Classical-music videos don’t tend to dominate the top 40 cassette sales and rental charts. So why is Fantasia, Walt Disney’s wildly ambitious grab bag of animated visuals set to orchestral music, debuting on cassette and laserdisc this week with more than 9 million copies already ordered by stores and eager viewers — the largest starting-gate tally in video history? Well, partly because Walt’s video-era successors have bullied retailers into stockpiling the title by proclaiming that in just 50 days, Fantasia will be yanked out of video and theatrical circulation forever. But there’s more than marketing terrorism at work here. Millions of baby-boom music lovers, who discovered Fantasia as a head film in the late ’60s and then grew up to want their MTV, are surely salivating for Fantasia as a video collectible because it turned them on to meaning in music. The film has what flashy, hyper-edited rock-video clips promise and don’t deliver: narrative coherence, even when the images on-screen are abstract, as well as fluent, sophisticated interplay — not just flailing counterpoint — between aural and visual rhythms.
Not that Fantasia plays like a music-theory documentary. It only threatens to, whenever stuffy critic-composer Deems Taylor steps on-screen to lecture us in live action about the compositions that inspired each of the film’s eight segments. Then the ‘toons clamber in, and Disney’s genius for grafting lofty melody to beguiling cartoon characters takes over. Tempos? Tonal textures? They’re interesting enough, but hey, check out the moves on that dew sprite and those wiggly mushrooms and the pirouetting hippo and — yikes, that army of possessed, bucket-wielding brooms guaranteed to give small kids bad dreams. Don’t keep this movie from tykes over 5, though; discovering Fantasia deserves to be a seminal childhood moment.
On video, the whole fantastic ensemble displays a delicate, pulsing palette, thanks to the lovingly detailed restoration performed on the film’s original negative. Bright reds, usually a blur on videotapes, stay clear through all the lava flows and fiery dinosaur eyes in the ”Rite of Spring” segment — a remarkable achievement. Of course, television sets diminish the big-screen impact of the reptiles’ battles, but grasping the action through swirling smoke and rumbling earth is easier when it’s scaled down. If your VCR is hooked up to stereo equipment, you’ll get a sonic treat, too. Heard through a full-blown, four-channel Dolby Surround system, instrumental cues whisk back and forth with the on-screen action, for the most part enhancing audience involvement.
What you probably don’t need to increase your enjoyment are the extras packaged in a second new video release called Fantasia: Deluxe Collector’s Edition, which includes the movie cassette plus a double CD of the film’s Stokowski-conducted score. Since the CDs use the same mix included on the tape itself, they’re redundant for anyone with a Hi-Fi VCR. There’s also a slim commemorative booklet and, down the scale toward complete uselessness, a ”Certificate of Authenticity.” Still, gotta-have-it fans might enjoy this package’s Mickey-and-the-broom lithograph and the added cassette of the Leonard Maltin-scripted documentary Fantasia: The Making of a Masterpiece (1990). Fast-forward past the fatuous introduction by host Michael Tucker (L.A. Law) for some moving commentary about Disney’s depression in the wake of Fantasia’s initial failure — or save bucks and tape the program when it’s rerun on the Disney Channel this month.
Serious animation buffs — if you can call studying chesty centaurs and centaurettes in slow motion serious — will probably want to hold out for the laserdisc edition in CAV, a type of disc that can show off individual frames in stunning detail. But in any format, the watch-when-you-want convenience of home video makes Fantasia more fun. At two hours, a stretch from the typical 70- or 80-minute cartoon feature, it’s rich for one sitting. Lapses dull the high points, as when the dinosaur segment limps on after the lizards themselves disappear and the ”Pastoral” Symphony piles on the naked-Cupid gags. Savored in sections, like cuts on a favorite album, Fantasia becomes a sampler of intensely pleasurable, eminently repeatable audio-visual treats. A