Sounds and Sorcery: Celebrating Disney Fantasia

Reviewed by Toby Mori
Produced & presented by The Vaults
Running until 30th September 2018

Recommended for ages 8+

Long before Fantasia was a cinema classic, it was a flop. A critically-acclaimed, wildly-inventive flop, but a flop nonetheless. And it’s not hard to guess why a surrealist, highbrow Mickey Mouse movie released on the outbreak of World War Two didn’t do as well as Disney might have hoped. Original cinemas needed to install expensive specialist sound systems just to play the movie, the war meant the film couldn’t run in Europe and Disney’s usual distributor refused to release the original cut. My mind’s eye conjures up an image of an old-timey Hollywood executive taking a deep drag of his cigar, turning to a room filled with shareholders and saying in a grave serious voice, ‘we need to talk about Walt’. Fantasia was expensive, high-falutin’ and downright weird.

Nutcracker Suite featuring human-sized plant life. Photo: Hanson Leatherby

Fast-forward to 2018 and the angsty origin story is all but forgotten. Adjusting for inflation, Fantasia is the 22nd highest grossing movie ever (thank you, Wikipedia), Walt Disney is a genius and The Vaults is staging Sounds and Sorcery: Celebrating Disney Fantasia, an immersive music and/or theatre experience for ages 8 and up (3 and up at a pinch, but it’s not really recommended). All you have to do is book a slot at the venue, put on the headphones provided, and walk into the movie.

In the interest of approaching things with an open mind (and not at all because I’m terrible at preparation) I have very little idea what to expect. When I was younger, it wasn’t my favourite, so I’m surprised by my own emotional response as I am ushered into a room to watch musical instruments morph into abstracted fractals on the ceiling as Bach blasts into my ears. There is no clear visual story here – just swirling patterns. It’s an exciting, beautiful and bold beginning,  just like the start of the film!

Instrument installation. Photo: Jason Yeoman

Then doors swing open to reveal a sort of backstage area where we are invited to pass through mysterious doorways to explore scenes from all our old favourites. The Rite of Spring gives us a totally immersive primordial playground; a troupe of silent actors reminds us what happens when everything gets dangerously out of control in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; and some charming ballet dancers battle to hog the limelight in The Dance of the Hours. There are also five rooms devoted to an enchanted forest playing sections of The Nutcracker Suite. Clocks on the wall of central backstage indicate when each piece is about to begin, and we found we had the best experiences when we attended the pieces from the start.

Once you’ve had your fill of these, pause for a drink or just soak up the atmosphere in the bar area before heading off to the chilling finale of Night on Bare Mountain and a walk through a magical woodland as Ave Maria takes you to the outside world.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice featuring the Sorcerer and Brooms. Photo: Hanson Leatherby

It’s weird. Mostly in a very good way. The music has been specially re-recorded to match the shape of your head. The production is jammed full of holograms, lasers and projections. They have an erupting volcano! I experienced a lot of ‘firsts’.

It’s a brilliant spectacle, by turns delightful and scary, comic and beautiful. But it’s not perfect. Transitioning between rooms isn’t a seamless experience – you have to do some quick mental arithmetic to work out which order to visit the rooms to minimise waits between experiences. Occasionally I had a little interference in my headphones and sometimes it’s not clear where you can explore and which parts of the set are off limits, which resulted in a couple of trips. It’s also expensive at over £100 for a family ticket, but with this much cutting-edge technology, it’s not hard to see where the money has been spent.

The show is also in the constant shadow of its famous inspiration, allowing comparisons that are often but not always favourable. As we walk through the experience, my wife, herself a lifelong Fantasia devotee, reminds me that part of the beauty of the movie is that the visuals help you hear the narratives in music – even when these visuals are in the abstract. She wonders if the immersive experience might sometimes break up the storytelling, rather than enhancing it.

The Dance of the Hours featuring the Ostrich and Crocodile. Photo: Hanson Leatherby

I’d never really thought about this. And then it struck me that this was actually the most satisfying thing about Sounds and Sorcery: it invited us to talk about what makes Fantasia, and the music that inspired it, so amazing in the first place, and then decide whether we liked what we were seeing and why. This show won’t appeal to everyone and it won’t necessarily bring out the bits of the movie that mean the most to you. But it will be interesting, even when it misfires – and that’s fun too!

Walking back out onto a distinctly non-magical Waterloo Road, we ask the family in front of us what they thought of the experience. Mixed reception. The boy seems too traumatised by Bare Mountain to say very much at all, but his sister’s having none of it. ‘That was the best things I’ve ever seen in a theatre!’ she proclaims. Like Fantasia itself, Sounds and Sorcery is inspiring, beautiful and hugely daring. I can’t help thinking Walt would have approved.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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One response to “Sounds and Sorcery: Celebrating Disney Fantasia

  1. Having seen Alice in The Vaults previously, I can imagine how the space is used for this and your super review conjures the atmosphere brilliantly. What a glorious way to reinvent Fantasia and add excitement for a twentyfirst century audience hungry for a hands-on, technological spectacle. 😃

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