By the time Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” premiered at Manhattan’s Broadway Theater on Nov. 13, 1940, what had started out as an animated short to revive Mickey Mouse’s flagging career had become a feature-length extravaganza. Images in the movie channeled evolutionary theory and abstract art, depicting roaring dinosaurs, vibrating shapes and dancing brooms. Everything was set to classical music and blasted over the new Fantasound system, whose volume could apparently reach 165 decibels — enough, The New Yorker reported at the time, to “kill many elderly members of the audience, knock the others cold and deafen the survivors for life.” The magazine continued: “Don’t worry about it, though. You’re safe with Walt Disney.”
The combination perfectly encapsulated what Disney Studios was becoming: a determined wielder of awesome power, leavened by Disney’s assurances that he was a really nice guy. (This happened to mirror the self-image of the country at large, which assiduously coupled its impending dominance on the world stage with repeated avowals of benign intentions.) According to “Wild Minds,” Reid Mitenbuler’s lively history of the first half-century of animation, “Fantasia” marked a turning point in American culture, an attempt to reconcile the refinement of artistic ambition with the demands of mass consumption. To work on the project, Disney had tapped the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was so proudly pretentious that the studio’s cartoonists wanted to call the movie “Highbrowski by Stokowski.”
The story of Disney Studios is a central strand in Mitenbuler’s narrative; Disney became the formidable force that the other animation studios would look toward, compete with and rail against. Max Fleischer, whose studio was responsible for the likes of Popeye and Betty Boop, groused that Disney’s “Snow White,” released in 1937, was “too arty.” (It was also maybe too scary — Dr. Spock would later say that Radio City Music Hall had to reupholster its seats after screening “Snow White” because terrified children had wet them.) The wife of one of the Fleischer brothers, though, said they had better watch out: “Disney is doing art, and you guys are still slapping characters on the butt with sticks!”
But what if those slapped butts were part of what had made animation so revolutionary in the first place? Mitenbuler suggests as much, beginning “Wild Minds” with the early days of animation, in the first decades of the 20th century, when the technology of moving pictures was still in its infancy. Like the movie business in general, the field of animation contained few barriers to entry, and a number of Jewish immigrants shut out from other careers found they could make a decent living working for a studio or opening up their own. Even Disney, who grew up in the Midwest, was an outsider without any connections.