A Study in Disney: ‘Fantasia’ (1940)

| November 18, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Histeria: Night on Bald Mountain

In the same year that Walt Disney released Pinocchio he also released Fantasia.  Both were artistic milestones; both pushed the boundaries of animation.  Yet, at the same time, they both failed at the box office and serve as a cautionary tale to Mr. Disney that it was wise cull his instincts.  When it came to Fantasia, he threw away the excepted construct of what a movie could be and paid a heavy price.  The hard lesson was that art and commerce are always squabbling siblings.  Art may have the brains, but commerce has all the muscle.

With his early features, Disney’s intent was to push the horizons.  If Snow White and Pinocchio were an equivalent to Columbus discovering the new world, Fantasia would be equivalent to a trip to the moon.  And yet, like our voyages to the moon he would find that the public’s yearning to be challenged is a bit of a gamble.  Time would be kind to Fantasia but Disney would discover that the audience wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as he was about exploring the horizons.

Disney’s dream for Fantasia was extreme to say the least.  If Snow White and Pinocchio were a challenge to our perceptions of the way in which we could be moved by an animated feature, this movie was something else.  It was a challenge to our perceptions.  He stripped away all sense of narrative.  His film did not rely on character motivation.  He threw away the three-act structure in favor of a sensory experience; something akin to spending an evening at the symphony.

Fantasia is difficult to digest.  It strips away all sense of narrative.  Rather than a three-act structure, it is an experience, the equivalent of spending an evening at the symphony.  It is the kind of movie that didn’t just happen in front of you; it rattles your senses and your expectations.  If we are attending the symphony, we are anchored by the limits of stage production.  On film we can leave the space of the theater and float into streams of consciousness, so Walt wanted our eyes and our ears to be filled with the magic of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shubert, Muggsorgsky and Beethoven while our eyes were given visual sensory experience.  Some of the segments contain characters, others vague characters and at least one contains no characters at all.

Revisiting the film last week, I tried to be analytical about some of the images that were appearing, but it is difficult.  It’s a little like analyzing a ballet.  You can only report back on how it made you feel.  Accompanied by the music Disney seems to be borrowing images (actually stereotypes) of Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern influence.  Yet, what am I to make of it?  I can only report how I felt and I felt the same as I do when I hear the music by itself.  It is exhilarating.

Watching Fantasia again last week, trying to interpret it in my mind, I found that it was the most challenging of all of Disney’s works.  Its a vanity project from top to bottom, encapsulating a vain attempt to give pictures to classical music.  What pictures are appropriate for Stravinsky, Beethoven, Shubert and Mussorgsky?  What images capture what happens in your mind when hearing it?  Dancing Hippos?  Dinosaurs?  Mickey Mouse?  This is a movie that must have had purists tearing their hair out.  Was it an act of vanity to add Disney’s roly poly characters to the works of these incredible artists? That’s a debate for the ages.  Is it any more or less offensive to have dancing hippos wrapped around Ponchielli than it is to have Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd immersed in Rossini?  Mull that one over.

As breathtaking an experience as Fantasia is, it was never the success that Disney wanted.  In making it, Disney went over his budget several times and curtailed the roadshow presentation because of a new “Sensaround” sound system that required theaters to be reformatted just for this film – he wanted his audience to feel the experience rather than just being in attendance.  That meant many cities didn’t get to see it.  It made money but it didn’t make back its budget.   It was proof that his ambition overreached his common sense.  With Hitler stomping all over Europe, the film’s distribution was, for the most part, cut off and that eliminated much of its overseas revenue.  It would take years and many re-releases for the film to bring forth a profit, but it became the breaking point to Disney’s ambition.  That’s the real tragedy because the film’s failure killed Disney’s desire to explore the limits of the medium.  “We’re through with caviar,” he said, “From now on its mashed potatoes and gravy.”

Fantasia leaves us with a clever debate.  What kinds of films should Hollywood be making?  We are sitting in a summer right now that includes space aliens, comic book superheroes, ghost busters and treks through the stars, but very little that redefines what a movie is.  Like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane, Fantasia is one of those art pieces of which no two people have the same opinion.  Its odd, strange, beautiful, brilliant, but much in the same vein of the music it employs, it challenges you to consider how you feel about it.  The critic Otis Ferguson wrote: “Dull as it is towards the end, ridiculous as it is in the bend of the knee before Art, and taking one thing with another, it is one of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world.”

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.