Monday, January 14, 2013

Fantasia 2000 (1999) - Sequel to "Fantasia" Recaptures the Magic

Fantasia 2000: Stunning Graphics

Film Poster Fantasia 2000 1999
The original film poster for "Fantasia 2000."
The Disney Renaissance that had begun with "The Little Mermaid" and had just ended (though nobody knew that yet) with "Tarzan" raised the fortunes of Walt Disney Feature Animation so high that Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, felt that it was high time to complete some projects remaining from his uncle's tenure. An update for "Fantasia," ultimately called "Fantasia 2000" (1999), was not a new idea: the original concept for regular updates to "Fantasia"'s collection of classical music videos was Walt Disney's.

Fantasia 2000 1999

Real-world events such as World War II and (probably more significantly) Fantasia's failure at the box office meant that Walt's plan never came to fruition during his lifetime. Roy, though, had kept the idea alive after Walt's death (probably because Walt would have nothing to do with updating such a money-loser while alive), and finally he convinced Disney chairman Michael Eisner to fund it.

Fantasia 2000 1999

As with "Fantasia" and its use of conductor Leopold Stokowski and classical music radio host Deems Taylor for help with the selections, Roy Disney and producer Don Ernst retained musical expert Peter Schickele to arrange the selections with conductor James Levine. Disney's crew of animators, swollen by the demands of pounding out animated features almost every year during the '90s, went to work. The result is a film full of color and light enhanced by computer imagery, a smorgasbord of animation that delights as long as you enjoy the musical selections themselves.

Forest Spirit from The Firebird Fantasia 2000 1999
Forest Spirit from "The Firebird."
All selections are conducted by James Levine and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:
  • Live-action scenes
  • Symphony No. 5 in C minor, I. Allegro con brio by Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Pines of Rome by Respighi
  • Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Allegro, Op. 102 by Dmitri Shostakovich
  • The Carnival of the Animals (La Carnival des Animaux), Finale by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns
  • The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas
  • Pomp and Circumstance – Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4 by Edward Elgar
  • Firebird Suite – 1919 Version by Igor Stravinsky
Flying Whales Fantasia 2000 1999
Whales in the "Pines of Rome" segment.
While Disney as a corporation had sixty years to put together the sequel to the original "Fantasia," the actual production of "Fantasia 2000" was surprisingly rushed and confused. Eisner apparently approved the project simply as a way to appease Roy Disney and then left it in Disney's hands. Disney himself, though, was probably the worst person imaginable to oversee this project. While his intentions were laudable, he never managed to pin down the songs or the whole point of the exercise (beyond doing what Walt had at one time intended) until the last minute. Songs were considered, added, retracted, all at the personal whim of Roy and his cronies.

Fantasia 2000 1999

It never was clear how many sequences from the original "Fantasia" would be retained, and the question is begged, why retain any? The answer seems to be, yes, because in 1940 that was what Walt Disney had planned. Times had changed, circumstances had changed, "Fantasia" had flopped, and there is no indication that Walt himself had any interest in pursuing the project in later years. There is every reason to believe, however, that he would have blown his top at the thought of an expensive, self-indulgent project that sucked up studio resources for almost a full decade. "Fantasia 2000," therefore, stands as a monument to Walt Disney that doesn't make much sense, but if you are going to propose a monument to Walt Disney within Walt Disney Pictures, you stand a very good chance of getting that monument one way or another.

Symphony No. 5 scene Fantasia 2000 1999
A scene from "Symphony No. 5."
In the end, only the classic "Sorceror's Apprentice" segment carried over from 1940. The other selections show a strong bias towards classics of the early 20th Century, and what is interesting is that every single selection in "Fantasia 2000" was available for the original "Fantasia" but was passed over. Roy Disney personally liked "Pines of Rome," so that made the cut automatically. The "Piano Concerto No. 2" by Shostakovich was thrown in at the last minute at the suggestion of one of the animators.

Donald Daisy Duck Fantasia 2000 1999
Donald and Daisy Duck.
"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" came in late as well and the animation was based on work done in the 1930s for "Fantasia." "Dance of the Hours" was going to be carried over from "Fantasia," but the team changed its mind nine years into the production and it was replaced (wonderfully) by Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." "Nutcracker Suite" was also going to be retained and actually made it to the test screening stage, but then was taken out because viewers were complaining about "Fantasia 2000"'s length. There is a brief introduction by Roy Disney explaining the genesis of the project, then the titles that show the orchestra in space. Without further ado, the segments begin.

Symphony No. 5 segment Fantasia 2000 1999
The shapes change into butterflies and bats.

Symphony No. 5

Unlike the subsequent sequences, there is no introduction to this piece by Beethoven. The music is accompanied by abstract flying creatures who explore in the shadows. The concept is that the multi-colored shapes are good and the dark shapes are evil. Computer animation is used heavily in this segment, the initial shapes hand-drawn and then processed digitally. Looked at individually, the scenes of the "Symphony No. 5" segment are beautiful and work as pieces of modern art. I know this is a silly comparison, but this segment reminds me of the nature film that the Edward G. Robinson character watches on his deathbed in "Soylent Green" in its stark beauty.

Flying whales Pines of Rome segment Fantasia 2000 1999
Flying Whales.

Pines of Rome

Famed violinist Itzhak Perlman hosts this piece by Respighi. "Pines of Rome" is delightful enough but is not very well known. The segment is worthy of note because the animators out-did themselves with their expression of natural beauty. We follow a family of humpback whales that are enabled to fly rather than swim due to a celestial explosion. A calf gets in trouble with an iceberg, but its mama helps him out. The whales wind up migrating during the selection's final sequence. While the music is nothing exceptional, the animation is superb and perfectly suited to the theme. One of the animators listened to the piece and thought it sounded like flying, doodled some clouds, one of them looked remotely like a whale, and the rest is history.

George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue Fantasia 2000 1999
George Gershwin at work on Rhapsody in Blue.

Rhapsody in Blue

Quincy Jones, Sinatra's favorite accompanist, introduces this selection. Unlike some of the other segments, this tells a very clear story of a man, late for work in Depression-era Manhattan, who rushes out of bed and to his job, where he dreams of being a drummer rather than an operator of a jackhammer on a skyscraper construction site. Along the way to work, he passes other people who also dream of other, better ways that they could be living their own lives. There are many charming vignettes during this segment, which truly is the show-stopper of the entire "Fantasia 2000" experience and whose creation justifies the entire project in artistic terms. Gershwin himself is seen playing the piano in a walk-up apartment.

Fantasia 2000 1999

This segment would have made a nice short film all of its own, and it already was in progress when Roy Disney heard about it and asked its creator, Eric Goldberg, to finish it for inclusion in "Fantasia 2000." Each of the characters is based on somebody specific, the little red-haired girl an adaptation of the character "Eloise," the red-haired man a caricature of the man who wrote "Making of" books for both Fantasia films, John Culhane, and so on. There is a heavy emphasis on blue colors, and the detail of the animation is exquisite. An opening in the production schedule of "The Emperor's New Groove" enabled the studio to use animators assigned to that Disney movie (released subsequent to "Fantasia 2000") to complete this segment. Eric Goldberg was the director, with his wife, Susan, the art director, and they based the look on the famous caricatures of Al Hirschfeld. The whole piece has an art deco look of the '30s when the composition became popular, and the animation works because it does not consciously try to dazzle, but instead simply tells a tale briskly and hauntingly.

Piano Concerto No. 2 segment Fantasia 2000 1999
The Soldier and ballerina of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier"

Piano Concerto No. 2

Pop-standards singer Bette Midler for some reason was chosen to host this segment. Bette has ties to New York City and had appeared as Georgette in Manhattan-based Disney movie "Oliver & Company," and also had sung in big-city Disney movie "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," so a better choice for her would have been the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment. Bette provides a brief history of the canceled "Fantasia" segment projects leading into this Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." The soldier, who has lost a leg, defends a ballerina from a jack-in-the-box. The animators, in the classic Disney tradition, change the ending to make it a happy one (Hans liked to kill off his protagonists like "The Little Mermaid" in the end for some reason, which isn't too family-friendly). This segment had been sitting around for years in the studio with nobody having a clue what to do with it, then Roy Disney thought of using it in "Fantasia 2000." It is a showy segment with lots of action, with intense colors, which is good because that prepares the viewer's eyes for the next segment.

The Carnival of the Animals segment Fantasia 2000 1999
The others sure don't like that yo-yo.

The Carnival of the Animals

Actor James Earl Jones, who voiced Mufasa in "The Lion King," hosts this piece by Camille Saint-Saëns. He has a jokey introduction, which gives a flavor for the non-serious style adopted for the entire production. This segment is a take-off on the Ostriches in the "Dance of the Hours" segment from the original "Fantasia," with the ostriches switched to flamingoes and a yo-yo added for comic complication. Apparently, the idea for the yo-yo came to director Eric Goldberg because a former co-worker liked to play with one. Watch for classic yo-yo tricks "Walk the Dog," "Rock the Cradle," and "UFO."
James Earl Jones: [introducing the Carnival of the Animals] Here the sensitive strains of impressionistic music combine with the subtle artistry of the animator to finally answer that age old question: What is man's relationship to nature?
[is handed a note]
James Earl Jones: Oh, sorry... That age old question: What would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?
[turns to look off-camera]
James Earl Jones: Who wrote this?
Yes, that is very witty and all, but is one of many strained attempts at proving that classical music can be "fun" that runs throughout "Fantasia 2000." Truth is, classical music is fun, but anyone who puts "Fantasia 2000" in the player already knows that, and you aren't going to change any minds halfway through the show. Rule number one in public speaking is that, if you want to be taken seriously, act seriously.

Fantasia 2000 1999

One doesn't have to be grim, but perhaps just show a touch more respect for the material. Not to pick on Jones, he undoubtedly was doing what he was told, but the whole tenor of making fun of a project which by its inherent nature is trying to be taken seriously in order to have the desired effect makes little sense. In any event, this segment follows a flock of flamingoes that tries to corral a non-conforming member of the flock obsessed with a yo-yo into following the herd. The animation is beautifully done, although the selection is far too brief and your eyes have to be ready for a burst of flaming neon in the "pink flamingo" tradition or you risk going blind. There is humor in the animation, which is kept simple and stark in deference to the effect clashes of neon have on the viewer, and the rows of flamingoes are works of art in and of themselves, reminiscent of something by Andy Warhol.

Mickey Sorceror's Apprentice Fantasia 2000 1999
Mickey tries on the hat.

The Sorceror's Apprentice

Hosted quite appropriately by the comedy magic team of Penn (Jillette) and Teller, this is the holdover from 1940 and shows its age. As those who have seen the original know well, Mickey Mouse gets ahold of his master's hat and acquires the power of being a sorcerer. He engages in various tricks, ordering mops about and the like to do his chores. A nice touch is that, when the segment ends, Mickey still goes over afterward to chat briefly with original conductor Leopold Stokowski from "Fantasia," but then says something to the current conductor, James Levine, about stalling for time or Donald will miss his cue.

Donald Daisy Duck Pomp and Circumstance segment Fantasia 2000 1999
Donald and Daisy Duck waiting for the rain to start falling.

Pomp and Circumstance

Orchestra Conductor James Levine himself introduces this segment of the famous "Pomp and Circumstance" by Sir Edward Elgar. The images follow Donald Duck as he serves as the first mate to Noah on Noah's Ark. Daisy Duck is along as Donald's assistant. There are comical complications as Donald has trouble shepherding the animals onto the Ark and Daisy disappears, apparently lost, but then reappears at the end. Fun as it is to see Donald and Daisy Duck, this is the piece that is least necessary, given how over-played "Pomp and Circumstance" is at graduations and in films about graduations. Michael Eisner supposedly suggested this after attending... graduation. It is kind of like going to a birthday party and then suggesting using "Happy Birthday" in the next Disney movie. There are cute sight gags such as a group of dragons and a unicorn finding the whole idea of an Ark amusing. A very heartwarming segment and you don't see Donald Duck elsewhere too much anymore.

Forest Spirit The Firebird sequence Fantasia 2000 1999
Spirit of the Forest.

The Firebird

Actress Angela Lansbury was chosen to host this story of a spring sprite and her friend, and elk. The elk stops for a drink at a spring, releasing the green spirit living within, who rejuvenates the cold, barren landscape. This annoys the Firebird, a demon of destruction who lives in a volcano. The Firebird uses its powers to burn down the forest, but the sprite and the elk survive. The elk then encourages the sprite to reverse the Firebird's actions once again and allow the forest to thrive. Why Lansbury was chosen to open this segment is a bit of a mystery, but this highly stylized sequence is very enjoyable and was inspired by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State in 1980 and the subsequent re-growth of the woodlands below. Compared to the concluding "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in "Fantasia," this sequence is not as powerful, but it is a nice way to conclude "Fantasia 2000" with a "rising from the ashes" take on the "Phoenix" legend. Always nice to end on a positive note.

Elk in The Firebird sequence Fantasia 2000 1999
The elk in "The Firebird."
Overall, "Fantasia 2000" is enjoyable, but there is no over-arching theme, and having a succession of questionably appropriate narrators destroys the internal cohesion even further. Only one American composer, Gershwin, is included, and it is easy to question why the much-over-played "Pomp and Circumstance" was included, or the unknown "Pines of Rome," or, in fact, almost any of the other selections aside from the one true gem, "Rhapsody in Blue." For fans of classical music, "Fantasia 2000" is a treat in any event, but having a slightly sharper selection of songs would have improved the film tremendously. Having Steve Martin, who serves as a sort of overall Master of Ceremonies, and the others cracking lame jokes also detracts from the entire experience, as this is not "Saturday Night Live." If you set aside the time and effort to listen to classical music set to animation, you most likely aren't looking for tiresome "witticisms" that deprecate the material.

Unemployed man in Rhapsody in Blue sequence Fantasia 2000 1999
Unemployed man.
"Fantasia 2000" was a disaster at the box office, but that shouldn't dissuade you from seeing it. It must have been amazing to see in its IMAX version and is in the anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio (except for "The Sorceror's Apprentice," they did not do widescreen back then). Watch the original "Fantasia" first and decide if you like that before delving into "Fantasia 2000," because "Fantasia" is the true classic, and "Fantasia 2000" a pale imitation.

Sorceror in Sorceror's Apprentice sequence Fantasia 2000 1999


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