A unique “continuation” of an animated classic that was released 59 years ago, “Fantasia/2000” has been strategically positioned to become the first film released Stateside in the millennium that has been incorporated as part of its title. Adding to the distinction of this ambitious Disney production is its status as the initial full-length film presented in bigscreen Imax, the format in which it will be shown exclusively in 75 theaters worldwide from Jan. 1 through April 30. With all of Disney’s marketing muscle put behind these engagements, B.O. should be enormous. Thereafter, at a date as yet to be determined, pic will be distributed normally in 35mm and, presumably, in digital projection in certain situations.
Even though the anthology structure of the original has been scrupulously retained here, and the problems that limited that film’s appeal have been duly sidestepped, this beautifully designed and presented package of seven new animated sequences plus one reprise has shortcomings of its own. If the 120-minute “Fantasia” was too long, formal and somber to sustain the interest of most youngsters, and if it finally was too preoccupied with fulfilling certain of Walt Disney’s highbrow aspirations, this enjoyable follow-up is, at 75 minutes, simply too breezy and lightweight. While it bends over backward not to be “boring” and is significantly more kid-friendly than the original, “Fantasia/2000” is like a light buffet of tasty morsels rather than a full and satisfying meal; all the episodes are more or less agreeable, but as a whole it lacks a knockout punch, one dynamite sequence that will galvanize viewers.
Driven by the dream of creating animated accompaniment to pieces of classical music, Walt Disney produced “Fantasia” with the notion of releasing annual revisions in which some new sequences would replace certain existing episodes in a process of continual renewal. But despite the fact that the film ran for a year in New York after its premiere in 1940, the original — which cost a whopping $2,280,000 and required the installation of expensive theater speaker systems to accommodate the cinema’s first stereophonic-sound release — was one of Disney’s rare financial disasters, and the follow-up idea was shelved.
Pic finally turned a profit upon its 1956 re-release, gained a reputation as a head-trip in its successful 1969 and 1977 reissues, and became one of Disney’s most popular titles when it was finally brought out on video a decade ago.
Initially staggering simply by virtue of the size of the screen, new effort begins with small frames of the original “Fantasia” floating through space, leading to the sight and sound of a modern orchestra tuning up. Almost at once, it launches into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which is visually accompanied by four minutes of relatively abstract movement by butterfly-like triangles, which mostly move on cue to the music. Effect is passably diverting, but doesn’t amount to much.
Back in the studio, Steve Martin strides in for a smirking, funny moment of introduction. Comedian is the first host of the live-action interstitial slugs, each of which run little more than a minute and is marked by glib humor and bare-bones info about the piece to come; approach stands in marked contrast to the drawn-out commentaries by musical commentator Deems Taylor in the original.
Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” unfolds, not as an evocation of the ancient city, but as a 10-minute New Age celebration of whales, with a family of three gliding effortlessly through Antarctic waters, up into the air and through the clouds, joining an enormous school of their fellow aquatic behemoths in a squadron of outer-space frolickers. Several moments, especially when the graceful creatures break through waves or clouds, are stunning, but this is basically smooth and silky illustration rather than dramatization.
Quincy Jones turns up to inform that the illustrious illustrator of the 20th century show-world, Al Hirschfeld, provided the inspiration for the animated accompaniment to Gershwin’s great “Rhapsody in Blue,” a piece Disney had hoped to use in the original “Fantasia.” Result is intriguing and laudable as an ambitious attempt at a “Symphony of a City,” i.e., New York in the Jazz Age, but also a bit disappointing in its flat comedy and inability to approach the stature of the music in visual terms.
Twelve-minute episode intercuts among four subjects: a construction worker who dreams of playing drums in a Harlem nightclub, an unemployed bum, a married man who dreams of the high life and a little rich girl. The colorful Hirschfeld-derived line drawings give the segment a look that is quite distinct from any Disney animation in memory, and Gershwin’s music is rousing under any circumstances. But nature of the narratives lacks the exalted sophistication of the score, suggesting that preferable approaches might have been found either in more abstract designs and fragmentary stories, or in selecting more adult and emotionally piquant tales that would have resonated in parallel to the music.
After Bette Midler fleetingly refers to potential “Fantasia” segments that for various reasons went unrealized (ones based on Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkeries” and the art of Salvador Dali are the most intriguing), pic reaches its arguable peak with Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro, Opus 102,” which provides the backdrop to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Brilliantly directed and animated, this seven-minute story of a one-legged toy soldier who rescues a ballerina from an aggressive jack-in-the-box is classically conceived but is drawn with a modern edge. The three main characters have strong personalities achieved exclusively through graceful expressions and posture, the drama is urgent and forcefully felt, and the villain possesses a memorable malevolence. There is perhaps nothing new here, but potential of the material and music is maximized.
James Earl Jones’ intro to the finale of Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” is half as long as the piece itself, a two-minute frolic involving some pink flamingos and yo-yos that reps a briefly diverting throwaway.
Penn & Teller comedy team provide the lead-in to the most popular segment from the original “Fantasia,” Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” starring Mickey Mouse. Original musical performance conducted by Leopold Stokowski has been retained, and while the story is still a winner, all the technical expertise in the world has not been enough to make the vintage animation look good on the giant Imax screen. Visual quality is grainy, darkish and markedly inferior to the rest of the picture, although difference may not be so pronounced in 35mm on smaller screens.
After Mickey turns up to hobnob with conductor James Levine for a moment, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” unfolds to the surprising and amusing accompaniment of the Noah’s Ark story, which is given the unusual twist of casting Donald Duck as the elderly captain’s assistant. Elgar’s famous processional marches are taken at a brisk clip and have been bestowed with some questionable climactic choral and solo soprano adornments. But Donald’s antics are winning, whether he is desperately trying to plug a hole drilled in the ark by a woodpecker or pining for the sweetheart he thinks he’s lost. Six-minute yarn reps good, solid Disney cartooning for any era.
Angela Lansbury introduces the final segment, “a story of life, death and renewal” that, no doubt coincidentally, overlaps with some of the artistic as well as thematic strains of the recent “Princess Mononoke.” Comparison does not particularly favor the Disney piece, for while it is beautifully designed and set to Stravinsky’s powerful “Firebird Suite,” it possesses an overreaching ambition of profundity that simply cannot be supported in a simple seven-minute episode. Thoroughly visual tale of how a beautiful Sprite and a noble elk restore natural life to a forest devastated by fire clearly means to be a grand statement with universal import. But the idea is a cliche unless fleshed out with some complexity, and net effect is of a long drive to the warning track rather than a home run.
Just as some serious music critics took exception to the original “Fantasia,” there will be legitimate gripes about the way some of the pieces have been edited and orchestrated here, although nit-picking needs to be put in the perspective of the project’s overall function of introducing countless kids to music with which they would otherwise be unfamiliar. Some of the music was recorded as long as six years ago, while the project itself took nearly a decade from inception to release.
It should be noted that some other segments were undertaken that, for whatever reasons, didn’t make it into “Fantasia/2000.” Pic also represents a breakthrough in the history of Imax presentations, which up to now have been limited because of film size and projector capacity to pictures no more than 45 minutes in length.
For the record, the live-orchestra presentations of “Fantasia/2000” that began at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Dec. 17 and are continuing in London, Paris and Tokyo before climaxing with a Millennium Eve Gala at the Pasadena Civic Center include only the animated segments and not the intro, interstitials and end credits, which run seven minutes.