Walt Disney, who is never further back in the film parade than the front line, presents a new and novel treatment of animated cartoons in a group of illustrated classical musical compositions, under the title of “Fantasia.” Heretofore, Disney has worked solely in collaboration with his own highly trained staff of animators, story-tellers and musicians. In “Fantasia” he has enlisted the assistance of Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Symphony orchestra, and Deems Taylor as screen commentator. The result of mixing all these ingredients, including his own unique approach to things theatrical, is a two-hour variety show, which spans the formidable entertainment categories ranging from a Mickey Mouse escapade in the title role of Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to a very lovely musical and visual interpretation of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”
There is something in “Fantasia” for every taste. The eight individual compositions have been selected with an eye and ear to a wide audience. The presentation eclipses anything previously attempted in mechanical sound entertainment and it was necessary to install special RCA reproduction equipment to cope with the recording innovations. Similar installations will be required wherever these Disney novelties are shown. It is the purpose of the sponsors to proceed slowly with out-of-town openings. The Broadway theatre, formerly the Colony, underwent a six weeks’ job of interior renovations in preparations for the premiere.
Whether such costly preliminary outlays will be justified by commensurate popular boxoffice support is the showmanship problem of “Fantasia.” Currently the bill is being shown twice daily, at advanced admissions over the prevailing price scales at the theatres operating on the continuous plan. The huge film gross rolled up by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was garnered from the long established type of houses. “Fantasia,” therefore, is not only a new kind of sound picture; it also must create its own channels of exhibition.
Disney will never be charged with any lack of commercial courage, considering the task he is undertaking in the face of physical obstacles. The only comparable pioneering in film history, perhaps, is to be found in the early struggles of Vitaphone. Disney will encounter the same scoffers, the same doubters–and, very likely, the same generous success.
Affinity of music and the screen has been a long established partnership. “Fantasia” best can be described as a successful experiment to life the relationship from the plane of popular, mass entertainment to the higher strata of appeal to lovers of classical music. The boost isn’t so far from general taste as might be imagined, in the light of the proselyting which radio, with the help of Toscanini, Damrosch and others, has been carrying on in millions of American homes for some years.
When the audience settles itself at “Fantasia,” and the house lights are dimmed, the screen reveals a procession of musicians, comprising one of the great symphony orchestras, shown in shadow and color, as violinists, cellists, wood-winds, harpists and brasses take their accustomed chairs. It is a disjoined representation in which no more than four or five players are shown at one time. The moment of tuning is enhanced by the directional loud-speakers, which are placed behind and on either side of the screen, the strings at right and the percussions at far left. Through a series of impressionistic drawings and colorings, Stokowski mounts the podium. What the audience sees is a single figure: what it imagines is an orchestra of 103 artists poised for the first bars of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
Deems Taylor has explained that the first offering is a flight of sheer fancy on the part of the Disney illustrators. The Bach number is nine minutes of pictorial kaleidoscope, in the course of which various gay and bizarre representations of musical instruments are flashed in grotesque shapes across the screen.
The familiar Tchaikovsky “Nutcracker Suite” is the second offering, somewhat longer, as it runs 14 minutes. Like its predecessor, the animation was supervised by Samuel Armstrong. Pictorially, it is a series of charming ballets, the leading and supporting characters of which are flowers, fish and fairies that cavort in whimsical surroundings. Some of it is reminiscent of “The Water Babies,” a short which Dinsey produced some time ago. The underwater color effects, the impish capers of the flower petals, the grotesque dance of the mushrooms in Chinese costumes and the designs of the fan-tail fishes are striking and amusing.
Comes Mickey next as the mischievous apprentice in the Dukas number, in the telling of which he becomes highly and humorously involved with a broomstick.
First part closes with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the most ambitious number on the program and a 20-minute gasp for breath. Here is visualized the birth of creation, the heavenly nebulae and the placement of the solar system in the universe. It is a brilliant piece of imaginative conception, relating the evolution of sea life into land reptiles, the battles of the dinosaurs and the probable extinction of prehistoric animal existence through centuries of blistering earthly heat.
Reserved for the second part are the Beethoven “Pastoral Symphony” and Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” Former is a mythological allegory, employing Zeus and others on Mt. Olympus. Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley and Ford Beebe supervised the execution which is one of the loveliest tales from the Disney plant. In contrast, the studio tackles the “Dance of the Hours” in a facetious mood, burlesquing and satirizing the ballet traditions. Among the dancers are elephants, rhinos and ostriches.
Concluding film is a combination of Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a terrifying exposition on evil, and the compensating “Ave Maria,” charmingly sung by Julietta Novis with appropriate decor.
Characteristically, Disney’s credit lists extend over several typewritten pages. General supervision of “Fantasia” was handled by Ben Sharpsteen, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer; musical direction, Edward H. Plumb; musical film editor, Stephen Csillag; recordings, William E. Garity, C.O. Sylfield and J.N.A. Hawkins.
Estimates of the production cost of the film put the figure at slightly more than $2,000,000, a sum within the range of fantasy in the face of the marketing limitations which are confined to this hemisphere. Subjects are of the kind, however, which may return earnings for many years.
1941: Special Awards (use of sound, creation of a new form of visualized music)