American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Cartoon figures had hard edges before "Fantasia" was made in 1940, and many of them moved to rinky-tink music. Walt Disney did not invent animation, but he nurtured it into an art form that could hold its own against any "realistic" movie, and when he gathered his artists to create "Fantasia" he felt a restlessness, a desire to try something new.
The basic idea of the film had already been decided upon: Take some of the most familiar compositions of classical music, and illustrate them with animated drawings. Simply said. And some of the passages in the film would be in forms that were long familiar to the Disney artists. Mickey Mouse's adventures in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" section, for example, placed him in a visual universe that was familiar to anyone who had ever seen Mickey in a cartoon.
But for other sections of the film, Disney wanted to try some new approaches. In their definitive 1981 book Disney Animation, studio artists Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston remember the way Walt insisted on something new in the sequence where a fairy flies around the woods scattering fairydust everywhere. Disney walked into a meeting, they recall, and saw a pastel drawing of a fairy. He liked it, especially its soft, luminescent quality. That's what he wanted in his film.
If there's one thing the book makes clear, it's that there's a lot more to animation than just drawing little animals and cartoon characters and having them hop around. The artists experimented for weeks with the fairy sequence, and eventually used a whole arsenal of techniques to get the desired effects: not only straightforward drawing and traditional animation, but foreground and background matte paintings, gels, trick dissolves, multilayered paintings and other special effects. The effortless magic of the sequence hardly suggests the painstaking work that went into it.