The original Fantasia was meant to be the beginning of a series of shorts set to classical music that would grow and grow, so we’re told by Steve Martin, and Fantasia 2000 is the realisation of that dream after the classic Golden Age film flopped. This takes the exact same format, only with a series of famous faces in between the segments to make it more commercially appealing. The result is similarly wonderful, although with a couple more misfires than the original and lacking anything quite as spectacular as the ‘Nutcracker’ suite or the ‘Night on Bold Mountain’ that made the first film so magnificent. It’s refreshing that even in 1999, the major studio Disney were still prepared to make a film of shorts based on some pieces of classical music – you can’t imagine them getting away with it today. The opening sequence, based on Beethoven’s famous 5th symphony, like the ‘Toccata and Fugue’ is a series of abstract images accompanying the music, an inspiring commitment to the values of the first film, flying in the face of commercialism. It’s not as good as the ‘Toccata and Fugue’ as the animation isn’t quite as captivating, but the spirit of it lives on, which is heartening indeed. Like the first film, there’s so much going on that it’s best just to pick some of the highlights from the rest of the film to capture what’s so great about this. On the whole the music and the animation isn’t quite as good as the stunning 1940 film, and the ‘Pines of Rome’ sequence featuring some flying whales is an odd, uncomfortable matching of image to music, but that’s niggling, this is still a fantastic film and two sequences in particular are jaw-droppingly incredible.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
This is one of the said jaw-droppers. Inspired by the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld, this has a look reminiscent of ‘All the Cats Join In’ – which long-time devotees of the blog (hi, both of you) will remember as being a sequence from Make Mine Music – a series of simple, clean lines, bold colours and undetailed landscapes to bring New York to life. It’s manic, cartoonish and witty, zipping around the Big Apple as it follows a series of loosely interlinked stories that represent the many different facets of life in the city. Gershwin’s bolshy, brassy piece (recently seen in the best bit of The Great Gatsby) is the perfect accompaniment for showing the rich and poor thrown together in a kind of big dance of life. There’s a builder who dreams of drumming, a jobless down-and-out wishing for some work, a little girl who is harried around the city but just wants to spend time with her parents and rich man whose wife stops him from truly expressing himself. Jaw-dropping seems like quite a big adjective to use – if it is a real word – for something this carefree and cartoonish, but I use it because it perfectly captures the Fantasia spirit: it takes inspiration from great music and tells stories with it in a way that perfectly reflects the mood of the piece. Every beat of the drum and blare of the trumpets is matched by an image that makes sense of the music. What ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ does so well is show that such storytelling is not reliant on lush, detailed animation, but that a series of expressive caricatures can do the job just as well.
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2
The ‘Steadfast Tin Man’ features something of a storytelling staple, exploring what happens when a toy shop comes to life at night (forget any famous Pixar films, Disney have been doing this since Merry Melodies). Here it takes a Hans Christian Andersen story about a one legged tin soldier who falls in love with a ballerina in a clock and his fight with a sinister jack-in-the-box who has designs on the pretty porcelain figure. The animation is not great, using some very early CG animation to bring the story to life, but the key elements of a good short are there: it’s exciting; it tells the story concisely; it has a lot of heart. Shostakovich’s music adds copious amounts of drama to a rather slight story, making a tale of toys seem grand and significant. Somehow, it manages this, and the short is a great success because of it.
Pomp and Circumstance
The aforementioned devotees of this blog will remember my hatred of Donald Duck. He is a menace to animation, a figure so relentlessly irritating that it made me consider animationcide. This duck shaped blight on the House of Mouse has turned up in more than one of the worst animations the studio have ever produced, so when the mildly less nauseating Mickey calls him up to take part in one of the sequences, I was filled with dread. How could Disney inflict Satan’s own pet on some amazing classical music – ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ no less – and get away with it? The answer is stop him from talking, animate it beautifully and tell the story of Noah’s ark. Sure, Donald is there, and yes, he is as annoying as ever, but such is the grandeur of Elgar’s magnificently British piece of music and such is the scale of the flood story that somehow the horror of Donald is mitigated by something entertaining and occasionally awe inspiring. It’s also really funny – note the unicorn and dragon laughing at the animals marching onto the ark.
Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite
This is the 2000 attempt at ‘Night on Bold Mountain,’ a story of new life and rebirth conquering the destructive power of fire, the most beautifully animated of the segments, ending the film on a loud, inspiring note. Nothing will ever quite match up to the magnificence of that original masterpiece, but this is nevertheless an awe-inspiring short. While the Christian in me will struggle to connect with the more pagan overtones of this segment than with the defeat of Satan in ‘Bold Mountain,’ the craftsmanship and beauty of this piece are nevertheless stunning. Most impressive is the fluidity of the movement in this short. The Spring Sprite that flies over a winter landscape flows like water and everywhere around her the ground bursts with life. Being a mythical creature allows for her to change shape and size and to move unnaturally; it’s hypnotic. This movement makes the Firebird suite the most vibrant and beautiful of all the sequences in Fantasia 2000. Like the original film at its best, it’s bursting with life and energy and is, at times, majestic.