It was a night of orchestral and opera music, only the local symphony and opera company weren't involved.
It was "Fantasia" night at the Plaza Classic Film Festival, the sorcerer's cap on a day that explored the wonderful world of Disney.
It started in the morning with "Waking Sleeping Beauty," Don Hahn's 2009 doc about Disney's return to animation glory. It continued in the afternoon with a couple of cheesy '60s live-action family movies — the Hayley Mills comedy "The Parent Trap" (which was well attended) and the adventure "In Search of the Castaways" (which was not) — and concluded in the evening with what amounts to one of the first music videos ever made.
"Fantasia" has had an interesting life. It started out as one of Disney's "Silly Symphonies" — the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment — and turned into eight visual interpretations of different pieces of classical music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted without a baton by Leopold Stokowski, and created by more than 1,000 artists and technical personnel.
It was Disney's third animated feature, an attempt to take classical music to a wider audience. It failed at first. Originally shown in 13 cities across the country beginning in late 1940, its commercial prospects were dampened by the war and the high cost of showing it.
It went into wide theatrical release in 1942, but didn't start to turn a profit until 1969 when pot-smoking, acid-dropping college kids embraced it.
"Fantasia" is considered one of Disney's great achievements, and one of the animated division's most experimental movies. It's also one of the studio's most inventive films.
There was a big crowd — 1,300 — for Wednesday's show at the Plaza Theatre; kids of all ages, really, from little ones getting exposed to the classical classic for the first time, to grayhairs (and no hairs) who grew up with it.
The buzz of anticipation was palpable from the first enthusiastic ovation PCFF artistic director Charles Horak received to introduce it. Judging by the oohs, aahs and pointing fingers, a showing of the theater's specially created "Western Skies" light and projection show made clear that many of the people in the historic movie palace were there for the first time, or at least the first time in many years.
The 1936 Disney short "Mickey's Grand Opera," was the perfect opening act for the two-hour marriage of symphonic music and animation that followed. Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney himself) conducts "Rigoletto," Goofy chases a magician named Hoodunit's rabbit and dove-spewing top hat and diva Clara Cluck, a chicken, and Donald Duck try to "sing" through the mayhem.
It was the first magical moment I've experienced at this year's fourth annual festival, when the CGI-weaned kids little kids in the crowd laughed in all the right spots. I got a little emotional just hearing it (maybe all these 13 hours days have something to do with that), not to mention teary-eyed from laughing.
By poking gentle fun at opera — with Clara clucking and Donald quacking their parts — it not only inroduced a lot of novices to that rarefied form of musical theater, but did so in a most effective way, through humor.
"Fantasia" takes a different tack, with composer and music critic Deems Taylor doing the professorial introductions and Stokowski and the Philadelphia orchestra providing the soundtrack for the eight segments created by that vast team of illustrators and others.
To illustrate the concept of creating images to music — and believe me, this is far more imaginative than your average music video today — Walt's crew starts with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the imagery slowly shifting away from shots of the musicians and their shadows to impressionistic animation.
The movie's best known segment, of course, is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," in which a lazy Mickey enchants a broom to hoise water buckets for him, only to find his bit of magic goes awry. It clearly was one of the biggest audience pleasers of the night.
But there's so much more, like the inventive use of color flowers as ballet dancers in Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," the frolicking unicorns, centaurs and cupids (whose naked behinds drew plenty of giggles from the little ones) of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony and (my personal favorite), the dainty hippos, gawky ostriches and nimble elephants who humorously tiptoe and spin their ways through Amilcare Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours."
Interestingly, the dissonant music of Stravinsky's ballet "Rite of Spring" lent itself to a literal portrayal of evolution theory, but also seemed to get under the kids' collective skin. There was more shuffling around, more anxiety, more noise beng generated by the youngest audience members during that piece.
Talk about your mass psychological experiments.
Restless kids aside, "Fantasia" is not only a movie that has gotten more interesting with time, the imagination with which Disney and his team interpreted these pieces from the classical repertoire seems more ingenious now than ever.
It's a wonderful world, indeed.
In other PCFF news:
• The third and fourth collectible programs debuted Wednesday. These feature Warholish images of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not," which showed Aug. 5, and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," which will be shown at 7 p.m. Aug. 12, with an introduction by screenwriter Stewart Stern and critic Leonard Maltin.
They join the first two covers — Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which shows at 6:30 and 9:15 pm. Aug. 11, and Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," which played opening, Aug. 4.
• You may have noticed that two previously announced guests have not shown up.
Nick Clooney, a hit at the last two festivals, had to cancel due to an illness in his family (not George, I'm told). And Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary, who was here last year, had to bow out.
Chicago Sun-Times arts editor Laura Emerick, who is Roger Ebert's editor, stepped in to help fill the void. She introduced "In Search of the Castaways" and Orson Welles' "MacBeth" today.
She'll also talk about Shirley Temple's "The Little Princess" (3:30 p.m. Aug. 11 in the Philanthropy Theatre) and the Robert Aldrich-directed Mike Hammer film noir "Kiss Me Deadly" at 10 a.m. Aug. 12 in the Plaza.
• Originally, Boston trio the Alloy Orchestra was only announced to accompany the 1927 silent film, "Underworld," Josef von Sternberg's prototypical crime drama, at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 in the Plaza.
But the group also will perform original music to the Hans Richter experimental silent short "Filmstudie" at 10 p.m. Aug. 12, before the main attraction, Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."
No one under 15 will be admitted, BTW.
"Filmstudie" is part of AO's new "Wild and Weird" program, which features several shorts from the silent era.