For all the cynics who think that Walt Disney was just an entertainment entrepreneur who only cared about making money and taking over the world with theme parks, I’d like to talk about the movie Fantasia because not only is it one of Disney’s most unique films but it might be the most clear evidence that Walt Disney’s ambition was not to rule the world but to change it. This was no ordinary film and its innovative concept was such a financial risk that Disney’s distributor RKO was reluctant to release it at all, but Walt was so excited by the idea of the film that he deemed the project a risk well worth taking and film history would look kindly on a movie that was very ahead of its time.
Unlike many of his animation colleagues who were satisfied with making comical cartoons full of slapstick such as Popeye and Looney Tunes, Walt actually cared about elevating the medium of animation by taking it into new directions that could potentially give animation the same kind of respect that other art forms receive.
Fantasia is a musical animated film that simulated the experience of a concert. It was first released in 1940 and it featured seven animated segments set to classical music. The songs/segments (each one introduced by Deems Taylor and composed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra) include Toccata and Fugue, The Nutcracker Suite, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Rite of Spring, The Pastoral Symphony, Dance of the Hours, Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria (those last two are combined into the seventh and final segment), all visually interpreted by Disney’s team of animators.
The film was a huge departure from Disney’s previous films. The studio had already done revolutionary work with films like Steamboat Willie, Flowers and Trees, Three Little Pigs, The Old Mill and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt had accomplished what he wanted to with those films, increasing the popularity of animation while simultaneously opening the medium up to new possibilities. In fact after Disney popularized sound with Mickey Mouse cartoons, the Silly Symphonies series was started soon after to emphasize music rather than the Mickey Mouse cartoons which emphasized comedy. In some ways Fantasia was what the Silly Symphonies were building up to (especially since the series ended the year before Fantasia was released).
Walt was a champion for innovative entertainment and he wanted animated films to get the same amount of respect that live-action films received. At the same time, he treated his audience with respect by challenging them with new ideas with total faith that the average moviegoer would appreciate something like Fantasia as long as he gave the film a certain level of quality.
Walt, always the showman, originally envisioned Fantasia as a widescreen audio-dimensional extravaganza for the senses, even considering the use of 3D for the film. Walt wanted Fantasia to have the same respect that Gone with the Wind received with reserved seats, matinees and evening performances for adult audiences in the planning stages with the goal of making the film’s release the event of the year.
Fantasia was even the first commercial motion picture to be exhibited with stereophonic sound, for which the sound process “Fantasound” was developed. Fantasound ran four optical sound tracks during the picture (one heard on the left, one heard on the right, one heard from the center and one carrying three tones which individually controlled the volume level of the other three) and it really made the film a memorable experience for audiences in 1940 who were surrounded by music as they watched excellent animation.
It was an amount of ambition that was not surprising for the man who would later go on to create Disneyland. Unfortunately RKO did not have faith in Fantasia because it was just too radical and audiences agreed, causing the film to fail at the box office during its initial run. While the film was unlike anything ever seen before and it received acclaim from many film critics, it only started getting the respect it deserved from the public after re-releases in later decades.
The film was first reissued in 1946 and reissued again ten years later in 1956. It was during its release in the fifties (back when abstract films became more widely accepted) that audiences began to appreciate the film and realized how much of a masterpiece it was. During its reissue in 1969, even baby boomers who found psychedelic appeal in the film started becoming fans.
During its 1990 reissue, a remastered theatrical version made its screen debut, and it was this version that got released on VHS, Betamax and LaserDisc in 1991 and became the biggest-selling casette tape of all time with 14.2 million copies purchased, with the limited 50-day window prompting much of the sales. This popularity was actually the main contributing factor to Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s decision to greenlight the sequel Fantasia 2000.
Even before Fantasia started gaining more popularity, Walt had never once regretted making the film and he always spoke of it with enthusiasm. He arguably never made a film as artistically risky for the rest of his career.
Conductor Leopold Stokowski was the perfect collaborator because he was as adventurous with sound as Walt was with film. One of the most popular conductors of the early 20th century best known for his association with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Stokowski was very much in the public eye before Fantasia came out, even appearing as himself in Hollywood films like The Big Broadcast of 1937 and 100 Men and a Girl. Walt could find a worse ally in his goal to bring classical music to the masses. Stokowski was not a stuffy classical music purist. In fact he had a free and experimental conducting style that made his work distinct. Stokowski went on record saying he enjoyed working with Walt due to his boundless imagination and direct approach to getting his vision on the screen, complimenting his knack for finding the talents of his crew and implementing them to the fullest extent.
The origin of Fantasia began with the segment The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring Mickey Mouse. It was first announced that Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski were to collaborate on an animated short based on the 1897 composition by Paul Dukas back in 1937. Even before Walt had the idea to expand the short film to a concert film featuring several shorts, it was his intention with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to provide a new and special kind of entertainment that would have no dialogue and no sound effects, instead emphasizing only art and music while avoiding ordinary cartoon gags in favor of more sophisticated storytelling.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was no Silly Symphony. It was ambitious and expensive and one of the reasons why it was decided that it would not be released on its own was because the company would never get their money back on a Mickey Mouse short film. Thus Walt’s imagination ran wild and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became Fantasia.
During talks with Stokowski and his crew, Walt called the film the “concert feature” but Stokowski referred to the project as a “fantasia” and the appealing title stuck.
American composer and music critic Deems Taylor was hired not only as a musical adviser on the film but as the on-screen narrator who introduced each segment, which he had experience with on radio as the intermission commentator for the radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Symphony.
Walt hired Disney artists Dick Huemer and Joe Grant to select music pieces and provide concepts for stories that the music could tell and in September 1938, Stokowski, Taylor, Huemer, Grant, Walt Disney and various heads of departments at the studio got together for a three-week conference where they listened to hundreds of classical music recordings and essentially created the blueprints for the film. You can see the results for yourself when you watch it.
With Fantasia, Walt said that you will be able to “see the music and hear the pictures” and he hailed it as the company’s most exciting adventure as they sought to combine the greatest music with the “flood of new ideas which it inspires” in the field of animation. Walt had originally planned to make a sequel himself and he wanted it to be a continuous series of films, but its financial failure led to the abandonment of that plan and the repurposing of some of the ideas he intended to include in it, such as a segment based on Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic tale Peter and the Wolf which ended up being included in the 1946 film Make Mine Music instead. No word on if Fantasia will ever return but what they have accomplished certainly stands on its own as a work of cinematic art and I am satisfied with it.