As mentioned in my Fantasia entry, Walt Disney had originally conceived of the film to be less of a movie and more of an institution. He wanted to create a recurring Fantasia that would be perpetually shown in theaters, with segments being replaced with new musical pieces to keep the animated “concert” fresh. The financial bomb that Fantasia dropped on the studio shelved the idea for decades, until Roy E. Disney dusted it off in the mid-1990s, and production on a second edition of Fantasia began. The film developed over several years, as animators worked on different segments between feature-length projects. It was released exclusively in IMAX theaters at midnight on December 31st, 1999 so that Disney could claim that their film was the first release of the new millennium.
Although the format of the film remains largely the same as the original Fantasia, there are some significant changes that weaken the cohesiveness of Fantasia 2000. The first change was that Disney did away with a single host, replacing knowledgeable music critic Deem Taylor with a parade of celebrity hosts. How Disney came to select the hosts is unclear; while some have clear connections to the studio (Bette Midler and James Earl Jones both did voice work for Disney films) other choices were a bit puzzling. Does anyone know what connects Quincy Jones or Penn & Teller to Disney? I haven’t any idea. Deems Taylor invited the audience to join him in appreciating classical music; these celebrities seem just as uncomfortable as they expect the audience to be. The hosts are generally stiff and bland, reading cue cards and cracking lame jokes. It creates a very different atmosphere.
The second thing Disney did was cut the run time of the movie down to a mere 74 minutes. That’s nearly hour shorter than the first Fantasia, but the film still claims the same number of animated sequences. How did they do it? By chopping and butchering each musical composition to ribbons. Again, they dumb down the music for the audience instead of attempting to elevate the audience to the music’s level. It’s a truly disappointing development.
Like any package film – odd, I didn’t think I’d ever be using that phrase again, as I thought we finished the package films back in the 1940s! - Fantasia 2000 has both good and poor segments. Let’s discuss them, shall we?
“Symphony No. 5 in C minor – I. Allegro con brio” by Ludwig van Beethoven - The opening four notes are probably the most recognizable in the history of Western music, no? Everybody knows this piece, which is why Disney chose it to open Fantasia 2000. They probably hoped that the familiarity would help ease viewers into classical music. The animation is starts abstractly, in deference to the opening of the first Fantasia, but it quickly falls into a narrative story of triangular butterflies (good) fighting with angular bats (evil). It echoes the themes of the final segment of Fantasia, so there’s a bit of a transition between the two movies that would have probably worked a bit better if this segment were a bit more engaging. But the first movement of Symphony No. 5 is usually between seven and eight minutes; this version has been hacked down to less than three! It’s ultimately a disappointing start to the film.
“Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi –The original music is supposed to be a symphonic poem about, well, the pines of Rome. Why this piece made the Disney animators think of humpback whales flying through the air is beyond me. This is the oldest piece of animation in the film, and it shows in the strange juxtaposition of traditional and computer animation. The whale bodies, for example, are generated by computer for the most part, and it effectively captures their movements beneath the waves. However, the eyes are still hand-drawn (apparently, technology had not yet reached a point where it could create “lifelike” eyes with the computer) over the whale bodies, floating over the face rather than being a part of it. It is strange, but it must have been an interesting experiment at the time. There’s a bit of story when a baby whale gets separated from his parents and trapped in an iceberg, but it’s not very engaging. I remember getting bored during “Pines of Rome” when I saw this back in 2000, and the short isn’t any better now.
“Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin – This is my second-favorite segment in Fantasia 2000 - we’ll get to the #1 piece soon enough – because the animation and the music match each other so well. It’s an episodic slice of life in New York City during the Great Depression, bouncing between the lives of four groups: a construction worker/musician, a depressed middle-aged man desperate for work, a hen-pecked husband longing to have some fun, and a little girl shuffled from one tutor to the next when all she wants to do is spend time with her overworked parents. The jazzy, bouncy music helps capture the frenetic energy of a bustling city, while the fluid animation based on the cartoons of Al Hirschfeld bring that urban environment to life. It’s a fun, modern piece – well, relatively so – that stands out amongst Fantasia 2000’s offerings.
“Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major – I. Allegro” by Dmitri Shostakovich – Another excellent segment, the Shostakovich piece is an eight minute version of the Andersen fairy tale “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”. The animation is an interesting hybrid of 2D and 3D techniques; the toys have the solid mass of the toys from Toy Story but the colorization and backgrounds still look like traditional Disney animation. It’s quite pretty and well-suited to the story. The ballerina’s movement is especially good, I think, the automated way that she gestures really does remind me of a spinning music box ballerina.
“The Carnival of the Animals Finale” by CamilleSaint-Saens – Hey, did you ever wonder what would happen if you gave a flamingo a yo-yo? Me either, but thanks to Eric Goldberg’s brilliant watercolor animation in this two-minute short I’m delighted to say that the answer to that question is AWESOMENESS. The pure slapstick silliness of this piece perks the viewer back up like a shot of java. The visual gags are hilarious, the flamingoes have personalities and everything is so bright it’s practically Day-Glo! This is my favorite segment by far – it’s just so wonderfully silly!
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas – This was the only segment from the first Fantasia retained for the re-release. Originally, there were plans to include “The Nutcracker Suite” as well, but it was removed after someone decided the film was already running too long. A pity. Anyway, I already talked about this one in Fantasia’s entry so I’ll just move on to the next piece.
“Pomp and Circumstance” by Edward Elgar – Since Mickey Mouse got his own segment in the first Fantasia, I guess the studio felt that Donald Duck deserved his own piece, too. In “Pomp and Circumstance”, Donald and Daisy become part of the story of Noah’s Ark, as the two anthromorphic ducks assist Noah in collecting all the animals and loading up the boat before the flood hits. The story’s not great – I’m rather sorry that the animators didn’t take advantage of Donald’s manic anger – but it was worth it for this moment:
“Firebird Suite – 1919 Version” by Igor Stravinsky – The eruption of Mt. St. Helens, told through the eyes of a nature spirit who makes the plants grow and blossom, only to have her work destroyed by the firebird living at the heart of the mountain. I liked that both the nature spirit and the firebird were roughly the same shape, emphasizing their joined nature – both creation and destruction are an important part of the natural cycle. This is beautifully animated, and it reminds me a bit of Hayao Miyazaki’s style…but that might just be me.
So was this attempt to revive Walt Disney’s Fantasia a success? Well, yes and no. Some of the animation is amazing, and there’s obvious experimentation that would never be allowed in a full-length feature. Individually, most of the shorts are interesting but they absolutely fail to create a cohesive whole, and more so than any other Disney film Fantasia 2000 seems manufactured by a pandering marketing team that doesn’t trust the intelligence of its target audience. The celebrity cameos stink and the music is terribly butchered. This feels like like a side project rather than a main feature – and for all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what Fantasia 2000 was. It’s interesting, but not necessarily good.
It’s not a sequel, exactly, but I’m not sure what other term to use.