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Remembering Sunflower and Atika: Racism and Erasure in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’

Disney's Fantasia in Technicolor and Fantasound with Leopold Stokowski
Disney's Fantasia in Technicolor and Fantasound with Leopold Stokowski By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Erlisa Demneri, Contributing Writer

Growing up, one of my favorite films was “Fantasia 2000,” the 1999 feature composed of animated sequences set to pieces of classical music. Its mystical blend of the senses — of visual beauty and harmonic melodies — always enticed me, making me come back for numerous rewatches. But “Fantasia 2000” is only the sequel to the widely acclaimed 1940 release, simply titled “Fantasia.” Having never watched it before, I decided to search for it, in hopes of finding a new favorite. However, what I discovered was a history of questionable representation, historical erasure, and the ever complicated issue of engaging with offensive media.

As Disney celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, its curated collection of films and series from different decades included the original “Fantasia” in the 1940s selection. One of its iconic characters — Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” — headlines the celebration. Heralded as “Walt Disney’s timeless masterpiece,” the film was ranked as the 58th greatest American film and the fifth greatest animated film by the American Film Institute in 1998, and specifically selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 1990.

Accompanied by Ludwig van Beethoven’s sixth symphony, also known as “The Pastoral Symphony,” one of the sequences in the film presents a mythical Greco-Roman world, filled with serene scenery and colorful magical creatures, such as centaurs, “centaurettes,” pegasuses, unicorns, cupids, and fauns. In the story, the characters gather for a festival to honor Bacchus, the god of wine. The celebrations are halted by an angered Zeus, and the storm he creates.

Before the festivities begin, the female centaurettes prepare to couple up with the male centaurs. Attractive and slender, they are all adorned and decorated by little cupids, who are in turn drawn as chubby little children with vibrantly colored hair. But cupids aren’t the only helpers.

In the original 1940 version, one of the first scenes shows a young, Black centaurette shining the hooves of a white, beautiful centaurette and then polishing them with a cattail, in gestures reminiscent of the African American shoe shine boys of the time. Officially, the scene is named as: No. 19: “Medium Close Up—Negro Centaurette is manicuring her hoofs. She is polishing her nails.” Drawn with exaggerated features and a distinctive hairstyle, the servant is portrayed as a “picaninny.”

“The picaninny was the dominant racial caricature of black children for most of this country's history,” wrote the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery.

The Black centaurette appears again in the sequence: She puts flowers in the hair of another attractive centaurette, and is dismayed as the latter whacks her with her tail in order to leave and see the male centaurs passing by. The Black centaurette still follows her, trying to beautify her, never partaking in the celebrations herself.

Another Black centaurette appears, drawn similarly to the other one and also portrayed as a servant, with the only exception being her hairstyle: She has two pigtails instead of the spike-like braids of the first.

Even though all the other centaurs and the centaurettes have the lower half-body of horses, the two Black ones have the lower half-bodies of donkeys. In comparison to the cupids, who sleep on clouds and actively act as matchmakers, laughing and playing around, their job is only to serve. After the aforementioned instances, they do not appear anymore until the sequence ends.

While none of the characters are given titles in the sequence, their names can be found in the animators’ official drafts. The first Black centaurette is called Sunflower, because in one of her scenes, she is shown wearing a sunflower on her head. The second is called Atika.

Present in the original 1940 version, the scenes were then completely removed in 1969, following the rise of the Civil Rights movements, thus causing short cuts in the soundtrack. Later, for its 60th Anniversary DVD release in 2000, a supervised restoration of the original 125-minute roadshow version was produced, and proclaimed as Walt Disney’s “original uncut version.” This time, cinematic techniques, such as zooming in and adding more scenes were used, making the transitions seamless. Today, a content warning appears before the film on Disney Plus.

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” the new label reads. “These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.”

What’s interesting about the warning, is that it claims that no content has been removed from the original feature, in order to acknowledge its harmful impact and spark conversations. However, the version made available by Disney is only the edited one. While uncut versions of the scenes can be scarcely found online, what seems to have taken place is a complete erasure of the two characters.

From a historical and ethical point of view, the erasure of previous mistakes is harmful, as it presents a wrongful image of the past and allows no place for future analysis. By eliminating the scenes of Sunflower and Atika, Disney can slowly transform its history, divert attention, and open the way for the repeating of the same mistakes. Censure is not the solution. On the contrary, allowing feedback, reaction, and criticism is.

The company is also intentional in the scenes they have removed: While more popular films such as “Dumbo” and “Lady and the Tramp” remain unchanged — and are all preceded by the same content warning — a lesser known one such as “Fantasia” is an easier target. At the same time, with the latter being such a renowned achievement of animation, Disney seems reluctant to remove the film from its repertoire.

However — even though keeping the scenes unchanged is the right action — if they are not removed, can the film still be shown to young children? To this question, I answer no. The film is very much a product of its time. While it might be a feat of beauty and technicality, it also shows that incredibly talented people can be morally and ethically wrong. The film is not a casual watch for a languid afternoon — it is a historical artifact, one that should be thoroughly analyzed by grown professionals, and then be appropriately and fully presented to younger audiences.

It is important to consider the underlying morals of different films, critically engage with them, and hold companies and people accountable. In the end, “Fantasia” must be used as a preserver of memory, as evidence of the past.

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