Seventy years ago, Walt Disney released Fantasia, an ambitious animated project that represented an even more ambitious idea. Rather than a static motion picture, Fantasia was originally conceived as a repertoire, a selection of presentations that over time could be augmented by new pieces while old ones were retired, like an orchestra rotating its concert lineup. It was a high-minded extension of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” shorts, and in those heady days, only a few years after the great triumph of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, anything seemed possible.
Alas, Fantasia was a picture ahead of its time—and, when the times finally caught up with it, the moment had passed. Fantasia was not a hit in 1940, although it acquired new cache in the 1950s as an educational film and in the 1960s as a psychedelic experience. Today it is justly reckoned among Disney’s great early masterpieces, along with Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi. In 1995 it was honored by inclusion among the 45 films of the Vatican film list, in the 15 films of the “Art” category.
About ten years ago, amid the wreckage at the end of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, the Disney studio marked Fantasia’s 60th anniversary with Fantasia 2000, a film intended to honor in a way the original repertory conception of Fantasia. It retains one piece from the original, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; the other pieces are all new, with various resonances with pieces in the original film.
Although Fantasia 2000 isn’t entirely without interest, the juxtaposition of the two films serves largely to underscore the now-untouchable achievement of the original. Fantasia is one triumph after another, from the abstract colors and shapes of “Toccata and Fugue” to the demons of “Bald Mountain” succumbing to the light of the “Ave Maria.” Only two sequences from the newer film come close to touching anything in the original: Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” with its flying humpback whales, and Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” a mythic depiction of death and rebirth in the natural world on the slopes of a volcano.
Why do the other sequences in Fantasia 2000 fall short? Partly it’s a more limited scope of imagination. With Fantasia, the canvas is always epic and spectacular in scale, with larger-than-life wonders everywhere you turn; it’s like the Sistine Chapel of Disney animation. Fantasia 2000, by contrast, often lapses into more pedestrian thinking. Literally pedestrian in the case of “Rhapsody in Blue,” with its whimsical New York stories.
Not that pedestrian is necessarily bad. “Rhapsody”’s simplistic line animation, inspired by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, is reminiscent of a 1960s Disney short, which isn’t a bad thing. It just doesn’t feel like something that belongs in Fantasia, any more than a Hirschfeld line drawing belongs in the Sistine Chapel.
More dismally, the yo-yoing flamingos from Saint-Saën’s “Carnival of the Animals” come off like colorful but not-ready-for-prime-time players cut from the original’s “Dance of the Hours.” (Indeed, the live-action intro unwisely makes this connection by showing hippo sketches from “Dance of the Hours.”) This is perhaps the film’s lowest point, mitigated only by its brevity.
Then there’s the pairing of Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”—a toy story that feels like an imitation Pixar short, intimate and small-scale rather than grandly spectacular. (The original’s “Nutcracker Suite,” with its fairies, fish and flowers, was also on a miniature scale physically, but thematically and culturally sweeping, tracking the cycle of seasons and staging the Chinese, Arabian and Cossack dances.)
Another general weakness in the newer film is its aversion to “pure” imagery, to imagery without narrative. The original made a point of interpreting “pure music” like the opening piece, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue,” with abstract imagery—shapes and masses of color and light. In other pieces, from the “Nutcracker Suite” to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” with its riot of classical mythology, there’s action to follow, but not necessarily a “story” as such.
Fantasia 2000 opens with a selection from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but the abstract geometrical shapes quickly resolve into a quasi-narrative depicting colorful butterflies fleeing dark batlike pursuers. (The butterflies-and-bats motif may recall the magical pyrotechnics from the opening of the original’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Pretty much any time we think of the original while watching the sequel, it detracts from the sequel.) Even the surreal flying whales are given more of a narrative than they needed: According to Wikipedia, their flying is connected to a supernova. Did we really need an origin story for flying whales?
Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” a Noah’s Ark story starring Donald Duck, suffers particularly for comparison to two sequences from the original. On the one hand, the presence of a classic Disney character invites comparison to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” perhaps Mickey Mouse’s finest moment. On the other, the biblical theme evokes the original’s “Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” sequence.
Alas, “Pomp and Circumstance” is hardly a distinguished addition to Donald Duck’s résumé. The animation is lavish but uninspired, without the atmosphere and sharp direction of, say, the prologue to The Lion King (another solemn procession of animals set to music). The animators have some fun with the cavernous spaces of the ark, and I’m glad there’s at least an effort at a nod in the direction of Judeo-Christian cultural heritage—though the music is wholly secular where the original used a sacred piece, and the bare outline of the flood story as it’s used here is essentially nonreligious. This doesn’t leave much, and the result is lackluster in nearly every way, and not at all helped by a subplot in which Donald and Daisy each think the other has been left behind.
Where the original Fantasia saved its Judeo-Christian heft for the final act, in the sequel it’s merely the warm-up for a rather pagan finale, the conspicuously anime-inflected “Firebird Suite,” with a green sprite/goddess of spring (a more mythically potent cousin of the spring fairies from the “Nutcracker Suite”) bringing new life to the slopes of a volcano before accidentally awakening the rampaging, fiery demon of destruction that inhabits the volcano.
Perched on the mountaintop, with its batlike lava-wings spread, the volcano spirit is reminiscent of the Lugosi-inspired demon Chernobog from “Bald Mountain”—but this time there are no church bells to send him cringing back to his mountain. And, of course, he isn’t really evil—just destructive. It’s very much a work in a pagan idiom (strikingly reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which Disney distributed around the same time), and its imaginative force easily blows away the vestiges of Judeo-Christian influence in the preceding Noah’s ark story.
Actually, even in the original Fantasia the “Bald Mountain” sequence imaginatively overwhelms the “Ave Maria” finale, which is pious and pretty but lacking in the transcendence and majesty to really pull off the triumph over the forces of darkness.
In fact, the best and most transcendent moment is the initial moment of transition: the peal of the bell, quiet but insistent, and the clear white light that inexorably drives Chernobog and his hellions back into darkness. Like the all-powerful cross in one of Terrence Fisher’s Hammer horrors, the sound of that church bell is infinitely more powerful than all the hosts of hell.
Unfortunately, the animation doesn’t follow through. The “Ave Maria” is still a fine sequence, but there’s a failure of nerve or of inspiration, despite the exalted music, that represents Fantasia’s most notable missed opportunity.
As you would expect, the four-disc Blu-ray/DVD set offers a wealth of extras, and is the edition to get even if you haven't upgraded to Blu-ray yet.
There are multiple audio commentaries of both films: Disney historian Brian Sibley offers a wealth of perspective on the original film, and there's a special commentary track created from interviews and documents from Walt Disney himself. Fantasia 2000 includes a commentary by the directors and art directors of individual segments, and Roy E. Disney and Fantasia 2000 conductor James Levine contribute to commentaries for both films.
Other extras include “Destino,” an extremely bizarre short originally conceived by Walt Disney and Salvadore Dali (no kidding) but finally produced by Roy Disney, and a featurette on the “Schultheis Notebook,” an amazing document amassed by one Herman Schultheis, a Disney employee who meticulously documented the techniques and effects used to create Fantasia.
Among a few Disney films deserving of the title “masterpiece,” Fantasia remains a unique achievement.
If Fantasia failed to spark a hoped-for entertainment revolution, its achievement is all the more starkly singular. A joyous experiment in pure animation, an ambitious work of imaginative power, a showcase of cutting-edge technique, and a celebration of great music, it is without precedent and without rival. I’ve watched it far too many times to count, and I have yet to begin tiring of it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.