Wednesday, December 3, 2014

FANTASIA 2000 (2000)

RELEASE DATE: Saturday 1st January 2000

60 years is a very long time. I'm pretty sure there's only one case in all of Hollywood's history where it took 60 years for a film to get a sequel. Of course, it wasn't Walt's intention for it to take this long. He was hoping that Fantasia would be an ongoing release, with a new installment reaching audiences every few years. Due to the financial failure of the first film, that never happened.

The driving force behind the resurrection of Fantasia was Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew. In the early 1990s he worked closely with conductor James Levine to compile and arrange a whole new collection of classical music that would allow the animators' imaginations to fly free. One segment from the original movie, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, would make a reappearance. Originally The Nutcracker Suite was also scheduled to feature a second time, but it was ultimately cut to save on running time. (The film is substantially shorter than the original, clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, compared to the 124 minutes of the first film)

Development on a number of segments continued throughout the 1990s. While Pixar was wowing the world with the first full-length computer animated feature with Toy Story, Disney was secretly producing its own C.G.I. movies with both "Pines of Rome" and "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" featuring heavy use of computer animation for their characters. There was never a dedicated team that worked for years to create every segment. Artists would be grabbed while they were in between movies and put to work on some segment or other. Hence, Fantasia 2000 actually took about a decade to complete.

Originally intended to be released in the mid-90s, various delays changed the original title "Fantasia Continued" to "Fantasia '99," and ultimately "Fantasia 2000." The final piece to be completed, "Rhapsody In Blue," was put into production so as to give the animators something constructive to do while their current project "Kingdom of the Sun" was put on hiatus while it went through some major story redesigns. (More on that in the near future!)
Sadly, this labour of love, this artistic masterpiece, was not embraced by the public. Like the original Fantasia, it simply did not appeal to the masses. Its initial release was in IMAX theatres, although it was given a regular cinema season some months later. By the end of its theatrical run it would go down in history as one of Disney's biggest box-office bombs, a heartbreaking piece of news for Roy E. Disney who poured his heart and soul into the production. Like Walt's original 1940 experiment though, its legacy continues on. Critics praised the movie and it has become a favourite of many people in the past decade, myself included.

The in-between segments of Fantasia 2000 take place on an imaginary orchestral stage floating through space. Even the design of this set piece is wonderfully artistic and imaginitive.

SEGMENT ONE: Symphony No.5 in C-Minor (Beethoven)
 Following the template of the original film, we begin with a segment of "absolute music," music that doesn't tell any kind of story, simply existing for its own sake. Likewise, the visuals are mainly shapes and colours that the music evokes.

IRVYNE: I think this is a really clever choice to start with. On the one hand, they wanted to honour the original by starting with an abstract piece, but they picked a really interesting - and well known - piece of music to accompany it.

PASCAL: It's not quite as abstract as Toccata and Fugue was. The pictures match the music more.

SHENZI: There's a part in there, where the shapes gave me the impression of the inside of a piano.

IRVYNE: I hadn't noticed that. But that's great! That means it's interpretive art.

MALEFICENT: And the Dorito-bird didn't die! Hooray!

SEGMENT TWO: Pines of Rome (Respighi)
 This is a classic example of the Disney artists letting their imagination go absolutely wild. As the Northern Lights blaze overhead, a family of humpback whales rise up out of the water and begin to fly gracefully through the sky. They eventually join up with a whole pod and launch themselves out of the planet's atmosphere.

This was the first piece of music chosen for Fantasia 2000, and the first segment put into production. The whales who make up the main cast are computer-animated, but their eyes are hand-drawn. Since it was created around 1993-1994, before the big C.G. boom, a lot of its creation was a journey of discovery. The artists had to build their own water-simulation program, because nothing previously existed that they could use. (You'll notice all of the splash effects are hand-drawn) The herding software developed for the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King was borrowed to deal with the whales' big crowd scenes, but even then it needed to be adapted to suit.

ANNA: Two words: "What - The??" Flying whales...?

IRVYNE: I love it! I love that it doesn't make any kind of scientific sense. It's like something from a dream.

PASCAL: The baby whale is so cute!

HAKU: I love the way the camera sometimes tilts instead of just panning.

PASCAL: The movement of the whales is really life-like, they did a great job making it look right.

IRVYNE: It looks just like when REAL whales fly through the sky!

WENDY: The baby whale looks pretty cartoony though, it stands out against the others.

PASCAL: But it's really beautiful when they burst out of the atmosphere into space.

IRVYNE: You certainly couldn't say that you've seen anything like this in any other movie before!

HAKU: I really like the mood this film creates with its light and colour in the ice cavern scene.

MALEFICENT: Oh yes, all of the beautiful ice, and the shadows of the parents looking through the wall.

IRVYNE: It can be a little bit slow, but there's so much artistry and imagination in the Pines of Rome segment, I adore it.... And there's not a single pine to be seen!

SEGMENT THREE: Rhapsody In Blue (Gershwin)
The final piece created for Fantasia 2000, this takes George Gershwin's classic jazzy piece and puts it against a story of New Yorkers living out their daily lives. This piece is directed by Eric Goldberg (Pocahontas director and supervising animator on the Genie in Aladdin) and the style is heavily inspired by artist Al Hirschfeld.
This point in Fantasia was originally supposed to be a repeat of The Nutcracker Suite from the original movie, but when Goldberg had got the go-ahead to create his "Rhapsody In Blue" piece, Roy E. Disney took one look at it and said, "That belongs in Fantasia!"
WENDY: I love it. So much.
SHENZI: All the scenes of the riveting remind me of the Donald Duck cartoon.
HAKU: The animation style and the music fit the period perfectly. They work so well together, you could almost imagine that the music was made to fit the animation.
IRVYNE: It's such a brilliant, brilliant piece of music. There was a little bit of hesitation apparently, because it's not strictly "classical" music, but I really can't imagine Fantasia 2000 without it. It's funny, it's clever, and it's even got a cameo by Gershwin himself!
SEGMENT FOUR: Piano Concerto No.2 In F-Major (Shostakovic)
Way back in the 1940s the Disney artists storyboarded a treatment of Hans Christian Andersen's short story "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" with the intention of turning it into a Silly Symphony or Fantasia segment. They could never find the right music to accompany the story though. Once Shostakovic's Piano Concerto was considered, everything seemed to fall into place.
The characters in The Steadfast Tin Soldier are computer rendered so as to give them shiny tin and china textures, while the backgrounds are painted in a traditional fashion. (The glimpses of human characters are also hand-drawn)
Once again, if you weren't aware of the process of Fantasia's creation, you might be mistaken for thinking the music was written for the animation, since the story fits so well with the orchestra. Roy E. Disney said that he felt this segment "nailed" the marriage of visuals and music the best in the whole movie.
PASCAL: I do like this little story. 
WENDY: I can see why they found it difficult to find the right music.
IRVYNE: It's so adorable in the big climax scene where the fierce battle is taking place, the china doll just does her ballet around them.
MALEFICENT: They changed the ending. The two main characters were supposed to burn in the fire. BURN! And then they would melt into a tin heart.
IRVYNE: The problem with that is - apart from being a sad ending - the music ends so triumphantly, it just wouldn't have matched. And they couldn't ask Shostakovic to write them a new ending, he'd been dead for 25 years.
MALEFICENT: I love how shiny and figurine-like they are. Most of the time the visuals match the story really well, but there's one bit - where they're reeling in the nets and collecting the fish - I felt like it wasn't matching the music at all.
IRVYNE: I do love the bit just before that where the soldier falls out of the drain, and it's a really dramatic bit of music. I also love how tightly it all ends.

SEGMENT FIVE: The Carnival of the Animals (Saint-Saëns)
 The fifth and shortest segment in this edition of Fantasia sees a naughty pink flamingo not sticking to the established flamingo way-of-life, and instead having a lot of fun with a yo-yo. The other flamingos are not impressed with this disregard for their uniformity, and try and squash this creative impulse.

This hilarious short cartoon is painted in bright colourful water-colours and perfectly set against the high energy of the Carnival of the Animals piece. The concept was originally conceived in the very early days of Disney, as a follow-up to the "Dance of the Hours" segment of Fantasia, and was supposed to have ostriches playing with yo-yos. They were changed to flamingos because of the wonderful colour opportunities these animals presented! The Carnival of the Animals is short and sweet.

MALEFICENT: I think this is my favourite.

PASCAL: He's so mischievous, I love it!

ANNA: It's almost like synchronised swimming with flamingos. My favourite bit is when he makes a yo-yo-star on the other flamingos.
WENDY: It's great how even when he's forced to conform with everyone else, he still manages to sneak his yo-yo tricks in.

HAKU: The music's so fast, it's like every single frame had to have something interesting in it.

IRVYNE: Yeah, you can watch this a few times and constantly notice new little details. Every little movement that they make is timed with the music. Also notice the background colours and how they dramatically change based on who is in power. It's really clever.


The only returning segment from the original Fantasia. Not much more to add here that we didn't say last time. It's still wonderful. If there was one segment that was worth a repeat viewing, it's this one. Now a whole new generation can witness this marvel of animation from 1940.

SEGMENT SEVEN: Pomp & Circumstance (Elgar)
 Donald Duck's chance to star in his own Fantasia segment! This segment was one of the toughest to conceive. One of the first causes of stress was finding the right parts of Pomp & Circumstance to use so that a story could be told. Pieces were moved, cut and rearranged until they felt it had a good enough flow that they could construct a reasonably interesting plot.

The original concept was that it would be a procession of classic Disney characters all passing by Donald Duck. All of the princesses would march by, followed by all the classic villains. It's an interesting concept, but they could never quite make it work in an interesting way. Then someone came up with the idea of Noah's Ark, and a procession of animals marching on and off the boat. Suddenly the story began to stick and once Donald was cast as Noah's assistant, it all fell into place.

HAKU: If there's one thing I've learned from Disney films, it's that it's okay to tie snakes into knots.

MALEFICENT: This movie makes me a bit teary at the end.

PASCAL: I can't believe they didn't save Mickey and Minnie!

IRVYNE: I'm not sure they exist in this movie's universe... Anyway, once again, there are so many little details in this. I love how Donald and Daisy's house is an egg.

WENDY: Classic moment when he sees the ducks!

IRVYNE: I laughed so hard the first time I saw that gag! Brilliant!

ANNA: I like all the rabbits.

WENDY: Yes! And the dragon, the griffin and the unicorn refusing to get on the ark!

IRVYNE: It's full of quick little sight gags. And it's lovely to look at. They've gone with a really classic Disney look. And they did such a great job in recapturing the mannerisms of Donald. Because you have to remember, Donald hadn't really been animated in years, possibly decades! So the people drawing him had likely never animated him before. They must have spent a lot of time studying all of the old cartoons to make him look just right.

SEGMENT EIGHT: The Firebird Suite (Stravinsky)
Created in Disney's Paris Animation Studio, The Firebird Suite was designed to evoke similar light-and-shade emotions as the first Fantasia's finale, Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria. Inspired by the real-life volcano at Mount Saint-Helens and using the theme of "death and rebirth," this segment shows a sprite of nature who brings life to the forest, with the help of her friend the elk. When a nearby volcano erupts, the firebird is born and destroys everything. Nature never stays dead through. Through the ashes, new life is born and the cycle begins anew.

SHENZI: I love all the different moods with the different colours.

IRVYNE: So... many... particles!

MALEFICENT: It's all very pretty... She cheats though. She's just like, "Oh, a few drops of rain-NOW THERE'S A FOREST!"

IRVYNE: She's a spirit of nature, she can do whatever she wants!

WENDY: She lost hope then got it back again. Leave her be.

MALEFICENT: Bambi helped her.

IRVYNE: That's not a deer, it's an ELK. Sheesh, get it right!

MALEFICENT: Close enough.

IRVYNE: This is my favourite segment in Fantasia 2000. Every frame is stunningly beautiful, and the music is so emotive. It's definitely the right piece to finish the movie on. And I love just turning my head a bit and watching people jump when the firebird's eyes open. So much fun!

While the film has no dialogue (except for the in-between scenes) each segment is filled with fantastic characters, from all of the eclectic New Yorkers in "Rhapsody In Blue," through to the hilarious flamingos, the always-funny Donald Duck, and the nature sprite and elk in "The Firebird." There is a much stronger sense of character and story than there was in the original Fantasia.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and in so many different styles! Even though each segment was created by different people at different times, it all comes together in a fantastic compilation of art. There isn't a wasted frame in this film.

It must have been really tough to not only come up with a list of classics that could be animated effectively, but to edit them to the right length as well. When Roy E. Disney first approached conductor James Levine about working on the new Fantasia, he suggested a three-minute version of Beethoven's 5th. Levine apparently thought about it for a minute and then said, "It could work if it was the RIGHT three minutes."

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra are in top-form on this soundtrack, and if you listen to the film's audio commentary, Levine discusses the lengths they would go to achieve perfection. He did a number of takes during The Pines of Rome simply because he didn't feel that his musicians were quite reaching the emotion needed in the ice cave scene. He kept working them until they got it sounding just right. There's a lot more to playing in an orchestra than just hitting the right notes!

Although I adore both movies, I feel that Fantasia 2000 is more likely to stand the test of time, simply because it was consciously made to be more palatable to the common man. It's shorter in length, it's got a much stronger sense of character, and it's full of wonderful music. In my mind, it is one of Disney's greatest achievements. Most people consider the Disney Renaissance to have concluded with Tarzan, because Fantasia 2000 and the animated films following it did so poorly at the box office. But from an artistic standpoint, Fantasia 2000 is definitely a part of Disney's era of brilliance!

IRVYNE: So how do we rate Fantasia 2000 overall?


WENDY: So much better than the first one!

HAKU: It's not as bloated.

IRVYNE: Well, it's about half the length! But I see what you mean: it doesn't have any of the parts like Ave Maria or The Rite of Spring where you're spending minutes at a time looking at not-much.

SHENZI: It's better than I remembered it.

IRVYNE: I think it's so fantastic that the art styles of each piece are as eclectic as the music. No two segments look anything like any of the others.

WENDY: I like that they have the different celebrities introducing each piece. It keeps it interesting.

MALEFICENT: Well I do feel like it's dumbed down a bit from the original. They wanted to appeal to a more mainstream audience, so they shortened the length, got famous people to introduce it, and kept it fast.

WENDY: It is Disney though, it's supposed to be able to appeal to children, not just art critics.

IRVYNE: I have seen Fantasia 2000 so many times now, but I don't think I can ever get sick of watching it. It's one of those very, very unfortunate situations where a masterpiece of cinema performed absolutely woefully at the box-office. The follow-up, Fantasia 2006, had already been put into production, but when the men-in-suits saw how tiny the audience for these movies actually was, they shut it down immediately. If we ever do get another Fantasia movie, it won't be for a long time.

HAKU: I suppose a film featuring classical music is never going to appeal to the mass-market. Look at symphony orchestra concerts: they cater to a very specific niche market.

IRVYNE: Yeah, I agree with that. But I suppose the hope for this film, and for the first one for that matter, was that it might break down that barrier and bring classical music to the masses. But history has spoken, it didn't happen. Luckily we still have two fantastic movies where imaginative animated artwork accompanies beautiful music in a unique way, and they'll be a part of the Disney world forever more.

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