One of the more amusing and far-fetched notions, among those with a mind for such things, is that the head of Walt Disney has been frozen until such time as technology can restore him to his former glory. If it’s true, and dear Walt’s noggin is preserved in some kind of cryogenic hatbox, on the day they finally re-animate the animator they could do worse than to sit him down with a nice warm cushion, a glass of wine and a straw and let him watch Fantasia on DVD in the comfort of his own home. Water blockage and chattering teeth notwithstanding, I’m sure he’d be absolutely chuffed.
In 1940, following the success of the first fully animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney decided to up the ante with an experimental visual interpretation of some of the world’s most renowned and best loved pieces of classical music. More than sixty years later, amid the ‘friendlier’ product that is more typical of the Disney Corporation these days, Fantasia remains one of the most unique and challenging pieces of animation to date.
At the time, no film had ever attempted to use a multi-channel soundtrack to surround its audience with true stereo separation and, though it wasn’t necessarily a critical success, (one might suggest it was ahead of its time) Fantasia nevertheless stunned audiences with its sophistication. Add to that the glorious visuals (in technicolour, no less) and you had a cinema celebration that stood quite on its own. Then you had the music...
At the beginning of Fantasia, the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra take their places silhouetted against a vibrant blue background. There is a gentle murmur and the soft tuning of instruments that precedes any orchestral performance and then conductor Leopold Stokowski takes the stand. There is silence and then with one deft flourish, the unmistakable dramatic sting of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor erupts from the speakers. The screen begins to dance with an abstract parade of colour and movement that is always, always, perfectly choreographed.
Without doubt, the most popular and recognisable offering here is Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Featuring Disney’s iconic big gun, Mickey Mouse, in the title role, this piece still manages to convey the same sense of wonder and dread that so enchanted us as children (it must be said though, that as an adult, it has occurred to me that you never get to see Mickey’s ears side on - no matter which direction he is facing, his ears always appear open and facing the front. Sure, it’s more aesthetically... oh, forget it. Who am I to say they got the mouse’s ears all wrong?)
Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours is accompanied by a humorous ballet featuring the most unlikely ensemble (like a rubber chicken or a whoopee cushion, a hippopotamus dancing a ballet in a tutu could never be anything but funny), Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is perfectly elegant as a graceful team of fairies bring a sleeping garden to life while Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring features a dramatic interpretation of the beginning of life itself (Earthquakes! Molten Lava! Floods! Amoebas!).
The dark jewel in the Fantasia crown, however, is the melding of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain with the choral magnificence of Schubert’s Ave Maria - two pieces of music so contradictory in style and content that they complement each other perfectly. The Devil appears in all his ominous majesty atop a mountain where his shadow wreaks havoc not only on a nearby village but in the very depths of hell itself. Demons soar and fires dance until finally, an ethereal chorus from the village below bring Old Nick's shenanigans to a screeching halt. As dawn breaks and good triumphs over evil, the feeling of serenity is so tangible you could almost take a big ol’ bite out of it.
It is hard to select highlights from a film that entertains on so many different levels and consequently, although each viewer will have their own favourites, Fantasia is virtually without fault.
Unique and completely irresistible, Fantasia has enough to warm even the coldest... er... head.
For a film that has for so long been touted as the ultimate sound and vision experience, the presentation, though it is without doubt sufficient, understandably pales next to the production values inherent in animation today.
Context is what is required here. Sure the transfer is a little soft and some of the animation appears a little sketchy, but the film is more than sixty years old! Many of the problems that you would expect from a film that age are also in evidence with many segments appearing grainy at times and the colours sometimes bleeding a little from over-saturation.
Naturally, there are film artefacts aplenty and although they are noticeable at first, once the viewer becomes accustomed to them they are barely noticeable. Ultimately, a wonderful job has been done on the restoration of this classic and any problems with the overall look of the film are better ignored than highlighted.
Fantasia is presented in a ratio of 1.33:1 and is not 16x9 enhanced.
As mentioned earlier, Fantasia was the first film to attempt a true surround sound experience and now, with the release of Fantasia on DVD, the same glorious soundtrack that so thrilled audiences so many years ago can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home.
Unfortunately, the surround sound is not everything that you may be accustomed to, nor can it be described as truly ‘surround’. Where visual problems are a little easier to forgive, sound abnormalities are less so given the enormous leaps that have been made in audio restoration.
The little dialogue that is featured in the film can be heard well enough and no real syncing problems seem to occur (although it would be difficult to tell if that were the case).
Still, the music is what’s most important here and the lack of speaker balance detracts little from the beauty of the Fantasia’s extraordinary soundtrack.
With its stunning visuals and a score to die for, Fantasia remains intact as a benchmark not only for Disney studios, but as a triumph of cinema.
Though the kids may not embrace Fantasia the way they would some other Disney favourites, still it remains an essential addition to any collection. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to classical music, at the very least it makes a nice alternative to Video Hits.
With Fantasia, Disney sought to provide audiences with a fresh glimpse of real beauty.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if all filmmakers treated us like that?