Story Directors: Joe Grant and Ben Sharpsteen
Production: Walt Disney Productions; Technicolor, 35mm, animation, Fantasound; running time: 126 minutes, British version cut to 105 minutes, later versions cut to 81 minutes; length: originally 11,361 feet, cut to 9405 feet for British version. Released 13 November 1940 by RKO/Radio. Re-released every 5–7 years, beginning in 1946. Re-released in 1982 with soundtrack in digital audio. Filmed in Walt Disney Studios. Cost: $2,280,000.
Producer: Walt Disney; story developers: Lee Blair, Elmer Plummer, and Phil Dike ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" episode); Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Norman Wright, Albert Heath, Bianca Majolie, and Grahm Heid ("The Nutcracker Suite" segment); Perce Pearce and Carl Fallberg ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment); William Martin, Leo Thiele, Robert Sterner, and John Fraser McLeish ("The Rite of Spring" segment); Otto Englander, Webb Smith, Erdman Penner, Joseph Sabo, Bill Peet, and George Stallings ("Pastoral Symphony"); Martin Provensen, James Bodrero, Duke Russell, and Earl Hurd ("Dance of the Hours"); Campbell Grant, Arthur Heinemann, and Phil Dike ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" segment); directors: Samuel Armstrong ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and "The Nutcracker Suite" segments); James Algar ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment); Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield ("The Rite of Spring" segment); Hamilton Luske, Jim Hangley, and Ford Beebe ("Pastoral Symphony"); T. Hee and Norman Ferguson ("Dance of the Hours" segment); Wilfred Jackson ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" segment); animation directors: Samuel Armstrong ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and "The Nutcracker Suite"); Bill Roberts ("The Rite of Spring"); James Algar ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice"); Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley and Ford Beebe ("Pastoral Symphony"); T. Hee and Norman Ferguson ("Dance of the Hours"); and Wilfred Jackson ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria"); musical film editor: Stephen Csillag; sound and music recordists: William E. Garity, C. O. Slyfield, and J. N. A. Hawkins; sound system, called Fantasound, designed especially for the film; art directors: Robert Cormack ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" segment); Robert Cormack, Al Zinnen, Curtiss D. Perkins, Arthur Byram, and Bruce Bushman ("The Nutcracker Suite" segment); Tom Codrick, Charles Phillippi, and Zack Schwartz ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment); McLaren Stewart, Dick Kelsey, and John Hubley ("The Rite of Spring" segment); Hugh Hennesy, Kenneth Anderson, J. Gordon Legg, Herbert Ryman, Yale Gracey, and Lance Nolley ("Pastoral Symphony" segment); Kendall O'Connor, Harold Doughty, and Ernest Nordli ("Dance of the Hours" segment); Kay Nielson, Terrell Stapp, Charles Payzant and Thor Putnam ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" segment); music director: Edward H. Plumb; music conductor: Leopold Tokowski (Irwin Kostal for 1982 release); music: selections include Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor"; Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite"; Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"; Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring"; Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony"; Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours"; Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain"; and Schubert's "Ave Maria"; special animation effects: Joshua Meador, Miles E. Pike, John F. Reed, and Daniel Leonard Pickely; animation supervisors: Fred Moore and Vladamir Tytla ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment); Wolfgang Reitherman and Joshua Meador ("The Rite of Spring"); Fred Moore, Ward Kimball, Eric Larsen, Arthur Babbitt, Oliver Johnson Jr., and Don Townsley ("Pastoral Symphony" segment); Norman Ferguson ("Dance of the Hours" segment); Vladamir Tytla ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" segment); animators: Cy Young, Art Palmer, Daniel MacManus, George Rowley, Edwin Aardal, Joshua Meador, and Cornett Wood ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" segment); Arthur Babbitt, Les Clark, Don Lusk, Cy Young, and Robert Stokes ("The Nutcracker Suite" segment); Les Clark, Riley Thompson, Marvin Woodward, Preston Blair, Edward Love, Ugo D'Orsi, George Rowley, and Cornett Wood ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment); B. Wolf, J. Campbell, J. Bradbury, J. Moore, M. Neil, B. Justice, J. Elliotte, W. Kelly, D. Lusk, L. Karp, M. McLennan, R. Youngquist and H. Mamsel ("Pastoral Symphony" segment); J. Lounsbery, H. Swift, P. Blair, H. Fraser, H. Toombs, N. Tate, H. Lokey, A. Elliott, G. Simmons, R. Patterson, and F. Grundeen ("Dance of the Hours" segment); John McManus, W. N. Shull, Robert Carlson Jr., Lester Novros, and Don Patterson ("Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" segment).
Cast: Deems Taylor (Narrative Introductions).
Awards: New York Film Critics' Special Award, 1940; Oscars, Special Awards (certificates), to Walt Disney, William Garity, John N. A. Hawkins, and RCA for Contributions to the Advancement of Sound in Motion Pictures, 1941; Oscar, Special Award (certificate), to Leopold Stokowski for his Achievement in the Creation of a New Form of Visualized Music, 1941.
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Gessner, Robert, "Class in Fantasia," in Nation (New York), 30 November 1940.
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Isaacs, H. R., in Theatre Arts (New York), January 1941.
Peck, A. P., "What Makes Fantasia Click?," in Scientific American (New York), January 1941.
Boone, Andrew R., "Mickey Mouse Goes Classical," in PopularScience Monthly (New York), January 1941.
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According to Deems Taylor, writing in 1940 (although the story was later denied by Disney sources), Fantasia first began as a comeback vehicle for Mickey Mouse after the Disney Studio had turned from modest cartoon production to large-scale animation features. Certainly Disney had used the Silly Symphony format to introduce additional cartoon figures—Pluto in 1930, the Three Pigs in 1933, and then Donald Duck in 1934, who went on to challenge Mickey's top billing. Also in 1934 Disney began work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a considerable gamble that came to be regarded as "Disney's Folly," but went on to turn a profit of $8 million in its first release in 1937 and earned a special Oscar from the Motion Picture Academy. Pinocchio followed the success of Snow White, introducing Jiminy Cricket as an ingenuous narrator. At this point, then, in 1938, Disney began thinking about a new role for Mickey.
Disney's solution was to make Mickey the lead figure of a special cartoon rendering of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", a fairy tale that had been set to music by the French composer Paul Dukas. Needing musical advice, Disney broached the project to the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, who was interested not only in the Dukas/Mickey idea but also in extending the project to an animated concert feature. Disney then began thinking in terms of "The Concert Feature" that was to become Fantasia. Whether the idea to expand was Disney's or Stokowski's has also been disputed.
At any rate, Deems Taylor, the radio voice of the Metropolitan Opera, was brought in to provide further advice and to handle the narrative transitions among the concert film's various "movements," involving eight different musical compositions. Disney presumably saw the project as a challenging experiment in animated technique rather than an opportunity to use animation merely as a means of popularizing classical music for the masses. In the Bach Toccata and Fugue portion, for example, Disney artists were encouraged to experiment visually and boldly, in ways never before imagined. This sequence, early in the film, signals its experimentalism, departing from the usual Disney style and moving in abstract directions, imitating the techniques of Oscar Fischinger, who was originally to direct that sequence but left the project before completing it, after discovering the studio had altered his original designs. Other experiments are elsewhere in evidence, as when the sound track is visualized through animation midway through the film, recalling the abstract experiments of Len Lye and anticipating those of Norman McLaren. More conventional Disney whimsy is elsewhere in evidence, however, and there is perhaps the danger of vulgarizing the music through the imposed visual patterns. In fact, the sequences are diverse and uneven.
The film has been criticized for its "ponderous didacticism" (the visualization of the "paleontological cataclysm" in the Stravinsky Rite of Spring sequence, for example, and the simplistic contrasts of the final sequences—Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain against Schubert's Ave Maria, with Good triumphing over Evil in a finale of Christian tranquility) and praised for those sequences in which Disney contented himself with being Disney and avoided self-conscious attempts at being "artistic."
Fantasia came to Disney at a time when risks were being taken. After the demonstrated success of "Disney's Folly," animation began on Fantasia early in 1938. The production cost $2,280,000, including $400,000 for the music alone. Disney began thinking in terms of wide-screen production, multiplane Technicolor, and "Fantasound," representing a major technical innovation involving the use of stereophonic sound and employing a new four-track optical stereophonic system. The achievement of "Fantasound" was something of a compromise: according to Peter Finch, Disney "developed a sound system utilizing seven tracks and thirty speakers," but the system was "prohibitively expensive" and only installed in a few theatres. The score was recorded at the acoustically splendid Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
For the first time, moreover, Disney became his own distributor with Fantasia, since, as Variety reported, the film was so different as to require a different sales approach. It premiered on 13 November 1940, at the Broadway Theatre in New York, and was not an immediate success. Its original running time, with an intermission, was about 130 minutes, later cut to 81 minutes. It was reissued in 1946, but it would only build its audience strength over time. By 1968, for example, it had earned $4.8 million in North American markets, more than doubling its original investment, and finally taking its place among the top 200 grossing films.
In musical terminology, a fantasia is "a free development of a given theme." Disney's achievement, though often impressive and no doubt ahead of its time, has nonetheless had its detractors. Stravinsky was not pleased that his music had been restructured and that the instrumentation had been changed. "I will say nothing about the visual complement," Stravinsky remarked, "as I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility . . . "The film succeeds best when it is at its most playful—the hippopotamus ballerinas in the "Dance of the Hours" sequence, for example, which Richard Schickel has described as "a broad satirical comment on the absurdities of high culture." The visuals for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony strain contrivedly for a mythic charm in an Arcadian setting populated by fabulous creatures. Far more interesting are the animated dances from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and the whimsical treatment of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" or Mickey's struggle with the dancing brooms in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the conceptual core of the picture. John Tibbetts has written that the results of Mickey's "union with high art were questionable for some, just as Walt's collision with the likes of Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Moussorgsky raised (or lowered) many a brow."
Disney's undertaking Fantasia brings to mind an artisan who has only a superficial knowledge of religion undertaking to sculpt a monumental pieta out of sand as the tide moves in, threatening to erode it. Some passers-by will no doubt pause to watch out of curiosity, but the spectacle will not for most of them constitute a conversion. If anything, Fantasia does not teach a musical lesson, but it often fascinates and delights the eye.
Reviewing Fantasia in 1940, Otis Ferguson called it "a film for everybody to see and enjoy," despite its "main weakness—an absence of story, of motion, of interest." Bosley Crowther was less harsh, remarking that the images often tended to overwhelm the music, but praising the film for its "imaginative excursion" and concluding that it was a milestone in motion picture history. Despite its sometimes elaborate pretensions and its many innovations, the boldness of its concept quite overrides the "disturbing jumble" of its achievement. It is, indeed, a "milestone" in the history of animated film.
—James Michael Welsh
A seminal film in the development of animated features, and a cultural cornerstone in leading children to classical music, Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940) has entranced six generations of viewers in America and Europe. Named as one of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies of All Time in 1998, it has served as the inspiration for, among others, Bruno Bozetto's Allegro Non Troppo and Osamu Tezuka's Legend of the Forest. Although influential, it remains unique, one of the most masterful combinations of sound and images ever committed to celluloid.
Only the third full-length feature to be made by Walt Disney, at its inception it was one of the Hollywood film industry's most significant experiments since Warner Bros. introduced sound with The Jazz Singer 13 years earlier. The finished film, introduced by Deems Taylor, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski providing the music, had grown out of a chance meeting between Stokowski and Disney. The famous conductor had expressed an interest in working with Disney; the master of animation was looking to restore Mickey Mouse to his former level of popularity. It was felt that a visual realization of composer Paul Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" might do the trick.
Stokowski and Disney were both world-class showmen and in love with technological gimmickry. Stokowski was one of the earliest experimenters in stereophonic sound and suggested that the film's sound re-create that of a concert hall. This was done by recording the orchestra on three separate channels (right, left, and surround).However, recording the sound to the conductor's satisfaction wound up costing more than it would have been possible to recoup on a short subject. Disney then committed to making what he initially called a "Concert Feature," a collection of shorts that would make up a concert. According to Stokowski, he wondered why Disney planned to stop at a short subject; why not a full-length film with several other musical works to suggest "the mood, the coloring, the design, the speed, the character of motion of what is seen on the screen," as he later expressed it. In short, a fantasia, which means a free development on a given theme.
It was decided to open the film with Stokowski's own orchestral transcription of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," complemented by visual detailing suggestive of falling asleep at the orchestra. Recalled Disney, "All I can see is violin tips and bow tips—like when you're half asleep at a concert," not, apparently, an uncommon occurrence for the easily bored studio executive. In preparing for Fantasia, Disney subscribed to a box at the Hollywood Bowl where, he told a colleague, he invariably fell asleep, lulled by the music and the warmth of the polo coat he liked to wear. There is also a story that he ridiculed an animator on the film, calling him homosexual for taking a music appreciation class in preparation for the project. However, when the film opened, Disney told the reporter from the New York World Telegram, "I never liked this stuff. Honest, I just couldn't listen to it. But I can listen to it now. It seems to mean a little more to me. Maybe it can give other people the same thing."
The final film, a glorious marriage of sound and image, is not without flaws. Oskar Fischinger, an avant-garde painter who had worked with director Fritz Lang on the special effects for Die Frau im Mond (aka The Woman in the Moon) in Germany in 1929, helped design Fantasia's opening sequence. However, the literal-minded Disney, who denied him credit and had his designs altered, considered his vision too abstract. There were musical compromises, too.
Bach, best experienced with the original instrumentation, was given a bombastic transcription for full orchestra, and Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was seriously distorted under Stokowsky's baton. (Disney offered the composer $5,000 for his work, pointing out that since Stravinsky's work was copyrighted in Russia, and as the United States had not signed the Berne copyright agreement, he could simply pirate the music). Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" was truncated, a problem exacerbated later when a piccaninny centaur was excised from the film on subsequent reissues as being in poor taste. The female centaurs in that sequence were originally bare-breasted, but the Hays office insisted that discreet garlands be hung around their necks.
Other aspects of the film have remained a continual source of delight. The design for the excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," an enchanted forest peopled by mushroom Chinamen and Cossacks as dancing flowers, is a visual and aural feast; "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" starring, as intended, Mickey Mouse, is wonderfully inventive and amusing; "The Dance of the Hours" (from Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda) is a memorably comic sequence, with balletic ostriches and dancing hippopotami lampooning cultural pretensions.
Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," with its gargoyles, demons, and other frightening creatures of the night, remains the high spot of the film, accompanying a visual battle between the forces of good and evil. The spirits of the night rise from the local graveyard and travel to Bald Mountain for a celebration of Evil, a ritualistic bow to Tchernobog, the Black God. The flames transform into dancers, then animals, and then lizards, at the whim of the great Black God, who revels in the passionate exhibition. However, as morning approaches and church bells are rung, the Black God recoils in horror and is driven back until he is vanquished. The music segues into Schubert's "Ave Maria," scored for solo voice by the composer, but here given a choral treatment (with new lyrics by Rachel Field) which blasts the preceding crescendo of magnificent malevolence out of existence.
Bela Lugosi was hired to perform the part of Tchernobog, a figure of ultimate evil. He was photographed miming the actions of the character—the legendary horror star's expressions on the character's face are unmistakable—and his image was then altered and incorporated by Vladimir Tytla, one of Disney's greatest master animators. (Tytla left Disney after the famous studio strike of 1941, brought on by Disney's refusal to allow a union, and went on to direct Little Lulu cartoons, among other things). Disney had been rotoscoping live action figures as guides to animation as far back as Snow White (1938) (despite Ralph Bakshi's claim of rotoscoping as an important innovation in the 1970s), and for Fantasia members of the Ballet Russe, notably Roman Jasinsky, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Irina Baranova, modeled for the elephants, hippos, and ostriches (respectively) in the "Dance of the Hours" sequence.
The finale after "Night on Bald Mountain" is an anti-climactic version of Schubert's "Ave Maria," which was innovatively filmed as one long continuous take that required five days to shoot. The first time it was attempted, someone had placed the wrong lens on the camera, thus exposing the background on each side of the artwork. A second attempt was made mere days before the film's opening and was briefly disrupted by an earthquake on the third day of filming, fortunately with no ill effect.
Disney had wanted to shoot the film in widescreen and offer it on a reserved-seat basis before giving it a general release; however, his bankers objected and the only innovation Disney was able to offer was "Fantasound," an early stereo process that was available in only a few theaters.
By the time Fantasia opened, Disney had spent a fortune building his dream studio, but World War II shut down his foreign market and a significant portion of his revenues. The banks closed off his line of credit in 1940, and he was forced to offer stock to the public for the first time. Fantasia fared badly on its initial release, trimmed to 88 minutes, pleasing neither the audience (who wanted and expected more films like Snow White) nor the critics (who decried the misuse of classical music). However, Disney and Fantasia both survived, with the latter achieving classic status and more than recouping its costs (about $2,250,000). Until the film became available on video, it remained one of the classic Disney perennials, screened as a staple of children's vacation time.
One of Disney's ideas for the project was to periodically re-release it with the order and selection of musical programs altered. Such tunes as Debussy's "Clair de Lune," Weber's "Invitation to the Waltz," "Humoresque," Sibelius' "Swan of Tuonela," Wagner's "Ride of the Valkries," and Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" were considered for insertion into future releases. However, only "Peter and the Wolf" reached the animation stage in Disney's lifetime, narrated by Sterling Holloway in Make Mine Music (1938), though the "Claire de Lune" material formed the basis for Bobby Worth and Ray Gilbert's "Blue Bayou" in the same film.
Fantasia stands acknowledged as one of cinema's undisputed works of art, visually, musically and technically.
Heath, Robert. Fantasia: The Making of a Masterpiece (film).
Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. New York, Popular Library, 1978.
Peary, Danny. Cult Movies. New York, Dell Publishing, 1981.
Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version. New York, Avon Books, 1968.
Taylor, Deems. Walt Disney's Fantasia. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1940.
The now-classic animated film Fantasia opened on November 13, 1940, to lukewarm reviews. However, the Disney (see entry under 1920s—Film and Theater in volume 2) film went on to be considered among the best animated films of all time and remains unique for its attempt to bring together highbrow culture and popular culture. Its depiction of animated characters "acting" to classical music had never been attempted before. The music was performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the legendary Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977).
Motion-picture executive Walt Disney (1901–1966) had a vision of a film that would finally bring respect to the art of animation. How better to bring respectability to animation than to match animation with that most respectable of art forms at the time, classical music? He and Stokowski began to work together on the first of the sections, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," starring Disney's most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. That sequence alone cost $125,000, a huge sum at the time. With classical music and dancing hippos and mushrooms, Fantasia seemed to have something for everyone. When it opened in theaters, however, audiences did not know what to make of it. After a dull opening, it was cut from its original length down to eighty minutes. Fantasia played on a double bill with a Western (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) and then disappeared.
Fantasia earned back its production costs when it was re-released in 1956. Audiences finally appreciated it and came by the millions to theaters to see it, most for the first time. Fantasia was re-released again in 1969 for a whole new generation to see. This time it truly caught fire, for it seemed to fit the cultural spirit of the late 1960s. Many of the so-called hippies (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4) of the time did illegal drugs, such as LSD and marijuana (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4), before seeing the film. They said it gave them a different view of the film.
Since 1969, Fantasia has been periodically re-released in movie theaters. It is also very popular on videocassette and digital versatile disc (or digital video disc—DVD). The film is now among the two hundred top grossing (top moneymaking) motion pictures of all time. In 2000, a new version, Fantasia 2000, was shown in giant-screen IMAX theaters to large crowds of people.
—Jill Gregg Clever
For More Information
Corliss, Richard. "Disney's Fantastic Voyage." Time (December 13, 1999): pp. 94–96.
Fantasia ★★★★ 1940
Disney's most personal animation feature first bombed at the boxoffice and irked purists who couldn't take the plotless, experimental mix of classical music and cartoons. It became a cult movie, embraced by more liberal generations of moviegoers. Reissue of the original version, painstakingly restored, ceased because of a planned remake. ♫Toccata & Fugue in D; The Nutcracker Suite; The Sorcerer's Apprentice; The Rite of Spring; Pastoral Symphony; Dance of the Hours; Night on Bald Mountain; Ave Maria; The Cossack Dance. 116m/C VHS, DVD. D: Ben Sharpsteen, James Nelson Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield; W: Lee Blair, Phil Dike, Otto Englander, Carl Fallberg, Campbell Grant, Albert Heath, Graham Heid, Arthur Heine-mann, Bianca Majolie, William Martin, John McLeish, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Perce Pearce, Bill Peet, Edward Penner, Joseph Sabo, Webb Smith, Leo Thiele, Norman Wright; M: Leopold Stokowski; V: Walt Disney; Nar: Deems Taylor. AFI '98: Top 100, Natl. Film Reg. '90.
fan·ta·sia / fanˈtāzhə; fantəˈzēə/ • n. a musical composition with a free form and often an improvisatory style. ∎ a musical composition that is based on several familiar tunes. ∎ a thing that is composed of a mixture of different forms or styles: that theater is a Moorish fantasia.
fantasia (făntā´zhə) [Ital.,=fancy], musical composition not restricted to a formal design, but constructed freely in the manner of an improvisation. In the 16th and 17th cent., however, the term designated a contrapuntal piece employing imitation and thus was one of the forerunners of the fugue. The term is also applied to improvisatory pieces based on earlier works, e.g., Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Greensleeves.