An Animated Dissection: Remembering Fantasia 2000, 15 Years Later
“We all know it’s impossible, to see music…yet many composers have tried to take musical sounds, and give them, a pictorial meaning” – Walt Disney
“Walt’s original idea was that Fantasia would be a continuing work-in-progresss, and Fantasia 2000, is the realization of that dream” – Roy E Disney
The 1930’s was a time of great discoveries and experimentation for Walt Disney, and the men who worked at the Disney Studio. They pioneered character animation, the use of sound and color, and also took a gamble on proving animation could work in a feature-length medium.
In the midst of the experimentation, was Fantasia. What started as just The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Mickey Mouse, soon evolved into “a concert feature,” with numerous classical pieces, and artistic interpretations of that music. Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski would be seen leading an orchestra, as the screen became filled with mythological creatures, abstract images, and much more.
Walt’s gambles had often paid off in the past, but this time around, Fantasia would become one of his first that failed to catch fire. At over 2 hours long, and oftentimes needing a required stereophonic system known as Fantasound, the public did not show lasting interest at the time. Over the years, it’d be clipped down, the narration (by music critic/composer Deems Taylor) taken out, and all sorts of other edits to make the film seem more appealing to audiences.
Even so, Walt still continued to meld music and animation together. Several productions during the 40’s such as Melody Time and Make Mine Music, used an almost similar set-up, though not as classical as Fantasia had been with its segments.
As the years went by, many grew to love Walt’s film folly. In the early 1980’s, an attempt was made to do a Fantasia-style film called Americana. Featuring a mixture of classical and modern music, it would have celebrated music from numerous cultures, but the project was eventually shelved.
One fan of Fantasia for many years, was Walt’s nephew, Roy E Disney. Roy often cited a part of the film’s Dance of the Hours sequence as one of his favorite animated moments. When Fantasia had good success after its 1990 theatrical run and home video release (in 1991), Roy had enough evidence to push CEO Michael Eisner, to give the go-ahead for a new Fantasia.
The film project was continually in the pipeline of Disney’s feature animation division during the 1990’s (and had proposed release dates set for 1996, & 1999 at various points of its production). Roy led the charge, with new segments being made by different creative teams. For filling the role of their conductor, the group recruited composer James Levine, who recommended The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
for the film’s musical tone.
When it came time to decide on returning pieces, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was kept. For a time, The Nutcracker Suite segment was also going to be used (a clip of the segment even made its way into the early trailers), but was replaced with the new Rhapsody in Blue segment, directed by Eric Goldberg.
Originally considered for a 1999 release, the official release date was pushed to coincide with the start of the year 2000. The studio decided to release the film exclusively in IMAX format, in 54 screens across the country, making its release an event somewhat similar to that of the original Fantasia, some 60 years prior.
When it came to Fantasia, I had two experiences seeing it: as a 5-year-old in 1985, and then as a 10-year-old in 1990. I didn’t quite get what the film was about then (most kids were taken on the promise of Mickey alone), but as I grew up, a lot of what they were doing to marry animation and music fascinated me. When it came to considering animation as a career, the film was one of several I cited in the vein of wanting to do something ‘serious’ with animation. Forget making the audience laugh, I wanted to make them feel emotions. I think it also helped expand my mind to the possibilities that animation didn’t always need verbal dialogue.
I can’t say when I knew exactly about a new Fantasia, but I do remember reading little tidbits here and there in some magazines in the mid-90’s. However, the hype machine really started up in 1999. I recall the studio releasing little making-of clips on their website back then, and I’d spent quite a bit of time watching the small Quicktime movies, eager to see what these new segments would entail. As well, once I knew the music that would be playing, I sought out records in my University’s library, and spent some time listening to them, imagining what they’d inspire to the screen.
Being in Iowa, there were only two options for seeing Fantasia 2000 in IMAX near me. Taking the “simpler” of the two, on January 3rd, 2000, I made the 6 hour trek to Apple Valley, MN, in pouring snow. Eventually, I made to the IMAX theater near the Minnesota Zoo.
Being young and rather obsessed with the film, I ended up seeing it 3 times in 2 days. I remember one of the employees was so surprised to see me coming back (I had the ticket stubs to prove it!), that she gave me a discount for the third showing.
My fandom of the film was so great, that when I offered to give information on a piece for the film’s June 18th release in normal theaters, my local newspaper bit. I eagerly gave my opinions and views on the piece, the voice of a ravenous young animation-hopeful coming out. However, my positive attitude failed to help the film much, as when released in normal theaters, Fantasia 2000 failed to ignite with the summer audiences.
As such, I was left alone in Iowa with my fandom for the film, and when the film came out in the 3-disc Fantasia Legacy set that fall, I ordered away for it immediately. Fortunately by then, I had moved from studying graphic design to character animation, and had found like-minded individuals at my new school, that could share in my own feelings for the animated medium.
When it came to the segments included in Fantasia 2000, the film was a mixed bag to say the least.
The original Fantasia was not afraid to go into long pieces, but this film seemed a little uneasy. Instead of 2 hours like the first film, this one clocked in around an hour and 15 minutes.
One segment that I was a huge fan of (before the film was released), was based around Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Steadfast Tin Soldier. combining both computer-generated animation and hand-painted backgrounds, the segment was one that really utilized some great warm and cold coloration to sell the mood of the piece.
Much like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in the first film, director Pixote Hunt combined abstract animation, with a (truncated) version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Of all the pieces, this one really felt like it was hitting all the beats, though it sacrifices a little of the abstracted feel in favor of crafting a simple storyline. Even so, I still love the pastel work in this one.
The husband-and-wife duo of Eric and Susan Goldberg ended up contributing two segments. While the segment about a yoyo-obsessed flamingo was short yet sweet, their Al Hirschfeld-styled segment to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was one of the most talked about segments…and it wasn’t even supposed to be in the film! Even so, the style of seeing the Hirschfeldian “line” brought to animated life definitely had me entertained (and still does!). Probably of all the segments, this is the one I most remember seeming to capture the audience’s attention.
Donald Duck was given his chance to shine in a segment based on Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, but the segment sadly feels like a throwaway vehicle at times. There’s definitely effort there, but I just never got into the story (and needless to say, Elgar’s song has us constantly thinking “graduation ceremony”).
One of the first segments to be completed was of a pod of whales that take flight, to Resphigi’s Pines of Rome. It’s a nice concept, but feels a little limited due to the computer animation having been done in the early 1990’s.
Brothers Paul and Gaetan Brizzi give the new film its Bald Mountain/Ave Maria ending, utilizing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Following a forest sprite as her habitat goes through a major life cycle, the segment is one that really gave the film a high-note ending (I can still hear the pounding of the theater’s bass during part of it). As well, the forest sprite character in the segment, became an unofficial symbol of the film.
Unlike the previous Fantasia, this film adds a celebrity host to introduce each segment. This is where the film almost seems to slow down, and can get a little tiresome. Some host segments that are simple and sweet (like the one featuring Quincy Jones) are nice, but the ones featuring the likes of Steve Martin and Penn & Teller, can get a little too one-note.
While there were some negatives here and there, the film still gets some high marks from me. Given that the concept flew in the face of what a lot of people would say constituted an animated feature at the time, Fantasia 2000 showed a risk-taking venture rarely seen in the world of big-name animation.
That summer, Tarzan had excited me with what it had to offer, and Toy Story 2 that fall had proven to me that PIXAR was a new studio to definitely keep an eye on. Fantasia 2000 was another building block in getting me more excited to pursue a career in animation, and what I saw on that IMAX screen, probably had a hand in my eventual decision to look elsewhere for an art education shortly afterwards.
In the summer of 2000, an online Q&A with Roy E Disney was arranged, with those in a live chat who could send him questions to be answered.
One I asked was if we could see another rendition of Fantasia soon. Roy answered that there were already plans for another film to be released in 2005, or 2006. Of course, we all know what happened a few years down the line.
With the dismantling of the hand-drawn portion of feature animation in the wake of Treasure Planet’s box-office disappointment, all prospects for a new Fantasia never came to pass. Though as it stands, several of the segments that were being worked on and completed, found their way into the public in one form or another.
These segments included:
One By One – Roy had made mention of this segment in his Q&A, and would have featured a theme of how the music of this newer Fantasia, was to take music from other cultures. Telling of a number of African children making kites to fly, it was only released as an addition to the 2004 DVD release of Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. This pairing somewhat made sense, as Lebo M, who had lent his voice to music for both of the Lion King films, also sang portions of One By One’s song.
Lorenzo -Taking the music of an Argentinian tango, the story tells of a pampered cat, whose tail develops a mind of its own. Word was in the mainstream, it was only released in 2004, showing before the live-action film, Raising Helen. Since then, it has never been released as part of any DVD or shorts collection.
The Little Match Girl – Included as an extra with the 2006 DVD release of The Little Mermaid, this retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story follows a young girl, as she struggles to sell her remaining matches on the cold streets of a Russian town (Word of warning: keep some tissues handy).
As it stands now, it seems a little doubtful that another Fantasia may come to pass. With the studio pressing ahead with newer ideas and stories to be told, it’d take someone with a lot of clout to buy in to another interpretation of the concert feature.
The only continuation of the name Fantasia currently within the company, is the Harmonix-produced game, Fantasia: Music Evolved. The game uses the XBox Kinect motion-sensing device, to allow one to conduct almost like Stokowski. Sadly, the game seems more involved with having you conduct modern-day music, than many classical pieces (though if you really get into the music, it can be a good workout!).
Though Roy E Disney was not an artist per se, he did see the value in keeping animation alive within the studio. As well, when the studio seemed to reach a tipping point in the mid-2000’s, Roy led the charge for a management shake-up within its walls. Just like he had a hand in the studio’s resurgence in the early 80’s, his actions surely led to so many of the dramatic changes we’ve seen within the studio in the last decade.
As a result of those changes, Walt Disney Feature Animation has risen again to a new level of appreciation and fandom, that I didn’t think I’d ever see happen again.
Sadly, the closest interaction I ever had with Roy E Disney, was him answering my question on that live chat in the summer of 2000. But still, if any film could speak to his love for the animation medium, Fantasia 2000 seems like a shining example of it.
Thank you, Roy.