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Friday, October 7, 2011

FANTASIA (1940)

The latest edition of this classical music cartoon compendium has been visually buffed up for Blu-Ray release with dazzling results, even on a regular DVD. Alas, the original FantaSound tracks, a pioneering 7-channel stereophonic system, were lost decades ago. (Mixed down to 3-track or mono for previous reincarnations, the current multi-directional digital manipulation is a hit or miss affair.) The commercial failure of the pic remained a particular sore point for Walt Disney. Consensus held that it tanked when high brows rejected it as ‘kitschy’ while unwashed masses felt Walt had gone ‘high hat.’ Only the comic relief of Mickey in Dukas’ THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE and the ballet menagerie in Ponchielli’s DANCE OF THE HOURS earned approval. But this explains little. PINOCCHIO/’40 also flopped in its first release. So did BAMBI/’42. Only DUMBO/’41, with its short running time and simplified technical production, held to a financial model that broke Disney’s post-SNOW WHITE losing streak. And FANTASIA’s first-run Road Show expenses only made the nut tougher to crack. So too, the film’s revue format, as Sam Goldwyn & Louis B Mayer discovered with THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES/’38 and ZIEGFELD FOLLIES/’46. The real loss is that Disney bought into the ‘accepted wisdom’ explanations and never put quite so much of himself in a film project again. After this, his deepest personal involvement went toward the war effort and then into theme parks. A shame, since FANTASIA looks better (and more entertaining) than ever. Even the less successful ideas, like those nubile teenage centaurs fresh from Schwab’s make-up counter, have gained a certain period charm. And what modern day focus group would have left Evolutionary Theory, pert breasts, demonic wickedness & nudity in a ‘G-rated’ feature? At its best, which is often, the film is a knockout.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Many theaters in that crucial late-‘60s re-release played the film with short reels with Projector A running all the odd numbered reels thru a ‘Flat’ framing gate, for a screen ration of about 1.77:1, slightly clipping the top & bottom off the picture. Projector B played the even numbered reels with the traditional Academy Ratio framing gate of 1.33:1.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: Look closely during the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony when Bacchus enters at the beginning of the Second Movement. He’s accompanied by two black female servants. These two are all that remains of the black servant characters who once helped the pastel colored centaurs with personal grooming. Note a red carpet that unfurls in front of Bacchus all by itself. The black bearers have been erased! These servant characters were deleted for the ‘60s re-release with edits and some reframing which now seems to have been redone to smoother effect. Watch for some tell-tale 'walking' foliage that’s probably covering up these lost Grecian Blackamoors.

DOUBLE-BILL: The great choreographer George Balanchine visited Disney (with Igor Stravinsky) when he came to Hollywood to work on THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES. Disney must have been paying close attention since he nipped some staging ideas out of that pic for this film’s hilarious DANCE OF THE HOURS ballet travesty.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: While it’s still fashionable in academic film circles to view FANTASIA with condescension, our greatest dance critic, Arlene Croce gives it the sophisticated treatment it well deserves. See her Write-Up in the March 12, 1984 edition of The New Yorker, also collected in her book, WRITING IN THE DARK: Dancing at The New Yorker.

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