Fantasia

Fantasia
Directors: James Algar (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), Samuel Armstrong (“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and “The Nutcracker Suite”), Ford Beebe, Hamilton Luske, and Jim Handley (“The Pastoral Symphony”), Norm Ferguson and T. Hee (“Dance of the Hours”), Wilfred Jackson (“Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria”), Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield (“Rite of Spring”)
Story Directors: Joe Grant & Dick Huemer
Features: Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor, Corey Burton, Walt Disney, James MacDonald, Julietta Novis, Paul J. Smith
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1940
Country: U.S.
Fantasia / Fantasia 2000 Blu-Ray
FantasiaAt the time of its release, Walt Disney’s Fantasia was probably the boldest, most experimental production to come out of Hollywood, which is why it is not terribly surprising that it was Disney’s biggest commercial failure. Arriving on the heels of Pinocchio (1940) just a few years after he had established the potential of feature-length animation with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia is testament to Disney’s confidence in the medium he helped pioneer and develop as a new form of Hollywood prestige. However, never content to simply reproduce what he had already done, Disney envisioned Fantasia as a constantly evolving project, not bound by the limits of its running time; rather, he saw it as a project that could be constantly added to and revised, with new segments taking their place alongside old favorites--a commercially sensible move that nonetheless is striking for its refusal to play by traditional Hollywood rules (the closest cousins to Fantasia’s multi-episodic musical structure were the “revue films” that were made in the early sound era). The fact that Fantasia did not do well on its initial release, recouping barely one-seventh of its negative production cost of $2.3 million, effectively squelched those ambitions, although the idea was resurrected 60 years later with Fantasia 2000 (1999), which kept one segment from the original film and added seven new ones.

More interestingly, Fantasia boldly defied crusty cultural strata, using the popular medium of Technicolor animation to give new and vivid life to the high art of classical music, which deftly illustrates the potential for shared culture, rather than the monolithic highbrow/lowbrow distinctions that characterized much of the 20th century. Disney was thus a pivotal cultural figure, a man who mixed with cultural elites, but nonetheless maintained a folksy connection to the “common man.” One of the constants in his work was the use of animation to instruct and enlighten, which at its best introduced new generations to art, music, ideas, and culture they might have otherwise not come into contact with. At the same time, though, this approach could be overly didactic and narrow-minded. In this regard, Fantasia, in myriad fascinating ways, embodies both the best and worst of Disney.

At its best, Fantasia is one of the most beautiful films you will ever see. Created out of thousands and thousands of hand-drawn, hand-painted animation cells overseen by the studio’s best directors over a two-year period, Fantasia is a constant visual marvel. Like Disney’s previous films, it helped advance the art of feature-length animation by incorporating new visual effects that added depth and detail to the imagery through which the camera could glide and swoop, creating a dynamic sense of presence that was far ahead of its time. The desire to capture with pen and ink the delicacy of light and the detailed nuances of movement offered Disney’s animators no end of challenges, and they came through wonderfully, producing seven segments in the film that embody different visual styles and tones, yet somehow come together into a coherent whole.

Disney’s concept from the beginning was to give new life to classical music by allowing his artists to interpret it visually, sometimes according to the narrative the music tells, and sometimes by simply finding a visual mode of conveying the music’s fundamental essence. Thus, for example, in Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” the animators provide abstract images that today look like nothing so much as a computer screensaver, but at the time presented a radical form of animation disassociated from cartoon characters and hectic activity. On the other hand, parts of the film tell definite stories, particularly “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the most beloved sequence in which Mickey Mouse plays the eponymous character who finds that using magic and controlling magic are two very different things. The imagery can be lyrical, as in the mythical unicorns, centaurs, and cupids that populate Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” (the overt sexuality of this sequence, despite the erasure of nipples and genitals, coupled with the now excised racist images of black centaurs tending happily to the white centaurs, make it a curious example of both Disney pushing against the perception that animation is just for children and the era’s unfortunate racial politics). The imagery can also be comical, as in the sequence that finds a parade of hippos, elephants, ostriches, and crocodiles bringing their own unique sense of balletic grace to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” from his opera La Gioconda. For me, the film’s standout sequence is “A Night on Bald Mountain,” which matches Russian composer’s Modest Mussorgsky’s formidable score with horrific, demonic imagery of such calculated power that it could only be balanced by ending the film with Schubert’s “Ava Maria.” Like the best of Disney’s films, Fantasia’s bold depictions of evil and violence and terror is ultimately counterbalanced by a sense of goodness and righteousness, albeit never quite enough to make us feel truly at ease.

Unfortunately, Fantasia’s various animated sequences are interspersed with live-action sequences of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra that are shot with a deliberate emphasis on primary colors, shadow, and contrast that often gives them the appearance of being animated. These sequences feature both the famed conductor Leopold Stokowski (always from behind and in shadow, giving him a kind of eternal presence) directing the orchestra and Deems Taylor, a well-known composer and music critic who acts as the film’s narrative voice. For each segment Taylor provides background information about the piece of music and the animators’ approach to envisioning it. While this helps to contextualize each piece, it also has a clumsy, didactic feel to it, with the tuxedoed Taylor speaking directly to us through the screen in a kind of lecture format, which takes away from the immersive flow of the animation. In some sense it was probably necessary, especially because Disney was trying to reach out to viewers who might not have much experience with or knowledge of classical music, but you can’t help but wish that the animated segments had simply flowed one into the next without interruption, thus speaking for themselves.

Fantasia / Fantasia 2000 4-Disc DVD + Blu-Ray Combo Pack

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 (Fantasia / 1.78:1 (Fantasia 2000)
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • Dutch DTS 5.1 surround
  • Spanish DTS 5.1 surround
  • Hebrew Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Polish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Dutch, Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish
    SupplementsFantasia DVD Supplements:
  • Audio commentary with Disney historian Brian Sibley
  • “Disney Family Museum” featurette

    Fantasia Blu-Ray Supplements:

  • Audio commentary with Disney historian Brian Sibley
  • Audio commentary by executive producer Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, animation historian John Canemaker, and Scott McQueen, manager of film restoration
  • Audio commentary with interviews and story note recreations by Walt Disney, hosted by John Canemaker
  • “Disney Family Museum” featurette
  • “Disney View” viewing option
  • “The Shultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure” featurette
  • Interactive Art Gallery and Screensavers

    Fantasia 2000 DVD Supplements:

  • Musicana: Walt’s Inspiration for a Sequel” featurette

    Fantasia 2000 Blu-Ray Supplements:

  • Audio commentary by executive producer Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, and producer Don Ernst
  • Audio commentary by the directors and art directors for each segment
  • Musicana: Walt’s Inspiration for a Sequel” featurette
  • Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino documentary
  • Destino short film
  • “Disney’s Virtual Vault” BD-Live feature: Original DVD bonus features from Legacy Collection
  • DistributorWalt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
    SRP$45.99
    Release DateNovember 29, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Disney continues to impress with the care and attention they have given to transferring their films into high definition, and this Fantasia / Fantasia 2000 Blu-Ray set may very well be their best effort yet. The fact that the original film is now 70 years old has no effect whatsoever on its presentation, as it will easily rival the image and sound quality of any film made in recent years. As with other Disney films that were originally produced in the 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio, you have the option of viewing it as originally intended with black bars on either side of the image, or you can select the Disney View mode, which fills the black bars on the sides with original artwork by Disney artists that complements the action on-screen. Fantasia 2000 is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which essentially compromises between its initial 1.44:1 IMAX presentation and its later reframing at 1.85:1 for 35mm distribution. The imagery throughout both films is positively sumptuous, with gorgeous Technicolor hues and sharp detail that brings the animation to life. Blacks are solid and inky, and contrast is superb, even in the original’s live-action sequences featuring Deems Taylor (whose voice, it should be noted, has been dubbed because the original soundtrack elements were deemed “unsalvageable” when the film was restored for DVD several years ago). The soundtrack for the original film, which was one of its main features when it was first released and required the installation of special equipment in theaters, has never sounded better. Fantasia was originally designed to be screened in “Fantasound,” an RCA-designed stereophonic four-track surround system that used 90 speakers throughout the theater (only 14 theaters were actually equipped for this presentation). That soundtrack has been remixed into a lossless DTS-HD 7.1-channel mix (as is the soundtrack for Fantasia 2000), and the symphonic music is positively glorious in filling the room and making you feel like you’re in the best seat of a concert hall.

    It should be noted that, while the presentation of Fantasia on this Blu-Ray corresponds with the original 124-minute roadshow version as it originally unspooled in 1940, roughly 30 seconds of footage during “The Pastoral Symphony” section have been digitally altered in various ways to eliminate stereotypical images of black centaurs tending to the white centaurs. Disney has been doing this in some form or fashion since the late 1960s, and while the removal of these images does mean that this is not a “pure” representation of the original film, it is hard to take issue with the move. I suppose that Disney could have offered a branching option for the sake of completists and for historical veracity, but the fact that the footage is so readily available all over the Internet renders the issue effectively moot.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements in this four-disc set are a mix of the old and the new, and fans of the film and those interested in the history of the Disney studio should find plenty to be excited about. The big inclusion this time around is Destino, a seven-minute surrealist short film completed in 2003 at the behest of Roy E. Disney. The film was originally intended to be a joint project between Walt Disney and the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali in the late 1940s, but was eventually shelved and generally forgotten for decades. The unlikely collaborative relationship between the two artists (who have more in common than you might think) is covered in-depth in the 82-minute documentary Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino. Another fascinating new supplement is “The Shultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure,” a 14-minute featurette about the discovery in 1996 of the so-called Schultheis Notebook, a detailed production diary that was created by Herman Schultheis, an effects man on Fantasia, to explain how many of the film’s effects were accomplished. “Musicana: Walt’s Inspiration for a Sequel” is a 10-minute featurette that explores the discarded idea for a more internationally flavored sequel to Fantasia that began with Walt Disney in the 1940s and lasted well into the 1970s before being permanently discarded. “Disney Family Museum” is a brief 5-minute featurette in which Walt’s daughter Diane Disney-Miller gives us a brief a tour of the new Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco.

    For those interested in the production history of the two films, both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 feature several audio commentaries. On Fantasia there is a new audio commentary recorded by Disney historian Brian Sibley, as well as the previously available “Legacy Collection” commentary with executive producer Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, animation historian John Canemaker, and Scott McQueen, manager of film restoration, as well as a commentary that consists of interviews and story note recreations by Walt Disney that is hosted by Canemaker. On the Fantasia 2000 disc we have the “Legacy Collection” commentary with Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, and producer Don Ernst. Also, each segment of Fantasia 2000 has a commentary with its associated directors and art directors. The Fantasia disc also includes a fantastic Interactive Art Gallery with hundreds of pieces of concept art and design sketches, as well as a BD-Live feature that allows you to access all of the original DVD features from the “Legacy Collection” release, including interviews, deleted scenes, and making-of featurettes for both films. This last supplement is a tad perplexing, though, since it means that viewers whose Blu-Ray players are not connected to the Internet will not be able to access any of this material, which surely could have fit onto one of the discs.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



    James Kendrick

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