Although I started drawing obsessively while is was still in junior high, it really wasn't until college that I took a formal art class, mostly because I didn't want to draw still life portraits of overturned chairs, and I especially didn't want to get my hands covered with charcoal. But in my pretentious obsession with abstraction and capital-A Art (by which I mean comic books and 'Star Wars' sketches), I diverted my attention briefly to sculpting, and decided that I would try to create out of clay a physical representation of music – as I saw it anyway. I don't remember the grade I ended up getting – I don't think it was great – but it was an idea that I thought was pretty original at the time. At least, I thought it was original until I remembered I got it from 'Fantasia.'
This week, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment released a four-disc Blu-ray containing copies of both 'Fantasia' and 'Fantasia 2000' in high and standard-definition, along with enough bonus content to fill that well in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'without needing any water. Notwithstanding the opportunity to examine the restoration performed on the original film, which it should be noted is stellar, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit the film and see if its artistic ambitions were still as admirable, much less successful, as when they were first released in 1940.
The Facts: 'Fantasia' was originally released on November 13, 1940, and thanks to considerable production costs – including the installation of "Fantasound" stereoscopic presentation in various theaters where it was shown – it did not turn a profit upon its initial release. When RKO distributed the film a year later, the studio excised an entire sequence and chopped down the interstitial footage that introduces each segment, but over several subsequent re-releases, RKO and Disney restored this material. Ultimately, the film earned some $76 million against its $2.28 million budget.
Meanwhile, the film continues to receive an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, boasting a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film won two special Academy Awards in 1941, one for Walt Disney, William E. Garity and J.N.A. Hawkins for "the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures," and one for Leopold Stokowski for achievements "in the creation of a new form of visualized music... thereby widening the scope of the motion picture as entertainment and as an art form." Additionally, 'Fantasia' was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990.
What Still Works: As a "form of visualized music," 'Fantasia' is an indisputable accomplishment – it combines sound and visuals in a way that had certainly been done before, but never in such a measured or effective way. What I mean by this is that although scores were composed for feature films and musicals were still largely in their incipient stages, Disney took a small selection of familiar or even iconic classical pieces of music and created visual accompaniment that complemented and even to some extent elevated them. The depiction of Earth's evolution in the "Rite of Spring" segment, for example, doesn't merely document a cute history of animals climbing out of the sea, but provides an "honest" chronicle of the destructiveness of the evolutionary process, and of Darwinist principles. Meanwhile, some of the other segments, such as those using Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," find or invent visual landscapes that reflect the rhythm and color, and especially the nuance of the music itself.
Artistically, there are a number of techniques and images used that are virtually never seen in animated films today, but which create a certain kind of texture – and artistry – that even computers cannot replicate. For example, during the earthquake section that closes the "Rite of Spring" segment, much of the artwork is rendered with clearly hand-drawn techniques; the pencil strokes are visible on screen, but rather than seeming amateurish or unsophisticated, they give those images a humanity and a texture that would otherwise be absent. Moreover, there are dozens of other flourishes, such as the snowflakes in the "Nutcracker Suite" segment, which would probably be child's play for a computer animator, but their geometric precision and yet fully organic beauty is breathtaking to behold, especially given the fact that they were done by hand.
Finally, what's really exciting is how the film flirts with some very provocative ideas, from its almost literal interpretation of the principles of science-based evolution to its decidedly exaggerated but artistically indulgent chronicle of Walpurgis Night in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence. Perhaps by comparison these would be relatively tame today, these concepts seem really controversial, especially for entertainment that might at all be directed towards children, as animated features almost invariably were during the days of the film's release.
What Doesn't Work: It's interesting that RKO chopped out a lot of material from the introductions to each segment by Deems Taylor, because that is by far the most cloying and unnecessary material. While an introduction is certainly welcome – a context for each of the pieces, and an idea of what the audience will see – Taylor's monologues are unnecessarily detailed, offering almost a play-by-play of what the audience will soon see. It's really only because of these sequences that the film occasionally feels overlong; you develop a real "get on with it" feel after a while because you want to get to the next piece, but can't.
And although this actually isn't on the Blu-ray thanks to some careful editing by John Carnochan, but in the "Symphony No. 6" segment, the ensemble of centaurs originally contained a "black" centaur named Sunflower who was rendered racially offensively. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the revisionist removal (I prefer the original uncut version, but don't feel its absence), but suffice it to say that its inclusion is remarkably offensive and undercuts the achievement of the rest of the film.
What's The Verdict: 'Fantasia' is a classic, and an amazingly groundbreaking film, not just artistically but technically, using advancements like the multi-plane camera pioneered by Disney to create images unlike any that had ever been seen before. Overall, the film creates a sort of singular physical manifestation of music – not merely by pairing toadstools with bassoons or crashing cymbals with lightning bolts, but by using the visual landscape of animation to show the dimensionality of music beyond even what we hear and pay attention to. (It becomes almost like game to pick out what creature or instrument or shape or movement will represent which actual sound or instrument.)
Its minor pacing issues notwithstanding, 'Fantasia' is a real masterpiece whose only real disappointment is that its initial lack of box office success meant that Disney did not continue to produce subsequent volumes. Suffice it to say that audiences as a whole could certainly benefit from a little culture in the form of some classical music, but for my part, I would have loved to see how the animators further transformed other music – especially other genres- into physical landscapes and images that, like the ones in this film, would become virtually indistinguishable from the music that they're attached to.