4 Disc Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Deems Taylor, Leopold Stokowski, Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, James Levine, Angela Lansbury
Directors:  James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norm Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, James Algar, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Hendel Butoy, Francis Glebas, Eric Goldberg, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt
Audio:  DTS HD 7.1
Video:  Standard 1.33:1 (Fantasia), Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1 (Fantasia 2000)
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  200 Minutes
Release Date:  November 30, 2010

Fantasia ****

Fantasia was a film I once wasn’t sure would ever see the light of day on disc, 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 1930s, 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.

Fantasia 2000 ***1/2

When Walt Disney created Fantasia, he envisioned an entertainment event that would go on forever, with newer pieces of animation set to classical music replacing older segments from time to time in constant circulation.  The initial critical and box office failure seemed to drive a stake into the heart of that dream, and many closest to him said Walt never fully recovered from the blow dealt to arguably his most personal project.

Fifty years later, a restored Fantasia would once again find itself in theatres across the country, and during the course of those decades, the world became ready to embrace the film for the grand, bold and imaginative achievement it was.  This sparked a special first-time video release, where the movie would go on to sell more than 20 million copies to enthusiastic fans.  For the first time, Fantasia was in the black, and Walt’s nephew and Disney Studio’s head of the animation department Roy Disney decided that the time was right to continue Walt’s vision.  The time was right for a new installment of Fantasia.

Like the original, the new film was an ambitious project…one that would take almost ten years to bring to the screen.  In the spirit of the first movie, Fantasia 2000 sought not only to combine animation with great classical music, but to push the boundaries of animation further than they had been up to that point, elevating the art to new levels of possibilities.  In 1940, Walt used every available technique at his disposal to create his vision:  inventing some, like the stereophonic theatrical sound system, or pushing others, like the multi-plane camera system, which had never been constructed for such a deep and complicated shot like the finale to the picture.  With Fantasia 2000, the animators again used every resource at their disposal, from intricate combinations of computer and traditional animations to old style “flat” drawings with bright pastel colorings…and of course, the resurrection of the most popular segment from the original, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. 

The film follows the path of the original, including opening with a more abstract form of animation to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth (highly expurgated).  Geometrical shapes representing butterflies fill the screen and create amazing visuals thanks to the computer, and gets the film off on just the right note.

It doesn’t, however, prepare you for the next segment, Respighi’s “Pines of Rome”, which is one of the most spectacular pieces of animation I’ve ever seen.  Combining superb computer work with traditional forms, a family of whales leap and play in the icy North Atlantic waters, until finally taking flight over the rich and beautiful landscape and into the night sky.  It’s imaginative and breathtakingly beautiful to watch.

The third segment is probably the one that stands apart:  Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  It’s a very New York piece, with design and inspiration from Al Hirschfield, a legendary illustrator who’s style you may recognize from New York programs, playbills, magazines and newspapers.  It’s a very colorful but purposely two-dimensional piece about a group of characters with dreams as they go about their fast, funny, comical and sad lives at a hectic pace.  It’s a perfect mix of visual style to music.

The creative team dug deep into the Disney library of ideas and unfinished projects to bring Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” to life, finding the drawings and conceptual art for a commissioned but never completed animated short based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”.  Once again, by using computer animation on top of traditional backgrounds, the story and music bring each other to life.

This is followed by one of the shorter, but funnier and more energetic numbers, “Carnival of the Animals, Finale” by Saint-Saens.  Here, we get to witness a flock of flamingoes trying to keep in formation on the water and in the air, constantly being disrupted by one mischievous fellow with a yo-yo.  There’s always one in every crowd who tries to follow his own drum, and this is a vibrantly funny realization of that point!

After a good laugh, the film decides it’s time to bring back a classic:  “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the first film.  It’s a welcome reminder of the proud tradition of Fantasia, although given modern advances in animation inherent in the other segments, there’s really no way to make either the audio or video hold up against its contemporary counterparts.

Mickey always had his starring turn in Fantasia, and in this film, Donald Duck gets his turn, appearing in a Sleepless in Seattle inspired retelling of Noah’s Ark to the tune of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”.  As the stirring strains play out, Donald assists Noah in bringing all the animals onto the ark, but owing to the confusion, both he and Daisy sadly and mistakenly believe the other was left behind.  Their final reunion has to rank among the more magical Disney moments!

And finally, as with the first film, Fantasia 2000 depicts a good vs. evil struggle, this time using Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, which, as it turns out, the studios had acquired the rights to at the same time they did for “Rite of Spring” for the original movie.  This is one of the most awesome marriages of animation to music in the entire series, and visually one of the most stunning.  It depicts life, death and rebirth in an absolutely beautiful and hypnotic way…so much so, that I don’t even want to try to describe how the piece unfolds with words.  You simply have to see it for yourself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Fantasia 2000, having been such an admirer of the first movie for so many years.  Indeed, some critics have dismissed the second one, saying either that the idea of combining animation and classical music was no longer new, or that the abundance of stars who hosted the program were distracting.   Frankly, I couldn’t disagree more.  All who participated in this film served as a tribute to the potency and popularity of Walt’s vision…each personality, musician, and animator who took part knew they were resurrecting a patriarchal dream.  And frankly, sixty years of advancement in technology and animation techniques, as well as theatrical presentation and quality, had gone by.  The time was right for a new installment, and I, for one, hope this won’t be the last we see of Fantasia.

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 ****

My wife and I were both constantly saying "wow" while watching these Blu-ray discs.  I've seen Fantasia many, many times, including on the big screen, and I have never seen anything like what this high definition transfer has to offer.  From the opening looks at the orchestra and Deems Taylor in the flesh, I've never seen such rich color and detail...the movie looks brand new.  And once the animation begins...oh my LORD is it a colorful cornucopia of visual delights!  Every color, every line, ever contrast just rings out with a purity that express the true genius of the Disney animators frame by frame.  Absolute breathtaking perfection!

And Fantasia 2000 was always one of the most beautiful animated offerings I'd ever seen, but man...Blu-ray just brings it to a whole new level.  It combines traditional forms with clever CGI to really showcase how animation in any presentation brings out the best in your high definition system.  This is a double treat!

Audio ****

DTS HD sound really captures the listening experience Disney intended with Fantasia.  It originally offered one of the first experiments in surround technology, and now the experience has come to fruition.  Stokowski's musical direction gets the benefit of an uncompressed mix.  Keep in mind however that the audio is part of the cinematic experience and not as classical music for purists...the music does sweep and swoop around the individual channels to match what's on the screen.

Fantasia 2000 was one of the most dynamic DVDs I'd ever heard, but wow...get ready for a truly impressive and intensely powerful musical experiences.  The tunes are different, but the sound is first rate, and already ready for modern theatrical technology that is amazingly equivocated by this DTS mix.  Enjoy!

Features ****

There is a lot to go through here, so bear with me...this four disc set includes both a Blu-ray and a DVD of each movie, so you're covered on every possible front except VHS.

For Fantasia, there are some new gems, including a commentary track by Disney historian Brian Sibley (a most interesting listen), plus a look at the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco, an interactive art gallery, and DisneyView, which is a more artful way to watch a 1.33:1 framed movie other than just having black bars on either side.  Best of the bunch, however, is "The Schultheis Notebook".  Who is that, you ask?  A special effects guru working for Disney during Fantasia.  This notebook was an incredible find, and it detailed many of the secrets of the film thought to have been lost forever.  It's a mind blowing treat! 

There are two other commentaries, including one 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 80s, 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.  The final track is 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!

For Fantasia 2000, there is another commentary track with Roy Disney, conductor James Levine and producer Don Ernst, which in some ways is an even better listen than on the first film because of Roy’s direct involvement with this project.  There is a second track which features the directors of the individual segments and the art directors speaking about and over their particular part of the film.  The disc also includes two classic Disney shorts, meant to be a continuing series of pieces teaching music to kids, but never evolving beyond the first two:  one is Melody, which was the first cartoon short shown in 3-D (though not presented that way here), and the other is Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, which won an Oscar for best animated short and was also the first cartoon short to be created in for a widescreen scope ratio.  There is a five minute showcase piece, sort of like a trailer, highlighting some of the memorable moments from the film.  Although the box lists a commemorative booklet, what it actually has instead is better:  a 50 minute making of documentary featuring many interview segments with Roy Disney, James Levine, and the animators and directors of the film, and a detailed segment-by-segment progression that will tell you just about all you want to know about the movie. 

You also get the Oscar-nominated short "Destino" and a documentary on the making of it, a virtual vault accessible through BD Live, and "Musicana", which talks about Disney's inspiration for making a Fantasia sequel~


Fantasia will amaze ya, and so will its long awaited sequel.  These are innovative cinematic landmarks, 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 ultimate cinematic artistic experience, as well as one of the year's most impressive and important Blu-ray offerings.

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