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‘Fantasia’ Turns 80: Why Its Technological Achievements Can’t Salvage Its Shortcomings

Walt Disney approached ‘Fantasia’ much the way Peter Jackson did his ‘Hobbit’ movies or Ang Lee ‘Gemini Man.’

FANTASIA, Mickey Mouse, Leopold Stokowski, 1940. © Walt Disney / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Mickey Mouse greets Leopold Stokowski in “Fantasia.”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

On November 13, “Fantasia” turns 80. It’s tempting to say there’s never been a movie quite like this, but even beyond the obvious imitators the Disney studio itself produced through the 1940s (and a sequel released in 2000), it’s not as singular an object as it might look. “Fantasia” is the first of a type of movie that’s still being made today — the visionary work of a filmmaker more dedicated to technical breakthroughs than aesthetic substance. Think “Avatar,” the “Hobbit” movies, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” “Gemini Man,” and so on.

We’re not here to bury “Fantasia.” A lot of it is impressive, even absorbing: the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence that opens this unique anthology plays like an experimental film, and the “Rite of Spring” transplants Stravinsky’s inflammatory ballet to the beginning of life on Earth before delivering the best dinosaur epic pre-“Jurassic Park.” But “Fantasia” is also the ultimate example of “white elephant art” in film, to borrow critic Manny Farber’s label. This is a case of Walt Disney being so committed to making an “important” film, a “breakthrough” film — one he felt would make critics take animation that much more seriously — that he ends up with a work of just intermittent artistry.

When Walt started down the road of “Fantasia,” he had just achieved a massive success: Between “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Gone With the Wind” at the end of 1939, the single biggest box-office earner was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” It also all but invented the idea of the animated feature film (hat tip to Lotte Reiniger, of course). Before “Snow White” debuted in December 1937, the trade press considered it in terms much like they would 60 years later for James Cameron’s “Titanic” — it was a mess, it would bankrupt the studio, they said. There was even a belief that the human eye might be incapable of watching animation for the length of a feature film.

All of that went out the window when “Snow White” recorded an unheard-of $8 million in box-office rentals. Suddenly, Walt began planning a massive new studio in Burbank. He wanted to invest heavily in a vehicle that could revive the popularity of Mickey Mouse, whose fans had receded ever so slightly in favor of Donald Duck. Walt’s solution was to put his rodent in an extended installment of “Silly Symphonies,” the short cartoons he’d been making since 1929 that revolved heavily around music. The idea he set upon was “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” based on the Goethe poem and set to Paul Dukas’s music. He wanted this to be more than a cartoon, to be a film instead where “sheer fantasy unfolds,” he said. “Action controlled by a musical pattern has great charm in the realm of unreality.”

FANTASIA, Hippo, Alligator, 1940. (c) Walt Disney Productions/Everett Collection

Ballet Russe or Ballet Kitsch?

Walt Disney Productions/Everett Collection

Disney pitched the idea to Philadelphia Orchestra music director Leopold Stokowski at Chasen’s, who agreed to arrange and record “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for free. But as production continued throughout 1938, it became clear that it was becoming so expensive it couldn’t just be released as a short. The only viable solution was to make it part of a feature-length anthology. Then came the breakthrough: Why not have other segments devoted to classical music as well? That might truly evolve the idea of the cartoon into the realm of art, especially with someone like Stokowski onboard.

Originally titled “The Concert Film,” “Fantasia” became Walt’s swing for respectability — even though almost anyone in Hollywood would have then said he already had it. He hired music critic Deems Taylor, who gave contextual commentary during New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts, to introduce each segment. Disney seemed hellbent on creating a new cinematic language, something that could synchronized the senses like never before. “In our ordinary stuff, our music is always under action,” the mogul told staff, according to “Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in the Golden Age,” by Michael Barrier. “But on this … we’re supposed to be picturing this music — not the music fitting our story.” How strange, then, that Disney didn’t attempt to include a Wagner piece in here: the German composer’s idea of a gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” seems to have been Walt’s endgame.

The highbrow bona fides squared away with Stokowski and Taylor, Disney then approached the direction of the animation for each of the film’s segment like a technologist: He’d roll out a new multi-plane camera that allowed for the photography of seven levels at once; he experimented with (and ultimately discarded) cardboard glasses audience members could wear during the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence for a possible 3-D conversion; he hired, then fired, experimental filmmaker Len Lye to help push that “Toccata and Fugue” segment into complete abstraction; he looked into the possibility of piping scents into theaters during different parts of the movie (incense for “Ave Maria,” of course); he gave Mickey Mouse a makeover, with pupils in his eyes for the first time; he hired scientists Julian Huxley and Edwin Hubble to advise on the accuracy of the “origins of the world” as depicted in the “Rite of Spring’ sequence; Marge Champion performed ballet movements that the animators could study and try to capture for a dancing hippo; Bela Lugosi came in briefly to model threatening poses (which were rejected) for the demon Chernabog in the “A Night on Bald Mountain” segment; a UCLA athlete was made to hop over barrels on a Disney soundstage to replicate Mickey’s movements in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

FANTASIA, Disney animation, 1940. © Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection

Disney embraced abstraction like never before in the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence that, if separated from the rest of the movie, could play as an experimental film.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

If this all sounds as extravagant as it is ambitious, you’re not wrong. The budget for “Fantasia” ballooned up to $2.25 million. There was also the matter of recording all the music, which Disney decided Stokowski would do at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, renowned for its acoustics, and that it would be captured onto eight channels for a stereo mix. Anticipating Dolby 5.1 by decades, Disney’s stereo set-up would be called FantaSound, and he insisted that each of the 13 theaters where “Fantasia” would play had to be outfitted with it, even though it cost $85,000 to set that up at each theater. Each theater had to have specially trained Disney ushers to escort patrons to their seats. Each ticket buyer would receive a program illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. No wonder that by 1941 the Disney studio was fighting for its financial life.

Which isn’t to say that “Fantasia” wasn’t successful. But the plan for its release essentially called for a Broadway-style run. Disney’s usual distributor, RKO, wouldn’t give it a general release. Disney had to go for the roadshow approach in just 13 theaters, with a premium ticket price. That meant it could make back its money — but only over a long period of time. Manhattan’s Broadway Theater on 53rd Street was rented out for an entire year just to play “Fantasia.” All of this extravagance paid off in public interest, though. The movie ended up exceeding that year-long lease and played for 57 weeks, with most of the 12 other locations having runs of at least three months.

RKO did put the movie into general release in 1942, when Disney was so destitute that he had no choice but accede to their demands to reedit it (cutting out Taylor and the experimental “Toccata” prologue). By that point, Bank of America had installed one of its executives onto the Disney board of directors to manage the company’s debt and the studio was kept afloat mostly by government contracts for World War II instructional films.

FANTASIA, Disney animation, 1940. © Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection

Disney’s multiplane camerawork is particularly noticeable in the “Ave Maria” segment that ends the film.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Fantasia” didn’t turn turn a profit until 1969, after multiple re-releases. It was also that year that racist imagery during the Pastoral Symphony sequence — a Black centaur, stereotypically presented, is depicted as doting on and being subservient to a white centaur — was quietly cut. This, and the 1942 RKO reedit, lead to another question: What’s the definitive version of “Fantasia”?

Like so many other movies fiddled with by technologist auteurs, it doesn’t appear there is one. Well after Walt’s death, the fiddling continued. The entire score was re-recorded in 1982 so as to correct a problem with the original (it was out of sync by two frames), with Deems Taylor replaced by Hugh Douglas and then, for a subsequent re-release a couple years later, future “West Wing” star Tim Matheson. But for a 1990 50th anniversary re-release “Fantasia” underwent a two-year restoration, at which point the original Stokowski recordings were restored. By a 2000 re-release, Taylor’s original audio recordings had been lost, so voice actor Corey Burton was brought in to meticulously recreate Taylor’s cultured diction via dubbing.

It’s so easy to get so caught up in the technological aspects of this movie and the subsequent tinkering it has endured, that it’s no wonder the artistic intent of the film sometimes gets lost. That seems to have happened to Walt. Yes, the “Toccata” sequence holds up as a bold stab into the realm of visual art, something that could be playing in a loop on a monitor hanging on a museum wall. And the “Nutcracker” sequence gratifyingly avoids depicting anything of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is charming, and “The Rite of Spring” may be the best sequence of all.

But the second half of “Fantasia” stumbles. “The Pastoral Symphony” was even called out by Stokowski for having a random Greek mythological setting, one that’s about as kitschy as it gets. And the “Dance of the Hours,” with its dancing hippos and lusty gators, is a bizarre aside that threatens to deflate the seriousness of the whole project.

FANTASIA, Disney animation, 1940. © Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection

Impressive? Or like an image you’d find on the cover of a kid’s Trapper Keeper?

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

This is a mixed bag presenting itself as a masterpiece. It’s like the Salome movie that Norma Desmond wants to make, the city-sized play Philip Seymour Hoffman directs in “Synecdoche, New York,” the Beach Boys’ “Smile.” It’s an idea more than a movie. But it’s an idea that can, at times, thrill.

Incidentally, Disney followed up “Fantasia” with other anthology movies in the 1940s built around musical pieces, though none around classical works: “Make Mine Music” and “Melody Time,” the latter of which is particularly impressive. (Bach’s okay, but he’s got nothing on the Andrews Sisters.) To recall Farber again, they’re the “termite art” response to the “Fantasia” white elephant. In these, artistry is defined as more than flagrant expressions of ambition.

And they’re all the better for it.

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