27 October 2012

Disney Daze: Week 38: Fantasia 2000

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Walt Disney always intended for his concert feature, ultimately entitled Fantasia, to be a work in progress. As the years went by the film would be re-released into theatres with some segments removed and new pieces included. Unfortunately due to the lackluster response greeted the film's initial run in 1940, these plans fell by the wayside. Ideas for future segments were dreamed up now and again but it would not be until almost sixty years later that a new version of Fantasia would reach the big screen.

As much as The Lion King can be seen as Jeffrey Katzenberg's baby, Fantasia 2000 was the passion project of Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney. When Michael Eisner took over as head of the Disney corporation, thanks in large part to Roy's manipulation of the board (which ironically would also become a huge part of Eisner's subsequent ouster), Roy was given a position overseeing much of the studio's animation department. No one was too keen on revisiting the experimental art of Fantasia but Roy was nothing if not persistent. Production was set in motion almost a full decade before the film's release, with pieces being worked on intermittently.

Fantasia 2000 opens with images from the original film floating through space, as we hear the iconic introduction of Deems Taylor, who explains the basic concept behind Fantasia. Beneath his floating visage we see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra tuning up in a gorgeous ethereal concert hall. Like Fantasia we are then shown the first animated piece, which in both films is the most abstract sequence. Here it is set to Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5 in C minor". This is the first glimpse of the real differences between the two features. The original Fantasia gave us truly outrĂ© images of bloated, rippling lines rumbling across the frame and twinkling shapes with no logical rhyme or reason. Meanwhile, Fantasia 2000 pretends to get abstract with a series of two-dimensional floating triangles but the scene feels all together more conventional. One cannot help but ascribe bird or butterfly-like attributes to the floating shapes. They feel like characters. Also, the choice of one of the most famous composer's most famous compositions, a piece that has been used over and over again in pop culture, brings with it its own freight of baggage, which makes it difficult to get wrapped up in the sequence.

In between animated sections Fantasia 2000 provides live-action introductions, but unlike the consistent guidance of Deems Taylor, here we get a panoply of celebrities, some more appropriate than others. All decked out in their best formal wear are Steve Martin, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, James Earl Jones, and Angela Lansbury. The sections are brief and for the most part serviceable, although several of the jokes don't quite land. The best introduction is the first, by Steve Martin and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perhaps it is Martin's long history with the company (he worked at the Disneyland Magic Shop in his youth) but his appearance is one of the least incongruous in the picture. Plus, Martin is just effortlessly funny. He segues into Perlman's introduction of Ottorino Respighi "Pines of Rome", which is set to a delightfully weird sequence featuring a legion of flying humpback whales. Those looking for the mind-blowing psychedelic experience associated with the original Fantasia will be most pleased by this section. Unfortunately, the sequence is marred by its heavy use of inadequate computer generated imagery. Apparently the section was one of the first completed, and the CGI actually predates the release of Pixar's Toy Story, so the crudeness is a bit understandable. That does not however make it acceptable. The whales all look too sleek, without a true sense of their weight and majesty. It is not a matter of one style of animation being superior to another. Surely Walt Disney, the visionary and explorer, would have been one of the true pioneers of computer animation, but he was also a consummate artist and perfectionist who would not have settled for something that did not achieve his exacting specifications. "Pines of Rome" could have been a truly transcendent piece of animation had it known what wasn't working. 

Another interesting idea that does not quite reach its mark is the following marriage of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with a hand-drawn animation style in the vein of caricaturist Al Hirshfeld. The scene is 1930s New York, the height of the Great Depression. We follow four different dreamers going about their day, longing for escape of some sort. There is the construction worker who moonlights as a jazz drummer; an out-of-work man who longs for employment and purpose; a clumsy little girl, missing her parents while being shepherded through town by her nanny; and a sycophantic husband who just wants to be an animal, any animal. The section calls to mind another previous Disney piece, surprisingly not from Fantasia. "Rhapsody in Blue"'s swinging style is most reminiscent of the great "All the Cats Join In" section of Make Mine Music. The fluid line style of the animation set to a jazzy score makes for a potentially lively sequence. However, "Rhapsody in Blue" doesn't quite succeed. The marriage of the music and images sounds great in the abstract but the execution leaves something to be desired. It all falls a bit flat. The section is somewhat redeemed though by a fabulous final shot depicting the neon at night in Times Square.

After three sections that come up short in some capacity, Fantasia 2000 finally delivers a sequence that is a solid winner. The idea of animating Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier had been kicking around the studio for years before an appropriate piece of music was discovered. Set to Dmitri Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major" we get a scene with genuine emotion, thrills, and pathos. A one-legged tin soldier falls for a ballerina who is terrorized by a mischievous jack-in-the-box. The soldier attempts to defend the ballerina only to be thrown into the sewers. He returns and valiantly overthrows the jester, who perishes by burning up in a stove. Like "Pines in Rome", this section relies heavily on CGI but as some of the earliest Pixar shorts as well as Toy Story proved, CGI on traditionally inanimate objects, in particular dolls and toys, works quite well. The plasticine look that was so detrimental to the aforementioned flying whales is a net positive here, giving a sheen to the graceful legs of the ballerina and the sneering visage of the jack-in-the-box. There is a fantastic action set piece in the sewers as the soldier careens through the pipes on a little toy boat. However the best artistry on display in the section comes from the lighting department who convincingly create an old-world coziness with the soft orange hues resting on the walls from the stovetop. Something so seemingly minor is subconsciously responsible for selling us on the entire world.

Fantasia 2000 is overwhelmed by the stature of its predecessor. The film cannot escape its forefather's legacy. In fact, the film almost feels at times more like a remake than a continuation. Many of the newer segments are directly inspired by sequences in the first film. "The Carnival of the Animals" scene featuring a goofy, yo-yo playing flamingo, is a direct descendent of "The Dance of the Hours". Donald Duck's showcase in "Pomp and Circumstance", is blatantly the new film's version of the Mickey Mouse vehicle "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", which is completely foolish and redundant because it immediately follows the inclusion of that original sequence. In fact, "Pomp and Circumstance" is the most egregious, incongruous piece in the entire film. Included at the insistence of Michael Eisner, the section is a tone-deaf retelling of Noah and the great flood. Donald Duck is charged with getting all of the animals onboard the sea-faring vessel. In his haste he is separated from his partner Daisy, who sneaks on the ship without Donald's knowledge. Both assuming that the other one did not make it aboard, they pine for one another, despite being a mere ten feet apart. It is a trite, sentimental section that is set to the dumbest piece of classical music one could imagine. Having Donald Duck carrying the emotional weight of the sequence is the worst decision of all. Donald is a character defined by ill temper and selfish motives. He is much more believable and entertaining being crushed by an exiting elephant than staring wistfully towards the horizon. Admittedly, the hand-drawn animation may be the most sumptuous of the whole picture. Too bad it is in service to the lamest piece of treacle one could dream up.

Fantasia 2000 wraps up with Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite", which details the life cycle of a forest. A wood nymph battles the eponymous avian beast, the latter laying waste to the natural setting, leaving nothing but char and ash. A stoic deer revives the nymph who then restores life and beauty to her surroundings. Not to sound like a broken record but once again the section harks back to the original Fantasia, this time containing elements of multiple sequences. The composer and the idea of a life cycle work as a continuation of "The Rite of Spring", while the demonic firebird and the elegiac aftermath recall the two halves of "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria". The section does not really reach the loftiest moments of its influences but that is a rather unfair assessment. On its own, it works as a triumphal closure to the picture, with some very beautiful bits of animation, particularly in the creation of the firebird itself and the green restoration of a dormant volcano near the end. The section dips a little too deeply into unearned transcendence at the end but on the whole, it is the second most successful sequence of the new feature. 

A succinct way of summing up Fantasia 2000's shortcomings is by noting that the only sequence from the original film placed in the program, the comparably middling "Sorcerer's Apprentice" is easily the best part of the new film. There is a life to it that is lacking throughout the rest of Fantasia 2000.  The marriage of musical beats to animation here is otherwise unparalleled in the rest of the feature. There is an intrinsic, ethereal grasp of the potency of the music that is elegantly teased out in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". The art serves the music, and the music, although it was written long before the film, feels like a fluid and natural accompaniment. There is a power and energy permeating the screen that is lacking throughout much of the remaining picture. One could also note that despite a running time half its predecessor's length, Fantasia 2000 feels just as long. It is commendable that Roy E. Disney sought to salute one of the most audacious films in cinema history with a celebratory follow-up. But although he looked eerily like his famous uncle, he was not a great artist. The same could be said for his pet project.

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