Our review of Fantasia / Fantasia 2000 (Blu-Ray), published December 8th, 2010, is also available.
"I can never build another Fantasia. I can improve; I can elaborate. That's all."—Walt Disney
Is this Walt Disney's masterpiece, or did he overreach and get burned? And what of the sequel? Is the Disney Company of 2000 merely treading water and copying a classic, or have they captured the spirit of 60 years ago? Disney's monumental package—Fantasia, Fantasia 2000, and Fantasia Legacy—is not just an impressive achievement, it is the best DVD package of the year. Period.
Oh, prove it, you say? Very well. To do that, we must depart from our usual DVD Verdict format. I will review each of the two main films, Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, individually. Incorporated into each review will be additional reviews of the extensive material found on the Fantasia Legacy supplement disc, which is extremely substantive itself (and taken separately would likely just look like a really long list—and that would not do it justice). Take a deep breath, because this is going to be a long journey…
Walt Disney was always interested in ways to experiment with animation. In the mid-1930s, he began a series of "Silly Symphonies": cartoon shorts choreographed to music. One day, Walt bumped into flamboyant conductor Leopold Stokowski, and the two brainstormed an adaptation of Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," to star Mickey Mouse. The resulting short (with Stokowski conducting) cost so much money that Walt's brother Roy (whose financial savvy rescued the company countless times, for which he is rarely given enough credit) realized that the single cartoon could never turn a profit. Roy suggested developing a "Concert Feature," with the Mickey cartoon as the centerpiece.
He probably should have kept his mouth shut.
Soon Walt and Stokowski had selected over a dozen pieces of music, hired musicologist Deems Taylor, started technical work on a new stereophonic gadget called "Fantasound," and nearly drove the company into bankruptcy. The completed feature, Fantasia (a title Stokowski suggested over the original The Concert Feature), was finished four hours before its November 13, 1940, New York premiere. Only a dozen theaters (mostly concert halls) were rigged for the expensive Fantasound system, and the film was screened as a "roadshow production," with reserved seats and an intermission. The film played well in urban areas, but it flopped most everywhere else. And the loss of overseas markets caused by World War II didn't help. Subsequent re-releases of the film only saw Disney and Stokowski's project butchered by the needs of the marketplace. Walt abandoned his plans to add new segments to the film and quickly moved on to other harebrained schemes: live action films, a television show, a theme park, an experimental community…
But the collaboration Walt, Stokowski, and a host of brilliant animators produced, Fantasia, has only gained in stature. It is by no means a perfect film. Sometimes inspired, sometimes kitschy, it is nevertheless an adventurous attempt to fuse commercial popularity with artistic pretense. Each of the film's seven segments is quite different, and we must look at them individually (along with what extras are included on the accompanying Fantasia Legacy supplement disc).
1. "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" (Bach): Avant-garde abstract artist Oskar Fischinger was brought in for the first segment, but Walt found the approach so radical that he demanded his animators tone down the level of abstraction. The result is an odd compromise: some images (sparkles, a hopping tombstone) are quite abstract; some images (violin bows) connect quite clearly to Stokowski's stage orchestra (really played by Disney employees). I find Stokowski's orchestration a little overdone, but that is characteristic of the period. The supplement disc reveals Fischinger's original storyboards set to the music, and nearly 150 watercolor designs for the segment, most of which never made it to the final stage. Every segment on the supplement disc has its own intro, usually explained by studio historian John Culhane, plus a text overview of the music.
2. "The Nutcracker Suite" (Tchaikovsky): Several Disney animators trade off pieces of this radical reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky's classic Christmas ballet. Lovely, detailed scenes of nature (leaves, floating seeds, buzzing pixies) switch with flamboyant dance numbers (mushrooms and thistles). Much of the design work for the "nature" segments used a variety of layered painting techniques to create translucence: transparent paints, touched up with airbrush and drybrush. Sharp, crystalline snowflakes are glass panels rotated on gears, giving an illusion of dimensionality. The supplement disc contains nearly 150 design sheets, many in pastels and chalk, and a black and white (television) segment from Walt on painting techniques.
3. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (Dukas): This short revitalized Mickey Mouse's career. He had been completely redesigned for the piece, with a larger head and pear-shaped body to make him more "realistic" and expressive. Following Dukas' own story, Mickey gets himself in trouble with a magic hat and a walking broom. The headless, relentless brooms are such marvelous characters: how many animators could give such personality to (literally!) a piece of wood? I even own a stuffed toy of a headless broom—how surreal is that? The supplement disc sets the storyboards to the music, includes nearly 100 design images, and shows off a deleted pencil test of Mickey hacking up a broom with an axe on camera (the final version has him do this in shadow offstage).
4. "The Rite of Spring" (Stravinsky): So what did Igor Stravinsky, the only living Fantasia composer think of this one? Well, at first he loved it, and even sold Walt the rights to several other pieces for future adaptation ("Firebird" would make it into Fantasia 2000). Years later, he denounced it viciously. Oh well. For 1940, Walt's version of Earth's evolution, from molten lava to the dinosaurs, is extremely radical. This was only a generation after the Scopes Trial, after all. Artistically, it is pretty radical as well: Walt told his animators to break every rule of "cartoon" animation to make the images as realistic as possible. The result has tremendous detail and weight. These dinosaurs are not cute and soft: they are monstrous animals. All-around, this is probably the Fantasia segment that holds up best over the years, as Stravinsky's music has seemed more in touch with the age. On the supplement disc, nearly 100 chalk and pastel design drawings are shown, as well as a long color television segment from the 1960s where Walt shows how special effects are used to imitate reality. Very informative. Does anybody else remember Allegro Non Troppo's hilarious parody of this segment, with life evolving from a discarded Coke bottle?
5. "Symphony #6 (Pastoral)" (Beethoven): Fantasia's weakest segment. The art style has dated badly: cherubs with rosy cheeks (on both ends—ick!) match up coy, topless (but no nipples!) centaurettes with…well, less than beefy centaurs (originally, Walt wanted more masculine centaurs but decided they were too sexually threatening). Some disturbing racism from the original release—black centaur servants helping the centaurettes preen—is discretely removed by a bad digital zoom (which causes the frame to inexplicably waver and lose focus). But the colorful unicorns and pegasi are cute. And the climax, with the gods bringing on night is quite beautiful, almost enough to erase the trauma of those cherubs. Quality-wise, this one also has the most scratches and fading (although there is still very, very little of this). The supplement disc contains lots of storyboards and character designs. I wish they had included some of the storyboards set to Walt's original musical choice, Pierne's "Cydalise and the Faun" for comparison.
6. "Dance of the Hours" (Ponchielli): Overexposed even in 1940, Ponchielli's popular ballet (known to audiences now as the music for Alan Sherman's "Hello Muddah Hello Faddah") is ripe for skewering. How about ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators gracefully bounding across the screen? Or more accurately, somewhat less than gracefully. Although the music does not date well, the comedy holds up much better. Around 100 design images (including photos of a rare maquette for Hyacinth the Hippo) are included on the supplement disc, as well as some unused pencil animation showing some scene variations. Plus a long 1960s television segment in which Walt goes behind the scenes of his animation studio, and we learn a bit about ballet too (and some early '60s stereotypes about feminine vanity). One note: none of the Disney TV segments shown on the Legacy disc are from real 1940s production sessions for Fantasia: they are all pretty obviously staged for television (although they do feature the original animators playing themselves). Nevertheless, they are informative, clever, and a welcome addition. Walt was able to recycle Fantasia segments on his television shows and used the opportunity to teach quite a bit about animation techniques.
7. "Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" (Mussorgsky/Schubert): The talents of two European émigrés to the Disney studio are in force here: Kay Nielsen's stunning designs, and Bill Tytla's tremendously powerful animation of Churnabog, the towering demon of Bald Mountain. Dark and scary and a little brutal, clips from this segment rarely made it onto theatrical trailers for the film. It holds up even better now than 60 years ago: Tytla's animation, particularly on Churnabog's hands and face (based in part on Bela Lugosi), remains impressive. The music segues into a slow (meant to be inspiring) finish with Schubert's "Ave Maria," which features an extremely long multiplane camera pan (not so impressive now, but this was 1940). Nowadays, it drags a bit. The supplement disc contains lots of design pictures (of course), including some storyboards for "Ave Maria" which show the original ending as much more conspicuously religious (the final shot was intended to be a stained glass Madonna and Child). A 1960s television segment with Walt discussing "program music" is also included. He edits a bit of "Bald Mountain's" main theme to footage from "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and Bambi!
The restored film (which alleges to be the original 1940 roadshow version, but still contains the censorship edits in the "Pastoral" segment made in the 1960s) is as flawless as it could ever be. Slight grain and scratches are evident in a few spots, as well as a little fading here and there. But this film is as good as it will ever get. The soundtrack is available in DTS or 5.0, both designed to mimic the original "Fantasound" mix. Do not expect fancy effects. The sound is crystal clear and shows off Stokowski's lush orchestrations quite well. Because of damage to the old soundtrack for the interstitials, Deems Taylor's introductions have been redubbed by Corey Burton (somewhat like Anthony Hopkins' uncanny impersonation of Olivier on the restored scene in Spartacus a few years ago). The complete introductions are restored here, as well as the intermission, making the film's running time a healthy two hours and four minutes, five minutes longer than the "restored" version released on VHS a few years ago.
In addition to the film, the main Fantasia disc includes an hour-long "Making of Fantasia" documentary. Hosted by David Ogden Stiers, this is a substantive and well-researched look at the history of the film, although it does tend to be rather worshipful of Walt, as is regular Company practice. Two commentary tracks are also available. The first contains excellent commentary from animation historian John Canemaker (who dominates here), restoration expert Scott MacQueen (who speaks mostly about the difficult restoration job on the interstitials), James Levine, and Roy E. Disney. The participants were not recorded together on this track. The second track is extremely clever: Walt himself "commenting" on the film, via audio clips recorded in later years, readings (it sounds like Roy Jr.'s voice) of Walt's meeting notes during the film's production, and bridging comments by John Canemaker. The result is an insightful look at the film and filmmaking in general from an artist dead nearly 35 years. Finally, a THX Optimode tuning feature is included.
The remainder of the Fantasia section of the Legacy disc features storyboards for the live-action interstitials, biographies of the principal contributors, publicity materials (trailers from 1940 and 1990, the complete roadshow program, 21 posters in a variety of languages, and a release schedule detailing the changes made to each release of the film), an excellent and detailed featurette on the special effects technology developed for the film, and best of all, an extensive section entitled "The Fantasia That Never Was." Finally, the Company shows off a fully reconstructed "Clair de Lune" segment cut from the film (and released with completely different music in 1946's Make Mine Music). Thank heaven it was cut: it is lovely, but boring, and would have ground the film to a halt. Other cut segments (many set to music here as full story reels, using surviving sketches and pencil tests) include "Ride of the Valkyries," "Invitation to the Dance" (with the baby pegasus from the "Pastoral"), and five more in various stages of development. Kudos to Disney for showing off this rare artwork (especially Kay Nielsen's work on "Valkyries," which looks fantastic).
Ready for more?
Over the years, both Walt Disney and his successors toyed with ways they might resurrect the Fantasia project. After a corporate revolt in the mid-1980s toppled Walt's side of the family from power and left Roy E. Disney (brother Roy's son—we will call him Roy Jr. for clarity) and his faction (including former Paramount chief Michael Eisner) in charge, Roy Jr. asked for control of the animation department as a spoil of war. After helping bring the Company's animation department back to profitability, Roy Jr. became bored. So he embarked on a pet project (which took nearly 10 years to complete) with the help of conductor James Levine: develop "Fantasia Continued."
With the original Fantasia, the technical gadget of the day was Fantasound. With Fantasia 2000, as the new concert feature came to be called, the gadget was IMAX. My brother saw the film in its IMAX release and said that it looked pretty good (except for the classic "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment, which he said looked like crap when blown up to the size of a building). As with his uncle's original, Roy Jr.'s ambitious feature met with critical confusion and audience indifference.
At 74 minutes (less if you do not count "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment), Fantasia 2000 is half the length of its predecessor. In a way, this keeps it from overstaying its welcome: Roy Jr. and company are looking to add to the original and not outdo it. However, sometimes this lack of ambition hurts the film. Rather than finding a single popular expert on music to provide the interstitials as Deems Taylor did with the original (my suggestion would have been Peter Shickele), Fantasia 2000 opts for a mixed bag of celebrities. Quincy Jones, James Earl Jones, and Itzhak Perlman add some much needed dignity to the proceedings, but Steve Martin and Bette Midler seem out of place. Angela Lansbury and Penn and Teller (of whom I am normally a big fan) do a servicable job. Conductor James Levine acquits himself well on screen. He has a warm enough personality (judging from his commentary tracks) that should have been featured more in the film. In fact, a complete section on the interstitials is included on the Legacy disc, with abandoned concepts, design images, and a featurette on the making of the bit where Mickey meets Stokowski (in the original), then runs over to adjust Levine's bowtie! But what about the segments themselves, and the supplements on the Fantasia Legacy disc?
1. "Symphony #5" (Beethoven): Well, actually just the first movement of the symphony. And not all of that either. Art director Pixote Hunt tries to create an abstract "moving pastel drawing" which features a sort of butterfly battle theme. Not really wholly abstract, but then neither was the "Toccata" segment in the original. The color schemes are striking, and the segment overall gives a flavor of what Fantasia 2000 will be all about: idiosyncratic "interpretations" of the music showing off the merging of traditional animation with new technology, which was of course a hallmark of the original film. Walt and company could have never used pastels on Fantasia (the glass platens used for photography would have smeared them), but digital scanning makes it possible now, allowing for a whole new range of color. The supplement disc contains four abandoned story reels, several dozen development images, and a 1998 story reel detailing the final screen concept for the piece. All sections of the supplement disc include an introduction (usually hosted by producer Don Ernst) and text information on the musical selection.
2. "Pines of Rome" (Respighi): Realistic CGI whales fly through a serene arctic wilderness and into the clouds. Very new-agey, but actually quite lovely. Well, except for the big, cartoony eyes cel-animated onto the whales. The shots of soaring whales, breaching through the clouds, is still pretty breathtaking. The supplement disc includes storyboards, character designs, a story reel with the original abandoned concept (comical penguins watching the flying whales) set to the music, a story reel (set to the music again) of the original ending, where the whales return to Earth in the tropics, and a storyboard-to-film splitscreen comparison reel.
3. "Rhapsody in Blue" (Gershwin): Perhaps the most clever and original segment in Fantasia 2000, this adaptation of Gershwin's jazz classic (designed by Eric and Susan Goldberg) is inspired (and endorsed) by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Bright and peppy (did you know there were this many shades of blue?), the segment intertwines the lives of Depression-era New Yorkers and drives toward an energetic climax. The supplement disc contains an extensive gallery of Hirschfeld's work and its translation to the screen, an interview with Eric Goldberg detailing the process of animation from story reel to rough to cleanup to layout to final coloring, and a splitscreen storyboard-to-film comparison reel.
4. "Piano Concerto #2" (Shostakovich): Walt wanted a version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" in Fantasia as far back as 1938. Bianca Majolie prepared storyboards, but the segment was dropped (the drawings were recycled for a children's book years later). For Fantasia 2000, Andersen's story is set to a bouncy Shostakovich concerto and animated with CGI toys on painted backgrounds. The result is entertaining, if not particularly memorable (perhaps a function of the music not being as familiar to audiences as some of the film's other pieces). The supplement disc includes the original 1938 Majolie storyboards (with the tragic ending of Andersen's story intact), a host of design images, storyboards for the 2000 version (which also kept the tragic ending, until the upbeat finale of the music suggested a last minute change), some fairly complete deleted footage, and an unusual "production progression demonstration:" using the angle feature on your DVD remote, you can switch between footage of development stages of the animation.
5. "Carnival of the Animals, Finale" (Saint-Saëns): Filling in as a last-minute substitution for "Dance of the Hours," this segment, brainstormed by Joe Grant (who designed "Dance" 60 years before!) was originally intended as a semi-sequel in which the ostriches from the original segment fight over a yo-yo. In the able hands of Eric Goldberg, the funny, if rather slight, piece now shows off a group of bright flamingos against a plain background fighting over the yo-yo. It is a marvelous piece of comic timing, and the rich watercolor work stands out well (art director Susan Goldberg calls it "Hawaiian shirt style"), but on the whole, it is more of a quickie gag reel than a sustained piece of art. But then, so was "Dance of the Hours." The supplement disc contains an early version of the piece done as a story reel (with a more realistic swamp backdrop for the story), design images, and an alternate ending done as rough animation.
6. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (Dukas): It is odd to watch this segment, with its softer visual style and different aspect ratio, in comparison to the others. The differences were even more jarring in the theater. But Mickey's escapades hold up well here, and the inclusion of this single segment from the original gives a good sense of the historical continuity between the two films (as does a clever shot of Mickey shaking hands with Stokowski, then running to Levine in the foreground, giving the illusion that the two conductors share the same space) without being overbearing. The supplements for this segment on the Legacy disc are the same as on the Fantasia section.
7. "Pomp and Circumstance" (Elgar): Fantasia 2000's attempt to pull a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" and revitalize the career of a classic character, this time Donald Duck. In a cleverly timed and richly (if somewhat conventionally) animated adventure, Donald plays Noah's assistant, herding animals on and off the Ark while trying to find his love Daisy. The lively orchestration of Elgar's often stuffy music is done by Peter Shickele, a skilled composer in his own right with a wonderful sense of humor (try an album from his alter ego PDQ Bach and see what I mean). Disney should hire him more often. The supplement disc shows off plenty of production designs (of course), an odd abandoned story reel in which Donald plays Icarus in a Greek fantasy set to "Ride of the Valkyries," and another story reel which shows "Pomp's" original concept was to make the hero an enormous, cranky dove. Donald was probably the better choice.
8. "Firebird Suite" (Stravinsky): In some ways the most troubling of the new segments, "Firebird" wants to fill the shoes of "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria" at once, showing another battle between chaos and order. This time the battleground is nature: a nature sprite awakens a terrible volcanic eruption and then must repair the forest. The style (courtesy of Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi) is inspired by art nouveau, and the highly detailed cel work for the sprite and the firebird is stunning. Unfortunately, I cannot watch this segment without being reminded of its artistic predecessors, "Rite of Spring" (especially during the volcano sequence) and "Bald Mountain." I am also reminded a bit of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, but I'll chalk that one up to coincidence. Overall, this is a solid finale to the film and, even if the firebird is not quite as spectacular as Churnabog, at least the piece ends more decisively than "Ave Maria." The supplement disc contains plenty of design images, a story reel, a development reel that traces the transition from rough pencils to effects work, and a fully completed but deleted ending to the film (in which the nature sprite soars up to form a "sun sprite"—it is pretty ugly). It is interesting to note how the endings to both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 were altered (for the better) at the last minute. Finally, another interactive "production progression demonstration" like the one with the Shostakovich segment is included.
Because Fantasia 2000 was completed digitally (making it easier to produce IMAX prints directly, rather than blowing them up from a standard negative), the transfer to DVD is directly digital, as with the Toy Story films. The result: absolutely flawless image. I don't need to tell you what you already can figure out about this: color quality, image depth, lack of flaws or artifacting. This film looks and sounds even better than it did when I saw it in the theater. Presented in its theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is odd to watch in a little 1.33:1 box inside the rectangular frame), it is anamorphically enhanced and offers a choice of DTS and Dolby 5.1. As with Fantasia, it is THX certified and includes an "Optimode" tuning feature on the disc. And you can even listen to the interstitials in French if you wish. It might actually improve them.
Fantasia 2000 features two commentary tracks. The first, by Roy Jr., James Levine, and producer Don Ernst, is extremely lively. All three are together, asking leading questions and chatting amiably and enthusiastically. It is quite obvious how much they enjoyed not only putting this film together, but animation and music in general. The second track features each segment's director and art director. In Walt's day, the animation staff took a backseat to Walt himself. Although they did most of the work, Walt took the credit. This wasn't necessarily ego (he would frequently downplay his contributions when asked and was quite supportive of his loyal staff): this was just the way things were done in those days. Look at most movie credits for any studio from the period and notice how many names are not mentioned. Nowadays, the Company tends to give more open credit to its artistic contributors. In some ways this makes the second commentary track more interesting than the first: each team gives detailed and informative analysis. Since the creative team for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is long deceased, Roy Jr. interviews Mickey Mouse in an inspired and hysterical parody of traditional "behind the scenes" commentary. Roy grills Mickey on the segment's continuity goofs (why does Mickey's robe never get wet? How can he turn the pages on the spell book when he is sitting on it?) and other mock trivia. Donald Duck also turns up for a cameo on the commentary for "Pomp and Circumstance," and the results are pretty funny as well.
The main Fantasia 2000 disc is rounded out with plenty of extras. A "showcase" reel (5 1/2 minutes of highlights) substitutes for a trailer—although trailers are included on the supplement disc, so why is this here? Roy Jr. introduces the film in a segment that runs when you first pop in the disc (you can skip past it and select it later from the bonus features menu if you want). David Ogden Stiers hosts a substantive, hour-long "Making of Fantasia 2000" documentary, much like its companion piece on the Fantasia disc. Although it tries to worship Roy Jr. as a "patron saint of animation," to quote one helpful studio lackey, it does give a huge chunk of credit to the real geniuses behind the film: the many animators and designers who are interviewed about their particular contributions. Many more interviews with these people make it onto the supplement disc as well. The disc also includes two cartoons from 1953, "Melody" (not presented in its original 3-D, but in good shape nonetheless) and the far superior "Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom" (in its Cinemascope aspect ratio). Both are done in the simplified style Disney (and Warner Brothers) "borrowed" from UPA Studios in the 1950s and are an interesting contrast to the other art styles evident in the two main features. Rounding out this disc is a "commemorative booklet" that is actually very good for a change: including detailed information on each segment and creative art projects for kids!
The Fantasia 2000 section of the Fantasia Legacy disc is rounded out with biographies of the principal contributors (more credit is given here to the designers of the individual segments than on the Fantasia side), 4 theatrical trailers and 4 TV spots, all for the IMAX release of the film, and an "Orchestra Demonstration," which allows you to mix and match orchestra sections (horns, woodwinds, strings, and percussion) on "Symphony #5." The limits of this particular feature make it interesting, but not worth more than a couple of minutes of fun. I remember a similar gadget at EPCOT years ago that was better: you were able to adjust volume (by waving your hands in front of sensors like a conductor) and not just turn sections completely on or off as you must here. But Disney gets a point for the effort.
Do you still have doubts? Afraid you might not like a segment or two? For everything that might not suit your tastes on these two films, there are ten things that will. There is so much material (and such variety) on these three discs, and so little fluff, that you will be busy for a long time. Buy this online for around $50. It is the best DVD bargain this year. I have been impressed with quite a few DVD packages in 2000, but nothing comes close to what Disney has done here. I am still stunned by the effort and attention to detail that went into The Fantasia Anthology. No bullshit: go buy this right now.
All other studios are hereby ordered to purchase a copy of The Fantasia Anthology, tie their DVD Production heads to their seats, and force them to watch this (like some Disneyesque form of the Ludovico Technique) until they understand. This is how it should be done, guys!
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Scales of Justice, Fantasia
Perp Profile, Fantasia
Distinguishing Marks, Fantasia
• See Review Body for Extras
Scales of Justice, Fantasia 2000
Perp Profile, Fantasia 2000
Distinguishing Marks, Fantasia 2000
• See Review Body for Extras
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