It’s hard to imagine Disney Studios making a film quite like Fantasia today.
Avant garde in execution, experimental in animation and largely a silent picture, the fact that the seventy-year-old movie was released at all is admirable. Unfortunately, the movie itself is not very entertaining — at least not at first glance.
Clocking in at over two hours, the mostly uncut presentation of Walt Disney’s Fantasia released on Blu-ray is more an experience than an actual movie. Designed to be an approximation of a trip to the orchestra, Fantasia is a collection of animated shorts accompanied by some of the best classical music to ever be written. Sprinkled between each short is narration by composer and music critic Deems Taylor.
As with any anthology, some of the segments in Fantasia work better than others. Perhaps the most successful (and famous) of the animated shorts within Fantasia is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a cartoon that sees popular Disney character Mickey Mouse accidentally set off a magical chain of events involving anthropomorphized brooms. Much like the music used in Fantasia (of which includes works by Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky and more) has permeated popular culture in a way that it is easily recognizable even if you can’t necessarily name the song’s title or composer, the images in Fantasia have seeped into the public consciousness in a way that most everybody has seen at least a part of the movie.
Whether it’s the scenes of dancing plant life given quasi-racist characterization in the segment set to the Nutcracker Suite or the slice of Greek mythology on display (including blatantly naked female centaurs!) in The Pastoral Symphony, Fantasia’s animated segments are as much a part of Disney’s identity as extravagant theme parks and anti-Semitism.
Speaking of racism, the version of Fantasia released on Blu-ray is not quite the complete, uncut version of the film as seen 70 years ago during its premiere. Cut from the film since the ‘60s, the African-American centaur Sunflower, complete with racist characterization akin to the finest minstrel show, is noticeably still absent from the film. While I’m not normally one to side with censorship, the removal of a racially insensitive character from a children’s cartoon is not necessarily a bad thing.
But is Fantasia a children’s cartoon? I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers having to sit through the movie as a kid — fidgeting in your seat as the film delivers abstract image after abstract image. There’s not a lot for kids to latch onto in the film. Even the cutesy scenes of animal shenanigans in segments such as Dance of the Hours aren’t enough to keep kids from growing bored. No, Fantasia is a film that’s better appreciated by adults — or at least kids who don’t suffer from attention deficient disorder and can appreciate the craft of animation or classical music. In other words, Fantasia is for adults and very nerdy kids.
If you fall into either one of those categories, there is a lot to appreciate in Fantasia. The deft hand of the animator can be seen everywhere in the film — from the experimental, special effects heavy tale of the Earth’s creation in The Rite of Spring to the abstract mix of life action and animation found in Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
While Fantasia may not be a movie designed for the restless rugrat, it’s a perfect film for the very young. With its colorful images and sweeping sounds, Fantasia could be seen as the Baby Mozart version of Heavy Metal — that is, of course, if you want your kid to grow up to be a professor or scientist instead of somebody cool who gets all the chicks. If you want your kid to grow up to be The Fonz, you’d be better off showing them Heavy Metal. Warning: side effects of showing Heavy Metal to your kid may include your child growing up to be a beer-guzzling, spouse-abusing auto mechanic. You’re probably better off showing your kid Fantasia.
Also included on the four-disc set is Fantasia 2000, the semi-sequel to the original film. When Fantasia was originally conceived, it was planned to be an ever-changing experience for audiences. New segments would be animated to replace exiting cartoons. This plan was eventually dropped but in the mid-‘90s, Disney decided to attempt a near facsimile of what Walt Disney had in mind.
On a surface level, Fantasia 2000 may actually be the more entertaining film. Not only is the film shorter, it has fewer abstract segments — concentrating more on animated short films with easily defined stories and plenty of humor than artists waking off over music’s effect on their imagination.
The most enjoyable segment in Fantasia 2000 is an interpretation of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a day in the life of Great Depression-era New Yorkers as drawn in the style of Al Hirschfeld. Not only is Gershwin’s music masterfully used, the segment itself is heavily stylized in a decidedly non-Disney way. The short stands apart from the rest of the film in its unique look but its tone can easily rest alongside the rest of the Fantasia segments.
Other segments use the music of Beethoven, Edward Elgar and Igor Stravinsky. As far as the animation goes, Fantasia 2000 was made in the murky stew that existed between the decline of traditional cell animation and the rise of computer animation. Many of the segments utilize a mix of the two to mostly winning success. While some of the animation does not age well (specifically the computer generated whales in Pines of Rome), other segments such as the Donald Duck-starring Pomp and Circumstance and the Native American folklore inspired Firebird Suite look just as beautiful today as they did when they were released ten years ago.
Also included in the film is the original Sorcerer’s Apprentice — thrown in as a nod to Walt Disney’s original dream of an evolving Fantasia.
What doesn’t quite work, though, is the film’s live action transitions. While Fantasia‘s introductions rested squarely on the shoulders of Deems Taylor, Fantasia 2000 enlists the help of a collection of celebrities including Steve Martin, Bette Midler and Penn and Teller to introduce the different segments. Instead of the classic, timeless affair that is Fantasia, the celebrity intros of Fantasia 2000 (often filled with corny jokes) seem more appropriate for an awards show presentation than an actual film.
Fantasia is presented in the original theatrical 1:33:1 aspect ratio. For those who just can’t stand black bars on the side of their televisions, there’s an option to fill the sides of the screen with beautiful, if slightly distracting, paintings. The film has a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that sounds simply amazing. Almost as amazing, in fact, as the restoration process done to the film’s image. The crisp colors and sharp detail in the picture is like looking at a series of paintings flickering by. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could detect each individual brush stroke used in Fantasia just from studying the film frame by frame — that’s how clear the image looks.
Fantasia 2000 features a 1:78:1 aspect ratio and a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The film looks just as stunning as Fantasia — but let that be a compliment at the work done to restore a 70-year-old film than a jab at the image quality of Fantasia 2000. Both movies are given a top-notch presentation in this Blu-ray set.
The Fantasia / Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray set comes with four discs. Each film is presented in its separate Blu-ray disc with accompanying special features. A DVD copy is also included for each film with a selection of special features.
Audio Commentaries — Three separate commentaries are included in the disc. The first is a brand new track with Disney historian Brian Sibley, the second is taken from the Fantasia Legacy Collection DVD and features executive producer Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, animation historian John Cranemaker and Scott McQueen, manager of film restoration. The third also comes from the previous DVD release and features interviews and story notes recreations by Walt Disney, hosted by John Cranemaker. A sampling of the three leads me to believe that all three are worth a listen — especially if you’re interested in the story of how the movie grew and changed over the years.
Disney’s Family Museum — A five minute tour of the San Francisco Disney Family Museum with Walt’s daughter Diane Disney-Miller. Of special note in the tour is the large exhibit on Fantasia.
The Shultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure — As seen in the museum tour, this notebook is a breakdown of many of the animation techniques used in Fantasia. This feature takes a 14 minute look at the notebook, which was thought lost for many decades until being found in the walls of a convent.
Interactive Art Gallery and Screensavers — A collection of HD resolution artwork from the film’s production.
Musicana — A ten minute documentary on the never completed sequel to Fantasia from the late 70s. This film would have taken a look at other culture’s musical achievements but was put on hold and never completed.
Dali & Disney: A Date with Destino — A feature length documentary (82 minutes) about the relationship between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali — specifically the attempts to finish a collaborative short between the two artists that was started in 1946 and finished in 2003.
Destino — A beautifully surreal seven minute short film from the minds of Disney and Dali, Destino is everything you might expect to have come from the two men. Romance, beautiful music, baseball and abstract images collide in this must watch special feature in the collection.
Audio Commentaries — Two commentaries are ported over from the original DVD release. The first is with executive producer Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine and producer Don Ernst. The second audio track is with the directors and art directors for each segment.
Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 may not be the most enjoyable films on a pure, gut level. You won’t laugh or cry as hard as if you were watching your average Pixar film but there’s something special about the fact that films like Fantasia exist. The movie was obviously something special to Walt Disney and the fact that it has managed to find an audience in every decade since its release means its something special to many others as well. Small children may not appreciate it to its fullest but take it from this former kid — as you grow older, you find more and more to love about Disney’s masterful mix of music and animation.
Walt Disney presents Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. Directed by: Assorted. Starring: Leopold Stokowski, The Philadelphia Orchestra, James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Written by: Assorted. Running time: 125 minutes (Fantasia) and 75 minutes (Fantasia 2000). Rating: G. Released on Blu-Ray: November 30, 2010.