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 1940 classic, Fantasia, was showing at a 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 strictly as one-day-only screenings.

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

I had read about this film, I had pored over pictures from the various sequences reproduced in books and seen 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 70th anniversary 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...

And I'll be appearing on Film 2010 BBC1 tomorrow, Tuesday, at 10:35 pm talking about the 70th anniversary of Fantasia and the state of animation today.


scb said...

Oh wonderful! My new Blu-ray player will get a lovely workout with this one.(Yes, I've only just succumbed to getting blu-ray, due to The Sound of Music, of course)

Fantastic post (had to use that adjective) and I look forward to hearing my favourite Disney historian on the blu-ray!

Wobble The Witch Cat said...

Excellent article Brian! Congratulations upon your inclusion in the Fantasia Blu Ray disc , it's a pity however that Disney hasn't seen fit to include a full blown documentary on The Making of Fantasia on this first Blu Ray release , as there was a documentary on the previous DVD release - is this a victim of the credit crunch?

Suzanne said...

Oh! the memories! I didn't get to see Fantasia until about 25 years ago. Coincidentally, I was reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time at that time too. The sequence of Night on Bald Mountain really made an impression on me since I had just arrived in Mordor! Brrr! To this day, despite Alan Lee's and John Howe's brilliant art work, Mordor looks like Disney's Night on Bald Mountain and the Disney sequence will always be Mordor for me!

Jason Tammemägi said...

To this day, I still haven't seen Fantasia 2000. I really must rectify that.

SharonM said...

What a fabulous blog, Brian. I should imagine that it really took something as magical as that for you to play truant.

Must set the recorder for tomorrow night.

Boll Weavil said...

Disney could have found no more enthusiastic a champion for this film nor one as knowledgable !

Neil-W said...

I saw this on a re-release in the early 70's I was pretty young but have never forgotten it. It's not a perfect film but the sequences that do work are timeless.
Can't imagine a major animation studio putting something this experimental out today.
My favourite bit ? probably Art Babbit's mushroom dance. That part, as they say in present day street argot was The Bomb.

Ian said...

Looking forward to hearing what you have to say on Film 2010, although all the different Blu-Ray releases are causing confusion and returns even before the title was officially out (with the Blu-Ray available in either DVD-sized packaging or Blu-Ray sized packaging and with as well as the Fantasia 2000 bundle)

Quick note to @scb as a Blu-Ray fanatic. "The Sound of Music" is a good Blu-Ray (with very generous extra features) but if you want to show off the best picture quality on your new player can I suggest you check out "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" released just a few weeks ago. It really puts "The Sound of Music" to shame in terms of picture quality and looks like it was shot yesterday!

Phil said...

Great post, Brian.

I'm actually quite intrigued by the lengths young Sibley would go to to get his fix of Disney. It kind of reminds me of the '70s, when the only knowledge we kids had of Disney came from the clips we were shown on Disney Time at Bank Holidays (and the occasional round on Screen Test). Those movies were never on TV in their entirety (and there was no such thing as VHS), and only seemed to get into cinemas on something like a 7-year cycle. So by the time the one you wanted to see came around, your childhood was over!

Did young Sibley take to the typewriter, and start writing about Fantasia there and then?

Ian said...

Finally got around to watching this (never seen it before :-O) and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I have now ordered the 2000 version to see the Dali short, based on your recommendation. Your commentary was superb - incredibly well researched and one of the best DVD commentaries I've ever heard. It must have been a LOT of work, but it's essential listening after watching the film.

Was somewhat disappointed with the picture quality after the stunning restoration of previous titles like "Beauty and the Beast" or "Sleeping Beauty". The "live" sections all look stunning, but the colours on the main transfer often look a bit washed out and soft. The trailer for "Bambi", out in March next year, looks similar. No doubt we'll get better "Platinum" versions of these titles once they've been left in "the vault" for another few years.

Did you catch Film 2010 and the loud F-bomb accidentally broadcast over the top of Winkelman's chat from the production gallery? This was from Grace Dent and showed the biggest problem with the new "dumbed down" program - it seems that being a friend of Winkelman is enough to get you on the programme, rather than an y relevance as a film critic. Dent was there because she loves Joan Rivers and there was a documentary on her to review, but she wouldn't allow the real film critic in the studio to get a word in edgeways, shouting all over him and he just gave up in the end. Things got worse when they tried to review a film about global warming came up and all she could do was keep repeating that she hated hearing bad news and so it was a bad film in her book, again refusing to let the real critics have their say. Real quality!

The F-bomb also showed what a farce the BBC's obsession with being "cool" is. The accident happens becasuse the programme goes out live, but there is absolutely nothing on the program to warrant it going out live. Initially, presumably when some luvvie in management said "We must get the kids onboard and have a social media aspect to it", they claimed they were going to involve audience interaction via Twitter and Facebook. As Winkelman herself acknowledged last night, despite millions of tweets they didn't bother looking at even one on the programme (probably just as well as Twitter was awash with how awful the programme was with her now running it instead of Ross). Totally pointless! Personally I think the show is an improvement to the "Ross wearily reading out his review in a deadpan voice to camera" format, but what a shame they didn't go with having a real movie buff running the program. Even Mayo and Kermode as presenters would have given the programme a more serious base than the "daytime TV" one they have now with pointless "Five random things" segments and Claudia doing her "I'm passionate, and that's all that matters" shouty thing all through the programme.

Boris Hiestand said...

Fantasia is still my favorite Disney feature...

I just purchased a bluray player and watched Beauty And The Beast last night, my first bluray experience at home through my HD projector. I was completely blown away by it.
The technology doesn't make the film any better ;) (thought it's pretty good) but the sheer richness of the images astounded me. Needless to say I immediately ordered the first 4 features and cannot wait for them to arrive, nor for Bambi and the other classics to be released on the medium.
Fantasia will be the first viewing, and I'm looking forward to repeat the whole thing again right after to listen to your commentary.

Steven Hartley said...

Some of the public I know find "Fantasia" really boring and I loved the film ever since I first saw it!

SharonM said...

Film 2010 does seem to be really dumbed down - oh for the days of Barry Norman.

Mind you, I can think of a perfect replacement for Claudia - and he was giving his real expert opinion on Disney films on the programme on Monday night.

Brian Sibley said...

SCB – Bravo, you! I'm still living in the pre-Blu-ray DVD Dark Ages!

Wobble – Thanks! There are other 'extras' that are, I believe, worth a view. It's a bit of a minefield really: if Disney were to put the same stuff on every release, I suspect prospective purchasers would complain that they were being had! But, of course, if they leave stuff off...

Suzanne – How interesting! Well, yes, there are some creative and emotional parallels between the goings-on on Bald Mountain and those on Mount Doom! It is, I think, my favourite sequence in the film: so dark and uncompromising. In fact it is so brilliant that the concluding Ave Maria sequence just can't, if you'll pardon the pun, hold a candle to it!

Jason – You certainly should see it! Like it's predecessor, it's something of a curate's egg: the best sequences (in my estimation) are the Saint-Saëns flamingos, Stravinsky's Firebird and – utterly brilliant – Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue animated in the style of the great Al Hirschfeld.

Sharon and Boll – Dear friends! Thank you! :>

Neil-W – The Mushrooms? Yes, a miniature masterpiece. As you say, stunning work by Babbit as is 'The Russian Dance' with Thistles and Orchids for which he was also responsible.

IanChitty? I shall have to bribe you to show me a bit of it – the Child Catcher sequence, please!

Phil – You ask: "Did young Sibley take to the typewriter, and start writing about Fantasia there and then?" Well, yes! I was so obsessive about Disney that for every one of the films that I saw, I kept a note book in which I logged – at great length – everything I could remember about the visuals and what I thought of the films. In the case of Fantasia, I wrote at length to an adult friend of the family who was my classical music guru (lending me discs and widening my knowledge of music and composers); alas, I don't have my out-going ramblings but I do still have his reply with his critique of the film from which I can reasonably well reconstruct my first response to the film.

Ian (again)WOW! Thanks for that compliment! Anyone who knows you and your exacting level of expectations, will know why I am bowled over by what you say. I am vaguely irked by the one or two pieces of information that got cut for time constraints, but – by and large – I am very happy with the way in which Disney edited my comments, some of which were researched and scripted while others were extemporised reactions to what I was seeing on screen.

Boris – I just hope I don't disappoint you and the other animators!

Steven – Good for you! I think you've got terrific taste! :)

Sharon (again) – Hmmm... What's that saying about Hell freezing over...? I was rather disappointed by the way I was used on Film 2010, mainly because they managed to turn what was essentially an interview about Fantasia into one about Toy Story 3.

James said...

It is entirely fitting that Disney give you such well-deserved platforms for your unmatched expertise and knowledge of its classic films.

UK readers can watch Brian's Film 2010 contribution here until 16 Nov 2010.

Brian Sibley said...

Not sure it's worth anyone's effort to watch the Film 2010 appearance, but very many thanks, James, for the kind words! :)

Carl V. said...

Allow me to offer you my most hearty "Congratulations!" This is especially amazing considering the story you told earlier and the very strong connection you have to this film. Your story took me back to the very few times I too skipped out on school...never to see a film though. I could feel my heart beat a bit faster at the naughtiness of your truancy. :) I'm so happy that it all turned out well for you despite the bittersweet sting of not being able to share your grand adventure. I will definitely have to check out this version of Fantasia. My wife and I were watching parts of the extras on Two Towers and on Return of the King last night and I mentioned to her what a nice guy you were and how much I enjoyed your Peter Jackson book and the all too rare visits over here. Having spent time watching you talk passionately about one of my favorite film trilogies and books of all time, I have no doubt they picked the right person for this DVD. Congrats again.

Jamie Badminton said...

Ooh, lovely! It's terrific that Disney keep coming to you for extras and commentary, Brian! I'm still in the Blu-ray dark ages too, but releases like this may just push me over the edge!!

Brian Sibley said...

Carl – Thanks muchly! Passion is everything! :) Who, knows, maybe The Hobbit might result in my making the journey "there and back again" – again!

Jamie – We must get together soon: your office is only a stone's throw from where we live, you know. Life has been somewhat fraught over the last year and (for a variety of reasons too boring to enumerate) is still far from great. But we really ought to see more (well, anything, really) of one another and Margot whom I think about often and really miss...

Carl V. said...

That is what I was thinking last night, and I sincerely hope that is the case.