How Disney Advertised Failure as Masterpiece [by Jim Hill]


[c]1940/Disney/Fantasia/all rihts reserved.

Fantasia, The Story of
Disney’s Failure
by Jim Hill

Article by Jim Hill
published on in March 2003


[this article belongs to Jim Hill and is uploaded to this site specifically to assist the Skywalker review on Disney’s Fantasia since the original article is no longer available as the website shut down]

QUESTION: What did Walt
Disney actually think of the original “Fantasia?”

[c]The Walt Disney Family Museum/all rights reserved.

ANSWER: Well … Um …
Perhaps the best way to sum Walt’s feelings about his studio’s 1940 release
would be to recall his appearance at the 1941 Academy Awards.

Walt stood at the
podium, crying.

“We all make
mistakes … I shall now rededicate myself to my old ideals.”

Where was Walt when he
made this tearful apology? Standing at center stage behind the podium, as he
accepted the Irving Thalberg Award.

What was Disney
apologizing for? Making the original “Fantasia.”

I’m serious, folks. Get
yourself a copy of Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s great book about the Academy
Awards, “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards”
(Ballantine Books, March 1996). There you can read how David Selznick presented
Walt a bust of Irving Thalberg for the creation of “Fantasia.” Once
Walt got to the podium, he started weeping, then said:

“Thank you so much
for this. Maybe I should have a medal for bravery. We all make mistakes.
‘Fantasia’ was one but an honest one. I shall now rededicate myself to my old

The Walt Disney Company
would like you to believe that the original “Fantasia” was Walt’s
masterpiece—the film that Disney was most proud of.

The truth is…Walt
was embarrassed by “Fantasia.”

Not necessarily by the
film itself, mind you. But Disney was kind of ashamed of “Fantasia”‘s
failure during its initial release. You see, Walt always prided himself on his
ability to predict what audiences wanted. Way back in 1928, Disney knew that
moviegoers would go ga-ga for cartoon characters that talked. Then in 1937,
Walt felt that the film-going public was finally ready for a feature length
animated film.

These two decisions had
helped make Disney a very rich and powerful man. So in 1940, Walt’s instincts
told him that modern audiences were ready (eager, even) for a film that
combined animation and classical music. When “Fantasia” came out in
November 1940 and died a dog’s death, Walt’s self-confidence was shaken to the

In the years that
followed, folks at the studio would try to interest Walt in attempting other
ambitious animated features. And—for a time—Walt did toy with making toon
versions of such high minded fare as Cervantes’ comic novel, “Don
Quixote” and Wadsworth’s epic poem, “Hiawatha.”

But—in the end—Disney
eventually pulled the plug on these proposed projects. “Fantasia”‘s
1940s failure at the box office lead Walt to mistrust anything that seemed too
artistic. Better that the studio should stick with safer, more commercial fare
like “Cinderella” (1950) and “Peter Pan” (1953), than risk
another disaster like the concert feature.

In Walt’s eyes,
“Fantasia” was not some noble experiment. It was a failure—plain and
simple, folks. And that film was not a mistake that Disney was eager to repeat.
So Walt made an effort to insure that all of the studio’s future animated
features had the broadest possible audience appeal.

[c]Time Magazine/all rights reserved.

Now—at any other studio—a
failure like “Fantasia” would have been tucked away in the back of
the vault, never again to see the light of day. But Walt Disney Studio was an
unusual operation. They liked to re-release their animated films every 7 years
or so, to try and capture that audience that hadn’t been born yet during the
film’s previous release.

As you might expect,
having the reputation of being a colossal flop made “Fantasia” a
particularly difficult film to sell during its re-releases. In 1946, Disney
tried marketing the movie by using the cheesy catch phrase: “Fantasia will
Amaze-ya!” Which didn’t exactly wow the post-WW II crowds.

was also re-released in 1956 and 1963. On each of these releases, Disney’s
marketing department sold the movie as being “… a masterpiece that was
ahead of its time.” Again, the film met with a limp response from the
movie-going public and didn’t do particularly well at the box office.

It was only after the
film’s 1963 re-release that Walt learned that “Fantasia” had finally
covered its production costs. After 23 years, the film was officially in the

What was Walt’s reaction
to this news? Disney fans may be intrigued to hear that—about this time—Disney
gave some very serious thought to dismantling the company’s animation
operation. After all, if it took “Fantasia” 23 years to turn a
profit, what chance did any of Walt Disney Productions’ modern animated films
have to ever making any money?

It should be noted that
this was when Walt was plowing hundreds of thousands of the company’s hard
earned bucks into hair-brained schemes as the then-still-secret Florida
project. Which was why Roy was putting tremendous pressure on his brother to
make economies elsewhere within Walt Disney Productions.

[c]1940/Disney/Fantasia/all rights reserved.

One of the elder Disney’s
suggestions for cutting back costs was to halt production on any future
animated features for the studio. Rather than make any new animated films, Roy
felt that Disney could just get by re-releasing the toons the studio already
had in the vault.

Thankfully, this was
one of those times that Walt opted not to take Roy’s advice. He continued
development of “Project Florida” as well as putting a new Disney
animated feature into production. That film—”The Jungle Book”—would
be the very last animated film at the studio that Walt would personally
supervise. It would also be among the most successful movies the studio would
release in the 1960s.

[c]1940/Disney/Fantasia/all rights reserved.

As for “Project
Florida”…well, I’m pretty sure you all know how that one turned out.

Anyway…the morale of
this story is: Just because the official authorized-by-the-Walt-Disney-Company
film history books that say that “Fantasia” was a much beloved
classic doesn’t make it true. That’s why I advise you guys to occasionally read
something other than these books that Hyperion Press and Disney Editions
regularly burp out.

Sometimes it’s amazing
what you’ll learn once you move beyond Mickey’s approved reading list.

Text formatted from|

[c]The Walt Disney Family Museum/all rights reserved.

This article is NOT written by Nabil Bakri. Therefore, Nabil Bakri will NOT claim this article and/or be responsible for any mistake [if there is any] within the article.

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