A warning to unsuspecting viewers: the contents of Fantasia 2000 could cause your head to explode.
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Walt Disney’s original vision of a movie experience which blends cartoon with classic music has found perfect expression in this animation for the new millennium. Hitting theaters (and now VHS and DVD) 60 years after the original Fantasia failed to wow audiences or critics, there is only one word to describe Fantasia 2000: wow. Make that WOW!
Nine years in the making, the 75-minute animated feature does in that short space of time what many live-action movies, bloated to two hours and beyond, can only dream about: it’s thrilling, it’s sad, it’s funny, it’s thoughtful. More powerful than any mind-altering hallucinogens and able to leap over Saturday morning cartoons in a single bound, Fantasia 2000 completely stunned me with its visuals and its fresh (but lite) classical arrangements. It also did something I never thought possible: it made me ready to forgive the Disney studios for Pocahontas.
When Walt first conceived the idea of Fantasia during the pre-World War Two years, he intended for it to be an ever-changing program, rotating musical selections from time to time—sort of like going to a concert in Carnegie Hall, but with Loony Tunes playing on a screen above the orchestra. Unfortunately, Disney was ahead of his time. Audiences were too preoccupied with the gathering storm clouds of war in Europe and some critics thought he was out of his gourd for setting animation (known primarily for having characters slip on banana peels) to masterpieces by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mussorgsky and Schubert—the stuff of stuffy, tuxedoed concert halls. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the children of those 1940s audience members started tripping on acid and grooving to Timothy Leary, that Fantasia really gained grassroots popularity. Then, when it was re-released in 1984, it earned a whole new generation of young admirers.
I’ve got to admit, I was never a big fan of the original Fantasia. Sure, I found the ballet hippos to be a delight and the concluding “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” segment was both scary and holy, but I never thought the animation was very engaging. Perhaps I needed to be sitting in a theater in 1940 to really appreciate how Walt was pushing the animation envelope.
But now, thanks to the tremendous leaps and bounds animation has taken with the aid of computers, Fantasia 2000 moved me in ways I can’t fully describe without descending into incoherent babble. I say again: wow!
Like the original, Fantasia 2000 varies from the whimsical to the profound as it visually interprets some of classical music’s greatest hits. This time around, we’re treated to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Resphigi’s Pines of Rome, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Shoshtakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and Stravinsky’s Firebird. While the condensed interpretations are sure to offend classical music purists, conductor James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra put a fresh spin on the tried-and-true (check out especially the addition of Kathleen Battle’s soprano trill in Pomp and Circumstance). In keeping with Walt’s vision of having part of the program stay the same, the studio has included the much-beloved “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in which Mickey Mouse battles some very obedient brooms.
[Note to the nice folks at Disney: If you ever decide to update the movie again, here’s the classical pieces I would love to see make it on screen: Smetana’s Vltava, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Albioni’s Adagio in G Minor and Sibelius’ Finlandia. Just something for you guys to mull over.]
Also, like the original, the musical pieces have live-action bridges in which celebrities get paid oodles of money for about three minutes of work. The first tuxedoed star to appear is Steve Martin and while his droll stand-up routine sets the perfect tone for the evening’s entertainment, he’s gone all too quickly and never heard from again. Instead, we get Quincy Jones, James Earl Jones, Penn and Teller, Bette Midler and Angela Lansbury reading their lines in expressionless tones that reveal just how much starch is in their evening clothes. Interestingly enough, conductor James Levine outshines all of the overpaid thespians during his on-screen appearance with Mickey. [Note to the nice folks at Disney: Next time, lose the celeb cameos.]
Here are the segments, in order from my least-favorite on up:
Beethoven’s Symphony No. in C Minor
The most famous four notes in musical history—what a great way to open this film. “Dun-dun-dun-dunnnhh” makes a strong statement, telling audiences, “Okay, sit up and pay attention now.” Unfortunately, the animation in this one—scraps of colored paper which move like butterflies—isn’t as engaging as what’s about to follow. Still, it’s a more enjoyable three minutes than Angela Lansbury’s cameo.
Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals
Flamingoes with yo-yos—who’d a thunk it? This is a short, fun and funny piece. Stylistically, it’s not very sophisticated (think the Aristocats era), but it’s got a lot of energy and will probably be the one thing remembered by viewers younger than five.
Shoshtakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2
Disney sets the Russian composer’s somber march music to an interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier. In the animators’ hands, it’s a sweet and thrilling tale of a love triangle between a one-legged soldier, a ballerina and an evil jack-in-the-box. Rendered in beautiful colors and backgrounds, the story will inspire lovers everywhere.
Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance
But here’s the really romantic centerpiece of the film! Imagine Donald Duck as the luckless fellow who’s tasked with counting the animals as they board Noah’s ark. Imagine the mayhem that ensues. Now imagine Daisy Duck thrown into the mix as Donald’s lover who, he thinks, doesn’t make it on board before the flood; Daisy, meanwhile, thinks Donald perished while trying to save her. Both of them spend their 40 days and 40 nights wandering among the animals in a series of near-misses that works perfectly in the hands of the animators. By the end of the segment, I had a lump in my throat. I also liked this piece for all the visual humor—check out the priceless expression on Donald’s face as the pair of mallard ducks boards the ark.
Resphigi’s Pines of Rome
In Dumbo, the crows asked, “Did you ever see an elephant fly?” In this short Fantasia masterpiece, you will believe whales can fly. The segment starts out as a rather ordinary piece about a pair of humpback whales cavorting with their young calf in an arctic ocean while the aurora borealis shimmers overhead. But then…the whales break the surface of the water and soar into the air and your entire perspective is skewed. How appropriate that the heaviest creature on earth would become as buoyant as a feather. The whales glide over icebergs, through clouds and across the waves with eye-popping beauty. Every frame of this segment is a work of art. Incidentally, this is when my wife turned to me and said, “Nobody does water like Disney.” How very true. The drops glisten like thick crystalline syrup along the whales’ bodies and it is beyond-words gorgeous.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
The supreme blend of song and animation is on display here as we see a day in the life of Depression-era New York City in the style of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld (he served as artistic consultant). Just as the Rhapsody starts with a single clarinet note, the animation begins with a simple line moving, like an Etch-a-Sketch, into the outline of skyscrapers, then pastel tones are shaded in and we’re introduced to an array of characters, including a construction worker who dreams of being a Harlem jazz drummer, a bum down to his last dime, a hen-pecked husband, and a little girl whose rich parents shuttle her off to arts classes all day long. There’s a thousand tales in the city and most of them are packed into this blisteringly quick symphony. Like the Elgar segment, it’s emotionally satisfying and completely rewarding.
What a way to conclude the film! Apart from the fact that this is my favorite musical selection of the film, I loved this segment for the way it made me feel like I’d just experienced something profound. This metaphoric journey through birth, death and rebirth bears little resemblance to the Firebird ballet, but it's got just as much to say about "the circle of life." It begins with an elk walking through snow in a forest. The condensation from his breath brings a wood nymph alive and she grows to magnificent proportions, then begins flying over the forest, trailing a shimmering green robe. In her wake, flowers sprout and blossom. But then, as Stravinsky’s music turns dark and moody, a nearby mountain erupts into a volcano (the animators based their work on pictures of Mt. St. Helens). Just when you think the lava and ash has killed everything, the elk comes along and brings the nymph to life once again. The finale is a vision of hope and renewal that is so completely overwhelming, I couldn’t move a muscle as the end credits started rolling.
The Disney studio originally released Fantasia 2000 only in IMAX theaters and it’s one of my sincerest disappointments of this past year that I wasn’t able to see it in that format. I can only imagine the experience of watching this symphony of color and movement in skyscraper dimensions. Then again, perhaps it’s for the best. Perhaps if I had seen the IMAX version, the visual orgasm, the aural eargasm, the Surroundsound sensuality all would have made my head explode into brightly-colored bits.
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