FANTASIA – A Film Review – INKPOT

Fantasia 2000
by Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Eric Goldberg and Francis Glebas

by Benjamin Chee

Fantasia for the, uh, zeroes (’00s). Having seen the original Fantasia previously on the big screen, and several times more on video, this is something which, ever since the earliest hints and rumours began, I’ve been waiting for some time.

First, I have to say that Mr Disney’s original idea of an animated entertainment to classical music was (and still is) a good one. It is an ingenious way to introduce audiences (kids and adults alike) to classical music – which is not just good for handphone and elevator transcriptions. I don’t know about the IMAX format, though; this means that fewer audiences might watch it than it would otherwise attract at downtown cineplexes.

That said, the reality of what happens when too young kids, with best-intentioned parents, are brought into the auditorium and made to sit through “uninteresting” classical music is: they cry, they whine, they talk loudly, and their parents will give them a blow-by-blow narrative of what’s going on on the screen oblivious of everyone else around them (it happened to me in my screening). In general, behaving like they were the only ones watching and ruining the picture for everyone else. You can’t win’em all, I suppose.
Fantasia 2000 is very much like the original: an anthology of eight vignettes, designed and animated by different teams of Disney animators and set to adaptations of classical music. Some of these are stories set to music, while others vary from plotless cartoons to the purely abstract.

Between each segment, Disney has signed on a slew of American celebrities to introduce the works: some of these are artistes who have been long associated with Disney, such as the rotund basso of James Earl Jones who voiced King Mufasa (The Lion King) and the matronly Angela Lansbury aka Mrs Potts (Beauty and the Beast).

It gets to a point where the audience is overkilled with all the celebrity names. For the most part, I accept that celebrity hard-sell in this day and age (or indeed any day and age) is inescapable, although when people look back on this fifty years from now, the obsessive use of bankable celebrity names from this age will inevitably date-stamp this slice of American pop culture: “Who were those guys, anyway ?”

Personally, I couldn’t bother so much all this icing than the actual content of this musical confection. Although for the life of me, and it only happened this once, I just couldn’t understand the pie-in-the-face, pander-to-kids antics of Steve Martin, who introduced the truncated first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with overblown adjectives, bad self-deprecating jokes and a great deal of hyperbole that was impossible to swallow.

But the music, once it starts, isn’t half bad. This work, kicking off the entire movie, was visualized as an abstract rendition of flashes of lighting amidst pastel clouds and colours; later, dancing shapes which involuntarily transform into stylized dancing butterflies comprising two flapping triangles and a horde of dark anti-heroic triangles which engulfs everything.

The unschooled audience must have wondered what they had gotten themselves in for. Well, suffice to say that the abstract in art does not automatically and immediately satisfy its viewers with obvious interpretations and resolutions; it sometimes requires some imagination and interaction from the beholder as well.
But not so for the rest of the program. The next work, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, may at first seem a curious choice for inclusion in this anthology. Long regarded a minor composer in the pantheon of great masters, it is perhaps too easy to overlook Respighi as one of the best orchestrators in the business (even if he was pretty average in every other department). But if a one-work wonder like Dukas can get his ten-minutes of fame (see below), wither Respighi ?

The music, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under James Levine (except Rhapsody in Blue, which was conducted by Bruce Broughton), is electric, as was the animation. As this segment was introduced: “When the animators heard this music, they thought of something else entirely.” It certainly wasn’t a row of trees along a road, and I won’t spoil the surprise for you here by spelling it out, but the visualization of this music is something that has to be watched on a big screen. It was, in every sense of the word, awesome.

The third work, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, was rendered to animation inspired by the caricatures of Alf Hirschfeld. It tells the story of “a day in the life of” a steel worker aspiring to be a jazz drummer, an unemployed man, a man married to money and a chaperoned child forcibly separated from her parents by extra-mural pursuits (ballet classes, art lessons, etc), set in post-Depression 1930s New York.

Beginning with the legato ascending clarinet represented by a line sketching out a silhouette of the city skyline, each of the four stories are then cleverly juxtaposed and gradually unfolded to Gershwin’s rollicking music. The ending is predictably trite, but then this is Disney, where everything always ends well.

No less attractive (and my personal favourite of the eight vignettes) is the first-movement allegro of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2. This is pungent neoclassical music, but surprisingly pulled off very well against Hans Christian Anderson’s story of The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

This is a charming little tale of a defective toy soldier, missing one leg, who falls in love with a ballerina (which he initially mistakes her attitude position for being, like himself, a one-legged aberration). He bravely fights an evil Jack-in-the-box (who also has an eye for the girl), survives a sequence of trials in the undercity sewers, before finally prevailing against all adversity to win her love.

This story is scripted and rendered so aptly that one might be even forgiven for thinking that the music had been written to fit the action, and not vice versa. This is also one of the few all-CGI sequences in the movie and indeed, is a very effective vehicle to showcase how far the state has come in the art of computer-generated imagery.
It comes as no great surprise that Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals makes an appearance as well. This sequence draws on the final movement of the Carnival and is also the shortest sequence in the entire movie. It also drew the most laughter from the juvenile audience: a short plotless skit based on five dancing flamingoes plus one maverick with a yo-yo (yet another instance of pop-kitsch Americania).

Not surprisingly (perhaps), the magical duo of Penn and Teller appeared to introduce the segment reprised from the original Fantasia, the ubiquitous, poster-boy Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. This choice of segment was a savvy one, since the majority of audiences might not have seen it in its entirely before. That said, watching the movie again on an oversized screen with all the original flaws magnified as well as those introduced by aging didn’t help, not even after extensive and painstaking film restoration. The scratchy soundtrack was the original Stokowski/Philadelphia Orchestra performance.

I suppose it was coming: a Disney icon, Donald Duck (and his mate Daisy) turn up in the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, set to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1 to 4 which have been woven into a continuous melody. There are shades of The Lion King here, with hordes of animals being rounded up in pairs to board Noah’s boat before the great deluge. This setting takes place over a parallel story arc in which Donald and Daisy being separated from each other in the chaos of animals boarding the ark, and each thinking that the other had (literally) missed the boat and perished in the flood.

It is actually a delightful story, but what ruined it for me was the excessive ornamentation to Elgar’s grand music. Some “enchancements” were understandable, such as a brace of twittering flutes added on top of the procession from March No.1 to accompany birds on screen, but other additions were quite – well, tasteless: a wordless choir stuck in at the ending as the animals disembark from the ark in a great procession plus a solo descant soprano soaring above it all that was unartistic and gratuitous.

While I understand that the music has to be rearranged for length (twelve minutes of Beethoven’s Sixth in the original Fantasia, for example), there should be some modicum of good taste and sensibility as well. On the face of it, I can’t see how adding that soprano (voiced by Kathleen Battle) helped, since Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance stands very well on its own without modern colourations elbowing in on it.

The final sequence, based on Stravinsky’s exciting Firebird Suite of 1919, is another abstract fantasy tale about a wood sprite, an elk and a fire demon. There is more than just a hint of Japanese animé influence in this sequence, which tells of a wood sprite reflowering a wood rousing from winter, only to be scorched to ashes by an inadvertantly awakened fire demon.

For a moment there I thought the baddie from Night on Bald Mountain in the original Fantasia had returned for a cameo. The scenes of volcanic destruction and burning woodlands had the kids in paroxysms of near-tears and frightful wails, although they calmed down somewhat after the graphic conflagration was over and the wood sprite, aided by her friend the elk, magically transformed the ashes back into a bountiful wood. One just hopes they (the kids) were not too badly traumatized.

Having been bored to tears at a recent live concert performances where an orchestra accompanied a cartoon projected on a screen, the importance of the marriage between music and action cannot be understated. To be honest, I didn’t notice the quality of the musical performance per se – only in spots where they were very good (as in the Respighi and Shostakovich) or very bad (“enhanced” Elgar) as much as absorbing everything as a holistic experience.

All in all, Fantasia 2000 is essentially a good product. The orchestral visuals (by veteran effects company Rhythm and Hues) in the introductory sequences were amazing, very much in the art deco style of the first Fantasia. It is impossible that everything in a work of this scope would please everyone, but it was for me something that didn’t disappoint and an afternoon well spent.

BENJAMIN CHEE wonders how Disney really intended to animate Jaromir Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper. (Long story, watch the movie.).

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810: 16.01.2001 Benjamin Chee

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