Opening the Disney Vault: Fantasia

With the lukewarm reception of Pinocchio, it became even more important that the Studio release more features to try and off-set the cost of making them. The parallel developments of the films Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi make it a little tricky to discuss one film without touching on the others. The release dates for all three were shuffled around, schedules pushed back and moved up, and it became blatantly obvious that Pinocchio and Bambi were seen by Walt as obligations. His passion project of the moment was Fantasia.

Referred to as The Concert Feature for much of its development, Walt envisaged the film as pushing the bounds of animation beyond what had been done before. Like Snow White, he was motivated by innovation and bringing artistry into a medium that was still disparagingly thought of as “just cartoons.” Unlike Snow White, however, Walt did not have a clear picture of exact sequences in mind that he was trying to get the animators to produce on screen. Fantasia became a film that was driven by creativity and inspiration rather than a single creative vision.

By the mid-1930s, the idea of animating a musical short set to Paul Dukas’ L’apprenti sorcierThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice – was enough on Walt’s mind that he obtained the rights to the music in July 1937, five months before Snow White premiered. It didn’t take much to get Polish composer Leopold Stokowski on board either; Walt had been in contact with Stokowski for most of the decade. With Snow White barely out the door, Walt was completely arrested by the idea of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He had Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra record the score in early January of 1938. Equally as excited as Walt, Stokowski pressed Walt to expand beyond The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It couldn’t have taken much to persuade Walt, because he decided to make a full-length feature, working title The Concert Feature, by February.

Keep in mind that in 1938, the studio already had Pinocchio and Bambi in development, with preliminary work on Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland underway. Adding The Concert Feature meant that there were five feature films on the docket, and don’t forget shorts were still being produced as well. While Snow White had been a triumph, its production had been haphazard – they were literally making up the process as they went. It didn’t provide the studio with a streamlined template for how to handle the production of an animated film, and the pressure was on to match or surpass the success of Snow White. To say that things were a bit of a shambles is an understatement.

Enamored by the production of Fantasia, Walt’s obligations to Pinocchio and Bambi had become, well, obligations. His single-minded passion that had fueled Snow White was now fueling Fantasia. Despite story and animation issues that came with Pinocchio, as discussed last week, it was released on 7th of February 1940. It was well received, but with the European market cut out due to the Second World War, returns were diminished. By this time Bambi had been pushed back to give animators more time to learn how to realistically animate deer. The goal of Fantasia was different to both Pinocchio and Bambi; It was to elevate animation beyond cartoons, to disregard narrative in favor of something more abstract and conceptual. Walt wanted to go even further beyond what they had already achieved – he wanted animation to be seen as an art form.

And honestly, why not? Most mediums run the gamut from popular culture to high culture – why should animation be any different? And in bringing animation into high culture he also hoped to bring classical music back to popular culture. He wanted to demystify classical music and make it more accessible to people. Walt was very in touch with his own working class beginnings, and he wanted to bring his new-found understanding of works like Toccata in Fugue to an audience he saw himself in.

In September 1938, Walt and Stokowski, along with music composer and critic Deems Taylor were selecting music for the film. Many options were considered, including Stravinsky’s Firebird which was picked up sixty years later for Fantasia 2000, and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen was suggested for a section based on the recently-released novel The Hobbit. Within two months they had a short-list of about a dozen pieces, and Walt hosted a presentation on the sound stage for around sixty of his artists. It was well received, and in the immediate aftermath, Walt, Taylor, and Stokowski settled on their final program. Of those selected, only Debussy’s Claire de Lune and Pierne’s Cydalise and the Goat-Foot didn’t make the final cut, the latter being replaced by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony during development.

As Fantasia grew, Walt became obsessed with the idea of presentation, of putting on a show. He had the studio develop Fantasound, a stereo sound system with the aim of creating an immersive experience. At one point he also wanted to release different scents into the theater during various sequences, though this never came to fruition. Fantasia was one of the first films released in stereo sound, and the heavy, expensive Fantasound system severely limited their ability to distribute the film as intended. Disney ended up making a special deal with RKO, their distributor at the time, to get them on-board with the film. RKO was skeptical about the mass appeal Fantasia would have, thinking it would be too upmarket, not to mention the headache of installing Fantasound in the few theaters that could take it. In the end, RKO agreed that they would not take their distribution fees from the takings until it had recouped the cost of making the film. Both sides seemed a little reluctant, and Walt’s brother Roy noted that this was when they started to seriously think about distributing their own films.

When Fantasia premiered on the 13th of November 1940, it was very well-received by the audience. Critical opinion was much more divided. While some heralded Fantasia as a triumphant masterpiece, others took umbrage with it. Music critics in particular disliked how some of the pieces had been rearranged to fit the film, and some were aggravated by the Pastoral Symphony sequence – which Stokowski had predicted during production. Beethoven was worshiped by the musical world, Stokowski had explained, and straying for his vision would invite backlash. But some of the most damning criticism was on the political front. In a review for The New York Herald Tribune that reads today as hilariously reactionary, Dorothy Thompson wrote that she had left the theater “in a condition bordering on nervous breakdown,” suggested a link between how the film abdicated responsibility to nature and Nazism, called the film a “caricature of the decline of the West,” and reported did not even stay through the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria sequences. For the public, however, the critical clashing over the film drove more people to see it.

But even then, the release of Fantasia was limited. Rather than distribute the film like others, RKO opted to host thirteen roadshows throughout the country with reservations booked in advance. Fantasia broke Broadway’s longest-running record at the time, running for forty-nine weeks, and it was wildly popular where it was screened. But between mounting financial pressures at the studio and the prospect of war hanging over the country, it quickly became clear that Walt wasn’t going to be able to continue to add to and re-release the film as he had originally wanted. He liked the idea of being able to add more to the existing film, to keep pushing themselves further and further, but ultimately such an idea was a pipe dream. Some of the political criticism is overblown, but at the same time, what worked for Depression audiences – escapism and fantasy – wasn’t working for audiences before and during the war. By being stubbornly laser focused on the Studio, Walt lost touch of the cultural zeitgeist.

There was a very limited theatrical re-release of Fantasia at the end of last year to mark the 75th anniversary of the film. I made a joke then along the lines of “but if you see it in theaters, how are you supposed to skip all the boring bits you normally do?,” which seems to be a relatively common confession made among people I talk to about the film. Having re-watched it, I would still say that it’s a film that needs you to be in the right mindset to view it. Fantasia is over two hours of relatively lengthy animated shorts set to classical music, and most of the shorts don’t really have a narrative so much as a thread running through them to connect the events. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s done very successfully, in fact – but it does demand more from you as an audience member. It’s probably why casually watching the film tends to make your eyes glaze over: if you aren’t actively engaging in the film, it doesn’t do much in the way of conventional film to pull you in.

If you are prepared to meet the film halfway, it becomes a visual feast. Character animation is paraded as the be-all end-all even today, but Fantasia allows effects animators a chance to shine. Effects animators are often unsung heroes: the nature of their job is that if they’re doing it really well, it should be invisible. They animate everything that isn’t a character: water, bubbles, leaves, snow, lava, lightning, clouds, smoke, the list goes on. It requires a sense of style like any other kind of animation, stylizing the effects to make a believable rainstorm while also conforming to the overall design of the film. Their work is everywhere in animated films, it’s what makes the world on screen feel alive. The more abstract nature of Fantasia showcases their work much more prominently than most animated films. The best part of the Rite of Spring sequence is the first half, when the primordial Earth is heaving with lava flows and tectonic activity. The broiling lava is mesmerizing to watch as it swells and bursts in time with the music. It’s so effective it manages to take something away from the second half of the sequence – no mean feat when the second half includes a dinosaur battle.

If Rite of Spring is hypnotic raw power, the Dance of the Nutcracker sequence is hypnotic for its delicacy. It has a dream-like quality as the suite progresses through each of the movements, one fading into the next on a dark background. Moving from balletic dew fairies to charming mushrooms and dancing thistles, it showcases the skill of the all-female staff in Disney’s Ink and Paint Department. Every one of the thousands of sparkles of glitter in the sequence was of course, hand drawn, and then hand painted onto the cel by an Ink and Paint worker. And of course, the transparent sheen on the fish in the “Arabian Dance” movement is entirely Ink and Paint. The tone matches Tchaikovsky’s score note for note, and it’s a perfect match of styles.

But the opening number is the most abstract of all the sequences, and provided the greatest challenge for how to approach the animation. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor begins with the orchestra in dramatic silhouette, and boldly colored lighting takes cues from the music. As the music progresses, the silhouettes fade into abstract colors and clouds. From here, the music is represented visually by a variety of different images, from sparkling water to string bows sawing through the clouds. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas noted the difficulties in creating imagery that carried the same weight and depth as Bach’s iconic music.

It would be easy to write another several hundred words on every one of the Fantasia sequences (I haven’t even touched on Bill Tytla’s masterful animation of Chernabog), but you get the idea. It’s unfortunate that last year’s theatrical re-release was so limited, because the experience of watching this film on a modern cinema screen would be breathtaking. Though Fantasia is largely regarded as a classic, it seems to be one of those classics no-one bothers to watch, and giving it a wide theatrical re-release would give new generations of audiences the chance to be swept away by it. For now, we have to content ourselves with the Blu-Ray release on home televisions. But don’t let that stop you from seeking it out. Fantasia is not for the faint of heart, but it is also not to be missed.

Information and quote for this article have been taken from Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography of Walt Disney, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’ 1981 book The Illusion of Life, and Dorothy Thompson’s report for The New York Herald Tribune dated November 25, 1940.



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