Fantasia, in my experience, has been more talked about than seen. I was eager to experience it for myself, since I had the impression of it as almost pure animation, art for its own sake. This new Disney release is available as a four-disc special edition — two Blu-rays, one each for Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, plus the two movies each on DVD — or a two-disc DVD package. I’m talking about the Blu-ray versions here, since that seems the preferable way to experience such a riot of sound and color; if you are interested in the DVD, note that many of the special features, including the Destino material, are not included in that version.
Unfortunately, the short version of this review is that this package is not up to what I expect from Disney, due to severe problems with the special features. Although I enjoyed the opportunity to see both films, I do not recommend owners of previous DVDs upgrade to the Blu-ray, unless they’re also huge fans of Salvador Dali.
I started with this one, the modern-day “sequel”, because it’s only 75 minutes instead of the main film’s two hours. I’ve heard great things, but it’s such an unusual movie that I figured I’d wade in instead of jumping full splash. As you probably already know, the two Fantasia movies were collections of classical music videos, an animated anthology (with brief live-action introductions) in which often abstract images accompany orchestral works. I don’t know much about classical music, so I will point you to the movie’s Wikipedia page for a full content listing, including who played what.
The opening abstract, shapes moving to Beethoven’s Fifth, was vibrant in its color patterns, although seeing a stylized batwing in black and red does remind me of Batman Beyond. After that piece, Steve Martin explains some of the history of the film, which was a helpful reminder about how the original Fantasia was intended to be perpetually updated. Walt Disney wanted to re-release it yearly, with some new segments and some carried over. It took almost 60 years until that happened with this new movie, though, because of the first one’s success on home video. All of these segments are new, except for the best-known “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” cartoon, repeated here from the original Fantasia with a hilarious new intro by Penn and Teller.
I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with some of these pieces of music, such as “Pines of Rome”. Accompanied by giant CGI whales leaping, it was a personal selection of Roy E. Disney, and the modernistic presentation is striking. My favorite entry was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, illustrated in the style of famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and introduced by Quincy Jones. It’s almost Etch-a-Sketch-like in its introductory use of a single line to build a wide-ranging portrait of a long-ago New York City that winds up in full-color neon glory.
Bette Midler’s bit covers some of the ideas for Fantasia segments that didn’t happen before leading into a piano concerto that underscores a romance between a toy ballerina and a tin soldier. Some of the other celebrity introductions are quite short, including James Earl Jones, preceding a flamingo with a yo-yo. That’s a very amusing cartoon, perhaps the closest to what we classically think of when we hear that word. The segment is punchy and active, a nice short pick-me-up amongst the longer pieces. It’s a kids’ favorite, much like the “Pomp and Circumstance” segment with Donald trying to get the animals into Noah’s Ark.
Note that the volume varies widely throughout, such that we watched with remote control in hand, to raise the level during the celebrity introductions and turn it down when the orchestra was in full throttle. Like the Mickey’s PhilharMagic show at Walt Disney World, after his segment and while looking for Donald, it sounds as though Mickey’s running through various bits of the speaker system.
Fantasia 2000 Special Features
I was very disappointed to find out that the making of documentary and many other special features (including information on concepts that didn’t make it into the original film) from the Fantasia Anthology Collection were only available through the internet-connected “Virtual Vault”. This “special” feature required several minutes of blank-screen waiting and reading of various instruction screens before it would start. It also demanded I find some “local storage” (a USB drive) so it could get a disk update before entering that area. There are two ways to access it, but my player only worked on one; the other would freeze up.
Once we finally waited through all this (and a couple of player restarts), the experience was like YouTube on your TV — everything began with a wait, and we’d get to watch only part of the video until a “Buffering” message appeared. While trying to watch one one-minute clip, it buffered twice, interrupting in the middle of sentences. The length counter (showing how far into the clip you were) would forget where it was and jump back to the start, when it wasn’t losing the network connection and dumping me out in the middle. This thing couldn’t get through a minute and a half preview without interrupting the video two or three times.
Worst of all, the image was in a much-reduced section of the screen, less than a quarter of the available space, so captions and the like were too small to read. To navigate required too many button clicks, and while trying to build a viewing queue, I got dumped out of the disc entirely and had to spend five minutes getting back to where I was (including skipping all the previews again and waiting through the Vault animation), only to find that my choices had been forgotten.
This is not a Disney-worthy video experience. It’s incredibly frustrating. It’s also the kind of backward thinking that drives people to download, since Fantasia fans are likely to want all these extras and background information, and getting them illegally is a MUCH better experience than this approach.
I’m also theoretically opposed to the idea, having seen way too many big-company websites and online features go poof during my decades online. I don’t trust that this material will still be out there when I want to watch it several years from now. All the special features from the previous discs should have been included on the discs in this package, not through BD-Live technology, which based on my experience, isn’t ready for prime time.
The original press release led me to believe that the special features from the out-of-print previous DVDs would be included as part of this package. I didn’t understand at the time what BD-Live meant to the viewer; I’d still rather have the items available on disc. But from Disney’s perspective, if they retire the connection 3 or 5 or 7 years from now, by then there will be another way to sell it to us, some other format to drive us to re-purchase. It’s a company-, not consumer-centric, approach that ended up making me very angry instead of happy with this DVD package.
The features that *are* on this disc are as follows:
Musicana (9:20) — Historians and animators talking about Walt’s visions for new Fantasia segments, and how poor sales kept that from happening. “Musicana” was at one point a name for a potential sequel, featuring world folktales and music, including jazz and South American influences, and this extra shows lots of concept drawings by Mel Shaw (who also appears on-screen here) for that project that never happened. Mickey Mouse was to have been in the Chinese “Emperor’s Nightingale”, with art done by John Lasseter.
Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino (an hour and 22 minutes) — Walt Disney almost worked with surrealist artist Salvador Dali in 1946 to make Destino, but the project was shelved for financial reasons. This documentary tells the story of what happened, illustrated by concept art from the archives. First, though, we get the life stories of both men — material that may have been better suited to the original idea of releasing this separately. Most people who will watch this as an extra on this package will already know the Disney history told here, anyway. They may find the comparisons between the works of the two creators interesting, though, especially the bits about surrealism in Disney cartoons. I thought the story was told in much more depth than I needed to hear, but the company’s been waiting for decades to talk about all this, so they packed in everything they could.
Destino (6:31) — The short itself, as finally completed in 2003. Dali imagery, in motion. I admit, I was kind of tired by the time we got to this point, so it washed over me without much impression. I do recommend that you watch this cartoon before the entire documentary — it will give more context for what follows.
Two audio commentaries, one with executive producer Roy E. Disney (who passed away last year), conductor James Levine, and producer Don Ernst; the other has the directors and art directors for each segment, which was of more interest to me, since these comments were more sequence-specific, including discussing technical methods and identifying key participants. There are special guests as well: Al Hirschfeld participates in the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment, which was a nice surprise, and Mickey’s voice pops up in his Sorcerer segment (since the creators of that reused piece were no longer available). We did notice that the volume on the commentary was very inconsistent, rising and falling or sounding like it was only coming across one channel at times.
After watching the second film, I decided to watch Fantasia with the new commentary by Disney historian Brian Sibley (who has a British accent, which I always find a plus in listening to voices). He explains a LOT of background details, which kept me interested — I was afraid with just the music and visuals, I might drop off. (That’s not a statement on the movie, but about me. I do the same thing with long silent movies and anime. I have some glitch where if I don’t hear people talking in a language I understand, my brain wanders off and snoozes.)
Given the slowness of the opening — it was another time — I think that was the best approach for me. The shadows of the orchestra, lit in different colors, followed by synchronized abstract lines, waves, and glimmers, seems rather sedate to someone used to MTV editing and computer graphics. The glowing fairies that follow for the “Nutcracker Suite” also feel comfortably old-fashioned, a reaction reinforced by the “Chinese” mushrooms and the “hoochy-coochy” (as described in the commentary) goldfish. It does seem that the focus of the first movie is more on illustrating the music, with the sound intended to be primary, while the second has more show-offy visuals.
The last three pieces of Fantasia are the ones I wanted to see, since they’re the ones I’ve heard others talk about. First, “The Pastoral Symphony”, with the unicorns, centaurs, cupids, and such. The baby pegasus learning to fly is a new favorite. “Dance of the Hours” has the wacky ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. This used to symbolize the movie for me. “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” stood too much on its own, with a different story, but this piece is about music and dancing, with cartoon animals. The gothic “Night on Bald Mountain” is an excellent way to end the movie.
Fantasia Special Features
This set of features is incredibly disappointing compared to the other disc and previous packages. We lost the “makings of” for this?
Disney Family Museum — Four minutes of tour pitch as Disney’s daughter shows off their new museum in San Francisco. I’ve seen the exhibit on his life at Disney World, so I don’t feel a need to seek this out. I’m not sure why this is on the disc, frankly, except for the following.
The Schultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure (13:50) — This notebook illustrated some of the animation special effect techniques, but I found myself tuning out when they kept running clips from the movie we’ve just seen. Several people tell us how important the book is, but I didn’t think this piece made as a compelling case for that as it could have. Techies may find the secondary discussion of how some of the effects were achieved interesting, though.
Interactive Art Gallery — I’m not sure what this is, since it spun a loading dial without ever showing me anything, and when I got bored and tried to back out, it rebooted my Blu-ray player!
Three commentaries — the Sibley mentioned above; one with interviews with Walt Disney, hosted by John Canemaker; and one with Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine, Canemaker, and film restoration manager Scott MacQueen.
Some Final Questions
Pairing up the two movies makes a perfect package, but did putting them together (each in both Blu-ray and DVD versions) mean that they ran out of space for the extras that should have been included on the discs instead of through online access? Perhaps all the Destino material really did take up that much room. Either way, it wasn’t the right choice.
This was originally intended to be a Diamond Edition, one of Disney’s top-of-the-line Blu-ray packages, but as released, it’s “just” a four-disc special edition. Why’d they change their mind? That sounds like the product I’m looking for.
On another subject, why are some fans such sticks-in-the-mud? I’ve been seeing some hardcore types complain they won’t buy this package because a horrendous black servant stereotype (a character fans call “Sunflower”) was clipped out of the centaur sequence. “They’re denying history in this “censored” edition!” they yell. No, they’re correcting mistakes and refusing to perpetuate outrageous racism. (And the “omission” was first made back in 1969, so it’s not like it’s a change that was made for this edition.) If you won’t buy this because it’s missing 10 seconds of racism, that says your values are out of whack. There are many better reasons not to buy this.
Please note that rumor has it that this Blu-ray edition is due to go back into the “Disney Vault” in March. That seems a really quick retirement for this package, but maybe that’s Disney’s way of acknowledging the flaws in the presentation. (The studio provided a review copy.)