Judge Clark Douglas looks better when underscored by great classical music.
Our review of Fantasia Anthology, published November 28th, 2000, is also available.
Hear the pictures! See the music!
Shortly after the success of 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney began work on an animated short entitled "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." The short featured Mickey Mouse as the hapless title character, had no dialogue whatsoever and featured a classical composition by Paul Dukas as its soundtrack. During this process, Disney hit upon the inspiration for a far more ambitious project; a feature film comprised entirely of silent animated sequences underscored by famous classical selections (one of which would be "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"). Thus, Fantasia was born. It took nearly 30 years and multiple re-releases to earn back its considerable budget, but the film remains one of Disney's most ambitious projects and eventually came to be regarded as one of Walt's finest efforts.
Each segment is introduced by musicologist Deems Taylor, whose informed but amiable manner suits the film's warm artfulness perfectly (even though Taylor's voice has been re-dubbed by Corey Burton). The film kicks off with Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," which features simple, spare, impressionistic animation comprised almost entirely of musical images (assorted symbols, instruments, notes) dancing about. It's a warm-up for the sort of "theatre of the imagination" the film plans to deliver. Things really get going with the gorgeous adaptation of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," which replaces the familiar Nutcracker story with a lovely animated exploration of nature. Next is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," easily the most popular (and the most traditional) segment of the film. Its cheerful slapstick is much closer in tone to Silly Symphonies than any of the other Fantasia segments, but it's very well-done and represents a refreshing change-of-pace after the high-minded early segments. The first hour concludes with an astonishing adaptation of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which offers an exploration of evolution and features animation surprisingly rooted in realism. The segment definitely explores the notion of "survival of the fittest" to grim effect (the dinosaurs in this one aren't cuddly anthropomorphic beasties but bloodthirsty predators) and easily ranks as one of the film's strongest sequences.
After a brief intermission, the second hour kicks off with the short "Meet the Soundtrack." This segment (in which an animated line changes shapes as different instruments make noise) feels rather redundant in the wake of the considerably more elegant opening segment, but it's short enough not to cause any problems. It's followed by Beethoven's "Symphony #6 (Pastoral)," which has long been regarded as Fantasia's most problematic segment. Some slightly clumsy zoom effects have been used to rid the segment of a few nasty racial stereotypes and the sequence depicting centaur mating goes on entirely too long (I could have done with a few less naked cherubs floating around, too). Still, the segment opens and closes well and remains kind of charming despite its troublesome midsection. Next up is the considerably more successful version of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" (alas, I'm incapable of listening to this piece without hearing Alan Sherman's, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah"). This comic yet elegant animated ballet is a delight to behold, and is another segment that younger viewers are likely to enjoy. Things wrap up on a magnificent note with a piece spotlighting both Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and Schubert's "Ave Maria." The segment begins with an extremely dark portrait of a satanic celebration, as all of Lucifer's minions gather to praise their dark master. However, after a while some church bells drive the demons away and lead into the warm, gentle images that accompany the reverent "Ave Maria."
Disney's original plan for Fantasia was to turn it into a permanent running show of sorts, with old segments being rotated out and new segments being added over time. Though Fantasia was re-released on numerous occasions, this plan wasn't actually implemented until Fantasia 2000. Initially, Fantasia 2000 was to feature three segments from the original film in addition to a handful of new segments. In the end, however, only "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was retained for the new film. This time, the animated segments are introduced by a variety of celebrities, most of whom attempt tiresome comedy routines. This needless "entertainment" aside, Fantasia 2000 is a worthy (if disappointingly brief) follow-up to the original film.
Things kick off with a piece featuring the most familiar composition in classical music; Beethoven's "Symphony no. 5 in C Minor." It's a brief but lovely abstract piece that blends colorful volcanic explosions with hordes of paper butterflies. This is followed by Ottorino Respighi's epic "Pines of Rome," which features a family of humpback whales. Several of the segments blend computer animation with pencils, but none more successfully than this one. It's a stunning piece in every way. The longest segment of the film is also one of the lightest; a bustling portrait of 1930s-era New York City set to the strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and based on the animation of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. It's breezy, warm fun through and through. Hans Christian Anderson's The Steadfast Tin Soldier is adapted and set to the music Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major" to mostly satisfying effect—the storytelling is superb, but the animation is a bit underwhelming in spots.
The biggest wasted opportunity is Camille Saint-Saens' "The Carnival of the Animals." Ideally, the filmmakers would have provided a lengthy piece spotlighting multiple parts of Saint-Saens' wonderful work, but instead they only employ the colorful "Finale" for a short piece involving flamingos and yo-yos. Mickey Mouse makes his return appearance in a repeat of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which is followed by a charming new segment featuring Donald Duck. Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" is cleverly put to use in a fun variation on the story of Noah's ark, as Donald is given the responsibility of rounding up animals and putting them onboard. Things wrap up on a very strong note, as Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" receives a jaw-dropping animated sequence in which a spring Sprite accidentally awakens a volcanic firebird of destruction. It's a gorgeous sequence which does a nice job of echoing the concluding segment of Fantasia without blatantly mimicking it.
It's worth noting that younger viewers are more likely to enjoy Fantasia 2000 than the original film, as the exceptionally dark elements of the first film have been removed and the storytelling tends to be a bit faster and brighter. That isn't to say that Fantasia 2000 feels compromised in any way; simply that it's more likely to appeal to viewers of all ages. Adults are likely to find Fantasia a richer experience; as it has a certain level of weight and ambition that Fantasia 2000 rarely matches.
Both films benefit from excellent 1080p transfers, though obviously there's a quality gap due to the age of Fantasia. The original film comes very close to looking perfect during the animated sequences, though there are tiny flecks and specks present from time to time. The only moments that seem remotely problematic are the live-action interstitials, which sometimes suffer from bleeding and softness. Otherwise, this is a robust, vibrant transfer that fans of the film will be delighted with. Audio is less sterling, as the original orchestral soundtrack occasionally seems a bit pinched and distorted. It's never distractingly bad, but there are certainly moments that could have had more punch. Still, the track is reasonably sturdy considering its age and it's been brilliantly mixed considering what the producers of this Blu-ray set had to work with.
Being a much newer film, Fantasia 2000 has no problems whatsoever in the transfer department. In fact, the only real problem is that the pristine detail occasionally highlights the slightly limited computer animation that's employed at times (the sequences that rely on traditional hand-drawn animation feel a bit less dated). Audio is absolutely stunning on Fantasia 2000, with the soundtrack giving your speaker system quite a workout. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" retains its original audio track, so it sounds precisely the same as it does in Fantasia.
Okay, let's take a look at the supplements this collection has to offer:
Commentaries: There's a total of five commentaries provided for the two films; three of which belong to Fantasia. The first is a very fine track with Disney historian Brian Sibley, who provides a thorough overview of the film's creation. Next up is a group track featuring Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, animation historian John Canemaker and film restoration manager Scott MacQueen. Most impressively, we have a third track featuring Walt Disney himself, as archival interviews are pieced together and introduced Canemaker. Fantasia 2000 offers a very, very busy track in which the individual directors and art directors of each short are permitted to speak about their specific question—it's a fast-paced, informative track. Finally, a second audio commentary features Roy E. Disney, James Levine and producer Donald W. Ernst.
Fantasia DisneyView Presentation: This feature give you the option to add animated bars on both sides of the 4:3 image, ensuring that the entire screen is filled up with colorful stuff. It's nice enough but entirely unnecessary.
"Disney Family Museum" (4 minutes): An all-too-brief look at a museum honoring Walt's legacy, featuring an interview with Diane Disney Miller and others involved with the museum's creation.
"The Schultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure" (14 minutes): Miller discusses some recently discovered notebooks which provide some additional insight into Disney's creative process.
"Musicana" (9 minutes): A fascinating look at Disney's proposed idea for a sequel to Fantasia.
Destino (7 minutes): This is a real treat. A collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali; this animated short was unfinished for many years. It was finally completed a few years ago, and it's a wonder to behold. It would perhaps be regarded as a Fantasia highlight had it been included in the original film.
Dali and Disney: A Date with Destino (82 minutes): Good heavens. This feature-length documentary is a remarkably comprehensive examination of the aforementioned 7-minute short. A great deal of time is spent exploring the relationship between Disney and Dali; it's worthwhile viewing for fans of either. Alas, it's presented in standard-def (unlike the other new featurettes).
Interactive Art Galleries: Both films receive huge galleries of behind-the-scenes photos, storyboards, concept art and much more.
"Disney Virtual Vault" (304 minutes): This is one release that actually makes good use of BD-Live, providing hours of behind-the-scenes documentaries and featurettes from the previous DVD incarnations of these two films. Roughly two hours are devoted to Fantasia while Fantasia 2000 gets approximately three hours of additional items. The only problem? Considering that all of this stuff is presented in standard-def, it could have easily been placed on the actual discs without any trouble. While I'm glad this material can be accessed in some way; viewers who aren't equipped with BD-Live may be justifiably pissed off.
While small portions of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 don't quite work, there's more than enough great material to outweigh the occasional missteps. These are both ambitious, worthy films that every animation fan needs to own. Disney's affordably-priced Blu-ray release is a solid package all around.
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