One of the complaints against Disney is that the films, books, television shows, etc., that they produce are all strictly low brow, that the company doesn't have any ambitions to produce great works of art, merely commercially successful ones. Perhaps the perfect counterpoint to that argument is Walt Disney's Fantasia. The film combines classical pieces of music with animated segments, and while it unquestionably has some whimsy to it, it doesn't feel as though it is perfectly suited to mass low brow viewing, some of the animations are distinctly abstract and do not lend themselves to easy consumption.
It is explained quite clearly up front in the film that the animations depicted to go along with the pieces of music are not what the composers intended, but rather what the songs inspired in the Disney artists. Consequently the result is a film that looks vastly different from one segment to the next – as stated, some are purely abstract animations whereas others are story driven.
Virtually without a doubt, the most famous of the pieces in Fantasia is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," based on Paul Dukas' piece of the same name. This is the classic Mickey adventure that virtually everyone knows – Mickey is an apprentice to a Sorcerer (Yen Sid), and when tasked with cleaning, opts to use the Sorcerer's hat to animate some brooms to do the work for him. Things go awry and Mickey nearly drowns in the resulting flood before the Sorcerer returns to save the day.
Of course, there are other incredible and incredibly memorable pieces included in Fantasia as well. Things such as Amilcare Ponchielli's "La Gioconda: Dance of the Hours" which features tutu-ed hippos dancing alongside alligators. There is also the combination of Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" with Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" to end the film. The opening portion of the segment is notably disturbing for a Disney film, featuring all manner of evil creatures rising before the day comes and they retreat once more.
Each piece in the film is introduced and setup for the audience, a great idea to help situate viewers. As described in one of the bonus features, it also helps "cleanse the palette" between the pieces which are all vastly different from one another.
As has oft been documented, one of Walt Disney's ideas with Fantasia is that it could be rereleased constantly, with new musical segments replacing old ones. Perhaps unfortunately, that never happened. A sequel was however produced, Fantasia 2000, and that has been included in this new Blu-ray set as well. Fantasia 2000 is notably shorter than the original, and certainly more accessible to kids as well. The abstract pieces are missing from the film, replaced instead with those more of the story-based ilk. It also, true to Disney's idea, does contain a work from the original, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
For this reviewer, the highlight of the second movie is unquestionably "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin which is paired with Al Hirschfeld inspired animation. Hirschfeld actually also served as a design consultant on the segment. It is quite a lively piece of music and truly special to see Hirschfeld's drawings come to life.
Fantasia 2000, as with the original, also includes interstitial moments to set up the next piece, in this case they are done by celebrities including Quincy Jones, Steve Martin, and Bette Midler. Whereas the original film features Leopold Stokowski as the conductor (he does appear in the archival footage of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in 2000), Fantasia 2000 has James Levine with the baton.
Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 are probably best described as experiences. It is wondrous and wonderful to sit back, relax, and watch the music and animation flow over you. On Blu-ray, Disney has done an incredible job with the films. The colors and color palette are rich and varied, the detail is incredible, and both films shine. It is impossible to overstate just how good Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 look in this release. Every moment, every tonal shift, every animation is absolutely gorgeous, and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are superb accompaniment. There really is little if anything to complain about with the audio – it is full, rich, and clean. Disney, as I have stated before, in general, tends to do a very good job putting films on Blu-ray and with this release they have outdone themselves.
In terms of bonus features, the four disc release isn't quite jam-packed, but it does have some nice stuff, starting with each film existing both on Blu-ray and DVD. For the first Fantasia there are two commentary tracks that were originally released with the "Legacy Collection" DVD, one with Roy E. Disney, James Levine, animation historian John Canemaker and manager of film restoration Scott McQueen. The other is hosted by Canemaker and features archival discussion by Walt Disney himself. The new commentary here is by Brian Sibley, a Disney historian. The original film also contains an art gallery, a short piece on the Disney family museum, and one detailing a notebook created by Herman Schultheis which delves into how the animation was created (the techniques were long thought to be forgotten). It can also be watched with artwork on the sides of the image to fill out the 1.33 aspect ratio to that of modern televisions.
For its part, Fantasia 2000 also contains two audio commentary tracks from the Legacy release, one with Roy E. Disney, Levine, and producer Don Ernst; and the other with the director and art director for each Fantasiasegment. There is also a featurette on a never-produced film called Musicana which Disney thought might be a follow-up to .
The highlight of the special features for both films, "Destino," is also on the 2000 Blu-ray. This short (approximately seven minutes) was originally conceived of and planned out by Walt Disney and Salvador Dali in 1946. For various reasons it was shelved only to be completed in 2003 (it garnered an Academy Award nomination that year). As it is animation set to music it fits in perfectly with the release and looks like the perfect blend of Disney and Dali – a combination one would never have considered putting together, but which works exceedingly well. The Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray also has a feature length documentary (82 minutes) on Walt Disney, Salvador Dali, how their histories intertwine, how they came together, and how the short ended up being finished. It is an amazing piece of history, and nearly as interesting as the features.
Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 are films unlike so much of what is in the Disney canon. They are triumphant works of art, blending the best in animation with truly wonderful pieces of music. They are also stunning on Blu-ray and well worth purchasing even for those who own a DVD copy of the films.
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 on Blogcritics.