FANTASIA 2000: Of Flying Whales, Angered Firebirds, and a Duck Named Donald

Fantasia 2000 (1999) – The 38th Walt Disney Animation Feature – Directed by Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, Paul & Gaetan Brizzi, and Don Hahn – Starring James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Deems Taylor, Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, and Angela Lansbury.

Sixty years may be a long time to wait for a sequel, but FANTASIA 2000 has taken full advantage of the interim to deliver a film that is every bit as beautiful relative to its time and far more enjoyable. FANTASIA 2000 is tighter, more focused, more reliant on narrative, and far more playful. While F2000 retains the live-action orchestra for the interstitial segments between the animated sequences, inviting us to still think of F2000 as a night out at the theater, there’s a looser, more upbeat tone to this film. The vibe is reminiscent of July 4th celebrations, where you still have an orchestra playing classical pieces, but there’s greater emphasis on having a good time.

F2000 still has some serious pieces, including the final sequence, “Firebird Suite,” which is as beautiful a piece of filmmaking as you’ll find anywhere, but it’s telling that the one sequence from Fantasia that’s inserted in F2000 is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Sure, “Apprentice” gets the spot because it’s a Mickey Mouse vehicle, but it’s also closer in tone and style to what F2000 does than any other piece in Fantasia.

There are other connections, of course. “Firebird Suite” is reminiscent of both “Rite of Spring” and “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria,” taking “Rite’s” evolving wilderness and matching it with “Bald Mountain’s” supernaturalism and demonic villainy, and “Maria’s” victory over the forces of darkness.

As with Fantasia, I’ll take these one at a time.

1. Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5

The most forgettable piece of the film, “Number 5″ does the whole abstract pattern thing. It’s not boring, and its willingness to switch up styles and colors keeps it continually fresh, but if there were one piece I could do without, this would be it.

2. Pines of Rome

“Pines” is one of the sequences that will make you wish you had a bigger television. Stunningly gorgeous, “Pines” features humpback whales emerging from the ocean to swim through the air thanks to a cosmic burst. Like Fantasia’s “Rite of Spring” (the one with dinosaurs), “Pines” offers a largely realistic animal, but unlike “Rite,” “Pines” takes that realistic whale and inserts it into a romantic story.

“Pines” not only offers the grandeur of magnificent animals moving across a gorgeous nighttime backdrop, but infuses the sequence with plenty of fun through a baby humpback, who revels in his newfound powers of flight and then has a stand-alone sequence swimming beneath an iceberg.

3. Rhapsody in Blue

Hey, look, people! Real, actual people! Focusing on a small cast of characters (a steelworker, an unemployed fat guy, a little girl misfit, and a wealthy fatcat), “Rhapsody” is drawn in the style of cartoonist Al Hirshfeld and soaked in shades of blue. They have various issues to resolve – the steelworker wants to play music instead of working, the fat guy just wants a job, the girl is looking for a place to fit in (or rather, her mother is looking for a place where she’ll fit in), and the fatcat has a wife with expensive tastes. The stories interconnect as the sequence progresses and it’s a successful offering if not a showstopper.

4. The Steadfast Tin Soldier

A total narrative piece featuring toys that come to life at night. There’s a one-legged toy soldier who falls in love with a ballerina which draws the consternation of an evil Jack in the Box. “Tin Soldier” feels very much like a Pixar piece – the set-up is Toy Story and there’s a Finding Nemo-esque detour into the ocean, and everything is set in motion through emotional want and rejection.

It really is a great sequence, but it’s probably only the fourth best sequence in the film (and I’m not even counting “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in that ranking) which might very well make it play even better with subsequent viewings.

5. The Carnival of Animals

The shortest of all Fantasia sequences at around two minutes in length, we get a fun, up-tempo story of an oddball flamingo with a yo-yo and a disapproving flock.

6. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

It’s a fantastic sequence but I don’t know if I’d have included it. F2000 is roughly half the size of the original and I would have preferred a newer sequence than a repeat. The only really great thing about it’s inclusion is that you’ll get to automatically re-watch it when you re-watch F2000. Which you will, because unlike Fantasia, the sequel is well worth popping into the DVD player to watch from start to finish. Where Fantasia is worth appreciating, F2000 is better engaging.

7. Pomp and Circumstance

That a sequence depicting Donald Duck as first mate on Noah’s Ark has plenty of comedy isn’t surprising, but it is a bit of a surprise at how well “Pomp” pulls on the ol’ heartstrings. Donald is put in charge of getting all the animals onto the Ark, but in the process he thinks Daisy fails to get on board. Daisy, in turn, thinks Donald is lost to the rising waters and they spend the journey narrowly missing each other. Their long, forlorn looks at the other animal lovers and eventual reunion are genuinely touching. A thoroughly satisfying, fantastic sequence.

8. Firebird Suite – 1919 Version

My favorite of all Fantasia sequences, “Firebird” is a masterpiece of animation. While the story is simple, the execution is breathtaking. An elk awakens a nature sprite after a winter’s slumber, and the sprite (rendered in beautiful greens set against the brown and grey of the lifeless forest and mountain) awakens the natural flora, bringing the greens of wilderness back to life. In the process, she accidentally awakens the Firebird at the top of the mountain and he destroys the forest and (seemingly) the sprite in a volcanic blast.

Awoken again by a breath of life from the elk, the depressed, sullen sprite is encouraged to try again, which she does with spiritual grace and joy. The sequence deftly uses movement to push and pull and slam on the brakes to punctuate the emotional haymakers. “Firebird” is reminiscent of the closing to Fantasia, but there is more joy and beauty here to balance out the darkness; where Fantasia ended with an elegiac tone, F2000 ends joyful and renewed.

FANTASIA 2000 is a superb, engaging, unique film. This was the first time I’d seen the movie, but it’s already earned among my all-time favorites.

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