"Fantasia" has cleaned up its act, so to speak.

This great - some would say the greatest - animation triumph of Walt Disney has been the subject of a restoration project for the past two years.Not that anything was missing, really. It was just dirty.

And now the color is richer, the Leopold Stokowski-conducted score has been restored (it was replaced by a new digital stereo score in 1985) and it has been returned to its original screen size in the "box" format.

What that means is that muddier colors have been illuminated by the cleaning process, the music matches the action more perfectly and the picture is no longer stretched by virtue of trying to make it bigger.

It's the return of an old friend in better shape, a stunning work that combines classical music with imaginative animation, ranging from the comic to the lyrical to the chilling to the mesmerizing.

Mickey Mouse is still battling broomsticks in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," abstract images grace the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" is shown with dancing foliage and fairies ranging from flowers and mushrooms to mischievous nymphs, Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" gets comical treatment from dancing hippos and crocodiles and ostriches, and the evil of night meets the sweetness of dawn with a medley of Mussorgsky and Schubert, "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria," respectively.

Whether this film will, as Walt Disney had hoped, introduce young audiences to classical music in a way that will stay with them is debatable, but there's no question that "Fantasia" remains one of Disney's singularly most amazing achievements.

Take the family - it's rated G. (Though small children may be a bit unnerved by the images of the devil and of a vicious dinosaur in the Stravinsky "Rite of Spring" sequence.)

- THE RESTORATION PROJECT for "Fantasia" is not to be confused with the restoration of "Lawrence of Arabia" or "A Star Is Born" or "Lost Horizon," where footage was found that had been missing from those classic films for many years.

But there was a "jigsaw-puzzle effect" in the restoration of "Fantasia," as a team of four prowled the Disney vaults looking for pieces of the original negative to restore the film to its purity. In fact, with the aid of advanced modern technology, the Disney folks feel the film actually

looks sharper than it did 50 years ago.

This was no easy task, however - it took two years of tedious, arduous work.

One of the four restorers, Pete Comandini, along with retired Disney animator Ollie Johnston, one of the legendary "nine old men" of the Disney animation factory, were interviewed from Los Angeles last week via AT&T teleconferencing - which provides two-way TV communication - and both were very pleased with the restoration result.

"I think it looks very good," Johnston said, "and I was delighted to see it back to the original aspect ratio (the box-screen shape), rather than cutting the heads and feet off like they did for awhile, trying to make it like CinemaScope.

"The music track sounds clean and the stereo . . . sounded very good."

Johnston said he was disappointed in the 1985 digital rescoring because for animation to work properly the sound comes first and the animation is drawn to match it. But the new digital soundtrack, naturally, was created to match the screen actions. "I didn't like it at all. I didn't sync properly."

Comandini said he and his partners had been restoring other Disney classics and "Fantasia" was chosen as a project to be released for its 50th anniversary this year. "We looked at what they'd gone out with last time (in 1985) and it was pretty depressing.

"Everything that you and I have seen on this picture since 1946 has been made from a dupe, not the original material.

"It was a giant jigsaw puzzle, going through the vaults, finding all the pieces. We then had to clean up the negative and remaster it . . . and then edit it all together. This material was timed to the soundtrack precisely, so you couldn't have anything missing or added." He said 90 percent of the film was restored from the original negative.

Comandini also worked on the recent "Gone With the Wind" restoration, a similar process, he said, except that it was more straight-forward. "The negative was in place in the right order in the cans.

"The rest of the picture was just a very long movie to restore. It wasn't the jigsaw puzzle `Fantasia' was."

Johnston said "Fantasia" was a flop when initially released in 1940 and the film was subsequently shortened and restructured several different ways for reissues. But it didn't find its audience until nearly 30 years later.

"In the '60s it finally paid for itself and became a cult picture with the people who thought we were on a trip when we made it. I didn't know what they were talking about. We never had anything like that at the studio. There were a few alcoholics, but nothing like that."

He said the film was the most unusual he worked on for Disney and it will never be duplicated. "We had 240 people at the time we were on `Fantasia' just doing effects work, water, smoke, ice, fireflies - you'll never get that type of crowd together again.

"It would cost $75 million to $100 million to make that picture now, even if you could get the staff."

Comandini added you'd also need a Walt Disney, someone with the vision to pull it together.

"I rate it at the top of being the most artistic picture I worked on and probably the most unique," said Johnston. "But as an animator I am an actor and I like characters like `Pinocchio' or the characters in `Bambi' or `Jungle Book' or `Sleeping Beauty,' where you can make personalities out of them and they actually give a performance that draws you into the picture."

Asked if they felt it might introduce a new generation of young people to classical music, Comandini said, "I would imagine that probably a lot of people under 25 are going to go and see `Fantasia' and think the music was written for this very movie."

Johnston laughed and added, "Original music by Beethoven. It'll be out on records one of these days."