It's just the latest chapter in the complex—not to say convoluted—history of a film that's had as many lives as a seasonal black cat.
The original "Fantasia" started out in 1937 as a short in which Paul Dukas's "Sorcerer's Apprentice" served as the soundtrack for an animated short in which Mickey Mouse—whose celluloid career was in a bit of a slump—would take the role of the apprentice whose inept attempts to use one of his boss's spells nearly leads to disaster. Not one for half measures, Disney managed to secure the services of the most famous conductor of the time, the flamboyant Leopold Stokowski, to conduct an orchestra of Hollywood studio musicians.
The results were impressive but the cost—over $125,000—made "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" too expensive to ever succeed as a short. And it became but one segment in a pioneering 1940 feature film that would combine classical music and animation in ways that still look visionary today.
Even the sound of "Fantasia" was visionary. "Music emerging from one speaker behind the screen sounds thin, tinkly and strainy," Disney was quoted as saying in a 1941 Popular Science article. "We wanted to reproduce such beautiful masterpieces as Schubert's 'Ave Maria' and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony so that audiences would feel as though they were standing at the podium with Stokowski." Unfortunately, the resulting multi-channel technology—dubbed "fantasound"—required theaters to be equipped with special amps and speakers at a cost of around $85,000 each. That, combined with the outbreak of World War II and the resulting loss of a European market, killed any chance of a profitable first run for "Fantasia," despite generally positive reviews and a high demand for tickets.
"Fantasia" went through a series of revisions and re-releases over the next several decades, including a 1969 appearance in which it was billed as "the ultimate trip" in an effort (mostly successful) to attract young audiences experimenting with mind-altering drugs. Walt's brother Roy finally produced an IMAX sequel, "Fantasia 2000," which featured performances by the Chicago Symphony under James Levine. I caught it in a standard theatrical release (at the Tivoli) and found it less impressive than its parent—but maybe that's just me being a curmudgeon.
What you'll get at Powell Hall this week is a mix of highlights from both films, with the emphasis on the sequel. From the original, you get Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" (with it's still-hilarious parody of classical ballet), the Reader's Digest version of Beethoven's "Pastorale" symphony with its animated nymphs and centaurs, and (of course) "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". From the sequel we get the first movement of Beethoven's fifth symphony, three movements from Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite," a wild mashup (by Peter Schickele, creator of P.D.Q. Bach) of four of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" marches, and most of Respighi's "Pines of Rome". The latter, for reasons I have never fully understand, is used to accompany the adventures of a family of whales—rather odd, given how vividly Respighi paints his Roman scenes.
Debussy's "Clair de Lune" is there as well, although it was never part of the original "Fantasia" and I had always assumed it was never animated. It will be interesting to see what's on the big screen at Powell for that one.
The "Fantasia" program runs Friday and Saturday at 7 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. If it's anything like other symphony film events you'll be able to purchase popcorn and take it and your drinks into the theater. Radio Disney is sponsoring a costume competition and hour before each performance. Entrants are eligible for a drawing for a VIP trip for four to meet Disney characters during Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, November 23. Contact customer service at Powell when you arrive to register. For more information: stlsymphony.org.