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Gordon S. Miller Written by Gordon S. Miller
Dec. 10, 2010 | 2:50 AM
DVD of the Week

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One definition of the word “fantasia” is “a free musical composition structured according to the composer’s fancy” and that is apropos for Disney’s Fantasia and its sequel Fantasia 2000 as both films exude unfettered imaginations rarely seen in animated feature films.  The two are being released together in a four-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

Fantasia grew out of a “Silly Symphony” short set to Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that was created to bring Mickey Mouse back to prominence.  When the budget swelled to triple of what the studio usually spent on a cartoon short, they decided to create an entire feature to better ensure a return on their investment.  Walt had even grander plans to release the film yearly with new segments replacing old ones.  Unfortunately, it was a box office failure and those plans were scrapped.  Fantasia did finally turn a profit for Disney with its 1969 rerelease when some audience members were in a better, or at least an altered, frame of mind to appreciate it. 

Conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra performed the music and composer/critic Deems Taylor, whose voice was replaced by Corey Burton in 2000, offers narration.  Taylor explains that there are three time of music pieces included: the kind that tells a definite story, the kind that has no specific plot but does paint pictures, and music for its own sake. 

First up is Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”.  The orchestra is shown playing and then the visuals become an intriguing series of abstract images.  Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” is a delightful ballet in nature danced by the likes of fairies, flowers, and fish.  Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” details the beginning of life on Earth, and it doesn’t seem as if any ID proponents/evolution deniers were involved with its creation.

A 15-minute intermission is announced and the orchestra leaves.  At their return, a brief jazz jam session and then Taylor introduces a visual representation of the Soundtrack, which demonstrates what different instruments look like when played.

Beethoven’s “The Pastoral Symphony” is an amusing vignette set in near Mount Olympus as animals play around and the gods interact.  Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” is another ballet, but is very humorous as it features animals not known for their dexterity, ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators.  The film concludes with the interesting pairing of Mussorgsky’s menacing “Night on Bald Mountain” with Schubert’s lovely “Ave Maria.”

Serious development for a sequel, finally dubbed Fantasia 2000, began in 1990.  It premiered in December 9, 1999 and first played in IMAX theaters.  The music was conducted by James Levine and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Rather than one narrator, a series of hosts introduce the segments.  They are Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, Levine, and Angela Lansbury.  Although it doesn’t rise to the level of brilliance of the original, it still has some very enjoyable sequences of great artistry.

Mirroring the first film, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” is a series of images that relies on the viewer to inform the story taking place.  Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” accompany whales as they swim and dance around.  Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” famously used in Woody Allen’s Manhattan,  is drawn in the style of artist Al Hirschfeld and shows a bustling metropolis in the ‘30s New York City.  Set in a toy shop and with lead characters animated by computers, Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” who saves a ballerina from an evil Jack-in-the-box.

Saint-Sa?ns’s “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale” answers the question “what would happen if you gave a yoyo to a flock of flamingoes?”  It’s amusing, but not as funny as the comic pieces in Fantasia.  In a nod to Walt’s original plans, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is included and then during the host segment Mickey searches for Donald Duck who stars in Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance - Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4” as Noah’s assistant during the Great Flood.  “Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite - 1919 Version” closes the film.  It deals with the cycle of life as Spring arrives in the wilderness, which not only brings life but the potetinal for death as well as the spirit awakens a volcano. 

The Blu-ray presentations of both films are very impressive.  Each is given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer.  Fantasia has an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which can be augmented to 1.78:1 by DisneyView, paintings that fill in the sides of the screen.  Fantasia 2000 has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.  The picture of both films looks spectacular and the high definition does a great job of showcasing the artists’ talents.  Colors are vivid, blacks are strong and inky, and lines are sharp when intended.  The 7.1 audio sounds great.  The instruments are clear and distinct and the subwoofer delivers on the bottom end.  The surrounds mildly augment the orchestra’s performance with 2000 offering the more immersive experience. 

On the Fantasia disc, the extras include a look at the Disney Family Museum (HD, 4 minutes); The Schultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure (HD, 14 minutes), which contains Disney studio secrets and tricks of the trade; and Interactive Art Galleries (HD) from different stages of production for both films.  There are three audio commentary tracks.  Disney historian Brian Sibley holds court on one.  Another led by animation historian John Canemaker that includes archival material that allows Walt to discuss the film for modern viewers.  The last one presents Roy E. Disney, Levine, Canemaker and film restoration manager Scott MacQueen.  While it’s nearly impossible to have three commentary tracks where information about the subject isn’t repeated, fans will likely enjoy them all. 

On the Fantasia 2000 disc, the extras include a look at Musicana (HD, 9 minutes), the sequel that wasn’t, and Dali & Disney: A Date with Destino (SD, 82 minutes) a documentary about the pairing between two of the 20th century’s most notable artists.  They started work on “Destino” (HD, 7 minutes) but it went uncompleted until it was finished in 2003.  There are two commentary tracks.  One showcases the artists of each selection speaking about their work; the other has Roy E. Disney, Levine and producer Donald W. Ernst.  Disney’s Virtual Vault (SD) offers access through BD-Live to all the extras from previous DVD releases. 

The Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 set is impressive, both as works of animation and as Blu-rays.  The former is a masterpiece and the latter is a quality sequel that doesn’t diminish the brand, and even if they didn’t share extras, a wise move by Disney, they would still be worthing buying together.  Two DVDs containing the films and limited extras are also included in the four-disc combo.

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