Exploring Disney’s Castle – Fantasia (1940)

Rating: 8/10

Plot: A collection of animated shorts set up as a visualization of classical music ranging from abstract to linear stories.

Breakdown: Fantasia is one of the most critically acclaimed Disney movies in regards to its artistry ever made, which isn’t surprising considering how much work and money went into it.

Fantasia was incredibly expensive. The animation costs and the development of the custom sound system of Fantasound made Fantasia a surefire money pit no matter how successful the film would ever be at the box office. This was only compounded by the already existing problem of the war in Europe, which caused box office failure even for the much cheaper project of Pinocchio. And, believe it or not, Fantasia was made to help soften the financial burden of creating the Silly Symphonies short of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a short that was integrated into Fantasia and is probably the segment most people remember from the film.

Fantasia was supposed to be an ever-ongoing project with new editions coming out every few years. The new editions would see the omission of an old segment and the inclusion of a new one, making for a new viewer experience upon each release. However, money troubles reared its ugly head again with the impacts of low box office performance by Fantasia, and the new trouble of the US’s involvement in World War II made it an impossible venture.

Fantasia did gain a sequel in 2000 called Fantasia 2000…but we’ll get to that later.

Enough history. Confession time. I didn’t want to review this movie. Why? Well, the fact of the matter is that I didn’t think I could really do it justice without any sort of knowledge or experience on classical music. Considering this movie is really a celebration of the marriage between animation and music, I felt like only having one half of the equation wasn’t enough.

Plus, I have a rather embarrassing past with this movie. I’ve owned this movie on VHS for as long as I can remember – in fact I still have it – but I don’t think I ever watched it until a few years ago. I remember putting the movie in once as a kid, getting confused as to what the hell it was and turning it off after only a few minutes. Basically, I robbed myself of the opportunity to have a lifelong connection to this movie simply because I’d rather watch Power Rangers or Rugrats.

After thinking about it, though, I decided that I should still give it a review. Most people who watched this movie have neither a mass amount of knowledge in animation or classical music, and simply having an appreciation for these factors should be enough.

The movie has introductions and interludes in a live-action format. The Master of Ceremonies, Deems Taylor, explains the story or history behind the segment in a cool setup where the orchestra as well as Taylor are shrouded mostly in shadow with colored lights changing depending on the music. The orchestra starts playing the music for the feature as we shift into the animation.

Our first animated segment is introduced – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johan Sebastian Bach.

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Mr. Taylor introduces us to what Fantasia is and how it works. He states that there are three types of features in Fantasia – ones with a solidified story and plot, ones with no real story but visuals and musical themes to create the flow, and ones that exist simply to exist. Basically, the animation is a depiction on what you’d imagine if you were listening to the music, and our first feature is exactly that type.

The segment starts off by showing us the orchestra in silhouette playing the music. When prompted by the conductor, the lights and shadows change on the walls. Eventually, we segue into the animated portion and back into the live-action segment one last time.

I’m….ambivalent about this segment. The animation, as expected, is gorgeous, and it is very creative, especially near the end. However, I really just feel like these types of shorts are just kinda there. They really seem like very elaborate screen savers or a very well-done visualization setting for a music player. Plus, I’m probably in the minority, and this shouldn’t be taken as a con to the movie, but for some reason this segment makes me a little motion sick when played on a big screen.

The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilach Tchaikovsky

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Here we have something with a bit more substance to me probably because we have actual depictions of actual things actually doing things. In this segment, we get an animation of fairies and the changing of the seasons as the Nutcracker Suite plays. By the way, while I really won’t be making many notes about the music, I really don’t like most of The Nutcracker Suite. Much of it is insanely repetitive, gets caught in your head so easily and many of the parts get annoying in their pitch.

This segment is separated into several parts. The first is the fairies, who are naked…..uh basically magic-fying everything in a forest. I really like this part of the animation because the colors and all the magic effects look fantastic. I especially like the parts with the dandelion and the spider web.

Next, we have a bunch of mushrooms dancing in front of a black screen….riveting.

After that, we have a bunch of flowers slowly falling into a pool of water as they sway in the wind to the music. Then the flowers shift into a more human-like shape to dance along to the music. I have my problems with this part. The beginning is fine and quite beautiful, but I can’t stop thinking that, after the flowers change form, that they’re really a bunch of dancing napkins.

The next part is like a rail shooter. Hear me out – it’s underwater and the plants and fish sway and move to the music, but as the camera moves through the various locations it’s like the fish can see the camera and run away at first glance. I have a personal love of underwater animation, as long as it’s done right of course. It really takes a lot of work and talent to make underwater life seem realistic and it’s done very well here. The synchronicity and colors as well as the really interesting fish are wonderful to watch, and best of all they got one of the segments of The Nutcracker Suite that isn’t annoying, grating or repetitive.

….Oh but let’s change that by segueing into our next part which shifts into the hyper crazy part of the Suite with a bunch of flowers dancing like crazy. The segment is too fast for my liking and is merely flowers rushing around dancing so it’s not very interesting.

We return to our regularly scheduled gentle tones and slow, soothing music as we return to the still-not-clothed fairies. This time, they’re committing mass leaf genocide as we transition into fall. Artistically and creatively, this part is basically on par or even better than the first part with the fairies, but I personally prefer this one since it goes with a better part of the Suite. And I kinda like the warm colors better. I guess it makes sense since Autumn is my favorite season.

We stay with the fairies for a while and the warm colored fairies are soon replaced by blue fairies who bring about the start of winter. I really like when we get into this part because the blue fairies ‘ice skating’ (get it!?) is one of my favorite parts of this whole segment. It’s kinda like a mix between the first segment’s visual style and the fairies in that shot.

The rest of the winter segment with the fairies is also good, but something looks….off about the snowflakes for some reason. I can’t put my finger on it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

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I find it odd that Disney didn’t vi to put this segment near the end. I mean, it’s featured on all of the box art, you’d think they’d save what is seeming like the grand-ish finale for last, but I guess third is fine too. Maybe this placement was intentional to help sate the impatient children who wanted to see Mickey. Then again, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice short was created specifically because Mickey’s popularity was dwindling. Damn and that would’ve given Oswald the Rabbit the perfect opportunity to take back his limelight.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is by far the most well-remembered segment of Fantasia, outside of Night on Bald Mountain. It’s the origin of Mickey’s other most well-known outfit of the red robe with pointy blue and white-starred hat.

This is the first short to have original music. Since The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was meant to be a stand-alone Disney short or Silly Symphony, it was slated to have such a thing all along. The short was written and the music was composed based on the story itself.

It should also be noted that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not an original story. It was based on a story that is thousands of years old.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is set in ancient times of magic where a master sorcerer, Yensid, mentors his apprentice, Mickey Mouse. Yensid takes off his magic hat and goes to sleep. Mickey, with a passion for magic and a health dose of laziness, decides to steal his master’s hat and use one his spells to enchant a broom to do all of his dirty work. Eventually, he wishes for the broom to stop after it fills up a tub with too much water, but finds that he is unable to stop them. Completely out of control, Mickey resorts to broomicide via axe….wow. But he quickly finds that life, uh uh, finds a way.

The pieces of the murdered broom all soon turn into actual brooms with their own buckets and are ready to flood the place even more. Mickey, unable to stop them or get the water out of the place, is resigned to getting caught in a whirlpool in the basement. Yensid, awoken from his nap, removes the water from the castle and stops the brooms like a boss. As he confronts Mickey and gets his hat back, Mickey returns to his duties with an embarrassed smile as Yensid delivers a swift whack on his ass with the broom.

After the short ends, a silhouetted Mickey congratulates the conductor, Leopold Stokowsky, he does the same for Mickey and they shake hands.

I like this short. I’m not the world’s biggest Mickey fan (his personality tends to be all over the place if you go short by short…) but it’s a nice short story about how the quickest and easiest way is not always the best way, taking things can lead to trouble and messing with supernatural forces beyond your control can leave you drowned in the basement. I also really like the direction and style of this short, especially in the dream sequence and the finale. The colors and style are just great.

Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

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This segment is meant to be a visual adaptation of Stravinsky’s original intentions for the symbolism of the song. From what I gather in the introduction, he meant it to be about the birth and development of life as a whole. As our MC dictates, the animations that accompany this song are meant to show a scientific recreation of life on earth from the very first single celled organisms to the fall of the dinosaurs.

We start in the blackness of space as we, like celestial beings, look down upon our galaxy. After we zoom in (a lot), we eventually see our rather pitiful looking little planet as it is experiencing numerous volcanic eruptions. The score also leads me to believe that Jaws might be popping up soon, so keep a look out.

For some reason, I’m not liking how they’re animating the fire in this segment. It just feels choppy. The lava is beautifully animated, though.

After all the volcanoes finally let loose and just erupt everywhere, the lava meets the ocean waters and everything goes nuts again. Gigantic storms occur, huge waves cascade over the lands and steam fills the sky. Once the giant volcano nearby becomes consumed with water, the lava is cooled, explosions pop through the rocks and the road is firmly paved for Waterworld to become one of the biggest box office disappointments in recent decades.

Years later, tiny green single-celled organisms, whom Disney somehow made cute, emerge along with other weird life in the water. They split up and split up and split up and split up and split up and—you get the idea, until they are covered in a weird dark cloudy liquid.

Even later, there is more advanced life under the sea and they’re oddly all dancing neon linework. They, too, are covered in the weird dark liquid where we then see even more advanced sea life that actually looks similar to what we may see today.

We follow one fish around as he frantically tries to get away from predators. He soon starts making his way towards land and then we just transition to dinosaurs. Okay, that’s a bit jumpy, but this was dragging a bit.

Who cares anyway? Friggin’ dinosaurs!

We see a bunch of dinosaurs doing dinosaur things like looking awesome, eating and straight up killing each other. Disney’s not really pulling any stops here. Earlier under the water, we saw some poor fish that was drawn with a cartoony face being snatched up and eaten by a jellyfish. He had a panicked expression and everything but it wasn’t in the main focus of the shot. Yeesh.

And we just kinda chill out with the dinosaurs for a while just watching them do things. Until, that is, we see what we all came here to see….the T-rex. He even comes with his own thunderstorm – guys, you don’t need to make a t-rex even more intimidating. It does a fine job on its own.

Naturally, every living thing in its path craps their yet-to-be-invented pants and run off. The T-rex eventually catches a stegosaurus. They face off for mortal combat with all of the other dinosaurs watching like it’s some prehistoric WWE. To its credit, the stegosaurus does put up a decent fight, but this a T-rex, sweetie. You gonna die.

After the stegosaurus dies in the most horrifying yet non-graphic way possible, the T-rex silently roars in victory to a bolt of lightning (Seriously, the T-rex plus the orchestral accompaniment are enough bad-ass. You’re gonna overload the system) and every other dinosaur just walks away after the fight concludes while Mr. Rex eats his meal.

Much later, the dinosaurs start suffering as their once lush lands have dried up under the intense and dry heat of the sun. The food is sparse, water is rare and dinosaurs are dropping like flies as they search for greener pastures.

After all of the dinosaurs have been reduced to skeletons in the wastelands of earth, an eclipse occurs and suddenly the lands are rocked by a massive earthquake followed by another huge wave that cascades over everything. The eclipse becomes full and our short ends.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this one. I know this may seem dumb to say in a short that is trying to cover the course of life from single-celled organisms to the fall of dinosaurs in a handful of minutes, but I felt it was fairly slow. Also, I didn’t feel like much of the animation was really impressive or awe-inspiring. It was good, but some shots like the rocks falling and the fire felt really rough.

Plus, I don’t really get the finale. A sudden and horrific drought killed the dinosaurs but then the lands were like re-written by a huge earthquake and suddenly the ocean waters reappear and have yet another ungodly huge tidal wave to further remake the lands? And if this is the version they’re going for, how did the mostly aquatic dinosaurs die?

It’s an interesting concept, but I just didn’t get into it very much.

INTERMISSION

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When we return from our break, the MC decides to give us a little visual lesson on sound. We get what is essentially the visualizer from Windows Media Player as it shows the audience that all noises can be represented visually through various types of waves. While it is a very simplistic way of showing us the association between the animations and music, I find it rather charming. My favorite parts are the percussion section and the harp.

With that out of the way, we move on to–

The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig Von Beethoven

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Mr. Taylor introduces this segment to us as a reimagining of Beethoven’s original idea of the story behind this symphony. Originally, it was meant to convey a day in the countryside. However, Walt Disney decided to adapt the symphony to a story set in Greek mythology.

Our short starts out at Mt. Olympus which doesn’t really look impressive at all. When you have a location description of ‘home of the gods’ you’d think they’d put more effort into making the place look grand and amazing. It’s pretty, it’s just that I would never think this is supposed to be Mt. Olympus.

An episode of My Little Pony starts—Oh excuse me, those are just the unicorns that are drawn in a really similar manner to the typical MLP style (I’m very aware this predates MLP by many years). They frolic through the woods until they come across a bunch of nymphs playing pan flutes. Hearing the music, the unicorns decide to play and dance with the nymphs.

A bunch of pegasuses….pegasi…..P….pega—Dammit. Plural pegasus fly overhead eating leaves and fruit from the trees. A newborn pegasus fawn decides to try his hand at flying, but continuously fails until his mother scoots him along and he’s finally able to fly with the others. He flies with what I assume is his full family complete with demonic looking father pegasus and three multi-colored siblings. I think mama pegasus has some explaining to do.

They eventually reach a large lake where hundreds of other….pegases….pegasasses….pega-HORSES join then. They play around for a while and we cut to a bunch of topless centaurettes. Yes, everyone, nudity in a Disney movie that doesn’t have to be found by some guy with nothing better to do than go through Rescuers Down Under and Who Framed Roger Rabbit frame by frame. They’re bathing because of course they are and it really seems like they’re purposely hiding their horse half to give the viewers boobs without making them feel uncomfortable about the horse part. They later laze about with some cherubs while doing girly things like filing nails and putting on makeup.

The cherubs see a centaur blow a horn to call his friends, all of which have really freaky faces, to go get some centaurette lovin’. The centaurettes prepare for their future lovers with arts and crafts via birds, flowers and lily pads.

The centaurettes do their best to seduce the dead-eyed creepy as hell centaurs with their half-naked dancing, and it succeeds as everyone is now paired up and in love, daww. They’re also conveniently color coded.

Did I say everyone was paired up? I meant one blue centaur is forever alone. And, even more conveniently, a blue centaurette is also forever alone. The cherubs see this and lure the centaurette over to the centaur so they can be in love. Something really IS in the water at Disney isn’t it? Also, I have a feeling all of these cherubs are supposed to be Cupid stand ins?

Anyway, they lead them to a nice place to get it on, the cherubs leave them to their dirty business and pull some curtains over the scene. And as one cherub tries to peek in on them (I don’t need a perverted naked baby, thanks) his naked butt is proudly displayed straight on to the audience before it turns into a heart. You’re really weird, Disney.

The centaurs and centaurettes then make some wine for the god Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and intoxication. Also, the black centaurettes are half zebra for whatever reason. Is that….racist? I can’t tell.

Also, Bacchus is riding on a donkey-corn….Or a Uni-key…that is also getting smashed out of his mind.

They dance and party with Bacchus before he gets seduced by a centaurette. Remember, Greek mythology. No need to bring up anything weird in regards to sexual pairings.

They party some more with Bacchus until a dark cloud appears overhead and a storm starts. Zeus shows his….rather goofy looking face, as does Vulcan, and Zeus starts chucking lightning bolts everywhere, especially at Bacchus. That’s what you get for missing your AA meetings, Bacchus!

Zeus continues to be an ass while everyone runs for their lives, and he even destroys the giant cask of wine!

nooooo

But it’s okay because Bacchus just laps it up and splashes around in it like an idiot.

Zeus finally grows tired of being a sadistic asshole and falls asleep, allowing the clouds to disperse and the sun to shine through once more. As the weather clears, the mythological creatures return to frolicking as Iris creates a rainbow in the sky. The day starts to end, and the sun starts to set, causing Apollo to appear and wave farewell to all of the creatures.

Morpheus appears and causes nightfall, though I thought that was Nyx’s job, and all of the creatures go to their respective homes to fall asleep. Finally Diana, using the crescent moon as a bow, shoots an arrow through the sky that creates the stars.

This short didn’t really mesh with me. It’s not particularly funny or exciting, it’s just cutesy. Cute or at least non-threatening versions of creatures from Greek mythology just basically screwing around for a day. Not to mention that, while the animation is gorgeous, the art is not doing it for me. I understand why the art is so colorful and cutesy, it’s just the style they were aiming for in regards to the kids, but it doesn’t ever make me think we’re at Mt. Olympus. Also, again, what the hell was up with the centaurs? Eugh.

I pretty much sleepwalked through the whole thing. I can’t really say I hated it because it didn’t leave that much of an impact, but I just wasn’t very much interested in it, which is a damn shame because I adore mythology.

Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli

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This section provides the audiences with something more of Disney’s regular style. It’s a comedic short set up as a ballet with a bunch of anthropomorphic animals, each group representing a different time of day; morning, afternoon, evening and night.

Since this is a ballet and most of the short is dancing, I can’t really make another detailed analysis for you, but let me break it down a bit. I will say, however, that it is really hard to watch/listen to this because I can’t not associate this song with ‘Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda’ and that old K9 Advantix commercial….

The first section, morning, is performed by ostriches. Comedic moments are few and far between here. They’re mostly just tiny moments like making their ties dance and swallowing their food with their ties blocking their path. The only major comedic moment comes at the end where the lead ostrich, the one with the pink bow and shoes, tries to eat some grapes after feeding her friends some fruit, but her greedy friends try to steal them from her, resulting in her dropping the grapes in a pool of water. The water bubbles up and the ostriches run away, segueing us into the afternoon section.

The second section is performed by hippos. Nothing really comedic at all happens besides one weird thing – the main hippo’s fat.

The third section, evening, is performed by elephants and I’m just now getting that the whole big joke of this entire short is that a bunch of animals that would really never be considering elegant or graceful are performing a ballet. We get a legit funny moment with one of the elephants blowing a bubble and suddenly a fish appears in it and floats away.

Other than that, the elephants really just screw around with bubbles and make the lead hippo, now asleep, float up in the air with the force of their collective bubbles.

The final section, night, is performed by a bunch of alligators. A bunch of alligators who want to eat the main hippo. A bunch of alligators who are wearing cultist robes while wanting to eat the hippo.

This segment is actually pretty amusing as the hippo is basically being the Bugs Bunny to the alligator’s Elmer Fudd, and it is weird to see a ballet being made of attempted murder.

Eventually, all of the animals get in on the final dance against the alligators and the segment ends with seemingly the alligator’s winning but they don’t eat the animals and the other animals just smile as the song concludes so….*shrug*

While it’s not really amusing until the second half with the elephants and not really close to funny until the section with the alligators and the finale, it’s still a pretty decent short. I think it kinda failed as being the only comedic section of our movie, however. Especially considering that 1) This is Disney. Silly Symphonies much? You can’t get funnier than this? And 2) the darkest part of the movie is coming up next.

Speaking of which!

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Shubert

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If The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the most widely known part of this movie, Night on Bald Mountain is definitely the most impacting and interesting.

This segment was made of two separate pieces of music melded together to make a narrative. The first section, Night on Bald Mountain, shows spirits rising up to greet their master, the devil Chernabog, even though the opening narration seems to indicate that it’s Satan as they state that Bald Mountain is the meeting place of Satan and his demons.

Bald Mountain is gorgeously designed, and the colors and design of the surrounding environment are deliciously creepy. Chernabog is one intimidating and creepy SOB, even if his overall design can be seen as a bit uninspired. His closeups are simply striking. Just the way he sends giant shadows of his hands over the town below is chilling, especially when the buildings distort in response.

The animation for the ghosts is a bit weird, it’s like paper cutouts done in CGI, at least during their first handful of shots. Later on, they look like they were made with chalk, which makes them seem really gritty and creepy.

Chernabog surrounding himself in a swarm of spirits and then unleashing the fires of hell upon them is a great moment. Plus the designs of the demons are unsettling. Basically it’s a party in hell and everyone’s invited. Chernabog even cooks up some naked whores made of fire. How nice of him. And Disney even throws in nipples on some of the female hellspawn. It’s art, so shut up parents.

I get hypnotized by this segment. It’s just so….beautiful. In a grim and dark sense, but it is really beautiful. The art, the animation, the setting, the little things going on like turning the pretty fire ladies into beasts, demons being snatched in midair by other beasts supposedly to get eaten, Chernabog toying with everyone and everything like a kid playing with his action figures – it’s just awesome.

But then the Angelus bells ring and Night on Bald Mountain has to end their party because Ave Maria is coming to bring down some serious religion, hope and love on your asses!

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I love how each ring of the bell not only changes the colors in the shot, but also causes pain to Chernabog and the little demons. Upon hearing the bells, the spirits return to their rest back in the desolate ruins of the town. The sun rises over the horizon and Chernabog returns to isolation.

Through the foggy mists of dawn, a procession of lights wade through the land. An endless stream of people slowly travel through the barren landscape. I really like the direction on this part. We go from gigantic Chernabog playing with demons and spirits like they’re GI Joes to him wincing in pain to them returning to hiding because of these little tiny lights of hope, barely visible to us, that walk across the land. It’s a wonderful contrast.

It’s also a great segment to wind down on after the powerful and exciting Night on Bald Mountain. It has a way of making you feel relaxed, calm and even happy.

Through the darkness of the wooded path is a ray of light leading to a beautiful bright and lush forest where the sunlight breaks over the horizon and the bright rays of golden light shoot up into the sky.

The end.

Bottomline: Fantasia is not a flawless film, especially if you bought it for your kids. I mean, I’m all for kids watching more mature programming, not filthy – mature, to give them a glimpse into a more complex world beyond their own, maybe teach them a lesson or two or just prompt them to think about things they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, I can see this being a major snoozefest for kids. There’s only one segment that resembles typical Disney fun and there’s not much that is fun or funny about it, and another one that involves Mickey Mouse, who was at a low point in popularity at the time of release.

Unless your kid is one who will be captivated by some gorgeous Disney art and animation or is a real big fan of classical music, I can’t believe many kids would actively want to watch this very often, at least not younger ones.

Plus, a few of the shorts aren’t that interesting to me. It’s just animals or creatures doing things to musical accompaniment. It may be well-done, but it’s not interesting to me. Plus, I guess I’m just not cultured enough to find any real entertainment or substance to abstract representations of the musical notes. It’s certainly beautiful and you have to respect the manner in which it was made, but the end result doesn’t keep me hooked in.

The art and animation truly is amazing in this movie with special attention and praise on Night on Bald Mountain, Ave Maria and The Nutcracker Suite. I did have some issues, however, such as the fire on The Pastoral Symphony or some of the scenes with the spirits in Night on Bald Mountain, but it’s nothing major. Oh but the centaurs, yeah, I have a problem with them. Eughghghghghgh.

I can’t really comment well on the music. It’s mostly well-known classical tracks, though a few went over my head. I really do hate the Nutcracker Suite, and some of the songs weren’t very memorable to me, but I did really like the music as a whole.

Fantasia is probably overrated, even though I do hate saying that to something that was such a passion project. It’s worth the watch for The Nutcracker Suite, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria alone. Hell, it’s worth it just for Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria to me. But I just don’t see me wanting to rewatch this movie again any time soon. It’s a beautiful movie, but it doesn’t evoke such strong feelings and excitement as many people would built it up as.

I would say definitely, most definitely, watch this movie at least once in your lifetime. But if you don’t like it, I’d entirely understand.

Recommended Audience: There are some dark themes like death, killing between animals, starvation, hell and demons. There are, believe it or not, several instances of nudity in regards to topless women with at least two shots of breasts with nipples drawn and colored. Also, naked babies (Cherubs) but you don’t see their genitals. No sex or gore, though they get damn close with that stegosaurus scene. 10+

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Disney’s Castle – Fantasia (1940)

  1. I remember thinking Fantasia was suuuper boring as a little kid, but I rewatched it before going away to college and really enjoyed the experience overall. That was several years ago, though.

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