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FANTASIA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Deems Taylor, Leopold Stokowski
Directors:  James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norm Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.0, DTS 5.0
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  125 Minutes
Release Date:  November 14, 2000

Film ****

Fantasia was a film I wasn’t sure would ever see the light of day on DVD, but I’m so glad it did.  This is one of my all time favorites, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I always find it one of the most magical, beautiful, and purely cinematic experiences ever.

The film was the brainchild of Walt Disney’s collaboration with popular conductor Leopold Stokowski.  Both shared mutual respect for the other, and both were artists who, in the 1930’s, had transcended into icons of pop culture.  Fresh on the heels of his risky but highly successful and groundbreaking first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt and his creative team were ready for the next challenge.

Disney animation and music were two elements that combined perfectly almost from day one, or, at least starting with the first ever synchronized sound cartoon short, Steamboat Willie.  Not content to just add talking to Mickey Mouse and his animated characters, Walt Disney instinctively knew that music could add more vibrancy and energy to his film, and developed one of the earliest and most important techniques to this end:  by using a metronome timed to film’s speed of 24 frames per second, it became possible for animators at a drawing table to perfectly move their drawings to the tempo of the music:  the characters and action would be in step with the tune, and could even dance and sing along to the music.  The creative efforts paid off, and a whole new medium was born. 

Walt’s love for music would eventually lead to his creation of the Silly Symphony line of cartoons.  These were shorts made apart from Disney’s established cartoon characters, where music was the real driving force behind the images and stories.  Their first of the series, The Skeleton Dance, proved just how far the metronome synching technique had developed, and what it was capable of creating.  Over the course of the early thirties, the Disney studios’ Silly Symphony line would produce some of the most beautiful, influential, and memorable cartoon shorts of all time, including The Three Little Pigs, The Old Mill, Flowers and Trees, and many more.

When Disney decided to create one of these shorts for his animated star Mickey Mouse, and chose Paul Dukas’ classic “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as the score, the first seed for Fantasia was sown, particularly after learning in a meeting with Leopold Stokowski that he was interested in conducting the music for Walt.  The two would meet many more times, sometimes for hours on end, and discuss ideas for a new entertainment ‘experience’ that could put animated imagery to classical music.  What pieces would be chosen?  How would they translate to the screen?  How would a team of animators, most of whom weren’t well versed in the classics, respond artistically to the challenge?

Over the next several years, those questions would begin to be answered one frame at a time.  Sometimes perplexed, but always intrigued, the animation team began the work of bringing to life the music of Bach, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and others.  There weren’t necessarily any right or wrong answers, but a slow, patient drive to discovery produced a collection of unforgettable results.

Take Bach’s “Toccata And Fugue in D Minor”, which opens the film.  The music is familiar, but as narrator Deems Taylor points out, it is music without narrative.  The animation doesn’t begin with the tune, but rather, we are drawn in by colorful images of the orchestra as they perform, with shades of lighting and shadow giving real images a kind of abstract quality.  As the music continues, the animation gently comes into play.  It is all mostly indistinct bits of lines, colors, and geometric images that sometimes hint at other objects:  strings, bows, waves, stars, and so on.  Like the music itself, the animation has no narrative:  it exists as pure reflection of the tune.  But it proved the marriage between animation and music could be successful.

Ideologically, what the Disney team concocted for the second piece, “The Nutcracker Suite”, seemed to flow confidently out of what they created for the first one.  Here again was a well known piece of music, but this time, with a definitive story and set mental images that accompany it:  Christmas, fantasy, dancing, and so on.  But Disney wanted something different…after all, why show people on screen what they probably see in every high school auditorium year after year, he mused?  So the music of Tchaikovsky becomes, in the hands of his animators, a delicate, beautiful nature play, where the very flowers, seeds, and leaves seem to come to life in a gentle ballet.  We see, among other things, the changing of the seasons, an underwater motion play with pretty, long tailed fishes, some unforgettable Chinese looking mushrooms, and wildflowers that bring the Russian dance to life in the finale.  It is bold and imaginative, and my personal favorite of the Fantasia pieces.

The tune that inspired it all, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, would follow.  But, now that Fantasia had grown into something much bigger in scope, would a little Silly Symphony starring Mickey Mouse fit?  Absolutely…so much so that the images from this piece would become the signature stylings of the entire film, and one of Mickey’s most remembered performances.  Mickey’s misadventures with bucket toting brooms that turn into a watery nightmare before the boss magician returns to right everything is as classic as they come, and a perfect way to use music with a specific storyline to guide the animation process.

“The Rite of Spring”, however, was about as far removed from the original musical intention as could be conceived, and as a result, this remains the film’s most controversial, though certainly spectacular, episodes.  Composer Igor Stravinsky, who was still alive at the time of the film, did grant Disney permission to use his ballet for Fantasia, but later he would publicly denounce both the visual interpretation of his work and Stokowski’s liberties with his music, which was heavily edited and even slightly altered tempo-wise in certain spots to better match the animation.  The finished piece is a look at the early years of life on earth, and takes us from a planet that is explosive and hostile to one that is more climate friendly, and the evolution of life from single celled organisms to the beginning and end of the dinosaurs.  For the most part, the music and imagery are a good match, but the question of whether or not ‘tinkering’ with an established classic work to suit film purposes remains a much discussed issue even today.

After an intermission and a little fun with an animated line representing a film soundtrack, the next piece, “The Pastoral Symphony” by Beethoven is another example of stretching the imagination to include visuals not originally intended by the composer.  This piece of film matches Greek mythology to Beethoven’s work, in a way that is both beautiful and delightful.  We see baby winged horses learning to fly, cute cherubs playing matchmaker to some male and female centaurs, and Zeus using lightning bolts to foil the ridiculously silly Bacchus, God of Wine.  It’s a colorful and imaginative adaptation, but again, one that didn’t please everybody.  In a lecture to music students at New York University, Leonard Bernstein is reported to have said, “When you listen to the ‘Pastoral Symphony’, try not to think of Disney’s dancing nymphs and centaurs”.

Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” follows, which is the most comical piece of the program, as ballet is mirthfully deflated by ostriches, elephants, hippos in tutus and crocodiles celebrating the hours of the day in a classic dance.  It seems appropriate that the animation is so funny here, because I still can’t listen to this tune without thinking of Alan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah”.

Fantasia concludes by saving its most striking piece for last:  two contrasting pieces of music set against each other like a battle between good and evil.  “Night on Bald Mountain” by Moussorgsky is brought to life by a towering image of a winged demon, overseeing a macabre spectacle of flames, spirits, and devils dancing frantically in torment, until his fun is interrupted by church bells signaling the dawn, and the segue into Schubert’s immortal “Ave Maria”.  The Disney studios had invented the multi-plane camera technique years before, and used it to great effect on many of their shorts as well as Snow White, but for the finale of Fantasia, Disney imagined something even greater:  the longest and deepest multi-plane shot ever conceived, requiring a towing arrangement of cells that would lead the camera further and further into a wooded scene, and finally through a doorway where the sun was rising on the other side.  Interestingly enough, Fantasia came close to missing its premiere because an earthquake destroyed the meticulously prepared set up, and it had to be painstakingly reconstructed before it could be filmed.  Legend has it that the film was actually being shown sans ending when the Disney team finally arrived with the finished last real to tack on to the end!

The final film was a revolutionary event in both the fields of music and cinema, but Walt wasn’t finished.  Imagining Fantasia to be a full-out concert going event, he envisioned and his team invented what would eventually become stereophonic sound (called Fantasound at the time).  Instead of a single speaker, theatres were specially wired to have front and back sound capabilities, as well as left, center and right panning.  In other words, if you enjoy your 5.1 sound system in your home, you can really thank Walt and his crew for their vision.

Fantasia, however, didn’t fare as well as Walt hoped.  Some critics liked it, but others expressly did not, calling the project “pompous” and “inflated”, among other barbs.  The public didn’t quite know what to make of it either…though they had proven up to the challenge of a full length animated story in Snow White, most didn’t know what to make of this storyless collage of cartoon and music.  Classic music fans initially dismissed the matching of animation to music as mockery, while those not into it mostly found it too highbrow.  It was essentially a great idea, but for another time.  Disney had dreamed of an ongoing show of Fantasia, with new pieces circulating in and older ones out over the years, but the lukewarm response to his dream project kept that from being a reality.

Those closest to Walt have said he never got over the ‘failure’ of Fantasia, and despite all of his amazing achievements and successes, that one movie loomed like a shadow over his life.  Though the film would be resurrected in the sixties as an easy fit to the psychedelic culture, Walt didn’t live to see his picture eventually find its big audience and its acclaim.  Today, we can look on Fantasia as a grand and bold attempt at taking an art form that had become mainstream and turning it back into an art form, and appreciate it as a shining example of how Walt thought outside the boundaries of his craft, with ground breaking results.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The sorcerer’s name, though never mentioned on screen, was Yen Sid, Disney spelled backwards.  Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey, as he did throughout most of the studio’s early years.  This film also marked the first time Mickey’s eyes had whites and pupils, rather than just being big black circles.

Video ***1/2

In a word, wow!  For most of the film’s running time, you’d never believe you were looking at a 60 year old movie.  From the opening moments featuring the orchestra and Deems Taylor, images are sharp and crisp, and the various colored lights create a visual look with high contrasts and a wide palate, which still renders naturally and with good balance and containment.  Print limitations are pretty much non-existent through most of these segments!  When you get into the animation, it, too, looks beautiful, with vibrant rich coloring and no intrusion of compression artifacts, although certain segments suffer a little more from dirt and debris on the print than others.  Some might mistakenly attribute the hazy look to parts of the “Ave Maria” as image problems, but I’ve seen this picture countless times, and that look is part of the movie, meant to give it a more surreal quality.  There was a full scale restoration done for the picture in the late 80’s and early 90’s for a theatrical re-release and eventual video, and that work looks even better on this THX certified DVD.  This is a genuine treat, and a worthwhile presentation of a classic film.

Audio ***

The 5.0 audio (no discreet subwoofer channel) is good, but not quite at the level of the video.  Fantasound was stereophonic, but not the kind of multi-channel mix we’re used to in our day and age.  Essentially, you get the same audio from front and back stages, which simply opens up the music a little more.  The rear stage is considerably less strong than the front, but I noticed some rather clever and distinct uses of panning across those three front channels, as the music reflected the action on the screen.  Overall, though, the sound shows it’s age a little bit more…though boasting decent dynamic range, it’s just a tad thin sounding (in comparison to modern classical music presentations on DVD), and occasionally, just a touch of noticeable noise.  Again, these can be attributed to the age of the film, and all things considered, still a heckuva job for a 60 year old picture…the only way to advance the quality further would be to re-record the music, which would be possible, but not preferable, being that it would deprive fans of the Stokowski score.  This was actually attempted in the 1984 re-release, but the studio quickly realized that Stokowski’s music was irreplaceable, and it was better to have his original music despite the fidelity limitations.

Features ****

For starters, the disc boasts a commentary track by Walt’s nephew Roy Disney, along with conductor/collaborator James Levine, who brought the music to life on Fantasia 2000.  Both make for an informative and affable listen…Roy became head of the studio’s animation department in the late 80’s, and was largely responsible for both the restoration of Fantasia as well as the creation of the sequel.  He has good memories and stories to tell.  There is a second track, not really a ‘commentary’, but an alternate audio featuring interviews with Walt himself, conducted over a period of three decades…an absolute treasure for animation fans.  There is a terrific and highly detailed making-of featurette, with interviews from Roy Disney, Levine, film historians like Leonard Maltin and even some of the original animators like Ollie Johnston, but highlighted by older clips of Walt discussing the project.  On top of it all is a THX Optimode demo to help you get the most out of your system.  An outstanding features package!

Summary:

Like the classic tag line used to read, Fantasia will amaze ya.  This is an innovative cinematic landmark, and one of maybe three or four genuine apexes in the history of animation.  The visual splendor and imagination combined with great classical music represents the combinations of two artistic giants at the height of their creative powers, Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski.  It is sometimes powerful, sometimes funny, but always beautiful animated film on a nearly perfect DVD, and one no fan should be without.

NOTE:  This DVD presentation also marks the first return of Fantasia to its original running length of 125 minutes, not seen since its premiere.  The extra 5 minutes of footage that was missing from the original VHS release consists mostly of longer introductions to the pieces by Deems Taylor, and the original intermission.  All have their own chapter stops, so skipping past them is easy if you prefer.