Like it’s precursor from 1940, Fantasia 2000 is a chance for the artists at Disney to really go all out and show off all their skill and creativity. It’s a collection of shorts, some narrative, some abstract, set to incredible works of classical music. In my review of the original Fantasia I glorified how brilliantly the film conveyed the marriage of music and animation in grand, sensational ways. How well does it’s sequel do?
Well there’s no mistaking animation has come a long way since the original Fantasia, and this movie certainly makes a point of that. Not just in the 3D animated sequences, but in the depth, colours, pace, and energy seen throughout. In addition, each has it’s own artistic style, even the 3D ones look fairly distinct in just how the figures and environments are rendered. “The Pines of Rome” by Respighi for example, contrasts it’s 3D characters with some more 2D geography in a way that looks dated at first, but you soon realize fits perfectly. And it manages some surprisingly epic moments for a story about flying humpback whales (it’s not as silly as it sounds). Meanwhile, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which was apparently an idea cut from the original film, is presented in a curious middle-ground of traditional and CG animation which makes for some incredibly interesting character designs (and a decently frightening grinning villain). Most of the shorts in fact are really compelling visually. “Rhapsody in Blue” is another really interesting one with an eccentric Al Hirschfield inspired style, full of exaggerated characters, fast movement, and timing often associated with Warner Brothers cartoons. That and it’s unique colour scheme makes it hard not to become engrossed in. And “Pomp and Circumstance” though stylistically nothing new, has some really impressive animation, particularly the animal characters and lighting, that looks just as grand as The Lion King. And keep an eye out for a couple Disney cameos hidden in that sequence.
Many of these sequences really strike a chord for their story and character too. “Rhapsody in Blue”, though the Gershwin music is a little strange compared to the other more typically Fantasia calibre music, is one of the biggest surprises. Once again, we’re shown how music and animation can create wonderful art and even without dialogue, relate interesting characters. The four points of view in “Rhapsody” are very indicative of this, each one being a dreamer with their own arc, as is the baby humpback in “Pines of Rome” learning to fly. And though they may have the advantage of being established Disney characters, Donald and Daisy Duck are wonderful, and I don’t think they’ve ever looked better. What with the ancient fantastical design of the world for “Pomp and Circumstance”, they feel part of a magical time and place.
So from the sounds of it, Fantasia 2000 is right up there with the original, possibly surpassing it, right? No, …I’ll answer myself. Though it is pretty magnificent, it is lacking in a few areas. Though none of the shorts are bad there are a few that are comparatively underwhelming. The opening (Beethoven’s fifth symphony) looks great, but isn’t nearly as fascinating and doesn’t leave the impact the first sequence from Fantasia had, where it was literally the visualization of music. It’s tough to outdo that concept and though I like the origami patterns it’s not the most enticing. “The Carnival of Animals” is very short and just done as a slapstick piece with a flamingo and a yo-yo, which is cute but not as much a visual delight. And though I love “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” I kinda would have liked an original piece in its place. “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” though visually marvellous, wasn’t a very interesting story, and in some other sequences I thought the music and animation didn’t quite match up. That’s not a criticism of either, but some of the choices I thought were a little off. I noticed this a little in “The Pines of Rome”, but “Pomp and Circumstance” especially had such grand animation; however apart from the famous march, the music is a little too subdued for such a big story as Noah’s Ark, even if it is starring Donald and Daisy Duck. Also “Pomp and Circumstance” is a little distracting considering how well known it is as a graduation anthem that I would have preferred they used something else. In the original Fantasia every piece of music fit the animation and each made the other more resonating and impactful because of it.
But if you’ve seen Fantasia 2000 you probably know the biggest reason it’s not as good as the first: those damn celebrity cameos. Even the ones that aren’t cringe-worthy are unnecessary. I love Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury, and James Earl Jones, but what are they doing here? They have some of the corniest dialogue, and it feels like another desperate attempt by Disney to appeal to younger fans who may not be into the idea of animated shorts set to classical music. But even then, the presenters aren’t the biggest of celebrities, mostly just respectable stars who half the time feel like they’re presenting at an awards show, complete with hammy script. Martin’s got a couple poor gags, Bette Midler’s almost insulting, and there’s an awkward attempt to pay homage to the original film’s brief Mickey Mouse cameo by having Mickey engaged in off-screen hijinks trying to get Donald to his performance on time while conductor James Levine just waits on screen not knowing what to do. And oh my god, why Penn & Teller? There is no good reason to have Penn & Teller in Fantasia 2000?? They are, as you would expect, the worst offenders and the least funny. I wish this movie had just run the segments back to back, or at least got a proper master of ceremonies like Deems Taylor!
Even this though can’t take away from my enjoyment of the film generally, especially when it comes to the finale. They really saved the best for last, and this segment is hands down my favourite animated short. “The Firebird Suite” is to the tune of Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 version, who you may remember also wrote “The Rite of Spring” which was one of the best pieces in the original Fantasia as well; and not only is the music unbelievably affecting but the animation is some of the best I’ve ever seen! It’s story is about a sprite magically making the barren earth green and prosperous before accidentally awakening a firebird in a volcano who proceeds to undo her work and spread wanton destruction. It’s ambitious, captivating, profound, thrilling, and magical, and all in just eight minutes! The animation is mesmerizing, the story enchanting, the mood brilliant, and the music absolutely wonderful! It really is one of the great achievements in animation and feels gloriously true to the philosophy of Fantasia. I highly recommend seeking it out! For that matter seek out the whole damn movie!
Some consider Tarzan to be the end of the Disney Renaissance but in my opinion, Fantasia 2000’s just as wonderful as some of the best Disney movies of that era, and deserves a place as the end point of that line-up. If you can get past the celebrity intros which are necessary only for giving context for a succeeding short (who the music is by and such -definitely fast forward past Penn & Teller, and maybe even Steve Martin), you’ll still have a series of great works of animation that are worth seeing. Like Fantasia, while some are better than others, they’re all good to some degree and really stand as a testament to both the hard work of animators and the beauty of the art of animation on a whole. It’s not as good as the first -even though I love “The Firebird Suite” more than any of the segments from the original- only two or three segments lived up to the magnificence of Fantasia’s four or five masterpieces. But besting the first Fantasia isn’t the point; it’s not a competition, rather a celebration, and one I think should continue. I eagerly anticipate Fantasia 3 and given how far animation has advanced in only the seventeen years since this film, I’m excited for what spectacle the Disney animators will be able to put together when it eventually comes to fruition.
Next Week: Dinosaur (2000)