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dvd review: Fantasia Revisited—And Revealed

by Leonard Maltin
December 2, 2010 2:30 AM
15 Comments
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I have good news and bad news about the new DVD/Blu-Ray release of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. First, the good news. As someone who’s still lingering on the sidelines of the Blu-Ray revolution, I must tell you that the high-definition restoration of Walt Disney’s Fantasia looks breathtaking—even on standard DVD. Using the latest digital technology to scan the original nitrate negatives at 4K resolution has yielded a remarkable result. If you have a gigantic screen, or use a projector, you might detect a difference on Blu-Ray, but the plain ol’ DVD looks pretty great to my eyes.

Many people (including me) resent having to buy a film you already own, unless there’s a really good reason. This transfer justifies the expense.

There are other benefits among the bonus features. One interesting piece deals with the aborted feature project of the late 1970s and early 80s called Musicana, and draws on the memories of numerous artists who worked on it, including nonagenarian Mel Shaw. Another explores the Disney find of the decade, the long-lost notebook of Herman Schultheis, who engineered some of the most complex visual effects used in Fantasia. You won’t believe your eyes when you learn how he achieved some of the images, especially in The Nutcracker Suite. This in turn leads to a story about the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco featuring Diane Disney Miller (Walt’s daughter) and her son Walter.

The bad news, which has spread like wildfire around the Internet, where complaints are always rife, is that the—

—restoration isn’t complete, because it’s missing the brief images of black centaurettes from the Pastoral Symphony segment.

Forget about it, folks. That footage hasn’t been seen in ages and we’re not likely to see it in our lifetime, except perhaps in some isolated archival screening. In order to present Fantasia to a modern Disney audience—which means families with kids, as opposed to educated film buffs who understand the attitudes of a different era—one cannot show black servant-girls attending their white mistresses.

But there is another, subtler, alteration to the film that does bug me a bit. Ten years ago, when the studio undertook a 60th anniversary restoration of Fantasia, the archival team discovered that some of host Deems Taylor’s original voice tracks were missing.

Musicologist Deems Taylor in the opening moments of Fantasia.

To solve the problem they called in vocal wizard Corey Burton, who can sound like any number of famous voice artists of the past, including Paul Frees and Hans Conried (his Captain Hook is positively uncanny). Then the powers-that-be decided that if he was to loop some of Taylor’s lines it would sound more consistent if he redid them all. As a result, when you watch the eminent musicologist on camera at the very beginning of Fantasia, it isn’t his voice you’re hearing!

Today, Taylor’s name has faded into the realm of the forgotten. In 1940 he was a well-known figure, not only because of his writing but because he was heard regularly on network radio. As an old-time radio buff I know his voice so well—from guest appearances on shows ranging from Information Please to Duffy’s Tavern—that I squirm a bit at Disney’s dubbing. I’m sure most people would never notice the substitution, but I can’t help it; I do.

At the same time, I should point out that Walt Disney pulled his own sleight-of-hand on audiences back in 1940, and the illusion has remained intact ever since. Throughout Fantasia we see orchestra musicians, dramatically lit and silhouetted on camera; they are featured prominently in the opening Toccata and Fugue. There’s just one problem: they’re fakes. The music for Fantasia was famously recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra in its own home town. The musicians who posed for Disney’s cameras on a Burbank soundstage were merely going through the motions.

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15 Comments

  • Holly | May 9, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    I watched the DVD release of Fantasia the other day and my housemate was flummoxed when I started screaming, "That's not the blokey's [Deems Taylor's] voice! It's different!"

    I grew up with the 1990's VHS release and I completely sympathise with John Pocsik's frosted nether regions - my own were similarly afflicted.

    Also, I don't believe the extra narration at the beginning of each piece adds anything - we're going to watch the damned thing anyway, so why take such pains to describe it? The extra 10 minutes feel like 40 - things are cut for a reason.

    Anyone know how I can get hold of a copy of the original/theatrical/whatever-you-want-to-call-it version on DVD? I've been looking into buying the laserdisc and getting it converted, but that looks complicated and expensive.

  • KBC | November 27, 2012 7:13 PM

    The edited version was released I believe in Europe on DVD.

  • nathan l | February 20, 2011 4:18 AMReply

    ...and what's up with the ending? In the version with which I'm familiar, following Ave Maria, the orchestra with shown leaving the stage with the accompanying ambient sound. With the '10 version, when Ave Maria ends - the movie is over. It was unsettling.

  • KBC | November 27, 2012 7:11 PM

    The closing footage in the "popular version" of the orchestra leaving the stage was used in the original roadshow version as the introduction to the intermission between "Rite of Spring" and "Meet the Soundtrack" (the musicians exist, the curtain closes, the title card should be held for fifteen minutes, the curtains open again, the orchestra returns).

    When the film was re-edited for the 1990 release, this footage was used to make an end title sequence. The 2000 and 2010 home media releases end as Disney originally intended with the last strains of "Ave Maria".

  • Albert | January 7, 2011 3:01 AMReply

    Mark, the 2000 DVD of "Fantasia" is the original roadshow release, but does not use Deems Taylor's voice. It uses Corey Burton's. But voice and picture are so perfectly synchronized that if you hadn't ever heard Taylor, you'd swear that it was him. And it is the original Stokowski soundtrack, not Irwin Kostal's.

    Reportedly, Deems Taylor's voice could not be used for this DVD release because much of the voice track for Taylor's extended introductions had deteriorated so badly.

  • Albert | January 7, 2011 2:55 AMReply

    There is more to the complete roadshow version of "Fantasia" than musicians coming and going. The introductions by Deems Taylor were all edited (except for the very first one) to about half their length for the general release version. But on the roadshow version, they are presented complete, and although it was Corey Burton doing the actual talking, I prefer the introductions as presented on the DVD. They tell you far more about the cartoon you're going to see, describing in detail the "storyline" behind each one, and making the film some ten minutes longer.

    Another difference is that at the beginning, not only are there no opening credits, but the title isn't even shown. It appears about halfway through the film, after Deems Taylor says, "And now we'll have a fifteen minute intermission". The curtain close, and then the title appears onscreen for the first time. And there are no credits at the end of the film. Disney originally meant for them to be printed in the film's souvenir booklet, and they weren't added to the film until 1990.

  • mike schlesinger | December 5, 2010 6:20 AMReply

    You know, it would not have killed them to put in an additional track with Taylor's voice, which would insert Corey's voice only where the OST was missing. Thank goodness I still have my laserdisc.

    N.B.: This is not a knock on Corey, who is a friend and a man of enormous talents, merely an observation about how this was handled "upstairs."

  • John Pocsik | December 2, 2010 10:26 AMReply

    There were two laserdisc versions of FANTASIA issued:
    CLV (the regular format) and CAV (you could stop-frame
    an image if you wished). They did a beautiful job and the
    Technicolor hues were true and vibrant. Most importantly, Deems Taylor
    did the narration. I still have both lasers, along with a player - and have "burned" a DVD of the CLV.

    I was tremendously disappointed by Disney's first issue of FANTASIA on DVD - I could care less about the politically incorrect footage as I already had it on a black and white DISNEYLAND segment I taped
    (which was shown in prime time, btw, back when we didn't
    massage our collective guilt). What really frosted my nether regions was the dubbing of Deems Taylor's voice. Remember: Disney made a big deal about releasing the "roadshow" version for the first time - which just had some extra entrance and exit shots of the "musicians" (thanks for that revelation, Leonard). The laserdiscs provided the "theatrical" version: are you telling me the theatrical version has vanished/fallento pieces/warped off to Andromeda in twenty-five years. GIVE US THE THEATRICAL VERSION OF FANTASIA and be done with it. Purists, unite!

  • KBC | November 27, 2012 7:18 PM

    I would think purists would prefer the version fo the film as close to the original theatrical release (the version you're referring to is the 1946 popular edit - the 1940 roadshow version is the original theatrical) and the artists' intentions as possible.

    That is the version on the Blu-Ray, albeit with the edit (which isn't about "massaging collective guilt" -note that the segment was shown on Disneyland during the earliest parts of the Civil Rights Movement) and the redubbed voice tracks ( I personally prefer consistency over a hodge-podge of using what is left of Taylor's voice and switching to Burton for missing lines).

  • RobEB | December 2, 2010 6:36 AMReply

    Sooo...Aside from some new supplements, is there that much of a difference (picture-wise) to warrant buying this new disc? I already have the Fantasia DVD boxed set from 10 years ago, and it looks great to me...

  • Steve Oelrich | December 2, 2010 4:28 AMReply

    Excellent point, Mr. Galbraith.

  • Stuart Galbraith IV | December 2, 2010 3:21 AMReply

    "In order to present Fantasia to a modern Disney audience—which means families with kids, as opposed to educated film buffs who understand the attitudes of a different era—one cannot show black servant-girls attending their white mistresses."

    And what's that movie about an inch to the left of that very quote?

  • John Tebbel | December 2, 2010 3:07 AMReply

    Mark,

    I listened to my laserdisc copy yesterday and believe it to be Deems Taylor.

    I saw a web site's comparison of all the different video releases of Peter Pan and was astonished that each one is different. There are many choices that can be made when making a video master and the best brains at the time make the best choices they have available to them. Or not; this is a system run by humans. It was hard to decide which Pan I preferred.

    Disney also has a capability to restore films, examining each frame for dust and other irritations that can now be removed. Snow White benefited from this treatment.


    g,

    It's Stokowski. There was only one release of the Kostal re-recording.

  • Mark McD | December 2, 2010 2:01 AMReply

    Oddly, 10 years ago I only bought the DVD of "F2000" because I still had (still do) the Laserdisc edition of the original "Fantasia." So would that still have the original Deems Taylor voice tracks? Maybe I'll need to get the new disc and do a comparison.

    Every time a Disney feature is reissued, we get the booshwah about how the film has been "newly restored." Is the difference that much between editions? IIRC, the Laserdisc incorporated the original three-track audio Disney attempted as an early stab at stereo soundtrack. Is that still used in the current disc?

  • g | December 2, 2010 1:03 AMReply

    Which score is used on this release? Is it the original Stokowski or the re-recorded version?

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