In an interview that plays before Zenith, a short in the new Disney Plus anthology Short Circuit, director Jennifer Stratton mentions that her story of a luminous stag that prances across space was inspired by watching Fantasia as a child.
“I always loved the experimentation of it,” she explains. “The beauty, how the music flowed with the animation.”
Zenith feels like a celestial take on Fantasia 2000’s “Firebird Suite” segment, especially when the ethereal deer accidentally creates a black hole. In fact, all the shorts in the anthology play with style and music in a way that harkens back to both the original Fantasia and its sequel. But whereas the Disney classics built segments around existing classical music, the shorts in Short Circuit use original compositions. Stratton notes that finding the perfect musician — in this case, composer Nathan Curtis — was a vital part of creating Zenith. Paired with the triumphant sounds of trumpets, strings, and xylophone, the translucent animation of Zenith is spellbinding.
Disney’s Short Circuit anthology (not to be confused with Pixar’s similar Spark Shorts collection, also available on Disney Plus), was born from an experimental program at Walt Disney Animation Studios in which anyone working at the studio could pitch an idea for a short. Designed to foster new voices inside the company, the program birthed 14 short films by 14 new directors. The shorts previously weren’t available to the public, but Disney Plus proved to be the perfect landing point for this eclectic batch of films.
The Short Circuit entries range in tone from a comical tale about mobster-style leprechauns running a wig business to an elegiac story of a martial artist paying tribute to her late mentor. Some are more experimental in nature, like Zenith, while others are more traditional, heartwarming Disney fare, like Exchange Student, in which an Earthling girl goes to a new school in space.
The same way Fantasia departed from the literal fairy tale adaptations of Disney’s blockbusters, the best Short Circuit segments play with and push past the studio’s recognizable CG style, similar to the studio’s previous experimental 2D/3D hybrid shorts, Paperman and Feast. Inspired by the idea of thought bubbles in newspaper comic strips, Just a Thought is rendered in a style similar to that of the funny pages. The result is a world of broad outlines and Ben-Day dots, where speech balloons float outside classrooms and must be wrangled.
Meanwhile, Jing Hua, a short about a grieving martial artist, was inspired by director Jerry Huynh’s efforts to reconnect with his culture, and therefore employs ink strokes and watercolors notable in Chinese art. It’s particularly evocative, since the martial artist’s own movements paint the world around her — she gestures with her hand, and ink spills out, rendering flowers and trees — turning the art style into a key element of the plot and not just the visuals.
The films are all shorter than your average Fantasia segment — a caveat of being experiments made for studio eyes only — but the conciseness has its benefits. One of the most compelling shorts runs at just over a minute: Downtown, where the street art of a city helps guide a lost soul home. It’s vibrant, fully using the music and bright colors to tell the fast-paced story, and its brevity adds to the almost dreamlike experience.
Because the shorts are so experimental, Disney Plus becomes a natural home for them. As beloved in memory as the Fantasia anthologies are, both of them were box office flops — with Fantasia 2000 specifically called Roy Disney’s “folly” by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Packaging a series of experimental shorts for theaters without any tie-in to existing IP, then, would likely not lead to commercial success; packaging them up on a streaming service that people are already paying for, however, allows the shorts to be artistic and quirky without focusing on raking in the profits.
Unfortunately, while Disney Plus is a mostly perfect way to view these shorts, one of the more ambitious ones loses its effect when watched on a streaming platform. The virtual reality-rendered Cycles tells the story of one family’s home, when an aging woman moves into assisted living. Originally presented in 2018 at the annual SIGGRAPH conference, Cycles is designed for the viewer to gradually explore the house and the memories within. As a short, it’s certainly emotional, the gentle guitar music complementing the warm visuals, but it feels naggingly incomplete because it’s not presented the way it’s meant to be experienced.
Short Circuit proves that the Fantasia format still works for the streaming age — with a few little tweaks here and there. With such a wide range of visual styles and stories that span from cute childhood adventures to poignant heartbreak, the anthology is absolutely worth a watch.
Short Circuit is now available on Disney Plus.