Sixty years later – a worthy sequel
As Steve Martin recaps for us as one of the hosts, the original Fantasia (1940) was planned as an ongoing “concert film” project, adding and subtracting sequences each time it was released. Though plans were put in motion several times, this plan was set aside all these years. Disney rechanneled this kind of idea into more narrative anthologies like Fun & Fancy Free. Other stabs at the form, such as the Italian Allegro Non Tropo, and the Japanese Robot Carnival, met with limited success.
It was already nearly 40 years old when I first got the chance to see it, but it still blew me away. It was a legend that inspired generations of animators to push a little bit harder. A work of art that has achieved legendary status is a difficult act to follow, but Disney was brave enough to give it a try. To make up for lost time, this new Fantasia recycles only one of the previous edition’s selections (the popular “Sorceror’s Apprentice”). Thank goodness – as amazing as the original still is, and despite several remasters and restorations, animation has come a long way in 60 years. Add to that the fact that Fantasia 2000 is being shown in many IMAX theaters and the original is looking a bit shabby by comparison.
Of the new selections, all are good and some are magnificent. There’s a nice range of styles in both music and visuals, which I hope they continue to experiment with if the series goes on. Probably the weakest pieces are a short bit about a flamingo with a yo-yo set to Camille Saint-Sans’ “Carnival of the Animals”, and a longer sequence about life in New York set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” using drawings by Al Hirshfeld, which was reportedly pulled from the Disney archives at the last minute, is pleasant enough but annoyingly predictable in comparison to its companions.
A surprising willingness to set imaginations free marks one of the features best attributes, some amazingly charming juxtapositions of theme. The old favorite sequence with Mickey Mouse is followed by the wilder idea of placing Donald Duck on board Noah’s Ark set to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March”. Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” is literalized as an erupting volcano threatening the surrounding ecosystem. The strongest sequence features Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” and is about migrating whales – that can fly, and make it look quite natural.
If there’s a crutch that will date this feature it would be a noticeable over-reliance on herds, swarms, flocks, schools and other large groups made manageable by recent developments in computer animation. It’s an obvious, natural choice, which makes it a slightly disappointing one when used so many times. Also, there’s the matter of the linking host sequences, which are hit-and-miss and may lead future audiences wondering, “Who the heck is that guy that sounds like Darth Vader?”
I have to confess that the artistry displayed by the Disney animation department, combined with the musical prowess of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as seen on the gigantic IMAX screen and heard in full multidirectional stereo, was enough to overwhelm me at times. Most people throw around references to having their breath taken away by performances, but this picture did the job for me for real. I was left gasping at beauty several times and it took awhile afterward for me to recover. Perhaps the IMAX is just too strong a presentation for this, or maybe I’m too sensitive, but it might be a good idea to take along a tank of oxygen. It’s that good.
The past year has brought a widening and expansion of the field in animated features – from Tarzan to South Park, from Iron Giant to Princess Mononoke, from Pokémon to Toy Story 2. It’s fitting to cap this year, and take a step into the next century, with a great show like Fantasia 2000.