'The Sorcerer's Apprentice': The genesis of 'Fantasia'


July 15, 2015

Before there was Fantasia, there was The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Even before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered, Walt Disney was playing with the idea of creating an animated short set to Paul Dukas's 1897 scherzo. When Disney ran into Leopold Stokowski, by sheer chance, in a Los Angeles restaurant, he mentioned the idea to the conductor and the wheels started turning.

Though The Sorcerer's Apprentice ended up sparking an entire feature, it was first conceived as a more modest—though definite—step forward for the Disney studio generally and its most famous character in particular.

The "Silly Symphonies" shorts had demonstrated what the studio could do in terms of setting animation to music, and Disney was ready to present his animators with the challenge of working with a respected, complex orchestral composition. It was also time for Mickey himself to get what today we might call a "reboot."

By the late 1930s, Mickey—hero of the Great Depression—had begun to be eclipsed by other characters who were, well, simply funnier. In particular, Donald Duck, who had first appeared in 1934, was leaving audiences in bellyaches with his high ambitions and short temper. How was the mundane Mickey supposed to compete?

For The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Mickey got a complete redesign to become both cuter and more expressive. Animator Riley Thompson redrafted the studio's signature character with a larger head and a pear-shaped body that made him more akin to a human child and less like a fishing bobber.

Through his role in the dramatic Sorcerer's Apprentice, Mickey also gained some depth of character. The little guy who violently assailed an anthropomorphic broom with an axe in a silhouetted scene influenced by German Expressionism was a far cry from the happy-go-lucky mouse of Steamboat Willie—his first on-screen appearance, a cartoon that, coincidentally, had made its public debut at the same New York theater (the Old Colony) where Fantasia would premiere.

Sorcerer's Apprentice was a masterwork of character animation, with a cinematic sweep. While Thompson and other animators worked on Mickey—bringing a UCLA athlete in to model for Mickey's motions as the mouse ran and jumped through his flooding castle—Bill Tytla developed the Sorcerer himself. Tytla, who also created Stromboli in Pinocchio and the towering demon in Fantasia's Night on Bald Mountain, modeled the Sorcerer after actor Nigel De Brulier but also incorporated certain details inspired by Walt Disney himself—notably the eyebrow cocked by the Sorcerer (anagrammatically named Yen Sid).

Disney told his team that he wanted them to caricature an orchestra conductor in the sequence where Mickey stands "up there on that rock directing those planets and those comets and pulling up the ocean" during his dream sequence. "Naturally," Disney noted, however, "Stokowski doesn't burlesque."

Indeed he didn't, but the British conductor, who told Disney that "you have no more enthusiastic admirer in the world," accepted his own role with relish. Stokowski recorded the Sorcerer's Apprentice music with a freelance orchestra assembled in Los Angeles, making it the only Fantasia segment not recorded with Stokowski's own Philadelphia Orchestra (though, as animation historian John Canemaker notes, such was the conductor's skill at summoning his signature wall of sound that no one heard the difference).

By the time Sorcerer's Apprentice was almost finished, Disney and Stokowski had decided to pursue their fusion of animation and classical music as a full-length feature. Even as Fantasia grew in scope, however, The Sorcerer's Apprentice remained at its heart: a new frontier for the studio, with a new Mickey as its face.

When the segment ends, we see Mickey's silhouette climb Stokowski's podium to shake hands with the conductor, in a gesture that represents the partnership between Stokowski and Disney in creating this landmark synthesis of music and animation.

"For sentimental reasons," said Disney, "I think Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer's Apprentice is my favorite. He made me what I am today."

This feature is part of our yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary of Fantasia. Read the other installments:

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

Bach's Toccata and Fugue: The Fantasia opener that drove Disney to abstraction

How Disney turned Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker into a ballet of the seasons

Rite of Spring: A classic Fantasia segment, whether Stravinsky liked it or now

Beethoven in Fantasia: Awesome, or awkward?

Dance of the Hours: Inside the tongue-in-cheek Fantasia ballet tribute

From Bald Mountain to Ave Maria: The hell-to-heaven Fantasia climax