As His Fantasia Creatures Charm Moviegoers Again, Ollie Johnston Draws on His Memories of Disney

updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's a balmy Hollywood evening, and Ollie Johnston, at 77 one of the last great Disney animators, stands outside the Disney Studios' Main Theater. He has just seen the restored version of Fantasia, currently in its 50th-anniversary reissue, and he's visibly moved. "It telescopes my life," says the soft-spoken Johnston, whose hair is white now and whose drawing hand shakes with palsy. Once, however, it was a hand so steady and skilled that it brought life to some of Disney's most memorable characters—the unstringed puppet Pinocchio (1940), the cheeky rabbit Thumper in Bambi (1942), the exasperated adventurer Alice (in Wonderland, 1951). For Fantasia, Johnston's vision was more daring, and his coquettish centaurettes—the half-female, half-horse creatures who romp through the Pastoral sequence—still stand out in a film throbbing with visual triumphs. "It was wonderful to see the movie again," Ollie recalls, his voice choking with feeling, I always felt it was one of the most beautiful things ever."

And also one of the most innovative. This two-hour concert feature, which took three years, $2.2 million (in 1940, when the average feature film cost a mere $400,000!) and more than 1,000 artists and technicians to complete, was the combined brainchild of Disney and famed conductor Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski was so intrigued by Disney's interest in animating Dukas's musical piece 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice" as a 10-minute short for Mickey Mouse that he offered his services gratis—and as a bonus thought up the film's title, a musical term for a fanciful free-form composition. Technologically, Fantasia not only starred a new and improved Mickey with real pupils rather than "shoe button" eyes, it was the first movie in stereo sound. And artistically, it was the first feature to use music accompanied by animated images—dancing flowers, fairies and gossamer fish—in abstract concert, as well as in place of dialogue to tell a story. "When I first saw it." recalls Frank Thomas, a Disney animator who didn't work on Fantasia, "I fell out of my chair. The things they were trying were really the cutting edge of animation as an art form."

Yet when the picture premiered in 1940, it was a box office flop. "So, for the most part, we returned to the tried and true—stories of young girls surrounded by evil," remarks Thomas. Among these were Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). In fact, not until the psychedelic '60s when, much to Disney's chagrin, the potheads and hippies he held in contempt embraced Fantasia's voluptuous sounds and vibrant images—its prancing ostriches, pirouetting hippos and broomsticks running amok—did the movie finally find its audience.

The current restoration took two painstaking years to complete. For the first time since 1940, every frame of the original negative has been polished and, where necessary, cleaned with razor blades to remove embedded dirt. The sound track boasts an exquisitely restored version of the score as conducted by Stokowski. And, finally, the movie is being shown in its original pre-Cinemascope, boxy "square screen" format. "It's back the way it ought to be." says Johnston proudly.

A few days later, in the living room of his memento-filled home in Flintridge. Calif., Ollie trades Disney reminiscences with Marie, his wife of 47 years, and longtime buddy Frank Thomas. Circling the ranch-style house is a quarter mile of train track that he completed in 1951; model trains were an obsession he and Disney shared—and one that cemented their relationship. "They were like a couple of kids," says Thomas. More than that, explains Ollie, "Walt had had a nervous breakdown back in the '30s, and the doctor told him to get himself a hobby."

It's no surprise that Disney himself has become Johnston's hobby. With Thomas, he has written three books on Disney animation, and he's also spry enough to give lectures at schools across the country. Johnston, who regards academia as an old friend, grew up on the Stanford University campus where his father, Ollie Sr., headed the school's romance languages department and his mother, Florence, taught music. Ollie studied first at Stanford and then at the Chouinard Art Institute (now part of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia) but quit to join Disney as an "in-betweener"—that is, an artist who does the middle drawing between two points of movement. Soon he was working on the studio's first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). "Ollie was the only one of the studio animators—we were called the Nine Old Men—who was sensitive to character relationships that affected the story," Thomas recalls. "Back then cartoon characters seldom touched unless they hit each other. But one day Ollie said, 'You know, the act of two people holding hands communicates in a powerful way.' And he was right. His warmth made a difference in so many of our characters."

Ollie's talents also attracted Marie, who worked as an inker and painter at Disney. "I was overwhelmed by his drawing ability," she admits. "I liked the shape of her head," Ollie confesses. Their home life with sons Richard, now 41, a musician, and Ken, 38, who's in the building business, was a welcome refuge, especially after Fantasia.

In the '40s, with the world at war, the studio entered a slump. "Walt used to say, 'People aren't interested in a little wooden boy, they want patriotic pictures,' " Ollie remembers. To make money, Disney churned out patriotic cartoons, but as his contribution to the war effort, he also produced animated pilot training films, many of which Ollie drew. With postwar prosperity came assignments on such Disney hits as Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) before public interest in animation once again waned and the studio turned to the Absent-Minded Professor (1960) and other live-action comedies. Ollie fondly recalls his last meeting with Walt in 1966 to show him a girl he'd drawn for the final scene of The Jungle Book, the last animated feature Disney oversaw. " 'Gee, she's sexy, Ollie,' he told me," recalls Johnston, grinning.

The master's death three months later devastated Johnston. "Walt lifted me up above what I felt I could have done without him," he says. "Excellent wasn't good enough for him. If you wanted a compliment, it had to be above that. Something he didn't expect." Something like, yes, Fantasia.

—Marjorie Rosen, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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