Monday, 8 November 2010


At the time it was a HUGE adventure. It was forty five years ago and I was planning how to skip school. I had never played truant before: I wasn't that kind of kid – mainly because I simply didn't have the guts!

But this was an emergency!

Walt Disney's Fantasia was showing at my local picture-house. This was in the days before videos and DVDs and this particular Disney film was only ever shown, every few years and, then, strictly as one-day-only screenings.

On this occasion it was showing at the Odeon in nearby Bromley on a Wednesday. Being mid-week, and with school the following day, I knew my parents would never allow me to go to the evening performance, so I simply had to get to see it in the afternoon.

I had read about this film, I had seen pictures from the different sequences in books and even one or two clips on black-and-white TV, but I had never seen the movie itself! What's more, if I missed it this time around, I'd have to wait years to get another chance!

So began the best acting performance I've ever given. Once at school, I developed a irritating cough that worsened throughout the morning's lessons until I was sent to the deputy headmaster, Mr Edwards, who was also responsible for First Aid and all medical referrals. By this time I was sniffing and snuffling with the occasional fit of teeth-chattering shivers thrown for added effect. My temperature was taken and by some miracle (a combination, perhaps, of an excitement-induced adrenalin rush and sheer will-power) it was slightly up!

Mr Edwards told me to go home at once. I needed no second telling: I was out the school gate and on the bus to Bromley. Within the hour I was sitting in the dark, succumbing to the thrilling and astonishing experience that is Disney's beautiful brave, bold and brazen collaboration with conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in "Seeing music and hearing pictures"!

I was drowned in unforgettable imagery that, however many times I have seen Fantasia since, is for me, forever associated with the illicit nature of this particular cinema visit.

There were the colorful abstractions accompanying Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; the dew-drop, frost and snow-flake fairies that with the Cossack thistle and Chinese mushroom dancers interpreted Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite; and the hilarious pastiche ballet for ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators choreographed to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours.

Then there was the Bacchanalian romp on Mount Olympus (flying horses, centaurs, unicorns, fauns and gods) set to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, The Pastoral; and the juxtaposed sequences featuring a Black Sabbath with devils, demons, hags and harpies cavorting to Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and a devoutly reverential procession of pilgrims making their way through a forest of Gothic-arched trees to the strains of Schubert's setting for Ave Maria.

There was the relentlessly brutalising music of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (that I had never heard before) which provided a soundtrack to a shockingly violent pageant of prehistoric life on earth; and the piece of music that kick-started the project: Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which provided Disney's cinematic alter-ego, Mickey Mouse, with an inspired comedic turn that ranks alongside the best of Chaplin and Keaton and which created one of the studio's many enduring iconic images...

I left the cinema with my ears buzzing and my eyes boggled! I had never seen anything like it in my life and I was both thrilled and very slightly traumatised.

The journey home on the bus remains as a bizarre memory: I was reeling – my imagination drenched from the splash and dazzle of the film I had just sat through – but, at the same time, I was terrified by the realisation that my truancy might yet be discovered if I should happen to accidentally run into a member of staff on my way home or, worse, any of my parents friends and neighbours who might wonder what I was up to and subsequently blow my cover!

As it happened, I was not found out. But this bit of luck was outweighed and overshadowed by the fact that I couldn't share with anyone my reactions to the devastating visual and aural experience that I had just enjoyed and which I now longed to wallow in all over again.

My days of truanting were at an end, but, from then on, I would scour the local papers looking for further one day screenings and would travel to any cinema that was on a bus route in order to relive the Fantasia experience.

Imagine, then, my total joy and delight when the Disney company invited me to record a new audio commentary for the film's re-release on DVD and Blu-ray which goes on sale today.

The first non-American 'Disney Historian' to get such a job, it gave me an opportunity to talk about the long and sometimes tortuous journey that Fantasia took to the screen: from a chance encounter between Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski in an LA restaurant at which the idea of an animated film version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice was mooted, via the decision to develop the cartoon about the wizarding tyro and the runaway brooms into a full-length project initially known around the studio as The Concert Feature but which, eventually, became Fantasia...

Here's the original 1940 trailer...

Conceived as the most ambitious animated film ever made with a stereophonic sound system ('Fantasound') and with plans – albeit unrealised – for the film to be in 3D (remember this was 1940!) and have fragrances pumped into the theatre for certain sequences and a wide screen finale, Fantasia was, at the time, a financial failure and after its critically acclaimed opening in a special, 'showcase' format was hacked down for general release and distributed as the 'B' picture support for a Western!

Not everyone will be entirely happy with this re-issuing of the film in that the narrative links by the film's host – composer and musicologist, Deems Taylor – are not from the original soundtrack (having been lost in one of the many catastrophic re-packagings of the film) but are from a later release where they were re-created by a voice-over actor.

Others will deplore the continued absence, in the Beethoven sequence, of the politically-incorrect 'piccaninny' child centaur (a black stereotype reminiscent of Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin) who serves as a maid to the white 'centaurettes' and who was later excised from the film as being racially insensitive. Although 'Sunflower' (as she was known around the studio) has not to be restored, my commentary refers to her and attempts to explain why, today, the inclusion of such imagery would be offensive.

Happily, the musical score is (as it should be) from the original soundtrack as opposed to the version 're-created' for a later release by Irwin Kostal and the colours – by turn vibrant and subtle – dazzle the eye with a new freshness while the special effects from lava-spewing volcanoes to frost-covered autumn leaves are as stunning as they were in 1940.

It had always been Disney's intention to re-issue Fantasia every few years with variations to the programme – some sequences being retired and others added. As a result of many things – not least WWII – that never happened, or, at least not until Walt's nephew, Roy E Disney, took the courageous decision to make a new Fantasia for the Millennium.

In many ways, Fantasia 2000 rather confirmed what an exhausted and somewhat frustrated Disney had said back in 1940: "Oh, Fantasia! Well, we made it and I don't regret it. But if we had to make it all over again, I don't think we'd do it!"

Nevertheless, it contained some beautiful and wildly ingenious sequences that totally embraced the Fantasia concept and, as a result, deliver memorable combinations of music and imagery, such as the flamingo playing with a yo-yo to the music of Saint-Saëns...

In addition to the regular DVD and Blu-ray release of Fantasia, there is a double-disc version that includes Fantasia 2000 and an opportunity – sadly, only on Blue-ray – to explore another of Walt Disney's imaginative (though never realised) experiments: a surrealist collaboration with Salvador Dali entitled Destino that was, once again thanks to Roy E Disney, eventually brought to fruition many years after the death of both famous moustache-wearers!

In one of its many post-war re-incarnations, the film was promoted using the the tag-line "Fantasia will Amaze-ya!"

Admittedly, not the most sophisticated of marketing gambits but, I believe, true then and now...

1 comment:

Matt said...

I have to admit, I find it extremely hard to swallow the 'it got lost' line the company is spouting about the Deems Taylor soundtrack. And the continued censorship of this film (and other) irks me to no end. Song of the South anyone? Congrats on the commentary track, and well done mentioning the edited bits in your commentary. One hopes that one day, Disney ® will come to their senses.