“How do you do? My name is Deems Taylor, and it’s my very pleasant duty to welcome you here on behalf of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and all the other artists and musicians whose combined talents went into the creation of this new form of entertainment, Fantasia. What you’re going to see are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good.”
Just three years after Walt Disney introduced the world to the animated feature in 1937, Uncle Walt was already experimenting with the idea. The man was always fascinated with music as much as he was with animation and the wonderful fairy tales that would become his studio’s trademark. It was inevitable that he would come up with the idea of blending music with animation to create something quite unique in the world of entertainment. You have to remember that not only had there only been three years since the first animated feature, but that sound itself in motion pictures was still only a couple of decades old. By 1940 Walt Disney had combined both elements to create something truly magical.
“Now there are three kinds of music on this “Fantasia” program. First, there’s the kind that tells a definite story. Then there’s the kind that while it has no specific plot, it does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. And then there’s a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake.
The music of Fantasia was collected from among the most widely known and popular classical pieces known. The orchestra which provided the music would be the Philadelphia Orchestra. The conductor would be the esteemed Leopold Stokowski. The animation would come from the studio’s own team of groundbreaking artists. Walt himself would be a driving force in the project. Many of the animation and live-action special effects rival what can be done today even with computers.
Now on high definition after a careful restoration of both the image and soundtrack there is every reason to believe that this is a treasure that should remain in your family for generations. It’s one of the most important releases in Disney history. It’s one of animation’s brightest moments. The film is broken up into segments. The animation themes and styles are different for each musical piece. Here’s a look at the pieces and animation highlights you’ll find in Fantasia:
“Now, the number that opens our “Fantasia” program, the “Toccata and Fugue”, is music of this third kind, what we call “absolute music”. Even the title has no meaning beyond a description of the form of the music. What you will see on the screen is a picture of the various abstract images that might pass through your mind if you sat in a concert hall listening to this music. At first, you’re more or less conscious of the orchestra. So our picture opens with a series of impressions of the conductor and the players. Then the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination. They might be, oh, just masses of color, or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space. So now we present the “Toccata and Fugue In D Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach, interpreted in pictures by Walt Disney and his associates, and in music by the Philadelphia Orchestra and its conductor, Leopold Stokowski.”
This piece reminds me of the computer music players. You know the kind. Where the display generates some kind of random waves of images that are tied to the rhythm of the music that is being played. It’s all an abstract wave of colors and shapes that exist more to set a mood than to tell a story.
The piece itself is better known as a pipe organ piece and has quite a reputation for being a horror piece. It has that whole Phantom of the Opera thing to thank for that.
“You know, it’s funny how wrong an artist can be about his own work. The one composition of Tchaikovsky’s that he really detested was his “Nutcracker Suite”, which is probably the most popular thing he ever wrote. It wasn’t much of a success and nobody performs it nowadays, but I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize the music of the suite when you hear it. Incidentally, you won’t see any nutcracker on the screen; there’s nothing left of him but the title.”
This piece usually reminds us of Christmastime. Of course it is performed quite often nowadays, which shows you how things have changed. And that nutcracker that once was only remembered for his title is now a Christmas favorite at pageants and Christmas concerts all over the world.
For this version of the piece the animation shows a group of fairies as they bring about the changing of the seasons. There are bright colors in spring and wonderful winter wonderland as the piece begins. This segment features the famous dancing-mushroom scene.
“And now we’re going to hear a piece of music that tells a very definite story. As a matter of fact, in this case, the story came first and the composer wrote the music to go with it. It’s a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years: a legend about a sorcerer who had an apprentice.”
This is the most endearing and enduring moments of the film. Disney has released it on its own and it has inspired a new Disney film which will be reviewed here next week. Mickey Mouse plays the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who brings to life a broom to do his work while his master rests. The magic gets away from him with disastrous results. It’s a more traditional cartoon, and no wonder it has such lasting appeal.
“When Igor Stravinsky wrote his ballet, “The Rite of Spring”, his purpose was, in his own words, “to express primitive life.” So Walt Disney and his fellow artists have taken him at the word. Instead of presenting the ballet in its original form as a simple series of tribal dances, they have visualized it as a pageant of the story of the growth of life on Earth.”
This piece begins with a tour of the universe in the moments before the Earth was formed. Eventually, the planet takes shape. Violent processes put the finishing touches on the newborn planet, and soon dinosaurs roam the Earth. It’s one of my favorite segments in the film. It’s an epic story. It is one of the best examples of music and animation working closely together to entertain.
“The symphony that Beethoven called the “Pastoral”, his sixth, is one of the few pieces of music he ever wrote that tells something like a definite story. He was a great nature lover, and in this symphony, he paints a musical picture of a day in the country. Of course, the country that Beethoven described was the countryside with which he was familiar. But his music covers a much wider field than that, and so Walt Disney has given the “Pastoral Symphony” a mythological setting, and the setting is of Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods.”
Here we see the mythological creatures of ancient Greece. Centaurs and, eh… centaurettes roam the land in a carefree existence. That is, until the gods show their power and majesty. It’s not really what the composer had in mind, but it’s another fine example of creating an interpretation that incorporates the music as if it were intended that way all along.
“The last number in our Fantasia program is a combination of two pieces of music so utterly different in construction and mood that they set each other off perfectly. The first is ‘A Night On Bald Mountain’ by one of Russia’s greatest composers, Modest Mussorgsky. The second is Franz Schubert’s world-famous “Ave Maria”. Musically and dramatically, we have here a picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred.”
The final piece is also the darkest. The animation depicts Satan spreading his evil throughout the world and claiming his souls. There is a struggle of good and evil. Good finally lights the way, and mankind is freed from his shackles of darkness. The images of ghosts rising from their graves leave quite an impact to this very day. It’s a powerful close that I’m sure left many of the 1940 audience in their seats a moment or two after it was all over.
Fantasia was always intended as an ongoing musical/animation anthology. It was Walt’s plan to introduce the world to the great pieces of classical music through the animation. Unfortunately, the idea never really got off the ground; in spite of the success that Fantasia enjoyed over the years it wasn’t originally a big earner at the box office. But in 2000 the studio decided to try to continue the tradition with Fantasia 2000.
The pieces of Fantasia 2000 never live up to the work of the original. The musical performances, this time from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, are just as solid, but the animation doesn’t have the heart of the original. The picture is always shiny with a gloss that robs the images of texture and life. There is a lightness to the images as well. Most of them contain silliness and other humorous moments. The interludes feature the likes of Steve Martin who tells jokes. There is nothing of the seriousness and wonder the first film portrayed. It’s as though the filmmakers were no longer confident of finding a sophisticated audience and felt the need to speak to a lower common denominator. The use of computer animation to “enhance” the images doesn’t help at all. I’m not one of those that always believe old school is better than new technology. I’m one of Pixar’s biggest fans. But this version of Fantasia lacks the life and soul that has allowed the original to thrive, if not in its original release, in the 60 years since that time.
Still, the films come together. It’s a complete collection, I suppose. But, I would have given a release of Fantasia alone a higher rating. Don’t let that stop you from picking it up. The first film is more than worth the cost of the two combined. Just lower your expectations when you put in that second disc.
Both films are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1:66:1 and 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. There’s a lot to love about films here. Of course, the second film is the much cleaner and brighter print. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t just as much, if not more to love about the first film. There is just enough grain to truly give that film a feeling of life. Both exhibit extraordinary color, with the second, again, being much more vivid. Disney put a lot of tender care into the original film’s restoration. The print is in flawless condition. This from a 60-year-old film. You get the option of Disneyview once again. It fills in the pillar bars with appropriate painting pieces. Either way, it’s the quality of the transfers that make the Blu-ray an outstanding buy indeed. Detail is better than anyone has ever seen it. Animation lines are clean and razor-sharp. Black levels might not be perfect, particularly on the first film, but they do hold their own when you consider the age of the source material.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 brings the music to splendid and dynamic life. These are incredible musicians. Sound was still pretty problematic when the first film was made, but Disney developed recording techniques that are still in use today. There is a minimum of hiss and very little distortion. The fact that they are there at all is no discredit to the audio presentations. They are a fact of the age and technology. The second film, of course, retains the more perfect recording technologies that the turn of the last century provided. The narrations are crystal-clear. Much of this music moves in volume from harsh crescendos to soft instrument voices. It’s all reproduced here as if you were listening to a live concert. It’s almost as if it were magic.
Both films feature historic Commentary Tracks.
Both discs contain some rather nice extra features:
Disney Family Museum: (4:05) This is basically a promo for the San Francisco Disney museum.
The Schutheis Notebook: (13:51) Schutheis kept a journal of all of the tricks and methods used on Fantasia. His notebook contains photos, drawings, and detailed description of methods that had long ago been forgotten. It’s a treasure.
Musicana: (9:20) This feature looks at the beginning work on the film that was intended to follow Fantasia. You’ll see conceptual art and hear about the pieces and stories that were considered.
Dali And Disney – A Date With Destino: (1:22:18) SD This full-length feature looks at the Dali collaboration on a short film that Dali worked on with Disney. It’s a great look, if only for the vintage footage.
Destino: (6:31) This 1946 collaboration of Dali and the Disney Studios was never completed, until now. You’ll easily see the Dali influence, complete with melting clocks.
Disney’s Virtual Vault: Unfortunately, this interactive collection of short features takes forever to load and is very awkward to use. It’s another case of Disney making things far more complicated than they needed to be.
DVD copies of both films
Do you know someone on your Christmas list who is about to get his or her first Blu-ray player this Holiday Season? This would be a perfect companion disc. It doesn’t matter if you’re the one giving the player or it’s someone else. I can’t think of a more magical film to enjoy one’s first moments in the world of high definition. The first film is sheer magic. The second… well… “Umm… that wasn’t *quite* what I had in mind.”