The Sound of Childhood Fear: Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

And no. This has nothing to do with the fucking Nic Cage movie.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Disney’s Fantasia (1940) has a paralyzing effect on me. Maybe because I watched it at such a young age, and maybe because it frightened me so much at the time, but this scene sticks with me like a splinter in my mind, planted at childhood, one that digs as soon as those opening strings start going.  THAT SOUND… I mean, come on.
Even now, in the middle of a brightly lit Starbucks downtown with more than twenty people around me, I get genuine creeps while writing about it…
A black screen fades into the wizard conjuring spirits, his eyes piercing through the smoke exuding from the cauldron.
My palms start sweating, and a deep chills runs down my spine; the violin strings harmonize and pierce my eardrums.  I become five or six years old again when watching, and even though I know what’s coming I cannot tear my eyes away.  You know?

It’s a brilliant short stuffed with outright disturbing material.  In a total running time of less than ten minutes, “Apprentice” features a smoky demon, Mickey’s impish toying with unknown powers (like a child trying to burn ants with a magnifying glass), an inanimate broom rising with the strength and intelligence of a human, the overpowering creation ignoring its master in a life of its own, hubris on an astronomical scale, Mickey murdering and dismembering his first creation with an axe, fruitless attempts to undo and cover his mistakes,thoughtless & soulless (broom!)laborers bent on working to eternity, and, of course, the wizard’s outrage and reprimand for Mickey’s little experiment.  Shadows are used for dramatic effect and blinding lights flash from the screen; the whole thing is set in a dark, nameless castle, almost claustrophobic for how little one is able to see in it…
This is every one of my childhood nightmares: taking a game too far, losing control of a situation, having to cover mistakes, supernatural terrors, and the anger of a parent (I was a well-behaved kid, after all).

Then there’s the music.

Easily the most jarring element here, the music of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” as according to the movie itself, was written after the story, giving the composer time to reflect on how best to horrify children. Violins screech and sing with Mickey’s powers, cymbals clash as his broom-force takes control, horns blare in the background: it’s a singular “sound.”  I mean, not the timbre of this performance, but “sound” in the feeling of the music and its effect on me.  This is something I talk about with friends and read on music sites, but its effects still define it best:
Strings fade in, digging into ones mind like the wizard’s blue eyes.  Horns and a piano chord rise briefly, creating anticipation: expect to hear from them later.  After Mickey takes the wizard’s hat and places it on his head, he turns to the broomstick and stretches his arms toward it.  Horns blare as he reaches, holding long notes.  In my mind, I’m screaming “STOP” and he tries again and again. The broom sprouts arms; it’s like something that’s not supposed to be seen.

This is not the hellish nightmare that will come in “The Night On Bald Mountain,” which in its own right is disturbing (Disney just ain’t the same these days).  This is something worse. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the road to hell, the sound of walking towards doom, and there’s nothing to do but watch and listen.

-BD

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