Fantasia at 75: Classic film comes alive at Orchestra Hall

December 01, 2014

Celebrating its 75th anniversary next year, Disney's Fantasia holds a unique place in 20th century film. One of the pinnacles of pre-digital animation, Fantasia is also one of the most satisfying intersections of classical music and popular culture. Disney's animators took the sweep and depth of the classical repertoire as a challenge; rather than dumbing the music down, Fantasia uses animation to dramatize the detail and texture of several orchestral (or, in one case, orchestrated) masterpieces.

Presenting the animation with live orchestral accompaniment is an appealing idea, and on Saturday night (then again on Sunday afternoon), Sarah Hicks took the podium at Orchestra Hall to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in a program of selections from Fantasia and its turn-of-the-century sequel Fantasia 2000 while the animation unspooled on a screen above the players.

Conducting Fantasia is a great job for a conductor with an outsize ego — if you're doing it the first time around. Now, tempos have been set by Maestros Stokowski (Fantasia) and Levine (Fantasia 2000), and Hicks was compelled to trade her wizard's hat for headphones playing what I presume was a click track to ensure Hicks kept her band precisely in coordination with the animation.

The performance wasn't a carbon copy, though: it was a thrill to see and hear the classic animation presented with live accompaniment that unpacked the Stokowski wall of sound. The music — including Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, Beethoven's fifth and sixth symphonies, and of course Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice — is as colorful as the animation, and the members of the orchestra bit into it with relish.

Presenting selections from the original Fantasia and its sequel interspersed is (as was strenuously emphasized by the studio when Fantasia 2000 was released) in keeping with Walt Disney's original vision: because each theater that showed the film had to be specially equipped with "Fantasound" speakers surrounding the audience, the film was envisioned as a touring attraction that would be continuously updated with new pieces so you'd have an incentive to see it again when it returned.

Still, among Disney buffs, Fantasia 2000 remains divisive. The filmmakers made liberal use of computer animation, giving the film a qualitatively different look than the painstakingly hand-drawn original picture. Fantasia 2000 defenders (me among them) appreciate the way the sequel was made lovingly in the spirit of the original, but for many, it will just never be the same. Adding Fantasia 2000 segments to the live mix also necessitated the omission of some of the original film's segments — including the opening Bach and the concluding Mussorgsky/Schubert segue.

It was gratifying to hear the film(s) come to life on Saturday night, but Fantasia has never really died: arguably the summit of Walt Disney's artistic achievements, it's largely been embraced even by those segments of the classical-music community that were initially skeptical at the idea of inviting Mickey Mouse onto the conductor's podium. An acclaimed new video game extends the film, and each piece of music used in the film has become indelibly associated with it.

In a series of articles throughout the film's anniversary year of 2015, I'll be looking at Fantasia and its legacy. Doubtless another series of tributes will be made in 2040 on the occasion of the film's centennial; I don't know who will write them, but it might just be the little boy who sat a couple of seats down from me in the balcony Saturday night, leaning forward enraptured by the sights and the sounds.