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They Call him Mr Snoops - Disney Chronicler John Culhane
The animation author on telling the behind the scenes stories of FANTASIA and FANTASIA 2000.
By Mike Lyons
September 01, 2000
For most, August 26, 1951 was a summer Sunday like any other. For a seventeen-year-old named John Culhane, it was anything but. 'It was the happiest day of my life,' remembers Culhane with a smile, 'and it was the key to the rest of my life.'
Culhane, you see, has reason to remember this weekend with great fondness. The then-teenager had an opportunity few people have ever had, when he was able to sit down and interview Walt Disney. The afternoon conversation, which came about thanks to a mutual friend of Disney's daughter, did indeed have a profound affect on Culhane's future path.
'I told Walt that I wanted to spend my life writing for and about animation,' says Culhane. 'Walt said, 'Get a job on your home town newspaper. Write for your neighbors and just keep widening the circle.''
As the years passed, the Illinois native widened this 'circle' by becoming a successful journalist, reporting and editing for The New York Times and Newsweek, just to name a few. Through it all, he would hold tight to his 'Disney roots,' covering the studio's films and profiling the artists, whenever her could. He has gone on to become a Disney historian extraordinaire.
In 1978, Culhane's book, WALT DISNEY'S FANTASIA chronicled the original vanguard feature. In 1992, Roy E. Disney (Walt's nephew) asked Culhane to return to the studio, to do the same for the long-awaited sequel.
'Emotionally, [FANTASIA 2000] is like the same feeling you had as a kid, when somebody kept a promise to you,' notes Culhane. 'Walt originally promised that there was going to be a 'Concert Feature,' as he called it, that would never end. The original program for FANTASIA reads: 'Selections on this program may be changed from time to time.' To Walt, this was to be just like a concert, where you don't see the same program.'
His new book, FANTASIA 2000: VISIONS OF HOPE (Disney Editions, $75.00) is as much a meaningful sequel for Culhane, as the film is for Disney. 'The whole picture has the quality of a truly happy dream,' says Culhane of the new FANTASIA.
This 'happy dream,' a/k/a FANTASIA 2000, rolled back into IMAX theatres this month, after a somewhat disappointing run at local multiplexes. The film is a continuation of Walt's original vision, in which animated images were merged with the world's most famous classical music. Tepid audience reaction, coupled with an animators' strike and World War II, forced Disney to put plans for other FANTASIAs on hold in 1940, when the original debuted.
In FANTASIA 2000, there are six new sequences: 'Beethoven's Fifth Symphony,' a surrealistic 'battle' fought by triangular shapes; 'Pines of Rome,' an ethereal whale ballet; 'Rhapsody in Blue,' Gershwin set to the style of caricaturist Al Hirshfeld; 'Shostakovitch's Piano Concerto No. 2,' a re-telling of 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier;' 'Carnival of the Animals,' in which a flamingo gets a hold of a yo-yo; 'Pomp and Circumstance,' which casts Donald Duck as Noah's assistant; Stravinsky's 'The Firebird Suite,' a tale of destruction and rebirth in nature. And there's a returning favorite, 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.' Brooms! Water! Mickey!
For aficionados, or just the plain 'Disnoid,' Culhane's book is the perfect way to add to one's appreciation of the film. Don't be fooled by its size (and shiny silver slipcase). VISIONS OF HOPE isn't another company-generated movie 'tie-in.' Thanks to Culhane's infectious enthusiasm for the merging mediums of animation and music, the book is an intelligent, insightful and thoughtful read.
Using his sharp journalistic skills, Culhane does what few authors of this type of book do: he allows the artists who worked on FANTASIA 2000 to tell their own story. Quotes from almost everyone involved with the film flow effortlessly with Culhane's text, so that as we read, we feel as if we're somewhat eavesdropping on the film's creative journey.
The book shows how director Hendel Butoy found age-old storyboard sketches in the Disney Archives for 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier,' a long abandoned project of Walt's, and used them as the first inspiration for 'Shostakovitch's Piano Concerto No. 2.' 'It was as if some extraordinary fate had waited fifty years to play itself out,' says Feature Animation President Thomas Schumacher in the book.
VISIONS OF HOPE also includes thoughts from 92-year-old story and concept artist Joe Grant. Grant, the only Disney artist to have worked on both FANTASIAs, talks about everything from 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' to 'Carnival of the Animals.' 'Walt,' recollects Grant in the book, 'was an expanding universe.'
Balancing all of this insight are stunning reproductions of artwork used in the various stages of FANTASIA 2000's production. We get to see director Butoy's tiny pencil sketches, done on Post-It Notes, for 'Pines of Rome;' full-page spreads of the visceral art used in 'The Firebird Suite'; delicate watercolors from 'Carnival of the Animals,' by concept artist, Emily Juliano and original story board art from 'Sorcerer's Apprentice,' which look like fragile echoes of the past.
Culhane is close to the new FANTASIA, not only as the film's chronicler, but also as one of its stars. In the film's section, 'Rhapsody in Blue,' director Eric Goldberg caricatured Culhane as the jovially repressed character of Flying John.
To the keen-eyed Disney fanatic the character may bear a striking resemblance to another member of the Disney canon, Mr. Snoops, the sniveling villainous sidekick from 1977's THE RESCUERS. Yup, you guessed it: Culhane had been caricatured for that role as well. 'The name came from my always 'snooping around' at the studio for these stories I was writing,' he says with a chuckle.
Culhane has stated that he's glad the original FANTASIA has finally been propelled to masterpiece status and that its sequel is garnering the attention it deserves. He is irked, however, by bemused critics, who reacted lukewarmly to FANTASIA 2000, much as critics did in 1940, when the original premiered. 'There wasn't acceptance,' says Culhane of the first FANTASIA, adding, 'Highbrow was a dirty word to a lot of people.'
Taking a chance on such eclectic forms of entertainment, which would then resonate with audiences, is what Walt Disney excelled at. Culhane found this out, not only during that backyard conversation 49 years ago, but years before, as well. 'I went to see BAMBI, when I was about nine,' remembers Culhane. 'It came to the scene where Bambi's mother was shot. Bambi's saying, 'We made it mother! Mother? Mother?' A little kid, younger than me, shouted out in the theater, 'You can come home with me Bambi honey!' The audience started to laugh and then their laughter choked in their throats, and I thought, even then, 'This is a great work of art!''