Fantasia

FantasiaSynopsis: Fantasia created the mold for blending music and movie magic into an exhilarating moviegoing experience. Unforgettable images are brought to life by some of the world’s best music – the comedy of Mickey Mouse as a troublemaking sorcerer’s apprentice, the beauty of winged fairies and cascading snowflakes, even plump hippos performing ballet in tutus!

Fantasia truly captures Walt Disney’s unique inspiration – complete with the intermission and narration – which have not been included in the film since its original theatrical release! Never before has this masterpiece looked and sounded better. Enjoy the history, the sounds, the sheer excitement that is Fantasia!

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Fantasia 8.75

eyelights: its innovative concept. the gorgeous animation.
eyesores: its monotonous, artificial master of ceremonies. its censorship.

‘Fantasia’ is a 1940 animated motion picture by Walt Disney. It was his third feature film, after ‘Snow White and the Seven  Dwarfs‘ and ‘Pinocchio’, and it consists of eight short films inspired by popular classical music that were strung together with introductions by a Master of Ceremonies. Some were straight interpretations of the pieces’ stories, while others were more abstract in nature.

‘Fantasia’ began with Disney’s desire to boost Mickey Mouse’s fortunes, which were on the wane. This led to the impressive “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” short, featuring Mickey. The problem was that costs on its production ballooned beyond reason, leading Disney to conceive of ‘Fantasia’ in order to turn “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” into a feature-length film – in the hope of recouping their investment.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a success upon its initial release. Being an elaborate roadshow-style picture, Disney couldn’t find enough venues willing to allocate time for its set-up. Combined with the impact of the second world war on film distribution, it got limited exposure. But it was re-released successfully many times afterwards (albeit in truncated and re-recorded alternate versions) and grew to significant profit.

The picture is now considered a landmark, one of the great animated films in motion picture history. It is also considered the genesis of surround sound, as Disney wanted to reproduce the sound of an orchestra (as fully as possible with the day’s technology) and he developed a rich stereophonic soundtrack that he dubbed Fantasound. Although limited in scope, it planted a seed that has grown immeasurably since.

‘Fantasia’ is the first movie that I recall ever seeing. I don’t remember much of that screening, having been quite young at the time, but I have a mental picture of the dinosaurs segment (“Rite of Spring”), which was rather impressive to me. While it’s conceivable that ‘Fantasia’ wasn’t the first, it awed me enough that I was left with a clear imprint; I don’t even remember seeing any television shows before this.

As such, my love of ‘Fantasia’ is deeply rooted.

As with any classical music presentation, the programme begins with the setting up of the orchestra. As they take up their instruments and tune them in the shadows, notable composer and music critic Deems Taylor climbs up to the stage. He’s to be the Master of Ceremonies for the remainder of the picture, introducing each piece in turn with some back history and with a quick synopsis of their underlying plots.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s delivery is static and artificial. While this could have been suitable in a live context, where he would have been at a distance from the audience, blown up as he is on the big screen all his faults were magnified. His awkwardness is amplified by a horrible overdub by Corey Burton, whose voice simply does not seem to match the MC. Being a 1990 dubbing, you’d think it would be done better.

The first short is “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s an abstract piece that I enjoyed a lot more than I’d remembered. The idea was to reflect the vague mental images one might have while listening to the music, and as such is composed of swatches of colour, forms, shapes, but nothing especially concrete. There is no clear narrative, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch.

The second number is the “Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This one also has no narrative, but it’s more accessible, in that it playfully uses images from nature to enhance selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet – the best of which was the use of flowers in various forms. In a way, it was the perfect bridge between the abstract opening number and the more linear narrative of the following piece.

Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, featuring Mickey himself, comes next. Unsurprisingly, this is the short that looks the best. It features rich textures and has a depth to it to belies anyone’s notion that traditional animation is weaker than CGI animation. If all animated films were as beautifully-rendered as this one is, I suspect that traditional animation would finally regain the respect that it deserves.

The story for this one, which is based on Goethe’s poem “Der Zauberlehrling”, is simple: a sorcerer’s apprentice (Mickey) is tasked by his master with fetching water from the well. Tired of the back and forth trips, he decides to try his hand at magic to get a broom to do it for him. Unfortunately, he misjudges his spellcasting ability and he finds himself unable to stop the broom from doing its chore.

It’s both a light-hearted and quite dramatic. It’s hardly surprising to know that Disney worked so hard to get it right. It’s really a perfect short in all respects: exciting and visually-arresting. It was not only the centrepiece of the feature, and would likely have remained as such as the roadshow version gradually morphed over time, but it ended up being the bridge for its sequel, ‘Fantasia 2000’.

The final short before the intermission is Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. This is the short that I recall the most, as this is my only recollection of when I first saw ‘Fantasia’. It purports to show us how life formed on earth based on the day’s science and goes all the way to age of the dinosaur. Clearly, the dinosaurs made an impression. It’s still very cool, even if the animation isn’t as spectacular.

Interestingly, Stravinsky was still alive when Disney conceived of the short and offered to compose an entirely different piece for the occasion. It wasn’t selected, and Stravinsky was also displeased with the end result, seeing as Leopold Stokowski re-arranged and re-orchestrated “Rite of Spring”, leaving two pieces out. I noticed that the segments don’t really flow into one another, but thought it was as intended.

As they often do with classical music concerts, to give the orchestra a chance to get a breather, there is an intermission in the middle of the picture. In cinemas, this would give audiences a 15-minute break for refreshments and such, during which the ‘Fantasia’ title card would appear on screen. Frankly, given the material, I think that it was a good idea to give audiences a chance to recharge halfway through.

After the intermission, the orchestra starts to jam as they wait for Taylor’s return. Then begins a brief segment called “Meet the Soundtrack”. Intended to be humourous, it provides a visual impression of what sounds look like on the picture’s soundtrack. It’s not entirely accurate, as the animators took liberties for comedic purposes, but it was likely a first exposure to soundwaves for most audiences.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s “The Pastoral Symphony” follows. The setting here is Greek mythology and it finds male and female centaurs pairing up in a celebration of Bacchus, only to be disturbed by Zeus, who mischievously throws lightning down on them. It sounds more interesting than it is; somehow, despite the beautiful animation and fantastic setting, this one moves me far less than it probably should.

What’s interesting to note is that this segment has been censored. In the original version, black centaurs are shown tending to the white centaurs and are depicted in a stereotypical fashion. This was removed in 1969, when it was no longer considered appropriate. The edit was abrupt, so in 1990 they reinserted the sequence but focused on the white centaurs so that audiences couldn’t see the objectionable material.

Personally, I think that both versions should be made available and that a disclaimer should exist for the original version, which was made in a less enlightened time. That’s what Warner Bros. did with their Looney Tunes cartoons when they were released on DVD. It makes sense: we can’t excuse humanity’s past lapses, but we learn nothing from erasing history. Providing both versions would at least provide context.

The seventh short is “Dance of the Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli. This is a much more light-hearted piece than all the others, featuring ostriches, hippos and elephants doing a ballet number with crocodile antagonists showing up to pepper the proceedings. It’s silly and seemingly undignified at first glance, when one considers the context, but it’s perfectly-suited to the whimsical nature of the music.

‘Fantasia’ ends with a two-part piece composed of “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky and “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert. This is the darkest piece of the whole picture, but it’s also a properly dramatic close to the set. It shows a large demon (inspired by Bela Lugosi) summoning all manners of spirits and souls from their graves to haunt the air in swirls of blackness. It looks amazing; it’s quite impressive.

Then the spirits are scared off by the sounds of bells and the solemn “Ave Maria” begins, showing monks walking through the darkness with torches towards a large cathedral. While this finale is appropriate, I was never a huge fan of “Ave Maria” and it feels like a letdown after the unforgettable “Night on Bald Mountain”. It works contextually, but it just doesn’t do anything for me whatsoever.

It’s interesting to note that this segment was considered so frightening for children that it was removed from the first home video release – after years of the studio receiving complaints from concerned parents. It was later returned to its rightful place at the end of the picture for future home video releases. It’s a good thing too, because I can’t fathom the film finishing with the sight of dancing hippos.

‘Fantasia’ has gone through so many changes through the years, due to censorship and commercial demands, but one of the more notable changes is that the soundtrack was re-recorded for the 1982 re-release to take advantage of the greater fidelity of modern recording equipment and techniques. For years this was the version that people heard, but the original soundtrack has been restored for DVD.

Admittedly, I was underwhelmed by the quality of the soundtrack. On blu-ray, I half-expected it to sound crisp and brilliant, forgetting that its source material was recorded so many years ago that this is simply not possible. I also expected more of a surround quality to the picture, given its Fantasound origins. Alas, the sound was mostly front-heavy (there is differing opinion about the authenticity of this track, b-t-w).

But I nonetheless truly enjoyed watching ‘Fantasia’ again. It’s not an easy watch for all audiences, because it’s abstract, doesn’t always have a clear narrative, and at 124 minutes in length is a fairly demanding affair (it’s Disney’s longest animated film) but it’s a true masterpiece. It’s unfortunate that Taylor’s delivery is so stale and that it has been censored, and that is reflected in my rating.

Honestly, there’s no way that I can do it justice: I simply do not have the language to discuss its classical soundtrack, and it’s terribly difficult to interpret some of the animation. Since ‘Fantasia’ was essentially conceived of as a classical music concert with animation in support, it really is a different kind of motion picture, a breed apart. And, like ‘Baraka‘ and ‘2001‘, I think that it needs to be experienced at least once.

If it ever plays on a big screen near you, do yourselves a favour. Go see it. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, but you’ll never forget it.

Date of viewing: Jan 2, 2015

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