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Rewind: Disney’s Fantasia

Bessie Yuill reminds us of the fantastical history of Fantasia

Disney’s Fantasia debuted on Wednesday 19th November, 1940: the company’s third feature-length animated film. Originally conceived as a short film of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ to showcase Mickey, costs ballooned to such an extent that it was decided to make several animated sections based on classical music. This was wildly experimental in comparison to the fairy tales Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, and the humorous cartoons their rivals at Warner Bros. or Metro-Goldwyn Mayer were producing. Incredibly, there was no narrative carrying through the whole film, and some parts of the film did not even have their own individual stories—instead, Disney animated abstract shapes and colours that reflected the music in a kind of kids’ film synaesthesia.

There were also shocking elements in the actual content of the film. The female centaurs in the mythological ‘Pastoral Symphony’ section were originally topless. Bacchus is clearly, if maybe unsurprisingly, drunk off godly wine, and in the incredible feat of animation ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, the villain is essentially a Satan stand-in. The element that would probably be found most scandalous today, however, is a centaur portrayed as half-young black girl and half-donkey who waits on the other white centaurs, polishing their hooves and grooming their tails. This derogatory stereotype is ‘Sunflower’, and is maybe the most egregious example of disturbing racial shorthand in Disney’s canon that has been later swept under the carpet: she was edited out of all versions past 1969, disappearing like Disney’s slavery-based family film Song of the South.

Outside of that ugliness the film succeeds as an experimental portrayal of sound, although the original plans to create a series were scrapped due to the high costs of ‘Fantasound’ technology significantly outweighing the film’s profit. It experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 60s as a psychedelic cult classic for the same subversive scene that also enjoyed Alice In Wonderland and the official drug of finding hidden meaning in children’s films, LSD. Fantasia has truthfully had fans consistently since then, but the question must be asked: how far can Fantasia be considered an abstract masterpiece when it retained such ugly racial stereotypes, and Disney has not addressed or resolved this issue? It succeeds where it challenges the boundaries of children’s films, but fails where it upholds the boundaries of race relations at that time—both regressive and ahead of its time.

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