Friday December 31, 1999
A melding of animation and classical music, it has been ignored (by audiences at its initial release), embraced (by succeeding generations), celebrated (for its "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence) and reviled (abstract filmmaker Oskar Fischinger called it "a conglomeration of tastelessness"). Whatever else may be said about its designated successor, "Fantasia/2000," it's unlikely to be that controversial.
Despite being trumpeted as the first feature-length animated movie to be released in large-screen Imax format, "Fantasia/2000" (opening Saturday at selected theaters) is more ephemeral than epochal. A pleasant enough diversion, with seven new sequences joining a reprise of "Sorcerer," it passes the time amiably enough (if you can get used to that overwhelming Imax screen) but doesn't leave much of a residue. Which may make it the paradigmatic entertainment, heaven help us, for the new millennium.
Many years in the making, "Fantasia/2000" follows the pattern of the original by having different animators linked to different pieces of classical music, some of which, like the three-minute version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, have been rather truncated. (The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, provides the sounds.)
Perhaps because we've gotten used to all manner of animation as well as to classical music being used in a wide variety of contexts, this mixing of high and popular cultures doesn't raise the eyebrows it did in 1940. More than that, the system of live-action hosts used to introduce each segment seems quaint and old-fashioned; only Steve Martin and his "12 week home study course" for orchestra members survives with his sensibility intact.
One of the intriguing things about the "Fantasia" scenario is that it's the opposite of how music usually works for the movies. Typically, the composer comes in after the material has been shot and writes music to fit the images. Here, the composers are dead and gone and it's the filmmakers, in an adroit exercise in problem-solving, who have to fit their images to the music.
When this process works best, when the match is good, there is no sense that a match has even taken place. Sound and picture should enhance each other, creating a third entity that lives and breathes on its own. At its worst, the result is an odd hybrid, a forced illustration that allows neither element to stand on its own.
While all "Fantasia/2000" viewers will have their personal likes and dislikes--it's an anthology, after all--one of the places the synergy works well is the marriage of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" to Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2.
The concerto is a favorite of Roy Disney, executive producer of "Fantasia/2000," and he passed it on to director Hendel Butoy, who paradoxically uses computer-generated images to give a rich, old-fashioned look to the tale of a beautiful toy ballerina, a lascivious jack-in-the-box and a truly steadfast toy soldier.
Also making interesting use of CGI is the film's finale, directed by Gaetan and Paul Brizzi, Parisian-based animators who also worked on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." They've not surprisingly turned Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite into an ecological fable of life, death and renewal that makes a fascinating counterpart to similar sections in Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke."
Perhaps the most visually distinctive segment, directed by Eric Goldberg, uses an elegant visual style inspired by cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to choreograph a tribute to the hurly-burly of Manhattan in the 1930s to the music of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
Falling into the eye candy category are three abstract minutes of Beethoven's Fifth and the unexpected flying-whales motif Butoy used to accompany Respighi's "Pines of Rome." Among the other segments, the flamingos playing with a yo-yo sequence that goes with a fragment of Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" is too jokey, and Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" serves mainly to show us the caring side of a creature not previously known for his sensitivity, the dyspeptic Donald Duck.
Speaking of traditional Disney characters, the highlight of this "Fantasia," as of the first, remains the Mickey Mouse-starring version of Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" directed by the late James Algar. Grainy as it looks in its massive Imax blowup, Mickey's misadventures with water and a broom still have the kind of magic even modern technology can't always manage.
Fantasia/2000, 1999. G. A Walt Disney Pictures presentation, distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Directors Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, Gaetan Brizzi and Paul Brizzi. Host sequences director Don Hahn. Supervising animation director Hendel Butoy. Producer Donald W. Ernst. Executive producer Roy Edward Disney. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.