dvd review: Fantasia Revisited—And Revealed

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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July 2024