Disney’s Fantasia 2006 – The film that almost was

When production on 1930s short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was nearly finished, Walt Disney knew he had something great on his hands. He also knew he had something costly on his hands. It was originally conceived as an elaborate Silly Symphony short cartoon, partly to explore Walt Disney’s love of classical music and partly to reignite public interest in the waining Mickey Mouse. The blend of high-quality animation and Paul Dukas’s memorable classical symphony proved this was a cut above the usual fare, though it came in at a budget of $125,000, which would never be earned back were it to be released as a standalone short. [1]

Using the Mickey comeback as the starting point, production was vastly expanded. Thousands of artists and twelve directors were tasked with creating eight additional segments to accompany the first short. [2] Seven made the final cut (including the intermission segment) and were included in the original theatrical release of Fantasia, Disney’s third animated feature film. It was released to much fanfare in 1940, garnering immediate and sustained critical success. It has gone down in the history books as a masterpiece.

The original plan to re-release Fantasia every few years with a new short segment replacing one of the original shorts never came to fruition, although work was started on some newer segments. [3] One completed short, titled ‘Blue Bayou’ and based on Debussy’s Clare De Lune, found its way into the 1946 package film ‘Make Mine Music’ (though with different music as backing). Indeed, both ‘Make Mine Music’ and the subsequent ‘Melody Time’ are spiritual successors of ‘Fantasia’, using the basic concept – a series of unrelated short films set to music – as their starting point. Had Disney released these films with a Fantasia prefix, they would surely be more likely to be better understood by the modern public.

Fantasia 2000

Alas, it wasn’t until 1999 that the sequel proper was released, in the form of Fantasia 2000. This time, seven new segments were included alongside the inclusion of the now-iconic short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Critically it fared well, though it wasn’t hailed as a masterpiece. At the box office, it recouped its money and made a small profit.

There were some real triumphs here, although my favourite segment has to be The Firebird, which provides an emotional closing for the feature.

A third Fantasia film?

A further follow up was started in 2002, with a working title of Fantasia 2006. However, by 2004 the film was shelved. The reasons for cancelling the project were never confirmed, but looking at the facts the reasons aren’t hard to deduce.

From Fantasia 2000 onwards to the cancellation of its sequel, Walt Disney Feature Animation released seven films: Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home On The Range. In that same time-span, Pixar released Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. That doesn’t include Toy Story 2, a film that dwarfed Fantasia 2000 at the box office and was released just three weeks earlier.

This was a troubling lack of success in what is considered as a transition phase for Walt Disney Feature Animation. Financially, they were going through a string of failures akin to the 1980s, just before the renaissance in the late 80s and through the 90s. As such, the third Fantasia film was cancelled. Now was not the time to take risks with passion projects.

Does any footage survive?

More than just fragments of shorts, Fantasia 2006 was far beyond the planning stage and well into production when it was called off. Not wishing to waste their efforts, the various production teams were tasked with finishing their segments, with the proposal that each would be released independently as short films.

Perhaps the most celebrated of the shorts is Destino. This was first conceived as a collaboration between Walt Disney and surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Dali and studio artist John Hench had made just 17 seconds before production was shelved in 1945, though this was enough time to have a basic concept scoped out in the form of storyboards. 58 years later, production was finally finished by a team of animators under the direction of Dominique Monféry. It’s visually stunning and an conceptually mind-blowing piece of art history as well as a work of art in its own right. It has been criminally underappreciated, partly due to the fact it is so hard to track down. If you want to find it now, you will need to purchase the Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray and navigate to the bonus features menu. It is seven minutes well spent.

Five-minute short Lorenzo was released in 2003 with the live-action Kate Hudson feature Raising Helen. It’s a bizarre short about a cat with a cursed tail, which develops a life of its own. The tango track “Bordoneo y 900”, performed by Juan José Mosalini and his Big Tango Orchestra, was used as the soundtrack, moving it further away from the original concept of classical music for Fantasia 2000. It hasn’t gone down as a must-see short, and it is arguably more charming than breathtaking. To find it now and enjoy it in the best quality, USA readers need to hunt down a copy of Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection on Blu-ray.

Pixote Hunt had already contributed the Symphony No. 5 segment to Fantasia 2000 (along with directing the interstitial segments), and was also the man behind One by One. The eventually-released version ended up using a song that was intended for original The Lion King film but was cut late in the production. It did end up being used in the stage musical before being used again in One by One. It’s a lovely little work of art that centres around a child feeling inspired to make and fly kites in his local village in an unidentified African country. The music isn’t integral to the film and it feels like it was a pairing made to suit its inclusion on the Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride home media release. Had it been included in the Fantasia 2006 release it would undoubtedly have been paired with some equally-fitting classical music, but the fact the animation was finished is still a blessing.

The Little Match Girl is the most memorable of the finished shorts. An eight minute story told without any dialogue that still maintains your interest is usually the mark of something very special. It is set to the third movement of Nocturne from String Quartet No. 2 in D Major by Alexander Borodin, meaning what you can see is very much exactly as it was imagined for Fantasia 2006. It’s a achingly beautiful animation, and marked the last use of CAPS (Computer Animated Production System) by Disney following its extensive use throughout the 1990s in their renaissance period. USA readers can find The Little Match Girl as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray of The Little Mermaid or as part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection from 2015.

Other than these four finished shorts, we are left to speculate what else would have been included in a final feature release. I’d guess that Disney wouldn’t break mould with the format of live-action inter-segment introductions to break up the short films, so there would be some of that in there. It wouldn’t be a Fantasia film without the inclusion of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Siberia-set short film Glago’s Guest was completed around the same and could have been included, although it has been seldom seen by viewing public (including myself) so this is mere speculation.

Probably most exciting to Disney aficionados would be remastering and recutting the short Clair De Lune, which, as previously mentioned, was an unused short from the original Fantasia film. It was later edited with a different soundtrack and retitled Blue Bayou, which was included in the Disney feature Make Mine Music. Putting the original classical score together with the existing footage would top off something of a celebration of the past for the studio.

So there you have it. A missed opportunity? Perhaps. Its hard to argue that their eventual switch in concentration has helped ensure they got back into the hearts of a generation of children. With Moana, Zootropolis, Big Hero 6, Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, we’ve had so much enjoyment out of the studio in recently years. This wouldn’t have been possible if the studio had folded with one too many passion projects in a period in which they were struggling. 2006 wasn’t the time for looking to the past when everyone around was looking to the future.

[1] LA Times article – ‘Fantastic ‘Fantasia’: Disney Channel Take a Look at Walt’s Great Experiment in Animation’ – http://articles.latimes.com/1990-08-26/news/tv-552_1_walt-disney

[2] Grand Rapids Symphony article -‘A Look Inside Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000’ – https://www.grsymphony.org/blog/posts/a-look-inside

[3] D23 – The Official Disney Fanclub article – “15 Fascinating Facts About Fantasia.

Short film review -Steamboat Willie (Walt Disney, 1928)

If you’ve seen a Disney Animation Studios film recently, then you’ll have noticed a short clip of the beloved Mickey Mouse captaining a boat, whilstling a little tune and looking like the happiest little mouse you’ve ever seen. It’s quintessential Mickey, summing up everything about what we know and love about him, in what were the first moments the world ever shared with him.

The year was 1928 and Walt Disney was reeling from a fall out with his business partners that had left him without his prize asset – the increasingly-popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Walt Disney was determined that his comeback would be the first cartoon to synchronise pictures and sound, and this determination was rewarded with unprecedented popularity. The rest, for want of a better phrase, is history.

The film itself is a sweet little vignette that sees Mickey get musical on a group of farmyard animals, and is mostly harmless, slapstick fun. Aside from the opening scene, this isn’t really a Mickey we’re used to in the 21st Century, though it is a much more savoury offering than what was just around the corner with the follow up films (the most shocking of which is the smoking and drinking version of Mickey portrayed in The Gallopin’ Gaucho, released later in 1928.

It’s hard to believe that from this point onwards it was built into one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century, but seeing is essential viewing for anyone who sees themself as a fan of Disney.

Short film review – Donald in Mathmagic Land (Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, Joshua Meador)

As educational short films go, Disney’s animation about their ever-stressed duck taking a trip through a land filled with mathematical tales, quips and facts is pretty darn entertaining.

Released in 1959 alongside a poorly-remembered live action film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the film went on to receive a nomination in the Best Documentary – Short Subject category at the Academy Awards. [1] [2]

It charts Donald’s journey through Mathmagic Land, as guided by the voice of a spirit (Paul Frees). He learns about the origins of maths, starting with Pythagoras in Greece, then the pentogram and the golden section, the appearances of the golden section in nature, architecture and art, the application of maths in music and its relevance to games (especially chess, which features a nice reference to Alice Through The Looking Glass).

That the film covers a relatively thorough history of one of the most important and fundamental basic principals of life and remains interesting is somewhat of a miracle, so much so that the film went on to be used as an educational tool in schools across America. It’s easy to see why. Its relevance endures and it would still be useful in the modern education system.

Admittedly, the style is now somewhat dated but it has a classic feel of 1950s era Disney about it. This is hardly surprising. Two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” worked as directors on the film. [3]

It is a great shame that so many of these old Disney shorts are hard to locate in a good quality transfer and few are held in high regard, largely due to the lack of knowledge of their existence. Anyone who enjoys watching the early Disney animation films is doing themselves a disservice if they are yet to discover the shorts being released around the same time. These are the same animators, story writers and directors, throwing together ideas and experimenting with animation, perhaps to try something out for a future release, or maybe just finishing ideas that were started with a plan for a full release before ending up as a short instead.

There are so many to choose from, many of which were released in the UK on the Disney Fables series of DVDs. Owning all six of them is a great start – you will have in your possession six hours of short animated films, covering 25 animated films, several of which were Academy Awards nominees and winners. It’s about time that Disney worked out a way to get these out there again so yet another generation can enjoy them.

[1] I can’t imagine people were overly-fond of the film at the cinema.Having paid to see a film that’s 93 minutes long, imagine the dismay when you sat down and realised it had a 26-minute short film about maths tagged at the beginning of it.

[2] Quite why this wasn’t nominated as an animated short is beyond me. I incorrectly assumed that the category didn’t exist at the time but this proved to be an incorrect assumption, having been around for over 25 years in 1959.

[3] Wolfgang Reitherman and Les Clark were two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, a group of nine original animators that worked at the Disney company. Many of them went on to direct feature films themselves and every Walt Disney Animation film featured at least one of the nine until 1985’s The Black Cauldron.

Film Review – Vaiana (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2016)

Walt Disney Animation Studios have released their 56th animated film, the musical Moana. I’m going to whisper this quietly, but it might actually be better than Frozen.

The story follows 16-year-old girl Vaiana as she defies her passage to become the leader of the tribe on the fictional island Motunui. Her father Chief Tui, leader of her island tribe, and her mother Sina are fearful of the water and want her to remain on the island, but her outgoing grandma Tala encourages her to leave and hunt down the demigod Maui to solve a mysterious curse that she believes has led to a poor harvest.

Vaiana and Maui


The basics of the story are, on the face of it, quite by-the-numbers. There’s a teenage protagonist, which makes it relatable for the younger viewers. She goes on a quest that has a practical purpose but also helps her develop as a person. She teams up with an unlikely buddy to help her in her journey. We’ve seen it many times before but the familiarity doesn’t hamper its success.

Where the story excels is threefold. Firstly, it has a brilliantly sharp and humorous script, which the actors are clearly having a lot of fun with. Secondly, the animation of both the characters and the surroundings is absolutely stunning. Finally, the music, which was written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i, is outrageously good, and goes much further than simply one great flagship song (in this case “How Far I’ll Go”, sung by the lead and effectively Vaiana’s answer to “Let It Go”).

Indeed, it is unfortunate that the film has been unleashed in the same year as La La Land, which is destined to sweep up at most of the award ceremonies, at least in the Best Song categories. Miranda may have to have another attempt in a less competitive year.

There are a couple of nice smaller roles that are grasped by those involved. Alan Tudyk may be more famed for his turn as K-2SO in Rogue One this year, but he’s equally hilarious as Hei Hei the Rooster here, constantly stealing scenes with sound effects that match the ridiculousness of the island’s most endearingly stupid bird. Elsewhere, there’s a hilarious scene featuring Tamatoa, a giant kleptomaniacal crab who has a penchant for all things shiny.

Vaiana is a must see this holiday season and should be top of your list if you need to entertain any younger relatives over the coming weeks.

Check out the reviews of other Disney animated features and shorts here:

Zootropolis
Kronk’s New Groove
The Emperor’s New Groove
Destino
Melody Time
Big Hero 6
Frozen

Note: This article was originally published for the English-language version of the film and has since been adapted. You can find the original version here.

Film review – The Emperor’s New Groove (Mark Dindal, 2000)

The Emperor’s New Groove is widely regarded as the first post-Renaissance-period Disney animated film, the studio having seen huge successes with the ten Renaissance-period films bookended by The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Tarzan in 1999. That The Emperor’s New Groove was not part of this is down to an element of production hell, which caused a more serious and epic romantic comedy titled Kingdom of the Sun – in the same vein as The Lion King – to be thrown away before it evolved into the film we know today. [1]

Central to the original film were six new songs written and performed by Sting. Having seen close friends Phil Collins and Elton John experience huge successes with their films Tarzan and The Lion King respectively, Sting was able to approach the project confident that he would have a success on his hands. The songs themselves reveal a lot about the romantic-comedy themes of the film-that-never-was and help us construct what we missed out on.

Kingdom of the Sun concept art

Kingdom of the Sun concept art

One song we did get to hear was “One Day She’ll Love Me”, a duet with Grammy Award-winning folk-rock singer Shawn Colvin. This appeared on the soundtrack and would have fitted with the original storyline of the pauper (voiced by Owen Wilson) switching places with the emperor and slowly falling in love with his wife-to-be Nina. It was apparently due to appear in a palace party scene and is similar in many ways to “Can You Feel The Love” from The Lion King.

Another couple that appeared on the soundtrack but not in the film were “Snuff Out The Light”, a song to be sung by the villain Yzma (Eartha Kitt); and “Walk The Llama Llama”, a fun song to show the importance of llamas to Incan societies.

Three additional songs that were written by Sting remain unreleased and unidentified. I often wonder whether or not “After The Rain Has Fallen” was one of these songs. The song appeared a year after this film on the album “Brand New Day”, and has a few references that fit (a palace, princess betrothed to a man she doesn’t love) and a few that don’t, but could have been changed to distance it from the film. 

Two further songs were written for the new version of the film: “My Funny Friend and Me” and “Perfect World”. The latter was sung by Tom Jones.

So, whilst we were robbed of a film that could have been up there with some of the best Disney films of the 90s, we instead got a delayed film in a completely different mood but is actually a huge success story considering its journey. The plot makes no sense whatsoever – an emperor is turned into a llama by an evil power-hungry adviser, though he is rescued by a local farmer and the two form a buddy relationship to find the potion to turn him back to a human despite the fact he wanted to build a holiday home over the top of farmer’s house. Somehow, though, it works and we end up with a fast-paced, hilarious and beautifully animated feature film that was one of the last successes for Disney 2D animation before they gave up completely on it with the release of the lackluster 3D animated picture Chicken Little in 2005.

There is a generation of children who grew up loving animated films but for the first time in over a decade these were not Disney films. Instead, there were the excellent Pixar films such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles and the successful Dreamworks films like the Shrek series, Shark Tale and Madagascar. Of the Walt Disney Studios films released in this period, which also includes Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range, The Emperor’s New Groove certainly stands out as the best of an admittedly mediocre bunch.

The Emperor’s New Groove is available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray now. [2]

[1] The documentary film title The Sweatbox, which remains largely unreleased but for a few appearances online every now and then (it is owned by Disney), follows the problematic production closely and is worth seeking out. It isn’t the fantastic tell-all story people believe it to be but it is extremely interesting and has a few glimpses of how the original film was shaping up.

[2] I found the alternative poster for The Emperor’s New Groove on a site called Deviant Art, and it was done by an artist called Alejandro Cisneros. I don’t know much about the artist but his other artwork is really incredible. Check out his site!

Destino (Dominique Monféry, 2003)

I recently saw the news that there will be a special exhibition opening at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco on 10th July. Running into January 2016, the exhibition will cover the bond between Walt Disney and surrealist painter Salvador Dali, two men whose creative outputs couldn’t seem further from one another, despite the fact they were good friends who remained in close contact throughout their lives.

destino3

You could take every frame of animation and hang it on your wall.

Were you to create a Venn diagram of the creative output of the two artists, the small ellipse in the middle would be represented by the bizarrely brilliant Destino. First conceptualised in 1946, the film was eventually released in 2003 to the general public as an unusual opening short for Calendar Girls.

Destino may have been realised and released 57 years after it was started, but it was worth the wait. It’s a beautiful, dream-like short that has been lovingly created by a team of Parisian artists based on the original storyboards by Dali and studio artists John Hench. I’ve watched it so many times. I won’t explain the storyline – it’s less than 7 minutes long so you don’t have much to lose.

The film can be watched online at YouTube here:

As a resolution snob, the very best way to watch this excellent work of art is to purchase Fantasia 2000 on Blu-ray“>. For some reason the fact it is included on this disc is barely mentioned anywhere other than on the boxart, with Amazon choosing to just describe the somewhat lacklustre film instead. I feel this is an injustice as something as important as this should be brought to the attention of anyone who might be looking. It really ought to show up when you search “Disney Destino” or “Dali Destino”. It’s a no-brainer.

It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2004, though both this and the extremely memorable Boundin’ from Pixar were beaten by a short called Harvey Krumpet, which you can watch here.

Walt Disney: An American Original (Bob Thomas, 1994)

Walt Disney once said “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” Whilst this isn’t strictly true of this book, there’s an awareness from the author of who his audience is and as we journey through the life of one of the greatest Americans of the 20th Century, we certainly see the best side of him.

I’m always keen to find out more about the life of an expert filmmaker and you don’t get much more expert than Walt Disney. Alas, his life wasn’t limited to making films.

In this book we cover his upbringing, early career as a political satire cartoonist, his earliest business ventures (including Laugh-o-Gram Studios), the creation (and loss) of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the subsequent creation of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, the blooming of Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio as a standalone company, the break into feature-length motion pictures, the struggles throughout World War II, the rebuilding of the company, his various television series, the creation of two theme parks, his family life and his sad passing in the mid 1960s. Evidently his life was far from boring and it makes for a fascinating read.

The book was officially supported by the Disney estate and various companies, and this means the author Bob Thomas was allowed unprecedented access to close colleagues and relatives for interviews, as well as more resources than anyone was previously afforded. Unfortunately the fact it is licensed has its price. At times the discussions seemed a little sugar-coated and I found myself wondering if something was being hidden. Certainly in the formative years things seemed to fall into place in a fairytale-like manner, with Walt having an uncanny ability to come up smelling like roses. During the studio strikes in the 1940s and throughout the war, I couldn’t help but think a lot of information was being glossed over for fear of losing support from the company. The accusations of anti-semitism that have dogged his name for many years could have been explored and disputed, but instead they simply weren’t mentioned. There are other examples of this throughout and I ended up longing to find out the whole story rather than a risk-free one.

What we end up with is an excellent read full of fascinating tales, but which shouldn’t be taken at face value. Be aware of the Disney logos slapped on the cover of the book and the fact it is so readily available in official Disney Stores. It’s worth a read if you’re happy to either put this to one side, read between the lines or blissfully ignore it all together.