Fantasia is a 2D animated film that was produced by Walt Disney and distributed by his production company Walt Disney Productions in 1940. It serves as the third Disney animated feature film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and Pinocchio in 1940, but it is the first Disney film to be produced with stereophonic sound or in stereo, which was a relatively new technology during that period. The name or title of the movie is believed to have been named after Fantasound, a stereo sound reproduction system developed at Walt Disney Studios that was first utilized in Fantasia.
Even though Fantasia is considered today to be a timeless classic, the film was actually a box office failure for Disney during its year of release. However, despite being a disaster financially, Fantasia was well-received by critics from 1940 up to the present day, and because of multiple rereleases in theaters and home media, Disney was able to turn Fantasia into one of their highest-grossing films of all time. To know more about the aspects of the film that was praised by critics and reasons why it was a Disney flop in 1940, here is the production history and reception of Fantasia.
While Fantasia is comprised of eight animated segments, the most popular and iconic segment in the movie is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was the first one to be produced for the film. The idea for the segment’s story came from Walt Disney, who wanted to revive the popularity of his Mickey Mouse character by featuring him in a cartoon short that is based on the poem of the same name created by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition, he also wanted to emphasize the magical feel of the short by adding classical music in the background, a feature found in Disney’s earlier animated series called Silly Symphony.
Walt Disney wanted to use the orchestral piece composed in 1897 by Paul Dukas that was also named The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and after receiving the rights to use the song for the movie in 1937, he hired Leopold Stokowski, who first offered to be the conductor without receiving fees. A contract was then signed by Disney and Stokowski on December 16, 1937, which states that the conductor must assemble a complete orchestra for the movie. After completing the orchestra that will play Stokowski’s arrangement, Disney rented a stage on January 9, 1938, at the Culver Studios in California, where they will record the performance.
When the production budget for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice reached $125,000, Walt and his brother Roy realized that the short might not be able to get its budget back via box office sales, so they decided to turn the short into a feature-length film. They started revising the short’s story in February 1938, and in the same month, they also rehired Stokowski to conduct and arrange more pieces. It was during this time that the movie was given the title “The Concert Feature,” and this title was presented to Deems Taylor, who was hired to be the on-screen host that will introduce each musical piece or arrangement.
From the later months of 1938 up to the earlier months of 1939, Walt Disney, Stokowski, Taylor, and the production team met up several times to discuss the musical pieces that will be added to the short in order to make it a feature film. The meetings ended when they decided to create eight segments rather than to make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice longer, although the multiple segments would mean that Disney would have to hire different directors, story artists, and animators for each segment, thus further increasing the budget. Despite the possibility that its budget would be too big to be returned through box office sales, Walt Disney let the project continue, as he believed that Fantasia would be one of his best films.
After its release in most theatres in North America in November 1940, reviews for Fantasia began being published in newspapers around the United States and Canada. The reviews were mostly positive, with some critics praising the use of the Fantasound technology to make the music feel more magical in theaters. In addition, the segments’ stories also received praise, especially The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was considered as the centerpiece for the entire film.
Despite being critically-acclaimed, Fantasia struggled to make a profit in theaters due to the catastrophic events that occurred during World War II, and because of these unfortunate circumstances, Walt Disney Productions were unable to release the film in several countries outside North America. In addition, the Fantasound technology that they utilized in the film would need special equipment installed in theaters in order for it to work properly, and because most theaters are not equipped with speakers and sound systems capable of producing Fantasound, Disney cannot show the movie in those theaters.
Although it was a box office failure, Walt Disney did not give up on the movie, as he believes that it was just bad timing that led to the film’s flop at the box office. After World War II, Disney decided to release the film again in the 1950s and the 1960s, and it is during those periods where Fantasia was able to make a profit from its $2.28 million budget. The film would continue to be released in theaters until the last rereleased on October 5, 1990, where it reportedly grossed $25 million in North America.