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Monday, November 29, 2010

Fantasia & Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray Review

One of Walt Disney’s biggest gambles has to be the much beloved Fantasia.  At the time, Disney wanted to bring Mickey Mouse back in a big way as a comeback vehicle where the animation would be combined with classical music selections to tell a collection of different stories. Disney spared no expense to achieve the desired focus on quality and detail and even Mickey Mouse was redesigned to have a more modern and realistic look.

Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski volunteered his services for free after sparking to the concept during a chance meeting with Disney.  Although Fantasia didn’t do as well financially as had been hoped, it eventually became very successful and is considered to be one of Walt Disney’s greatest successes.



Fantasia (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)


Fantasia was the first movie to be shown in multi-channel sound thanks to a new process Disney came up with called Fantasound, and the original release was 2 hours and 20 minutes long.  Five additional re-releases followed the original release in 1940, including a second release in 1940, plus 1946, 1956, 1963, 1969, 1977, 1982, 1985, and 1990, although in a much edited versions.

Every release had different cuts and most of the original footage wasn’t seen until the DVD release in 2000, and since they didn’t have a digital score they brought in Irwin Kostel to re-record it.  Eventually, the original Stokowski conducted score was restored for this Blu-ray in addition to the bridge introduction scenes presented by Deems Taylor which had been removed long ago. 

With this Blu-ray, Fantasia has finally been restored back to the original Roadshow version that Walt Disney released.  Although each clip has an introduction, I am going to focus solely on the actual animated segments.  Here is the order that they appear in:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – This sets the tone for the rest of the program and also let audiences know that this wasn’t going to be the usual Disney fare.  Abstract light patterns and symbolic and suggestive images dance across the screen in a celebration of music.

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite – A look at the cycle of changing seasons through the work of faeries.  Different sets of faeries either bring about Spring, Winter, Autumn, etc. through dance and magic.  An idea that would carry over years later in the solo Tinkerbell series.

  • Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – The most well known and beloved segment of this movie that stars Mickey Mouse as an assistant to a powerful Sorcerer.  When his master grows tired and goes to bed, leaving his wizard hat behind, Mickey quickly takes the hat to use the magic to help him do his chores which if course starts great and then backfires horribly.  This is my favorite one in this version too.

  • Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – A darker look at the evolution of the Earth and the creatures that reside on it.  A fairly bleak and somewhat violent look at the fate of the dinosaurs and I regretted accidentally showing it to my 2 1/2 year old son as I had forgotten about it.  Not for very young children.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s The Pastoral Symphony – A fairly bizarre look into Greek mythology that didn’t make any sense and is definitely the weakest part of this movie.  There’s no clear narrative and it looks like they just took a bunch of random ideas out of a hat and put this together.

  • Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours – My son enjoyed this one a lot more with it’s dancing ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators.  This is ha highly polished segment and we enjoyed the high flying well choreographed dances.  Intricate in design and original in execution.

  • Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain – The darkest segment that starts a two part look into the cycle of life and death with this one focusing on the death aspect.  Chernobog the demon starts off by raising the dead to attack a town during the night.  The animation is stellar and fairly nightmarish in design so don’t let young children watch this one.  The demon does all the damage he can and even enjoys torturing his own minions so this is really not Snow White.  I liked seeing Disney venture off into a darker direction since they never went back to that well until a long time later with The Black Cauldron, and after that one failed, they’ve never tried again.

  • Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria – A very weak way to end the movie, as it’s far to ambiguous and long and it really serves no purpose.  It’s supposed to be a look at the renewal of life but an extremely long shot of what appears to be monks walking along a path while holding lanterns or something just didn’t cut it for me.  All it did was make me think of the Elves leaving Middle-Earth in the Lord of the Rings movies.
While this movies has an excess of creativity and imagination, the languid pace and a couple of weak segment really undermined my appreciation of this movie as a whole.  It’s even worse when the last segment (which should send you home buzzing), is anti-climatic and pointless.

That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t have plenty of positive things going for it as it does as there’s creative lighting for the live-action shots, some amazing animation, and some great musical choices too.  The fact that Disney created a new process for the multi-channel audio and then made sure that it was installed in the theaters before they could show his movie, increases my already considerable admiration for him.  It’s really a shame that he was never able to do another Fantasia in his lifetime but some consider Make Mine Music to be an unofficial sequel since some of the discarded numbers from Fantasia made their way into that movie.

Video (5 out of 5 stars)

Considering that this movie is 70 years old and looks like it was made last year should give you a clue on what a masterful job Disney did restoring this classic. This 1080p transfer with its 1.33:1 aspect ratio looks incredible.  I think Disney right now is now the studio putting out the most consistently excellent transfers around.  Even their direct to video Blu-rays look great and this one is no different but it’s just even more impressive considering the movie’s age.  Colors are vivid and plentiful and with this movie especially, they colors go across the spectrum and this remastered  print shows them all brilliantly.  Black levels are deep and plentiful as well especially during certain sequences like with the demon Chernobog.  Detail is very impressive and there’s only a few minor issues but nothing huge that stands out.  This is another home run for the restoration team at Disney!

Audio (5 out of 5 stars)

The film boasts an amazing DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track that’s even more impressive due to the film’s age much like the visual quality.  The Disney wizards have whipped up an all inclusive surround mix that swirls all around you. Each instruments comes through cleanly without distortion or overlapping and every channel is put to good use.  It’s such a good mix that you feel as if you are surrounded by all of the musicians and that the music is washing over you.  The sub-woofer kicks in often as well and several times it will make you sit up and take notice.  The in-between segments with the host’s dialogue is crystal clear.  This is a very, very impressive track.

Special Features (5 out of 5 stars)

This Blu-ray is chuck full of extras that were all done well and are very interesting.  I also liked that they took the time to offer a variety of different areas to focus on that add up to the viewer gaining a larger overview and appreciation on the making of the film.  All of the extras are in HD.

Fantasia DVD Bonus Features:
  • New Audio Commentary with Disney historian Brian Sibley – At first I didn’t realize that he was the author of a book that I own called The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy, but now that I know that, I’m not surprised at the amount of knowledge he can present.  This commentary is non-stop and full of interesting information and it’s one of the best I’ve heard.

  • Disney Family Museum – Walt’s daughter Diane Disney-Miller takes viewers on a tour of the new Disney Family Museum located in the Presidio in San Francisco, California.  After watching this extra, I really want to see this museum as it looks incredibly innovative and high tech.  It also has a ton of cool material that shows the life and career of Walt Disney.
Fantasia Blu-ray contains everything on the DVD plus:
  • Disney View – This viewing mode maximizes the Blu-ray viewing experience with a anamorphic aspect ratio.  Original artwork created by Harrison Ellenshaw that compliments what’s currently playing.

  • The Schultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure - A fascinating account of a notebook that Disney employee Herman Schultheis assembled while making the movie.  His record keeping was so comprehensive that it’s been called the Rosetta Stone for animation as it details animation techniques that had been lost and couldn’t even be replicated today unless you knew how it was originally done.  The notebook is amazing to look at as it covers every aspect of making the movie including what lens was used, how far away it was shot, the materials used, pictures and diagrams of the various methods used, and just about everything you can imagine. It turned out that he worked all day at the studio and devoted all of his free time at home into putting this together.  What’s even crazier, is that he asked Disney to buy it from him for $400 but was turned down.  The notebook went missing for over 50 years until it was discovered hidden in a wall.  Fortunately, Disney was very interested in buying it then and it now resides in the Disney Family Museum.  This was probably my favorite extra as it was so unexpected and interesting to see.  Plus I love seeing hidden artifacts revealed!
  • Interactive Art Gallery and Screensavers – Viewers can explore the artwork of Fantasia in a variety of ways and in different sizes in HD resolution.

  • Audio Commentaries with Roy E. Disney, James Levine, John Canemaker, and Scott McQueen – This is also an informative commentary with the nephew of Walt Disney, the conductor of Fantasia 2000, an animation historian, and the man responsible for the restoration of the movie.

  • Audio commentary made up with interviews and written document recreations by Walt Disney – This commentary is introduced by Roy E. Disney and hosted by John Canemaker where they essentially created a commentary track by Walt Disney himself based on his past interviews and notes he had written about the project.  This is very cool and I can only imagine how much work went into getting all of this material and organizing it.  You can’t beat hearing the thoughts of the one and only Walt Disney.

Fantasia 2000 (4 out of 5 stars)

The Fantasia concept was revived 60 years later by Roy Disney who knew that Walt Disney had originally planned to make Fantasia an ongoing  and evolving project that would introduce new material along with the original selections. This time a group of celebrities presented the clips which I think added some much needed humor to the proceedings.

Conductor Andre Previn was approached to participate in this movie but he refused at the time because at that time he believed the score was going to made up entirely by Beatles songs.  (That would have been awesome!) Instead, James Levine ended up doing the conducting and the songs were picked by the principle people behind the project with each of them adding their favorites to the pool.  Here are the final choices to be found in the film:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor-I. Allegro con brioMuch liked the first film did, the first segment is an abstract look into light and darkness exemplified by butterflies and bats.

  • Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome – This segment focuses on a family of humpback whales that are suddenly able to fly due to possibly the Borealis effect. At times very whimsical and other times it was moving to see a herd of whales soar through the clouds, transcending their usual limitations.

  • George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – A look at the lives of several people in the 1930s-era  of New York City, during the hard times of the Depression.  This segment is drawn in the style of Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures.  One of the better blends of music and animation.

  • Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major-I. Allegro – This one is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier.  The soldier in the story is attempting to defend a ballerina from the advances from an abusive jack-in-the-box.

  • Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns’s The Carnival of the Animals, Finale –  A humorous look at a flock of pink flamingos that has one that just wants to play with a yo-yo much to the annoyance of the others.  This is a good one for kids to watch since the slapstick in it will appeal to them.

  • Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – The only segment to be carried over from the original Fantasia. Once again, Mickey Mouse tried to avoid his chores by using magic that he can’t control. Fun short and also have a subtle lesson for kids about responsibility and shortcuts.

  • Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance – Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4 –  A story about Noah’s Ark starring Donald Duck and Daisy Duck. Donald is told to herd all of the animals into the Ark, but through bad luck and timing, he believes he has lost Daisy as she believes the same about him. Of course there is a happy reunion!

  • Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite – 1919 Version – A story about an ethereal creature that restores life to the forest after a long winter with the help from an Elk.  She makes the mistake of accidentally bringing to life the dark spirit of a volcano who obliterates the area with lava.  It seems fairly obvious that this is a tale about Mount St. Helens and how life cannot be beaten for long and will eventually return to even the most devastated areas.

Video (5 out of 5 stars)

This 1080p transfer with its 1.78:1 aspect ratio looks even better than the original. The rainbow of colors pop with clarity and the black levels are dark and inky. Detail is very impressive which shouldn’t be a surprise since a lot of this was created with computers.  Being newer than the original film of course this one looks better but it is still an impressive transfer.

Audio (5 out of 5 stars)

Since my previous coverage of the original fits this disc exactly the same, I will re-purpose it here. The film boasts an amazing DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track that’s even more impressive due to the film’s age much like the visual quality.  The Disney wizards have whipped up an all inclusive surround mix that swirls all around you.  Each instruments comes through cleanly without distortion or overlapping and every channel is put to good use. It’s such a good mix that you feel as if you are surrounded by all of the musicians and that the music is washing over you.  The sub-woofer kicks in often as well and several times it will make you sit up and take notice.  The in-between segments with the host’s dialogue is crystal clear.  This is a very, very impressive track.

Special Features (5 out of 5 stars)

This Blu-ray is chuck full of extras that were all done well and very interesting.  I also liked that they took the time to offer a variety of different areas to focus on that add up to the viewer gaining a larger overview and appreciation on the making of the film.  All of the extras are in HD.
Fantasia 2000 DVD Bonus Features:
  • Musicana – Walt’s Inspiration for a Sequel – This featurette delves into the proposed sequel to Fantasia that never made it.  Walt wanted to focus on music from around the world but it was never finished.
Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray contains everything on the DVD plus:
  • Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino (running time: 82 minutes) – A look into the relationship between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, an the unfinished Destino short that was abandoned until it was resurrected by Roy E. Disney.
  • Destino – The long awaited Walt Disney and Salvador Dali short film.  Since Dali is involved it’s as weird as you’d expect.
  • Disney’s Virtual Vault — BD-Live Feature – Almost three hours of extra material that appeared on earlier releases is located here. It’s great that you can access this but I wish they could have fit it all on the discs.
  • Audio Commentary from Roy E. Disney, James Levine, and producer Don Ernst – Another informative look into the similarities and differences between both movies and the effort it took to make them.
  • Audio commentary with the directors and art directors for each segment they were involved in – A non-stop look back at the shorts by the people who made them.  More individual details can be found here and it’s all interesting.

Final Thoughts (5 out of 5 stars)

I enjoyed Fantasia 2000 more than I did the original as the pace is quicker, there’s more humor in it, and it doesn’t take itself as seriously as the first one did. However, the first one was a first of it’s kind experiment and they were really pushing the format farther than it had ever gone before.  As they said, their goal was to “see music and hear images.”  With that lofty objective they took a lot of risks and you have to appreciate that kind of ambition.  This set is packed with an abundance of extras and the picture and audio quality is worth your money alone.

Pre-order your copy of this Disney classic today!

 

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