fantasia poster
Original theatrical poster
Copyright held by the Disney Corporation

Humour and Classical Music
4. Fantasia

by David Barker

Mickey Mouse was perhaps Walt Disney’s biggest box office hit in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but by 1936, his star was waning, and Disney felt that something different was needed to restore Mickey’s popularity. That something was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, based on the story from a 1797 Goethe poem and using Paul Dukas’s 1897 orchestral work of the same name as accompaniment.

The Disney studio had been producing cartoons where the musical accompaniment was as significant as the animated action in its acclaimed series of Silly Symphonies, which garnered seven Oscars for Best Short Animated Film in the 1930s, including The Three Little Pigs, which featured the song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. Without watching every single one, I haven’t identified specific pieces of classical music used in the series.

The inclusion of an existing classical work was one aspect of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that made it different to the Silly Symphonies. The other was Disney’s wish to make it more than just slapstick, to give it more significance, and a wider (and older) audience. To this end, he agreed to a substantially higher budget, and to employ a well-known conductor to add prestige. Soon after, Disney happened to be dining in the same Hollywood restaurant as Leopold Stokowski. Disney talked about his plans, and Stokowski agreed to come on board, even offering his conducting services for free (though he was paid for his work on the arrangement of the Dukas).

Disney wrote that he was “all steamed up over the idea of Stokowski working with us … The union of Stokowski and his music, together with the best of our medium, would be the means of a success and should lead to a new style of motion picture presentation.” He had already begun working on a story outline, and wished to use “the finest men … from color … down to animators”. An eighty-five piece orchestra was employed for the recording, which was done in collaboration with RCA Victor which provided multi-channel recording to improve on the usual tinny single-speaker cinema experience. Unsurprisingly, the costs mounted up, and it was realised by Walt Disney and his brother Roy that the costs were going to be far more than a single short film, no matter how sophisticated, could ever recoup. Rather than be deterred by this, the decision, driven by Walt Disney, was to expand the project to a major feature film, with a number of segments, all animated and all with a well-known piece of classical music as the inspiration for the animation. Thus, the Fantasia that we know now was born.

Now this is an article about humour, not a film study, so I won’t spend too much more time on the film in general. Its Wikipedia page provides a host of information about it. And of course, not all of Fantasia is comedic. Indeed, Night on Bald Mountain is positively scary, and some parents during the initial cinema release complained that their children were terrified.

I did find it interesting that one of the most beloved segments – the mythological setting for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – was very much a last-minute addition. The original intention was to use Gabriel Pierné’s Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied, but the writers were having difficulty working out a storyline to match the music. The imagery of The Entry of the Little Fauns appealed, but the music wasn’t considered strong enough. Just who suggested the Pastoral Symphony doesn’t appear to be known, but what was recorded was Stokowski’s objection, because the mythological aspect of the animation had nothing at all to do with Beethoven’s intentions. Deems Taylor, who was drafted in to be the film’s “compere” on the basis of his work as announcer for New York Philharmonic broadcasts, thought the idea was “stunning”. I presume the final decision was Walt Disney’s, so Pierné was out, and Beethoven in.

So to the humour. Let’s begin with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It is thought that the storyline used by Goethe derives from antiquity, and from several different cultures. I’m sure you know the scene well. Mickey Mouse is the apprentice, given the menial job of carrying water from the well by his master, Yen Sid (you don’t have to be a master of anagrams to see this is Disney backwards). After his master departs, Mickey takes the “easy” way out and, using the sorcerer’s magic hat to cast a spell on a broom, so that it grows arms and legs to do the job instead. As the broom does its appointed task, Mickey falls asleep, dreaming of controlling the moon, stars and oceans, only to be woken by water flooding the chamber as the broom has done its job too well. Mickey can’t command the broom to stop, so takes an axe to it. All this does is produce an army of brooms carrying buckets, creating a maelstrom that threatens to drown Mickey. At this point, Yen Sid arrives and puts a stop to it all. Mickey is his usual cute self in apology, but the scene closes with him being whacked down the hallway with the broom by his master.

The coordination of the music with the action is quite extraordinary, a testament to Stokowski’s ability as an arranger, and to the animators for creating such a visually rich treat, to the point where it seems that Dukas must have written the music specifically for Disney. In terms of both dramatic action, and the beauty and depth of the animated images, it is so far ahead of the Silly Symphonies.

Without doubt, or at least in my opinion there is no doubt, the scene that brings most joy, smiles and laughter is Ponichielli’s Dance of the Hours, replete with ostrich and hippopotamus ballerinas and dancing elephants and alligators. In this instance, I won’t attempt to describe the scene fully as it needs to be seen to be enjoyed properly (there are some excerpts and full scenes on YouTube, but I doubt their legality so won’t provide any links). However, in the interests of discussing comedy, let me point out the joyous absurdity of Hyacinth demurely smoothing her tutu over her expansive rump and the elephants drinking water from the fountain and blowing bubbles in time with the music as wonderful highlights. Again, the matching of the music to the action is flawless, and the depiction of the ostriches and hippos as ballerinas shows the amount of time that the animators spent with real dancers, observing their movements. The prima ballerina hippo Hyacinth was based on actress Hattie Noel who weighed over 200 pounds, the animators studying the “least quiver of her flesh, noticing those parts of her anatomy that were subjected to the greatest stress and strain”.

Disney’s normal distributors, RKO, thought Fantasia, a bit too “longhair”, so allowed Disney to promote and screen it. Walt Disney wanted the release to be prestigious and decided on a roadshow format, where the film is given an initial limited release in a small number of theatres. The first theatre to screen the film was the Broadway in New York on November 13, 1940. It had been leased for a full year, and technicians spent a week installing the special Fantasound equipment to handle the multi-channel recording. Demand far exceeded the available seats, and it ran for forty-nine consecutive weeks at the Broadway, a record for a film at the time. It has been released in various forms (often with Taylor’s speaking parts removed), and with inflation taken into account, is the twenty-third highest grossing film in the USA.

While I much prefer the Warner Brothers cartoons to Disney – give me Daffy Duck over Donald any day – Fantasia is one of the greatest achievements of cinema, and for me, the finest animation ever done for a film (yes, the modern animated films such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story and the like may be more superficially sophisticated and brilliant, but they don’t match Fantasia in visual richness). It is extraordinary to think of the artists drawing twenty-four individual frames (or cels, short for celluloids) for every second of the film; Fantasia runs for over two hours, I’ll let you do the maths. An original cel from the movie of Mickey Mouse in his wizard’s outfit sold at auction a few years ago for in excess of $US18,000. Even rough preliminary sketches are being offered on eBay for around $1,000.

Disney made several attempts to create a follow-up to Fantasia, but it took a very successful release on videotape for home consumption in 1991 before a sequel, Fantasia 2000, was actually commissioned.  It premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1999, but was given general release the following year, to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of Fantasia’s premiere. Seven of its eight segments were newly created for the film, the exception being The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was reused in its original form, though introduced by the well-known Las Vegas magicians Penn and Teller. Other segments were also introduced by personalities, including Itzhak Perlman, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Bette Midler and James Earl Jones.

The music comprised Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, four of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches and Stravinsky’s The Firebird. It was performed, in most part, by the Chicago Symphony conducted by James Levine. Its reception was mixed; the animation was a combination of computer graphics and traditional artwork, but it failed to recapture the magic of the original. In 2040, its centenary year, people will still remember Fantasia, but I doubt Fantasia 2000 will get a mention.

In a future column, I will discuss the 1976 Italian film Allegro non troppo that followed in the considerable footsteps left by Fantasia, but with significantly different motives.