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BY Steven D. Greydanus
Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 are newly available in a 4-disc Blu-ray/DVD edition. A 2-disc DVD edition is also available.
Seventy years ago, Walt Disney released Fantasia, an ambitious animated project that represented an even more ambitious idea. Rather than a static motion picture, Fantasia was originally conceived as a repertoire, a selection of presentations that over time could be augmented by new pieces while old ones were retired, like an orchestra rotating its concert lineup. It was a high-minded extension of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” shorts, and in those heady days, only a few years after the great triumph of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, anything seemed possible.
Alas, Fantasia was a picture ahead of its time—and, when the times finally caught up with it, the moment had passed. Fantasia was not a hit in 1940, although it acquired new cache in the 1950s as an educational film and in the 1960s as a psychedelic experience. Today it is justly reckoned among Disney’s great early masterpieces, along with Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi. In 1995 it was honored by inclusion among the 45 films of the Vatican film list, in the 15 films of the “Art” category.
Ten years ago, amid the wreckage at the end of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, the Disney studio marked Fantasia‘s 60th anniversary with Fantasia 2000, a film intended to honor in a way the original repertory conception of Fantasia. It retains one piece from the original, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; the other pieces are all new, with various resonances with pieces in the original film.
Although Fantasia 2000 isn’t entirely without interest, the juxtaposition of the two films serves largely to underscore the now-untouchable achievement of the original. Fantasia is one triumph after another, from the abstract colors and shapes of “Toccata and Fugue” to the demons of “Bald Mountain” succumbing to the light of the “Ave Maria.” Only two sequences from the newer film come close to touching anything in the original: Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” with its flying humpback whales, and Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” a mythic depiction of death and rebirth in the natural world on the slopes of a volcano.
Why do the other sequences in Fantasia 2000 fall short? Partly it’s a more limited scope of imagination. With Fantasia, the canvas is always epic and spectacular in scale, with larger-than-life wonders everywhere you turn; it’s like the Sistine Chapel of Disney animation. Fantasia 2000, by contrast, often lapses into more pedestrian thinking. Literally pedestrian in the case of “Rhapsody in Blue,” with its whimsical New York stories.
Not that pedestrian is necessarily bad. “Rhapsody”‘s simplistic line animation, inspired by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, is reminiscent of a 1960s Disney short, which isn’t a bad thing. It just doesn’t feel like something that belongs in Fantasia, any more than a Hirschfeld line drawing belongs in the Sistine Chapel.
More dismally, the yo-yoing flamingos from Saint-Saën’s “Carnival of the Animals” come off like colorful but not-ready-for-prime-time players cut from the original’s “Dance of the Hours.” (Indeed, the live-action intro unwisely makes this connection by showing hippo sketches from “Dance of the Hours.”) This is perhaps the film’s lowest point, mitigated only by its brevity.
Then there’s the pairing of Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”—a toy story that feels like an imitation Pixar short, intimate and small-scale rather than grandly spectacular. (The original’s “Nutcracker Suite,” with its fairies, fish and flowers, was also on a miniature scale physically, but thematically and culturally sweeping, tracking the cycle of seasons and staging the Chinese, Arabian and Cossack dances.)
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