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'Fantasia/2000' Recalls Past, Both Good and Bad

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2000


    'Fantasia 2000' Walt Disney updates the 1940 classic with new musical pieces. (Walt Disney)
I can still remember that school trip to see Walt Disney's "Fantasia."

It must have been 1970 or thereabouts. This was a rerelease of the 1940 classic, the first movie to be released in stereophonic sound, which Walt Disney dubbed "Fantasound." (Of course it was a rerelease, I'm not that old.) I guess there were about 400 of us, clamoring, shouting, jostling and pushing our way into the cinema. We were cattle at the culture gate.

The headmaster glared at us like a human thunderhead. Teachers silenced us at every corner, like effete, prim ranch hands. We were finally corralled into our seats, lowing, kicking and scuttling, as we maneuvered to get as close to Claire Gimson – that preteen queen of babehood – as possible.

The lights went down. The projector flickered to life. No one thought of Claire Gimson for two hours.

I recall enjoying the teaming of Ponchielli's "The Dance of the Hours" with dancing alligators and hippopotami, especially the sight gag of those big mamas in tutus. I also remember enjoying Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the one in which Mickey Mouse ignores the commands of his wizard-boss, tells the magic broomstick to carry the water instead of him, falls asleep and wakes up to find the whole place underwater.

And I liked Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain," featuring an alarming satanic creation known as Chernobog on a mountaintop.

But there was something about the pomposity that bothered me. Perhaps it was all those middle-aged, adult musicians in suits and perched behind their instruments, dressed for grand entertainment.

Perhaps it was the idea that conductor Leopold Stokowski and his musicians were here to ennoble the cartoons with the classical likes of Bach, Mussorgsky and Beethoven. I could almost feel the air turbulence as school teachers nodded with academic approval. There was a distinct gust of cultural fascism in the air.

But hey, the music and picture show – even if it dragged on and could have used less ponderous narration – was a feast for the eyes. It was Mr. Walt Disney's dream to have a recurring "Fantasia" series, in which the individual segments would be changed; new classical pieces, new animation. But for various reasons, it never came to pass until now.

Thirty years later, I watched the newest version, "Fantasia/2000," this time without teachers in the background. The result: Then as now, visually pleasant and (of course) musically wonderful but, all-in-all, a mixed bag.

In the movie, featuring James Levine as the main conductor and host, there are some great sequences, some so-so. (The live-action interludes featuring Steve Martin, Quincy Jones, Penn & Teller and others are the weakest moments in the movie.) The only segment left from the original movie is "Sorcerer," in which a newly restored Mickey still thinks he can skip that domestic assignment. Once again, he wakes up to a torrent of water. It's still charming.

In the new sequences:

  • Abstract shapes perform to the familiar sound of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.
  • Whales hover majestically in the skies to Respighi's "The Pines of Rome."
  • New Yorkers, animated in the line and spirit of Al Hirschfeld, experience another frenetic day in the city to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
  • Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" takes on a formidable jack-in-the-box while Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 tinkles in the background.
  • A flamingo falls out of step with its winged compadres upon the discovery of a yo-yo, to Saint-Saens's "Carnival of the Animals."
  • Mickey and composer Paul Dukas return for their encore.
  • Donald Duck rolls up his sleeves to assist Noah and his animals while Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" marches on.
  • A sprite, elk and firebird participate in a birth-death-rebirth drama as Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" brings the movie to a rousing finale. I like Disney's respect for the old-fashioned techniques. The characters in the "Rhapsody in Blue" section harken to that bygone Manhattan of the 1930s era with their linear shapes. The flamingo scene, rendered in watercolor paintings, is wonderfully low-tech. And the "Tin Soldier" piece is a clear nod to the classic fairy-tale Disney films, such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

    Of course, each viewer will have different reactions to different pieces. But the piece that really stands out for me is not old-fashioned at all; it's the computer-generated whale sequence. Humpback whales are suddenly freed from their ice-covered waters by an exploding supernova. They float heavenward, gliding majestically through the "waters" of the sky. The visuals and the choreography are truly stunning, as are the opulent ice and cloud structures (which are partly hand-painted) in the background. Certainly, the classics are worthy of preservation, but there's something so appealing about these whales, it's also clear that animation cannot be held only to its past.

    FANTASIA/2000 (G, 74 minutes) – Contains nothing objectionable, although some visuals (the scary jack-in-a-box) might frighten the very young.


    © Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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