November 29, 2010
It seems amazing now but in the late 1930s Mickey Mouse’s popularity was waning. Donald Duck was proving to be more popular with movie-going audiences. However, Mickey was Walt Disney’s favourite character and he devised a special short film that would revitalize his popularity. It was to be an adaptation of Goethe’s poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” In terms of running length, colour styling, pacing and layout, character animation, and effects animation, it was shaping up to be Disney’s most ambitious project to date. As the cost went up, Disney realized that it would never make a profit as a short and decided to expand it into a concert feature with several animated sequences, including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Fantasia was released in 1940 and became the studio’s first high profile box office failure but its reputation grew over the years, even being rediscovered in the 1960s as a psychedelic “trip” movie, and is now regarded as a cinematic classic.
Disney saw Fantasia as an experimental film and this is evident from the first segment which features the Philadelphia Orchestra playing “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” to images that don’t tell a story but rather complement the music. Next up, is the Nutcracker Suite where a group of colourful pixies bring a nature setting vividly to life. The use of colour in this segment is astounding. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the film’s centerpiece and features Mickey Mouse as a hapless assistant to a powerful sorcerer. Charged with cleaning up the place, Mickey uses a bit of magic to make his job easier but with disastrous consequences.
The Rite of Spring is a brilliant, animated depiction of the creation of life on Earth as theorized by science. We see our planet in its infancy on up through the dinosaur age and the demise of these creatures. The Pastoral Symphony features Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” and is given a mythological makeover thanks to the Greeks. This segment includes all of their significant god and goddesses. We also get a herd of playful baby unicorns frolicking with young centaurs in this fascinating portion. Dance of the Hours depicts the passage of time through a ballet where animals such as ostriches and most notably a hippo are the dancers. Finally, Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria closes out the film. The former features the Devil and his minions celebrating but this eventually gives way to the hopefulness of the latter. The nightmarish imagery of the first part is very evocatively depicted.
Taking up where the last one left off in 1940, Fantasia 2000 (1999) sees Disney once again breaking free from the constraints of their past decade of high quality, yet formulaic animated films to produce a truly experimental cinematic experience. Always conceived of as a work in progress, Fantasia 2000 pushes the envelope not only in terms of content and style (often dispensing with narrative altogether and using state of the art animation techniques as well as established, older ones), but in the realm of technology by creating an animated film exclusively for IMAX movie theaters. This is truly an amazing accomplishment when you realize that making any film, let alone an animated one on the specialized IMAX cameras (where the film stock is many times larger than normal 35mm and is very expensive to use) is an impressive achievement in and of itself.
This new Fantasia film is divided into eight segments, each introduced by a variety of entertainers (ranging from music producer Quincy Jones to magicians Penn and Teller) and with only one remaining from the original (the immensely popular The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) film. These segments range from the abstract, almost M.C. Escher-like The Rite of Spring, to a dazzling interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Each segment is accompanied by beautifully orchestrated classical pieces of music as performed by the London Philharmonic.
Out of all the segments in Fantasia 2000, the highlight for me was Rhapsody in Blue, a jazzy Gershwin tune that accompanies a day in the life of 1940s New York City and done in the style of famous caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The music perfectly complements and matches not only the style of animation but the action that is taking place as well. Besides being a marvel of technique, this sequence is a lot of fun to watch as we follow all sorts of characters (from a bratty little rich girl to a construction worker to an unemployed man) through their day. The marriage of Gershwin and Hirschfeld invokes the quintessential New York City mood as both artists were tied so closely to this city. The mixing of their respective art forms in this segment is nothing short of perfect and is a real joy to behold.
Fantasia 2000 is a fascinating experience for anyone who cares deeply about animation. While the non-narrative segments may not appeal to small children, there are two segments that feature Disney favourites, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, which they should love. However, like the best Disney animated films, Fantasia 2000 has universal appeal while still adhering to the original’s mandate to push the envelope technically and artistically. Hopefully, Disney will not wait another 60 years to produce another Fantasia film for us to enjoy.
A fantastic box set entitled, The Fantasia Anthology was released in 2000 to celebrate the first film’s 60th anniversary and contained a wealth of extra material. Sadly, most of it has not been carried over to this new version. What you do get is a newly restored transfer of both films and they have never looked or sounded better. Included from the previous box set is the commentary hosted by John Canemaker and the one by Roy Disney, James Levin, Canemaker and Scott MacQueen. Both are jam-packed with factoids and anecdotal information. New to this set is a commentary by Disney historian Brian Sibley.
Other new extras include “The Schultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure,” a 14-minute featurette about the previously lost production notes for Fantasia and that sheds fascinating insight into the technical aspects of this film, an interactive Art Gallery, a feature-length documentary entitled, “Dali & Disney.” Making its debut on Blu-Ray is the 2003 animated short film Destino, which was a collaboration between Walt Disney and surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
For Fantasia 2000, included are the commentaries from the previous box set with a new extra entitled, “Musicana – Walt’s Inspiration for a Sequel to Fantasia”.