Anyone who’s followed Doug Walker knows his favorite Disney animated film is the original Fantasia. He’s touched on this at least two times between his Top 20 favorite films and last year’s Disneycember. As a kid, Fantasia was almost this silent horse figure to me. I’d watch it repeatedly–much like the original Star Wars films, but it never really crept up in discussion with others. But hey, not all dark secrets need to remain locked away, just like my virginity. Disney have protected me well.
One of the few Disney films I haven’t seen (or hadn’t, as of this post) is Fantasia 2000, which came out around that sour transitioning period from elementary to middle school for me. Since then my interest in the movie catapulted, especially when I saw bits and pieces of the grander parts. And since I was in the middle of a walk to my nearby BlockBuster (yes, we still have one here) I decided to treat myself to a double feature of both Fantasia films.
Heading in, I feel like the proper way to tackle these films is to talk about each segment individually since that’s essentially what these films are. Admittedly they’re both achieving similar results by attempting to create an experience of sound and visual, but when you look back on these movies, you think of them in bits and chunks. I’ll simply have to make them slightly more interesting than your generic track-by-track review off of Amazon.
So first up we have the original Fantasia which, believe it or not, is over 70 years old now. And the film still looks great to this day, outdoing several contemporary releases from more than just artistic and visual standpoints. It was supposed to mark a new direction for Disney, but fell short of being a monumental enough hit; kind of the same way The Dark Knight Rises’ box office isn’t big enough since it was outdone by The Avengers. Because as we all know, the inferior crap earns the most money. But I digress.
Fantasia opens with the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, gradually transitioning from the choir to colors, shapes, patterns and the like meant to compliment the music. This is just a wonderful and vibrant combination of sound and visual with the music being passionately represented by what are often abstractions. It’s a piece that sticks with you well after even one viewing. I’d also say it’s one of the film’s most memorable selections, simply because it embodies what I think the film is really about: Music and visuals expressing and complimenting each other.
The opening of the Nutcracker Suite has become synonymous with Christmas, so it’s only fitting that the collection of pieces included depict the changing seasons. This is where hints of a story come into play, but it’s less about a story and more this barely cohesive guideline. It works for telling something but never gets in the way of the overall experience. Like the weather and seasons, you’re picked up and swept away as the music sways through the peaceful and upbeat sections. Besides, how can your attention not be caught after seeing mushrooms and flowers moving around just a notch shy of salsa dancing?
By now The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has become THE piece most would synonymize (yes, I made that up) with Fantasia. I mean, you’ve got the titular character of said piece on the cover of the film’s box art, what else is there to say? This is also where the film finally tells a definite story, one that, upon recent viewing, I’ve elected to refer to as “Moses after officially taking up sorcery.” Maybe Mickey was somehow born from Moses, maybe he was just adopted. Either way, this remains an enjoyable, charismatic scene that, like the previous two segments, sticks with you. Whether that’s because it’s most frequently used when referencing the film or the fact it’s a good piece I leave for you to decide.
The longest individual segment from the film, Rite of Spring, has always stood out to me. A key part of it was definitely the dinosaurs, something I was obsessed with as a kid. Seeing it now I have to say the music used is quite dark, which the visuals have a tendency to compliment, especially during the opening half with smoke coming up to indicate lapses in time. There are other parts like the T-Rex, the drought, volcanoes erupting and terrain shifting which build to make an enthralling 15 minutes. In some ways I’d argue this as my favorite part from the film because it’s always the one that draws me in the most. And go figure with the dark engagement, since it’s followed up by…
The intermission, also where we “meet the soundtrack,” which provides a brief demonstration of a few instruments in a bit of a visualizer style. It’s entertaining and gives us a nice idea of what some of the individual selections of instruments are like, but is strictly what it’s labeled as: an intermission.
Afterwards we move to a far more colorful and upbeat piece with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, something I’d prefer to call “a more fulfilling film than Hercules could ever muster to.” Much of what we get here can be disputed as silly and certainly romantic, but my guess is that’s in keeping with Greek tales (please don’t hurt me, hardcore scholars). I think it’s a good piece overall, especially with the centaurs and cupids, but I’d be lying if I said it was very engaging.
Then we get Dance of the Hours, which is supposed to provide stretches that apparently represent the times of the day, but I probably wouldn’t draw that reference were it not pointed out. Of all the pieces between both Fantasia movies, this one is probably my least favorite, since hippos and elephants dancing is less fascinating and more…odd. I’m all for ballet style too, it’s a key reason Black Swan worked–not as good as it should’ve, but that’s another debate–it’s just this isn’t a piece to really grab you and, even with a reasonable runtime, it simply drags.
Thankfully, the film’s closing is far more rewarding with a return to the darker and more engrossing Night on Bald Mountain, followed by the wonderfully calming Ave Maria. Apparently the two were picked because they’re so different from one another, but I always found the transition from one to the other to be very seamless. Rampaging and viscous darkness succeeded by an almost brooding calm that builds to something faintly triumphant is such a wonderful combination which only does one thing for the entire film: Complete it.
This brings us to Fantasia 2000, a surprisingly shorter but expectedly interesting sequel that, in most respects, lives up to the standards set by its predecessor. One area I’ll admit that the film loses points is with the cameos from celebrities, which make my attempts at wit and satire look about as successful as a George Carlin stand-up performance. Set that aside and we have a real treat of a film that consistently delivers what it should, especially given the fact it’s a more modern film.
So what better way to kick things off than with Beethoven’s renowned Symphony No. 5, which does a fantastic job assuring us the visuals will be terrific and do well to accompany the music. There are points here and in the other pieces that don’t seem to take advantage of a few sways in the music, but they’re minor distractions at worst. Admittedly, however, the intent for this opening to simply depict abstractions is quickly disproved since we’re given some sort of a narrative, even thematically. But this remains a solid opening and serves to foreshadow the inevitability that I’d never reach anything remotely close to this film’s artistic prowess.
Pines of Rome has become a favorite for many people, which is very easy to see and understand. I’ll admit the eyes on the whales are a bit distracting, but otherwise it’s a great segment which builds to one fantastic climax sure to get your jaw stuck on the floor. This is definitely a segment to watch and feast on Blu-ray.
Rhapsody in Blue is in the running for my favorite piece from the film since it rings with today’s troubled times while paying homage to the 30’s and 40’s. The art style here is phenomenal and a rare treat when most animation nowadays is either the standard 2D style that Disney became synonymous with or the highly detailed 3D courtesy of Pixar. It’s a bit on the long side, but the connections made between characters pulls you and grips you surprisingly well, especially for an almost comedic piece. From the get go with the outline of the buildings I knew this was going to be a great segment and it did not disappoint in the least bit.
As is Disney tradition, their adaptation of The Steadfast Tin Soldier alters things in a way that gives audiences young and old the most accurate depiction: That all obstacles have a totally happy ending. Like the Pines of Rome, there’s a 3D-esque look to this piece that almost makes it seem transcendental for Disney, especially for the time. The plotline is a bit out of touch, but the core story is easy to get behind. As a bit of a side note, since I only just saw the film recently, this piece immediately reminded me of Hugo with Sacha Baron Cohen’s character. Thankfully, that was one of my favorite parts of that film, so it helped to strike a chord with me. Definitely not the strongest part of the movie or the most memorable, but it’s not totally forgettable, unlike Dance of Hours (fortunately).
Easily the most infamous musical part of Fantasia 2000 is The Carnival of the Animals, sparked by the question “what would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingoes?” I think the real question to ask was given courtesy of James Earl Jones (“who wrote this?”). Despite its reputation, I don’t mind the piece at all. In fact, I rather enjoy it since A, it’s fun and upbeat and 2, it’s short and harmless. Is it the worst piece of the entire film (outside of the cameos)? Probably, but that’s like saying Peanut Butter M&M’s aren’t as good as Reese Pieces.
Cue a retread of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and we move on to Pomp and Circumstance, which might as well be called “Noah’s Graduation Ceremony.” A tired joke perhaps, but it is easy to think about some sort of graduation when the animals board the ark. Given that our key player here is Donald Duck, you can tell it’s going to be a less serious film. Also, did anyone else see the piece as a big throwback to An American Tail with Donald narrowly missing his love over and over? If there’s any piece that I’d argue the animation as being less than impressive, I’d probably point to this one. That said, there’s some fun slapstick humor to be had and it did get a few decent laughs out of me, which is something we can all use more of.
And we wrap things up with the Firebird Suite, which I hotly anticipated (pun not intend) after each piece ended. As viewers of the film know, this is some of Disney’s best animation, easily holding up over a decade later. The story and use of color here is top notch, surpassed only in scope by Pines of Rome and rivaled in emotion only by Rhapsody in Blue. I actually took a Nature Writing course (no, I’m not a hippie) in college and one article I read was that controlled forest fires are actually necessary and beneficial for tree and plant life since it essentially rejuvenates them in the long run. This might not necessarily be the message of the piece, but it’s some good food for thought; especially so when you take the message of becoming bigger, better and stronger after things have hit their worst. It’s a terrific tale of recovery and a definite contender for the Top 5 pieces between both Fantasia films. And most importantly, we get another solid conclusion to a very worthwhile release.