One of the joys and perks of attending film school is how every once in a while one of your assignments require you to re-watch and analyse the impressionable films of your youth.
Although there are many films that influenced one’s tastes in cinema, art, and the world around them, Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia holds a special place in how its married two loves of one’s life (music and animated visual storytelling) to create something that would cause a ripple effect of what animated films, and film in general, can be.
Although IMDb was able to condense the summary of Fantasia down to a single sentence, a “collection of animated interpretations of great works of Western classical music”, it is so much more than that when one screens the film, as well as when one delves into the history of the film’s conception and its reception. Considered one of Walt Disney’s boldest experiments (to date), as well as being one of his more unusual, innovative, and personal projects, there are endless adjectives that can describe the way the music and imagery blend together and influence generations of viewers.
Despite Disney being correct when he said Fantasia would “change the history of motion pictures”, he faltered in predicting the ideal amount of time the film would need to do so. While his intentions for Fantasia were rightfully just, one can see that the film was ahead of its time and yet could not have been released at a more trying time for America and for the world. However, like most things, beauty and appreciation take time, and although it was met with confusion and constant hurdles (either in screening the film or by the reaction of critics and audiences), the film has and will continue to persevere.
A Chance Meeting
Upon the first (rather chance) meeting between Disney and Leopold Stokowski in 1937 at Chasen’s restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood, the film’s exciting potential to blend classical music and animation was viewed as nothing but a sure success for both art mediums, as well as for the means of personal, creative expression of both men at helm of the project.
However, the film ran into several potential issues along the way, some predictable, others unforeseen. As ambitious as Disney and Stokowski were to construct a continuous roadshow experience that would annually add new segments and score to keep the interest of the audience, they and the Disney company found themselves facing several speed bumps along the way in the form of high production costs, the beginning of World War II and the inability to distribute overseas, the costly alterations the few theaters would have to go through in order to show the film (primarily the use of Fantasound – a stereophonic sound system), the length of the film, and the creative freedom of his animators. Nevertheless, they persisted and completed their masterpiece, and were more than excited to distribute it to the film going audiences of all demographics.
Although Disney and Stokowski were pleased with their work, the film’s Master of Ceremonies, Deems Taylor, ironically puts it best when he states towards the midpoint of the film “How an artist can be wrong about his own work.
While Fantasia was viewed to be the future of both art mediums, and of Disney studios, the initial reaction was not what Disney and Stokowski had hoped for. Despite early enthusiasm by both small groups of audiences and critics, including one New York Times critic stating that the film was “a creation so thoroughly delightful and exciting in its novelty that one’s senses are captivated by it,”, a larger number of audiences and film and music critics appeared to be confused and disinterested by the surreal and cutting-edge motion picture.
What also failed to aid the film, and put the company in financial jeopardy, were some of the previously mentioned risks (the cost of production and adapting the various theatres to support the film and sound, facing the cut off of European distribution due to World War II, the length of the film, etc.). Needless to say, it was a disheartening experience for Disney, and one he apparently lived with regret for the remainder of his career and life.
While the initial fruits of labor were few for Disney, the reception and appreciation for Fantasia eventually blossomed into a far more beyond of what he had hoped for when he had first put pen to paper. The personal masterpiece eventually developed a following as time went by, as well as inspired animators, musicians, artists, and filmmakers of all genres throughout the latter part of the twentieth century and today. Figures like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Wes Craven, Steven Spielberg, and Ben Davis are just some of the few who credit Fantasia as having a part in their creative influences.
On a financial note, the re-releases and remastered versions of the film seemed to have helped the studio recoup their initial losses of the film. The revisions also aided in the production of Fantasia 2000 (1999) which celebrated the film as well as continue Walt’s dream of adding new scores and accompanying animated stories to the film’s ‘program’. Although it took some time and effort, it is clear that the film’s trailblazing marriage of aesthetics and classical score eventually paid off.
It is funny how re-watching a film as an adult can be a completely different experience compared to initially watching one as a child. What is also interesting is when one does not experience something entirely different when re-watching a film, but instead, the initial reaction only escalates in pleasure and satisfaction, awe and wonder. While the purpose of re-watching the film was purely academic in purpose, it was not long after hitting play that the initial purpose was replaced by another one; nostalgia.