Disney Film History: Fantasia

Fantasia Poster

In 1937, Walt Disney and company were a locomotive full steam ahead on the production or Snow White. The majority of the crew at the studio were working non-stop on the film, however other things were also on the mind of Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse had been Disney’s golden ticket initially but by the late 1930s, the character’s popularity was waning. Disney decided he needed a short production to boost the character back into superstar status. Disney had the notion that using the short poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the Paul Dukas musical score inspired by the poem would be a great start to a production with Mickey. The mouse would star in a short called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Leopold Stokowski, then leader of the Philadelphia Orchestra, happened to bump into Disney and a local Hollywood restaurant. Disney, recognizing the famous conductor, decided to pitch the idea of combining the classic Apprentice piece with an animated short in a much more serious fashion than his previous Silly Symphony cartoons. Stokowski loved the concept and agreed to conduct the recording of an orchestra for free on the production.  By December of 1937 and with Stokowski on board, an 85 piece orchestra was hired, a stage at a large studio was rented, the best of the animators were on duty, and the budget became four times the usual Disney short. With Roy Disney being the financier of the Studio, he told Walt to keep costs down and to not go over budget as a short like this, as experimental and costly as it was, may not find a way to make it’s return from the box office. Of course, Walt saw this problematic budget as a reason to not just make a short, but to test the waters with a full fledged animated film concert. Instead of keeping the budget low on a short which was guranteed to not return on it’s cost, Disney felt that a larger production and a general release in theaters would surely make money for the studio.

Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski decided to bring together a team of talented people including music critic Deems Taylor, staff story writers, and several heads of departments throughout the Disney company. Meetings were then held to select several musical pieces for which the music would be recorded and the film would be animated. 8 pieces in total made the final cut on what was then discussed as The Concert Feature. A piano concert was held at the studio with Walt talking over the music, telling the story of how the film would look and feel. A contest was also thrown out to the staff to come up with a name for the new feature. Over 1,000 different names came up, but the one everyone always came back to was an early working title for the film: Fantasia.

fantasia pegasus

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which had been greenlit initially, went into production in January of 1938, just one month after the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Stokowski conducted a Hollywood orchestra he himself handpicked and the recordings were soon sent to animators. Fred Moore redesigned Mickey Mouse, giving him pupils and larger eyes, giving us the Mickey Mouse we now know today instead of the pie-eyed Mickey of the early 1930s. Each staff member at the studio was given a synopsis of the poem that inspired the short. While work went steadily for the Mickey Mouse segment, there were other productions being made at the studio. Pinocchio was well underway, while Dumbo and Bambi were also stories being bounced around. The film wouldn’t be put back into production again until the following January in 1939.

Stokowski returned as the conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra whom finished the recordings for the rest of the songs in January. Stokowski finished the recording of the musical portion of the film in July. At that time, the recordings were given to the animation team. While production was on break, ideas were also bounced around about what the animated segments would look and feel like. When production continued, Walt got everyone together and decided on various color palettes, animation styles, and how the music would tell the story. He believed so much in the music, that he wanted several of the pieces to not even tell a story. In the case of the Toccata and Fugue segment of the film, abstract art was key. Various shapes and colors were used to play off of the music without telling a distinct narrative.  Other segments were given short stories, such as Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which depicts a mythological Greek setting. On severeal pieces, Stokowski disagreed with the narratives chosen as he felt those weren’t the stories to be told by the music, but Walt, as well as Deems Taylor, stood up for the ideas and ultimately got their wish.

Along with the film, Roy and Walt felt that the standard sound systems at theaters were not good enough for what the studio was striving for. Walt wanted the audience to get the impression they were hearing an actual orchestra. The brothers contacted RCA to develop the system,whom in turn reluctantly agreed, so long as the studio would front the $200,000 cost to build the equipment. The new Fantasound system created what most of us would now see as a surround sound system, giving the impression the some sounds are coming from the left, some from the center, and some from the right. With this new system, Walt talked RKO Distributors, who refused to release a near two and a half hour film into general theaters, into releasing the film as a limited engagement in the form of a traveling show. This way, Walt could set up his Fantasound system in theaters of his choosing and sell theater seats as if it were a real concert.

Fantasia debuted on November 13th, 1940 at the Broadway Theater in New York. (Pinocchio released as a general theater run in February making Fantasia the 3rd full length feature release.) The Disney company leased the theater for a year, running the show for 57 straight weeks. Demand for tickets was so high that eight full-time telephone operators were hired to take the calls. The second stop on the tour was the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles which ran for 39 weeks. (The theater at which Snow White premiered.) Fantasia ran a show in 11 other U.S. cities throughout the rest of 1941 until it’s general release in January 1942.

fantasia bald mountain

Previous to the general release, the film, which had been a critical success saw very little in return monetarily. The budget of $2.28 million was far from being reached, making the film less of a success than Pinocchio which also failed to earn it’s money back in it’s initial run. RKO asked Walt to cut down the long movie and edit out some of the scenes to make it shorter. Walt refused but allowed RKO to cut what they wanted, only for the purposes of hopefully making his money back on the investment. RKO editors cut nearly 1/4 of the film out, mainly Deems Taylor’s talking parts and the abstract Toccata and Fugue portions of the film. The film would make a return to the theaters several times after the 1942 release, including 1946, 1956, and 1963, but it wasn’t until a release in 1969 that the company finally made back all of the money originally put into the production of Fantasia.

Several factors played into the lackluster box office draw of the film. World War II lost a larger demographic in European audiences when the film wasn’t distributed internationally. The roadshow idea of tearing down and installing the Fantasound system was quite costly. The strange idea of seeing an animated concert of classical music wasn’t a huge appeal to the wider U.S. population who, at that time, were much more into Jazz and Blues music. Of course, we also have to credit the film for it’s brilliance, much like several critics did when first seeing the film in New York. Without Fantasia, we may never have seen the creation of the THX sound system we now see in theaters, or even our own surround sound systems at home. The techniques used to record the soundtrack for the film are still used today, being updated from the mono sounds of early 1930s. Plus we would have never seen Mickey in that awesome sorcerer’s hat.

What are my thoughts on the film? Well, as a child I absolutely hated this film. It didn’t make sense, it was too long, and it wasn’t funny. (Keep in mind that Disney released the film later at it’s original length.) As an adult, I find it charming and brilliant, but out of the films of the era, it seems to get lost in the shuffle for me. The animation is beautiful throughout the film but I don’t care much for the abstract art used. I love the narrative storytelling in many of the symphonic pieces though. I also love that this film gave Warner Bros. the idea to use classical music in their short cartoons as well. As a dying musical style, it really gained popularity again with the animation medium and gave many generations the knowledge that this music was out there. Without it, I’m not sure I would be interested in classical music at all. I tend to see this film as more of an experience than a film I’d plop down on the couch and watch. I’d love to see it released again for a roadshow type of run, maybe projected onto a screen while a real orchestra plays the music at a local concert hall. It’s still a film people know of and credit. What better way to pay tribute to it than breathing life back into it with that live experience Walt was always trying to duplicate.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: Pinocchio
Next Film: The Reluctant Dragon

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Posted on February 20, 2013, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I never grew up with this and even as an adult, I admire and commend the animation and the experimentation; but it’s just not my kind of movie. I actually prefer “Fantasia 2000” to this film, sadly!

    • It isn’t one of my personal favorites but I’d like to see it as a full fledged concert in a theater. I don’t think it works as a film I can watch at home. It’s been shown in segments on television before and that works well, but as a 2 hour+ film, it’s not my cup of tea.

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