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In this episode: Fantasia/2000
Let's sum it all up, shall we?

"10 years, over $100 million, and that's all you could come up with?"

Since seeing it Sunday at the $4 million temporary IMAX theater in L.A. (God, is this company crazy!), Fantasia/2000 has sunk more and more into the realm of disappointment. I will agree without argument that the movie is colorful, vibrant, and fun, but it is also short, choppy, and weightless. Don't you believe for a moment that the fact I'm in a rotten mood today has anything to do with the tone of this review. In fact, I wrote most of it yesterday, when I was in a very good mood.

In a gesture of peace and fluffiness (Hey, JLS), I'll begin with some praise. The movie looks damn fine!

My favorite piece in Fantasia/2000 (why the slash, guys?) is "Rhapsody in Blue." This segment borrows its style from Al Hirschfeld, that caricaturist who uses simple, fluid lines to capture his subjects. This piece is fast and funny, and artistically it's the freshest thing in the movie. Most fun are the names hidden throughout the artwork in the segment. This is another cue taken from Hirschfeld, who usually hides the name of his daughter Nina in his artwork (the number after his signature tells you how many Ninas are hidden). I saw "Doug" in one place, but I was too busy watching and smiling at the kinetic little movie to notice any others. David Melito (yes, of Twine Tour fame) said he saw tons more. It's something to watch for.

My other favorite segment was the one with Donald as the cruise director on Noah's ark. Set to Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance," the piece is a more traditional cartoon, à la Mickey in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (itself the only piece that remains from the original Fantasia). It's funny, with lots of slapstick and visual punnery.

The other sequences are stunning in their own ways, whether abstract or literal. Something was amiss overall, though, and I think it is this: There's too much story. Every piece in the movie has a story to it, and I don't mean "this happened, then this happened, then all of a sudden this happened." I mean an obtrusive little conflict and resolution situation. This choice seemed forced in several of the segments. Let me demonstrate.

[NOTE: I go into details about the movie throughout the rest of the review. If you want to see Fantasia/2000 with a fresh mind, you may want to skip this review completely. But see, then you'll miss out on what I hope you will find to be a keen and interesting analysis.]

The movie opens with Beethoven's 5th Symphony. The animation is abstract, but only superficially. There are living shapes, triangle pairs which are butterflies. I was going to say they were reminiscent of butterflies, but no, they were butterflies. There are good butterflies and bad butterflies. The good butterflies flit and fly with great speed, but are then swarmed by huge numbers of evil black butterflies from the bowels of hell. The images are very striking, certainly creative, and sometimes too hurried. As would have been done in the original Fantasia, the "battle" between the good and bad butterflies is a riot of swirling motion and color. And so it is here. But what's added is what I shall call a "human interest" angle: Two butterfly pals, a big butterfly and a litte one. These two sets of shapes are animated as cute characters, obviously friends or partners are something. We get to know them, meaning the sequence concentrates on their antics for a bit. Then, when the bad butterflies come, the big good butterfly gets chomped and devoured by the swarm of dark shapes. I know having sympathetic characters in a movie is how you identify and attach yourself emotionally to a movie, but Fantasia is a different animal altogether, and an artist should feel free to break from this tether of film convention to tell a tale that is less concrete. Instead of allowing the music, the shapes, the colors, and the kinetics to stir my emotions, the filmmakers decided it needed to be punctuated for me, the clueless moviegoer, with the little butterfly drama.

Okay, so that seems trivial. Alone, the butterfly pathos stuck out but didn't really bother me at first. However, after considering the other segments and looking at the movie as a whole, Fantasia/2000 emerges as a movie filled with little morality plays just like this, each segment effused with some kind of melodrama. Let's check it out, sequence by sequence.

After the butterflies comes the whale segment, set to Respighi's "Pines of Rome." This sequence has a so-cute-you-wanna-hug-it baby whale, who flies through air and space with his ma and pa. Fine so far—what's a Disney movie without a cute creature of some kind—but the melodrama comes when the little guy gets trapped inside a cave inside an iceberg and can't get to his parents. The images are beautiful in every way, but this forced drama is unwelcome, especially after he escapes and the story continues on a completely different course. In essence, the lost baby whale part is put there wholly to add forced drama to the proceedings. You'd think hundreds of whales flying through the air and swimming to the stars would be dramatic enough!

Next comes "Rhapsody in Blue," which has four separate little dramas in it. I love the bit, but taken with the rest of the movie, I wonder how much more daring or, dare I say, inventive the piece would have been had the characters been characters and not Aesop people proving little points about life (the morality play thing). The biggest moral point comes with the little girl's character, abandoned by her busy parents to be whisked through a day of lessons by her nanny. The little girl runs after a lost ball into traffic, almost dies, but her parents save her and love her forever after. Point made. Again, I liked "Rhapsody" very much, and at least here the four stories intertwine cleverly and amusingly. But again, I'm looking at the movie as a whole. Let's move on. Please hold hands as we pass into the next room.

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" (Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2) presents more good vs. evil, this time in the vessels of—LOOK OUT, WOODY!—computer-generated toys. An evil jack-in-the-box and a one-legged tin soldier vie for the affections of a creepy-looking CG ballerina. Tin man gets lost, comes back, and kills the bad guy. Oh, wait, like all Disney movies, our hero doesn't actually kill the bad guy, the bad guy does something to cause his own death. Yeah, yeah. The plot itself is taken from a Hans Christian Andersen story, so it has dramatic roots already. I liked this sequence least of all, I think because of its oversimplified and overacted pantomime and its strange animation. Oh, and because it's just so quick. Like the whole movie, it feels completely rushed. Useless aside: They could have used Stravinsky's "Petrushka," which tells a similar tale using puppets. "Petrushka" ends sadly, though, so never mind.

Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" has a flamingo who won't follow the crowd. It's a short piece, and fun, but there's that conflict-resolution thing again. And, damn, is it short! This piece is only a couple minutes long. It looks nice, and it is funny, but DAMN! There's no meat on Fantasia's bones!

Next up is Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." As I mentioned, it alone remains from the original Fantasia. It's been digitally restored, but it looks not-so-hot up on the huge IMAX screen. You can even see the pixels sometimes, where the film had been stored digitally for restoration. Anyway, we all know this segment's drama. It's still great to see this survived the cut, though. I like it. So did the lady behind me who "aaaaw"ed like a tiny child at every cute thing in the movie.

Following the Mickey Mouse one is the Donald Duck one. Here, the drama is that Donald and Daisy think each has perished in the great flood, and they somehow never see each other on that huge barge for 40 days and 40 nights or whatever the total ark time was. Strangely, very little of the physical humor comes from them missing each other on the boat, which in this case would have made sense and attached the drama more to the piece. Instead, most of the humor comes from the animals themselves and how the manage to consistently trample and fall and stomp on Donald. It was sweet that Daisy and Donald find each other in the end (oh, calm down... I'm not ruining that for you at all!). I'll give them that.

Finally, replacing the original (and only, I think) good vs. evil sequence from the old Fantasia, there's a beautiful, moving interpretation of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." Here, some kind of nature nymph, bringer of spring and green things, gets trounced by a firebird from a volcano. Of course, she triumphs and lives to bring the landscape to bloom again. This piece was so beautiful and sometimes magnificently ominous it got to me, until one point near the end where the pumped-up hyper-emotion suddenly made me feel manipulated. Beautiful animation, though. Sort of Mononoke-like (and, dare I say, more atmospheric).

Now look through the old Fantasia. Think back. Do you remember lots of melodrama like this? I don't. The original abstract piece, Bach's "Tocatta and Fugue," gave across emotions and feelings and sensations, but did not rely on any cutesy "Help! I'm in TROUBLE!" elements to attempt to draw the audience in. (There is that lumbering coffin, but that's just funny.) "The Rite of Spring," with the dinosaurs, had conflict, but it was simply environmental happenings—history, if you will. That history, along with the music, was dramatic enough. No lost Land Before Time babies needed. "The Nutcracker" suite was all simple but charming and beautiful visuals. Big-eyed fish, dancing mushrooms and flowers, but no forced melodrama. Those spinning flowers fall down that waterfall in triumph without little sweat squeans popping out of their heads in alarm. The long Symphony No. 6 sequence, with the mythological Greek characters, was simply a day-in-the-life story. Yeah, it had baby pegasi and a thunderstorm, but they were part of the whole tapestry, not separate, tacked-on dramatic elements. In fact, to me, the Mickey segment had always been the one to stand out not just because it was the only sequence with a Disney character, but because it was the only one that told an encapsulated and complete story, with lessons learned and conflict settled. Of course it fits into Fantasia/2000.

Fantasia/2000 feels Hollywoodized. Disneyized, if you will. Dumbed down. The new movie is more childish than the old. It's impossibly short at under 1 hour 15 minutes. It takes less brain power to process this movie, since the conflict is stated so obviously. There is not much open to interpretation or imagination. Oh, and then there are the celebrity hosts. Unlike Fantasia, this movie has different hosts for each segment. The first is introduced by replaying the original intro from the old version, the old Fantasia's nondescript host floating by, trapped, like General Zod, on a shape tumbling in space. Interesting. I was really happy when Steve Martin came out to introduce the second segment, and he turned out to be the best and funniest. The other introductions are pretty lamely written. It all felt kind of disjointed, and the celebrities seemed to be intruding into this Fantasia world, where visions should seem new, and fresh, and unique. With the flashy Fantasia/2000 CG "set" (which looked like Krypton) and all these famous people appearing on-screen in tuxes and nice dresses to perform bad speeches, it was sort of like watching the Academy Awards. Actually, that's exactly what it was like! There was even a silly intro by Bette Midler showing original segments from Fantasia that didn't make it—Oscar montage, anyone? I wonder if Bruce Vilanch had anything to do with these interludes.

The Disney people must fear that the public is no longer sufficiently awed by animation for it to stand on its own. The pieces, they seem to believe, must be shorter, jumpier, flashier, and must have a "story" no matter what. No longer is animation something to be soaked in and absorbed, as it was 60 years ago when Fantasia opened. It's a pity, because the best parts of Fantasia/2000—the most stirring moments—all come from the striking visuals, the raw emotion of the colors and the movement and the composition, not the stories. We absolutely could have been entertained and enthralled by animated visions free of artificial manipulation! But the suits won out on this one.

So my Fantasia/2000 experience sounds kind of negative, huh? Well, it's not really. It was still fun to watch, and I enjoyed myself. It's just that a movie like this needs to be observed with a scrutiny befitting its station, the offspring of an animation classic. If you're gonna tamper with a classic, you'd better be ready to be scrutinized. That's all I'm doing here. Fantasia/2000 will not become a classic like Fantasia did. It may be popular and sell lots of DVDs, but it won't be classic.

I can still recommend you see this movie if you enjoy animation. Get to an IMAX theater, because seeing it on such a friggin' HUGE-ass screen makes for an overwhelming visual experience. DVD will be nothing compared to this. Just be aware you may feel gypped paying a bigger ticket price for a shorter movie. IMAX movies are always short, but they're also about beavers and volcanoes and lizards. Something like this should be a real feature-length movie.

 

—Steve

1/11/00

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©2000 Steven Lekowicz except
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