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Production on Fantasia 2000 officially began in 1990 but to be honest, this movie had been in production more or less since 1940 when the first Fantasia was released. Disney cared passionately about Fantasia and had always intended for the movie to be re-released at regular intervals with new sequences alternating with old favourites. And despite the absolutely abysmal box office returns (Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe can fill you in on the whys and wherefores) the idea never really died, with various artists trying their hand at new animation sequences set to music. From these we got some of the lesser known “quasi-sequels” like Make Mine Music and Melody Time. But it was only in the nineties that the studio finally got up the resolve to make the next installment in the Fantasia series. I know you were probably looking at that start date and thinking “this thing took ten years to make?” and that’s a little misleading. Fantasia 2000 was animated in fits and starts, in between work on the other animated features. And if it sounds like they were maybe dragging their heels on this one that’s probably true. I think Disney knew that, much like the original, Fantasia 2000 would involve taking a bath. Fantasia is simply not that commercial a concept. But they made it anyway, despite knowing that it would probably end up losing money, so more power to them.
Alright, the movie begins just diving straight into the first sequence based on Symphony No. 5 in C minor-I. Allegro con brio by Beethoven, probably better known by its real name: DUN DUN DUN DUUUUUUN! This is 2000’s equivalent of Toccata and Fuge in D Minor, the weird abstract one that opens the movie. It shows a battle between brightly coloured butterflies and black bats rendered in a modernist, abstract style. Like the original, there are sequences in 2000 that I love, and ones that leave me cold, but what gives 2000 the slight edge for me over the 1940 movie is that it’s willing to make concessions to narrative. I mentioned back in the original Fantasia review that it was hard for me to remain invested sometimes without some kind of plot. Parts of the original movie for me were like looking at a screen saver with better animation and music. But even in
Symphony No. 5 in DUN DUN DUN DUUUUUUN! which is by far the most abstract of the eight sequences, there is a semblance of a plot to keep me watching the visuals. As for the visuals themselves…well the animation is excellent throughout the film, and probably much more consistent in quality than the original. That’s just one of the benefits of modern animation techniques, bigger budgets and larger and better integrated animation teams. The downside is that the movie makes heavy use of CGI. Now, it’s very good CGI for the period, don’t get me wrong. But the trouble with CGI is that while good hand-drawn animation remains timeless, good CGI often seems like bad CGI ten or twenty years down the line. This sequence is mostly good, although it does look a little plasticky at times. Other sequences aren’t so lucky, as we’ll soon see.
The first sequence over, we now see the next major difference between this movie and the original. The first Fantasia was of course MC’d by composer and music critic Deems Taylor.
But Disney obviously felt that times had changed and they needed someone a bit less uptight. Someone zany. Someone hip! In short, a wild and crazy guy.
Aw…fuck it. You know what? I can’t rip on Steve Martin. Too many good memories. The Jerk, Man with Two Brains, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid…Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, my God! That movie is one of the great underrated comedies. Go in peace, Steve Martin. I wish you well.
Steve gives some spiel, explains the background to the movie and then hands off to violinist Itzhak Perlman who introduces the next sequence Pines of Rome by Respighi, reimagined as a story of whales who’ve gained the ability to fly because…a super tanker full of Red Bull ran aground or something, I dunno. Okay, so this was actually the first sequence to go into production and the first to be completed, in 1995. And it shows, having probably the worst CGI of any of the sequences. On its own it’s not too bad I suppose but the animators made the mistake of animating the eyes of the CGI whales with traditional animation. And it is distracting as fuck.
I’m pretty indifferent to this one, I gotta say. The music gels pretty well with the visuals and the final shot of thousands of whales ascending to heaven is absolutely gorgeous but the out-dated CGI really hampers things. See, this is why you stick with traditional animation Disney! It never goes out of style.
We now come to what is probably my favourite sequence of either movie, Rhapsody in Blue. Yes, I prefer this to Night on Bald Mountain.
Look, I’ve said it before; Classical music just ain’t my thing. Sorry. But I love me some George Gershwin and I adore the art stylings of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. This sequence for me is where the art style and the music mesh better than anywhere else. They’re both breezy, beautiful, effortless, deeply cool and inextricably linked to New York city. We follow various New Yorkers as they go about their day saddled with their own personal problems. There’s the construction worker who wants to be a jazz musician, an unemployed schlub looking for work, a little girl who misses her parents and a hen-pecked husband who just wants to be free of his overbearing wife so he can play with a monkey.
Their paths cross and each ends the sequence with their problem resolved. Except for the hen-pecked husband who only really gets a temporary reprieve because his wife got hooked on a crane and can’t get down. Unless the movie is implying that she died up there. Which is…dark.
Anyway, it’s a total, perfect triumph.
The next sequence is introduced by…
Bette gives some background on some of the sequences that never made the cut, which is catnip to an animation nerd like me before introducing The Steadfast Tin Soldier set to Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major-I. Allegro by Dmitri Shostakovich (how did they come up with such catchy names?). This sequence holds the distinction of being Disney’s first wholly computer generated animation and features a cast of living toys wait just a damn minute here…
Real original guys. Well anyway, the story follows the original Hans Christian Andersen story pretty faithfully with a one-legged tin soldier falling in love with a beautiful ballerina doll. Unfortunately, she’s being harassed by a creepy-ass Jack-in-the-Box (he said as if there was any other kind). The soldier tries to protect her and gets thrown out of the bedroom window and swept into the sewer where he’s menaced by some pissed off rats.
Eventually he gets swallowed by a fish that just happens to get caught by a fisherman and which then just happens to get bought by the cook in the house where he lives. He falls out of the fishes mouth and gets picked up by his owner and gets put back in his box right where he was at the start of the cartoon. And if I was the Jack in the Box, I’d be pretty freaked out by now.
Anyway, the Jack and the soldier fight, and instead of like in the original story where the Tin soldier is thrown into the fire and melts (Andersen you emo bitch) here it’s the Jack that gets thrown into the fire and the Tin Soldier and the Ballerina live happily ever after. I’m not too keen on this piece. The music is a good fit, but the animation style tries to mimic traditional animation with CGI and it just ends up looking kinda cheap and plasticky. And please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a traditional animation snob.
Okay, I am a MASSIVE traditional animation snob but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate CGI when it’s done well. But if you want the look of traditional animation, pick up a fucking brush. This is just cheating.
The next sequence opens with James Earl Jones watching Genie animator Eric Goldberg drawing. Jones tells us that “These drawing boards have been the birthplace of some of the most beloved animal characters of all time.”
Jones, in a voice better suited to announcing the second coming of the Lord, says that the next segment was created to ponder one of the great mysteries of the universe; What would happen if you gave a yoyo to a bunch of flamingos?
The answer is AWESOMENESS.
The Carnival of the Animals, Finale by Camille Saint-Saëns provides the soundtrack for this very funny, fast-paced and (clocking in at less than two minutes) very brief comic set piece about a flamingo who wants to play with his yoyo and his struggles against The Man (who in this case is six flamingos).
It’s a hilarious short with some terrific facial expressions and it really synchs up terrifically with the music.
Penn and Teller introduce the next sequence, the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. This is the only sequence to be carried over from the original Fantasia (Dance of the Hours was also going to be included but was cut for time). Penn says that Mickey “taught us everything we know”.
I already covered The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the original review so let’s move on. The sequence ends with Mickey congratulating original Fantasia composer Leopold Stokowski and then CROSSING BETWEEN THE REALMS OF THE DEAD AND THE LIVING to talk to 2000 composer James Levine.
Mickey tells Levine to stall for time while they find the star of the show, Donald, who’s still in the shower (how do you shower if you’re covered in waterproof feathers?). Levine explains that the next piece is Pomp and Circumstance – Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4 by Edward Elgar which retells the story of Noah’s ark with Donald Duck.
If you can overlook the fact that this music will have you instinctively wondering when you’re getting your damn diploma, this is another very strong sequence. The story begins with all the animals gathering at Noah’s ark. Noah, as well as having invented wine, also apparently invented outsourcing, and he tasks Donald Duck with the job of actually getting the animals onto the ark. Daisy kisses him goodbye and he gets to work convincing the various elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, kangaroos…
As the floodwaters rise the animals climb aboard the ark but Daisy and Donald pass each other by and neither realises that the other is on the ark. Both are heartbroken because they think that the other has drowned (how do you drown when you naturally float?) but when the ark runs aground on Mount Ararat they’re reunited. I love this one, really imaginative use of the music, nicely animated and really funny. There’s just so many great sight gags stuffed into those few minutes (I especially love the dragon, unicorn and griffin laughing hysterically at all the other animals boarding the ark). Great stuff.
The final segment is introduced by Angela Lansbury and…holy shit, do you think the director of this movie was tempted to say “Fuck Fantasia, let’s just do the best episode of Murder She Wrote, EVER”? It’d be like, there’s a scream and Steve Martin runs in yelling that Bette Midler has been found murdered in the orchestral pit. The police arrive and arrest James Levine because they have evidence that Midler was blackmailing him. But Angela doesn’t buy it because Levine was with her the whole time and anyway, the killer was obviously LEFT HANDED. James Earl Jones knows the pathologist (let’s just say she’s an old acquaintance) and he’s able to get her a copy of the autopsy. “James, you old Casanova” says Angela, but stops smiling when she reads the time of death: Midler was killed before the show even started! But that’s crazy! Martin exclaims, we saw her introduce The Steadfast Tin Soldier! Did we though? Or was it simply someone who was able to disguise themselves so perfectly as Bette Midler that we were all fooled, while their accomplice hit the real body in the orchestral pit. Accomplice? Why yes, whoever pulled this off doubtless had help. An assistant. A partner. It’s classic misdirection, the kind you’d expect from an expert in stage magic.
Which is my own unique way of saying that I don’t much care for the final segment Firebird Suite – 1919 Version by Igor Stravinsky. It’s certainly beautiful, as it depicts the spirit of spring bringing the forest to life. The problem is, this is the movie’s big capper, it’s climax. As such, it’s going to be compared with the climactic sequence of the original, Night on Bald Mountain. Now, there is no way anything that the creators of Fantasia 2000 could come up with would compete with that. Night on Bald Mountain is just untouchable in its sheer power. And that’s fine. But really, they should have tried to make a cartoon that was as different from Bald Mountain as possible and instead…
Yeah, so instead of avoiding the problem they ran straight at it. It’s like “Oh, you thought Chernabog was awesome! Wait till you see the Firebird! He makes Chernabog look like Bartok!”
I call this Spinosaurous Syndrome. In Jurassic Park 3, the filmakers introduced a new dinosaur, the Spinosaurous that was supposed to be even bigger and more dangerous than the T-Rex. But of course, audiences didn’t go along with this for two reasons. 1) The T-Rex was already an iconic presence in popular consciousness even before the first movie and nobody had even heard of a Spinosaurous and 2) IT’S A MUTHAFUCKIN’ T-REX!!!!!!!
So yeah, the Fire Bird tries to equal Night on Bald Mountain and it fails. End of story.
Better? I honestly have no clue. The original was a beautiful, audacious, flawed labour of love. It has the strengths and weaknesses of Disney movies of the Tar and Sugar era. Fantasia 2000 is a movie made during the Disney Renaissance (even if it was released afterwards) and it has the strengths and weaknesses of that particular period of Disney history. Now, regular readers of this blog have probably figured out that I think the Renaissance was the most sustained period of quality in the history of the canon, even more so than when Walt himself was alive. But that success was built on the hard work and innovation of the animators that had gone before. If there had been no Bambi, would there have been a Lion King? Probably not. Does that mean that Bambi is a better movie? I don’t think so, because Lion King built on its strengths and didn’t repeat its mistakes. All I know is, if I had to choose seven of the fourteen sequences, old and new, to preserve for all eternity it would be three from the original (Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Rite of Spring and Night on Bald Mountain) and four from the sequel (Rhapsody in Blue, The Carnival of the Animals, Pomp and Circumstance and Symphony No. 5). So for me, it’s Fantasia 2000 by a hair. I will accept the court’s judgement.
Sorry Crow. You may have had the fanatical zeal of a true believer and the support of the working class. But I have a half insane animator with heat vision. Wow, you know Walt, it’s funny. Fantasia 2000 works because it’s a fusion of the old and the new, and in the same way you and I were able to defeat Crow by working together as…
Well. We’ll agree to disagree.
FINAL SCORE: 76%
NEXT TIME: Join me as we take a weary, despairing look at Disney’s first foray into feature length computer animation. Dinosaur is next.
NEXT UPDATE: 17 October 2013