Fantasia 2000 (1999)

D: Various directors

Fantasia 2000 is a film out of time. Though we are assured that it represents a continuation of the Fantasia project embarked upon by Walt Disney Studios in 1940 -- to bring classical music to the masses with the visual interpretation of Disney animators -- it has taken sixty years to do so. In the interim, its time has passed. The true sequel to Fantasia was the spotty Make Mine Music, released in 1946 and featuring good pieces including Provofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf' and the mini-classic tale of Willie the operatic whale, but also irritating bits of nonsense including 'Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet' (following the adventures of a pair of hats with close harmony singing). The original film flopped, and Make Mine Music, though slightly more successful at the box office, was an unfortunate dumbing down of the original concept. It featured many 'story animations' and more contemporary music at the expense of classical pieces and experimental animation. Fantasia 2000 returns to the classical score, but unfortunately tends to stick with banal narratives which literalise some evocative pieces of mostly twentieth century music, including work by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Gershwin. With the exception of the 'Flamingos and Yo-Yos' segment to the music of Saint-Saëns' 'Carnival of the Animals', most of it is without humour (other than the most obvious), and is often overwhelmed by sentimentality. Even Donald Duck finds himself literally at sea in a rendition of the tale of Noah's Ark to the music of Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance' (most of the gags were featured in the Disney Short Father Noah's Ark anyway). The inclusion of one segment from the original film, Dukas' 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' featuring Mickey Mouse, merely shows how impoverished the contemporary sequences are in terms of visual imagination, wit, and artistic flare. Though it looks grainy on the IMAX screen, this is still the best part of the film, and it was not even the best sequence in Fantasia itself.

Part of the problem is in the fact that Disney animation has already reached such astounding technical heights since 1940 (though Fantasia was certainly the pinnacle of old Walt's achievements), especially in the last few years. There have been majestic, moving, and dizzyingly imaginative sequences in films including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Tarzan which have pushed the envelope of the animator's art. Combining classical and computer-assisted animation has been part of the reason for this, although few things can top the delicacy of character animation drawn by hand (such as, for example, Beast in Beauty and the Beast). Disney animators have proved that they are capable of dazzling feats of narrative illustration. It seems all the more inappropriate then that Fantasia 2000 features only one abstract sequence (to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), which even in itself is not all that abstract (the moving shapes seem all too much like butterflies). There is little originality and little real value in seeing whales prancing about in an frozen skyscape to the sounds of Respighi's 'Pines of Rome', or in the sometimes spectacular meditation on springtime featuring Stravinsky's 'Firebird' suite (which comes off too much like a pale imitation of the 'Night on a Bare Mountain' sequence in the original film). The 'Rhapsody in Blue' pastiche of the drawing style of Al Hirschfeld is a brave attempt at a touch of style, but it feels something like a 1960s Pink Panther cartoon and, again, is too literal to stimulate the mind's eye when the ear is so gainfully engaged listening to the music.

On the level of craft, the film is perfectly sound. With the exception of jarring, unnecessary, and frankly annoying celebrity host cameos, the individual animations are all well done. They are colourful, nicely drafted, and all very technically impressive. But nothing soars the way the original did. Nothing feels like a challenge to the conventions of animation, or even film itself (the original Fantasia quite literally played with the soundtrack in one scene and even cleverly blended live action and animation -- yes, Fantasia 2000 repeats this latter gag, but after Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Cool World, this is no longer impressive). That said, as an introduction to classic music for children, the film probably will serve its purpose. It is nice to see a major studio interested in IMAX and, as I have said, this is a technically competent movie. It is just disappointing to see that yet again, even when the opportunity was there, Disney have opted to play it safe and aim low when something more cutting edge and genuinely interesting could well have resulted from the venture.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.