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Friday, October 14, 2011


On November 13, 1940, just short of 71 years ago, was first displayed what I'm sure will be considered for centuries to come, as one of the greatest works of art of the twentieth century. It would rank right up there with Picasso's Guernica, Monet's water lilies, Rockwell's Four Freedoms and Wright's Guggenheim. And at a cost in the neighborhood of $2 million to create, notwithstanding the cost of Wright's masterpiece, for its time, it ranked as perhaps the most expensive work of art ever created (certainly the most expensive painted work of art). The artist, with the help of hundreds of assistants, worked for two and a half years to create it though in fact, he never actually drew one line or painted a single stroke. His contribution was inspirational and conceptual rather than physical. His name was Walter Elias Disney, his masterpiece was called Fantasia. And never before or since has music and painting been so exquisitely matched in such a way that one compliments and expounds upon the other.  In a very real sense, Disney invented a whole new type of painting.

Fantasia poster, 1940
Flushed with more than $6 million in profits from "Snow White," Walt Disney was troubled by the lack of respect his new art medium was given both in the world of Hollywood as well as the broader art world in general. Even with a feature film under his belt, his work was seen as little more than animated comic strips. And as groundbreaking as Snow White had been, even he realized he was merely "toying" with a serious new art form.  Fantasia was his attempt to rise above "Mickey Mouse" cartoon shorts or merely illustrating moving picture books for children. Classical music such as came from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Bach was serious stuff. It would give "class" to any animated images associated with it, especially if he and his artists could meld the two arts into a single, symbiotic relationship--even if the star of the picture was still Mickey Mouse. In doing so, he moved the art and science of both sound and animation forward in quantum leaps. Never before had recorded sound seemed so real or animated art been so expressive.

Fantasia 2000 poster, 2000
A mere dozen years after the debut of Mickey in Steamboat Willy, at the Broadway Theater in New York, Fantasia was unveiled at the same venue. The reviews were uneven. Some saw it for the masterful synthesis of animated painting and music it was. In general, music critics were less kind. They were profoundly impressed by the quality of sound reproduction Disney's Fantasound presented but disturbed that anyone should find it necessary to add pictures (especially cartoons) to such expressive musical works. They saw it as cheapening classical music. This Disney and his bankers could live with, but the fact that the public found it to be so far from what they'd come to expect from Disney--that really hurt. On its initial release, it made back less than one-forth it's cost. Financially, Fantasia was a victim too of W.W.II, in that with the world at war, fully 45% of Disney's revenue (from foreign release) also went down the tubes. Eventually, in re-release, the film made money, spectacular money, in fact, when, in the 1960s, the psychedelic crowd adopted it as one of their own.  Today, Fantasia earns for Disney Studios more than its $2 million cost per year. And finally, as Walt had hoped all along, there came a sequel.  From the beginning, he saw Fantasia as an ever-evolving work in progress. On December 17, 1999 an evolved Fantasia 2000 opened to the public, not at a traditional movie theater but at New York's Carnegie Hall, then in 183 IMAX theaters in some 25 countries around the world.

(Note: I do not own any Disney stock.  Wish I did.)

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