Monday, May 31, 2010

"Congratulations to you, Mickey!"


Release Date: 13 November 1940

Director: James Alger, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handey, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen

It's no secret that both Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, were big fans of classic music and the arts. Anyone who has ever lived in LA the last few years can tell you about the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the LA Philharmonic play. The Disney Consert Hall gets it's name from the original contribution Lillian Disney made as a gift to the arts and Los Angeles, two things both of the Disney held fondly in their hearts. It comes as no surprise then at first glance that Walt would make a film like "Fantasia." But, upon review of the history of the film, one would discover that it was not love of classical music that originally was the genesis behind "Fantasia," but rather another one of Walt's great loves: Mickey Mouse.

Get into the late 1930's, the Mickey Mouse shorts were loosing popularity and it seemed more of Walt's audience wanted Donald Duck shorts instead. But Walt didn't want to give up on his most famous character and devised an idea for what was to be Mickey's big come back. Walt started work on a short for Mickey based on the 1797 poem by Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling, better known in English as The Sorcerer's Apprentice, with the music based on the L'apprenti sorcier, which was scored by Paul Dukas and based also on the original poem by Goethe. The animators really got into it and even had a little bit of fun at the bosses expense, naming the sorcerer Yen Sid (Disney spelled backwards). But after the extra long, nine minute short was made for the extremely large amount of $125,000, a very expense price tag for a short at the time, Disney was worried about actually releasing it by itself. It was a suggestion by conductor for the short Leopold Stokowski (who Disney had met early in 1938 while the short was being made, and graciously accepted the job of conducting, and doing it for free no less) to instead of releasing as a single short, add other segments and turn it into a full blown film. As a result, a new kind of animated film was formed, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice was joined by Fugue in D Minor, The Nutcracker Suite, The Rite of Spring, The Pastoral Symphony, Dance of the Hours, and last but not least, Night on Bald Mountain/ Ava Maria.

As production of The Sorcere's Aprentas turned into "Fantasia," Walt's vision for the project started to change. This was not meant to be a simple animated film like "Snow White" or the at that time in production "Pinocchio" was, but a place where animation, classic music, and pure art met to create what Walt called "The Concert Feature." As a result, he treated it like a fancy concert, complete with reserved seating in the theaters in the theaters that showed it, as well as expectations of fancy dress to those who attended, a program featuring production pictures, credits and synopsis for each segment and dedications by both Stokowski and Disney, an intermission and live action host (Deems Taylor) who would come out and provide introduction before each piece. Taylor's segments would also be the first time (of many) that live action would be used in one of the Disney Animated Masterpieces. Walt also commissioned the creation of a new, multi-channel sound system known as "Fantasound" in every theater playing "Fantasia." "Fantasound" would turn out to be a form of stereophonic sound, making "Fantasia" the first commercial film to use such technology.

Despite the hard work and innovative approaches, upon it's original release, "Fantasia" would be a box office bomb, partly as was the case with "Pinocchio" because of the loss of the European and Asian markets due to World war II, and part because audiences in the US and other markets that did see a release just couldn't get into a "Concert Feature" at that time. This, as well as the box office failure of "Pinocchio," left Disney in a lurch and made sure that Disney's original idea for the film, of being re-released each year with a mix of old and new segments, just like a classic music concert, would not happen. Ultimately, while not the original idea totally, it would spawn a squeal in "Fantasia 2000" some 60 years after it's original release. Despite the original set backs, and a few harsh criticisms over the years, most critics would go on to praise "Fantasia" and it was able to make the original money lost and some through it's various re-releases in theaters over the years and finally home video and DVD.

My Reaction:
Blame it on my ADHD if you wish, or just say that I'm just not "cultured enough" to appreciate it, but I just don't get into "Fantasia" that much. That is not to say that I don't find myself enjoying classical music at all, as in fact as I've grown older I find that from time to time it is very soothing to my soul. But, I have to be in the right mood to enjoy it, other wise it's wasted on me. The same goes for "Fantasia." Upon watching the film again, I discovered this is still the case.

But that said, I find I can easily watch by itself The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Night on Bald Mountain segments just about anytime. This may be in part due to the fact that both segments are easily the most accessible and well made shorts in the film and have had many Disney Channel showing over the years.
The historical significance is never lost on me, as is the case for what the film did to the animation medium period. As a die hard fan of animation, that is never lost on me. Upon watching this film again, I discovered that when in the right mood of course, "Fantasia" can be a very satisfying film. But if watched when not in the right mood, it will bore you to death like no other!

My Wife's Reaction: She got board at times it seemed, but over all seemed to enjoy it.

My Final Grade: (B-) I have to be honest, while I enjoy one or two of the segments, this is not one of my favorite Disney animated films. It's also however not my least favorite either. While I enjoyed the format update found in "Fantasia 2000" a lot more, I can still appreciate the leaps and bounds of what Walt was doing to the animation format with this film. He may have originally meant to save Mickey's career, but what he ended up doing was showing that animation didn't have to always be gags and funny stories, that sometimes it could truly be an establish, respected art form in the style of classical music and paintings.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

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