Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Fantasia: 60th Anniversary Special Edition (1940)
Studio Line: Disney

For the first time ever, Fantasia is available on DVD in a special, uncut edition! Restored and remastered, this special 60th anniversary DVD truly captures Walt Disney's unique inspiration -- complete with the intermission and narration -- which have not been included in the film since its original theatrical release!

Fantasia created the mold for blending music and movie magic into an exhilarating moviegoing experience. Unforgettable images are brought to life by some of the world's best music -- the comedy of Mickey Mouse as a troublemaking sorcerer's apprentice, the beauty of winged fairies and cascading snowflakes, even plump hippos performing ballet in tutus!

With this special edition DVD, you are invited on a behind-the-scenes look at Fantasia. Included is a compilation of audio interviews with Walt Disney spanning three decades, much of which has never been hears, as well as insightful commentaries by Roy E. Disney and others whose talents have contributed to the Fantasia legacy.

Never before has this masterpiece looked and sounded better than in this 60th anniversary edition DVD. Enjoy the history, the sounds, the sheer excitement that is Fantasia!

Director: Samuel Amstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, Walt Disney, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson
Cast: Deems Taylor, Leopold Stokowski
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English DD & DTS 5.0; THX; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 17 chapters; rated G; 125 min.; $29.99; street date 11/14/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentaries by Roy E. Disney, Conductor James Levine, And More!; Rare Archival Interviews With Walt Disney -- Spanning 3 Decades!; "The Making Of Fantasia" Featurette; THX-Certified, Including THX Optimode.
Purchase: Fantasia | Fantasia 2000 | Fantasia Anthology | Fantasia 2000: Vision of Hope - John Culhane, Roy E. Disney

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B+/B+

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 three 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 older films; I’d failed to feel enchanted by these 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.

To my surprise, I rather enjoyed these movies. That set me on a full-out Disney rampage, and when I saw a low-priced copy of the 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 DVD screening has forced me to sit through Fantasia a fourth time, my feelings toward it remain fairly similar to those of the last showing. Frankly, much of Fantasia is darned dull. 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 even remotely 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 starring “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 much of a 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. “TSA” modifies that presentation somewhat, but he certainly doesn’t compare with better-defined personae like Donald of Goofy.

Anyway, “TSA” 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.

However, 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” 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 less long just because it appears so early in the film; my patience was greater at that point than by the time we reach “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 was 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 feel as though they’ll never end.

That’s why I felt that Fantasia 2000, the recent “update” of the original, was much more successful. For all of the fine artistry found in Fantasia, the excessive length makes it too much of a chore to watch. F2K offers solid animation but also moved at a brisk enough pace to keep me entertained. 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 DVD. 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 DVD 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 DVD 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 zooms tightly on a few occasions. I clearly noticed these unnatural close-ups at the 1:19:25, 1:20:40, and 1:21:16 points; even if the composition didn’t seem odd, you’ll witness a much grainier image on those occasions due to the blown-up picture.

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 seem intent on pretending 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 seen far too many alterations made in their material. Some argue that the offensive shots in Fantasia detracts 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 60 years ago, and it should have remained as a depiction of the era’s standards.

The DVD:

Fantasia appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it occasionally shows its age, for the most part I thought the movie provided a very nice picture.

Sharpness usually appeared crisp and well-defined. A few segments - most of which involved medium shots of narrator Deems Taylor - looked slightly soft and hazy, but these were the exceptions; overall, the image seemed accurate and nicely delineated. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no significant concerns. For a film of this vintage, Fantasia displayed relatively few print flaws, but some problems appeared nonetheless. Grain cropped up fairly frequently, and I also noticed intermittent batches of white speckles and some minor instances of black grit. A couple of nicks could be seen as well, but more major defects such as scratches, blotches, or hairs were not observed.

Colors appeared nicely bright and bold. Fantasia displayed a wonderfully varied palette and all of these hues seemed well-reproduced. During some of the live-action shots, I detected slight heaviness to the red lighting, but otherwise I felt the colors were accurate and solid. Black levels seemed deep and tight, with no signs of fading or gray tones, and shadow detail appeared appropriately dark without any excessive heaviness. Ultimately, Fantasia presented a fine image that only dropped to a “B” due to a few notable flaws.

Also relatively fine is the film’s soundtrack. Actually, we find two separate audio mixes on this DVD: we get both Dolby Digital 5.0 and DTS 5.0 tracks. Unlike the sound I heard on Fantasia 2000, I discerned virtually no differences between these two mixes; to my ears, the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks seemed sonically identical.

Although the interstitial segments offered dialogue and some minor effects, music is clearly the star of this show, and the soundfield displayed the classical works with decent breadth. Throughout the film, the sound stayed very strongly in the front channels; the surrounds offered light reinforcement of the music but did not provide much enhancement.

In the front speakers, the sound presented a generally solid stereophonic image. At times I thought the mix tended toward too much gimmicky use of the stereo capabilities; I’d hear the music swish from one side to the other for no apparent reason. This seemed somewhat distracting but made sense within the parameters of the era; stereo was a gimmick, and I’m sure Disney wanted to show off the capabilities as much as possible, with led them away from a more naturalistic - and listenable - presentation. Truly integrated stereo occurs for much of the movie, however; the gimmicks stood out to me but they didn’t dominate the film.

Audio quality seemed dated but generally quite good. Dynamic range appeared limited, with slightly-clipped highs and little depth in the bass. However, for a 60-year-old recording, the fidelity was solid. The instrumentation came across cleanly and smoothly for the most part, and the track lacked much of the shrill quality that often pervades audio of this vintage. A little mild crackling could be heard on three or four occasions, and I also detected some light background noise on occasion, but overall the audio seemed largely free of distortion or other overt flaws. While the sound of Fantasia didn’t compete with modern affairs, it seemed very good for its vintage.

One audio issue occurred, however, in regard to the age of some recordings. Apparently all of Deems Taylor’s interstitial dialogue no longer exists. As such, to restore the film to the original “roadshow” length of 125 minutes, Taylor’s speech needed to be re-recorded; most of the extra length comes from his material, and I guess the restorers preferred the consistency of the dubbed dialogue rather than mix Taylor with the new voice actor.

All of which is well and good except for one problem: the newly-taped speech simply doesn’t blend neatly with the material. I found much of the Taylor footage difficult to watch because the lip-synch seemed off; the scenes aren’t integrated cleanly and it can be quite distracting. Ultimately I understand that this choice was made as a compromise; either the footage could be restored with the dubbed dialogue or it could continue to be omitted. I’m glad the material was placed back into the film, so I accept the choice, but I felt the problems that resulted were major enough to merit discussion.

Fantasia includes a few excellent supplements, starting with a unique audio commentary from Walt Disney himself. No, they didn’t thaw him out to chat about the film; instead, his remarks have been culled from decades of interviews plus transcripts of conferences. In addition, film historian John Canemaker adds some connecting statements and other facts about the film and the Disney studio.

Overall, I really liked this commentary. Although it begins with a concentration on Fantasia, it eventually develops more into a discussion of Disney’s philosophies and ideas; for example, he talks about his dedication to continued investment in the studio, and also relates his thoughts about critics. Canemaker becomes more active as the track progresses as well; he includes a fair amount of valuable information about the movie and the studio. However, Walt remains the prime attraction, and while some may find it disappointing that his remarks don’t focus exclusively on Fantasia itself, I thought the track offered a fine balance. We get a nice balance of statements from the man himself, and it’s a very nice compendium.

One complaint: I would have loved to have the dates of the comments identified. Disney's remarks span decades, and while some rough estimation of era can be judged from the quality of his voice, it would have been nice to have this data more clearly indicated. Despite that omission, I nonetheless really liked this unique supplement.

In the second audio commentary, we find a more general track from a variety of participants. Executive producer Roy E. Disney introduces the piece and also adds his remarks. In addition, we hear from Canemaker, film historian Scott MacQueen - who I’d enjoyed during his lively commentaries for The Phantom of the Opera and The Bride of Frankenstein - and F2K conductor James Levine. Although it’s not quite as fascinating as Disney’s track, I also found this commentary to present a lot of valuable information. Canemaker dominates with many remarks about the illustrators and other aspects of the production, but all of the commentators add useful facts. For example, MacQueen mainly focuses on issues related to the restoration. All in all, it’s a solid listen that complements the experience.

In addition to these two commentaries, we find a documentary called “The Making of Fantasia”. Hosted by David Ogden Stiers, this 47-minute and 20-second program offers a terrific little look at the creation of Fantasia. The show combines movie clips, archival materials such as Disney interviews and conceptual drawings plus recent interviews with Roy Disney, film historians like Canemaker, MacQueen, Rudy Behlmer, John Culhane, and Leonard Maltin and Disney animation veterans like Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. Through these factors, we get a quick look at the studio’s history before we learn a lot of nice facts about Fantasia itself. Overall, I thought the show was entertaining and compelling, and it made the film more satisfying for me.

One disappointment about the supplements of Fantasia, but not a surprise: there’s absolutely no mention of the altered footage during “The Pastoral Symphony”. No, I didn’t expect a discussion of the issue, but I think that there should have been one; so many are already aware of the changes that the studio should have been more up-front about the subject and clearly related the concerns. On the other hand, the DVD at least touches upon the revoicing of Taylor’s dialogue, though it doesn’t make the replacement explicitly known. (For the record, additional discussion of both these issues may occur on the third DVD available only in the “Fantasia Anthology” set; I haven’t screened it yet, so I can’t comment on this possibility.)

As first seen on the Fight Club DVD - and also available with Terminator 2 “Ultimate Edition”, the Toy Story movies and a number of Anchor Bay DVDs - Fantasia 2000 includes the "THX Optimode" program to set up your TV. This provides you with information to correctly configure various audio and video aspects of your home theater. I don't think it fully replaces something like Video Essentials, but then again, "Optimode" comes as a free addition to a DVD, so it's clearly a bargain. If you haven't already used VE or some similar product, you should find "Optimode" very helpful.

More than 17 years after I first saw it, my feelings about Fantasia remain mixed. While I respect it as a fine piece of technical work, the film itself still largely leaves me cold; some parts of the movie are compelling, but many others appear dull and boring. The DVD offers mildly-flawed but generally solid and clean picture plus relatively strong sound and some very nice extras. Despite my lukewarm thoughts about the movie, it’ll stay in my DVD collection mainly because I’m a big Disney fan. Clearly others who feel the same will want to own it, and I think others should give it a shot; you may love it, you may hate it, but Fantasia deserves a screening due to its place in movie history.

Note: Fantasia can be purchased either on its own or as part of a 3-DVD package called “The Fantasia Anthology”. The latter also includes the original Fantasia plus a third disc with a slew of supplemental materials about both films. Unlike the DVDs in the “Ultimate Toy Box”, the Fantasia disc available individually does not differ from the one found in the “Anthology”, so if you only want Fantasia, rest assured you won’t lose out on any goodies. However, if you plan to buy both movies and you enjoy extras, the “Anthology” is the way to go; it lists for only $10 more than the two separate DVDs and features a lot of additional materials.

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