by Jay Seaver
Most know that Walt Disney originally intended to re-release "Fantasia" periodically with new segments added and old ones rotated out, a plan that never came to fruition because that movie was an expensive box-office dud that became beloved later in its life. And maybe that's for the best; sustaining that kind of excellence over time would have been difficult. Indeed, when Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney finally managed to revisit the project, the result was delightful, well worth the cost of an IMAX ticket when features playing in that format were unusual and a joy to re-watch, but not quite the audacious achievement of its predecessor.Do not take that as faint praise - Fantasia 2000 is a wonderful movie. Made as Disney's traditional animation department sputtered toward its eventual shuttering, it demonstrated that the form still had life in it. It is, however, less challenging than the original Fantasia, more focused on storytelling than pure imagery. Where Fantasia is a concert of sights and sounds, Fantasia 2000 is an anthology film, with Deems Taylor's authoritative introductions replaced by celebrity bits where Angela Lansbury's class is a singular and welcome departure from the foolishness of some of the other hosts.
"Not the revolution the original was, but still wonderful."
Only one piece is truly abstract, the geometrically-inspired accompaniment to Beethoven's "Symphony Number 5" that opens the film (and ends all too quickly). It's not the only very short piece, a spritely, silly version of Camille Saint-Saens's "Carnival of the Animals" sits in the middle of the film. Its dancing flamingos are funny and well drawn - and it forms an interesting contrast to the piece that follows it, a reprise of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". It's instructive, in a way, a look at how even traditional cel-based animation has evolved over time, as the 60-year-old segment has a nuanced, comparatively dark look that pulls all the elements together, while the newer piece has bright, glossy coloring, simplified compared to the grainy classic piece.
Modern digital animation not quite being up to hand-drawn work is a criticism that could certainly be leveled at "Pines of Rome", the first major item on the program. Despite the apparently pastoral title of Ottorino Resphighi's piece, it's an often-dramatic bit of music, and the imagery - of whales who somehow learn to fly - does an amazing job of going from playful to majestic along with the music. At first glance, though, one can't help but notice that the whales themselves seem to be separately animated pieces grafted together, hand-drawn eyes stuck onto digitally rendered creatures. It's a very odd look, but one which works with the sound and the imagery - a freehand touch to something otherwise made to precise specifications - and while it initially seemed like a compromise, falling back on one technique where another failed, it's actually just how that piece is supposed to look.
The piece that follows, based on George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", is also going for a very specific style, that of Al Hirschfeld, famed Broadway caricaturist. It's the longest segment of the film, and takes place in the relatively modern period of the Great Depression. It's a fun piece that jumps around New York City with a host of memorable characters, sketching out stories quickly and charmingly. The filmmakers opt to embrace the title of the piece, allowing blues to dominate the color palette until it's time to cheer the characters up, when golds and other hues burst forth.
After that comes "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", another story being told to music (Dmitri Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto Number 2"), and it's possibly my favorite piece in the film. It's a simple story of toys coming to life at midnight and falling in love, only to be thwarted by a jack in the box - hopefully only temporarily, of course. It's got remarkably expressive characters for a computer-generated piece produced in the 1990s (that is, not long after Toy Story at all), especially the shy approach of the damaged tin soldier to the wooden ballerina that he thinks, because of her initial pose, only has one leg like he does.
Of course, it's neck-and-neck with a piece featuring another highly expressive character, Donald Duck, as he and tries to load pairs of animals onto Noah's Ark to Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance". Though Mickey is the face of the company, Donald is probably Disney's most-loved character, and the steady meter of the march provides the perfect structure for a more or less non-stop series of gags as the impatient mallard runs from nuisance to calamity to sadness as he believes he has lost Daisy in the flood. Although it's perhaps not the greatest Donald short the way "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is Mickey's finest hour, it may be the best looking.
Those two are my favorite segments (I love toys and Disney Ducks on a personal, judgment-skewing level), but the best is probably the one that closes the film out, a piece set to Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite". It's the one that most resembles the sweeping conceptual pieces of the original, telling a tale of birth, life, death, and renewal on a grand scale. It's gorgeously designed and animated, filled with images that alternately evoke rapture and terror, in a way that rises and falls with the music without one feeling like a response to another.As such, it's the perfect way to end "Fantasia 2000", sending the audience out with a rush of the same sort of feeling that the original sustained. To be fair, conductor James Levine and the six directors of the new animated segments can't recapture the feeling of doing something completely new, as there had already been "Fantasia". They do manage to create something beautiful, though, well worth watching again and again.
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originally posted: 12/05/10 00:08:47