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A New Life For Fantasia

by J.B. Kaufman

Mickey's finest moment? "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence from the original Fantasia. All images
© The Walt Disney Co.

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.

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