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A New Life For Fantasia

As Fantasia 2000's premiere date approaches, J.B. Kaufman finds Fantasia's roots and reveals Disney's hopes for their second chance at awakening Walt's dream.

Mickey's finest moment?

In the decades since its release, Walt Disney's Fantasia has been universally recognized as one of the imperishable classics of the animated film. Yet -- as monumental an achievement as it is -- the film that we know as Fantasia represents only a part of Walt Disney's creative vision. Along with the brilliance of the animation and the technical innovation of Fantasound, Fantasia was meant to offer a new concept in exhibition. "Disney and Stokowski feel that it is not a finished product," said a press release, "but an indication of the great possibilities the future may develop in this new entertainment medium." These were not idle words; Fantasia was meant to be unfinished -- a work in progress, an evolving film, with new segments constantly being produced and reshuffled with the originals. The concept would be something like that of a touring orchestra, continually altering its repertoire. Fantasia's Fate We know, of course, that the concept was not realized; that disappointing boxoffice returns and the increasing pressures of the war in Europe combined to force Disney to relinquish his revolutionary idea. Fantasia was frozen in its original form and released (in all but a few theaters) with an ordinary mono soundtrack -- a brilliant, justly celebrated film, but a fixed entity like any other film. Now, six decades later, the studio that bears his name is making a bold move to realize Walt Disney's original concept for his film. As the new year dawns the studio will unveil Fantasia 2000, featuring one segment from the original alongside a host of new ones. In keeping with Walt Disney's history of embracing new technologies, the studio has produced an IMAX edition of the film which will open in select theaters on New Year's Day 2000 and continue for several months. The 35mm version will follow, opening in conventional movie theaters later in the year.

Walt Disney at the piano.

Roy E. Disney, vice chairman of the studio and the guiding spirit behind the new film, explains that he has always cherished the hope of reviving Fantasia but that the idea has only in the 1990s become feasible, both financially and psychologically. The outstanding sales of the 1991 home-video release of Fantasia indicated an enormous world-wide interest in the concept, and encouraged him to push for a new edition. "It was a propitious time," he explains, "because we were really on a roll right in there, in `92, `93 and `94. It looked for a while there like we could do nothing wrong." Clearly the opportunity had arrived, and Disney seized it. In 1994 the studio embarked on a daunting mission: to produce a new film that would stand comparison with the original Fantasia. The Roots of Innovation Actually, the concept of an ever-changing Fantasia is a perfectly natural one, since the original film was itself the product of an evolutionary process. The seeds of Fantasia can be traced through many of Disney's earlier films of the 1930s, especially the Silly Symphonies.

Roy Disney feels that the new segment based on Stravinsky's "The Firebird" packs an emotional punch similar to that of the "Night on Bald Mountain"/"Ave Maria" segment (above) in the original film.

Along with their musical orientation, the Silly Symphonies early on demonstrated Disney's desire to elevate the animated film beyond simple slapstick gags. Among the earliest Symphonies were a group of four shorts built around the seasons, beginning with Springtime (1929). Jack Cutting, who worked on the seasonal films, described them to this writer more than fifty years after the fact with an obvious sense of pride. They were, he said, an important breakthrough in that they attempted to introduce a refined, artistic standard in animation. To the modern viewer watching Springtime, this seems a fine distinction; the gap between this film and the standard "gag" cartoon of 1929 seems narrow indeed. But that's because Disney has conditioned us by continuing to raise the bar in succeeding years (and, in fact, largely because our eyes have been dazzled by Fantasia). As the 1930s wore on, Disney's culture consciousness was reflected ever more prominently in his films -- and in those of rival cartoon producers, who sought to emulate Disney's success by copying his style. By decade's end a large percentage of the American animation industry was producing ambitiously arty little films, Disney still leading the pack with lush, poetic flights of fancy such as The Old Mill and Wynken, Blynken & Nod. In 1940, then, the original Fantasia was simply the latest flowering of this drive for refinement. Under more favorable conditions it might well have served as an endlessly adaptable medium for more of the same.

Compare and Contrast

Certainly the new edition strives for the same variety that characterized the original: it brings together such varied fare as an abstract opening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, an illustration of "Pomp and Circumstance" which somehow inserts Donald Duck into the story of Noah's Ark, and a surreal journey by airborne whales to Respighi's "Pines of Rome." The finale of Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" is illustrated by a cartoon concept supplied by Joe Grant, the brilliant story artist who contributed so much to the original Fantasia. Roy Disney feels that the new segment based on Stravinsky's "The Firebird" packs an emotional punch similar to that of the "Night on Bald Mountain"/"Ave Maria" segment in the original film. "We were very hard put to find something that musically, in the right amount of time, covered that kind of emotional ground, and it really works for us just beautifully." Interestingly, personality animation -- usually conceded as the Disney studio's leading concern during the golden 1930s -- seemed to take a back seat in the original Fantasia. Some of Disney's best earlier films had been built entirely around the delineation of character, a discipline which had served the studio well in Snow White and Pinocchio. Fantasia takes a different tack, concentrating on rich visual experimentation and its connection with the music. But it is a multifaceted work, and nuggets of character animation are woven throughout. It's a revealing experience to watch Fantasia with an audience; invariably there is an audible, enthused reaction to the appearances of the baby Pegasus in the "Pastoral" and the Chinese mushrooms in the "Nutcracker Suite." Roy Disney avers that the production team was careful to build strong personalities into the new film as well. "I think we've probably got more of those memorable moments packed into this one than were there before," he says. "There are personalities within each of the pieces, even the Beethoven, the opening piece which is very abstract, there are characters in it. And they have an arc to them, they go somewhere." One major difference between the two films is that all the segments in the original Fantasia were controlled by a central authority: the personal vision of Walt Disney. Roy Disney has exercised a nominal control over Fantasia 2000, but has assembled creative input from diverse sources. At its best, the film will apparently combine the best of both contemporary animation worlds: the independence of individual artists backed by the resources of a major studio. A case in point is Eric and Sue Goldberg's segment based on Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a stylized fantasy depicting the stories of four disparate characters in 1930s New York, rendered in the style of Al Hirschfeld. Eric Goldberg originally tackled the segment as an independent project. "We looked at a rough version of `Rhapsody' with Eric, who was just making it to be making it, and the truth was nobody knew quite where it was going to go at first," Disney recalls. "I just leaned over, he was sitting right in front of me, and I said, `This belongs in Fantasia, Eric.'"

At one time Fantasia 2000 was planned to include three segments from the original Fantasia; but only

Another Chance

Strictly speaking, little of the original Fantasia willbe on view in the new edition. At one time it was planned to include three of the original segments; of the three, only "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" will survive in the finished feature. "The Dance of the Hours" was replaced by "Rhapsody in Blue." "The Nutcracker Suite" was dropped from the lineup justwithin the last few months, a casualty of preview screenings which revealed it as an unintentional lull in the context of the new pieces. Disney theorizes that the leisurely pace of "Nutcracker," combined with audience familiarity, worked against it. "Inthat mix," he says ruefully, "it was the signal to go to the bathroom. I worked like hell trying to keep some of the old stuff in because I love it so much. But we had a couple of runnings with an audience, and both times it was just -- you knew you had to take it out." The lovely segment created in the early 1940s to Debussy's "Clair de lune" (the animation later recycledfor "Blue Bayou" in Make Mine Music) has been restored, and seems an obvious candidate for Fantasia 2000. Disney acknowledges that it was considered, but rejected because "it's pretty boring."

In light of the history behind Fantasia, an obvious questionpresents itself: is this truly a continuation of the original film -- that is, an open-ended venture with more segments planned for the future -- or another fixed entity? The answer is still unknown. Roy Disney says that he and all the artists concerned would love to continue the process indefinitely ("I hated to stop"),but acknowledges that in 2000, as in 1940, the studio is dependent on the boxoffice. Apathetic audience reaction forced Walt Disney to abandon his vision of an ever-changing film; time and the audience may yet affirm that it was only temporarily postponed.

J.B. Kaufman is an independent film historian who has writtenextensively on early Disney animation. He is co-author, with Russell Merritt, of Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney,and the two are completing a second book on the Silly Symphonies.