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Fantasia 2000
It's technically proficient, but where's the passion?
Fantasia 2000
Walt Disney Pictures
Sequences directed by Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, and Gaëtan Brizzi and Paul Brizzi
USA, 1999
When the clock finally strikes midnight on January 1, millennium fever will, with luck, finally begin to subside. And assuming the cinemas still work, IMAX cinemas around the globe will start showing what will probably be one of the last productions to use the rollover year in its title and not sound dated: Fantasia 2000.

Of course, it won't sound dated because it's an update of Disney's classic Fantasia (which, one hopes, will not be retroactively titled Fantasia 1940 by Mouse marketers.) As you've likely heard by now, this is one of the few updates to come out in recent years that was actually planned by its creator: Walt Disney originally hoped to make Fantasia an annual release, with old segments gradually swapped out for new. With little problems like Fantasia's box-office and critical failure and the onset of World War II, the idea was left by the wayside until 1992. With Disney's rising fortunes and Fantasia's video release (on the heels of its fiftieth-anniversary digital makeover), the plan to continue Walt's dream was announced, then under the title Fantasia Continued.

The danger, of course, lay in comparisons to the original. Had Walt's original vision been acted on, it would be less of a problem; gradual shifting in tastes and techniques would have made for a pleasant, easy evolution. But a sixty-year jump? With modern audiences weaned on music videos, and animation having gone through so many stylistic twists and turns, I imagine it was something of a challenge for the Fantasia 2000 crew to come up with something that could carry the Fantasia torch forward.

In a sense, they succeeded; I'm as ambivalent about Fantasia 2000 as others were during its predecessor's release.

First, the good news: when Fantasia 2000 works, it works well. The segment based on Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, set in Depression-era New York, is based on Al Hirschfeld's work. Of course, his linework had to be simplified for animation, but the life and whimsy that characterizes his drawings comes through clearly. You can tell people had a lot of fun working on this, just like the folks who put together the brief but manically lunatic Carnival of the Animals, Finale segment, in which a rebellious flamingo terrorizes the rest of his flock with his yo-yo. And the final segment, Firebird Suite, is a lovely tale of "life, death, and renewal", filled with equal parts forcefulness and quietude, reminiscent of the A Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria pairing from the original Fantasia.

But there is something missing from the overall package: passion.

In a nutshell, Fantasia was all about pushing boundaries. Though many considered its images questionable and its attempts to foist high-brow trappings on a low-brow public as pretentious, it can't be denied that Disney, the man, was going out on a limb, daring to be different, and pushing his staff to work to the best of their abilities and do something innovative and--this is important--truly unexpected.

While Fantasia 2000 is entertaining, you don't get the same sense of adventure, of exploration, of artists and animators cutting loose. The first segment, based on a Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, is meant to be an analogue to the first segment of Fantasia, in which more or less abstract forms move to the music, with no narrative (in fact, as Fantasia 2000 segues from a montage from the original, they use Deems Taylor's voiceover to introduce Symphony No. 5). The trouble is, there is in fact a narrative--not a strong one, but a narrative nonetheless--albeit with semi-abstract forms. You almost get the feeling they were afraid to go all the way, lest they leave some of the audience behind.

Another sign of weakness is the decision to use celebrity hosts for each segment, with the kind of second-rate humor and affected delivery that plagues clip shows and televised Disney parades, though with better production values. Fantasia at least dared to put itself on a pedestal; Fantasia 2000 apologizes and tries to show that it's for regular folks.

While watching The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the only Fantasia short to make the cut, I was struck by a moment where Mickey Mouse, frantically turning the pages of a spell book, pauses for a second to lick his thumb before turning the page. It's a throwaway gesture, a fraction of a second--but one that makes him more real to the audience. It's something you'd probably never see in a modern Disney film, but it indicates the ease the animators had with themselves and their craft--learning, yet sure enough of their abilities that something like that could be thrown in. It also occurred to me then that The Sorceror's Apprentice was when Mickey first gained pupils, which I consider to be the final stage of his metamorphosis from brash upstart to safe, suburban icon. Fantasia 2000, visually splendid as it is, is just that: a reiteration of an icon with just a flicker of the spirit it used to have.

A Critical Eye exclusive (December 27, 1999)
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