Tuesday saw the release of Disney’s bastard child/probable zenith Fantasia. Though not one of Disney’s archival best, they’ve put together a handsome package. Which includes its misbegotten sequel as an extra (of which let us just say that it always seems like a good idea until I watch it) beautiful prints of both films, a peek at the aborted 80’s attempt to make a sequel to Fantasia called Musicana, a few other featurettes polished to a high PR sheen and nicest of all Destino the short that sprang forth from a collaboration between Disney and Dali. Which serves as a nice bone thrown to/tactic admission of the myriad of stoners who will buy the set.
The extra's on Fantasia itself are surprisingly lax, a commentary, some production sketches, and an interesting feature on a notebook which shed documented the techniques of the special effects animation that was thought lost. Oddly Destino gets the most coverage with the seventy minute documentary Dali and Disney. It's a well made, if over produced doc that if nothing else makes its central thesis, that the difference between the surrealist movement and much of what Disney was doing with his features and especially his shorts was negligible, quite convincing.
Fantasia has gone through some changes in reputation over the years that are positively bipolar. As a some what befuddled Dave Kehr noted in his review, “For generations now “Fantasia” has been both faulted for its highbrow pretensions and derided as low-brow kitsch, frequently by the same critics and sometimes in the same sentence.”
While there is plenty of evidence to support this, particularly in the “Pastoral” which bafflingly decides to represent Beethtoven’s sixth, which declares its meaning right there in the title, as a smorgasbord of Greek mythology. Also Centaur’s hooking up. This leads to one of the funniest passages in Neil Garbler’s essential biography on Disney, which revealed that literally no one but Walt thought this was a good idea and the many classical music experts working for him reacted in out and out horror.
And yet, if Disney’s reach exceeded his grasp, look at what he came back with anyway. Sequences like the Rite Of Spring, whose scope, not to mention utter starkness in the extinction sequences is mindboggling. Or The Night On Bald Mountain which has some of the bleakest imagery in animation. These thrum with an ambition and raw power unheard of, not just in American animation, but in most American film. Which isn’t even to get into the sequences which are merely delightful, like its dreamy rendition of Tychovski or the Dance Of The Hours which is perfect for what it is.
One need look no farther for validation of Fantasia as an artistic accomplishment then its sequel which already seems as dated as Fantasia seems timeless. The film does have a few bright spots, The Hirschfield inspired Rhapsody In Blue actually stands side by side with the original Fantasia in terms of ambition and innovation, a watercolored sequence involving flamingos is lovely, and the Donald Duck segment set to Pomp and Circumstance actually manages to capture a bit of the classic timing of the old Disney shorts. No mean feat, especially if you’ve seen the dire attempts from Disney (not to mention Warner Brothers) to do the same.
On the other hand you have The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which manages to be both ugly as sin and an indefensibly horrendous whitewash of the actual fairytale, even by Disney Standards. None of the other segments are quite as risible, though all of them are rather dull (And as Tim Brayton points out they all share a rather odd preoccupation with things flying that shouldn’t). And what’s intended to be the big showstopper, its Night On Bald Mountain, a rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird seems like a… well lets be kind and call it a "response" to Princess Mononoke.
Looking at the difference between the two films is startling. When you read reviews of Fantasia you don’t see words like Transcendent and Avant Garde thrown around for no reason. Fantasia is the work of artists trying to push their medium to its outmost limitations. Fantasia 2000 is the work of a corporate entity trying to cash in on some of that sweet sweet legacy money.
What at first appeared (and was no doubt intended as) the jettisoning of dead weight, getting rid of a film that wouldn’t sell on its own, actually ended up being the perfect relief to view Fantasia against. Sometimes there is no easier way to see a film for what it is, then to see exactly what it isn’t.