Directed by: Multiple, uncredited artists
Starring: Mickey Mouse, Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor
This is a review of the 2014 Blu-ray release of the film.
Fantasia was a technical marvel when it was made in 1940. In an age where computer graphics can depict just about anything that you can imagine on screen, it's sobering to think that the animators here had to rely on pencils and brushes and the occasional Heath-Robinson piece of jury-rigged equipment and stop-motion animation. I had to keep reminding myself of that fact as I watched the film. Seventy eight years of technological advances in cinema have made it all too easy to dismiss what you're seeing. In order to fully appreciate the film I had to remind myself what sort of reaction I would have had when I saw it on the big screen as a small boy back in the 1960s.
To help underline how technically impressive the film was when it was released in 1940, one of the two extras on the disc is about Disney's special effects maestro Herman Schultheis's notebook, in which he recorded how the film was created in painstaking detail. Unfortunately, the contents of the notebook are very much glossed over during the short film on the disc - presumably because Disney would much rather that you spent $75 on the book about it instead. A throwaway comment made in the special feature - that Schultheis was last seen disappearing into the Amazonian rainforest carrying his camera and no survival gear other than a pocket knife - was so extraordinary that it really deserved more exploration. Why did he do that? What was his story?
Fantasia was originally intended to be updated every couple of years with newly-produced sequences featuring different pieces of classical music, and several of these were completed. The Blu-ray doesn't have the additional sequence of Debussy's Clair De Lune that was included on the 2000 DVD release. This felt like I was being short-changed, given that other discs in Disney's "Classics" series have included a welter of special features and additional content (the release of Bedknobs and Broomsticks is particularly good, as it includes entire sequences that were cut from the final print of the film).
When I first saw Fantasia, it was just twenty-eight years old; it was still moderately contemoporary. But watching it seventy eight years after it was made starts to reveal how much things have changed, not just technically but also musically and societally. The Nutcracker Suite is introduced with the comment that its composer really didn't like it and "nobody performs it any more." It's largely down to its inclusion in the film that Tchaikovsky's ballet has become as popular as it is today. I found myself feeling profoundly uncomfortable at the racial stereotype used for the portrayal of the Sorceror in the Sorceror's Apprentice sequence; I know that several even more racist depictions had been removed from the print back when I first saw it in the 1960s.
Reminding myself how I felt when I first saw the film at the cinema back then ended up backfiring on me; I found myself remembering the emotional reaction I had to it as a small boy and I'm sorry to say that for a large proportion of the first half of the film, that reaction was one of boredom. The abstract images of violin bows gliding across a sky full of clouds didn't do much for me when I was eight or nine; it was hard to get past that memory watching the film again, fifty years later. Whole sections of the film are dedicated to little more than the music accompanied by washes of colour with the musicians in silhouette, and the frenetic pace of modern cinema makes these parts of the film seem leadenly slow and uninspired. There are some odd touches, too; I'm guessing that the gag with the orchestra's percussionist falling through his frame of tubular bells was supposed to be funny, but now it just seems wildly misjudged.
But the biggest problem I had watching the film on Blu-Ray was with the sound. The film has not survived in the state that its creators intended. Much of the original sound for the film was misplaced, including all of the introductions to each segment by Deems Taylor (his spoken part was redubbed by Corey Burton for the film's 2000 release on DVD.) Audio that has survived has suffered in quality and the audio system I have is merciless in revealing flaws in source material. I found myself paying more attention to the variable quality of audio in the centre channel (the treble frequencies drop in and out on a regular basis) and on several occasions I was thrown out of the film entirely by the sudden repositioning of instruments in the surround mix, which was all over the place.
The end result was rather like going back to a house that you remember from your childhood and discovering that it has become old and dilapidated in your absence. The film was a work of genius, to be sure - but it has not withstood the passing decades unscathed. Fantasia is still worth watching, but do not expect to be captivated by its brilliance in the way that its original audience was. Too much time has passed.
Chris's rating: Three Stars