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'Fantasia' - The Disney Versions

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According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a fantasia is 'a musical composition, free and fanciful in form'. According to popular culture, however, there is another definition: the interpretation of classical music by the art of motion picture animation. This definition was created by the Walt Disney Studios in 1940 and was reinforced by Disney's creative heirs in 2000. This entry discusses in turn the Disney Fantasias: the 1940 original and its sequel, Fantasia 2000.

Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940)

According to Disney lore, Fantasia began when Walt Disney sought to revive interest in his main cartoon star, Mickey Mouse. He decided to create a short cartoon starring Mickey and set to Paul Dukas' work The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Early on in project development, he met famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, who agreed to conduct the score with a full orchestra. Both Stokowski and Walt shared a drive for perfectionism, though, and this drive pushed the costs of the cartoon up to the point where it would not be profitable. Walt and Stokowski then agreed to 'package' the cartoon with other short subjects, all set to selected pieces of classical music performed by Stokowski's Philadelphia Orchestra. The end result, initially called the Concert Feature but later renamed Fantasia, was released in limited distribution in 1940. Hosted by music expert Deems Taylor, the film consists of the following sections:

  • 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor' by Bach - Disney's first experiment with abstract art style in animation, initially storyboarded by German abstract artist Oskar Fischinger, but later toned down by the Disney crew, who feared that Fischinger's concepts would be lost on a middle-class audience.

  • Selections from 'The Nutcracker Suite' by Tchaikovsky - Instead of following the story of The Nutcracker ballet, Disney's artist showcase their mastery of personality animation, giving an emotional life to brambles, lilies, orchids, fish, mushrooms and fairies.

  • 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' by Dukas - The first appearance of a totally redesigned Mickey Mouse, most notably with whites in his eyes. Many consider this the definitive portrayal of Mickey.

  • 'The Rite of Spring' by Stravinsky - Stravinsky was the only living composer who had a work presented in Fantasia, having granted permission to Walt not only to use Rite of Spring, but the Firebird Suite as well. He was later publicly dismayed at the result: Disney used the Rite to tell a story about the origins of life on earth. This segment is a benchmark film for special effects work.

  • 'The Pastoral Symphony' by Beethoven - This is the weakest segment of the film, whose portrayal of the Gods of Olympus at play was initially set to Pierné's Cydalise. Poor character design combined with a slow-moving story render this segment no more than mediocre.

  • 'Dance of the Hours' by Ponchielli - A satire on classical ballet, using ostriches, elephants, hippos and alligators.

  • 'Night on Bald Mountain' by Moussorgsky - One of the most powerful scenes of animation done anywhere, at any time. The demon Chernobog plays with the souls of the damned before being driven back into his mountain lair by the sound of church bells. The music segues into Schubert's Ave Maria, where a procession walks towards a sunrise in one of the longest panoramic shots ever devised at the time.

Fantasia was initially released as a 'roadshow version'; viewers were given special programmes and had to make reservations in advance. Also, the soundtrack for the film was presented in a primitive form of stereophonic sound reproduction known as 'Fantasound'.

Although the film was a critical success in major urban centres, the film was a financial failure on its initial release. Only a limited number of theatres could carry the Fantasound system, and many family viewers who expected another Snow White or Pinocchio were puzzled by the film's subject matter. Although the film did make money in subsequent re-releases, it was not until the late 1960s and the Acid Generation that the film's more abstract elements began to appeal to the public when, finally, the film went into the black.

Fantasia is currently available on DVD in its original 'roadshow' format, with both visuals and soundtrack (except for Deems Taylor's introductions, which have been re-recorded) digitally restored.

Fantasia 2000

In the programme notes for the original Fantasia, Walt had noted that other musical selections would be added or substituted in subsequent re-releases. In the early 1990s, Walt Disney's nephew, Roy Edward Disney, (who was then chairman of Walt Disney Feature Animation) decided to follow up on this idea and began recruiting talent to make a sequel of sorts to Fantasia. The result was Fantasia 2000, released through selected IMAX theatres in the millennial year.

Roy had initially intended to combine segments of the original Fantasia with a few newly created shorts. But as project development continued, Disney decided to retain only 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' as a nod to continuity. Taking Stokowski's place was James Levine, conductor for the Metropolitan Opera and who arranged most of the new pieces for the film, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Instead of the equivalent of Deems Taylor, celebrity hosts such as Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury, Penn and Teller, and Bette Midler introduced each of the new segments, including:

  • 'Symphony No 5' by Beethoven - Music purists were not happy with the shortening of the first movement to somewhat under four minutes, but Piyote Hunt's direction transforms this piece into a giant watercolour painting, with computer-generated abstractions flitting about like butterflies about to be scattered by a horde of bats.

  • 'Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma)' by Respighi - One of Roy Disney's favourite pieces from his college music appreciation course, it accompanies a spectacular vision of a pod of whales taking flight. Hendel Butoy's computer work doesn't push the computer-generated envelope so much as it exploits the ability of the medium to create personality and weight.

  • 'Rhapsody in Blue' by George Gershwin - The most popular and critically acclaimed segment of the film; this was originally planned as an independent short subject, but Fantasia 2000's producers wanted a piece by an American composer and this slotted in perfectly. Director Eric Goldberg created a mosaic of lives lived in New York City, in the style of Broadway illustrator Al Hirschfeld (who served as an advisor to this film). Hirschfeld (in his 90s when this was completed) was pleased that the segment brought his distinctive style of line art to life, which is ironic considering that he panned Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a New York Times review when it first premiered.

  • 'Piano Concerto No. 2' by Shostakovich - Featuring Grammy Award-winning pianist Yefem Bronfman. This time, Butoy paired the music with a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Steadfast Tin Soldier, inspired by the storyboards of studio artist Bianca Majolie (who had worked on the story in 1938!). Compared with Pixar'sToy Story movies, the animation is a little primitive, but there is nonetheless a certain degree of charm in it. Of course the ending had to be changed, but that's to be expected; Anderson's stories tended to have melancholy endings anyway.

  • Finale to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens - A very short, energetic piece, directed by Goldberg and featuring a flamingo who just wants to have fun with his yo-yo.

  • 'Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4' by Elgar - Suggested for inclusion by Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, the arrangement is by Peter Schickele, aka PDQ Bach. Director Francis Glebas uses conventional animation to show what would have happened had Donald Duck assisted Noah during the Great Flood.

  • 'Firebird Suite' by Stravinsky - Occasionally criticized for its subject matter (there are suspicions that this is a nod to a PC-conscious crowd), co-directors Paul and Gaetan Brizzi blend conventional and computer animation to tell a story of a nature sprite who encounters the malevolent spirit of a dormant volcano. Visually stunning, if a little thin on story.

Fantasia 2000 was the first major feature-length film to be released in the IMAX format. Many of the original pieces were animated to take advantage of the bigger screen and fuller range of stereophonic sound, with the result that much of its visual impact can be lost on smaller screens.

Due to its limited release in IMAX, the movie was not expected to be profitable on its initial release, although it did better than its predecessor. Most critics agreed that the sequel was a good effort, but not as innovative as the original. Nonetheless, the returns on Fantasia 2000 were strong enough for the studio to green-light a third Fantasia-style film, tentatively scheduled for release in 2006. The focus would be on interpretations of world music (traditional music from other countries outside the classical canon), reminiscent of Disney's Musicana project from the 1970s.

Fantasia 2000 has been released in DVD and VHS formats. In addition, Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 have been packaged together in a DVD set entitled The Fantasia Anthology, which includes a third DVD featuring four more hours of supplemental materials on the making of both films.


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