Like I said on the previous Disney Canon entry, the popular and accepted belief is that Tarzan is the last movie of the much talked-about Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. This was a period of time in which the studio, whose animated movies had lost quality and popularity ever since the death of Walt Disney to the point that people thought of it primarily for the theme parks and not for movie production, somehow managed to recover the magic and become more popular than ever with a series of movies that pushed the technological envelope, harkened back to the company’s classics of the 40s and 50s and embraced a more modern sensibility. This was, of course, only a period for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Tarzan was the last big financial success for the company, which would go on to try many different ways to stay relevant in the first decade of the new millennium, most of which failed (at least when compared to the success they experienced in the early nineties). But before all of that happened, there was one last movie, one that is virtually forgotten today, that represents some of the best, and definitely the most ambitious aspects, of the Disney Renaissance.
One of Walt Disney’s original ideas when making Fantasia (1940) was that the movie would become a sort of evolving roadshow. He was hoping to keep creating new shorts inspired and set to the music of classical pieces that would then be incorporated into the movie. It was supposed to be an ever-changing experience, in which old shorts would make way for new ones as a new version of Fantasia would come out every certain number of years. That, of course, didn’t happen. Fantasia is arguably the most ambitious project Disney ever set his mind to, but the film was not exactly a success upon its initial release. This scratched any short term plans of producing new Fantasia segments, and as the years wen on and Walt got more interested in television and his theme parks, the idea was forgotten.
It wasn’t until Disney started to put out the most successful animated movies in history one after the other that the studio regained interest in the idea. One of the men behind the initiative and studio politics that led to the Disney Renaissance was Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney. Roy was very much locked up to the idea that animation was and should remain the heart and soul of the company, and his pet project was Fantasia Continued, the long thought-about sequel to Fantasia. There is no doubt that Disney, as any huge company, is all about making money, but it is also one of the careful and effective brands as far as marketing is concerned. This has never been truer than in the nineties, where Disney wanted to secure its position as the biggest and most prestigious name in family entertainment. Fantasia 2000 would be the last touch into Disney’s rebirth as the giant of animation.
The movie premiered in late 1999, and was released in IMAX theaters on January 1, 2000. As you might have guessed, it wasn’t a huge hit. It barely managed to make its budget back once it was released internationally and it might have been the last sign Disney needed to confirm something it had been already thinking: that it had to change the formula of its past if it wanted to stay relevant. Now, in future articles we’ll see this new mentality didn’t really work for the studio, but for now, let’s concentrate on Fantasia 2000, whether or not it is a good movie, and whether or not it is a worthy successor to the spirit of the 1940 classic by taking an individual look at its segments.
Symphony No. 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven opens the movie, and it is very clearly supposed to serve the same purpose as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue did in the original movie. Before the piece, we are told there are three types of animated segments in Fantasia 2000: the ones that tell a definite story, the ones that don’t have a specific plot but show definite pictures, and those that are purely abstract images in service of the movie. This segment is presented as one of the last category, and here’s the thing: either it belongs on the second category and there was a huge mistake made in the intro, or the animators failed completely. Because while the Toccata and Fugue of the original film is a very nicely done exercise of using abstract animation to symbolize music, Symphony No. 5 is not abstract at all, as it shows a group of triangle-shaped colorful butterflies be harassed and attacked by triangle-shaped black bats.It altogether misses the point of its existence, and in its reluctance to embrace true abstraction ends up with a weak narrative that make it stand out as what I would call the only outright “bad” segment in this movie.
Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi comes next. It is rather fun to think of which segment in 2000 is the equivalent to the original segments in Fantasia. In the case of Pines of Rome, the obvious parallel would be to the Pastoral Symphony, since both take a piece of music written about a specific theme and make an animated short about a completely different subject. Also like Pastoral Symphony, this is my least favorite of the segments (except for the awful Beethoven one I just wrote about). The story here is that of a family of whales, whose littlest member gets lost and trapped in an ice berg. After they find him (or her, who knows?), the whales fly. Although not always entertaining, it’s a pretty trippy concept. This was one of the first segments to be produced for Fantasia 2000, and since the film was in development since the mid-nineties, the CGI used for the whales looks very dated. Still, it is very well done for 1995 standards. I particularly appreciate the way the clouds are not animated in search for realism, but the way you would animate sea-foam in a traditional “2D” movie.
Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin is my favorite of the segments. It is inspired by the artwork of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, which fits really well with the story about a quartet of dreamers in depression-era New York and one of the most amazing pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It is also the longest of the segments, but with its fantastic use of continuos lines and color, not to mention its comedic tone, is one of the most fun segments to watch. Something about the style (not to mention the music) really appealed to me when I first saw this in theaters (I must’ve been around eight) and continues to amuse me all these years later.
Piano Concerto No. 2 by Dmitri Shostakovich is basically a piece of music the animators found at the last minute, as they were searching for something that would play along to their version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier. The story of the toy soldier falling in love with a ballerina doll is brief, and in typical Disney fashion, it is given a happier ending (I don’t blame them, since the original ending is really bleak). The short is just fine, but it does feature an animation style, that has Computer Images painted as traditional animation that looks very interesting and only makes me think about the gorgeous-looking movies we could have gotten if Disney had experimented more with this style instead of going head-on into Pixar-looking 3D animation. A similar kind of animation style resurfaced with Disney’s recent short Paperman, so here’s hoping for more visually daring movies in Disney’s future.
The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saints-Saëns is the obvious equivalent to Dance of the Hours, in that it features funny animals doing funny things. Instead of a ballet featuring Ostriches, Hippos and Crocodiles, Carnival features a group of flamingos coming in contact with a yo-yo. It is a silly idea that makes way for silly comedy, and a ridiculously short segment. I like it, but it is too short for me to make any kind of deep analysis about it, except to comment that the conceit for the short was that it was going to be animated using only watercolor. They did it, and it looks beautiful.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas is the only segment retained from the original movie, and somewhat tellingly, is also the best. I saw somewhat, because even though there are clear weak aspects to the execution of Fantasia 2000, there’s also no competing with what is not only the best Mickey Mouse short ever made, but one of the best animated shorts of all time. I don’t have much to say about it except that it’s awesome, and that the movie was originally going to feature three segments out of the original Fantasia (The Nutcracker Suite, Dance of the Hours and this).
Pomp and Circumstance by Edward Elgar follows Mickey’s short and is very much Fantasia 2000‘s version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in that it casts Donald Duck as an assistant in the middle of the epic of Noah’s Ark. The short features some very funny gags (as when Donald sees ducks entering the Ark and when the short cuts to a dragon and other mythological creatures laughing at Noah’s idea), but it also feels a little weird in that Donald doesn’t show almost any of the character traits and characteristics we associate with him.
The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky closes the movie in very similar fashion to Fantasia’s duo of Night in Bald Mountain and Ave Maria with a story of the fighting impulses of creation and destruction. I hadn’t seen the movie in a very long time, so I assumed this piece was going to reflect the story of the phoenix. I was ready to make a parallel to Disney’s nineties comeback, but it turns out the rebirth in the short is not that of the firebird, but of the sprite of spring, personified as a playful female spirit. I really like this short. It features some of the most beautiful animation in the movie and really knows how to use its visuals to maximum effect and be a powerful finale.
As you might have already concluded after my comments on the individual segments, there are two big differences, both of which are products of contemporary conventions for commercial success, that make Fantasia 2000 not a faithfully perfect successor to the 1940 original. The first one is the difference in length. Fantasia runs for a little more than two hours, 2000 for less than 90 minutes. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was one of the shortest segments in the original and it’s the second longest in the sequel. Fantasia 2000 has one more short than Fantasia and it is still more than half an hour shorter! I mean, Carnival of the Animals runs for little over a minute, for God’s sake!
The other difference is that the movie is obsessed with narrative. Going back to the intro, in which we are told about the three kinds of segments, Fantasia 2000 seems to be constructed only out of full-on narrative segments. There isn’t anything close to the Nutcracker Suite or Rite of Spring in which we see a series of images that relate to each other but do not tell a linear story. The segments in this movie all have a clear narrative: a beginning, a middle and an end; and the only segment to have been lifted from the original is the one with the clearer plot structure. This makes Fantasia 2000 an easier movie to watch (especially for younger viewers), but it also makes it very unchallenging in comparison to its predecessor.
The fact that it isn’t as daring as Fantasia makes it harder to appreciate Fantasia 2000. It almost feels as if the studio wasn’t willing to dive head first with the ambition that could’ve made the project an outright masterpiece (which it could have been). At the same time, it doesn’t mean Fantasia 2000 is a bad movie. It is very entertaining to watch, and if nothing else, it’s a showcase for beautiful, expertly made animation. Considering the limited visual spectrum animated movies would have in the decade that followed the release of Fantasia 2000, it stands as a vision of what might have been and a promise of what we animation aficionados wish the form would look like in the future.
Next Time: The Canon is going on hiatus for a couple of weeks, but I’ll be back around January 20 with a review of Dinosaur.