When Walt Disney Marketed to Acid-Heads
Strap on your mouse ears; we’re taking a trip.
Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney’s grand experiment in marrying classical music to cutting-edge animation, initially flopped at the box office. Highbrow critics deemed the film’s “cartoony” elements demeaning to the works they accompanied by Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. Mainstream audiences largely found the whole notion baffling or even brain-injuring.
Walt Disney never gave up on Fantasia, an often abstract and even avant-garde movie. He kept his pet project among the studio’s regular roster of reissues. Unfortunately, Uncle Walt died in 1966, three years before Fantasia actually earned a profit, powered increasingly by runs at art theaters and campus screenings.
So did Uncle Walt trip balls to come up with Fantasia's evil broomsticks and ballet dancing elephants?
Fantasia, of course, proved to be cinema’s first “ultimate trip." As such, it attained new glories when watched while under the influence of drugs. Maybe Disney would have been okay with this, or maybe not. Either way, by ’69, the studio that bore Walt’s name smelled green among all those fumes at Fantasia showings and dove into hippie marketing headfirst.
Disney had, in fact, been toying with how to reach the exploding late-’60s youth market without betraying its wholesome mission. The Love Bug (1968) was one attempt. The cute comedy about a sentient Volkswagen Beetle, a car emblematic of the counterculture, features “way out” hippie gags and proved to be a smash.
Noticing the mind-blowing business done by the Beatles’ psychedelic musical cartoon feature Yellow Submarine (1968), Disney Studios gussied up Fantasia for a massive re-release that would be sold expressly to stoners, rockers, and acid-eaters. That strategy proved to be even more of a smash.
As step one, Disney artists rendered a pink-and-purple poster modeled after druggy concert promos made famous by rock venues such as the Fillmore. The poster is a blacklight-ready eye-popper centered on a blob image that contains the devil from “Night on Bald Mountain,” dancing mushrooms, soaring Pegasus rompers, and fish streaming colors behind them, bordered by dripping letters that spell out the names of the soundtrack’s composers. There’s even a subliminal Mickey Mouse. There's no mistaking the intended customers.
Next, the National General Theaters trade organization got on board with Disney and issued a memo about the Fantasia push that doled out straight-shooter advice to theater owners:
“Don’t get uptight about the potential audience. These are nice, unwashed, pot-smoking citizens. They’re here for a trip. They’ll head for the first row seats, sit in the aisles, in the pit, and on top of each other, but down front. They’ll smoke pot and offer advice to Mickey Mouse.”
Nearly a quarter century after dumbfounding the public, Fantasia drew huge crowds, finally made it into the financial black, and remained an often-booked midnight movie throughout the next decade. The erstwhile flop movie has since generated a video game and a sequel, Fantasia 2000 (2000)
Rumors have long swarmed that perhaps Fantasia had come out of Walt Disney’s own chemical experimentations, particularly with mescaline. The same year he released Fantasia, Disney undertook the surreal short "Destino," teaming up with no less a mind-expander than Spanish art visionary Salvador Dali. The project remained uncompleted in their lifetimes, due in part to Fantasia's financial woes, but was finished by studio animators in 2003.
So did Uncle Walt trip balls to come up with Fantasia's evil broomsticks and ballet dancing elephants? There's no way to know.
By the same token, there’s no way to know how much more impressive Fantasia becomes to a hallucinogen-heightened viewer until you try it yourself. Tune in, turn on, Walt out.