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Disney's 'Fantasia' at 75: Why there's still nothing like it

Fantasia Disney

This year, Walt Disney's Fantasia turns 75. The feature film remains unique in the history of motion pictures, and one of the most persistently fascinating intersections between classical music and popular culture.

How did it come to be, and why does it remain so distinctive? Today, in the first of a monthly series of posts commemorating the anniversary of Fantasia, we'll look at the bold conception and rocky launch of what many still consider Disney's greatest masterpiece.

Fantasia was created at a pivotal moment in the history of the Walt Disney Studios, a golden era for an organization that had managed to flourish despite the Great Depression but would subsequently be brought low by the trying circumstances of the Second World War.

Walt Disney had turned Mickey Mouse, and himself, into iconic American figures by plowing forward with a resolute insistence on quality in a burgeoning industry that was more typically characterized by subpar, quick-and-dirty product. Jumping on the animation bandwagon early, Disney had pushed the boundaries of his form again and again — integrating sound and color despite outrageous expense, while instructing his animators to focus on expressive character animation, the kind of labor-intensive drawing that made characters like the Three Little Pigs seem to be as alive on screen as human actors were.

In 1937, Disney achieved a triumph to trump all that had come before: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature film ever to be released, was an artistic triumph and a commercial juggernaut that gave Disney both credibility and capital. Never again would the studio have such an unconditional triumph — at least, on screen.

Flush with cash and wild with ambition, Disney was pursuing several projects at once as he built a new studio complex in Burbank. One of them would become Disney's second animated feature, Pinocchio. Another, in the works since 1936, was a bold vision that would, if successful, represent yet another qualitative leap forward for animation on film.

Referred to internally as "the concert feature," the new project would pair Disney's animation with classical music in several independent sections that would be presented in sequence, like a concert. The program would be adaptable: as new segments were created, they could be rotated in while others were retired, like a changing set list. Ultimately, the film was released under the musically-inspired title Fantasia.

Disney's partner in Fantasia was conductor Leopold Stokowski, a superstar in a field that occupied a far more commanding position than it does today. In the pre-television, pre-Elvis America — a younger America that hadn't yet become the dominant global superpower it became after World War II — symphonic music in the European tradition was widely celebrated and revered, providing the soundtrack to some of the most popular radio programs and live concerts.

The partnership with Stokowski was a coup for Disney, and a risky but ultimately savvy move for the conductor. Though the two were in basic agreement about the format of Fantasia, there were sometimes contentious discussions between the two as the program took shape. The Sorcerer's Apprentice starring a new, cuter Mickey Mouse was a no-brainer — it was the first segment conceived, and the project that opened the door to the rest of Fantasia — but there was serious debate about other segments.

The Rite of Spring segment, with its dramatization of evolution set to Stravinsky's striking composition, was bound to be controversial, as indeed it was; perhaps the hottest debate between Stokowski and Disney, though, was over the Pastoral sequence. Stokowski warned Disney, correctly, that classical music fans would take umbrage at an adaptation that told a different story than that which Beethoven had laid out for his sixth symphony.

With the world's best animators at his disposal, Disney deployed them to work on segments that would showcase their strengths. The stormy Bill Tytla created the terrifying expressionist demon who lords over Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. Art Babbitt, who invented Goofy, drew the adorable dancing mushrooms for the Nutcracker Suite. Other animators focused on the realistic cresting-water effects for the Sorcerer's Apprentice climax. Freed from some of the restraints of conventional narrative, sequences like the opening Toccata and Fugue in D minor would demonstrate the expressive potential of Disney's art form.

There were technical leaps as well. Snow White had made use of a multiplane camera that enhanced the illusion of depth by filming multiple animation cels, positioned at varying distances, at once; the camera was used for several sequences in Fantasia, most dramatically the final Ave Maria sequence that involved a 220-foot tracking shot through panes of glass that occupied an entire soundstage; the final push to realize that sequence took six days of round-the-clock labor, with crews trading 12-hour shifts.

Finally, there was "Fantasound": an early version of surround sound that required each theater showing the film to be specially equipped with the necessary speakers. The film would first be shown "road show" style, with advance tickets sold for special screenings at select venues. Disney's distributor RKO didn't see the up-side of such an expensive proposition, so the studio itself became Fantasia's first distributor.

The final film, which debuted in New York on November 13, 1940, was an artistic watershed — a masterpiece that's still thrilling to watch, so richly detailed that it can reward dozens of viewings. It was no money machine, though; while the exclusive early screenings were quick sellouts, the onerous technical requirements kept the film from expanding into wide release. Disney had anticipated that, but he had been proceeding under the assumption that the studio would continue to have Snow White levels of success with popular entertainments like Pinocchio and Dumbo.

That didn't happen, though, as the studio tipped into a financial freefall that required the animators to do onerous work in wartime propaganda. The studio didn't really get back on its feet until the linked debuts of Disneyland (the park) and Disneyland (the TV show); in the meantime, Fantasia was milked as a cash cow that it was ill-suited to be.

Fantasound was first modified, then abandoned entirely, and the film's running time was slashed; Disney himself didn't have the heart to participate in the edit, and left his staff to do the hacking. The biggest cuts involved live-action introductions by critic Deems Taylor; the Taylor introductions wouldn't be seen again until a 1990 theatrical release, and additional deleted footage wasn't restored until 2000.

Disney's ambitious plans for continuing Fantasia — he and Stokowski had already discussed sequences based on Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela, among others — were scrapped, not to be realized in his lifetime. Fantasia 2000, the sequel that finally appeared in 1999, was a labor of love for Disney's nephew Roy; critical reception was generally positive, but "generally positive" was a disappointment for a follow-up that had been six decades in the making.

For classical music fans, the mix of reverence and irreverence that marked Disney's approach to the music still creates a frisson, and remains divisive. Some still feel that the animation detracts from, rather than enhances the music; and Stokowski's flashy style, epitomized by his orchestral arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, has fallen out of favor as historically informed interpretations have gained currency.

Still, the movie's many fans agree that Walt Disney was on to something when he conceived of a film where the music and the animation would be equal partners, and I'm just one of millions of people whose first exposure to classical music came through Fantasia.

"There are things in the music," said Disney, "that the general public will not understand until they see the things on the screen representing the music. Then they will feel the depth in the music."

Fantasia Disney

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