Wolf" and enjoyed it immensely. It was probably my first real introduction to classical music.

I learned later that Disney made a feature based on the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" in 1946 that was originally meant to be a sequel to "Fantasia." Great minds, huh?

Oh, and about those cough drops ...

We went to see this movie at about this time of the year, and I had a cold. Karen had a very strong nurturing instinct, and she insisted that I pop a cough drop in my mouth before we went to the movie. The flavor of wild cherries always seems to be in my mouth whenever I see "Fantasia," and I haven't used cough drops since that afternoon.

The American Film Institute rated "Fantasia" No. 58 on its 1998 list of the top 100 movies of the previous 100 years. Oddly, it received no Oscar nominations, not even for music or animation.

But 75 years later it is still one of the best animated motion pictures you will ever see.