Several years ago, Disney re-released its 1940 classic, "Fantasia." Having never seen the picture before, I eagerly awaited experiencing the film. An experiment in blending animation and classical music, the film was originally designed to promote the Mickey Mouse character (through the short "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" piece), but ended up turning into a full-length picture (clocking in at a less than kid-friendly two hours).
Despite the studio's success with its first animated feature ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"), however, this film garnered only a lukewarm reception from both critics and audiences alike. It wasn't until the drug-laden 1960s & '70s, however, that the film's surrealistic look and style evidently made sense or at least was better received. From that point on, the film continued to build its status as a classic.
As such, I wasn't sure what to expect of the film, what with its dancing hippos, crocodiles and mushrooms, but figured it would at least be interesting and worth sitting through. Boy, was I wrong. While some have appreciated and even loved the film, I found most of it - save for a few moments - to be nothing short of an over-praised and boring experience.
With the background, I wasn't particularly thrilled about seeing the release of "Fantasia 2000," a millennium version update of the original, but figured I'd give it the benefit of the doubt. Although Walt Disney himself reportedly had envisioned releasing a new version of the film every year, it took sixty years before the next installment was released. Much to my surprise, and as the old saying goes, it was well worth the wait.
Jettisoning all but the Mickey Mouse segment and replacing the seven other shorts with brand new ones, the film suffers a bit like the original in not having an all encompassing, cohesive thread running through it - beyond the animated interpretations of several classical pieces - but each bit is rather enjoyable in its own right.
As introduced by various celebrities including Steve Martin, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Quincy Jones and even shock magicians Penn & Teller, the segments vary in length, theme and even their style and use of animation. Repeating the words from the original film's narrator, Deems Taylor, the film continues with the original's interpretation of music as serving to paint a picture, tell a story or exist solely for its own sake.
The first segment, which falls into the last category and interprets Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" is the least enjoyable of the bunch, mainly because it doesn't tell a story and therefore lacks any true depth beyond the pretty pictures and colors. The second segment, an interpretation of Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome," however, is a delight. Featuring a pack of whales that soar and glide into the air like a flock of birds (whose jealousy of this aberration of nature twists the short's plot in a different, but fascinating direction), the segment is a delight to both the eyes and ears.
The liveliest segment involves the interpretation of George Gershwin's familiar "Rhapsody in Blue" as a day in the life of several disparate characters in Manhattan during the Jazz Age. Drawn in the linear style of legendary artist Al Hirschfeld (known for his caricatures of Broadway and Hollywood stars), the animated short is nothing short of a blast to watch and it and Gershwin's music perfectly complement one another.
Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," makes up the next offering and is accompanied by Dmitri Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto #2, Allegro, Opus 102." The tale of a one-legged toy tin soldier and his efforts to save a ballerina from a sinister and much larger jack-in-the-box, the computer-generated segment is appropriately reminiscent of the look of the "Toy Story" films (although purposefully not as colorful and cheery) and benefits from the Russian composer's dramatic music.
The silliest segment is that featuring a pink flamingo, his yo-yo, and his fellow flamingos' disdain toward his passion for it. Playing to Camille Saint-SaŽns' "Carnival of the Animals, Finale," the short piece is nothing short of pure fun to watch as the flamingo does all of the standard yo-yo tricks while moving in unison to the music often associated with ballerinas dancing in unison.
The original and still highly effective "Sorcerer's Apprentice" piece follows next, with the now familiar and perfectly chosen music of French composer Paul Dukas. With the original animation and musical score retouched and digitally restored, the piece is just as intriguing and entertaining as it was sixty years ago (when audiences first saw this whole other unusual world regarding Mickey).
As usual, and not to be outdone as far as getting his equal time, Donald Duck appears in the next segment, a creative interpretation and mixture of the tale of Noah's Ark and Sir Edward Elgar's well-known "Pomp and Circumstance, Marches 1, 2, 3, and 4." Best known as the theme played during graduation ceremonies, the classical piece works well with the story that includes a brief, but amusing introduction with Mickey and Donald.
Probably the most interesting segment is the concluding one that uses Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite - 1919 Version" in telling the tale of Mother Nature's resiliency. Featuring Sprite, the nature spirit, a lone Elk (the monarch of the forest) and a demon-like Firebird and seemingly sentient lava flows, the segment is very reminiscent in both theme and style of the anime film, "Princess Mononoke," and is easily the most visually intense part of the film, certain to give little kids nightmares.
Far better than the original "Fantasia" in most every way imaginable, the film has enough interesting and enjoyable moments to entertain both kids and adults alike. While not perfect - especially since the overall effect and lasting impression is akin to sitting through a collection of disparate, but highly polished animated shorts with no storyline connecting them - the seventy-some minute film is a quick but pleasing trip through interpretive animation, and should serve as a fine introduction of classical music to kids. "Fantasia 2000" rates as a 7 out of 10.