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Fantasia: A Sometimes Troubled Marriage

Essay by   •  November 17, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  3,600 Words (15 Pages)  •  1,675 Views

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In creating the film Fantasia in 1938, Walt Disney took a risk in marrying two seemingly incompatible media--classical music and animation--in a feature-length production. In many ways, his approach was successful, but in some cases, it failed. Disney came up with the concept back in the 1920's (The Big Cartoon Database) and began using classical music backgrounds in cartoon shorts called Silly Symphonies (Aldred). Disney enjoyed the approach, so he used it in 1935 in his first cartoon made completely in color. It was called "The Band Concert"and starred Mickey Mouse as a band director (see Fig. 1) trying to conduct a concert featuring The William Tell Overture by Rossini, while being thwarted by Donald Duck and a tornado (Malone).

Disney was not just experimenting with a new kind of background music for his cartoons. He had a serious goal: making classical music more accessible to the general public--people who were unfamiliar with it--and to introduce it to children. Stephen Holden, film critic for the New York Times, put it in sarcastic terms. "'Fantasia' was conceived as a glorified music-appreciation course designed to bring high-brow music to everyone" (Holden). The film did introduce millions of people to Bach, Dukas, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and other classical composers, but whether it turned them into life-long classical music lovers has never been proven. Regarding Fantasia 2000, Terry Teachout of TIME was cynical about that outcome. His review stated, "...some of the kids who see it will be hearing classical music for the first time. But it's hard to imagine their falling in love with Beethoven as a result" (Teachout). Some classical music buffs even felt the approach might be degrading. One wrote, "Danger lurks among such noble intentions--by trying to popularize an elitist art, the result can co-opt its splendor and disserve its lofty purpose" (Gutmann). Obviously, the classical music stars involved in developing the first Fantasia and its successor did not share that feeling.

By the late 1930's, Mickey had begun losing his popularity, and Walt Disney started searching for a new starring vehicle for his beloved mouse. He came up with the idea of casting Mickey as the lead in a visual version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas--the precursor to what would become Fantasia (Taylor 11). Around the same time, Disney ran into Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at a restaurant in Hollywood (Aldred). Disney explained his idea, and the famous maestro eagerly accepted the challenge. Ironically, one of Stokowski's greatest aspirations had been to work with Disney (Taylor 12). He rehearsed the music with the Philadelphia Orchestra until they were ready to record it. The goal was to make the members of the audience feel as though they were attending an actual symphony concert with the addition of animated visuals. Disney decided to have a narrator announce the pieces to be included in Fantasia rather than including written titles. He chose Deems Taylor, the musical commentator for the radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic, for that role (Dirks). Disney, Taylor, and Stokowski sat down for three weeks and listened to recordings of different orchestral works to decide what other compositions to include. The team chose Fantasia as a working title, and during the production of the film, the creators could not come up with a better one. "In musical terms, a fantasia is a free development of a given theme--and that is what [the film] is" (Taylor, 15-16).

In spring of 1939, Stokowski recorded the rest of the musical selections with his orchestra at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Fantasia incorporated all of the latest technology. In the 1930s, sound entertainment was limited to AM radio and 78rpm records, but the film utilized a new system called Fantasound-or stereophonic sound (see Fig. 2). It featured three audio tracks and one control track, all printed on a single strip of 35mm film--the first stereo (Aldred). While the orchestra was recording, the animators were working on the visual aspects, listening to phonograph recordings and developing stories to be put to the music. Walt Disney had given them complete freedom to create whatever they chose. In his book Fantasia, Taylor explains why that was important.

This divergence from tradition was deliberate. Music is the most fluid of all the arts; and like any fluid, music, even program music, assumes the shape of its container. Granted that the container ... is not too grossly inappropriate, a given piece of music may fit two or three other stories just as well as the one originally assigned to it. I think [Disney] was wise to do as he did. I doubt if ever before, one roof has housed a larger number of highly imaginative artists than are under the roof of the Disney studio. No one mind could ever have achieved the limitless imaginative richness of the finished Fantasia (Taylor 16).

One exception to this freedom was The Sorcerer's Apprentice; the music was based on the story told by Johann van Goethe in his poem "Der Zauberlehrling," and the animators were faithful to that story (Fathers For Life). The Nutcracker Suite was also based on a specific writing--a fairy tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann entitled "Nussknacker und Mausekцnig" (Auerbach). However, most pieces such as The Rite of Spring reflect the effect the music had on the animators who, like many people in the audiences that would later view it, had never heard the music before. In permitting this freedom, Disney was taking a risk that the animators might end up putting the music into the wrong "container."

That's what happened with Bach's Toccata and Fugue--unfortunately the opening selection. Like Taft getting stuck in a bathtub, the visual approach the animators chose for the piece did not quite fit. The animators were puzzled because the title was nothing more than a musical description, and the music itself suggested no definite story line. This was mostly likely the downfall of the piece. The animators were trying to create an impression of what people would most probably envision if they attended a concert and closed their eyes while they were listening to it. However, the images were so vague that few people could identify with them. The segment starts off with Stokowski standing on stage, silhouetted, looking as though he is actually grabbing huge chords out of each of the sections of the orchestra. Next, the flitting bows of the string instruments slowly turn into arrows flying through the air and dancing. At the same time, shadows that look like strings glide over a landscape of huge moguls. The sounds that the strings make are accompanied by flashes that bounce off

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