Disney Review: Fantasia 2000 (1999)

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Year of release: 1999 (premiere, nationwide release in 2000)
Running time: 75 minutes
Based on: the original Disney movie, Fantasia (1940)
Availability: re-released on DVD/Blu-Ray in November 2010
Sequels/spin-offs: Fantasia (1940, prequel), Fantasia 2006 (cancelled)

When Walt Disney released the original Fantasia in 1940, he had bigger visions for the project than just a stand-alone feature. Disney imagined Fantasia as a continually-running program that would be re-released every five to ten years, with the contents of the film changing over time. Older segments would be replaced with new ones, creating a new experience every time you went to see it. Unfortunately for Walt, Fantasia was not successful (in fact, it was a financial nightmare) and his dream was never realised.

Fantasia 2000 was created to bring Walt Disney’s original vision into reality and also to take Disney animation into the new millennium. Following a similar structure to the original film, the musical pieces are separated by short live-action segments (this time hosted by a range of celebrities rather than one narrator). For this review, I shall look at each piece separately before taking in the entire movie as a whole.

Symphony No. 5 (Beethoven)
After an introduction showing very brief clips from the original Fantasia, we hear the original film’s narrator discussing the “three types of music” (originally placed before the Toccata and Fugue segment). Much like the original film, the opening segment of Fantasia 2000 is supposed to be an abstract piece, using simple images to bring the music to life on-screen. In this respect, this segment is only half-successful.

While the images on-screen are definitely abstract, with geometric shapes and shafts of light being the main things to appear on screen, there is a definite story being played out here, with recognisable characters. In this segment, colourful butterflies are shown flying around, only to be overpowered by swarms of black moths. After fleeing for a short while, the colourful butterflies band together to smash through the crowds of moths with blinding shafts of light. All the visuals match the music very well and on the whole, it’s a bold-but-simple opening for the film.

Pines of Rome (Respighi)
For me, this is undoubtedly the weakest segment of the film, depicting flying humpback whales and their journey to an ocean in the skies (and you thought the original Fantasia had some weird stuff in it…). The biggest let-down here is the animation itself – the whales have been computer-generated and have not dated well at all (due to its abnormally-long production cycle, some of this animation predates Toy Story). While their movements are very realistic, there is a distinct lack of emotion in everything they do. The “main character” – a baby whale who gets trapped in an ice cave for part of the segment – occasionally made some connection with me, but otherwise you might as well be watching giant sausages or double-decker buses. There are small portions of 2D animation used in this segment (primarily splashes of water, which I presume was too complicated for the mid-90s technology) but these rarely mesh with the CGI visuals, becoming increasingly distracting.

It’s not all bad though, with the scene in the ice cave being surprisingly subtle and atmospheric. Things pick up towards the end of the segment, when the whales are flying amongst the clouds with the music thumping majestically in the background, but otherwise this is a very dull, non-sensical and overly long piece.

Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin)
Now from the worst segment to the best: Rhapsody in Blue combines the music of Gershwin with the art style of caricature legend Al Hirschfield (who was a consultant for the film) to dazzling effect. We follow four residents of 1930s New York who are all disappointed with their current situation and want something more: there’s a construction worker who dreams of being a drummer, an unemployed man desperate for a job, a young girl who wishes her parents had more time for her and a childish husband who receives nothing but scorn from his pompous wife. As the piece progresses, we see each of them live out their fantasies whilst skating around on an ice rink, before all their dreams finally come true in an unlikely (and hilariously interconnected) chain of events.

Out of all the segments in this film, this is the one that feels most at home with its musical piece. While other segments feel like they’re just playing along, a new viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Rhapsody in Blue had been written exclusively for the story unfolding on-screen. The visuals, too, are the film’s best, perfectly capturing Hirschfield’s stylised techniques: curved limbs, simple colour schemes (entire backdrops often use just one colour) and over-proportioned facial features.

The next project that the Rhapsody in Blue team would work on would eventually turn into The Emperor’s New Groove, one of my favourite Disney films. This doesn’t surprise me, as this is definitely my favourite part of Fantasia 2000, finding the perfect balance between entertaining comedy and artistic brilliance.

Piano Concerto No. 2 (Shostakovich)
For this segment, the Disney animators chose to adapt “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” by Hans Christian Anderson. In this segment, a one-legged toy soldier falls in love with a ballerina doll, only for an evil jack-in-a-box to throw him out the window and claim the ballerina for himself. But as luck would have it, the soldier is swept into the gutter, through the sewers and out to sea, where he is swallowed by a fish. When the fish is purchased by the mother of the soldier’s owner, he is placed back in his box where, upon midnight, he fights and defeats the evil jack-in-a-box and wins the love of the ballerina.

If you’re an Anderson purist then you will have already noticed that Disney have indeed changed the ending of the story to a much happier one. (In the original tale, the soldier makes it home only for the boy to throw him into the fire, where the ballerina joins him and they both die together. Hurray?) Like Pines of Rome, this segment features a few CGI characters but this time they are well animated, with plenty of emotion and detail. The soldier in particular has a “glossy” feel to him, like he is made of actual metal. On the whole, this segment is pretty enjoyable, though hardly amazing.

Carnival of the Animals, Finale (Saint-San)
“What would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?” That’s the question raised in this short but hilarious segment, which sees an immature flamingo refuse to fall in line with the boring routines of the flock, instead playing with his yo-yo. It’s all over in under three minutes but every second is wonderfully entertaining, bringing back memories of the ridiculous Dance of the Hours segment of the original Fantasia.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas)
Since Walt’s original vision involved a mix of old and new musical pieces, Mickey’s most famous role returns from the original Fantasia and plays out exactly like it did before. So there’s nothing much to say here other than that it’s just as awesome as always.

Pomp and Circumstance, Marches 1-4 (Elgar)
For this piece, Disney chose to tell the story of Noah’s Ark, but with a twist. In this version, Donald Duck acts as Noah’s first-mate, partaking in many slapstick jokes along the way. Due to a misunderstanding whilst loading the ark, Donald and Daisy both believe each other have perished in the flood and throughout the segment both characters manage to pass each other without ever noticing. It isn’t until the final crescendo that Donald and Daisy are reunited and – I’ll be honest – I always seem to tear up a little when they finally meet. Maybe I’m just overly romantic about these things…

While Rhapsody in Blue tied every on-screen action and joke to a part of the original music, the music here is rarely used for anything more than a backdrop to the antics that unfold. In fact, this segment is probably best described just as a Donald Duck cartoon with a classical soundtrack and a particularly epic scope. By itself, it’s very good, but I’m not sure how well it fits into the Fantasia concept.

Firebird Suite, 1919 version (Stravinsky)
In a similar vein to Fantasia’s good-vs-evil finale, 2000′s climax tells a tale of “life, death and rebirth”. The segment follows a forest spirit as she turns the winter landscape into spring, creating flowers, blossom and grass. However, she finds she cannot make anything grow near the peak of the mountain and, when investigating what lies inside, she accidentally awakens the Firebird, unleashing a volcanic eruption that destroys her forest and seemingly devours her. After the fires have burnt out, the spirit’s elk companion finds her crying and literally falling apart on the forest floor, but she soon realises her tears are bringing new life to the woods. Filled with joy, she flies high into the sky and restores the forest so that it is brighter than ever before. In one final twist, we discover that the mountain now resembles Mount St Helens, suggesting that we have just witnessed the famous 1980 volcanic eruption, which did indeed occur at the start of spring. (It should be noted that this story has no connection whatsoever to the original Firebird ballet from which the piece is taken.)

The Firebird Suite is definitely the most intense segment of Fantasia 2000 and a thrilling climax to the film. The forest spirit is gorgeously animated, showing a complex range of emotions including fear, horror, sadness and joy. The final restoration of the forest is a dazzling spectacle and the chase sequence following the Firebird’s awakening is pretty tense. My only real complaint about this segment is the way it draws comparisons to the original film’s finale (Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria). While the Firebird definitely delivers a few scares (the bit where its eyes flash open makes me jump every time) it can’t hold a candle to the menace that radiates off the creature from the original Fantasia. The joyous finale of this segment also feels a little brash when compared to the sombre close of the first film.

The Celebrity Narration
In between each segment, a short intermission takes place where the next segment is introduced. While in the original Fantasia, this was done with just one narrator, Deems Taylor, Fantasia 2000 uses a range of celebrities including Steve Martin (who talks about the Fantasia concept), James Earl Jones (who introduces the Carnival of the Animals) and Penn and Teller (who, of course, talk about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).

These pieces of narration are definitely the worst aspect of Fantasia 2000, with many of the presenters trying (and failing) to be amusing. After The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey is shown shaking Stokowski’s hand as in the original film, but then runs into the 2000 studio to talk to James Levine (the conductor for this film), before running off again to find Donald who is still in the shower. These attempts at humour are all quite unnecessary and tend to drag on much longer than they need to. A few of the interludes are a little more understated, such as Quincy Jones introducing Rhapsody in Blue but, overall, the effect is grating.

Overall Thoughts
While Fantasia 2000 may continue the Fantasia concept, it would be a bad idea to approach this film thinking it will live up to its predecessor. To be fair, I don’t think there will ever be a film that can beat the original Fantasia at its own game. To a certain extent, I think this film is after a different goal: while Walt’s Fantasia was a concert-hall experience in your local cinema, bringing classical music to a new audience in a brand new way, Fantasia 2000′s focus is more about entertaining and story-telling than music. This may explain why the segments in this film are so much shorter than the original’s (the total running time is an entire 50 minutes shorter!) and why they all have character-driven stories – even the one that was supposed to be abstract.

This isn’t to say that Fantasia 2000 is in the wrong for doing its own thing – in fact, my favourite segment, Rhapsody in Blue, is my favourite for the very reason that it takes a bold step and does something different. Fantasia 2000′s problems seem to spring from its eagerness to keep all of its audience happy and in their seats, which apparently means lots of slapstick humour, celebrity appearances and a short running time. While I’ll admit that the original Fantasia could be considered a little snobby, this film drifts a little too far in the other direction, playing it safe when they should be breaking new ground.

In terms of artistic merit, it will never reach the lofty heights of its predecessor but, to be honest, I don’t think Disney were really trying. Fantasia 2000 still entertains and that’s enough.

I award this film 7 out of 10 irritating narrators.

So, what do you think ?