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The Bootleg Files: Fantasia – The Censored Centaurs

BOOTLEG FILES 599: “Fantasia – The Censored Centaurs” (deleted characters from Disney’s 1940 masterwork).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Racially motivated humor that the Mouse Factory does not want you to see.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, Lawdy!

In many ways, Walt Disney was way ahead of his times: his pioneering work in sound and color animation set new standards for filmmaking, and his genius for merchandising laid the foundation for contemporary Hollywood’s marketing machinery.

But Disney was also a man of his times, especially when it came to his attitudes towards minorities. During the 1930s and 1940s, several of Disney’s cartoons – not unlike the animated output from other studios – offered an offensive presentation of African-American stereotypes. By contemporary standards, this type of humor is miserable, but back in the day it was considered a source of harmless fun by the white animators.

Oddly, Disney sought to incorporate this level of humor into his 1940 feature “Fantasia.” Unlike the typical one-reel Disney cartoon that was mostly seen as a filler on a movie bill, “Fantasia” was envisioned as a bold experiment in cinematic art via its marriage of classical music and an invigorating new approach to animation. And, for the most part, Disney scored brilliantly with this remarkable blending of unlikely creative channels.

However, there is one sequence where “Fantasia” stumbles: the segment devoted to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” which depicts figures of Greco-Roman mythology having a fun afternoon. Unlike the comic “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Dance of the Hours” segments, with their imaginative animation and visceral humor, the “Pastoral Symphony” is visually kitschy and somewhat boring. Looking at the film today, it is peculiar that Disney didn’t recognize the segment’s weakness and have it removed.

Even more peculiar was the inclusion of two politically incorrect characters whose presence deflates “Fantasia” to the level of one-reeler cheap laughs. The first character was given the name Sunflower in the “Fantasia” press book, although she is never identified by name on the screen. She is a child servant to an adult female centaur – her human half is a version of the pickaninny stereotype with pigtailed kinky hair, large lips and oversized earrings, while her equine half is the body of a dark-skinned donkey. The adult female centaur has long blonde hair and a beautiful white human half, while her lower half has a light blue hue and the graceful shape of a prized thoroughbred.

Sunflower is first seen in the centaur equivalent of a shoeshine worker: she is kneeling while polishing the adult centaur’s front left hoof. She is then seen pinning flowers into the adult’s tail – and when the adult moves away, Sunflower glowers with immediate irritation. Sunflower appears again holding a long floral chain that is draped around the human torso of another adult female centaur – she walks behind the adult, in total subservience.

The second character is called Otika in the press book. She looks just like Sunflower and it is easy to assume that the two characters are one in the same. However, Disney historians insist they are separate. When the inebriated Bacchus shows up to claim his throne, Otika is seen rolling out the red carpet to welcome his arrival. The obese Bacchus nearly topples over on Otika, who gallops off in terror.

Why did Disney shove these African-American stereotypes into a Greco-Roman fantasy? Perhaps he wasn’t fully confident in the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence and felt that it needed some hoary sight gags that would reassure the predominantly white 1940 audience that it should not be taken too seriously. And perhaps Disney realized he was going out of bounds with such offensive imagery. The sequence also includes two more centaurs with African heritage: a pair of female attendants to Bacchus with zebra lower halves. However, their human halves are extremely glamorous and sophisticated, and they are presented as luscious enablers to Bacchus’ wine-soaked rather than inferior servants.

The inclusion of these characters raised little outcry when “Fantasia” was first released and in its early re-releases. The full film played on television in 1963 with the characters intact. But for the 1969 re-release, something interesting happened. The centaurs attending to Bacchus remained in the film, but Sunflower and Otika were removed. Sunflower’s scenes were either cropped in a manner that she was omitted from view, or they were redrawn with her presence removed. Otika’s scene was reanimated in order to erase her from sight.

Sunflower and Otika were never brought back into “Fantasia” for its various restored versions, and the studio never acknowledged their existence in its theme parks and merchandising. Disney scholar John Culhane did not miss them, telling Entertainment Weekly in 1991: “Walt’s artistic purpose was to take Beethoven’s piece, put a visualization to it, and have people feel happy when that harmony was completed. If someone feels demeaned or insulted, that’s going against what Disney wanted when he did it. Walt was never in the business of pleasing film buffs.”

But some film buffs did not want to see a censored “Fantasia,” and someone with a copy of the original uncut print managed to get Sunflower and Otika into bootleg circulation. A blurry video copy of the deleted segments has been floating around for years and can still be found on YouTube, despite the best efforts by the litigious Disney organization to stamp it out. As long as indefatigable bootleggers have access to the public, Disney’s attempts to pretend Sunflower and Otika never existed will always be foiled.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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