When Walt Disney embarked on Fantasia, released in November 1940, his reputation was well established. Mickey Mouse and Snow White were cultural touchstones. Both Yale and Harvard had bestowed him with honorary degrees, and no less than Thornton Wilder had called him, along with Charlie Chaplin, one of motion pictures’ two great artists, though the accolade wasn’t unqualified: The implication was that he was a great folk artist, by virtue of his popularity. With Fantasia, Disney hoped to achieve something else. “We’ve got more in this medium than making people laugh,” he told his staff. The new film, he said, would “change the history of motion pictures.”
And indeed it would. “When, in Fantasia, Mickey Mouse clambered up on the (real) podium and shook hands with the (real) conductor Leopold Stokowski,” the art critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1973, “high art and low art collapsed into one another.”
The moment was dreamed up in 1937, when Disney, dining out in Los Angeles, spotted Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and well-known man about town, whose romances included Greta Garbo and later the heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, 42 years his junior, whom he married. Disney told the conductor about a musical short he was working on, which sparked Stokowski to expatiate on his own dream project: a feature animation set to classical music.
The timing was propitious. Stokowski may have looked like an artiste, with his wild, white mane, but he longed to connect to pop culture. Disney was the perfect match. The two spent months selecting classical pieces, which Stokowski arranged and recorded with his orchestra in Philadelphia, and Disney and his team constructed the animations. Some were cute—centaurs and fauns cavorting for Beethoven’s “Pastoral”—or humorous, like the alligators and hippos performing a ballet for Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” For Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the “masses of color” and “geometrical objects floating in space,” in the words of Deems Taylor, the film’s tuxedoed host, were completely nonrepresentational—a forerunner to Abstract Expressionism, the postwar American art movement.
For the debut, Disney devised a first-of-its-kind, surround-sound system he called Fantasound, to be installed in first-run theaters. Tickets were sold on a reserved basis. Disney imagined adding new segments in the future, so the film could be released again and again.
But Fantasound proved too expensive to install in every theater. The film had to be substantially cut. And after early critical enthusiasm—“a creation so thoroughly delightful and exciting in its novelty that one’s senses are captivated by it,” raved the New York Times—later audiences seemed baffled or bored. It lost more than the modern equivalent of $15 million and nearly drove the company into bankruptcy.
It was also disastrous for Disney’s reputation. Critics who loved the unpretentious folk artist were less adoring when they discovered he had pretensions after all. “First Chaplin learns about class struggle, now Disney meets the Performing Pole,” the critic Otis Ferguson sneered in the New Republic. Even Disney came to regret it. “Every time I made a mistake is when I went in a direction where I didn’t feel the thing actually,” he told the journalist Peter Martin in an unpublished interview from 1955. “And I did try to be a little smarty-pants.”
In the 1960s, however, Fantasia’s bright colors and vivid abstractions appealed to a new generation turned on to psychedelia, and the film anticipated Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The late horror director Wes Craven called the movie one of his favorites, and Steven Spielberg has said that Fantasia influenced ET. Recently, the cinematographer Ben Davis said that the upcoming Doctor Strange, about the comic-book superhero, would be “Marvel’s Fantasia” because “it’s so sort of out there and different.” Fantasia has achieved that rare cultural stature: It’s a grand failure that became a trailblazer and a part of the national consciousness.