According to Deems Taylor, writing in 1940 (although the story was later denied by Disney sources), Fantasia first began as a comeback vehicle for Mickey Mouse after the Disney Studio had turned from modest cartoon production to large-scale animation features. Certainly Disney had used the Silly Symphony format to introduce additional cartoon figures – Pluto in 1930, the Three Pigs in 1933, and then Donald Duck in 1934, who went on to challenge Mickey's top billing. Also in 1934 Disney began work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a considerable gamble that came to be regarded as "Disney's Folly," but went on to turn a profit of $8 million in its first release in 1937 and earned a special Oscar from the Motion Picture Academy. Pinocchio followed the success of Snow White, introducing Jiminy Cricket as an ingenuous narrator. At this point, then, in 1938, Disney began thinking about a new role for Mickey.
Disney's solution was to make Mickey the lead figure of a special cartoon rendering of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", a fairy tale that had been set to music by the French composer Paul Dukas. Needing musical advice, Disney broached the project to the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, who was interested not only in the Dukas/Mickey idea but also in extending the project to an animated concert feature. Disney then began thinking in terms of "The Concert Feature" that was to become Fantasia. Whether the idea to expand was Disney's or Stokowski's has also been disputed.
At any rate, Deems Taylor, the radio voice of the Metropolitan Opera, was brought in to provide further advice and to handle the narrative transitions among the concert film's various "movements," involving eight different musical compositions. Disney presumably saw the project as a challenging experiment in animated technique rather than an opportunity to use animation merely as a means of popularizing classical music for the masses. In the Bach Toccata and Fugue portion, for example, Disney artists were encouraged to experiment visually and boldly, in ways never before imagined. This sequence, early in the film, signals its experimentalism, departing from the usual Disney style and moving in abstract directions, imitating the techniques of Oscar Fischinger, who was originally to direct that sequence but left the project before completing it, after discovering the studio had altered his original designs. Other experiments are elsewhere in evidence, as when the sound track is visualized through animation midway through the film, recalling the abstract experiments of Len Lye and anticipating those of Norman McLaren. More conventional Disney whimsy is elsewhere in evidence, however, and there is perhaps the danger of vulgarizing the music through the imposed visual patterns. In fact, the sequences are diverse and uneven.
The film has been criticized for its "ponderous didacticism" (the visualization of the "paleontological cataclysm" in the Stravinsky Rite of Spring sequence, for example, and the simplistic contrasts of the final sequences – Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain against Schubert's Ave Maria, with Good triumphing over Evil in a finale of Christian tranquility) and praised for those sequences in which Disney contented himself with being Disney and avoided self-conscious attempts at being "artistic."
Fantasia came to Disney at a time when risks were being taken. After the demonstrated success of "Disney's Folly," animation began on Fantasia early in 1938. The production cost $2,280,000, including $400,000 for the music alone. Disney began thinking in terms of wide-screen production, multiplane Technicolor, and "Fantasound," representing a major technical innovation involving the use of stereophonic sound and employing a new four-track optical stereophonic system. The achievement of "Fantasound" was something of a compromise: according to Peter Finch, Disney "developed a sound system utilizing seven tracks and thirty speakers," but the system was "prohibitively expensive" and only installed in a few theatres. The score was recorded at the acoustically splendid Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
For the first time, moreover, Disney became his own distributor with Fantasia, since, as Variety reported, the film was so different as to require a different sales approach. It premiered on 13 November 1940, at the Broadway Theatre in New York, and was not an immediate success. Its original running time, with an intermission, was about 130 minutes, later cut to 81 minutes. It was reissued in 1946, but it would only build its audience strength over time. By 1968, for example, it had earned $4.8 million in North American markets, more than doubling its original investment, and finally taking its place among the top 200 grossing films.
In musical terminology, a fantasia is "a free development of a given theme." Disney's achievement, though often impressive and no doubt ahead of its time, has nonetheless had its detractors. Stravinsky was not pleased that his music had been restructured and that the instrumentation had been changed. "I will say nothing about the visual complement," Stravinsky remarked, "as I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility … "The film succeeds best when it is at its most playful – the hippopotamus ballerinas in the "Dance of the Hours" sequence, for example, which Richard Schickel has described as "a broad satirical comment on the absurdities of high culture." The visuals for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony strain contrivedly for a mythic charm in an Arcadian setting populated by fabulous creatures. Far more interesting are the animated dances from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and the whimsical treatment of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" or Mickey's struggle with the dancing brooms in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the conceptual core of the picture. John Tibbetts has written that the results of Mickey's "union with high art were questionable for some, just as Walt's collision with the likes of Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Moussorgsky raised (or lowered) many a brow."
Disney's undertaking Fantasia brings to mind an artisan who has only a superficial knowledge of religion undertaking to sculpt a monumental pieta out of sand as the tide moves in, threatening to erode it. Some passers-by will no doubt pause to watch out of curiosity, but the spectacle will not for most of them constitute a conversion. If anything, Fantasia does not teach a musical lesson, but it often fascinates and delights the eye.
Reviewing Fantasia in 1940, Otis Ferguson called it "a film for everybody to see and enjoy," despite its "main weakness – an absence of story, of motion, of interest." Bosley Crowther was less harsh, remarking that the images often tended to overwhelm the music, but praising the film for its "imaginative excursion" and concluding that it was a milestone in motion picture history. Despite its sometimes elaborate pretensions and its many innovations, the boldness of its concept quite overrides the "disturbing jumble" of its achievement. It is, indeed, a "milestone" in the history of animated film.
Release Date: 1940
Starring the voice of: Deems Taylor
Directors: Samuel Armstrong ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and "The Nutcracker Suite" segments); James Algar ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment); Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield ("The Rite of Spring" segment); Hamilton Luske, Jim Hangley, and Ford Beebe ("Pastoral Symphony"); T. Hee and Norman Ferguson ("Dance of the Hours" segment); Wilfred Jackson ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" segment)
Animation Directors: Samuel Armstrong ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and "The Nutcracker Suite"); Bill Roberts ("The Rite of Spring"); James Algar ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice"); Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley and Ford Beebe ("Pastoral Symphony"); T. Hee and Norman Ferguson ("Dance of the Hours"); and Wilfred Jackson ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria")
Story Directors: Joe Grant and Ben Sharpsteen
Source Citation: Welsh, James Michael. "Fantasia." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 403-406.