A Fantasia for the Ages

Disney shares one of its crown jewels of feature animation with a live orchestra concert accompanying scenes from Walt Disney’s original Fantasia (1940) and from Fantasia 2000, highlighting a selection of both films’ magnificent repertoire. Tickets and more information here.

75 years after the release of Fantasia, its originality is more stunning than ever. The feature film began as a short cartoon meant to reboot the Disney Studio’s flagship character, Mickey Mouse, when his popularity was waning. Mickey, with his ears sticking out from his pointed hat and his gloved hands emerging from an oversized red robe, was cast as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a mischievous character depicted in the tone poem of the same name by Paul Dukas. When costs soared, Disney saw an opportunity to assemble a whole evening’s worth of entertainment around the original short. His creative team fleshed out a fanciful array of stories, and the animators refined new techniques to make the colors pop. To capture the lush orchestral palette produced by superstar conductor Leopold Stokowski, the team engineered an entirely novel way of recording and reproducing the soundtrack.

With a splashy debut on Broadway in 1940, the legend of Fantasia was born. It was not the first pairing of animated stories and classical music — Disney began its Silly Symphony series in 1929, in the early days of “talking pictures” — but the breadth of Fantasia was like nothing audiences had seen. Even critics of the day recognized it as much more than a children’s cartoon; The New York Times critic wrote, “Fantasia dumps conventional formulas overboard and reveals the scope of films for imaginative excursion.”

The magic of Fantasia began with its bold storytelling. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was an outlier, in that it followed the existing storyline of an old legend, as rendered in music by Dukas. Elsewhere, Disney sensed new stories within the familiar music. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite became a psychedelic scene of fairies, flowers, dancing mushrooms and a seductive lady-fish; instead of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”) depicting a country gathering interrupted by a storm, it became a frolic on mythical Mount Olympus, complete with adorable Pegasus foals, flirtations between Centaurs and “Centaurettes,” a plump and jolly Bacchus drunk on wine, and an angry Zeus lashing out with thunderbolts. Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours turned into a ballet for ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators — all of which, in the hands of the Disney animators, danced with the verve and precision of a professional ballet troupe.

Walt Disney wanted Fantasia to remain an ongoing project, but it was not until the 1990s that his nephew, Roy Disney, was able to start production on a sequel. Fantasia 2000 rekindled the same spirit of adventure, using breakthrough technologies such as computer-generated imagery (CGI), as seen in the flying humpback whales accompanied by Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

The Seattle Symphony’s presentation of Fantasia Live in Concert unites classic selections from the 1940 original with highlights from the modern edition. Certainly it is delightful family fare, with its vivid animation and familiar characters. But discerning connoisseurs will also recognize the underlying sophistication of Fantasia, especially when the iconic images are paired with the richness of live orchestra. Maybe Fantasia is new to you, or maybe you have lived with it for a lifetime — either way, this concert experience with the Seattle Symphony reveals more than meets the eye.

By Aaron Grad

Tickets and more information here.

Posted Friday June 5, 2015