Fantasia has already been a Year of the Month entry when we did 1941. However, while its wide release was indeed in 1941, its official release date is 13 November 1940—in the “road show” version. This had a lot to do with Walt’s original vision for the movie; the very idea of its being a road show indicated that it was not initially intended to be what we see now—a single fixed point. The fact that Walt’s vision of the movie did not come to fruition, that as close as it got was the eventual release of Fantasia 2000, is to me evidence that the studio today owes a lot more to Roy than to Walt in its vision.
Walt originally envisioned Fantasia as an ever-changing movie. Segments would be removed and replaced with new ones, and from one time it was in your town to the next, it would be a completely different movie but still recognizably Fantasia. The sequence of music we have now would not be the forever sequence, just the original. Hard to say how that would’ve played in the days of home video and so forth, but the plan held that segments would change one at a time, so you might see a version with “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” but then the addition of, say, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” instead of “The Nutcracker Suite.”
It was definitely an ambitious idea, playing with the possibilities of cinema in a way that no one has ever done. It would have taken a vast amount of work on the part of the studio. Frankly, they would’ve pretty well needed to have simply hired a Fantasia division, where that was all they did. Because to do that the way Walt wanted them to, you would have needed constant work on it. One of the Definitely Not Good things about the Walt Disney Studios was that the animators were already ridiculously overworked. Adding yet another animation project, the eternal Fantasia, onto it would’ve been exhausting.
Whenever the idea is discussed, people talk about how the idea was “overly ambitious.” Which is code for “the film didn’t do well enough.” And goodness knows the studio skirted the borders of bankruptcy a lot in those days; we are almost to the era of El Grupo, where Disney was basically a subsidized aspect of the United States government as a propaganda bureau, which saved the studio. Hiring an entire new branch would just not have happened.
I guess the way we remember them is that Walt was the man of Big Ideas and Roy was the man of But Maybe We Need Money. The road show version of Fantasia was definitely a big idea, and it’s fascinating to think of what could have happened had the studio been able to afford it, had Fantasia been an actual financial success in those days. Obviously we would not be seeing it today, and of course there’s no way of knowing how a road show Fantasia would’ve survived the coming of television, much less home video and then streaming. But imagine if we could’ve gotten a good decade, decade and a half or more out of the road show version; imagine the beautiful and creative animation we would’ve seen.
One thing about actual Fantasia I’d like to mention, which I forgot to put into last Saturday’s Attention Must Be Paid, is that Bela Lugosi was actually brought into the studio to do motion study and things for Chernabog. There was some debate about this over the years; it seems clear now that, while Wilfred Jackson did some of the really simple movements, Lugosi’s face and hands remain in the movie. Those are unmistakable.
I should note that I originally selected the sixth for this piece and realized only after I wrote it that, you know, the eightieth anniversary of the premiere is a Friday. Today, as it happens. So yeah, I changed it.