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Film restoration receives 5 stars but DVD features rate 4
on June 22, 2004
I recently viewed the 60th anniversary edition of Walt Disney's "Fantasia", and I think that this is the closest we will ever come to seeing and hearing Disney's original vision for this film. This DVD Edition sets things right by incorporating all of Deems Taylor's spoken introduction and linking narratives into the film for the first time since the film's premiere in 1940.
If anyone has seen the 1990 restoration that appeared on video in 1991, they will know to what I'm referring. In that edition we only see Taylor's face in the opening prologue. Later on, we hear his comments as a voice-over to medium shots of the orchestra as they tune their instruments. Those players on the screen, by the way, are not members of the Philadelphia Orchestra: they are actually studio musicians. The music for Fantasia was pre-recorded months prior to shooting in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
The DVD presents what was then known as the "roadshow" version of Fantasia, which toured a limited number of cities upon it's initial release. The film's distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, balked at the added expense involved in setting up special amplifiers and speaker systems to accomodate the requirements for the Fantasound soundtrack. The decision was made to trim some of the film's length, beginning with altering the narrative links, but also making horrendous cuts in some release prints (indeed, some later prints do not even contain the Bach Toccata and Fugue sequence.) At one point, Disney decided to take matters into his own hands and handle the distribution of the "roadshow" version himself. That version differs from subsequent release prints in that Taylor's face is visible throughought every linking narrative; and that the blue title card appears at the start of the intermission that follows Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In the 1990 restoration the title card appears at the start of the film. Also, the original release had no screen credits: special programs with those details were distributed to patrons. The DVD edition also doesn't have screen credits, but information about the animators is touched upon during the commentary by Rudy Behlmer, et al.
With regard to the soundtrack, the original optical, nine-track elements (which were mixed down to three tracks for the master print) have been missing for several decades. In 1955, the decision was made to transfer the extremely fragile and potentially unstable nitrate soundtracks to a four-track magnetic tape, because it was feared that the original tracks might not survive for much longer. This was done by playing the original tracks at RCA in Los Angeles and relaying the audio over telephone wires to the Disney Studios in Burbank. Unfortunately, during the transfer electronic hum and other noises ended up on the tape. Also, the telephone wires cut off at 8,000 Hz, so many viewers have never heard the full frequency and dynamic range that was capable utilizing the Fantasound system (which was a precursor of today's Dolby Surround-Sound.)
For the 1990 restoration, Terry Porter of YCM Labs had reportedly removed 2,000 clicks and pops from the four-track magnetic copy. Also, using technical data from the Disney Archives, he managed to replicate the mixing format of the original optical tracks; so that the sound would eminate from the left, right, front and rear speakers as originally planned.
I viewed my VHS copy of the 1990 restoration first, so that I could make my own comparisons. The 1990 edition suffers from too much use of noise-reduction software, which makes the violins and high wind instruments sound "glassy" and distorted. I also listened to my CD copy of the 1990 restored soundtrack album. The sound on the CD was a little cleaner and well defined, but the DVD has the most improved sound. One must remember that Fantasound was an experimental process. Optical tracks, in general, while offering an expanded dynamic and frequency range, were often quite noisy. All this means that what we hear is a 60-year-old recording that is by no means state-of-the-art by today's standards, but nevertheless remains impressive in its own right.
I don't remember seeing any negative racial depictions in the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony sequence, either in 1975 or in 1981 (which had a newly-recorded digital soundtrack). Then, again, Disney wouldn't have allowed anything like that in his films. The only questionable scene shows Bacchus entering with two nubile, African Zebra-type centaurettes. I can see how that might draw an unfavorable response from viewers. In fairness, however, they are not depicted doing anything of a derrogatory nature. They come in, toss some petals, and then they're gone... Some who reviewed the DVD edition claim that something was cut from the Beethoven sequence, but I can't imagine what that could be. Certainly the music itself has been truncated, but Stokowski did that only for dramatic reasons and to maintain story continuity. All of the music in Fantasia, except perhaps the Bach, was edited from the original scores in one way or another.
I said that the DVD itself rates only 4 stars. That is because the good folks at Disney are only offering the pencil tests, unused animation, and alternate music pieces as part of the 3-DVD "Legacy" set. The extras on the single DVD are good, but one wishes the archival materials had been included as a second disc.