Trip Out on ‘Fantasia’

In 1938, Walt Disney made the incredibly foolish decision to try to increase the waning popularity of Mickey Mouse instead of making a commercial viable short cartoon. This is the result.
By  · Published on June 21st, 2009

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Fantasia (1940)

In 1938, Walt Disney made the incredibly foolish decision to try to increase the waning popularity of Mickey Mouse instead of making a commercial viable short cartoon. Of course, I’m sure at the time like the two would go hand in hand, but ultimately Disney and his team created a short called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that ran two minutes longer than the average cartoon and cost $125,000 to produce (Disney had only ever made as much as $60,000 from a short). Realizing that there was no way to turn a profit on the endeavor, a very clever solution was set into motion.

They would make “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” part of a much larger feature film, releasing it on the heels of the massive Snow White success.

That gamble paid off by sending Walt Disney to the edge of bankruptcy. But since, it’s become a classic film known the world over and banking a massive amount of money through its sheer longevity. That longevity comes from the depth behind the film, its epic nature, and its perpetually re-discovery by college students who enjoy the recreational smoking of anything they can get their hands on.

The word ‘Fantasia’ itself means a medley of themes, although the sequences in Fantasia the movie are so varied that they almost don’t flow together at all. Beginning with a live-action introduction by the seated orchestra and blending into an abstract piece of animation, the movie proves to be much more than a cartoon from the very first frames. In fact, a short glance at the sequences shows just how non-cartoonish the whole endeavor is.

What animator in their right mind creates a cartoon that’s inspired by German abstract? That includes sequences of violence and fear? That showcases famous works of Baroque and Neoclassicist orchestral pieces?

These may have the thoughts of the audiences that didn’t flock to see the film when it had its first theatrical run. But today, the movie is recognized as a major triumph both creatively and technically. And, in a development that probably pleased Walt Disney, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is still the most well known segment from the film (as well as probably the most well known Mickey Mouse cartoon in existence).

Still, it takes a lot of courage to release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and follow it up with a film that contains the horrifying apparition of skeletons rising poetically from a graveyard and a gargoyle-like demon spreading his wings wide to wreak havoc from a mountain top. Hell, it was probably a little jarring to see Mickey Mouse aggressively taking an ax to an anthropomorphic broom. Even though it happens only in shadow, the images are pretty visceral – especially considering the odd sort of innocent nature to the broom just doing Mickey’s job for him.

Aside from the frightening shorts, there’s also the confusing nature of the abstract, the overtly sexual display during the pastoral, ancient Greek party, and the plain-old trippy delight of the frantic hippos dancing. Which is what makes it more adult than most other animated pieces at the time (or even now). This is also what makes it incredibly brilliant. It engages a full range of emotions while displaying some fantastic artwork that’s set to some of the best music ever written.

It’s obviously somewhat of a black sheep in the Disney universe when the entire body of work is considered. Although, in an odd way it’s just the extrapolation of a lot of the elements that the studio has put into its work over the years. Despite creating films for the younger crowds (while balancing the attention of their parents), Disney films have almost always included parts that would scare children or illicit strange laughter or get them accused of being complete perverts. Who wasn’t frightened by the witch in Sleeping Beauty? Who didn’t catch the sexually flirtatious nature of Aladdin or The Little Mermaid? All that Fantasia really exists as is a display of all the adult themes that get only a few moments screen time in other films.

Luckily, it’s found success over the years by resonating with audiences for that very reason, for the reason that it’s a display of incredible talent that’s not necessarily meant for children. Plus, it also helps if you go through the emotional rollercoaster on some sort of mind-altering drug. I hear.

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