Fantasia 2000 (review)

At Long Last

You thought George Lucas took his time making movies? His sixteen years between Jedi and Menace is nothing compared to the six decades Disney took to revisit Fantasia — and their original plan was to update the thing annually. (Of course, Disney did release one or two movies in the interim.)

It was worth the wait, though. Yes, classical-music lovers complain about the cheapening of their favorite pieces — sure, Fantasia 2000 is like MTV with great composers instead of the latest boy band. But, like its predecessor, this is not only a wonderful introduction to classical music for kids (and uninitiated adults), it’s a rapturous, transporting experience the likes of which we don’t see in the multiplex often enough.
It helps, naturally, that Fantasia 2000 plays itself out not on an ordinary movie screen but on the gi-normous IMAX screen. I’m the kind of moviegoer who likes to sit close enough to a movie screen so that it fills my field of vision, but not so close that I have to move my head back and forth to see the whole picture. But the IMAX Fantasia… wow — it’s like you’ve sailed right into the fantastical worlds on the screen. I was lucky enough to see the original Fantasia in a theater during a rerelease when I was a kid, and watching Fantasia 2000 on an IMAX screen slammed me right back into that childhood experience of being totally overwhelmed by a movie, and by the moviegoing experience.

The opening segment offers a scientific illustration of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” exploring the mysterious properties of light. Is it a wave, like the beams of laser light that shoot out as those famously bass strings resound, or is it a particle, as suggested by the vivid butterfly-like triangles those beams shatter into as the music gets faster and higher? Beethoven’s “Fifth” has always sounded to me like it was asking a question — here we see a question portrayed.

The most majestic of the sequences is next, as whales frolic amongst icebergs and beneath beautiful auroras to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The cartoony, hand-drawn eyes of the animals is a little disappointing, compared to the rest of the gorgeous computer-generated animation (notice how the whales’ skin ripples!), but all the other details are stunningly captured, from moon- and starlight sparkling on the ocean to the shadows of the whales visible through thick sheets of ice. When the school of whales escapes the confines of the ocean, cresting the clouds the way they crested the waves, for the expanse of outer space, you feel as if you’re soaring free with them.

Cartoonist Al Hirschfeld is invoked next, in the little story that accompanies George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Maybe it’s a tad obvious to connect this piece of music with New York City, as is done here, but it’s done with such verve and style that you can’t help but get caught up in it. In rich monotones of, in turn, teal, purple, pink, and mauve, simple line drawings à la Hirschfeld capture the rhythm of the city that never sleeps, from crowds jostled on the subway to the music of street noise. Hustled and harried, the New Yorkers we meet here — a musician with a construction day job, a child overwhelmed with ballet, tennis, and music lessons — are also joyful in the freedom they find in the city. And the animation beautifully reflects the joy and sensuality of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which I think is one of the most magnificent pieces of music ever written.

The next piece, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and set to Shostakovich’s “Second Piano Concerto,” combines traditional animation and CGI in a tale of love and jealousy. In a child’s bedroom, a one-legged tin soldier falls in love with the ballerina in the jewelry box — but the jack-in-the-box wants her for himself. Jack is truly frightening, and he and the grim end he eventually meets are the stuff of nightmares… er, childhood nightmares, that is. Whoever said I had bad dreams about scary Jack is lying, honestly.

What would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flamingo? Saint-Saen’s “Carnival of the Animals” accompanies the bounciest, happiest segment of the film, a delightfully silly and inspired attempt to answer that very question.

Next comes a reprise of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” from the original Fantasia. It looks a little grainy and low-res blown up to IMAX format, but it’s still an awesome piece of animation — and no coding was involved.

The Lion King-esque short set to Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” stars Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant on the Biblical ark. Watching the animals, beautifully animated, come two by two to the boat to these stately strains is enough to bring tears to your eyes — not only does the music add to the mythic grandeur of the tale, but it makes you forget the cliché “Pomp and Circumstance” has become and really hear it as if for the first time.

Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” closes out Fantasia 2000, scoring a fable of death and renewal. A mountain pastoral scene of snow, deer, and a fairy bringing spring to the land is shattered by a demonic eagle and the devastating volcanic eruption it represents. Lava and earthquakes destroy the mountain and its inhabitants, but the fairy rises again to regenerate the life and the land, ending the film on a peaceful, hopeful note, just as the original Fantasia ended very restfully.

In a surprising touch, each selection is introduced and commented upon by celebrity hosts, including Penn and Teller, James Earl Jones (The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, The Hunt for Red October), Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury (Anastasia), Steve Martin (The Out-of-Towners, Bowfinger), Bette Midler (Isn’t She Great), and Itzhak Perlman. I’m not sure that they particularly add much to Fantasia 2000, but they don’t detract, either. And I bet Disney had to turn away celebs wanting such a juicy part in a film sure to become as revered as Fantasia is today.

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