Fantasia (1940)

Having been a life-long fan of both classical music and animation, it seems only natural that Fantasia is, and always has been, my favorite animated movie. As it remains a unique film, I would venture to guess that it is the only effort in the medium (not counting its sequel) in which its audience can enjoy it fully with their eyes open or closed, a true rarity as film is primarily meant to be enjoyed ocularly.Fantasia came to represent a break in style from the previous features from Walt Disney. Ever the envelope pusher, with this, his most personal effort, Disney took animation and made improvements to where it would be able to compete with live action film, and by doing so changed the art of animation to include a more natural flow, effectively eliminating the rough edges and minstrel show music that often accompanied the art form. Not only did Disney look to revolutionize the process of animation as a whole, he also set his sights on the way cinema was heard in theaters as well. Fantasia would become the first film to be exhibited in stereophonic sound—or Fantasound to create more buzz for his release—a new and improved experience for the film going public that utilized 3 speakers, 1 behind the screen and 1 on either side, surrounding the audience with music.

Always a consummate businessman, Walt Disney didn’t only have technological advances on his mind; the idea for what would later gestate into this classic bit of cinema was originally conceived as a Silly Symphonies short designed as a comeback vehicle for the company’s flagship mascot, Mickey Mouse. When escalating costs made it clear that the company would stand to loose money on the effort, the creative decision was made to turn it into a feature length film; thus Fantasia was born. All the hard work that his employees had put into the short was channeled into what would become the most widely known portion of the film and would retain the title originally bestowed upon it, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

An obvious risk for the studio, Walt Disney made an effort to choose some of the more recognizable classical music compositions he had available to him. Once the musical selections were complete, the animators spent hours listening to the music, waiting for inspiration to hit. Their goal was to create illustrations and characters unique to each segment that would be responsible for relating the mood and feeling to the viewer that the composer of the piece had originally intended. Helping him in achieving this lofty goal, Disney brought a wealth of talent on board; music critic and composer Deems Taylor would introduce each segment acting as master of ceremonies and presiding over the music would be Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1912.

In an effort to generate buzz around the film, Fantasia was released as a theatrical roadshow engagement in 13 cities around the United States. Walt Disney’s expensive gamble wouldn’t pay off, as the now classic piece of cinema was dead on arrival. Audiences stayed away as the film gave off the impression that the company had gone high brow with its new effort, and it appeared that Americans wanted nothing more than the standard Disney effort. Other external factors would hurt the film as well. World War II was in full swing, impacting the bottom line due to always profitable European markets shutting down, and the cost of Fantasound would act as a detriment, leasing theaters and installing the needed equipment to showcase the movie as intended proved too expensive, even for a company with deep pockets like Disney. To make matters worse, critic’s reactions were mixed as they often are when an ahead of its time film is released. It appears that American culture in 1940 wasn’t quite ready for Walt Disney’s passion project.

Through multiple reissues, Fantasia was able to see a profit and rightfully gain the recognition it deserved. Its legacy grew to the point that a sequel, Fantasia 2000, was released in 1999 and was ranked at number 58 in AFI’s original 100 Years 100 Movies list published in 1998. Video games and theme park attractions were commonplace throughout the `90s and parodies and homages can be seen throughout pop culture;The Simpsons creative team have referenced the film in several episodes and creator Matt Groening even wanted to create a feature length parody titled, Simpstasia. It’s just too bad that Walt Disney wasn’t able to see the far-reaching influence Fantasiawould come to have on the consciousness of the American public.



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