Disney’s Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although Fantasia drew fire from critics and was not a commercial success in its first release, the film advanced the art of animation by freeing it from strict plot and character limits.

Summary of Event

Walt Disney had few nay-saying critics left when Fantasia appeared in 1940. Less than three years earlier, he had silenced most of those who had said that a feature-length cartoon was an absurdity by releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (film) which was an instant critical and financial success, as was Disney’s second animated feature, Pinocchio (1940). Pinocchio (film) Even while those two features were being released, however, Disney was working on what would become the most ambitious and controversial animation project of his career: Fantasia. [kw]Disney’s Fantasia Premieres (Nov. 13, 1940)[Disneys Fantasia Premieres (Nov. 13, 1940)] [kw]Fantasia Premieres, Disney’s (Nov. 13, 1940) Fantasia (film) Motion pictures;Fantasia Animation, motion pictures [g]United States;Nov. 13, 1940: Disney’s Fantasia Premieres[10340] [c]Motion pictures;Nov. 13, 1940: Disney’s Fantasia Premieres[10340] [c]Entertainment;Nov. 13, 1940: Disney’s Fantasia Premieres[10340] Disney, Walt Stokowski, Leopold

Throughout the 1930’s, Disney had been pushing his animators toward continual improvement of their already highly developed painting skills. Many of the artists who worked for Disney feared that the goal of such refinement was a photographic, representational realism that would, they felt, take the heart out of animation. There was no lack of grounds for such fears. The 1934 Disney short The Goddess of Spring was intended to train animators in realistic animation of human figures; the 1937 short The Old Mill was a test run of the multiplane camera, which gave animation a three-dimensional look (a feature that helped to win the short an Academy Award). Snow White combined both techniques, and Pinocchio improved them, to the extent that reviewers voiced the very fears of the animators: Was Disney headed toward photorealism?

The opening sequence of Fantasia removed such fears when the film premiered at New York’s Broadway Theater on November 13, 1940. Unlike the other sequences in the film, this visual interpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor developed no story and created no characters. Instead, an abstract movement of line and color grew out of the music. The closest the segment came to any representation was a sequence showing a brief dance of strings and bows, but even this was short-lived. No amount of abstraction in the animation could protect Disney, however, from the charge of some music critics—such as Dorothy Thompson of the New York Herald Tribune—that the pure abstraction of music was tainted by any visualization. From the standpoint of animation, however, Disney had proved that the art could succeed without story or character.

Another anxiety about the premiere of Fantasia was the technical innovation the Disney studio called Fantasound. Fantasound Decades before the appearance of commercial stereo recording, Disney engineers had pioneered a multitrack recording process, and they envisioned showing Fantasia only in theaters equipped to be compatible with the process. The music was recorded on nine sound cameras (through thirty-three microphones) and was played back by an expensive synchronized unit developed by engineers at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and installed in the Broadway Theater. Neither Disney nor the Broadway was a stranger to sound technology; Disney himself had developed a technique for synchronizing music with cartoon action in the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), which had premiered in the same theater.

The Fantasound unit was itself a source of controversy. Because the unit was a piece of stage equipment, the stage employees’ union members argued that they should operate the new toy; because it was electronic, the electricians’ union members argued that it should be theirs. By the time a compromise was worked out, allowing both unions a piece of the installation, technicians had to work twenty-four-hour shifts (at overtime rates) to be ready for the premiere. Reviewer Sam Robins of The New York Times raved about the sound system. “When the waters hurl Mickey Mouse down a flight of stairs,” he enthused, “the music pours out of one corner of the theatre and floods the auditorium.”

The sequence Robins referred to was the film’s version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The (Dukas)[Sorcerers Apprentice] by composer Paul Dukas. Unlike Bach’s music, the Dukas piece begs visual and narrative interpretation: It is intended to tell a story (and is in fact based on one by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). In fact, Disney’s treatment of the piece was the kernel around which Fantasia grew. In 1938, Disney met conductor Leopold Stokowski at a Hollywood party and mentioned his idea of animating a Mickey Mouse version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Stokowski not only approved but also offered to conduct the piece and suggested expanding the film to include other classical works.

In celebrating the ways in which Fantasia broke new ground, critics have not always acknowledged the extent to which it grew out of Disney’s previous work. From the beginning, Disney’s sound cartoons had incorporated music written to augment the action. In 1929, after only six Mickey Mouse sound shorts had been made, Disney and his musical director, Carl Stalling, Stalling, Carl adapted screen animation to a classical melody, Edvard Grieg’s March of the Dwarfs. To do so, Stalling had to rewrite the music to fit the action, just as Stokowski later did for Fantasia. The finished cartoon, Skeleton Dance, launched a new series for Disney: He called them Silly Symphonies. Silly Symphonies Although the term “symphony” was obvious tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, it indicated that music would dominate these shorts rather than merely punctuate the action, as the music did in the Mickey Mouse shorts. Most of the Silly Symphonies were developed musically, without dialogue. It was as a Silly Symphony, at first, that Disney intended The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; with Stokowski’s collaboration, it became the embryo of Fantasia.


If Fantasia can be considered Disney’s greatest success, it can also be called his biggest failure. In attempting to bring together the audiences of animated films and classical music, he succeeded, at first, in alienating a goodly percentage of both. Although his studio finally made back its investment after the film was rereleased, Disney never lived to see Fantasia find the popular acceptance it finally reached. In an interview conducted for a television special celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Fantasia, Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney recalled that his uncle never got over the popular and critical neglect of what he considered his masterpiece; his audience, he felt, did not understand. “I don’t regret it,” Walt Disney said in 1961. “But if we had it to do all over again, I don’t think we’d do it.”

The biggest misunderstanding, perhaps, was Disney’s motive. Music critics feared he was trying to turn masterpieces into bits of kitsch; average theatergoers felt he was trying to “elevate” them, and justifiably resented the condescension. According to film critic and historian Neil Sinyard, “Actually, nothing was farther from Disney’s mind. What he was attempting in Fantasia was the same as in his other cartoons—to extend the boundaries of animation.” Extend them he did. Even though Fantasia’s box-office doldrums caused Disney to back away from both the animation of classical music and purely abstract animation, other animators were inspired by Fantasia to expand the art of animation in several directions. Carl Stalling, cocreator of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, had left Disney before the Fantasia project, yet in his work for Warner Bros. he began working classical melodies into greater and greater roles in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts. A Corny Concerto (1943), directed by Bob Clampett and written by Frank Tashlin, is a parody of Fantasia that features Elmer Fudd introducing two short segments of pantomime comedy involving Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Bugs Bunny, set to Stalling’s adaptation of two well-known waltzes by Johann Strauss.

Stalling and animator Chuck Jones Jones, Chuck had Bugs Bunny tackle opera; Gioacchino Rossini’s Barber of Seville was parodied in The Rabbit of Seville (1950), and Richard Wagner’s work provided the basis for What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). Jones, who had animated his first short only two years before the premiere of Fantasia, described the segment performed to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite segment as the “happiest, most perfect single sequence ever done in animated cartoons, perhaps in motion pictures.” The scene’s influence on Jones’s animation is obvious in his work.

Even though the box-office disappointment of Fantasia caused Disney to be more cautious in many ways, he and his animators still followed through on two of the artistic implications of Fantasia. First, although they never again came close to the level of abstraction found in the film’s opening piece, they did experiment with Surrealism in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in Dumbo (1941), and the expressionistic play of light and color in the stag fight scene in Bambi (1942) provided further evidence that Disney features were not attempts at photorealism. The entire design of Alice in Wonderland (1951) militates against realism, as do the “Never Land” scenes in Peter Pan (1953). After the 1950’s, any carp about realism became moot, as the new economics of animation forced animators to develop the more linear, stylized approach that would dominate cartoons for two decades, until computer animation and bigger budgets once more made the creation of realistic detail and shading economically feasible.

The second artistic legacy of Fantasia, the visualization of music through animation, showed the influence of the film’s negative criticism. Several Disney features of the 1940’s stitched together musical narratives, but the musical originals were more popular in nature. Make Mine Music (1946) was a pastiche of ten songs in various styles, their stories told by animation. Stokowski was involved in this film at the outset, although by the time it was in production he was no longer with the project. Similar patchworks were Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and Melody Time (1948). Furthermore, all Disney cartoon features continued to combine music and action, as the studio’s Academy Award nominations for music attested.

Fantasia continued to influence the art of animated film for decades after its release, in part because of its unusual availability after 1969. Disney established an ingenious cyclical rerelease practice that kept public interest in the films high; the practice began with Snow White’s second release in 1943. Eventually, the studio settled on a seven-year cycle for most features. Fantasia’s profits had been so dismal, however, that Disney waited only a little more than three years before rereleasing it in 1944; it was released again only two years later. After three more releases (1953, 1956, 1963), the studio took a chance on leaving prints in permanent circulation beginning in 1969. The popular reaction was extraordinary, especially among young audiences. The “psychedelic” subculture saw Fantasia as “mind-expanding” and enjoyed watching it again and again, often enhancing the experience with the use of drugs. Many college film series included Fantasia on a yearly basis, with no apparent loss in the film’s popularity from overexposure. When advanced stereo systems were installed in many theaters in the late 1970’s, the multitrack experience of the original 1940 premiere was re-created—although many mistakenly believed that the stereo version was new; few remembered the elaborate sound system used for the original release.

For the fiftieth-anniversary release of Fantasia in 1990, the Disney studio undertook a full-scale restoration project, cleaning up the negatives frame by frame and releasing the “new” prints for the Christmas season. For the following Christmas, 1991, the Disney studio at last released the film on videotape for home use. Fantasia (film) Motion pictures;Fantasia Animation, motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney. Rev. ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004. Highly illustrated volume provides brief, descriptive commentaries on Disney films, including Fantasia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. 4th ed. New York: Disney Editions, 2000. Comprehensive guide to all Disney films through the end of the twentieth century by an accomplished film critic. Excellent criticism reveals Maltin’s love and admiration for Disney without devolving into blind praise. Section on Fantasia is generous in scope and balanced in analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney. 3d ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997. History of the man and his studio offers a corrective to the excessive praise of the studio-controlled books that preceded it—although it sometimes goes too far in the other direction. Chapter on Fantasia provides a good balance of information and excellent film criticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinyard, Neil. The Best of Disney. Greenwich, Conn.: Twin Books, 1988. Provides insightful commentary from a respected film critic along with full-color blowups of frames from Disney films. Briefly discusses controversies about Fantasia not mentioned in “official” Disney-sponsored sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Deems. Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940. Mostly a promotion piece, this profusely illustrated account of the film is nevertheless valuable for musicologist Taylor’s contemporary comments about the project. Most of the text simply describes the film, but the opening chapter gives interesting behind-the-scenes background.

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Categories: History