Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fantasia (1940) - A Walt Disney Movie with the First Music Videos

Fantasia: A Journey Ahead of its Time into Surrealism

DVD cover front and back of Fantasia 1940
The "Fantasia" DVD case.
Fantasia (1940), directed by a team of uncredited Disney pros, has a fascinating story behind it. Walt Disney was unhappy.  Mickey Mouse, the jewel in his crown, the oyster in his salad, was losing favor with the public. Mickey had been the undisputed king of short films since his introduction in 1928 and had his own comic strip in the papers, but times were changing. Without Mickey, the studio would become directionless, dependent as never before on animated beloved fairy tales of which there was a limited supply.

Pencil drawing of Mickey Mouse from Fantasia 1940
A draft of Mickey Mouse in "The Sorceror's Apprentice."
Somebody suggested using Dopey, one of the dwarfs from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in a "Silly Symphony" short, and something clicked in Walt's head.  He would instead use Mickey and make it the Silly Symphony to end all Silly Symphonies!

Conductor Leopold Stokowski shaking hands with Mickey Mouse in Fantasia 1940
Leopold Stokowski shakes hands with Mickey Mouse
However, after thinking about the short, which he had decided would be entitled "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Walt was still unhappy. The quality indeed was better than anything Mickey had been in before, with brilliant, vibrant colors and a wonderful soundtrack. Another bigger problem had arisen: he needed to make some money off of it, and the little project had ballooned in cost. His plan to resurrect Mickey had put the financial health of the studio in jeopardy, and little did he know the financial disaster that awaited in "Pinocchio."

Deems Taylor narrating Fantasia 1940
Deems Taylor narrates.
The solution was to double down on Mickey.  Rather than create just another short, Walt decided to expand "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" into a feature-length film.  All he needed was a conductor. He ran into Leopold Stokowski, head of the Philadelphia Orchestra and famous in his own right, and, over dinner, Stokowski agreed to conduct for nothing.

Flying horses in Fantasia 1940
The Pegasus scene in "The Pastoral Symphony" segment.
With Stokowski on board, Disney's imagination ran wild.  He would create an entire animated concert!  Without a story or any structure, though, he would need somebody to tell the audience what was going on.  He brought Stokowski in and they settled on Deems Taylor, the popular host of weekly radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic, as the master of ceremonies.

Dinosaurs in Fantasia 1940
Showing Dinosaurs on film ("Rite of Spring") wasn't as common back then.
Walt then had a couple of his staff story writers, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, select some classical numbers to be played in the film. Then he, Stokowski and some of Walt's top lieutenants held a sequence of meetings to make the final choices. Walt had specific ideas in mind, such as an animated piece with dinosaurs, and let the music experts figure out which would work. Stokowski and Deems didn't always agree, but in the end, a consensus was reached. The selections chosen were:

Song Segments in "Fantasia"

  • Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.
  • Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
  • The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas.
  • Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky.
  • The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven.
  • Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli.
  • Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert.
There also was a jazz jam session after the Intermission, which fell after "Rite of Spring."

Mickey Mouse ordering around a mop in The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence of Fantasia 1940
Mickey having fun in "The Sorceror's Apprentice."
The animators went to work. For inspiration, they studied famous ballerinas and brought in animal experts such as the Director of the Museum of Natural History, Roy Chapman Andrews. Over one thousand artists and technicians became involved, and color stylists carefully created color schemes that would flow from piece to piece. Different directors were used for each sequence, with Ben Sharpsteen helping to both produce and direct.

A family of centaurs in Fantasia 1940
A Pegasus and family in "The Pastoral Symphony."
Walt Disney still wasn't done.  He wanted to do something big, to stretch the boundaries of animation. Stokowski and he dreamed of releasing scents in theaters for different musical numbers, but that proved unworkable. Since the music was so important in this project, more so than in any other animated film, Disney contacted David Sarnoff of RCA, who agreed to create a stereophonic surround sound system that had never been used in film before. The result was "Fantasound," which captured the symphony's sound better than ever before. The process was never used again, though it led to advances in multi-track recording, overdubbing and noise reduction.

A centaurette in Fantasia 1940
A Centaurette in "The Pastoral Symphony."
With everything in place, the picture was completed, but then a new problem arose: RKO refused to distribute it, calling it too long (Disney's only feature over two hours) and a "longhair musical." Walt said fine, I'll just take "Fantasia" on the road, and that's what he did. "Fantasia" opened in a total of thirteen roadshows held in major cities across the country. They were elaborate affairs, with special illustrated program booklets and special theater marquees for "Fantasia."

Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia 1940
"The Sorceror's Apprentice" is the most famous segment.
Upon release, "Fantasia" immediately broke box office records, but the limited release meant limited revenue.   It was sort of a game back then, "10 Smash Weeks at the Roxy" and all that were so much hooey, so you have to take such "records" with a grain of salt." The onset of World War II eliminated European revenues, and RKO took over distribution. To cut costs, RKO eliminated Fantasound, which was expensive to set up in each theater, and cut "Fantasia" drastically to allow more showings. "Fantasia" was reduced to second billing to a low-profile Western and lost money.

Three dinosaurs in Fantasia 1940
Several scenes are quite scary, this is from "Dance of the Hours."
Disney Studios stayed in business, no thanks to "Fantasia." "Fantasia" since has been re-released half a dozen times and has gone in and out of favor. The 1969 re-release was successful because many viewers thought it fit in well with the "acid culture" of the time, just like "Alice in Wonderland," and Disney promoted "Fantasia" that way to turn a profit.

Freak out with Disney
From Films and Filming Magazine, January 1971.
"Fantasia'''s image suffered as a result. Walt surely never would have approved, but he had gone on to his own personal Fantasia. As the decades passed, nobody quite knew what to do with "Fantasia" creatively, although it made money in whatever form it took. Every time "Fantasia" was shown, something different had been altered or tweaked or digitally removed.

Wood nymphs in Fantasia 1940
A gathering in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine, for "The Pastoral Symphony."
Today, "Fantasia" is acclaimed as a classic and, in real dollar terms, is one of the highest-grossing films in history. Its 1991 home video release broke sales records, and finally, a sequel was initiated by Roy Disney, "Fantasia 2000," as a sort of memorial to Walt Disney himself. Of course, for those in the know, the original "Fantasia" was itself a memorial to the man - the Sorceror was deliberately ("secretly") modeled on Walt Disney, bushy eyebrows and all. If the physical resemblance wasn't clear enough, the Sorceror was called "Yen Sid." You didn't have to be a candidate for working on the upcoming Enigma project during World War II to realize that was "Walt Disney" spelled backward.

Sorceror Mickey Mouse Fantasia 1940 //
The Sorceror, Yen Sid, and Mickey Mouse.
History repeated: "Fantasia 2000," released in late 1999, was a creative success, and a financial disaster. Apparently, the project took a decade to complete as the studio (meaning Roy Disney) couldn't pin down the numbers to be included until virtually the last minute (after ten full years!). You know Disney, though, they'll be making a ton of money on "Fantasia 2000" in 2030, 2040, 2050... They have the outlets to keep "Fantasia 2000" (and "Fantasia" itself, for that matter) selling slowly but surely until the end of time. The "Fantasia" franchise already has had a lasting influence: outside of classical music circles, Stokowski and Deems are remembered today only for their participation in "Fantasia."

Mickey Mouse in control in Fantasia 1940
"Fantasia" is a kaleidoscope of color.
It isn't difficult to see that Walt Disney wanted to make "Fantasia" the first full-scale sequence of music videos, with the greatest production values and based on the best sources available on classical music. He was forty years ahead of MTV and its true spiritual father. He made some pseudo-sequels a few years later that were never recognized as such, "Make Mine Music," "Melody Time" and "Fun and Fancy Free," but this is the best of them all. If you enjoy fine animation, a nice selection of classical music "greatest hits," and are willing to immerse yourself for a couple of hours in animation history, "Fantasia" is a top choice for an evening's entertainment.

Below is the trailer.


1 comment:

  1. Great reviews!

    We're linking to your article for Children's Animated Flicks Tuesday at

    Keep up the good work!