Disney has released its two animated musical showcase films – Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 – together in a new Blu-ray + DVD combo pack. The shorts that make up the two films are considered some of the studio’s most ambitious and artistic achievements in animation, and the set also includes a new short that completes a project originally begun by Walt Disney and surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
There is always a tension between art and commerce that on rare occasions seems to settle long enough for the two to stand on equal footing. Although no one could reasonably argue that Disney’s bread-and-butter releases are lacking in artistic talent, they are still inevitably tailored for commercial consumption. And they have excelled in that arena — by bringing a rich, visual depth to more conventional storylines and the musical format.
But give the animators a longer leash to wander and you can often mine greater treasure. The format for both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 is both beautifully simple and unlimited: how do you animate a symphony? You’re no longer limited to a stable of talking animals, or an ending where the boy has to get the girl, or even the need to have animals or boys and girls at all. It can literally go in any direction — and doesn’t even need a “plot”, as we might traditionally think of it. And it is this environment where we find the animators freed to create some truly remarkable visuals.
Both films are basically classical music concert programs that have been turned over to skilled artists for visual interpretation. Pieces range from shorter movements of symphonies and musical suites, to longer, more programmatic works — that may or may not have existing storylines — such as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” In between each piece there are host segments giving a brief introduction or explanation for the next piece. Fantasia features host Deems Taylor, a prominent music critic of the time, while Fantasia 2000 collects various actors and musicians as hosts for each segment.
Even within this format, we find certain pieces veering more towards one end of the spectrum or the other. The Mickey Mouse vehicle, Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” features a very recognizable lead, and has a definite plot — whereas the animation for Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” is almost hallucinatory in its abstraction. Shapes meld and transform into each other, and development is accomplished more through composition of shapes than anything that even remotely approaches characters or story. And both approaches yield equal successes.
And failures, on occasion. Each film has weaker offerings, although fortunately they are rare. In the original, the “Rite of Spring” section suffers a bit from simply being too long: its story is stretched much too thin by the length of the music. On the opposite end, Fantasia 2000’s visualization for Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” suffers from almost caricaturing Disney animation itself. It features Donald Duck as Noah, gathering up animals and journeying with them on the ark. It ends up being too cutesy, simplistic and conventional for its own good.
But overall, we are treated to some of the most groundbreaking animation put to film, in two programs that are feasts for the eyes.
Disney continues its tradition of extending both meticulous and impressive care to its archival animation. Fantasia simply looks fantastic. It’s a marvel to think that all of this was hand-drawn, in a time before any computer assistance. And even after you see how some of the effects were achieved, it doesn’t diminish the impressive spectacle of it all. Fantasia remains one of the studio’s highest artistic achievements, and it has been lovingly and faithfully presented here. If there is any minus to note with either film, it is that the live-action element of the original seems muted by comparison to the rest of the material. The lighting of the stage could be playing tricks, but the tonal palette shifts more than usual between live action and animation; however, it’s a very minor issue.
Fantasia 2000 benefits from its more recent technological source and looks simply pristine. There seems to be a wider range of color palette used here, and there is a wonderful breadth of textures and styles used to really let your HD setup shine. The sharpness of the animated pieces here is more pronounced, although that’s not a slight to Fantasia at all. The more obviously hand-crafted elements of the original offer a more “real” counterpoint to the often overly-slick sequences of the sequel. But both receive stunning transfers, and it’s a testament to the craft of the animators and the skill of the restoration crew that we only have these small quibbles to discuss between films separated by almost sixty years.
While both features contain 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes, it’s difficult to give much high praise to the audio for Fantasia — which is unfortunate, given the music-driven film that it is. But it’s underwhelming, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Disney’s preservation efforts or the inherent mastering of the audio track on the Blu-ray. No, it’s more the original source material itself. It just sounds thin, and often distorted at the high end. Disney doesn’t do itself any favors by stretching it out into a 7.1 surround mix, when even putting it at 5.1 is probably overkill. For comparison, I put in the DVD version of the film and even the lossy 5.1 mix seems to hold together better. It’s a frustrating audio experience, but at the same time it’s probably the best we’ll get, and perhaps the best they could do. Personally I would have preferred a nice uncompressed stereo mix as an additional option, but for English viewers it’s simply the 7.1 mix or nothing.
By comparison, Fantasia 2000 is a revelation. It sounds absolutely and sparklingly clean. Somehow even the resurrected “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment seems to benefit, which is cause for some head-scratching. But all of the new music, under the direction of James Levine, is lush and sumptuous. Cue up “A Rhapsody In Blue” for not only an astounding piano performance and a captivating collection of visual art, but also to hear the wonderful dynamic range of this release in more snapshot form.
Don’t go into this Fantasia set expecting the usual Disney “kitchen sink” approach to special features. In fact, they’re fairly bare-bones when compared to most everything else they’ve released on the Blu-ray format.
To start off, if you’re looking for something from one of the older releases for either title that isn’t specifically mentioned here, that is because much of the archival items for these two films can be accessed via an internet connection through BD-Live, and not housed on the discs themselves. For some this may be a disappointment, but I personally don’t see too great an issue with it. The bonus material that they have included consists of (for the most part) the more crucial items, and everything else is available virtually, where it’s probably only worth a viewing or two anyway.
Fantasia has only a few items to note. “Disney Family Museum” (HD, 4:05) is a short promo for the museum with brief interviews from family members and staff involved with its collection. “The Schultheis Notebook” (HD, 13:51) is far more substantial, and details the notebook left behind by one of the technical staff involved with the creation of Fantasia. It’s a snapshot of not only the creation of the film, but also of the Walt Disney Studios at that time. The “Interactive Art Gallery” (HD) is an enhanced stills gallery with production artwork from both films that can either be viewed as slide shows or by individual items. There are also three commentary tracks for the film from which to chose.
The bonus items for Fantasia 2000 are considerably more interesting. First up is a newly completed short entitled “Destino” (HD, 6:31), which was the brainchild of Salvador Dali in collaboration with Walt Disney Studios. This unusual and intriguing partnership yielded an impressive collection of storyboards, concept drawings and original paintings before eventually being scrapped. This new version finally brings those ideas to completion, and is truly a marvel of animation as high art. Although imagery in “Destino” is often not as kid-friendly as the rest of the Fantasia series, it is nonetheless an important and captivating piece of film.
“Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino” (HD, 82:18) is a feature-length documentary about the background and eventual collaboration between these two artistic giants. It’s a thorough look at how the two mens lives paralleled each other, as if they were destined to work together. Throughout, we’re treated to biographies of not only the two men, but an in-depth look at the collaboration they began with “Destino.” A featurette entitled “Musicana” (HD, 9:20) details the film project by the same name that almost came about during the 1970s as a sequel to Fantasia. Rounding things out are two commentary tracks for Fantasia 2000.
Finally, both films are available on both Blu-ray discs and standard DVD discs, the latter pieces each containing only one bonus item each (and in both instances the least substantial bonus item).
Although personally I still have a couple of reservations with the audio presentation of the original Fantasia, please don’t take away anything that would discourage you from this new release. Both films are animated masterpiece showcases, and have been given judicious care by Disney. Although the bonus sections are slim — the included Dali sections being the main destination pieces anyway — the films themselves are the true reward here. This set comes highly recommended.