Sunday, December 26, 1999

Disney classic stamped with shelf life

Movie: Fantasia/2000 (IMAX)

Posted on Sun, Dec 26, 1999 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

A we learn in one of the many historical monologues that interrupt "Fantasia/2000" -- The Walt Disney Company's IMAX sequel to its 1940 masterpiece -- Uncle Walt intended "Fantasia" to be an eternal work-in-progress, a symphony of sight and sound that would be revised with new "movements" as time (and his animators' imaginations) progressed. The original's commercial failure put the brakes on that notion, but its ultimate recognition as an expert welding of high and low art eventually turned the red light to green. The nearly 60-year gap between updates, however, has the second entry in the "Fantasia" series playing catch-up with an aesthetic world that's proceeded full-speed ahead in its absence.

As a result, "Fantasia/2000" is a hodgepodge of the new and the old, the thoughtful and the rote. For every second of unfettered creativity, there's a corresponding moment that's mired in stodginess. It's telling that the film's idea of a bold deviation from the "Fantasia" formula (classical music + kid-friendly cartoon drama = cultural reawakening) is to model a cast of Depression-era characters after the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld, then set them scurrying to the melodies of that cutting-edge 20th-century composer, George Gershwin. None of this will mean a thing to your children, and it won't strike you as daring either, unless you're a Sunday Times reader who's still creeped out by John Cage.

The film scores higher marks when it eschews fuddy-duddy didacticism in favor of fun. Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome" is dramatized in a sequence that sees a community of whales discovering a mysterious shaft of light in their waters, an anomaly that grants them the ability to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. The delightfully dippy, computer-generated panorama resembles a velvet painting in a New Age shop, but leave it to Disney to make the star of the piece a baby humpback whose oh-so-cute sideways glances cry out for plush immortalization. It's Dumbo on a contact high.

Also worthy is Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals," in which a goonish flamingo with a yo-yo alienates himself from his serious-minded flock. The resulting physical comedy is flawlessly matched to the instrumental bed, and the flamingos' lightning-quick shifts of expression and attitude provoke favorable comparison with the achievements of Warner Bros., whose "Looney Tunes" were always miles ahead of Disney's output in their vaudevillian sense of timing.

There's less to be said of the marriage of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" to Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto #2, Allegro, Opus 102." Andersen's antiquated tale of love-struck playthings seems irrelevant in a world dominated by the "Toy Story" gang. In addition, simply grafting an existing narrative onto an equally established musical foray undercuts the "Fantasia" agenda: to uphold the classics' enduring qualities as wellsprings for the imagination.

Imagination, however, is in shorter supply through-out "Fantasia/2000" than one might expect. The climactic swell of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" is envisaged as a cycle of life, death and rebirth, with the "rebirth" duties falling to a female sprite whose billowing hair and knowing eyes mark her as a pure appropriation from Japanese anime. Though we're never sure who this nature-preserving creature is intended to represent (Mother Earth? Fiona Apple?), her nemesis, the havoc-wreaking Firebird, is unmistakable as a cousin to the demon in the original's "Night on Bald Mountain."

Fans of the old "Mickey Mouse Club" will be pleased that long-suffering Donald Duck receives a starring role in a Noah's Ark vignette that's choreographed to the hallowed strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." The Donald acquits himself honorably as he helps prepare for the coming flood, soldiering on in an assistant's gig that's sadly reminiscent of rival Mickey's turn as sorcerer's apprentice. Adding insult to injury, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" itself is reshown, its decades-old crudities blown up to IMAX proportions in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of the new offerings. But the grainy "Apprentice" retains an elegance that largely eludes the younger animators at work here. True magic is timeless; like its title, "Fantasia/2000" is short-sightedly finite.

(Also see the review for the digitally enhanced update of the original, released in theaters June 16, 2000.)

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