But even more alarming to Walt in the summer of 1936 was the fact that his studio’s greatest asset; Mickey Mouse – once hailed as a star on par with the likes of Gable and Garbo - had fallen quietly out of public favour, thanks in part to Disney’s diversification into other projects that did not include Mickey. Hence, in the summer of 1937, Walt began plans to resurrect Mickey in a new short subject – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Incorporating the slant of a Silly Symphony, the short would be told entirely through music.
Unfortunately for Walt, the project quickly became far more costly in its development than any other short produced at the studio. A chance meeting with Philadelphia Symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski provided the answer. Why not make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the centerpiece of a much larger film – a concert feature celebrating some of the most popular compositions ever written? The idea was inspiring and different to say the least. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was put on hold until after the release of Snow White.
A resounding success, Snow White earned enough money on its theatrical release to effectively put Disney Studios in the black. It also provided Walt with more than enough capital to produce his next two features; Pinocchio and Fantasia (1940). Today, Fantasia is widely regarded as one of the most ambitiously imaginative and fascinating departures in animation. However, at the time of its release it proved to be an incredible personal disappointment for Walt and a heavy financial flop that liquidated much of the studio’s prosperity.
The project was hard going from the beginning. Spurred on by initial excitement and Stokowski’s considerable involvement, Walt put into development no less than twenty-four individual concepts for segments to be included in his ‘concert feature’ – only eight (Toccata and Fugue, The Nutcracker, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Rite of Spring, The Pastoral Symphony, Dance of the Hours and Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria) were fully formed in the final film.
In re-conceptualizing classical orchestrations into visual designs, Disney chose to step away from time-honoured perceptions and interpretations by musicologists. However, to ensure that Fantasia would be taken seriously by the high brow set, and, to lend a certain amount of critical authority to his project, Walt employed noted music historian and critic, Deems Taylor to provide introspective narrations between each segment. Finally, to ensure the absolute integrity of the audio portion of his film, Walt also began ambitious experimentations with a then revolutionary six track stereo recording process he nicknamed ‘FantaSound.’
Indeed, the Hollywood and New York premieres of Fantasia were treated more like a night at the opera than an evening at the movies with lavish printed programs given out to guests quaffed in their night time finery. A specially designed stereo speaker system installed to reproduce the directionalized audio tracks recorded in FantaSound ensured maximum integrity in audio fidelity.
Unfortunately for Walt, the critics were all but unkind to his grand gesture. Those who had expected furry forest animals and cute cartoons a la Walt’s own Silly Symphonies were instead subjected to a fairly adult interpretation on everything from the creation of the world to demonic possession and hallowed resurrection.
Bewildered at how best to review such an ambitious and unprecedented break with tradition, many newspapers sent both a film and music critic into the theatre on opening night; only to have the former emerge considerably alienated by the plot-less experience and the latter much insulted with Disney’s cheek in depicting hippos, minotaurs and goldfish indulging the likes of Dukas, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.
Walt had intended that his ‘concert feature’ should always be an evolving masterwork with new segments constantly being added. However, following Fantasia’s disastrous general release all such plans were immediately scrapped. Henceforth, Disney would regard his masterpiece as a painful personal failure.
It was not until the late 1960s, shortly after Walt’s death, that a general re-release of Fantasia prompted not only considerable interest in the film but ultimately a total embracement of its brilliant audacity in concept and design. Today, Fantasia is rightfully regarded as one of Walt’s most stunningly surreal and ever-lasting grand experiments – indeed, a fitting conclusion to a project that only Walt and his animators had initial faith in.
As a one-time animation student, this critic can recall meeting with several Disney animators during a Q&A back in 1991 where the most readily repeated inquiry was "when will there be another Fantasia?" The response then was cordial but cryptic, although suggestions were made that there might be plans for a follow up on the horizon - a response that met with applause and overwhelming approval.
Thus, in 1999 Disney Inc. did indeed debut Fantasia 2000, a fitting epitaph to the studio's other golden age inaugurated in 1989 with The Little Mermaid; capping off a decade's worth of incredible artistry on a high note.
As the inspiration for the original film had been Lukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the centerpiece of Fantasia 2000 remains this original sequence excised from the original film, slightly cropped and matted to conform to the 1:85:1 aspect ratio of this sequel. The sequence is bookended by some of the most visually arresting animation ever done at the studio. The Pines of Rome, as example, is an engrossing undersea ballet with graceful killer whales serving as weightless titans of the silvery seas. Carnival of the Animals is an obvious homage to the irrepressible humour from the original film's Dance of the Hours; with a flock of jealous flamingos attempting to censure one of their own who has discovered the joys of a Yo-Yo.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier Concerto No. 2 is a relatively faithful adaptation of the classic fairytale about an unlikely romance between a one legged toy soldier and music box ballerina. Fantasia 2000 is capped off by two truly inspired artistic sequences; the first - a story of rediscovering divine happiness in the everyday and making the ordinary extraordinary - set to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and visually inspired by the linear artistry of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The film's closing sequence, The Firebird Suite, (owing much to the forest fire sequence from Bambi) is nothing short of mesmerizing as a fiery phoenix lays waste to a majestic forest, only to have the green earth goddess nymph of Mother Nature resurrect her with glorious and passionate effect.
If Fantasia 2000 has a flaw, it derives from the rather lack lustre 'star' cameo introductions that bookend each animated sequence; each of the talents having appeared in Disney films from better days gone by. Some of the stars, like Angela Lansbury, acquit themselves quite nicely of the rather self congratulatory material - rising above the triviality of it all, while others - particularly Penn and Teller and Bette Midler, founder with not enough to say and seemingly barely enough good reason to say it! Nevertheless, Fantasia 2000 is compelling entertainment - a sumptuous visual feast that leaps through a myriad of musical emotions brilliantly conducted by James Levine and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Prepare to be astonished. For just as advertising publicity of its day declared that "Fantasia will amaze you!" Disney's new Blu-Ray offering represents a visual presentation of this immortal classic as never before witnessed either on the big or small screen. Quite simply, the image is confounding in its superior resolution, its creamy smooth - yet sumptuously sharp - visual characteristic with colours that positively leap from the screen. More than ever, Fantasia transcends the mere moniker of 'movie' to become a visceral and eloquent 'experience' not to be missed. Startlingly beautiful, crisp and with no hint of age related artefacts present throughout, Fantasia is jewel to be treasured.
Fantasia's audio - nicknamed 'Fanta-sound' by Walt was ahead of its time and it is saying much that since the advent of true HD stereo the original audio stems recorded back in 1940 now come to aural life as few soundtracks of that vintage have or can. The meticulous attention to detail in recording Leopold Stowkowski's orchestrations then yield a superior sound presence today with subtle nuances accentuated in the most glorious and revealing way.
Deems Taylor's vocals are, as before, the one shortcoming to this audio presentation. The originals were in a delicate state of disrepair and what is heard currently are over-dubs of Taylor's vocals that lack texture and tonality. This, however, is a minor oversight. The rest of the soundtrack is represented with sonic excellence that arguably will never be equalled.
Extras include a new audio commentary by Brian Sibley that is comprehensive to say the least. There is also a 4 minute featurette on the newly opened Disney Museum as well as 14 minutes on Herman Schultheis' technical processes as 'effects coordinator. What is absent this time around is the nearly hour long 'making of' featurette that accompanied the original DVD release of Fantasia. Why this wonderful piece has been omitted herein is beyond me. Nevertheless, for its astonishing new visual presentation alone, these discs come as a 'no brainer' repurchase. Quite simply, Fantasia is a masterpiece to be celebrated now and for all time. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Fantasia & Fantasia 2000