There's something very special about a Disney film arriving on Blu-ray, isn't there? That gorgeous blue packaging, lavishly illustrated and proudly proclaiming the bounteous wonders that you will encounter within. It is, of course, now a bonafide trademark to see the words “Timeless” and “Magical” brandished in the blurb, but with Disney, more so than possibly any other studio, these adornments apply.
And, in may ways, Fantasia – and this extraordinarily beautiful 4-disc special edition of the film along with its sequel, Fantasia 2000 – is the most magical and timeless of any that Uncle Walt created.
Boldly conceived as an experiment in pushing the boundaries of sound and picture, 1940's beguiling Fantasia was severely unappreciated upon its initial release. Together with the renowned Leopold Stokowski, who conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra, and Deems Taylor who provides to-camera introductions and informative insight about how the music in the programme should be interpreted, Uncle Walt created a flamboyantly ingenious, art-house sensory overload that threw avant-garde imagery, surrealism and proto-psychedelia into an episodic phantasmagoria centred around many varied symbolic depictions of harmony, chaos, good and evil – oh, and Mickey Mouse. Perhaps understandably, the crowds who flocked to experience this colourful new wonder from the studio that had woven celluloid dreams out of all those wild cartoons didn't know what hit them. Truly, this was something that they hadn't seen, or heard before. The lack of a fuller story was one spanner in the works, though this shouldn't have been anything unusual since Disney had been purveying his short Silly Symphonies for years. Fantasia was also a long film, over two hours, and its hook of mood-infusing animated hedonism was shamefully mistaken more for enforced cultural edification … and the audience of the time didn't much feel like a music lesson.
Thankfully, after several reissues that would tap into the changing mindsets of filmgoers, Walt's magisterial creation has since been enormously reappraised and placed on Disney's highest pedestal as a shining example of shared vision, indomitable passion and unsurpassed artistry. It can be viewed in many ways, from musical appreciation to the love of animation and, naturally, just the sheer trippy merging of both disciplines in one mighty dollop of eye and ear candy.
Myth and legend are brought to entrancing life in the amusing, though decidedly “dainty” Pastoral Symphony that allows us to spy upon centaurs frolicking in a fairytale glen, whilst cherubs look on and entice romance. Most fans will already know that this is the now universally accepted “censored” version of Fantasia, with the image re-framed to remove the sight of the black centaurs during the Pastoral Symphony. Since the original and potentially offensive material has not been since before 1969 in any cut of the film, the majority of us will have no problem with the fact that it hasn't been reinstated. The sequence plays out just as blissfully unaffected by any changes as it has done for over forty years.
Little magic mushrooms coming to life and dancing almost seems like a sly in-joke towards the acid-drop crowd who rediscovered Fantasia in its 1969 reissue. Lady-hippos pirouetting about a Roman villa and incurring the toothy advances of a troupe of alligator troubadours can even be seen as a zestful satire on Strictly Come Dancing, only with enormously better choreography. The protracted montage of how life on Earth evolved in the Rites Of Spring is a blistering visual depiction of volcanoes, lava-seas, aquatic natural selection leading into intense dino-trouble, that becomes a beautiful and elegiac ode to survival and the obstacles that attempt to thwart it.
But, for most people, it is the splendid Mickey Mouse sequence of The Sorcerer's Apprentice that stands out. Quite why this skilled old wizard should choose to have the clumsy, witless Mouse as his young apprentice is beyond me. You can only imagine what Sir Alan Sugar would say at such a example of ill-judged “initiative”. An age-old cautionary tale warning against the misuse of power, this sees the sorcerer's gothic abode getting deluged with water when Mickey's lazybones apprentice hands over his chores to a broomstick that he has foolishly put a spell on with the aid of the magician's mystical hat. Like a spindly terminator, the broomstick cannot be reasoned with or bargained with, and it absolutely will not stop in its pail-carrying mission. Even an axe assault that chops it into iddy-biddy pieces results in disaster when those splinters then transform into a menacing legion of broomsticks, all determined to get the job done with unstoppable verve. The music was specially commissioned to fit the visuals, and it contains that wonderfully relentless march to denote the endless procession of falsely conjured obsession. There is something of the dark malevolence and surrealism of Disney's Elephants On Parade dream-sequence from Dumbo about this ceaseless and untiring display, and these stalwart little beanpoles become quite eerily demonstrative. They could take over the world, if they don't drown it first, that is. It is great the way that when Mickey initially bestows life to the broom, we actually feel a shiver of trepidation in time with the music as its little hands suddenly materialise and it takes those first steps of its own.
But, for me, the greatest and boldest sequence comes at the end with the absolutely towering power of A Night On Bald Mountain. Boasting one of the most frightening pieces of classical music ever written and containing animation of such dark and medieval occultism, this two-act opera of diabolism and salvation is the most mesmerising and haunting that Disney conceived. Here, we actually have a truly terrifying demon (called Chernabog and initially intended to have been modelled on poses from Bela Lugosi which, sadly, weren't as impressive as those enacted by the segment's director, Wilfred Jackson, whose performance replaced Lugosi's) awakening atop his spire-peaked mountain lair to wreak havoc on the shuddering world below and entice his wretched and evil followers to rise from their graves, or from whatever rank and foetid hidey-hole they call home, and to serenade his power in a delirious airborne rendition of the Witch's Sabbat. With depictions of beasts, ghouls and imps cavorting in their master's fiery embrace, wraiths rising from their tombs, the demonic influence spreading over the land like a Nosferatu shadow-hand of mass destruction, and the exultant imagery of a fiend morbidly fascinated at the obscene writhing of his minions, this was Disney as you'd never seen it before … and even with the snarling rage of the Beast from Beauty And The Beast, the hideous murder of Mufusa in The Lion King, the dark tentacled transformation of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, you've not seen its like since. The studio would hint at such evil again. We would see some spectacularly depraved and villainous witches in both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, but they had been Grimm's folkloric harridans. This was something else. Here was the very being that those witches would bow down to in fawning supplication. His very inhumanity was painted with grave evocation and the set-piece is a blistering salvo of corruption and torment. And I love it.
The second passage in this bravura sequence is that depicting the triumph of Good over Evil, light over darkness. With the distant pealing of the church bells and the heralding of dawn, the demon is unnerved, his powers suddenly waning and his dominion losing its grip over the realm. Gradually, he slinks back beneath the vast folds of his bat-like wings and remoulds with the rocky mountain-top. What follows next is Disney's variation of The Final Conflict, as Light and Order vanquish Chaos and a steady and ethereal procession of lights pass through the land to the awesome celestial strains of Ave Maria. Now, I'm more a fan of the dark side of things, but there is no denying the power of this transition.
As an introduction to classic music, Disney found possibly the easiest and most accessible avenue. As a experiment in what Cinema could achieve, both technically and emotionally, the film was a resounding success, even if audiences weren't as immediately appreciative of the endeavour as they have become over the decades since it debuted. As a trance-fugue of visual intoxication it also takes some beating. And as a piece of brave filmmaking that undertook the fullest possible exploration of the marriage between sound and vision, it is undoubtedly one of the most important.
Fantasia, then, is an absolute masterpiece.
Moving on to Fantasia 2000, however, is something of a mixed blessing, I find.
The animation is naturally far superior and more sophisticated, the music almost as rapturous, the attention to detail and the sumptuous appeal of the film is typically exacting. But there are several things that knock this opulent continuation on a theme down from the giddy heights that its illustrious predecessor attained.
Having a host of stars – Steve Martin, Penn & Teller, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones and, of course, the ubiquitous Angela Lansbury – provide comical introduction to each new vignette, all suited and booted in tuxedos and smarming for the camera in horribly mock deference and humility just smacks of the worst presenting you see at the Academy Awards. For me, this is a terrible mistake that erodes the high standards set by the original, whose educational interludes were, ironically enough, never actually boring at all, despite what some people claim. Of them all, only Penn & Teller offer something a little less saccharine and false which, in itself, is rather ironic as they are the ones endorsing the act of trickery as opposed to genuine magic. But, following on from this, the duo are also responsible for introducing the film's totally unnecessary repeat of the original's famed story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. No different than before – and nor should it be – this eats away at the already meagre running time (only 75 minutes this time out, a full 50 minutes shy of the first film's luxurious duration) and, especially now that we have the two productions and can view them back to back, this just seems like a complete cop-out, I'm afraid. When Fantasia 2000 first came out, I and I suspect many others, re-watched the original as a taster and, even back then, I was more than miffed at this lazy inclusion.
Whereas the first film's hypnotic and surreal representation of the orchestra – even the prat-fall with the chimes – actually felt quite grand and dreamlike, the follow-up seems horribly condensed, with its ensemble quite obviously just stuffed onto what looks like a TV studio set. The picture may be smooth and sublime during these segments, but the aesthetic has television special written all over it – which only lessens the cinematic quality even more.
But, in my opinion, the worst error of judgement that the sequel makes is the use of Pomp And Circumstance for the Donald and Daisy Duck sequence in which we revisit the story of Noah's Ark. Quite simply, this music just does not go with the theme or the visuals, and seems utterly incongruous to me. Considering the senses-caressing pairings of sound and vision that have been encountered all through the original film and throughout most of this one, this is a huge and glaring mistake. The whimsical sight of a gaggle of flamingoes getting messed-up with a yo-yo is actually scored with the more applicable Carnival Of The Animals from Saint-Saens.
But Fantasia 2000 still has a great deal to offer. The early piece, set to Pines Of Rome, is just about as beautiful and magical as you can get. Telling the transcendental story of a school of humpback whales as they journey mystically and symbolically from the ice caverns of the Antarctic seas to clouds and then beyond into the majesty of space and a much higher dimension, this has images of such power and haunting radiance that it lingers in the mind for a long, long time afterwards. An art-deco glimpse of life in 30's Manhattan is a breezy, jazzed-up progression of stylised imagery that doesn't seem totally in-keeping with the sensibilities of the rest of the programme, but becomes a fascinating and humorous study that etch-a-sketches itself across the screen beneath the undulating strains of Rhapsody in Blue. The brief but enjoyable fairytale of The Steadfast Tin Soldier actually combines true love and devotion with a great jack-in-the-box villain to the wonderful Piano Concerto No. 2 from Dmitri Shostakovich. But the highpoint comes at the climax of the programme, just like the first time around. And, as then, it is a symbolic struggle between light and dark, peace and chaos. The Firebird is a very anime-influenced tale that sees a woodland sprite incurring the wrath of the mythical titular creature and the ensuing apocalypse of flame and fury that consumes the natural world. The Firebird, itself, becomes a Balrog/Monster of the Id type of vengeance machine that eats up the forest with definite shades of Hayao Miyazaki. It is a visually and emotionally powerful tale conjured out of simply jaw-dropping animation, and it allows the film to bow out on a spectacular note that even manages to evoke memories of Bambi with its colossal inferno and a saviour in the form of the noble stag.
Both films epitomise the values that Walt Disney held dear, and they both fire up the imaginations of young and old alike. Now on Blu-ray, they can be properly appreciated as the stimulating audio-visual celebration that their creators intended. Together they are a spellbinding journey that covers almost every human emotion … but their greatest effect is one that cannot be put into words. Quite simply, they are a euphoric fantasia.