With IMAX, the medium is at least half the message, as watching the “Welcome to the IMAX Experience” montage at the beginning of each IMAX release illustrates. IMAX theaters use the world’s largest film format (ten times larger than the 35mm frame used in most theaters) and because the pictures are so sharp, the screens so large, and the sound system so advanced, it is easy to feel like you are in the middle of the action. Every one of these films looks fantastic, and Disney’s new Fantasia 2000 is no exception. But aside from the new technology, Fantasia 2000 does not match the innovation of the original, nor, perhaps, could it. The 1940 Fantasia, after all, helped define what we think of as “traditional” animation techniques, and changed the look of cartoons from very hard-edged to more fluid animation.
The best parts of Fantasia 2000 are as good looking as anything Disney has done lately (the 3D-ish Tarzan, for instance), and much of it is enchanting. The animation and music (performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) is stellar, and it showcases a variety of artistic and musical styles. Most of the segments use various combinations of computer-generated images (CGI) and traditional cel-animation (for instance, a few of the characters will be CGI, while the background uses more traditional forms or animation).
The movie is 75 minutes long, and there is much less dead time than in the first, longer Fantasia, so kids will enjoy it (or at least this seems the presumption of the new film’s makers, as it’s pitched “young”). Fantasia 2000 also introduces its animated sequences with comical appearances by celebrities, many of whom will be familiar to kids (including Steve Martin, Bette Midler, and James Earl Jones). The funny-factor is uneven on these, but the hosts do provide transitions between segments as well as interesting information about them, such as the musical selection history of the sequence or how it was animated or conceived. The most enjoyable and amusing of these are Penn and Teller, who introduce, appropriately, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and who do a bit of magic themselves.
The film’s opening sequence, featuring a swarm of butterfly-like triangle shapes, is its least inspired. The artwork is an abstract animation of the music (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) and is a current version of the “music for its own sake” type of animation from the first movie. The later segments all have story elements, or are stories in themselves.
The second sequence is by far the most visually stunning of the new ones. Set to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” this surrealistic adventure follows a family of whales gliding through blue-green arctic waters. In a breathtaking leap out of the ocean, they take to the sky and breach and dive among the clouds. The segment is quite spellbinding and beautifully done, and the animation is incredibly detailed.
The remaining new sequences all have their charms, but the film does not reach the heights of “Pines of Rome” again. Gershwin’s familiar “Rhapsody in Blue” is animated in the style of New York Times cartoonist Al Hirschfield and features interweaving story lines about four city inhabitants and the hustle and bustle of 1930’s New York City. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” about a one-legged tin soldier, a ballerina, and an evil jack-in-the-box (which was supposed to appear in the original Fantasia, but Disney couldn’t decide upon a piece of music for it until now) is set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Pink Flamingos and yo-yos are the subject of a fun and silly short sequence set to Camile Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” (Along with traditional animation, this work incorporates the first ever use of watercolor animation in a feature film.)
Graduation mainstay “Pomp and Circumstance” accompanies the story of Noah’s Ark, starring Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant. It is funny and frantic, with several side jokes thrown in (for instance, a couple of “real” ducks walking by Donald, puddles of water shaped to look like webbed feet, and the Ark being vaguely shaped like a duck). In the finale, Stravinski’s “Firebird Suite” evokes a theme of life, death and rebirth in an story about a volcanic eruption and the revitalization of the mountain afterwards.
The most famous and recognizable segment of the original Fantasia, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) is included in this version of Fantasia as well. At first, it looks a bit grainy compared to the newer animation, but I was soon amazed at how well this 60-year-old piece holds up, and how good the animation is. It also felt warmer than the other pieces in the film, which may be because of the quality and type of animation, (softer edges, softer colors) or because I have fond childhood memories of it probably a bit of both. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is as engaging as ever, and it actually highlights the fact that while all the new animation looks great, it doesn’t actually seem that far advanced over Disney’s older work. This was probably not the intended message, since Fantasia 2000 seems to be about showing off Disney’s talent and innovation, not to mention the studio’s mastery over newer technologies. (The IMAX flier for the film states, “Like its pioneering predecessor, Fantasia 2000 embraces all the latest technological tools and innovations to tell its stories” as well as being a “showcase for the talents of a new generation of Disney animators and filmmakers”).
This mastery is not merely artistic, for Disney’s corporate mastery is also at stake here. IMAX theaters had to agree to Disney’s terms in order to be allowed the privilege of showing Fantasia 2000. These terms included a four-month exclusive (all Fantasia, all day) run of the movie and 50% of the receipts. This is why you won’t find the film at some IMAX theaters since many are attached to science or educational centers, and they use funds from IMAX movies to subsidize the centers, they just couldn’t afford to run Fantasia 2000 under these circumstances (or they resented the restrictions). The Mouse is beholden to no one though: the California Science Center in Los Angeles refused Disney’s terms and so Disney built a four million dollar temporary IMAX in L.A. for the four month run, after which it will be demolished (and Fantasia 2000 will be released in regular theaters).
Seeing Fantasia 2000 at an IMAX theater (despite a hefty $10-$12 ticket price) is the way to go, though. Because so much of what is impressive about Fantasia 2000, or different from other Disney features, is dependent on the IMAX technology that makes one feel enveloped in the experience, it will be a less majestic experience on a regular screen. Fantasia 2000‘s story lines are pretty standard Disney fare (relentlessly upbeat and tending toward “heartwarming”) and the animation is very good, but “The IMAX Experience” is definitely the star.