Bright Lights Film Journal

Fantasia (1940): The Varieties of Religious Experience

Walt Disney’s masterpiece, Fantasia, may seem at first like a random collection of animated shorts whose only common factor is that each was inspired by a well-known piece of classical music. However, consciously or not, the film has a deeper unifying principle. Each of the film’s episodes touches in one way or another upon the theme of religion and creation as seen from a different philosophical and cultural point of view – a veritable smorgasbord of belief systems.

Episode 1: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Composer: J.S. Bach
Religion: Abstract Creation

Scored to the so-called “abstract” music of Bach and inspired in part by the abstract animations of Oscar Fischinger (who actually worked on the film for a year), this segment of Fantasia begins by celebrating pure creation If any spirituality is invoked here, it is the universal non-anthropomorphic creative principle embodied in Eastern religions such as Hinduism (Brahman) or Taoism (the Tao). At least at first. However, as the segment proceeds, the abstract shapes are replaced by more recognizeable forms – violin bows, clouds, even a coffin. Finally, everything congeals into the highly anthropomorphic god figure of the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, seen in silhouette, seeming to create the entire universe with a let-there-be-light waving of his hands. It is a god-image that will be repeated several times throughout the course of this film.

Episode 2: The Nutcracker Suite
Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Religion: Celtic Faerie Faith/Nature Worship

Disregarding completely the scenario of Tchikovosky’s ballet with its pirouetting Nutcracker and evil mice, Fantasia‘s interpretation is all about Nature with a capital N. It begins with the descent of a swarm of Nature elementals – faeries – who arrive just before dawn to cover the world’s plant life with dew. All of Nature and its seasons – the flower petals that spin on the waters, the mushrooms that bob psychedelically up and down, the sexy goldfish who veil each other with their translucent tails, the falling leaves transformed by the faeries from summer green to autumn yellow and gold, and the winter whirl of faerie-ridden snowflakes – is seen as part of one harmonious dance.


Episode 3: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Composer: Paul Dukas
Religion: Magic (or as Kenneth Anger would spell it, “Magick”)

Fantasia‘s best-known sequence, taking its inspiration from a 1930 short by William Cameron Menzies that employed the same music and imagery, is all about Magic and its dangers.  Mickey Mouse plays an archetypal Wizard’s lazy assistant who, attempting to emulate his master, transforms a broom into a water-carrying servant. In short, he animates the broom, just as Disney animated Mickey Mouse. However, just like the legendary Golem or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Monster, the Creation becomes something that its Creator can no longer control. When Mickey attempts to destroy the water-carrying broom by chopping it into tiny pieces, each piece takes on a life of its own, and Mickey finds himself facing an army of water-carrying brooms. Mickey’s dream within this segment in which he magically “conducts” the waters (see image above) echoes the image of the conductor-as-god that concludes the Toccata and Fugue segment. The old Wizard who finally rectifies the situation is another god-figure.

Episode 4: The Rite of Spring
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Religion: Science/Darwinism

This is a sequence designed to warm a Secular Humanist’s heart. It shows the creation and evolution of life as Science has described it, beginning with the formation of stars and galaxies, descending to a planet Earth covered with bubbling lava and roiling waters from which the first one-celled creatures arise. The evolution of life proceeds from protozoans to jellyfish and crustacea to the first fish that crawls out of the water and, eventually, to dinosaurs. The dinosaurs attack each other in Darwinian survival of the fittest mode until they are extinguished by volcanic eruptions and other forms of climate change.

FANTASIA AND THE TREE OF LIFE: Anyone who has seen both Fantasia and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) will probably recognize The Tree of Life‘s Creation sequence as an almost scene-by-scene reenactment of Fantasia‘s Rite of Spring segment. It’s all there – the views of distant galaxies, the bubbling lava on Earth, the evolution of sea life, and the rise of the dinosaurs. But with a difference in attitude. Malick’s dinosaurs are comparatively peaceful, more curious than aggressive. And where The Rite of Spring‘s presentation of evolution contains nothing that would be offensive to an Atheist, Malick’s presentation of the same material is inflected with his belief in a creator God. I suspect that, like me, Malick saw Fantasia when he was very young and that it made a huge impression on him, helping to shape his world view. Hence the presence of a Rite of Spring-like creation sequence in the middle of a film that is mainly concerned with Malick’s Texas childhood. As further evidence of the Fantasia influence, there is a scene in The Tree of Life of Brad Pitt playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.

Episode 5: The Pastoral Symphony
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Religion:Roman Mythology

The Pastoral Symphony sequence takes us on a tour of pagan mythology, specifically Roman mythology. The action takes place on Mount Olympus, home to unicorns and centaurs (and centaurettes), to Pegasus the flying horse and his children, to cute child-like cupids and satyrs, and to the Gods themselves: Apollo the Sun God, Diana the Moon Goddess, Vulcan the God of Fire, and Jove the Father-God who conducts a thunderstorm the same way Mickey Mouse conducts the waters in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Stokowski conducts the universe in the Toccata and Fugue. The difference between Roman mythology and Greek mythology is illustrated in the way Dionysus, the dangerous Greek god of unbridled desire, becomes, in this Disneyfied version of Roman mythology, Bacchus the roly-poly and comparatively harmless God of Wine.

Episode 6: Dance of the Hours
Composer: Amilcare Ponchielli
Religion: Art

Fantasia‘s Dance of the Hours sequence pokes fun at dancers and others for whom Art is a religion. An absolute Red Shoes-like dedication to ballet becomes laughable when the dancers in question are ostriches and hippopotami.

Episode 7: Night on Bald Mountain
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Religion: Diabolism

Night on Bald Mountain is Fantasia‘s most subversive episode, the one that celebrates the Powers of Darkness. The god/conductor figure in this episode is Chernabog, a giant bat-winged demon who summons witches, banshees, and the spirits of the dead to his mountain retreat (an evil twin to Mount Olympus) where he forces them to dance and cavort while surrounded by hellish flames. Night on Bald Mountain is not so much pure evil as it is pure id – there is even more nudity and sexuality here than in the pagan Pastoral Symphony segment – all of which is dispelled, of course, by the arrival of Light and accompanying reason.

Episode 8: Ave Maria
Composer: Franz Schubert
Religion: Christianity

Lest Disney be accused of endorsing devil worship, Night on Bald Mountain is immediately followed by the solemn and pious Christian imagery of Ave Maria. Even for non-Christian viewers, Ave Maria provides Fantasia with a satisfying formal resolution. A film that is filled with light imagery concludes with a procession of tiny lights (pilgrims bearing torches) moving forward into one big Light.