For many of us, Disney’s Fantasia was our first introduction to the playground of the imagination that is the orchestra. Disney himself said, “In a profession that has been an unending voyage of discovery in the realms of color, sound and motion, Fantasia represents our most exciting adventure.” The story of how Disney’s most ambitious and experimental film came to be, however, is as fantastic as the film itself.
Having been put to work as a teenager in order to help support his family, Walt Disney never completed more than an eighth grade formal education; nevertheless, from an early age he was determined to be his own boss. Intrigued by the nascent art form of animated films, he went to work for an ad agency, and soon after started his own animation studio in 1921 when he was only 20 years old.
Despite some early setbacks, the Disney enterprise would come to dominate the animation industry, thanks in large part to Disney’s competitive drive to stay on the cutting edge of technological innovation. When one examines the evolution of Disney’s early cartoons, the rate at which they increased in sophistication is astounding. By the mid-1930s, the next step was to create the first feature-length animated film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
In his studio’s early days, Disney had balked when one of his animators expressed an ambition to animate the works of Shakespeare; in general, highfalutin artistic pretensions were alien to him. Cartoons had always been short comedies that depended on visual gags, not literary niceties such as plot and character development. The challenge of producing a feature-length film would change the medium—and Disney—forever; animation was now about storytelling and artistry.
Upon its release in December 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was an unprecedented critical and commercial success. The film broke box office records worldwide; with millions of dollars pouring into his studio’s coffers, Disney was eager for new projects and even grander successes.
One of the staples of the Disney studio had been animated shorts called “Silly Symphonies”—cartoons accompanied by music. In the wake of Snow White, Disney wanted to create a more ambitious Silly Symphony using Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, music inspired by an ancient legend first recorded by Lucian around 200 AD and later retold by Goethe. For this Silly Symphony, which would star Mickey Mouse, Disney wanted the best musical collaborator he could find. After attending one of his concerts in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Disney knew that Leopold Stokowski was the man for the job.
Stokowski had won fame by transforming the Philadelphia Orchestra into what Rachmaninoff called “the finest orchestra I have ever heard at any time or any place in my whole life.” He molded this ensemble with a famous spirit of innovation that likely appealed to Disney. Plus, by 1937 Stokowski was no stranger to Hollywood, having recently played himself in two films.
Stokowski later recalled the beginning of his collaboration with Disney: “One night I was in California and I had dinner in a restaurant. A man walked in and looked at me and came over and said, ‘I’m Walt Disney. May I talk with you?’” The recording session for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice took place soon after, running from midnight to past 3:00 am. Stokowski explained, “The men drink coffee to keep awake; it makes everybody alert.”
Disney likely saw parallels between himself and Stokowski. Just as a conductor does not actually make any sound, Disney himself had stopped animating fairly early on; instead, like a conductor, he inspired, shaped, corrected and oversaw the work of others. He was involved nearly every step of the creative process, conducting an orchestra of animators.
Disney lavished his studio’s resources on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice until the costs mounted to at least three times the normal budget for a Silly Symphony. To turn a profit, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice needed to be part of a full-length feature; thus Fantasia was born. In the classical tradition, a fantasia is a free-form piece of music that resembles improvisation. The imaginative nature of the project reminded Stokowski of a fantasia, so he suggested the term as a working title for the film. The name stuck.
Stokowski and members of the Disney team ultimately settled on eight musical selections for the movie. Rejected numbers were shelved for future releases: Disney envisioned that the studio would “make a new version of Fantasia every year,” keeping some numbers the same while introducing new ones.
The highly-anticipated premiere took place on November 13, 1940 in New York City. While the film was praised by the New York Times’ movie critic as “simply terrific—as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen,” the film’s returns from its initial release far short of its lavish cost of $2.3 million. Partly to blame was the start of World War II, which closed European markets that previously accounted for as much as 45% of Disney’s revenue.
Combined with the box office failure of Pinocchio and delays on Bambi, the miss put Disney studios in a precarious situation. Faced with layoffs that would affect at least half of the studio, Disney’s animators went on strike in 1941. Like Mickey’s broomsticks in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Disney’s magic had gotten out of hand.
Though Disney’s would soon find commercial success again with Dumbo (which employed a much simpler and less expensive style of animation), he would never complete the planned sequels to Fantasia. Reflecting, Disney said, “Oh Fantasia! Well, we made it and I don’t regret it. But if we had to do it all over again, I don’t think we’d do it.”
Nevertheless, the Walt Disney Company continued to rerelease Fantasia, and in 1969 the film finally began to make a profit (perhaps in part due to a timely ‘psychedelic’ advertising campaign). Leopold Stokowski went on to become music director of the Houston Symphony and would live to be 95 (conducting to the end). In later years he remarked that “I often receive letters from people to say ‘Thank you for doing it (Fantasia) because I was always afraid to go to a concert hall…When I went to Fantasia I heard the great masters’ music and realized…I enjoyed it.’”
In 1991, the revenue from the first home video release of Fantasia broke records, prompting Disney’s executives to reconsider Walt’s unrealized vision of a sequel. Walt Dinsey’s nephew, Roy Disney, then spearheaded what would become Fantasia 2000. Like the original Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 would push animation technology into new frontiers. The Pines of Rome sequence, which features a family of flying whales, pioneered computer-generated animation, and the film was the first commercial full-length feature to be released in the IMAX format.
Now, eighteen years later, Fantasia is experiencing a new revival with what is perhaps its ultimate incarnation: Disney FANTASIA Live in Concert, in which selections from both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 are performed by an orchestra live-to-picture. The result is a rare and wonderful experience that is a revelation for both longtime fans of Fantasia and those seeing Disney’s brilliant animations for the first time. —Calvin Dotsey
The Houston Symphony presents Disney FANTASIA Live in Concert January 5, 6 and 7, 2018 at Jones Hall. For tickets and more information, visit www.houstonsymphony.org.