IU Cinema Director of Events and Engagement Jessica Davis Tagg explains why the Disney classic (and childhood favorite) is her choice for this fall’s Staff Selects series.
Before starting, I want to emphasize the most important thing I will say here: to watch Fantasia in a theater like IU Cinema may well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Disney has not released the movie in theaters since 1990, and the stereophonic surround sound recording system developed particularly for this movie in 1939 is going to sound amazing and immersive in the Cinema. It may be another 33 years before you get an opportunity to see it on the big screen again!
I cannot clearly remember a time in my life when Fantasia was not a part of it. As the child of two music professors, many loving adults in my life absolutely knew that I must own it on VHS, so in 1991, the one time in history it was released in that format, we ended up with at least three copies. As it turns out, this was a good thing, as VHS is not known for being the most robust of media, and my younger sister Katie, our best friend and neighbor R.J., and myself could wear out a copy and then just start a new one.
Our favorite were the dances from The Nutcracker Suite, and each of the three of us would take turns dancing our favorite role (the littlest mushroom), rewinding and replaying each time. The centaurs of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 was another, but we nearly always skipped The Rite of Spring (not funny!), much to the horror of my composer/bassoonist father, who adores Stravinsky and kept trying to convince us of its value by telling us about the sophistication of the opening bassoon solo and rhythmic structure. We were unconvinced.
When IU Cinema started the Staff Selects series in 2017, my name was the second one drawn out of the hat and I immediately asked to program Fantasia. Our programmers did their best, but Walt Disney has its rules and we were refused. Instead, I programmed Humoresque, a cruelly unknown and amazing work starring John Garfield and Joan Crawford, with extraordinary violin performances done ostensibly by Garfield’s character but actually by a young Isaac Stern. When my name came out of the hat again a few years later, I again asked for Fantasia as my first choice, only to be denied again (this time I went for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which remains one of my most fun IU Cinema experiences). In summer 2023, I finally got another chance. Hope springs eternal: I asked for Fantasia. Unbelievably, it was confirmed for Friday, September 8, 2023 at 7pm.
In classical tradition, a fantasia does not have any strict rules, expected forms, or harmonic structure. It is composed in a quasi-improvisational, free-form style, which does closely match the overall style of the film. It’s worth noting that of the pieces of repertoire represented in Fantasia, nearly all of them would already qualify as “program music” (music that has an extra-musical idea associated with it, like a story or a place), and only one — J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor — would be described as strictly “absolute music” (music with no extra-musical idea associated with it). But far from simply animating what composers had already hoped the audiences could imagine, the Disney artists often moved far above and beyond the original associations of each piece and let their imaginations run wild.
Take my childhood least-favorite segment of Fantasia, “the dinosaurs.” Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a ballet that, according to Stravinsky, “represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and the great surge of the creative power of spring,” and it culminates in a sacrifice where a young woman dances herself to death. Walt Disney felt that Stravinsky’s reach to sonically capture something “primitive” would entwine itself perfectly with something more literally primordial, leading to the fantastical presentation of early Earth’s history and the prehistoric beings who lived then.
Similarly, Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours goes a long way from its original story depicting the cycle of the day (dawn, day, dusk, night, and the return of the dawn) in the midst of a very serious French grand opera, right before the evil Grand Inquisitor reveals that he forced his wife to commit suicide because she loves another. Delightful kid’s stuff! So, instead we get a ballet of animals like hippos and alligators, in such perfect accord with the music that I cannot hear or watch poor Ponchielli’s original “masquerade of dazzling dancers, adorned with beauty and magnificence” without thinking about ostriches.
As the music and its performance is central to the experience of the movie, Walt Disney determined that a new system needed to be developed in order to make the symphony as immersive as possible. This became known as “Fantasound,” and is an early precursor to modern 5.1, 7.1, and Atmos surround sound systems. I don’t want to get too technical, but one can imagine the foresight it took to do what was then considered impossible: make the soundtrack “move,” with different sounds coming from different locations. When Fantasia premiered in 1940, it was only in roadshow form, as movie theaters simply didn’t have the equipment to make Fantasound work. Ultimately, the process was abandoned and the movie re-released in mono. There have been only a handful of opportunities to witness Fantasia in surround sound in a movie theater: during the original 1940–1941 roadshow and in two theaters (one in New York City and one in Los Angeles) during the 1990 re-release. Until now! I will close by re-iterating my opening plea: Fantasia is not just a movie you should see, this is one to experience, discover, and re-live in a place like IU Cinema. I recommend buying your tickets now and arriving early to get a great seat. You can thank me at the end of the movie. I’ll be the one squirming in my seat — I seriously am not sure I have ever watched Fantasia without participating in some low-quality, childish, delightful, joyous choreography.
Jessica Davis Tagg, the Cinema’s Director of Events and Engagement, has over a decade of arts administration experience working with groups such as the Interlochen Center for the Arts, Tanglewood Festival, and most recently served as the executive director of the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra. Jessica continues to focus on developing and implementing ways to help people gain a deeper understanding and enjoyment of the arts.