'Fantasia/2000' Recalls Past, Both Good and Bad
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2000
I can still remember that school trip to see Walt Disney's "Fantasia."
Walt Disney updates the 1940 classic with new musical pieces.
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
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
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
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.