In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
“Fantasia is timeless. It may run 10, 20 or 30 years. It may run after I’m gone. Fantasia is an idea in itself. I can never build another Fantasia. I can improve. I can elaborate. That’s all.”— Walt Disney
Eighty years after its premiere, Fantasia still takes a strong synesthetic sledgehammer to the traditionally comfortable themes and audiovisual conventions of animation while solidifying that impresario Walt Disney was not necessarily always out to make easy money.
Following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s third animated outing was a 125-minute film composed of eight animated segments set to classical music. It boasts the occasional overindulgence of cuteness. (Looking at you, Pastoral Symphony, for even the gentle Sorcerer’s Apprentice has some darker moments.) But Fantasia otherwise attempts a conscious descent into visual abstractions or difficult ideas. The introductory piece is an impressionistic sketch of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. One sequence, set to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, is as emcee Deems Taylor puts it “a coldly accurate reproduction of the first few billion years of the universe.” The finale, set largely to Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, is primarily filled with images of Satan summoning an army of ghouls simply to cast them into the hottest pits of hell.
Cumulatively, Fantasia functions at an almost transcendent level of consciousness. From a perspective of cinematic legacy, its confluences of microcosmic environments and macro ideas as a precursor to Pixar’s most preeminent pictures. On a less benign tip, you can see the Rite of Spring’s ancestral DNA in Todd McFarlane’s music video for Pearl Jam’s “Do the Evolution” — and its suggestions of the end that is inexorably spelled for us all.
There’s nothing in Fantasia that could be called subversion per se. Just subtextual straight dope about how art accompanies times of tranquility and terror, the ways in which it is both a constructive tool of understanding and a destructive cudgel of division, the importance of its role in broadening our empathy. Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria closes the infamously eerie Bald Mountain sequence, and what could’ve felt like a cockeyed, Catholicized rejoinder of good to its evil instead affirms community as the fastest path out of hell over any dogmatic decree. On the verge of total global involvement in World War II, it feels like an especially urgent plea.
Recorded with multiple audio channels for a presentation Walt Disney dubbed Fantasound, Fantasia necessitated the installation of new equipment in the few American auditoriums that would show it on its initial 13-city roadshow tour. There were no outlets to recoup costs in Europe, either, where theatres were closed due to WWII continental combat. Indeed, Fantasia was a project of passion and potential that only became profitable over time and thanks to myriad re-releases. Even then, it did not earn enough to sustain Walt Disney’s original intent of an organic, ongoing effort — keeping the film in regular theatrical rotation but swapping out segments every several years so audiences would often see a new version.
It wasn’t until a half-century later — and a successful 50th anniversary re-release — that Disney found its way toward Fantasia again. That theatrical engagement grossed $25 million while Fantasia’s inaugural home-video release in 1991 sold millions of copies. Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner saw that as reason enough to greenlight a sequel. Jeffrey Katzenberg, Eisner’s hand-picked chair of Walt Disney Studios, was lukewarm on the idea, but Eisner went over his head to get it done with Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew) over the next several years as a Y2K-themed event.
After a limited live-concert run in late 1999, Fantasia 2000 opened in an exclusive four-month IMAX engagement in January 2000. It was the first feature-length animated film to be shown in the format, well before its multiplex proliferation. In a rhyme of history, Disney had to build a temporary 622-seat IMAX theatre in Los Angeles — to the tune of $4 million — after the California Science Center (then L.A.’s sole IMAX venue) refused to exclusively show Fantasia 2000 for all four months. After collecting $64.5 million in IMAX receipts, Fantasia 2000 hit wide release in June 2000 and failed to click with broader audiences. Ultimately, the film wound up earning $90 million on an $85 million budget — hardly the hit for which Eisner had hoped.
To be fair, compromise was at the center of the project from the jump. Eisner and company envisioned it running half as long as Fantasia, and with only “three or four new numbers” for a “semi-new movie.” Indeed, Fantasia 2000 has the same number of sequences and runs just 68 minutes before credits; given a repeat of Fantasia’s signature segment, with Mickey Mouse making mischief to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, there’s barely an hour of new material here.
In lieu of one emcee, a different celebrity introduces each segment. Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, Penn & Teller and Angela Lansbury do fine jobs. But nearly each of them has a shtick to sell, and their appearances give Fantasia 2000 an element of TV chintz that’s lacking in the original. Also not helping: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing under the baton of James Levine, appears to occupy some sort of large holodeck aboard Sagan’s Spaceship of the Imagination; the simple stagecraft of lighting and shadow provided an appropriately surreal setting for conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the original film.
Most disappointing of all, Fantasia 2000 generally feels like a way for non-Pixar folks at Walt Disney Animation Studios to show that they could do computer-generated animation, too. It’s largely a sizzle reel on which the scorch cooled quickly given the technological advances. But it’s also easy to extract three hallmarks from an otherwise “eh” endeavor: the introductory appetizer of Symphony No. 5 (from Beethoven); the incomparably conceived Rhapsody in Blue (from George Gershwin); and the inspired ideology of the Firebird Suite (from Stravinsky).
Co-created by Pixote Hunt and Kelvin Yasuda, Symphony No. 5 suggests a second helping of abstraction that the rest of the film can’t hold up — a depiction of “good” multicolored shapes against “evil” monochromatic ones taken from the directors’ observation of butterflies and bats. It’s akin to the original film’s Bach opener, and the anything-goes spirit with which Walt Disney conceived Fantasia feels alive and well here. This sequence wildly weds one of the most instantaneously recognizable riffs of classical music to the angular style of a Saul Bass title sequence and a color palette resembling album covers for the Sex Pistols and the Clash. It’s a brief, but buoyant, burst of energy that gets Fantasia 2000 off to a strong start.
Following is Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the first piece Roy Disney suggested for Fantasia 2000 and the first to be animated. The presentation is impressive, but again feels like non-Pixar computer animators vaingloriously flexing their muscle. In a moment that feels more like desperation, the plot seems motivated by how much the title of the composition sounds like the phrase “pines for home.” Thus, the story of a lost humpback whale rejoining his pod feels like a furtive feint toward full-length feelings better explored in Finding Dory a few years later.
Unquestionably the apex of Fantasia 2000, Rhapsody in Blue originated in 1992 when director / animator Eric Goldberg approached Al Hirschfeld with an idea inspired by Hirschfeld’s inimitable illustrations. His legendary line-drawing caricatures of celebrities capture the essence of larger-than-life personalities without frippery or flourish, and Goldberg’s work on the segment does the same for New York City and the dreamers who can sometimes feel dwarfed by its immensity. Woody Allen also used Gershwin’s jazz concerto as a sonic totem of the Big Apple in the opening scene of Manhattan, but it feels immediately iconic in Fantasia 2000. It’s the film’s only segment to even approximate its predecessor’s artistry, abetted by the uptown-Copland joie de vivre of Gershwin’s composition. Even then, Rhapsody in Blue deepens further with explorations of class, race, commerce and gluttony — topics old as time but forever worth reappraisal.
The squiggly clarinet trill that opens Gershwin’s work — itself as immediately recognizable as the introductory notes of Beethoven’s Fifth — accompanies a nigh-architectural blueprint of a city in which it’s so easy to get lost and in which we meet four people trying to find their way: a Black construction worker who lives for evening expressions of nightclub jazz; a downtrodden white-collar worker for whom any employment would do if it just presented itself; an elite blue-blood who has lost touch with the joys of life; and a young and idiosyncratic girl trying to be shoved into boxes from which she’d rather break free. Gershwin’s composition builds in scope and scale like the city’s own skyscraping monuments to the gods, and Goldberg’s embrace of both Gershwin’s sound and Hirschfeld’s style are not mere honorifics: It understands that, in America as on Hirschfeld’s canvas and Gershwin’s musical staff, there is often a descent for every ascent. Goldberg evokes that in vibrant, boisterous and bold strokes that the full sketch of our lives is always the result of untold unfinished drawings along the way.
That’s a tough act for anything to follow, let alone a stuffy story adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This sequence represents the first time that Disney studio animators themselves created main characters entirely from computer-generated imagery … but only because they had to pry it away from Pixar (whom Roy Disney apparently asked first). Given that Pixar had already made two masterful movies about the inner lives of toys, it’s easy to see why they passed on this pale imitation.
From here, Fantasia 2000 more or less rests its roots in Disney studio archetypes carved out over the six decades that ensued after Fantasia rather than any sort of collectively ambitious artistic statement. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals mirrors the Looney Tunes-ish ballerina-hippo energy of the original’s Dance of the Hours sequence to modest effect. Then comes a repeat of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Then, a dull double-down on intellectual property over ingenious possibility with Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance accompanying the story of Noah’s Ark, intermixed with Donald and Daisy Duck in a crossed-up romantic comedy.
At the risk of contributing to connotations of classical-music snobbery, Pomp and Circumstance has no business being here. It’s a basic, boring earworm Eisner allegedly insisted on including after hearing it at a graduation ceremony and believing its familiarity to be any sort of selling point. The original animation idea involved Disney princesses and heroines in a procession carrying their children. Subsequent ideas came and went. Eventually, they settled on this and … well, it’s the slapstick of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with a biblical flood added and any malevolence sanded down.
Fantasia 2000 at least rallies with a closer that Roy Disney sought to be of “emotional equivalence” with the original’s Bald Mountain-Ave Maria duology. Awed and humbled upon witnessing the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, Roy Disney worked with French twins Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (who also worked on the studio’s adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan) to craft a tale of planetary destruction and renewal.
Stravinsky’s original ballet told of a hunter’s encounter with a mythical firebird whose powers he more or less exploits to ensure he falls in love and saves the day over a tyrant. What Roy Disney and the Brizzis created plays more like the grave-warning approach of Hayao Miyazaki crossed with expressive animation emblematic of elemental beauty unmatched until the studio’s pair of Frozen films. While The Firebird can’t quite match Bald Mountain, its proximity is the best possible outcome and, given the mishmash of material around it, the only way to conclude Fantasia 2000.
Since then, Fantasia has more or less faded to the thinnest blip on the Mouse House’s radar. The aborted development of a third film in the early 2000s always felt more like lip service to late boss-man Walt’s big idea behind it all, and theatrically, there hasn’t been much room for such things amid the Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar booms.
In 2019, Disney announced plans to develop a Fantasia-based project for Disney+ (where you can also stream the two theatrical films). This is a fantastic idea, but one that could easily stumble on the bland brand management that befell Fantasia 2000. Now more than ever, Disney should treat its streaming services like a workshop for the weird and wild.
You want to resurrect Fantasia for a modern audience in ways that will reverberate generations from now? Call Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Primal), the Spider-Verse team, Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda), Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon), Jennifer Lee (Frozen). Lots of money made by all of those people on those projects, sure, but also lots of perspectives and cultures in which to collaborate.
Hell, do an adult-oriented offshoot on Hulu and get McFarlane, Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), and some disciples of Miyazaki and Satoishi Kon (Millennium Actress). Mine some unexpected composers to choose for all of this alongside the greats, and, for the sake of the entire enterprise’s spirit, don’t fear a clash of classical elegance and contemporary entropy.
If Fantasia represents the 2001: A Space Odyssey of Disney animation, consider Fantasia 2000 its 2010 — a workmanlike sequel that still has stunning moments but hardly approaches its forefather. Fine and good, but no one needs to wait another 40 years for that.