Released:  1940

Cast:  Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor

Oscar Wins:  Honorary Award (Walt Disney, William Garity, John N. A. Hawkins, RCA Manufacturing Company), Honorary Award (Leopold Stokowski and associates)

SUMMARY:  The film opens with an introduction by music critic/composer Deems Taylor, who discusses the format of the movie:  Disney artists have endeavored to create artwork to complement and represent various pieces of classical music.  Some of the artwork is abstract, while others tell a story as the music dictates.  Eight musical pieces make up the film; seven of them (excluding The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) are performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski (who also arranged the pieces).  The first is Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach, which features completely abstract images.  Various lines and forms bounce and twist across the screen, changing speed and shape according to the direction of the music.  Selections from the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky follow, with various groups of woodland fairies and other wildlife cavorting around.  The third piece is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Dukas based on a poem written by Goethe.  This segment is the only one to feature a previously-known Disney character, in the form of Mickey Mouse.  Mickey is the titular character, who is tasked with filling a large vat with water.  When the sorcerer goes to bed, Mickey bewitches a broom to do the work for him, then falls asleep.  He awakens to find the room flooded while the broom relentlessly carries in more water.  Unfortunately, Mickey cannot remember or locate the spell to stop the broom.  His various attempts to bail out the room and to stop the broom fail, but ultimately he is rescued by the sorcerer.  The fourth piece, also shown in story form, is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Using the scientific notion of the creation of life, the beginning of the Earth is depicted.  It begins with the creation of the planet, then shows it covered in volcanoes, with no apparent life.  Small amoebas then begin to evolve, forming fish and eventually all other sorts of animals.  The animation then skips to the reign of the dinosaurs, depicting most of them as peaceful, plant-eating creatures.  The exception to this rule is the T-rex, who barges in and attacks (and kills) another dinosaur.  Many years after, the lush environment of the dinosaurs has dried up, leaving them in a desperate search for water — signalling the end of the dinosaurs.

Following an intermission, Taylor introduces the “sound track”, which contorts and changes color based on the sound it produces.  The fifth piece, The Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, is then announced.  The animation for this segment depicts various characters from Greek mythology, including unicorns and centaurs, enjoying a lazy summer afternoon.  Bacchus (the god of wine) then appears, and everybody readies for a festival in his honor.  From the clouds, Zeus interferes with this festival, creating a storm and throwing down lightning bolts.  When he tires of this, Zeus takes a nap, and the storm dissipates.  The fifth piece is Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli.  The various times of day — morning, afternoon, evening and night — are represented by different types of animals, who perform ballets in their corresponding sections of the song.  Morning, afternoon and evening are all represented by cute, benevolent creatures (ostriches, hippos and elephants), but evening is a group of sneaky alligators, who try to take over the palace where the other animals live.  At the end of the piece, the ostriches, hippos and elephants try to fight off the alligators; the palace eventually collapses around them.  The final two pieces are run as one unit, with the same animation theme and no break for narration between them.  In the first, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, the devil Chernabog calls out to all of the evil spirits during the night.  Once aroused, the spirits head to Bald Mountain, where they engage in a huge celebratory dance.  Eventually they hear a bell, which signals dawn:  the music then changes to Ave Maria, by Schubert.  The animation then shifts to a group of monks, carrying torches through the dark forest toward a cathedral.  As they continue to sing, and the sun continues to rise, the evil creatures are driven away.

MY TAKE:  I am a huge Disney buff, but this was one of the very few films I had not seen before.  Even though I love music, including classical, the movie never appealed to me.  For a while, I thought I had been wrong (yet again) in my  opinion.  The first three sections were pretty entertaining — the abstract section that starts the film is really interesting, because there aren’t any recognizable shapes.  It’s a really intriguing concept — representing music in color and shape, but not in actual characters or a story.  The second section is fun, because it’s Tchaikovsky and the Nutcracker, which everybody knows.  The third section is probably the best of the whole film, and the one that everybody remembers:  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Mickey steals the show as the apprentice who tries to think his way out of his chores, only to cause a huge mess.  Had the movie stopped right after this, it would have been a terrific film, and I would wholeheartedly endorsed it (and changed my opinion).  Unfortunately, there were five more sections to go.  Frankly, it starts to get old, even though some of the later sections, particularly the Dance of the Hours, are very well done.  The novelty simply wears off by the time you get there.  I found myself wondering how any young kid ever sat through the entire movie.  I got restless and bored, and I like classical music.  Actually, in terms of a concert two hours would probably be extremely long, and the idea of having eight different pieces in the same concert is also unlikely.  Basically, it would be very difficult to prepare all eight pieces for the same concert, and it would take forever to play them all.  For me, the film just overstayed its welcome.  It was fun and novel for the first forty minutes, after which it was no longer novel, and the quality of the stories devolved.  The Greek one is probably the worst, and I wondered at the wisdom of putting some of that in a kid’s movie — Bacchus is clearly drunk, and all the characters engage in making a huge vat of wine, presumably so that they also can get drunk.  If you notice, Bacchus rides in on a unicorn that looks suspiciously like a donkey, which left me wondering who the real jackass was.  I was slightly intrigued to notice that the style of animation used for the pieces very much resembles that of the “classic” Disney movies:  the human characters are very similar, the female centaurs look a lot like the mermaids from Peter Pan, and the fairies look a lot like Tinkerbell.  Even though it was made almost sixty years later, the character of Zeus in Hercules bears a pretty strong resemblance to the Zeus in the Greek section.  Too bad he didn’t have better aim with those lightning bolts though.  Would have been more entertaining if he nailed Bacchus with one.

RATING:  Too long; gets boring.


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