Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fantasia 2000

As much of a classic as the original Fantasia is now considered to be, I have to confess that I find Fantasia 2000 to be superior in virtually every way. There’s more variety to the musical selections, the animation is nicer, the intros to the various numbers are better, it has a shorter running time, and for those that missed it despite the original film being packaged with the sequel, they even included the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the original in full. Sadly, no Night on Bald Mountain this time, but we play the cards we’re dealt.

Given that these films are vignettes rather than standard narratives, one could actually view this as a continuation of the first film instead of an actual sequel, particularly when one of the hosts mentions that Walt Disney’s initial vision for the original was that it would never be properly finished, but instead would be perpetually re-released with new material replacing some (though not all) of the previous release. Oddly, while I complained yesterday about the overall inconsistent quality of the original film, the quality of this sequel-or-possibly-continuation manages to be much more uniformly good, despite this one having no less than eight different directors, and despite it being less groundbreaking (apparently, to help improve the audience experience, Walt Disney decided to invent surround sound for the original, because that‘s just how he rolled).

Part of that increased quality, it must be said, comes from the improved music, and I’m pretty sure that can be attributed to the use of conductor James Levins and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doing this film, instead of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which did the original (aside, of course, from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, which reuses the original film’s score). Another improvement is the decision to use different celebrity narrators to introduce each segment, rather than the lone narrator from the original (Deems Taylor) talking to us as though Disney had never even entertained the thought that anyone that wasn’t a child would be watching his film. While all of the narrators here give it their all, the obvious standouts here are Steve Martin, who cheerfully claims all credit for the orchestra’s musical ability, and Penn & Teller, who inject some much-needed dismemberment into this Disney film.

Once more they leave the opening segment fairly free form visually, giving us geometric shapes vaguely resembling butterflies flitting about to the tune of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but the film quickly rebounds with a deft one-two punch containing Respighi’s Pines of Rome, featuring a family of humpback whales that decide to leave the ocean and go swimming around in the sky with the birds, and (easily the high mark of the film) Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was a wild, jazzy piano number set in 1930s New York.

The other two big highlights are the all too brief Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals bit, where a flamingo is totally hated on by his brethren for playing around with a yo-yo, and the closer, which gives us part of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite while showing us the trials of a wood sprite as she is attacked by the deadly Firebird as it exits a nearby volcano and lays waste to her forest. The Fantasia series is now batting 1.000 for closing the film out with their darkest number, a trend I am eager to see with Fantasia 2060. Because I plan on still being alive at age 80--err, at age 30 Again. Yes.

I think the 74 minute running time really helped this film, as it ensured that there wouldn’t be any of the padding that riddled the original. While I think that may have hurt the film somewhat at the box office (it made $60 million, not quite making back the $80 million production cost -- I guess these films are still ahead of their time), I doubt the film would have worked nearly as well if it had had the two hour running time its predecessor had. That said though, if they make these more of a regular event (and there is no reason at all to believe that, unfortunately -- I would personally love for this to become one of Disney’s key franchises), I certainly would like to see how they would manage doing a Fantasia based entirely around one long concerto or symphony, or perhaps two mid-length ones. This series, if not quite done perfectly (sorry Disney, but to me the perfect blend of animation and classical music pretty much always involves the likes of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck), is still a rather noble and brilliant use of the art form, and as much of a latecomer to these films as I am, I would love to see them continue further. Come on Disney, you make enough of a profit off of your other ventures, you can afford to lose money on one of these every decade, right?

Rating: *** ½

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