Friday, December 19, 2014

Fantasia (1940)


The studio that had brought the world Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and the myriad of colorful and creative animated characters breaks the mold on the world of animation as Walt Disney presents Fantasia, a motion picture that marries classical music with stunning visuals. During production the film was called “The Concert Feature” and it was meant to be presented similarly as a traveling concert series. Exhibiting some of the finest artistic animation, stunning special effects, and a revolutionary new process of sound recording and mixing that far predates sophisticated stereophonic sound that would come decades later, this motion picture was no ordinary movie. A critically misunderstood picture of its time, the feature was would take be one of many films hurt by the weakened markets due to the war, but would find great favor with the passage of time as a wonderful piece of cinematic art and mastery of animation.

Fantasia is an animated picture presented as an orchestral concert where classical music is matched with creative animated visuals, ranging from artistic and impressionistic imagery to straightforward storytelling and whimsical cartoons. The picture features a collection of eight classic orchestrations composed by the famous musical maestro Leopold Stokowski with each segment introduced by Deems Taylor, a popular musical critic of the period.
The Nutcracker Suite- Disney intentionally created original images fro this segment.

Each piece, or in a the case of the finale which was two pieces pair together, is combined with a highly kinetic visual representation of the music that could either simply give the impression of Technicolor images to represent the music playing, or set the music to a story either inspired or directly related to the music itself. A wide arrangement of images and character where created for the various animated segments from elegant fairies and imaginative images of the Earth evolving through the ages, to fanciful anthropomorphic animals dancing a ballet and even a segment starring Disney’s greatest star Mickey Mouse.

The film contains no definite, overarching storyline as it is presented in a style of a formal orchestra concert which begins with the orchestra entering, taking their places, and even testing their instruments, while also containing an intermission, but simply ends with the final number with no real credits. It may be abrupt in conclusion, but its representation of a concert is true to the inspirational source as the film as a cinematic concert, more than a common narrative based motion picture.

This creation of Walt Disney was a dramatic variation on what audiences came to expect from his animated productions, let alone the average movie watching experience. In a period filled with black and white images of actors, crude (non-Disney) cartoons, and monaural sound, Disney and his talented artists burst through the doors of the cinematic word to present a motion picture that literally explodes on the screen, through a new sophisticated sound system that surrounds the audience, and combines the world of the simple cartoon with the more high class-thought of world of classical orchestral concerts.

Studio mind Walt Disney was never one to lie on the laurels of what was already working for him, his studio, or his pocket book. Instead he always invest his earning to further push the boundaries of what his artists could achieve in the medium of motion pictures and animation. He was the first to produce a talking cartoon, the first full Technicolor cartoon, the first full length feature animated feature, and with Fantasia he would push the boundaries of sound and the overall experience of going to the theater.  

Mickey Mouse re-invented with a new look that would become a new classic.
The genesis of Fantasia goes back to Walt Disney’s original star, Mickey Mouse. Mickey exploded on the silver screen back in 1928 and had long been a staple of the Disney studio, but time would weaken the appeal of the studio’s original cash cow that was losing some of his thunder to even Donald Duck. Since the initial success of Mickey Disney, the man, had moved his attention to big and better things; first to his “Silly Symphonies” shorts to the feature films starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In 1938 Walt wanted to bring a new life to his star character by featuring a freshened up Mickey in a longer and more elaborate cartoon and much like his Silly Symphony line of cartoons and basing its source around a musical piece. The piece would be composer Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which was written inspired by a poem, for which Disney would have Mickey play the title role.

Yen Sid makes an eyebrow gesture, animators mimicked from Disney himself.
Disney had mentioned his idea to his new friend, famed composer of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski and Stokowski was excited enough to help Disney enough to compose the music for free. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was no average short, as it ran longer than the usual seven to eight minute length, helped to redesign Mickey Mouse, adding eyes with pupils instead of the “pie-eyed” character he had always been. Disney’s animators were so pushed to make this short the best work they ever done at the time that the animators designed the stern sorcerer in the picture after mannerisms of their boss, Walt Disney, naming the character “Yen Sid” (Disney spelled backwards) amongst themselves.

Discussions between Disney and Stokowski about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice during the production led the two minds to flesh out a new idea and create a whole line of shorts animated to classical music and run them together to form a longer show, and the idea of Fantasia was born.

Deems Taylor introduces the next piece...
Stokowski and Disney would choose a handful of orchestral classics to form a concert for the motion picture theater and Disney hired famed composer and music critic Deems Taylor to help produce introductions for each segment, providing a bit of background to the audience setting them up for each number. Stokowski would record “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with a studio assembled orchestra before the idea of Fantasia was structured, but once what was originally entitled “The Concert Feature” was in motion Stokowski has his Philadelphia Orchestra play the remaining numbers for the feature.

The talented artists of the Walt Disney Studio would go beyond the animator’s table in creating the breathtaking images of this picture. Richly colorful, stylized cinematography and lighting was used for the live action scenes with the orchestra, Stokowski, and Deems Taylor. The special effects for the feature are so artistically executed it would rival the creativity of Industrial Light and Magic which would not be founded for another three and a half decades. Most of the special effects which including live images, mechanisms, and various practical creations were recorded and spliced so flawlessly with the animation the untamed eye would not notice. This art of imaginative creations would have been lost in time as records were only kept by one Disney artist in personal notebooks and not unearthed for many decades later revealing the movie magic used in many of the best sequences of the picture.

All the hard work and animation literally led to the very last hour as the final segments of the picture were needed to be reshot due to complications, a process that took days, and immediately put on an airplane and flown directly to New York City to be spliced into the other reels for the premiere at the Broadway Theatre.

Mickey meets Stokowski.
Along with the animation Disney and Stokowski envisioned a way to recreate the orchestra sound by surrounding the audience with the music instead of relying on the usual motion picture sound process. In the recordings sessions multiple microphones where used throughout the orchestra to capture the sound form various angles and sound mixers were able to assemble a mix that played back in the theaters lined with multiple speakers throughout the room. This would literally make music swell from various parts of the theater giving a sense that the orchestra surrounded the audience instead of the music being delivered from simply speakers behind the screen. This process, dubbed by Disney as “Fanata-sound,” was a precursor to multi-channeled, stereophonic sound, but would require theaters to assemble new sound system speakers to achieve the desired effect, something most theater owners saw as pointless novelties.

Fantasia would open in the same theater that premiered Mickey Mouse in New York and at the theater that premiered Snow White in Los Angeles. Show business audiences were blown away by the highly creative, detailed, and technologically superiority that was displayed on the screen when Fantasia first premiered. Audiences applauded with every number and Disney, Stokowski were given a standing ovation. These events were handled like a real concert with complete with playbills and intermission just as the men dreamt them up. At first it looked like an artistic and financial success for sure for Walt Disney.

The film was never meant to be played in wide release, but rather as a traveling engagement in various cities. Walt Disney envisioned a bill that would be ever changing, much like any concert series. Fantasia was be in town for an engagement for a time and treated like a special event before it left, one day perhaps a year or so later to return with some new segments along with some old.

Disney’s distributer, RKO Radio Pictures, was not pleased with this idea. In a world where war took away international markets and Americans were expecting similar narratives fairytales as Snow White or Pinocchio from Disney they were bored with classical music with no single story lacking goofy, lovable characters. When RKO saw very low numbers that were to come from Disney’s original “road show” idea they had editors trim out the live action segments, due to their slow nature, and had the stereo mix made mono making the film a completely animated feature with a singular mono track to play in average theaters to make a wide release in hope to make money. This is the cut that most people would see and scoff at as a poor product, despite the fact that the animation alone is spectacular.

Music critics saw images like this as dumbing down the classics.
Audiences wanted something different and perhaps less sophisticated from Disney. Music critics tended to bury both Disney and Stokowski with attempting to dumb down great classical pieces with Disney’s “childish cartoons.” The film was a critical and financial failure. It was not the right time for Fantasia as general audiences were not ready to accept such a feature into their hearts as a piece of cinematic beauty. It would take many re-releases for Disney to make its money back from this very expensive production.

Fantasia also marked one of the few features in which the Walt Disney Company would censor itself years after its release. In the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence where centaurs and cantaurettes mingle in a mythical world at the base of Mount Olympus there are depicted racially-stereotyped black centaurettes serving their white counterparts. For the 1930s and 40s this was not see controversial, but as the world transformed in the 1960s Disney Pictures decided it would be best to cut out these animated pieces of political incorrectness. For the 1969 re-release editors either zoomed in the frames to cut out the controversial images or completely eliminated the frames containing these stereotyped creatures. Years later for home release the stereotypes were painted out by Disney artist, literally erasing them from existence. It is rare to find recordings of the original animation since Disney has adopted its own self-censorship of its classic features, as the company believes they have an image to uphold as family entertainment in the contemporary age.

From "Night on Bald Mountain"
Walt Disney for a very short period held out for hope of his idea of a feature that was ever changing as he had his animators working of hopeful future segments to be added to Fantasia in upcoming running of the film. With World War II literally knocking down the door of the United States and the Walt Disney Studio turned to greatly serve as a base/studio for the US Armed forces, ideas changed. These future segments turned into ideas for what would become ideas for the feature Make Mine Music in 1946, which had two similarly assembled sequels and were referred to as “package films.”

It was not until 1999 when Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney saw his uncle’s dream to reality as he produced the official sequel to Walt’s original feature with the release of Fantasia 2000. The sequel would play in the general multiplex circuit, but Roy made sure it ran special road show engagements in large formatted IMAX theaters, both permanent and temporary structures just for this film, to allow for wider distribution of the glorious picture. Fantasia 2000 contained seven new sequences and included The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to keep something old within it, while presenting the picture in a similar style as Fantasia complete with introductions from celebrities. During the time of the sequels release the original Fantasia was restored, with exception of the politically incorrect parts, with the full road show format as originally intended.

Fantasia remains a masterpiece achievement of animation and cinema. It would be years until mainstream movie would begin to pick up on stereo sound mixing. Walt Disney had major dreams for this film, and was quoted as even stating that if he had more money he wished he would have produced the picture in widescreen, yet another unnecessary extravagance seen my theaters owners of the time that would become the norm for all feature films decades later. Fantasia would be named to many all-time best film lists, including the 1998 list by the American Film Institute.  Continually the picture is named as one of the very best animated features ever produced, and it is easy to see why even decades later. The picture is a true piece a remarkable art in cinema history as a film well ahead of its time, a beautiful piece of moving art, imagery, and sound all rolled up into one marvelous feature to be enjoyed for all time.

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