FANTASIAMedium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: Disney
First Appeared: 1940
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Fantasia, which had its world premiere on November 13, 1940, represented a departure for the Walt Disney cartoon factory, and not just in its serious, artistic theme. It was Disney's first original feature
that wasn't a true feature. Instead of a single story, in a single style, told in the traditional beginning-middle-end sequence, it was a compilation of several shorts of varying length. They added up to a respectably feature-length 120 minutes (almost twice the length of Dumbo), but the cohesive narrative usually found in features wasn't there. Its purpose wasn't to tell a story but to enhance selected pieces of classical music with animation. But it presaged an era of compilation-style features; and most of its successors, such as The Reluctant Dragon and Fun & Fancy Free, didn't have anywhere near as strong a unifying theme.
But most of those '40s compilations were done that way to save money — stringing together a bunch of short cartoons was less expensive than making a single long one, which is why every Disney feature between Bambi (1942) and Cinderella (1950) was done that way. But with Fantasia, the motive was anything but budget-consciousness. In fact, it was originally released to only 14 theatres, because the necessity of installing expensive new sound systems made it as unpopular among movie house owners as did the fact that it occupied the screen for two solid hours before tickets could be sold to a fresh audience. Disney eventually relented and released a version that could be shown in the average venue (and was almost a third shorter), but that didn't mitigate its unusually high production cost.
And it fell far short of earning back that cost. Tho critical acclaim was both enthusiastic and near-unanimous, audiences stayed away in droves. Reasons suggested range from lowbrow skepticism about the ability of classical music to deliver entertainment, to highbrow disdain for the "Disney Version" effect, i.e., the fact that the Disney company inevitably alters everything it touches. Conductor Leopold Stokowski condensed Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony into a single movement, turned Bach's organ music for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor into a full-orchestra piece, jammed Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria together into a single segment, and committed any number of minor violations on the work of Tchaikowsky, Ponchielli et al. Igor Stravinsky, the only then-living composer whose work was used, complained bitterly, years later, about "improvements" made to his work.
But the music wasn't intended for a concert hall. It had been adapted to become part of something completely new, the likes of which had never been seen before. A more likely reason for its failure at the box office was simply that it often takes time for such things to be accepted. It wasn't until the 1960s, after several re-releases, that Fantasia finally broke even. But since then, fully restored to its original length, it's been regarded by critics and public alike as one of Disney's greatest achievements.
Fantasia's origin lay in a chance meeting between Disney and Stokowsky, in which Disney mentioned a proposed short casting Mickey Mouse as the protagonist of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Paul Dukas. Stokowski expressed an interest in conducting it, and the idea grew into an entire feature based on classical music. Even the title, an Italian word for a medley of musical themes, came from Stokowski. Composer, conductor and commentator Deems Taylor came aboard to narrate it. As an author, educator and radio voice of New York's Metropolitan Opera, Taylor was among the best-known figures in classical music at the time, but today is best remembered for his role in Fantasia.
Originally, Fantasia was intended to evolve over time, each release adding a few new segments and dropping a few old ones. Its initial failure at the box office made that impossible, but nearly six decades after its first release, a whole new version was made, retaining only one segment — the one starring Mickey Mouse — from the original. Fantasia/2000, released December 17, 1999, seemed even more conscious of its status as Art, with stars such as Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury and many others clamoring for the privilege of introducing segments. At the same time, it seemed less bold, concentrating almost exclusively on 20th century composers such as Gershwin and Shostakovich. Also, it did a little more in the way of exploiting established Disney stars, with Donald Duck (who had appeared in no less than five compilation features during the '40s) starring in one segment.
But it was as well received by critics as the original. And this time, the public supported it too.