Quick Take: Disney knocks these out of the park, but not without a little controversy.
“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.” -Deems Taylor, Fantasia (1940)
There are animated classics, and then there is Fantasia; the original feature-length music video. Walt Disney’s ambitious marriage of silent animated vignettes and classical music was unique, bold and utterly engrossing seventy years ago and remains so today. A motion picture event back in the day, Disney Home Video is now making both Fantasia films an event on Blu-ray, a format tailor made for these two features.
Hosted by Deems Taylor and featuring orchestrations conducted by Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia offers 125 minutes of unique and often unforgettable visual interpretations. Be it the gentle beauty that accompanies Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,’ the classic Disney silliness set to ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ and ‘Dance of the Hours,’ or the haunting, powerful images set to ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ and ‘Ave Maria’ that close out the film, Fantasia has been and continues to be a remarkable motion picture experience and the perfect way to introduce people young and old to the joys of classical music. Walt Disney may have made more accessible and entertaining animated features, but few possessed the ambition and scope that his third full-length animated feature does. Fantasia is a landmark in the history of animation that is as timeless as the music that inspired it.
Disney’s original intention for Fantasia was to revive the project every few years -by replacing old segments with new ones – to present a fresh experience with each theatrical reissue. Unfortunately, the film was such a financial loss for nearly thirty years that those plans were scrapped. That didn’t stop Roy Disney from moving forward thirty years later from carrying out Walt’s original idea, even if it was only for one more film (so far).
Released in December of 1999, Fantasia 2000 consisted of seven new animated segments while retaining only one from the 1940 film (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Featuring the music of Gershwin, Shostakovich, Beethoven and Stravinski (among others), Fantasia 2000 followed in the original’s footsteps while making a few revisions, both for better or worse. On the plus side, the film is roughly 50 minutes shorter than the first film. As much as I love the original Fantasia, 125 minutes is a really long time to watch an animated feature of any sort (no wonder they had an intermission during its original release). On the negative side, I could have done without the presence of Bette Midler and Penn & Teller. Their segments aren’t amusing and they already feel dated after only ten short years.
As for the animated segments, I found them quite enjoyable save for the Shostakovich segment based on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier.’ It’s a nicely animated piece but overall it is a bit of a slog. The ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ segment is a wonderful valentine to New York City; while Respighi’s epic ‘Pines of Rome’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite-1919 Version’ make for breathtaking bookends for the film. Time will tell if Fantasia 2000 attains the classic status bestowed upon its predecessor. For the time being, however, it serves as yet another great opportunity to introduce people to the wonderful world of classical music.
FANTASIA: The end result of a restoration that took close to a year to complete, the Blu-ray transfer of the 70-year old Fantasia is an absolute beauty. The saturated colors, from the deep blacks to what appears to be an even deeper representation of blue, are vibrant without any sort of bleeding or blooming, giving the image a level of detail and vibrancy that the film has never seen on home video. There isn’t a nick, line or mark to be seen anywhere on the print, which does offers up some nice levels of film grain throughout. There are no instances of Edge Enhancement or Digital Noise Reduction to be found anywhere. For a seventy year old feature, Fantasia is looking really damn nice for its age.
Not to be outdone, the 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is also a beauty. Since the original Fantasound audio track no longer exists, the audio track from the 2000 DVD release had to be used as the source material for the Blu-ray (with some additional restoration as well). The music is nicely balanced and clear, and moves from speaker to speaker with great ease. The live-action dialogue is also delivered with great clarity (the original nitrate audio negative of Taylor’s dialogue had deteriorated decades ago and had to be re-dubbed by Corey Burton).
FANTASIA 2000: As you would expect from a recent (as in the past decade) animated feature from the Mouse House, Fantasia 2000 looks and sounds incredible. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded picture pretty much has it all: deep black levels, strong colors and sharp picture detail, all without resorting to DNR or Edge Enhancement to do so. Due to its age and source material, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ sequence isn’t quite as eye popping than the other segments but it still looks beautiful. The live-action sequences of Fantasia 2000 look just as good as their animated counterparts.
There really isn’t too much to say about the 7.1 DTS HD-Master Audio aside from the fact that it’s practically perfect. Center channel dialogue and the multi-channels of music are as loud and clear as you would expect, delivering the viewer with a truly immersive experience.
Beyond the Presentation
Okay, here is where there may be a bit of controversy. And no, I am not talking about the censored sequence in the original film (it’s been gone for 41 years, get over it). Disney Home Video, who always includes supplemental material both old and new in their Blu-ray catalog releases, has done something different with Fantasia. It’s not the actual content that will raise an eyebrow among home theater enthusiasts; it’s the way it is presented that might be a bone of contention. But before we look at that, let’s look at the bonus material found on the 2 Blu-ray discs (DVD copies of the films are also included in the set).
Fantasia: Disc One
Audio Commentaries: There are three audio commentary tracks, two that have been ported over from the 2000 Anthology DVD release. The first commentary track is by Disney historian Brian Sibley, the second offers up interviews and story note recreations by Walt Disney and is hosted by John Canemaker. The third track features Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, John Canemaker and Film Restoration Manager Scott MacQueen.
Disney Family Museum (4:05, HD): A brief peek at the Disney museum located in San Francisco, this four minute promotional piece gives us a quick glimpse into what the new museum has to offer visitors when they visit. Judging by what is presented in this brief bit this is going to be a place worth going out of the way for if you’re visiting San Fran.
The Schultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure (13:51, HD): A quick but fascinating look at Herman Schultheis, a member of the camera effects department at Disney and the notebook that he kept during the production of Fantasia. The notebook will be available for viewing at the Disney Family Museum.
Interactive Art Gallery: A collection of sketches and production designs from both Fantasia films are presented here and can be accessed using the still step function on your remote. Even better is the option to enlarge each still for closer inspection. Great stuff.
Fantasia 2000: Disc Two
Audio Commentaries: The two audio commentaries from the original DVD edition have been ported over to the Blu-ray. The first commentary track features Roy Disney, James Levine and Don Ernst while the second track contains commentary by the art directors of each segment for Fantasia 2000.
Musicana (9:20, HD): Back in the 1970s, Disney animators Woolie Reitherman and Mel Shaw came up with the idea for ‘Musicana,’ which would have carried on the tradition started by Fantasia. This informative short looks at the brief history of a promising project that sadly never came to be.
Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino (82 minutes, SD): Just how on earth did Walt Disney meet up with Salvador Dali? Watch this terrific feature-length documentary to find out. The only downside? The documentary is presented in 480p Standard Definition. Yuck.
Destino (6:30 HD): Even if Walt Disney and Salvador Dali never got the chance to see their collaboration come to life, French director Dominique Monfrey got the chance to do so. The result is one mind-blowing six and a half minutes, and it looks fantastic in high definition! A fair warning though: this PG-rated short really isn’t one for the kiddies.
Disney Virtual Vault: Okay, here is where the supplemental material becomes a case of pro and con. The Disney Virtual Vault is a BD-Live feature that houses all of the video-based bonus material that was found on the 2000 DVD Anthology set. Deleted sequences, interviews, trailers and making of documentaries on both films, you can find all of that here in the Virtual Vault. That is the good news. What’s not so good? If you don’t have an Internet-connected Blu-ray player, you’re can’t access the Vault. So while I applaud Disney for what may be the best use of the BD-Live feature yet, I also have to take them to task as to why they simply couldn’t include the bonus disc from the Anthology or at the very least a mail-in offer to purchase a hard copy of the supplements. While many Blu-ray owners do have internet connected machines, there are also many that do not.
Disney has been on a roll this fall. To give us Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story 3 and now the two Fantasia films all within the course of two months is not only a gift for animation fans, but a gift for Blu-ray owners as well. While I would have preferred to have a DVD of the Anthology supplemental material included in the set, I cannot complain too loudly since Disney did include access to them. The perfect showcase for high definition, this Blu-ray makes for mandatory ownership.
– Shawn Fitzgerald
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