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Fantastic ‘Fantasia’ : Disney Channel Takes a Look at Walt’s Great Experiment in Animation

<i> Charles Solomon, a regular contributor to Calendar, is the author of "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation."</i>

“Fantasia,” which turns 50 in November, was Walt Disney’s grand attempt to establish animation as a legitimate art form that fused drawing, motion, design, choreography, sound and color.

The film is considered a classic today, and myriad stories surround its creation, some of which are detailed in “Fantasia: The Creation of a Disney Classic,” hosted by Michael Tucker of “L.A. Law” and airing Sunday at 6 p.m. on the Disney Channel (repeating Wednesday at 11 a.m. and Thursday at 5 a.m.).

Herewith, for Mouse-aholics and everyone else, are some little-known facts about the animated film:

* It all began, appropriately, with Mickey Mouse. During the 1930s, the rambunctious mouse of “Steamboat Willie” had become an increasingly nice guy--and fallen in popularity behind Disney’s Donald Duck and Goofy and, in some polls, the Fleischer Studio’s Popeye.

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Looking for a sort of comeback vehicle for Mickey, Walt Disney began work in 1936 on a “Silly Symphony” short based on composer Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

* A chance meeting--and the harsh realities of the movie business--transformed Disney’s modest project into the most ambitious feature in the history of animation.

One night in late 1937, Disney was dining alone at Chasen’s and saw Leopold Stokowski, also alone. Disney asked the conductor to join him and mentioned the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” during their conversation. Stokowski offered to waive his fee and conduct the music for the film. Disney accepted. Stokowski also suggested they collaborate on “a fanta- zee -ah,” a full-length feature that would illustrate various pieces of classical music. Disney let that suggestion pass.

* When the cost of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” passed $125,000, it became clear that a short film couldn’t possibly earn back that kind of money, and Disney reconsidered Stokowski’s suggestion. In February, 1938, they began work on a film tentatively entitled “The Concert Feature.” Research was done to find suitable musical selections, and Disney’s engineers began developing an advanced sound system. Musicologist Deems Taylor agreed to serve as commentator. Stokowski would conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra for the film; his contract was renegotiated.

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* Although animation always had been a popular amusement in America, avant-garde artists in Europe--including Walter Ruttman, Viking Eggling and Oskar Fischinger--had experimented with abstract animated films during the ‘20s and early ‘30s. So Disney hired Fischinger, who had fled Germany in 1936, to work on the sequence set to Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.”

Fischinger was accustomed to working as an independent artist and disliked the collaborative nature of studio animation; Disney came to feel his work was too abstract for the film’s mass audience. After nine months, Fischinger left; his name was omitted from the credits. Reliable sources believe it was at his request because he hoped to become more famous than Disney and didn’t want the studio to be able to exploit his participation.

* According to studio sources, when Igor Stravinsky first saw the dinosaurs fighting to “The Rite of Spring,” he said perhaps that was what he had in mind when he wrote the music. He subsequently dismissed the visuals as “an unresisting imbecility,” damned Stokowski’s performance as “execrable” and complained bitterly about the rearrangement of his score and the size of the fee he received. The tyrannosaurus and stegosaurus that meet in the climactic battle are far more believable than the stop-motion monsters in Hollywood science-fiction films, but scientists point out the two animals actually lived tens of millions of years apart.

* The first sketches for the “Pastorale Symphony” sequence depicted languorous, bare-breasted nymphs reclining by rainbow-colored pools. The nymphs were transformed into centaurettes as work progressed, but the revised characters also were drawn topless. It’s not certain whether the Hays Office, which supervised the moral content of films at the time, intervened or Disney feared that it would, but the animators added modest flower bras to their imaginary creatures.

* The “Pastorale” was bowdlerized in later releases to removes images deemed offensive to blacks. Sunflower, a pickaninny centaurette who shined the others’ hoofs, was excised and the appearance of the Nubian/zebra centaurettes who attend Bacchus was trimmed.

* Bela Lugosi was hired to pose for reference footage of Tchernobog, the black god of Russian legend, but Bill Tytla, the key animator, disliked the results. He made sequence director Wilfred Jackson take off his shirt and be photographed in the poses he used as references for his drawings.

Tytla’s animation of Tchernobog is widely admired by other animators for its sculptural three-dimensionality and extraordinary emotional power.

* Disney originally planned to keep “Fantasia” in permanent release. His plan was that as new animation to additional music was completed, it would be substituted for one of the original eight selections: The viewer would never see the same film twice. Preliminary work was done for several pieces, including Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” and Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.”

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These plans were derailed by the critical and audience response to the film upon its initial release. The critics were divided: In Commonwealth magazine, Philip Hartung praised it as “a new experience of great beauty--another milestone in the motion picture.” The Nation’s Franz Hoellering called it “a promising monstrosity.” In a devastating review in the New York Herald, Dorothy Thompson wrote “Nazism is the abuse of power, the perverted betrayal of the instincts, the genius of a race turned into black magical destruction, and so is ‘Fantasia.’ ”

* “Fantasia” was expensive to produce: $2.28 million (estimates of what it would cost to make the film today range from $28 million to $50 million). Installing the 96-speaker Fantasound system--a precursor of stereo--in the 12 theaters in which the film opened cost an additional $85,000 per theater.

* “Fantasia” lost money on its initial release, but proved highly profitable in its subsequent re-releases. It began to acquire the status of a cult classic in 1969, when it was reissued with a psychedelic poster--and rivaled “Yellow Submarine” as a “head trip” film. That was three years after Walt Disney’s death. Disney’s faith in his great experiment was finally vindicated, but for reasons he probably would have disliked.

* In 1981, the film was re-scored in state-of-the-art digital sound. Two-time Oscar winner Irwin Kostal conducted an orchestra of 127 Los Angeles musicians, matching Stokowski’s beats to keep the music synchronized to the animation. Everyone agreed the new sound track was a technical wonder, but Kostal simply wasn’t a conductor of Stokowski’s stature, nor was his pick-up group the Philadelphia Orchestra.

* Disney has extensively restored both the visuals and the Stokowski sound track for the film’s golden anniversary reissue in October. Technicians have been working with the original nitrate negatives and, according to studio sources, improved film stock and lenses will produce clearer, more detailed prints.

All of which confirms Walt Disney’s statement, “ ‘Fantasia’ is timeless. It may run 10, 20 or 30 years. It may run after I’m gone. ‘Fantasia’ is an idea in itself. I can never build another ‘Fantasia.’ I can improve. I can elaborate. That’s all.”


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