Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 1, 2010)
Ever since I first saw it many years ago, I’ve maintained a love/hate relationship with Disney’s 1940 “masterpiece” Fantasia. Actually, I should rephrase that: I’ve had a tolerate/hate relationship with the film during my prior viewings.
When I initially took in the movie, I was 16 and Fantasia was out in one of its many theatrical reissues. Normally I wouldn’t have gone to see a Disney animated flick at that age, but Fantasia had a reputation as a more sophisticated piece, so I gave it a shot.
As I recall, I wasn’t impressed. Actually, I’m pretty sure I found Fantasia to be a long-winded bore. But I was only 16 - what did I know?
A lot, I guess, because my opinion didn’t change one iota when I next saw the movie. Fantasia made its initial appearance on home video in late 1991, and a friend invested in the deluxe laserdisc boxed set even though he didn’t yet own a player. I did, so I agreed to check it out to make sure the package lacked defects.
I watched the whole thing, but only in a technical sense; I made active use of my remote’s “fast forward” button because I just couldn’t sit through many of the segments. My feelings about Fantasia exactly mirrored my opinions of eight years prior. While the movie clearly displayed some fine artistry, it nonetheless seemed terribly dull and almost never interested or delighted me.
Perhaps due to a masochistic streak, I decided to give Fantasia another shot in late 1998. Actually, this choice occurred because I went through a major Disney infatuation at that time. Prior to the end of 1998, I’d enjoyed modern Disney animated movies - from 1991’s Beauty and the Beast on - but I thought my interests were restricted to the newer films. I’d failed to feel enchanted by the older efforts and I doubted my opinions would change.
Yet they did alter, partially because the precipitous collapse in the laserdisc market meant I could find previously expensive boxed sets for a song. As such, I grabbed bargain copies of Cinderella and Snow White. No, I didn’t think I’d be wild about the films, but the prices were so cheap that I figured they merited a shot.
Fantasia boxed LD, I figured that even that clunker deserved another chance. After all, my attitudes toward the other Disney animated works had changed; perhaps I’d feel differently about my long-time nemesis as well.
To that end, I decided to avoid my experience of 1991 and I banished my remote control; love it or hate it, I was going to try Fantasia on its own merits and not fast-forward through any sections. At times, this became exceedingly difficult, but I made it to the end and granted the movie some mild respect when this occurred. My opinions didn’t make a radical change, but I found Fantasia a little more entertaining this time; I couldn’t claim to like the picture, but I managed to discover some good aspects of it.
Now that my Blu-ray screening has forced me to sit through Fantasia a fifth time, my feelings toward it remain fairly similar to those of the last showings. Frankly, much of Fantasia is darned dull, as it’s a long-winded effort that can become terribly boring at times. However, it provides a few solid moments that make parts of it good. I don’t think it deserves the “classic” status it maintains, but I don’t loathe it either.
Fantasia was an ambitious project that tried to integrate classical music and animation in a variety of styles. Most would attempt to tell a story, but others were more abstract. All would be combined into one long feature that attempted to offer a magical, enchanting experience.
At times, it succeeds. Fantasia’s most famous short, the Mickey Mouse effort “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, remains fun and lively. The cartoon defines the Mouse’s character as a lovable but flawed little guy who doesn’t have a mean or cruel bone in his body but who suffers from some weaknesses nonetheless. Here Mickey gets into trouble due to laziness; he uses magic to make brooms perform his chores, but he lacks the ability to stop them.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Mouse - Donald Duck always seemed more entertaining and compelling - but he works well in this piece. Mickey tended to be bland, mostly due to his popularity; the Mouse became so beloved that crowds rejected any attempts to make him anything other than perpetually good-natured and chipper. “Apprentice” modifies that presentation somewhat, but he certainly doesn’t compare with better-defined personae like Donald of Goofy.
Anyway, “Apprentice” stands as one of Fantasia’s high points, as it presents a fun and well-executed piece of entertainment. Also quite good is the film’s concluding sequence, a combination of “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria”. Actually, this program succeeds mainly due to the first half. The short starts with a vision of demons come to life, but they are eventually banished by the dawn and the appearance of religious pilgrims.
The latter sequence is a bit bland and unspectacular, as it sticks to simple images and little motion. “Night”, however, is simply terrific. Led by legendary animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, the segment seems dark and foreboding. It’s powerful and vivid piece that leaves a strong impression.
After that, Fantasia becomes much more of a mixed bag. Unquestionably the worst segment is “The Rite of Spring”. On the surface, it sounds like it’ll be really cool. Accompanied by Stravinsky’s music, the program depicts the birth and evolution of the Earth, going all the way through and slightly past the extinction of the dinosaurs. It should be exciting and fascinating.
It’s not. Instead, this 22 and a half minute segment feels like it lasts forever; at times it seems as though the story of the Earth’s development is being told in real-time. Technically, the piece is well-executed, but it defines the dullness at the heart of so much of Fantasia; it’s all about visuals and lacks anything else to make it entertaining or memorable.
I also disliked the more abstract sequences. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue In D Minor” and “Meet the Soundtrack” dragged, but they bothered me much less than “Rite” just because they didn’t last nearly as long; “Toccata” clocks in at almost nine minutes, while “Soundtrack” only goes for about three minutes. Actually, “Toccata” probably could have been longer than “Rite” and felt shorter just because it appears so early in the film; my patience was greater at that point than by the time we reached “Rite”.
The remaining three sequences in Fantasia fall between the aforementioned highs and lows; each have merits but don’t completely succeed for me. Of the three, “Dance of the Hours” probably works the best, if just because it’s the most well-integrated and comical. Too much of Fantasia suffers from an excessively serious tone, so it’s nice to see some more light-hearted material. The others - “The Pastoral Symphony” and “The Nutcracker Suite” - have their moments but are less consistent.
All of them suffer from the same problem that affects virtually all of Fantasia: they’re simply too long. Frankly, I think each of the major segments should have been significantly briefer, as they really wear out their welcomes. Often I’d find myself intrigued by a sequence but would get tired of the material well before it ended; some of these pieces just felt as though they’d never end.
As it stands, Fantasia remains a landmark achievement in filmmaking, but I can’t consider it a success just because too much of the movie leaves me flat. I certainly appreciate it more than I used to, but I still feel little enthusiasm for the film.
A few notes about the version of Fantasia found on this disc. The package touts it as “Walt Disney’s original uncut version”. Technically, this is true. For one, the movie restores about five minutes of footage that appeared in the “roadshow” edition of the film. As I’ll note in the section of my review that discusses the sound quality, this restoration required some compromises that may become controversial.
However, the big issue about this disc concerned just how “uncut” it would be. The original edition of Fantasia included some very stereotypical images of a black centaurette in the “Pastoral” section. For the last few decades, these have been omitted from the movie in the interest of political correctness.
The announcement that the disc would be “uncut” sparked conjecture that these snippets would reappear. Nope - you’ll not see the problematic image. However, it doesn’t appear that the scenes have actually been cut. Instead, the picture either zooms tightly to avoid the “offending” material, or it uses digital techniques to simply remove to centaurette. For instance, at 1:21:24, we should see the black centaurette trail after the pinkish one, but she’s just not there.
Should the images have been restored? Yup. I don’t support the racist imagery seen in the original film, but I also don’t think that these kinds of alterations are helpful. One cannot learn from mistakes if one denies their existence.
Through their DVD releases, Disney have pretended that they’ve never included any even remotely non-politically correct imagery. From small edits in Saludos Amigos and Melody Time to the deletion of one entire sequence of Make Mine Music, we’ve come across far too many alterations made in their material. Some argue that the offensive shots in Fantasia detract from the film because they stand out so strongly, and that may well be true.
However, I remain opposed to alteration of movies in this manner, if just because of the “slippery slope” on which it starts us; too much arguably questionable material appears in movies to let us begin to pick and choose what we want to pretend never existed. To modern sensibilities, the black centaurette in Fantasia is offensive, but it clearly wasn’t seen as such 70 years ago, and it should have remained as a depiction of the era’s standards. The Blu-ray makes these alterations much more smoothly than its DVD predecessor did, but the changes still shouldn’t have occurred.