DVD Reviews
1:55 pm
Tue November 30, 2010

See The Music, Hear The Pictures, With "Fantasia"

Credit ©Disney. All rights reserved.

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite Disney movie, I usually hesitate for a moment before answering “Fantasia.”  Not because my love for the film is any less than, say, Dumbo or Bambi, but because “Fantasia” is so strikingly different than any Disney film before or since, except for—you guessed it—"Fantasia 2000.”

Ten years ago, Disney released a fantastic box set, “Fantasia Anthology,” that included just about anything a fan of the two films could want, including concept art, “making of” special features, and even an entire deleted scene, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  The “Fantasia Anthology” box set has long since gone out of print.  Now, a new Blu-ray release of both films aims to be the definitive edition for home viewing, and for the films themselves, it is. “Fantasia” has never looked better. But for the collector, I wouldn’t sell that “Fantasia Anthology” box set just yet.

“Our Most Exciting Adventure”

Walt Disney was riding high on the artistic success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), and already into production on "Pinocchio," when he conceived of a short film starring Mickey Mouse set to Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  The short was a logical extension of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series, which emphasized music—and visual experimentation.  After considering Arturo Toscanini for the musical director, Disney eventually hired Leopold Stokowski to conduct the orchestra.  Stokowski, like Disney, was excited about the potential for merging the “high” art form of classical music with the popular world of animation.

As production on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” moved forward, the budget mounted.  Rather than fret about it (as his brother Roy, the businessman of the family, might), Walt Disney pushed for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to be one element of a larger “Concert Feature” that could potentially recoup its costs.  And so, Walt and Stoki began a series of meetings to discuss potential musical selections, eventually settling on the eight selections that comprise the 125 minute film.  Deems Taylor, a respected broadcaster and music critic of the time, was recruited to provide narration and a sense of continuity between the various segments, which are as varied in visual style as the selections are musically.

“Fantasia” opens on a decidedly abstract note with the whirling, spinning music of Bach.  Disney’s animators drew inspiration from the avant-garde filmmaker Oskar Fischinger to create a segment that begins with a depiction of the orchestra on screen, and moves into the realm of cloudforms, waves, and something like a giant apple rocking back and forth as it lurches away from the camera.  It’s all quite beautiful, but must have confounded viewers back in 1940, who could never have expected anything this surreal from the Disney studio, even though if you look, you can find elements of the surreal in the preceding Disney films “Snow White” and “Pinocchio.”

From there, “Fantasia” moves on through a series of disparate segments.  “The Nutcracker” finds flowers, mushrooms, and dainty sprites dancing to the music of Tchaikovsky throughout a changing of the seasons.  Mickey Mouse makes his appearance with the sorcerer, hippos dance to Ponchielli, the Vienna countryside of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony is transformed into Mount Olympus, and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” becomes the soundtrack for no less than the creation of the Earth and the birth and death of the dinosaurs.  I often wonder what creationists thought of that segment, only 15 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial.  Walt Disney may have been a nostalgic traditionalist, but he was also a man of science, as would later be demonstrated by his futurist television programs and the development of EPCOT.

Credit ©Disney. All rights reserved.

“Fantasia” concludes with a double whammy of the “sacred and the profane,” as Deems Taylor intones, before launching into Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”  If there’s one thing Disney could always do as well as sweetness, it was fear.  “Night on Bald Mountain,” developed by Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen and animated by Bill Tytla, is one hell of a ride, literally.  Ghosts swoop up from the graveyard with an eerie, shimmering quality that was achieved by projecting their images onto funhouse glass and then photographing the results.  The demon Chernabog presides over a Black Mass. He toys with fiery female forms, crushing them into demonic pigs and goats.  It’s pretty terrifying stuff, but as the tolling of a bell signals the end of the demons’ revelry, Nielsen’s dark imagery gives way to a candlelit procession of pilgrims and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”  The sequence, a little over five minutes long, completes the film with an extended sigh, a relaxing of the pulse, and an inspiring upward glance at the heavens.

Back in 1940, classical music critics were aghast that a popular medium such as “cartoons” would dare attempt to visualize music.  Nowadays, that notion seems if not quaint, then a bit outdated.  There are still a few squawkers that lament the cutesy centaurs of the “Pastoral Symphony” segment, but for the most part, “Fantasia” is recognized as an important landmark in the history of film and music.  How many young ears have been introduced to classical music over the years through this enchanting film?  And never mind music, “Fantasia” even influenced the minds of future scientists: paleontologist Stephen J. Gould dedicated his first book to his father, who “took [him] to see the Tyrannosaurus” when he was five.  For many kids and adults of all ages, “Fantasia” continues to live up to Walt Disney’s proclamation that the film represents the Disney studio’s “most exciting adventure.”

A New Adventure

Walt Disney’s original plan for “Fantasia” was that it would always be changing, in a continual state of revision and rerelease.  Storyboards and sketches exist for planned segments based on Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance,” and even John Alden Carpenter’s “Adventures in a Perambulator.”  None of these would come to fruition.  “Fantasia” could not earn its money back due to a lukewarm reception from a confused public, costly exhibitions (requiring a roomful of speakers to reproduce the early stereo “Fantasound” effects), and the outbreak of World War II, which effectively cut off the foreign market for Disney and other Hollywood filmmakers.  In fact, it took until 1969 for “Fantasia” to begin to turn a profit.  That year’s re-release of the film was accompanied by a Fillmore-esque poster, and a generation of hippies embraced the film as a psychedelic experience.

But the idea of continuing where Walt Disney left off with “Fantasia” never left the Disney studio, even after Walt’s death in 1966.  In the late 1970s, a proposed feature called Musicana would have taken the idea of “Fantasia” and included more stories and sounds from outside America and the classical music world, including jazz and world music.  A young artist named John Lasseter (now Chief Creative Officer at Disney/Pixar) even drew a series of sketches for a planned segment starring Mickey Mouse in the story of “The Emperor and the Nightingale.”  A fifteen minute short feature that’s included in this Blu-ray set hints at what might have been.

Although Musicana was turned down by the brass at Disney, the new millennium brought an opportunity to look back on the classics of the past.  Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, appealed to studio chief Michael Eisner to take up the challenge of continuing “Fantasia”, and the result was “Fantasia 2000.”  Specially produced for IMAX, the film is leaner than its predecessor, at 75 minutes, yet it still features eight musical segments, the longest and best of which is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

“Fantasia 2000” follows the same basic format as “Fantasia”, even opening with an “abstract” segment, based this time on an edited version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” inspired the Disney artists to animate a family of humpback whales flying through the night sky.  Donald Duck gets a starring role as Noah’s helper on the Ark for an arrangement of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”  And Mickey Mouse’s starring role in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is held over, presumably because it just ain’t “Fantasia” without Mickey in a sorcerer hat.

Eric Goldberg, one of Disney’s most talented hand-drawn animators, drew inspiration from caricaturist Al Hirschfeld to recreate jazz-era New York for the stellar “Rhapsody in Blue” segment.  Slinky line drawings and three interlocking character stories make this number a standout.

For the music, James Levine was recruited to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I can attest that the soundtrack on this DVD and Blu-ray of “Fantasia 2000” sounds extremely boss in surround sound.  You’ll want to crank it up, especially during the “Pines of Rome” finale.

I was so excited by the release of “Fantasia 2000” that I dragged my loving wife with me to see the picture while we were on our honeymoon in Europe.  Thankfully, a music-heavy movie translates well into French.  Then, as now, I feel a few of the segments are a little less than inspired (I’m looking at you, “Steadfast Tin Soldier”), and there isn’t that same sense of “how did they do that” wonder about the picture, but overall, the film manages to capture the much of the magic of the original “Fantasia.”  And it is still an excellent way to introduce classical music to a young audience.

“FANTASIA” and “FANTASIA 2000” on Blu-ray and DVD

So, here is the release that fans of “Fantasia” have been waiting for.  We hope.  Let’s start off with the good news.  “Fantasia” has never looked better.  Ever.

The restoration of this film is amazing, and watching it is like seeing a series of watercolors, pastels, and oil paintings brought to magnificent, glowing life.  The color in the “Pastoral Symphony” segment is vibrant enough to burn your retina!  And the sharpness of the Blu-ray image retains an acceptable amount of film grain from the 1940 image that helps it look like a superior 35mm print.  “Fantasia 2000,” appropriately enough, needed less restoration, and looks good, too.  Both movies sound great.  Leopold Stokowski’s famous orchestrations were recorded in an early form of stereo called “Fantasound,” and the music swirls back and forth across the stereo image to according to the images on screen.  For “Fantasia 2000,” the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sound is massive and magnificent.  Crank it up!

The “Fantasia” Blu-ray’s special features include three audio commentaries, including a newly recorded one by British author Brian Sibley.  Sibley, a Disney historian, has plenty of great stories to tell about the making of the film, and ties them directly to the action on screen, which makes for an interesting audio track.

Also included on the disc is a five-minute feature about the Walt Disney Family Museum in northern California, and a fifteen-minute feature that reveals some of the many camera tricks and special effects that went into the making of “Fantasia.”  For anyone that’s ever watched the film and wondered “how did they do that?” this is a real treat.  For example, the rotating snowflakes in the “Nutcracker Suite” were not hand drawn, but were cutouts rotating along a track that were then photographed and composited with the animation of fairies.  It took precise calculation to achieve the desired effect.

“Fantasia 2000” includes two audio commentaries, and a short feature about the aforementioned Musicana, an abandoned attempt to capture the spirit of “Fantasia” in the 1970s.

But the Holy Grail for Disney fans is “Destino,” a 2003 animated short based on work that famed surrealist artist Salvador Dali produced for Disney in collaboration with Disney animator and illustrator John Hench.  Roy E. Disney, for whom “Fantasia 2000” had been a pet project, oversaw the completion of “Destino,” and the resulting short film was nominated for an Academy Award.  An 85-minute long documentary on the disc details the long association with and mutual admiration that Walt Disney and Salvador Dali had for one another.  “Destino” doesn’t make a ton of sense, like much of Dali’s work, but it sure is pretty to look at.  I felt the transfer of the film-to-disc was lacking a bit, though; there are noticeable specks on the images of the “Destino” print, which seems a shame for something less than ten years old.

But that leads me into what I feel are the other drawbacks of this set.  First of all, if you don’t own a Blu-ray player, you’re pretty much out of luck when it comes to all these boffo special features.  “Destino” and the documentary about its history? Not there on the DVD (Psst! You can find it on YouTube).  Audio commentaries?  Four of the five tracks are missing on the DVD version.  Art galleries?  Nope.  Despite the DVD’s ability to hold much of this content, it has sadly been left off the standard-definition format discs for sale, which is a real shame.  Thanks to the restoration, “Fantasia” does look great on standard DVD, and for that, you may feel you’re getting your money’s worth.  But only Blu-ray owners get access to the bulk of the package’s special features.

Besides “Destino,” Disney also produced three other short films over the past decade that would have made splendid additions to this set.  Of those three, “The Little Matchgirl” is the biggest loss.  This very moving short takes the Hans Christian Andersen story and moves it to Russia, and uses the Nocturne from Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 as musical accompaniment.  It would have been a natural to include on this set.  However, you can find it on YouTube and iTunes.

Finally, fans of “Fantasia” may already be like me, and have the “Fantasia” Anthology box set on their library shelves, ready to make an upgrade to Blu-ray.  The “Fantasia Anthology” came with a bonus disc that was chock full of background information about both “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000,” including test footage, art galleries, trailers, storyboard sequences, deleted scenes, and interviews with animators, not to mention comprehensive “making-of” documentaries about each film.  But instead of including these features on the 50 GB Blu-ray discs, Disney has relegated the legacy content to an Internet-only feature, accessible only with your Blu-ray player.  Not only does that lead to slow load times for the content, but the presentation of the material is framed by a ridiculous pop-up window on your TV screen.  For easy access to that content, I’m afraid I have to recommend holding on to your old DVD box set.  *Sigh*, another spot on my shelf that must remain occupied.

In closing, for Blu-ray owners, this set is a must.  Splendid looking presentations of both films make the choice to upgrade an easy one.  But for those that have not yet made the upgrade to Blu-ray, I’d think twice about buying the DVD-only edition of “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000.”  Or, maybe think about asking Santa for a Blu-ray player.