“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” – Walt Disney
It has been 80 years since Disney released their third animated feature film Fantasia and very few works of art can claim to have had the same magnitude of influence on the cinematic medium. The 1940 film combined the beauty of classical music with the dazzling animated visuals in order to create a nuanced narrative, pushing the boundaries of what a film can be. Still considered by many as Disney’s magnum opus, this ambitious 125-minute project’s creative power remains undiminished after all these years.
Fantasia’s conception can be traced back to 1936 when the popularity of the iconic cartoon character Mickey Mouse had declined and Disney felt the need to feature Mickey in a deluxe cartoon short based on the 1797 poem written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. When Walt Disney met the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, at a restaurant in Hollywood. Stokowski expressed his interest in being a part of a project which would feature animation set to classical music and offered to conduct the piece at no cost. Although this had already been done as early as 1928 in Disney’s cartoon series the Silly Symphonies, Disney wanted to transcend the stereotypical associations of such animated films with slapstick comedy. He believed that Fantasia would “change the history of motion pictures” when he said:
“We’ve got more in this medium than making people laugh.”
However, as production costs reached $125,000, it was evident that the budget was way too much for a short film so Disney decided to include it in a feature-length film with other segments set to classical pieces. The studio faced numerous obstacles in the way because of the start of World War-II, being unable to distribute the film overseas. Theatres back home also had to be modified as the soundtrack was recorded using multiple audio channels and reproduced with the pioneering sound reproduction system called “Fantasound” which made Fantasia the first commercial film shown in stereophonic sound. The length of the film and the creative autonomy of the different animators ensured that the production process was long but they worked past all these difficulties in order to manifest their creative vision.
First released as a theatrical roadshow held in thirteen U.S. cities, the film was unable to make a profit at the time. Initially, it received glowing critical acclaim from the likes of the New York Times: “a creation so thoroughly delightful and exciting in its novelty that one’s senses are captivated by it” but the experimental, psychedelic work was ahead of its time. Over 1000 artists and technicians worked on Fantasia which featured a staggering number of animated characters (more than 500). Disney and Stokowski spent months selecting the classical works which would accompany the brilliant visuals, settling on masterpieces by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven among others. Audiences failed to grasp the significance of the work and it nearly made Disney bankrupt. Disney himself admitted in 1955 that he wasn’t sure about what he was trying to say with Fantasia: “Every time I made a mistake is when I went in a direction where I didn’t feel the thing actually and I did try to be a little smarty-pants.”
Almost a century later, it is safe to say that time has been extremely kind to Fantasia. It has gone on to become the 24th highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S. (when adjusted for inflation) and has its own franchise which includes video games, Disneyland attractions, a live concert series and even a 1999 sequel. Fantasia was seen as a part of important shifts in artistic sensibilities since the 1960s when Pop Art pioneers like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein took inspiration from the film’s interesting visuals. Horror director Wes Craven claimed that Fantasia was one of his favourite films and Steven Spielberg attributed Disney’s 1940 film influenced ET (1982). Cinematographer Ben Davies revealed that he thought of the recent superhero film Doctor Strange as “Marvel’s Fantasia.”
It is incredible to see how a film that was once considered to be one of Disney’s greatest failures has solidified its artistic legacy in the discourse surrounding important works of art. The widespread appreciation of Fantasia’s achievements has arrived late but it is clear to many now that its formative influence on animation and the cinematic medium cannot be dismissed.