Fantasia 2000 (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Comparing Fantasia 2000 to the original Fantasia is in some ways unfair, especially considering the way movie-going methods and tastes have changed over the past six decades. Yet, even though the hand-drawn animation has been helped along by the latest in computer imaging and the running length is considerably shorter, the two movies have the kind of kinship one would expect from motion pictures under the same umbrella. Fantasia aficionados may not view Fantasia 2000 in the same way as the original (creatively, it is clearly a step down), but they will surely appreciate what the filmmakers have accomplished.

In 1940, when Walt Disney first released Fantasia, it was an experiment - an attempt to wed music and animation into an artistic, imaginative whole. It was also a colossal failure, shunned by audiences and blasted by critics as "pretentious." Disney's original aim, to re-release the film on a semi-regular basis with new segments replacing older ones, was never realized. However, by the late 1960s, when anything unique was heralded, a re-release of Fantasia drew praise and plaudits, and the film was allowed late admittance into the Disney Hall of Animated Classics. Now, in 2000, some 30 years after Walt's death, his nephew, Roy, has brought Fantasia to life once more, combining seven new segments with only one holdover, Fantasia's most popular, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Fantasia 2000 was originally released in IMAX theaters, where watching it is a somewhat different experience than seeing it in 35mm in a regular multiplex auditorium. In IMAX, Fantasia 2000 has a grand, majestic feeling that is diluted when it is reduced to normal dimensions. Interestingly, one of the segments that had the most impact in IMAX ("Pines of Rome", featuring swimming whales) comes across as little more than a curiosity in 35 mm. Conversely, "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a one-legged toy soldier, a ballerina, and an evil jack-in-the-box, works better on smaller screens. The same can be said about "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Strangely diminished by IMAX, it returns to its former glory under the less discriminating microscope of a 35mm print, where the wear-and-tear of the passing years don't show up as clearly.

Of the seven new segments, there are a couple of throw-aways. The opening sequence featuring a swarm of abstract triangles flying and dancing to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, is dull and uninspired. Equally wasteful is a sequence featuring yo-yo-ing flamingos set to Camille Saint-Saen's "The Carnival of the Animals." As I already mentioned, the whales in "Pines of Rome" are a great deal more impressive in IMAX. Although the animation is still good in 35mm, the effect isn't the same, and the segment comes across as filler. And, while the animation for "Rhapsody in Blue", which tells a New York story, is interesting (and said to be based on the work of caricaturist Al Herschfeld), it seems to belong in another movie.

Balancing out the weaker entries are some new classics. The best of the three is "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", which mixes music (Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2"), top-notch animation, and an emotionally-rewarding story. This short movie is an excellent example of the Fantasia format at its finest. More visually ingenious is the sequence based on Stravinsky's "The Firebird". Chosen to close the movie, this shows how a dryad-like spirit renews the earth after it has been blasted by a volcanic eruption. The animation for this segment is splendid, and reminded me in many ways of the kinds of images we often see in top-notch Japanese anime. Finally, there's Fantasia 2000's lightest episode, a charming tale of Donald Duck on Noah's Ark set to the familiar strains of "Pomp and Circumstance". Children, who are not really Fantasia 2000's primary audience (this is much more of an "adult" movie), will enjoy this one the best - either that, or "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", which is as delightful now as it was 20, 30, 60, or however many years ago you first saw it.

Excepting some restoration work done on the print to clean it up, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" remains identical in every way to its original incarnation. The filmmakers did not re-score the segment with a newly-recorded version of Paul Dukas' "L'apprenti Sorcier". We still hear the original, featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. For the other seven episodes, James Levine conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Although the overall quality of Fantasia 2000 is considerably more variable than that of Fantasia, certain aspects of the experience are the same - namely, the ability to sit in a theater and listen to great music while being presented with a choreographed visual accompaniment. In between the segments, we are forced to endure distracting introductions (given by Steve Martin, Penn & Teller, James Earl Jones, and others) that are intended to be light, amusing, and occasionally informative. The best thing about most of them, however, is that they're short. Fantasia 2000 does not soar the way its predecessor did, but neither does it plummet to the earth. Instead, it occupies a middle territory, often hovering and drifting, but occasionally flying. In either IMAX or 35 mm, it is worth experiencing, especially for those who enjoy classical music, animation, or both. Now, only time and box office receipts will tell whether a Fantasia series will develop in the pattern of Walt Disney's initial, aborted vision, or whether these two films will stand as lone representatives of a unique motion picture sub-genre.

Fantasia 2000 (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:15
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-31
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1