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FANTASIA 2000

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, James Levine, Angela Lansbury
Directors:  James Algar, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Hendel Butoy, Francis Glebas, Eric Goldberg, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  74 Minutes
Release Date:  November 14, 2000

Film ***1/2

When Walt Disney created Fantasia, he envisioned an entertainment event that would go on forever, with newer pieces of animation set to classical music replacing older segments from time to time in constant circulation.  The initial critical and box office failure seemed to drive a stake into the heart of that dream, and many closest to him said Walt never fully recovered from the blow dealt to arguably his most personal project.

Fifty years later, a restored Fantasia would once again find itself in theatres across the country, and during the course of those decades, the world became ready to embrace the film for the grand, bold and imaginative achievement it was.  This sparked a special first-time video release, where the movie would go on to sell more than 20 million copies to enthusiastic fans.  For the first time, Fantasia was in the black, and Walt’s nephew and Disney Studio’s head of the animation department Roy Disney decided that the time was right to continue Walt’s vision.  The time was right for a new installment of Fantasia.

Like the original, the new film was an ambitious project…one that would take almost ten years to bring to the screen.  In the spirit of the first movie, Fantasia 2000 sought not only to combine animation with great classical music, but to push the boundaries of animation further than they had been up to that point, elevating the art to new levels of possibilities.  In 1940, Walt used every available technique at his disposal to create his vision:  inventing some, like the stereophonic theatrical sound system, or pushing others, like the multi-plane camera system, which had never been constructed for such a deep and complicated shot like the finale to the picture.  With Fantasia 2000, the animators again used every resource at their disposal, from intricate combinations of computer and traditional animations to old style “flat” drawings with bright pastel colorings…and of course, the resurrection of the most popular segment from the original, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. 

The film follows the path of the original, including opening with a more abstract form of animation to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth (highly expurgated).  Geometrical shapes representing butterflies fill the screen and create amazing visuals thanks to the computer, and gets the film off on just the right note.

It doesn’t, however, prepare you for the next segment, Respighi’s “Pines of Rome”, which is one of the most spectacular pieces of animation I’ve ever seen.  Combining superb computer work with traditional forms, a family of whales leap and play in the icy North Atlantic waters, until finally taking flight over the rich and beautiful landscape and into the night sky.  It’s imaginative and breathtakingly beautiful to watch.

The third segment is probably the one that stands apart:  Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  It’s a very New York piece, with design and inspiration from Al Hirschfield, a legendary illustrator who’s style you may recognize from New York programs, playbills, magazines and newspapers.  It’s a very colorful but purposely two-dimensional piece about a group of characters with dreams as they go about their fast, funny, comical and sad lives at a hectic pace.  It’s a perfect mix of visual style to music.

The creative team dug deep into the Disney library of ideas and unfinished projects to bring Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” to life, finding the drawings and conceptual art for a commissioned but never completed animated short based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”.  Once again, by using computer animation on top of traditional backgrounds, the story and music bring each other to life.

This is followed by one of the shorter, but funnier and more energetic numbers, “Carnival of the Animals, Finale” by Saint-Saens.  Here, we get to witness a flock of flamingoes trying to keep in formation on the water and in the air, constantly being disrupted by one mischievous fellow with a yo-yo.  There’s always one in every crowd who tries to follow his own drum, and this is a vibrantly funny realization of that point!

After a good laugh, the film decides it’s time to bring back a classic:  “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the first film.  It’s a welcome reminder of the proud tradition of Fantasia, although given modern advances in animation inherent in the other segments, there’s really no way to make either the audio or video hold up against its contemporary counterparts.

Mickey always had his starring turn in Fantasia, and in this film, Donald Duck gets his turn, appearing in a Sleepless in Seattle inspired retelling of Noah’s Ark to the tune of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”.  As the stirring strains play out, Donald assists Noah in bringing all the animals onto the ark, but owing to the confusion, both he and Daisy sadly and mistakenly believe the other was left behind.  Their final reunion has to rank among the more magical Disney moments!

And finally, as with the first film, Fantasia 2000 depicts a good vs. evil struggle, this time using Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, which, as it turns out, the studios had acquired the rights to at the same time they did for “Rite of Spring” for the original movie.  This is one of the most awesome marriages of animation to music in the entire series, and visually one of the most stunning.  It depicts life, death and rebirth in an absolutely beautiful and hypnotic way…so much so, that I don’t even want to try to describe how the piece unfolds with words.  You simply have to see it for yourself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Fantasia 2000, having been such an admirer of the first movie for so many years.  Indeed, some critics have dismissed the second one, saying either that the idea of combining animation and classical music was no longer new, or that the abundance of stars who hosted the program were distracting.   Frankly, I couldn’t disagree more.  All who participated in this film served as a tribute to the potency and popularity of Walt’s vision…each personality, musician, and animator who took part knew they were resurrecting a patriarchal dream.  And frankly, sixty years of advancement in technology and animation techniques, as well as theatrical presentation and quality, had gone by.  The time was right for a new installment, and I, for one, hope this won’t be the last we see of Fantasia.

Video ****

Absolute reference quality!  This is one of the most beautiful looking transfers for an animated film I’ve ever seen on DVD, and that’s saying a lot, considering how many outstanding ones there have been.  The video is anamorphically enhanced, and it is pure perfection from beginning to end.  I noticed not one blemish, one spot, one instance of grain, one compression artifact, or any image problems whatsoever.  The colors are rich and beautiful, using a full palate of both natural and heightened hues for maximum visual impact, and the DVD renders them all flawlessly.  Images are sharp and crystal clear throughout, which can really be appreciated during the many moments where the animation takes on an almost three dimensional quality.  This is as good as it gets, friends.

Audio ****

The 5.1 audio is even more outstanding, and I can truthfully say this:  it is THE best presentation of music I’ve heard on DVD.  Seriously.  The orchestration utilized the multi-channel capabilities in such a way that you’re not merely in the middle of the sound, you are immersed in it like warm bath water.  The music is crystal clear, and stunningly dynamic, with an amazing sense of live space and openness.  I’ll guarantee you that this surpasses by far even the best quality classical recordings you might own on CD.  The listening experience is nothing short of exhilarating!

Features ****

As with the Fantasia disc, Disney delivers the goods once again here.  There is another commentary track with Roy Disney, conductor James Levine and producer Don Ernst, which in some ways is an even better listen because of Roy’s direct involvement with this project.  There is a second track which features the directors of the individual segments and the art directors speaking about and over their particular part of the film.  The disc also includes two classic Disney shorts, meant to be a continuing series of pieces teaching music to kids, but never evolving beyond the first two:  one is Melody, which was the first cartoon short shown in 3-D (though not presented that way here), and the other is Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, which won an Oscar for best animated short and was also the first cartoon short to be created in for a widescreen scope ratio.  There is a five minute showcase piece, sort of like a trailer, highlighting some of the memorable moments from the film.  Although the box lists a commemorative booklet, what it actually has instead is better:  a 50 minute making of documentary featuring many interview segments with Roy Disney, James Levine, and the animators and directors of the film, and a detailed segment-by-segment progression that will tell you just about all you want to know about the movie.  Plus, as with the first disc, a THX Optimode demo to help you get the most from your audio and video systems.  Fantastic!

Summary:

If you own a DVD player, and especially if you own a 5.1 sound system to go along with it, you absolutely must own a copy of Fantasia 2000 for demonstration purposes if no other…I don’t even care if the Fantasia films are not to your taste, or even if you don’t care for animation or classical music.  You will want this disc to show off your system to your family and friends…from now on, this is the first one I grab to show off mine.  And if you happen to love the Fantasia legacy and this film as much as I do, that’s all the better!