Nearly 77 years ago, the first screening of the Walt Disney feature film Fantasia took place in the Broadway Theatre of New York. Since its first opening night on Broadway, it has gone down in history as a masterpiece and the pinnacle of animated film. The film is over two hours in length, that was incredibly ambitious for its time, and includes eight animated segments set to different pieces of classical music. The final segment, featuring Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” is a beautiful prayer to Our Lady, that came close to never being shown in theaters.
The “Ave Maria” segment is the most beautiful of the film, and one of the most ambitious shots in animation history. It was the longest single animated take of its time, and involved moving a camera through a soundstage with a maze of illustrated panels. Walt Disney and his team were so rushed for time that the final footage for the scene arrived to the Broadway Theatre only four hours before the films first showing.
In the penultimate segment, entitled “Night on Bald Mountain,” Chernabog, Satan himself as described by Walt Disney, emerges during the night on the peak of Bald Mountain. (Mount Triglav in Slovenia) The evil figure arises to summon his minions: ghosts, demons, hags, and harpies. Chernabog and his underlings dance maniacally as he throws them into the mountains fiery pit. His antics are defeated when the town below Bald Mountain rings its bells, signalling daybreak, and Chernabog becomes the top of the mountain once again. After the audience descended into darkness, a procession of figures ascends them into light as they greet the coming sunrise.
In the segment, a long line of figures gradually comes into view in the front of village. The silhouettes each carry a source of golden light, and are eventually revealed to be nuns. They walk slowly throughout a sloping forest as the sky is gradually filled with light of day. The camera passes the procession, panning to the horizon and ending with the sun rising. While Walt Disney was originally conflicted whether to include Our Lady in the animation, he eventually decided on including only the nuns who emerge into “a blaze of morning light. Once again the powers of life and hope have triumphed over the hosts of death and despair.”
Watch the beautiful Disney animated prayer of “Ave Maria”: