Fantasia was produced at just the right time for the Walt Disney studio. Due to the success of 1937's Snow White (the film with so much color, sceptic's believed viewers may be blinded!), three major projects could be funded; a brand new studio at Burbank, the production of Pinocchio and then the grandest yet, Fantasia, released November 1940.
As a brief synopsis, Fantasia takes the guise of a Concert Hall, presenting eight famous pieces of classical music and decoding them into a set of visual images or stories. The only speech heard throughout the entire film is that of Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney), the singer for the song `Ave Maria', and the narrator/music critic of the time Deems Taylor, who accompanies musicians on screen in between each segment, and provides a nice explanation of what we should expect from each segment. In true style of such an epic film (125 mins long) there is also an Intermission slap bang in the middle, so you can go water the flowers as it were... (tee-hee)
If you've seen the film on DVD/VHS before, then you may want to read on. Deems Taylor's vocal sections are still over-dubbed due to complications during the restoration. Since Disney re-discovered film elements and didn't have their matching audio elements (as they've been lost for years), they made the choice of over-dubbing all of Taylor's appearances, rather than having the mismatch of a voice actor and the original surviving footage itself. Given these newly discovered film elements were in the original 1940 release, it makes sense that they've been included, though of course it's disappointing that the entirety of Taylor's live-action scene's are not original. Can't be helped, though.
Secondly, the title card is now the original RCA version (as Disney distributed the film in its first year), and is only present during the intermission. Amazingly, this has never been seen by anyone since mid 1941!
Lastly, censorship [provoked by so called 'Disney Buffs']. It is still present on this release, and thanks to modern technology, has been edited better. In the case of the red carpet rolling up the staircase, 'Sunflower' has been digitally removed so that the frame didn't have to be zoomed in, whilst on the shots that had to be zoomed, they are again seamless. An objection to the cuts is that the society (and indeed, the world) of 1940 was very different to now, but we shouldn't forget that an organization like Disney, whom have developed great power, also require great responsibility in feeding the modern family audience who in many cases, will not have seen Fantasia before.
So in short, "demand" for an un-cut version seems like wasted energy when;
1. It has been present since 1969.
2. They add up to less than 15 seconds in length.
3. People have a right to be offended in life. The images are crude, and have no relation to the plot or narrative of the film.
End of story.
Fantasia has such deep significance in thatre history for its contributions to art and sound production. Consider watching this film in November 1940, and its the first time ever you've heard stereo. Imagine the excitement that was Fantasia - the worlds first commercial film to 'place' sound in relation to what was happening on screen. This excitement hasn't left, for as one New York Time's critic said, "...there is nothing quite like Fantasia... It is one of the strange and beautiful things to have ever happened on screen". I really couldn't have put it better myself.
This relationship between sound and art is what makes Fantasia so special, and the restoration only makes the experience more beautiful. Right from the opening of Toccata and Fugue, conductor Leopold Stokowski directs the sound from ear-to-ear, leading us into the abstract visions of the Fugue. It is here that we leave the concert hall as a space, and ascend into the imagination. It is the most daring sequence of the film, for not everyone has the ability to decode and enjoy such abstract imagery. The beauty is not in trying to understand what is on screen through a literal sense, otherwise, the viewer is just as clueless as the next person that says "Picasso should'a gone to Specsavers."
The beauty is in being open-minded enough to understand how a musical composition can be disassembled and then given a visual life through new, creative possibilities. This is just one of the running motifs in the film.
From the twist and turns of rushing shape and colour, we move from the absolute music to program music - that being it evokes a narrative. The Nutcracker Suite provides a beauty and grace that, at many points, required up to 4-levels of Cel animation. The theme of nature and changing seasons is beautifully captured - so graceful that its hard to fathom the images were painted by hand.
Mickey arrives next, deciding to be mischievous and, after 'acquiring' his masters Magician hat, has some fun. At first, all is well when he gets his chores done by the enchanted broom, but going to sleep and dreaming of his power wasn't the best idea... The sequence is a favorite among film fans, and the inspiration for an otherwise drab live-action movie staring Mr Personality himself, Nicholas Cage. As far as restoration goes, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty revealed as Mickey ascends to the night sky. The newly discovered artwork from the backgrounds are, quite frankly, gorgeous.
Then we have The Rite of Spring - a cut down interpretation of "how science believes life began". At over 20 mins its certainly the longest of the film, but features some wonderful animation and has an exciting dinosaur battle.
Of course, the T-Rex would just have to win!
The transformation of this sequence from the VHS/DVD is wonderful, and finally reveals a much brighter picture quality. This is the most 'changed' scene from the restoration, and I'm thankful for this as its far more enjoyable now that one can seem background paintings that, previously, didn't even know existed.
After the frolicking of Beethoven's 'Pastoral Symphony' and its beautiful mythological setting, the film provides comical relief with 'The Dance of The Hours' - a purposefully silly set of movements that act as total counterpoint. Elephants dancing like delicate ballerinas? Alligators thinking they're majestic dance-partners? You better believe it!
'Night on Bald Mountain' is chosen for what at first appears to be a powerful and haunting end, represented on screen by Chernabog; a nocturnal demon who comes to life from a mountain top (and whom is now red/maroon, which makes perfect sense as he is of course a devil), and precedes to spread darkness over a nearby village, whilst toying with his merciless power. Bill Tytlas animation of this terrifying character is truly outstanding - quite easily some of, if not, the greatest work the Disney studio offered during this era.
But 'Ave Maria' wraps up the film breathtakingly, causing me to well-up every time I hear those lush vocals. The beauty of choosing this very song and to then place it right after 'Night on Bald Mountain' is that it not only provides an artistic narrative of retaliation, but it contrasts so wonderfully the power and intensity of the evil beforehand; so much so that it is the only piece of music in the film to feature vocals, and to then sing them so captivatingly. Without the visual content, 'Ave Maria' is a nice piece of music, but when placed alongside a calm recession of people who slowly track across screen with their individual lateens, it becomes something quite beautiful, almost jouissance.
The biggest light of all is the sunrise that precedes fill your screen; a message of hope, and the one message that is used throughout the entire film.
Fantasia, to me, was the one film that restoration and HD was made for and it clearly shows. Just about every scene in the film is different in some way, revealing artwork never seen before, colours that suddenly pop out and make sense, and brush detail that is so gorgeous, you can even see the texture of the card many backgrounds were painted on. During the live action scenes, whereas past prints have shrouded the musicians in darkness, the detail now lights up individual faces, hair, clothing, instruments... Its fair to say that the viewer finally does feel like they're at a concert, which was what the film intended in the first place!
Audio - a bit hit and miss. Because the Disney technicians were so obviously engrossed in drowning out noise and hiss (a lot of which was original in the first place), the final soundtrack sounds very thin/plastic-like when the entire orchestra is in full power. The problem is that filtering out noise to drastic measures lessens the dynamic range of the recording, and thus natural elements such as hall reverb have been completely drowned out. Yet on the other hand, many sections of the film rival modern recordings, which is particularly surprising - the best example being the Pastoral Symphony. The stereo panning of this soundtrack is also very poor and does not reflect the original Fantasound output; as is best heard on the VHS.
The improvements visually come down to restoring the film in the correct method; using the original RGB Technicolor camera negatives rather than old CYMK prints. The result is that the colour timing is now correct for the first time on a home media, and suddenly, everything just makes that bit more sense on screen. The live action shots of Taylor, previous in darkness, now show him up as a character that could have been filmed yesterday, he's that bright and clear.
The product is far from perfect though. Read more ›