Disney’s Fantasia: “Smarty-pants” mistake becomes American classic

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Walt Disney’s visionary orchestral masterpiece started life as an expensive flop. But time has redeemed the animator’s most ambitious film, which opened 75 year ago.

What happens when Mickey Mouse meets Tchaikovsky? In 1937, Walt Disney decided to find out.

The animation pioneer had been experimenting for years with setting lowbrow cartoon shorts to highbrow classical music scores. But after a chance encounter with conductor Leopold Stokowski in a Los Angeles restaurant, the two set out to do something entirely new: an animated feature illustrating some of classical music’s greatest hits.

The result, Disney’s Fantasia, premiered 75 years ago: November 13, 1940. The bold exploration of sight and sound broke new cinematic ground – and has stood the test of time to be redeemed from one of Disney’s top flops to one of his greatest artistic achievements.

The film consists of seven unrelated animated segments with no narrative arc beyond the progression of the music that is their focus: JS Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Schubert’s Ave Maria and Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Stokowski and his musicians make live action appearances in the film, but the rest is a journey through the animators’ imagination, with dancing centaurs, Greek gods and hand-drawn journeys through space and time that give visual form to the aural landscapes evoked by the music.

Disney’s signature cartoon and alter ego, Mickey Mouse, stars in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – based on the 19th-century Goethe poem Der Zauberlehrling – as a trainee wizard whose attempts at a magical solution to his chores take a cartoonishly catastrophic turn.

But if the music serves as a jumping-off point for the animation, the animation was intended as a spotlight for the music. Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of the score, and Disney developed a new three-track stereo sound system, Fantasound, that cinemas were encouraged to install to showcase the music.

Disney let his creative imagination run wild, pitching such ideas as 3-D segments and spraying audiences with perfume to enhance the experience.

Although those ideas were eventually abandoned, costs still ballooned to more than 2 million dollars – four times the initial budget – and Fantasia remained an ambitious, expensive gamble.

It didn’t pay off.

Fantasound was too expensive for more than a handful of cinemas to install. The film had to be cut from 121 minutes to 84. The impending war in Europe dampened international audiences’ appetite for a classical music cartoon.

While the New York Times called Fantasia “delightful and exciting in its novelty,” and the Academy gave the film special awards for pioneering use of sound, the creation proved too much for audiences of the time. Reviewers panned the film’s liberties with the music and Disney’s pretensions to high culture, a critique Disney himself later echoed.

“I did try to be a little smarty-pants,” he said, according to an unpublished 1955 interview obtained by Smithsonian magazine.

The film was a financial disaster for Disney, helping bring the company to the brink of bankruptcy a few years later. In the decades after its release, he called the Fantasia a “mistake.”

But the move proved to be ahead of its time.

Amid the psychedelic culture of 1969, a return to cinemas began to win Fantasia a new cult following – initially as an accompaniment to psychedelic drugs.

Subsequent decades of re-releases brought Fantasia to new generations of audiences, who no longer saw it as an oddball misfire, but as a visionary masterpiece.

The film’s trailblazing form and imaginative fantasy influenced later directors from Steven Spielberg to Wes Craven.

After an initial loss, Disney’s cinematic gamble played out, over time, into a win. Fantasia has grossed more than 72 million dollars over its lifetime, and a sequel, Fantasia 2000, grossed more than 60 million.

The American Film Institute named Fantasia to its list of the 100 greatest American films, and in 1990, the US National Film Registry added Fantasia to its archive of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” works to preserve for future generations.

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