Fantasia & Fantasia 2000 Review

There’s a group of films, I’ll call them “Unimpeachable Classics”, that show up constantly on critics’ best-film lists, films that have achieved canonical status despite serious flaws or being hopelessly dated. These films get canonized because they A) accurately embody a moment of zeitgeist, B) overflow with pathos, or C) have been so well-loved by past critics that modern ones (a cowardly lot) refuse to dethrone or declaim them. The “Unimpeachable Classic”, not to be confused with an actual classic film, is always overrated, but the individual films vary in quality. Some are good but not great (Chinatown, The Graduate), some are mediocre (Rebel Without a Cause, Ben Hur) and some are just plain bad (Gone With the Wind.)

Fantasia is definitely an “Unimpeachable Classic”, although it is one of the better examples from the list. A series of animations by Walt Disney set to and inspired by eight different classical music pieces, Fantasia gave us Mickey’s iconic film appearance as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Though not quite the revolutionary “New form of entertainment” claimed in the pretentious opening monologue (director Fernand Leger and composer George Antheil produced Ballet Mecanique, an avant-garde film animation set to music, in 1924), Fantasia, in 1940, was the first feature film made entirely of music videos. It was also the first time a mass audience was exposed to this style of filmmaking. It flopped.

After its premier in 1940, however, it has been subsequently rereleased in theaters 7 times (most recently in 1990) and more than earned back its early losses. Though it is a fine film, with beautiful animation and lovely music, it is by no means perfect. All of the animation is stellar, but not all of the segments. Particularly worthy of praise are the hallucinatory dancing of flowers, fish and plants set to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the beautiful abstraction of Meet the Soundtrack, in which instruments solos and have their waveforms animated, Night on Bald Mountain, in which a satanic overlord (modeled by Bela Lugosi!) summons spirits to overrun a small town, and, of course, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The piece set to Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring, however, is pretentious and overreaching. And the dancing animals of Dance of the Hours are goofy and tedious. Of course, this is by adult standards: kids will probably get down to each of these pieces, at least individually. But that brings us to the fatal flaw of Fantasia: as individual animations they’re beautiful, but as a whole it can be boring and pedantic. The overbearing narration by music critic Deems Taylor (added as a nod to accessability) limits interpretation and breaks up the flow of the film. And, with a run time just over two hours, the less good animations, more interesting in another context, become tiresome. Still, this is a beautifully animated film, and a worthwhile watch, especially for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Fantasia 2000? Not so much. With a more merciful running time of seventy-five minutes, it has the same problem of being pedantic, without the same energy of originality. Although also beautifully animated, the stories are more direct (and clichéd), the interpretations of the music less interesting (even the “abstract pieces” see all the animation set to string cues and horn blares rather than the rhythmic subtler change of the original, and feature simple stories of good vs. evil rather than true abstract movement of color) and the narrated introductions are filled with a pop-culture irreverence much more irritating than the earnest pretension of Fantasia. And the 3D animation from 1999 really shows its age.

Still, when it stays 2D, and matches style to song, Fantasia 2000 offers some of the same pleasures of the first. The line drawing animation of thirties New York set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is an excellent piece, one of the best from either film. And the slapstick flamingos set to Camille Saint-Saen’s Carnival of the Animals and the Ferngully-esque forest spirits of Stravinksy’s Firebird Suite are both fun. Still, if you’re buying this pack, you’re buying it for Fantasia, with Fantasia 2000 as a mere added bonus.

 

As always, Disney has done an excellent job with the transfer, and if you have HDMI Fantasia will look as good as you’ve ever seen it. And its also chock full of special features, some trashy (Disney Family Museum, an ad for the San Fransisco museum), some interesting (The Schultheis Notebook, a history of the animation techniques used in Fantasia) and some totally incredible (Destino, a short film made in 2003 from storyboards created in 1946 by Walt Disney and Salvador Dali(!) working together). And, as the pack comes with both Blu-ray and DVD, you’d have to be pretty curmudgeonly to complain about the special

"Fantasia & Fantasia 2000" is on sale November 30, 2010 and is rated G. Animation. Directed by Eric Goldberg, James Algar. Written by Walt Disney, James Algar, Eric Goldberg, Joe Grant. Starring James Levine, Leopold Stokowski.

Jan
06
2011
Willie Osterweil

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