Another general weakness in the newer film is its aversion to “pure” imagery, to imagery without narrative. The original made a point of interpreting “pure music” like the opening piece, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue,” with abstract imagery—shapes and masses of color and light. In other pieces, from the “Nutcracker Suite” to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” with its riot of classical mythology, there’s action to follow, but not necessarily a “story” as such.
Fantasia 2000 opens with a selection from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but the abstract geometrical shapes quickly resolve into a quasi-narrative depicting colorful butterflies fleeing dark batlike pursuers. (The butterflies-and-bats motif may recall the magical pyrotechnics from the opening of the original’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Pretty much any time we think of the original while watching the sequel, it detracts from the sequel.) Even the surreal flying whales are given more of a narrative than they needed: According to Wikipedia, their flying connected to a supernova. Did we really need an origin story for flying whales?
Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” a Noah’s Ark story starring Donald Duck, suffers particularly for comparison to two sequences from the original. On the one hand, the presence of a classic Disney character invites comparison to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” perhaps Mickey Mouse’s finest moment. On the other, the biblical theme evokes the original’s “Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” sequence.
Alas, “Pomp and Circumstance” is hardly a distinguished addition to Donald Duck’s résumé. The animation is lavish but uninspired, without the atmosphere and sharp direction of, say, the prologue to The Lion King (another solemn procession of animals set to music). The animators have some fun with the cavernous spaces of the ark, and I’m glad there’s at least an effort at a nod in the direction of Judeo-Christian cultural heritage—though the music is wholly secular where the original used a sacred piece, and the bare outline of the biblical story as it’s used here is essentially nonreligious. This doesn’t leave much, and the result is lackluster in nearly every way, and not at all helped by a subplot in which Donald and Daisy each think the other has been left behind.
Where the original Fantasia saved its Judeo-Christian heft for the final act, in the sequel it’s merely the warm-up for a rather pagan finale, the conspicuously anime-inflected “Firebird Suite,” with a green spring sprite/goddess (a more mythically potent cousin of the spring fairies from the “Nutcracker Suite”) bringing new life to the slopes of a volcano before accidentally awakening the rampaging, fiery demon of destruction that inhabits the volcano.
Perched on the mountaintop, with its batlike lava-wings spread, the volcano spirit is reminiscent of the Lugosi-inspired demon Chernobog from “Bald Mountain”—but this time there are no church bells to send him cringing back to his mountain. And, of course, he isn’t really evil—just destructive. It’s very much a work in a pagan idiom (strikingly reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which Disney distributed around the same time), and its imaginative force easily blows away the vestiges of Judeo-Christian influence in the preceding Noah’s ark story.
Actually, even in the original Fantasia the “Bald Mountain” sequence imaginatively overwhelms the “Ave Maria” finale, which is pious and pretty but lacking in the transcendence and majesty to really pull off the triumph over the forces of darkness.
In fact, the best and most transcendent moment is the initial moment of transition: the peal of the bell, quiet but insistent, and the clear white light that inexorably drives Chernobog and his hellions back into darkness. Like the all-powerful cross in one of Terrence Fisher’s Hammer horrors, the sound of that church bell is infinitely more powerful than all the hosts of hell.
Unfortunately, the animation doesn’t follow through. The “Ave Maria” is still a fine sequence, but there’s a failure of nerve or of inspiration, despite the exalted music, that represents Fantasia‘s most notable missed opportunity.