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COVER STORY

The Uncle's Apprentice

December 12, 1999|JAMES BATES | James Bates covers the entertainment industry for The Times. His last article for the magazine was a profile of Rupert Murdoch

"This is his baby," says studios chairman Roth. Even so, the decision to go forward with the project is a bit of a puzzle. The original "Fantasia" was one of the few stumbles by a man whose animators turned out "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Dumbo," "101 Dalmatians" and other hits. It was a financial failure for years because few theaters could afford the then-sophisticated sound systems it demanded. Just 14 theaters showed it initially. Classical music buffs were aghast that the music would be trivialized with "cartoons."

Somewhat surrealistic in style, the film was rediscovered by a new generation in the psychedelic 1960s when, as Disney puts it, "the big thing was to sit in the front row and smoke a joint." The film, which didn't break even until the mid-1950s, began to make substantial money only after its release on videocassette eight years ago.

His uncle's bold risk always fascinated Disney, even though to this day he still finds parts of the original boring. He was just 10 when it was released, hardly an expert in classical music, yet he swears he saw it at least a half-dozen times that year alone and says it is his favorite Disney animated film. "I loved it for reasons that are still a little unclear to me. I suppose I loved it because it was such a wonderful grab bag of ideas. If you got bored with one, the next one was coming soon."

He traces the idea to remake the film to an evening nearly 60 years ago. His father told him that Walt wanted to a create a new segment for the already completed "Fantasia," featuring the music from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee." The kicker: Speakers would be placed all around the audience so it would sound as if a bee actually were hovering nearby. That piece was never made, but it stuck in Disney's mind that his uncle wanted "Fantasia" to be a perpetual work in progress.

So now, six decades later, Disney is taking a similar risk. The new "Fantasia" cost around $85 million and for the first months will be available only in the big-screen IMAX format. It also comes at a time when animation success seems to depend on action, gags and Broadway-style music or on massive toy, fast food and cartoon tie-ins, as with the current hit "Pokemon." This film has none of those. The new 75-minute version, considerably shorter than Walt's, has segments set to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome." It also features one segment from the original, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Directors worked on "Fantasia/2000" between other Disney animated films. The costs were low compared to other animated films of today--"Tarzan" cost about $150 million--because the work started before other Hollywood studios entering the genre bid up the salaries of animators. There also was no huge expense for overtime to meet a deadline imposed, say, so that McDonald's could tie kids' meals in with the movie release.

Financing was arranged in 1991. At the time, Eisner wanted to release the original "Fantasia" on videocassette. Disney opposed it, not wanting to mass merchandise a film he considered so special. "So I made a deal with him," Eisner says. "We would reinvest profits, if there were any, in the new 'Fantasia.' "

The project went forward but not without glitches. At one point, Eisner, after attending his son's high school graduation, suggested that Disney include Edward Elgar's familiar "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1" featuring a classic Disney character. The result was a segment featuring a coronation ceremony for the children of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the like, with Donald Duck providing comic relief. It was so bad that, as Eisner puts it, "there was a revolution inside the animation department." Now the film shows animals marching onto Noah's Ark to Elgar's theme.

When the orchestra plays that theme at Carnegie Hall on Friday, Disney will see a chapter of his uncle's legacy closed, and perhaps one of his own open. "He's been in the Walt Disney Co. for 69 years, which is his age," Eisner says. "His name is above the door. And he has a historical perspective and appreciation of the culture of the company that is unmatched." Beyond that, he may have personally produced a film to fulfill his uncle's vision. In Schneider's words: "Over 10 years, Roy single-handedly dragged this. . . .to the point where, when you see it in IMAX, it is one of the most stunning pieces of theatrical expression you've seen."

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