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Review: 'Fantasia/2000' a second movement to Disney symphony

January 4, 2000
Web posted at: 2:40 p.m. EST (1940 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- When Walt Disney released his ambitious animated feature "Fantasia" back in 1940, it got a warm if not overwhelmingly positive reception from the American public. But over the years, enthusiastic critics and pharmaceutically amped-up animation connoisseurs have elevated the movie to the level of high art.

Disney has been responsible for a motherlode of features that are every bit as exciting to watch as "Fantasia." They're also one-fifth as pretentious. It's the pretentiousness that makes everyone shout masterpiece over "Fantasia" as a whole.

Large chunks of it are undeniably thrilling -- and a couple of sequences are outright classics -- but when all is said and done, it's basically "Bambi" for snobs. And dinosaurs didn't fall extinct due to starvation, regardless of what Uncle Walt would like you to believe.

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When "Fantasia" was conceived, Disney hoped that the film would be re-released every few years, with new sequences and select older ones creating a work-in-progress omnibus. For whatever reasons, that hasn't happened until now.

Disney's brother, Roy, brings us "Fantasia/2000," the next step in the evolution of Walt's original film. Of course, we're living in the future these days, not the rinky-dink 20th century, so "Fantasia/2000" comes to us in the giant IMAX format, with glorious, boom-boom-booming sound.

And there's the rub.

By now, most motion pictures are designed as sensory overload performance pieces, not as emotionally evocative stories. That half the movie ads you see in the paper these days contain the words "non-stop roller coaster ride" means that visual spectacles aren't a shoo-in to impress people the way they did 60 years ago.

"Fantasia" was groundbreaking in 1940 because people had never seen anything like it. "Fantasia/2000" is groundbreaking because it's animated and the film it's photographed on is really, really wide. Otherwise, the mind-bending nature of the original experience is only sporadically present. Sadly, effects-laden jackhammers like "Jurassic Park" (1993) and "Armageddon" (1998) have blunted Disney's ability to overwhelm us.

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In keeping with Walt's wishes, Mickey Mouse's turn as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" has been included in "Fantasia/2000." The sequence obviously isn't meant to be projected against what amounts to the side of a building, but it's still one of the wittiest, most inventive slices of animation that you'll ever gape at. Its images just aren't as vibrant as they could be, given the inherent limitations of the original production.

The rest of the new film's sequences are state-of-the art exercises that run the gamut from staggering to relatively tiresome.

The structure is the same, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra making appearances between pieces of music. But this time we get so-so celebrity introductions from Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury.

Far-and-away the best sequence comes first, a surrealistic journey with an army of flying whales that glides out of the water and through the sky to the strains of Respighi's "Pines of Rome." Yes, it's rather kitschy, but it's a dazzling vision, with whales gliding above and below the clouds, swirling and dipping as we drop down among them. (As critic Pauline Kael correctly pointed out several years ago, kitschiness didn't stop Disney's animators the first time around either.) The IMAX image places you right in the middle of the trip. This particular experience is more than worthy of the first film's memory.

The only other sequence that reaches that high a level of invention is the final one, an ecological fairy tale that attaches images to Stravinsky's "The Firebird." In it, an elk and a woodland sprite do magical battle with a monster who lives in a volcano and decimates the forest around his fiery homestead. Swooping and gliding are something of a theme in "Fantasia/2000," and the liquid-like sprite gives those over-achieving whales a run for their money -- if, in fact, whales carry money. The shift from utter devastation to re-vegetation is remarkable, and you can't beat Stravinsky for a sense of drama.

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The rest is a mixed bag. An energized "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence is based on the drawings of showbiz caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The bouncing, busy representation of a day in the life of New York City is amusing (and features a cameo by Hirschfeld's version of George Gershwin), but it's highly reminiscent of city-based Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1950s. The main problem, however, is that Hirschfeld's line-drawing style doesn't really hold the screen. The high level of invention is muted by an intrinsic lack of physical power.

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" (guided by Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto) features a lovely toy ballerina, but it's a dark, somewhat unexciting visualization of the story.

The segment set to Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" features a team of brightly-illustrated flamingoes cavorting through the glades while one of them secretly plays with a yo-yo. It's over way too soon. This piece's style amplifies the 1950s flash of the Gershwin sequence, but the color scheme is much stronger.

The bottom rung of the new sequences is occupied by a clunky retelling of the story of Noah that features Donald and Daisy Duck as occupants of the ark. The music is a poorly arranged version of "Pomp and Circumstance" that eventually blares the pomp to ridiculous levels. This is everyday Disney fodder that neither benefits from the new technology nor rises above its own cutesy nonsense. It ends not with an IMAX bang, but with a waddle.


There's nothing too scary for children in "Fantasia/2000," except that -- get this -- Teller pulls out a hatchet and chops off his own hand during the Penn and Teller segment! Honest, he does. It's quickly revealed to be a harmless joke, but Walt would not be amused. Rated G. 73 minutes.



RELATED STORIES:
'Fantasia/2000': Fanning new flames of fond filmmaking
December 31, 1999
'Fantasia/2000': Carnegie and beyond
December 20, 1999

RELATED SITES:
Disney
Official 'Fantasia/2000' site
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