Walt Disney’s Century: Fantasia

Disney’s most awe-inspiring flop set the limits on theatrical animation

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Walt Disney’s Century: Fantasia

This year, The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old. For good or ill, no other company has been more influential in the history of film. Walt Disney’s Century is a monthly feature in which Ken Lowe revisits the landmark entries in Disney’s filmography to reflect on what they meant for the Mouse House—and how they changed cinema. You can read all the entries here.

One could easily take Disney to task for keeping animation effectively ghettoized as a children’s medium (I sure have). The dominant force in animation for nearly a century, the conversation around Oscars for Best Animated Feature since the award’s inception basically would be a discussion about Disney and a few other players. Disney’s success in the medium has only relatively recently even been challenged, and Disney bought out one of those challengers wholesale when it acquired Pixar. (Fox, one of the other major studios that once had a theatrical animation division with a feature that successfully beat Disney, has also been subsumed into the Mouse House, meaning that every time you watch Disney defector Don Bluth’s Anastasia, Disney makes money off of it).

For fans of international animation, Disney’s dominance of the medium—its reduction of the medium to one genre (family movies)—is embarrassing when you look at the breadth on offer everywhere else. American animators are not making films like The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl or Have A Nice Day. Even something like The Secret of Kells and the other incredible work by its creators, or Studio Ghibli’s incredible kid-friendly output, are darker-tinged than anything the big American animation houses ever offer. Ghibli, at least, aims for the adults just as often as the kids, with results that are among the best movies ever made.

Disney certainly bears a lot of blame for keeping all of the money, all of the success and all of the acclaim of animated features in service of the most inoffensive plots and characters imaginable. But we should also consider that, once upon a time, none other than Walt Disney himself swung for the fences on something completely different—and he was rewarded with bupkis.

As with a lot of things dreamed up by Walt Disney, Fantasia came into being due to another project ballooning entirely out of proportion. Concerned with Mickey Mouse’s flagging popularity and inspired by a 1797 Goethe poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and the 1897 Dukas orchestral piece based upon it, Disney decided to make an animated short casting Mickey in the eponymous role. By the time he’d acquired the rights to the music, met and recruited Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, and opened his purse strings for the lavish animation he wanted, the thing cost $125,000—not the sort of sum one could’ve expected to make a decent return on from a single short back in the late 1930s. And so, Disney decided to make an entire feature film based around, essentially, animating music.

After a lot of planning and scrambling for rights, Disney and his co-creators settled on some of the most recognizable and celebrated orchestral pieces in history to join “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as part of what would be titled Fantasia: “Toccata and Fugue,” “Night on Bald Mountain,” “Rite of Spring” and “The Nutcracker Suite” among them. Walt and his brother (and company money man) Roy Disney then convinced RCA to develop “Fantasound,” one of the earliest examples of stereo sound and probably one of the most remarkable things about Fantasia: The system used multitrack recording and noise reduction to achieve stereophonic sound, and is in many ways the precursor to modern surround sound systems. It only cost the Disney brothers another $200,000.

Meanwhile, they weren’t being met with a lot of confidence from their distributor, RKO, which wanted to cut the runtime and thought the thing wouldn’t make any money.

Then the movie came out, and critics adored it.

Framed by an announcer straightforwardly telling you everything you’re about to see prior to each segment, Fantasia unfolds in a series of shorts set to a full orchestra conducted by Stokowski, all of whom occasionally share the screen with the shorts during transitional moments. From shorts based around narrative stories to abstract meditations on sound, there are parts of Fantasia that look unlike anything that’s been produced before and very little that’s ever been made since: “Rite of Spring” is played over the primordial creation of the world and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, notes corresponding with the eruption of volcanoes and the crashing of waves against proto-continents. “Night on Bald Mountain,” one of the greatest portrayals of Satan in film (even if he’s technically Chernabog), borrows a little from Murnau’s Faust in making its arch-devil mountain-sized and introduces the idea of his gargantuan wings fanning discontent and evil over the surrounding landscape.

Of course, you can’t easily watch Fantasia in its original form today: Even with a sensitivity warning at the beginning on Disney+, “The Pastoral Symphony” short, depicting various figures of Greek mythology, is an edited version that removes centaurs who look and act in ways reminiscent of Black caricature. It seems Disney hopes you will simply forget it. (The egregiously Asian-coded mushrooms in “The Nutcracker Suite” segment, whose caps look like kasa hats, remain in the film as it’s currently presented.)

Disney has very rarely ever tackled subject matter or just plain abstraction in the way it did in the film. Some of the stuff in “Bald Mountain” in particular looks like it comes from Bakshi.

Unfortunately, the box office ended up confirming everyone’s worries: The Second World War hit, cutting off distribution to Europe (a big source of returns even then) and Fantasia simply didn’t perform as well. The great reviews from the major papers weren’t enough to save it, and Disney took a big financial hit.

The war years were coming for the Walt Disney Company, during which Walt went all-in on supporting the war effort, with some peculiar results. When the studio pivoted back to its usual fare, it was to princesses and heroes, and then to live-action film. Another attempt at a Fantasia wouldn’t be seen again until Fantasia 2000, 60 years later.

Animation—feature-length, theatrically released animation—has settled into the mold that was established by the Walt Disney Company after that: An entire medium that, in our country at least, remains a kiddie pool. Disney bears the responsibility for that without a doubt, but it’s frustrating that one of their greatest and most ambitious departures from that mold simply wasn’t rewarded.

Next month, Walt Disney’s Century is revisiting the company’s war years through the lens of a propaganda piece: Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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