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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Disneyear: Fantasia/2000 (1999)

Back in 1940, Walt Disney studios made Fantasia which is in my opinion, the height of animated artistic prestige, making it my all-time favorite Disney movie. Disney originally wanted to continue Fantasia by releasing a new movie every so often, with new music as well as rerelease an old favorite from the previous film. However, due to the first film not really doing that hot at the box-office, Uncle Walt shelved the idea. It wasn't until almost 60 years later that the popularity of the first film built up and a sequel film was released: Fantasia/2000.  After a 9-year production, Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney finally brought his uncle's dream to life. Conducted by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fantasia/2000 premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 17, 1999 as part of a five-city concert tour, with performances in London, Paris, Tokyo and Pasadena, California. An exclusive release in IMAX theatres followed from January 1 to April 30, 2000, becoming the first animated feature-length film issued in the format. It got a nation-wide public release in June 2000 with... some success. So the question remains: does it match up to the first film? Well, I suppose I'll look at this film like how I reviewed the first film by looking at each individual segment and how it's presented overall.

We open the film by listening to Deems Taylor from the first film describing the three kinds of music: the kind that tells a definite story, the kind that while it has no specific plot, it does paint a series of more or less definite pictures, and the kind that exists simply for its own sake. It's after that direct quote that we get our first segment: Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor-I. Allegro con brio. We get some abstract shapes resembling butterflies and bats. The dark shapes take over the brighter ones until the blackness is conquered by the purity of light. I know it's trying to do what the first film did, bringing abstract shapes with no clear story mixed with the music. Here's my problem with it: there's a clear-cut story going along with it and sometimes, it doesn't match the music. If you're going on an abstract route, why tell a coherent narrative? Great visuals, but misses the point completely. 
This concept art looks cool though.
Our second segment is Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. This one tells the story of how a family of humpback whales can fly thanks to a supernova. The calf gets separated from his parents after being trapped in an iceberg, but makes it out thanks to his parents help. The finale shows just a huge herd of them flying in the skies to their migration route. This one is just amazing! The animation on the whales makes them look gigantic! I know it's CGI, but remember: the point of Fantasia was to experiment with what you can do with animation, and in this case, it pays off tremendously well. It perfectly syncs with the music, the animation is spectacular, it's easily one of the best segments in the film!

The next number on the Fantasia/2000 program is a pretty unique choice: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Set in 1930's New York, the whole short is presented in an Al Hirschfeld style of animation and it looks great. There's not one story here, but four that sort of connect to each other in the way Pulp Fiction's stories intertwine or The Simpsons episode 22 Short Films About Springfield is connected. There's a riveter that wants to be a jazz musician, a man down on his luck that just wants a job, a little girl who just wants some time with her parents, and a rich man that just wants some fun away from his wife and spoiled dog. What can I say? It's tied perfectly to the music, the look and style of the animation is great, and it is cool to see Disney try and do something like this in a Fantasia movie. Easily one of my favorites. Thank you, Eric Goldberg!

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major-I. Allegro by Dmitri Shostakovich is short number four. Based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Steadfast Tin Soldier, we see a little toy soldier make a bond with a ballerina doll until an evil jack-in-the-box ruins it by having him tossed out of the house and into the sewer. Of course, keeping with the traditional Disney way, it's changed around so we have a happy ending for our hero. I think this one is just okay. The CGI kind of mixes well with the traditional animation and it does sort of match the music, so it works fine.

Kind of like an oil painting.
We then see our next feature is the Carnival of the Animals Finale by Camille Saint-Saëns. The focus is a flamingo with a yo-yo deviating from the others in his group. While it's cute, I can see this sort of thing being done on a Saturday morning cartoon or something. I like it, but it's one of the weaker segments. I do like the animation by Eric Goldberg and the choice of color schemes here. 

"To answer the age old question:
"What would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?"
 ... Who wrote this?"
-James Earl Jones
Feature no. 6 is The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence from the first film. Shortest critique ever: read my post from the first Fantasia.

Quick! To the blog archives!
The following feature is a medley of Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1,2,3, & 4, Whenever we hear that music we're always going to think of a graduation ceremony. But here, it's done to retell the story of Noah's ark with Donald Duck. This is really cute, really funny, and actually kind of a creative concept for this music. I like it as much as The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Not my favorite, but still enjoyable.

Donald finally catches a break!
This scene, however, makes me laugh like hell!
The finale of Fantasia/2000 is Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919 version), used to tell the story of a wood sprite bringing everything to life for the spring only to have it destroyed by a volcano phoenix. The forest dies, but with the help of an elk, she manages to bring everything back to life again, even making plants grow around the old volcano. This one's actually my favorite segment. It's the closest to the original Fantasia in terms of emotional connection. The animation's fantastic, the colors are wonderful,the designs are great, the emotional power is unbelievable, it's just an amazing finale.

And that's Fantasia/2000. It's sort of a hit-and-miss film. To be honest, the only miss here is all the celebrity hosts. Some bring some class and dignity to the film like Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury, and Itzhak Perlman, but most of them are just painful. The worst one is Steve Martin, without thinking twice. The only funny thing about Steve Martin's "learn to play the violin" joke is the reaction from the orchestra. Even in shadow, you can see the despondency and contempt they have for Martin's bold-faced belittling of their profession, going so far as to call a violin bow a "stick thingy." That female violinist behind the conductor has a look on her face like, "I went to Julliard, you putz.". I hate it when Bette Midler calls Salvador Dali "the melting watch guy", James Levine looked like he was trying but looked rather annoyed with his part, Penn and Teller... oh for God's sake! You see where I'm going here? And most of them just praise this film before it's even done over discussing the music that's featured next. On top of that, why so many hosts? We only need one! If we need a host for this, pick an esteemed musician or someone that had to do with classical music! Like Deems Taylor from the first one. He was a music critic, so it made sense. On top of that, the original had this dignity to it like they made it for adults so it won't talk down to kids and this is some of the best music ever written! We worked hard on this film and hope you appreciate it. In Fantasia/2000... a few people demonstrate that, but the majority are just painful to sit through...

Steve, I love you. I know you can be funny, but you were at your worst here!
But despite it's problems, I highly recommend watching Fantasia/2000. Is it the first film? No. Is it as serious and dignified as the first? Lord, no. But it does come close. This is some of Disney's best animation in years. Films like this just allow the animators to be free and to experiment new styles and techniques of bringing these stories to life and I really love that. Even at their weakest, the shorts still work fine on their own. They're just weak in Fantasia standards. I also have this sense where there weren't as many limitations on this film like there were with the first and it does show half the time. I hate sitting through the celebrity hosts, but the payoff is just too good. I hope they rerelease it in IMAX because this and the original definitely deserve to be seen together in theaters. For this one though, if they do, have a pair of earplugs on standby.

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