Fantasia: Disney’s once and future experiment in sight and sound

The Mouse and the Muse

By Dennis Polkow


“There is a great segment of the audience,” Walt Disney said, reflecting upon Fantasia nearly two decades after its release, “that by seeing Fantasia, became acquainted with classical music, and it even led them to becoming interested in other classical pieces that weren’t represented in Fantasia. Fantasia made a real contribution by opening a door there for an awful lot of people.”

When Disney released Fantasia in 1940, it was so revolutionary in its scope, design, and use of technology that few knew what to make of it. Critics, often an impatient lot when confounded, mostly shunned it, as it fit no particular category. Was it a highfalutin cartoon, an animated anthology for longhairs, or a music-appreciation lesson for lovers of Mickey Mouse?


Whatever audience Fantasia might have appealed to initially hardly had a chance to weigh in. Due to the film’s elaborate technological requirements—including multitrack sound some 35 years before it would become commonplace in movie houses—few theaters were equipped to present it. Those that were, or which agreed to absorb the additional expense, had to charge “road show” fees which were out of step with an America wedged between the Great Depression and the Second World War. Thus Walt Disney’s “greatest experiment” was seen as a failure in its day, something that haunted Disney for the rest of his life.

Curiously, despite an occasional, erratic, and usually chopped-up re-release attempting to recoup a fraction of its enormous expense, Fantasia was a film more talked about than actually seen for decades. Segments of Fantasia remained well known, such as the prehistoric treatment of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which was shown in high-school biology classes in 16mm prints and helped create a wave of interest in dinosaurs as a result. The most well-known segment—set to Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and featuring Mickey Mouse having a bit of trouble trying to contain some magic to help out with his chores—became a television staple in its own right.

But the real resurgence of interest in Fantasia came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when worn and scratchy re-release prints were dug up for special late-night and weekend screenings that attracted college students and Baby Boomers looking for their next cinematic hallucinogenic “high” after the likes of Yellow Submarine and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thus Fantasia became a true cult film and a psychedelic film “experience.”

When digital sound became the rage, Leopold Stokowski’s original recordings for the film were removed in favor of interpretations by Irwin Kostal, recorded digitally for a 1982 theatrical re-release. Those who complained that the new soundtrack had removed much of the heart of the original film were told by Disney that the original tracks had been “lost” and that this would be the only way Fantasia would be heard from now on.

In 1990 Fantasia became the second of the classic Disney films to receive a multimillion-dollar, frame-by-frame restoration for a 50th-anniversary theatrical release, following in the footsteps of 1987’s phenomenally successful 50th-anniversary restoration of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This Fantasia theatrical re-release, with the original Stokowski soundtrack mysteriously back in place, was successful enough that Disney announced that Fantasia would be released on home video in 1991. More than 20 million copies were sold, making Fantasia the best-selling home video to that point. Five decades after its initial release, Fantasia was finally, at long last, what it never was during its creator’s lifetime: a money maker.

With that success, Walt’s nephew and then–Disney animation head Roy Disney talked then–Disney CEO Michael Eisner into resurrecting Walt’s original idea by creating an all-new “Fantasia Continued that would visually interpret a new batch of classical pieces. The vision for Fantasia had been to continually do exactly that and rotate individual sections over time, but the original film lost so much money for the company initially that the idea never got off the ground.

As Roy explained on one of the commentary tracks on the DVD release of Fantasia 2000, his criteria for finding the right maestro he could work with was “one who would not be shocked at the idea of a three-minute version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” Metropolitan Opera artistic director and former Ravinia music director James Levine got the job by coming up with the clever response, “As long as they are the right three minutes.”

From the beginning, Disney himself saw Fantasia as a way of relating animation to “something important: timeless music,” and whatever else Fantasia may have done, it did do exactly that. Purists scoffed, to be sure: That “serious” music should not be illustrated for the masses was a frequent complaint. Rather, the sonorities of the music itself should be allowed to wash over everyone’s individual imagination which in turn, which would allow audiences to make pictures of their own.

What purists were missing was that Fantasia introduced the masses to the idea of doing exactly that (more than 40 years before the advent of MTV) by supplying pictures to music the public otherwise would probably never have heard. That powerful experience indeed introduced classical music to an entire generation of moviegoers, most of whom simply had not been aware of classical music as a listening option before experiencing it as part of Fantasia. Levine himself admits having been a child who was introduced to classical music through the original Fantasia.

The original Fantasia was 125 minutes long, whereas Fantasia 2000 is 75 minutes, a truncated length in today’s single-feature box-office market, and barely the length of a “B” feature in the days of the double-feature bill. Fantasia 2000 is a string of cartoon shorts, albeit extraordinary cartoon shorts. Disney animators had become expert at telling a story through animation and even at setting up dazzling, albeit short-term, collages around a pop-music tune or Broadway-type musical anthem.

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On the DVD release of the original Fantasia, the Walt Disney “commentary” track, which is assembled from archival interviews and minutes taken from production meetings, includes Disney himself constantly reminding his creative team not to “overdo the animation,” to allow the audience a chance to digest images, use its own imagination, and to “let the music dictate everything.” Recalling what silent-film star Charles Chaplin had told him, Disney exhorted his staff to “not be afraid to let our audience wait for a few things and to let our tempo go slow here and there. The audience appreciates things much more when you don’t fire things at them too fast.”

Of course, the Disney team of 1940 was at a considerable advantage in that it had cut its teeth for over a decade on the music-oriented “Silly Symphonies” series of cartoons that had begun with the enormously clever 1929 black-and-white sound-cartoon “The Skeleton Dance,” which featured a midnight graveyard coming to life with skeletal inhabitants playfully dancing around to a pastiche of themes from Saint-Saens’s Dance macabre and Grieg’s Peer Gynt, among others. The action was short and sweet, the music arranged for maximum narrative interest around the images.

Fantasia 2000
is a return to that same form as the “Silly Symphonies”: the sequences are action-driven, short, and the music is “arranged” around them. The original Fantasia concept had taken the “Silly Symphony” idea to, as Disney explained it, “a higher art form” by recognizing that “there is more to this medium than making people laugh” and putting animated images at the service of “fine music.”

“We’re building the story to fit the music rather than trying to build around and change the music to fit our story,” Disney elaborated during a Fantasia production meeting. “You can’t do that. Otherwise you’d have to cut the music down. We have to find some order to this thing, and I say let the music decide the order and not force something against the music. … Don’t try to weave a story out of it and don’t cut the music but find business to fit the music.”

As criticized as Fantasia was in its day for its rearranging of music, the rearranging was, at least by today’s standards, not only minimal, but extremely respectful of the music itself. The Nutcracker Suite does eliminate the Overture and March, but the other six movements are heard in their entirety. Beethoven’s five-movement Sixth Symphony (the “Pastoral”) has been carefully arranged into a single 22-minute entity, but the major musical portions of each movement are left intact and in their original order. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was the most altered from its composer’s intentions in that the beginning high bassoon motif is allowed to return at the piece’s end to give what was then considered unintelligible music a recapitulation. Even so, more than three quarters of the entire 30-minute score is still heard—albeit slightly reshuffled—an extremely daring inclusion considering that the piece had caused riots a mere 29 years before the release of the original Fantasia.

The finale of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain has been slightly extended to allow for a transition to Schubert’s Ave Maria, but otherwise, both pieces are heard essentially unchanged. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the “Dance of the Hours” ballet from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda are heard note-for-note, though the Bach is Stokowski’s own Romanticized orchestral transcription of what was originally a bravura Baroque organ piece.

By contrast, none of the pieces in Fantasia 2000 are heard in their entirety, save the only inclusion from the original Fantasia, Dukas’The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Even Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a staple of “pops” concerts complete, is cut. Respighi’sPines of Rome, a 20-minute tone poem when heard complete, is cut in half. Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto and Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals—short pieces even in their entirety—are both reduced to a single movement. Beethoven’s four-movement Fifth Symphony, usually 30-some minutes long, is truncated to its opening movement, and even that is cut by nearly two thirds, the “three minute” version that Roy Disney used as shock therapy to find a “flexible conductor that we could work with.” And as for Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the themes of the first four marches are juxtaposed by Peter Schickele of P.D.Q. Bach fame and feature a soprano, originally longtime Ravinia favorite Kathleen Battle, in the finale for the soundtrack.

The 1919 version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite is reduced to sections of three movements. Stravinsky (who conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia in the 1960s) reported in his autobiography that he received a letter from the Disney company in the late 1930s asking him for permission to use The Rite of Spring in what was then called The Concert Feature. Stravinsky was subsequently invited to Disney Studios, photographed with Disney, and even attended the premiere of Fantasia.

Composer Deems Taylor’s role in the original film was that of host, narrator, and commentator. With Fantasia having already been restored for its 50th anniversary re-release, the 60th anniversary edition became a reconstruction of the original “road-show” version of Fantasia, complete with the film’s original intermission interstitials and further commentaries from Taylor that had been cut from the film early on. Since the original nitrate Technicolor film negative had been located in 1992, after the 50th anniversary restoration had been made, it was possible to revive those sections, at least visually.

Unfortunately, since the soundtrack elements were never located and are presumed lost, the decision was made to include all of these sequences and redub all of Taylor’s dialogue in the film with a modern voiceover actor, even the major portions of the film where Taylor’s voice existed. The result is jarring to those expecting the pleasing and gentle voice familiar to generations of music lovers from the “golden age” of radio. Yet Taylor’s actual voice is heard at the beginning of Fantasia 2000, where his introduction to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from the original Fantasia is now heard introducing the three-minute version of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.

The fact that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was chosen to be part of Fantasia 2000 is a tribute to the 22-year collaboration between James Levine and the CSO that began when Levine was an unknown, bushy-haired wunderkind from Cleveland chosen by then–Ravinia executive director Edward Gordon to be music director of the festival in 1973 after having led its season-opening gala concert as a last-minute replacement two years prior. (Curiously, neither the CSO in Fantasia 2000 nor the Philadelphia Orchestra in the original Fantasia is ever actually shown, as the “orchestra” that appears in both films for interstitials is actually made up of film extras.) “Let’s remember that this is the actual track that will be used to inspire the animators and that the more fire we bring to it, the better the animation itself will be,” Levine told the CSO during recording sessions at Medinah Temple that, being part of the earliest steps in creating Fantasia 2000 back in the early 1990s, were sworn to complete secrecy.

Like the original Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 was a box-office disappointment. Although it did respectable business as an IMAX film, Fantasia 2000 made a relatively unnoticed transition to standard movie houses. Since most of Fantasia 2000 had been digitally created, however, a DVD master was created right off of the Disney computers with no loss of picture information, giving it new life on the then-new DVD format.

One of the reasons the original Fantasia was so effective was that it allowed the music to dictate not only the pace but also the style of the animation. Each vignette was a world unto itself, whether the abstract lines, forms, and waves of color that made up Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the flying horses and rosy-cheeked cherubs merrily dancing around to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, or even the terrifying world of the devil with the damned writhing and pining away to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Each was a real place for our imaginations to soar.

“I don’t know anything about art,” Fantasia’s principal visionary Walt Disney is heard admitting in an old interview, “and I never thought I was a very good artist. In fact, I haven’t been too good at any one thing. My special ‘talent’ seems to be finding people who are good at one thing, [bringing] them together collaboratively, and [overseeing] them with a clear vision.”

As for Disney’s own future vision for Fantasia? “Fantasia is timeless,” he told an interviewer at the time of its 1940 release. “It may run 10, 20, 30 years. I can improve it and elaborate upon it, but that’s all. I can never build another Fantasia.”

Veteran, award-winning arts and music critic Dennis Polkow is a columnist for Newcity Chicago and a Chicago correspondent for the London-based Seen & Heard International.