In the 12 years that had passed since Mickey Mouse's debut in "Steamboat Willie," the artists working for Walt Disney completely redefined animation, setting the standards by which cartoons are still measured. Disney won the Academy Award for animated short every year from its inception in 1932 through 1939, as well as receiving a special Oscar for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Walt also was given an honorary doctorate from Yale and a special citation from the League of Nations for the creation of Mickey Mouse, "an international symbol of good will."
Disney, having become one of the most famous men in the world, was now set on reaching an even greater plateau. His biggest dream--a film that would use his sophisticated style of animation to introduce mass audiences to the emotional range of classical music--was about to open. He had planned to call it "The Concert Feature," but changed it to "Fantasia."
Disney was counting on "Fantasia" to become the hit his studio needed to prove animation a major art form, and, because it was his most ambitious work, he was pretty sure how it would be received.
"No doubt, some unimaginative critics will predict that in 'Fantasia,' the animated medium and my artists have reached their ultimate," Disney wrote before the film premiered. "The truth is to the contrary. 'Fantasia' merely makes our other pictures look immature, and suggests for the first time what the future of the medium may well turn out to be."
Some unimaginative critics did come forward, to be sure, but they didn't say what Walt expected them to. When "Fantasia" premiered, the printed gasps of outraged critics in New York could be heard all the way to Burbank. Some people were clearly not ready for centaurs and cherubs frolicking to Beethoven.
"Where Disney misses is in the creation of the smirking centaurs, the 'art calendar' cupids, the coy and flapperish centaurettes, and the comic-strip Bacchus who all desecrate the Olympian background chosen for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony," wrote the film critic for Newsweek.
". . . To have the Pastoral Symphony interrupted by applause for sugar-sweet centaurettes is painful," said Franz Hoellering in The Nation.
Wrote columnist Dorothy Thompson in the New York Herald-Tribune: "The illustrations of the Beethoven 'Pastoral' are sufficient to raise an army, if there is enough blood left in culture to defend itself. . . . The clean, pure sounds--the unbearably clean, pure sounds--fall about us while we gaze on the raspberry and marshmallow Olympus, and the pure, strong music seems to be dropping cold and frustrated tears."
The reviews generally were mixed, and, despite its visual brilliance, "Fantasia" was a disappointment at the box office too. The film had cost almost $2.5 million, about the same as "The Wizard of Oz," which was released the year before, and it failed to attract the large family audiences that had made "Snow White" a success.
The cool, and sometimes hostile, reaction to his masterpiece was a devastating blow to Disney, and it marked the beginning of his disenchantment with animation. Gradually, he was led into other areas of creativity, including live-action film, television and theme parks that brought him even greater fame and the monetary rewards that had eluded him as an animation producer.
There had been very little to prepare Disney for the critical blows rained on him by critics of "Fantasia." Between "Steamboat Willie" in 1928 and "Fantasia" in 1940, he had received almost nothing but acclaim. He was breaking new ground, almost with every film, and he had virtually eclipsed Pat Sullivan (Felix the Cat), Max and Dave Fleischer (Koko the Klown) and Paul Terry (Farmer Al Falfa), who were the leaders of the cartoon industry when he came along. By the end of the '30s, Mickey Mouse cartoons were so much a part of the filmgoing experience that the phrase, "What, no Mickey Mouse?" was synonymous with disappointment.
Disney cartoons of the '30s introduced multiplane camera shots, more imaginative use of camera angles and fluid character and background movement that suggested depth and weight. Ten days before the opening of "Fantasia," Disney told a New York Times reporter, "Maybe I'm screwy. I don't know. It isn't that I deliberately set out to break movie traditions. But if someone didn't break loose with new things the movies wouldn't be where they are today. You'd still have 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Somebody's got to be a damn fool."