FANTASIA 2000

(1999)
With Steve Martin, Itzak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn (Gillette) and Teller, Ralph Grierson, Angela Lansbury, James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Multiple Directors
Style: Computer, Hand Drawn
Reviewed by JB

By George, he's got it!    60 years after the release of the original, the Disney people decided it was time for a new FANTASIA.  Although it has some problems - mostly all in the live host scenes between the animated segments - FANTASIA 2000 is a beautiful film.  Perhaps its best feature is that, although it has eight musical segments just like the original, FANTASIA 2000 clocks in at a brisk 75 minutes. There is almost no time to get bored - even if you don't like one of the musical pieces, they are over fairly quickly.

    Each segment is rendered in a different style. The opening movement to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is used to display an abstract story about a battle between colorful triangular butterflies and dark triangular bat-like creatures.  The weakest of the bunch, the Beethoven's Fifth section suffers from Beethoven's grand movement, the most famous of all classical pieces, being truncated to half its original length.  It seems a real shame to throw away such an amazing piece before people have even gotten settled into their seats.   Following this is an ethereal, computer-animated sci-fi tale of whales who take flight to the strains of Ottorino Respighi's "The Pines of Rome". 

     The "Rhapsody in Blue" segment is worth the price of admission or rental.  12 minutes of pure hand-drawn animation based on the style of celebrity caricaturist Al Hirshfeld, it is perfectly timed and perfectly executed with the subtlety of the greatest Chuck Jones cartoons.  Directed by animator Eric Goldberg (ALADDIN) and set in New York City during the Great Depression, it follows a day in the life of a young construction worker who dreams of being a jazz drummer, a jobless schmo who can't even scrape up enough enough money for a cup of coffee, a young girl passed off by her parents to her nanny, and a wife-dominated husband who just wants to have some fun in life.  In the end, all four characters have unknowingly crossed paths, each of their lives being improved greatly by these random encounters.  As satisfying a piece of animation as I have seen in a long time, it makes me wish that short cartoons were once again part of the whole movie-going experience.

     "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" segment, accompanied by Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro, Opus 102, is rendered nearly all in computer animation (with some hand drawn backgrounds) and yet, with its old time setting and subdued colors, it feels like something created a hundred years ago. (And I swear the character of the evil Jack in the Box had to be based squarely on the Silas Barnaby character from Laurel and Hardy's BABES IN TOYLAND/MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS!)  "Carnival of the Animals" (by Saint-Saēns), a watercolor animation about a flamingo who plays with a yo-yo, wins major points for being so short.  It runs out of time before it can run out of gags.

     "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment from the original FANTASIA is reprised in this film, and there are several immediately noticeable things about it.  First, after watching state of the art animation for an hour, the old film's grain stands out like a sore thumb.  This is the problem we will be facing with old films as movies and movie-viewing apparati continue their steadfast and wrong-headed march toward total clarity.  Don't worry, though, it only takes a few seconds to get used to the old-style Mickey Mouse.  Then you may begin to notice that, with all the advancements you have just watched in the field of drawing funny pictures, still nobody can top the good old hand drawn style used back in the 40s.  As Mickey carries his water buckets to the well, that water has weight. It will make you wet if it magically comes off the screen and splashes you.  Compare it to the stylized, computer-generated water in the "Pines of Rome" segment and the beauty of the work of the old masters becomes clear.  

Noah Duck? Sure, Abbott, I Noah duck!     After Mickey, we get his old pal Donald Duck. It was a bit of a gamble placing a new Donald Duck short directly after a classic Mickey short, especially a Donald Duck short that could be titled "Noah's Apprentice". Thankfully, the Donald segment, based on Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" marches, is just as good as the old Mickey Mouse short.  It is a Buster Keaton-like comedy segment in which Donald and Daisy both think the other has missed the ark, and never learn each other's fate until the 40 days of rain are over.  It is also respectful to the biblical tale, , never kidding the story itself, just content to come up with a bunch of animal gags, including a funny throwaway bit where Donald does a double take as two realistically drawn ducks walk by him.

     The film's finale, which uses Stravinski's "Firebird Suite", is an attempt at recreating the power of the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment from the original.  Although it cannot top the sequence it wants to be, its tale of a beautiful spring sprite, her elk friend and an evil spirit accidentally awakened in a volcano has a power all its own, and is the perfect way to end the film. 

     Where FANTASIA 2000 fails, and fails completely, utterly and miserably, is in it half-apologetic, half-snotty attitude in presenting all this beautiful music.  Who made the decision to talk down to the audience, using celebrities to introduce each segment?  Steve Martin's "jerk" act with a violin would be funny outside of the film, but it feels so out of place here.  Bette Midler is called upon to make fun of segments that were not used for the film, as if FANTASIA 2000 were nothing more than a bloopers show.  When she mentions Salvador Dali, she interjects "you know, the dripping clock guy", as if she thinks we are too stupid to recognize the name without the reference. The overbearing Penn Gillette, with his silent partner Teller, feels the need to introduce "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by repeatedly haranguing us about how there is no such thing as real magic, a strange message for a Disney film.  To emphasize this point, Teller chops off his own hand, just the kind of thing I want to see to get me in the mood for a good old Mickey Mouse short. Hey, Teller, why don't you pull your eyeballs out too while you're at it?   Jeez.  Aside from this, there is way too much self-congratulatory back-slapping, people hired by Disney for a Disney movie to talk about how wonderful Disney is.  I will praise Disney to high heavens, as I have done in several reviews on this site, but it bugs the hell out of me to have to listen to the same kind of praise coming from Disney itself.*  It's like one of those rap songs in which all the "singer" does is talk about how great he is.   I need to listen to this?

     However, one of the film's best moments occurs in the host segments.  After Mickey talks to conductor Leopold Stokowski at the end of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (a bit of animation from the original film), he runs off and greets conductor James Levine, with Stokowski still clearly visible far in the background.  A leap of 60 years - and Penn Gillette wants us to believe there's no such thing as magic.

     Like the original FANTASIA, FANTASIA 2000 did not do well at the box office.  Did anybody think it would?  However, as the years go by, it may gain in reputation, as FANTASIA itself did.  Except for the wrongheaded host segments, it is really a wonderful film. 4 - JB

* Notice how Disney can be (a) a person named Walt aka "himself" (b) a group of people such as animators and artists aka "themselves" and (c) a corporation aka "itself".

Walt Disney  The Secret Vortex