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An In-Depth Analysis and Critique of the "Fantasia" Films - Part 2

Last week, I carefully examined each segment of the original Fantasia[font "Arial"> for its elements of dance. My goals there were dual persuasions: to convince readers confused or skeptical about my claim that I was drawing my belief from legitimate proof, and also to assuage and refocus the perspectives of those who view the first Fantasia film as dull, dreary, and uninteresting. I would hope that those who fall into the latter category will rewatch the film from that state of mind, as if one were sitting down to a ballet or a dance concert. When approaching my viewpoint towards Fantasia 2000, the modern take on this cinematic format, it is unlikely that I will have to work nearly so hard to convince you, the reader, that the segments all deal with story far more so than the first film. The features that they all share are characters meant to arouse certain types of sympathies, be it negative or positive. Proper story arcs, stemming from wants and desires that are either achieved or not. No, I don't believe I'll have to convince anybody that Fantasia/2000 is all about story.


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What I am going to have to do, for those who dislike the film, is explain how that neither makes the film less quality or less mature. I ask you this: why do you think Fantasia/2000 was focused in this fashion, as opposed to the nature of the first Fantasia? If your first response is that it makes it more palatable for the children, then I must point out that there is nothing particularly "childlike" about an Aristotilian arc. If anything, dance is more "simple", and is just as easily understandable to a young mind as it is to an adult mind. (Young girls do often love the ballet, don't they?) It is true that Fantasia/2000 is more humorous in its approach than Fantasia is, but then, that stems from the fact that this modern film has been made in the 60-year-wake of a film that has enmeshed itself into the public consciousness. For it to be less self-aware would be ignorant. As far as the complaint about the animation not matching the music as directly as the first film, it is a particularly stupid comment. For one, as noted before, Fantasia/2000 concerns itself with theatrical creation, and in the few instances that the music is not directly inspiring the motion on-screen, it is always informing the tone and tenor of the scenes before us. Additionally, there are just as many instances in Fantasia where the music merely informs the tone rather than influencing specific actions. For the films to fully and completely match the music, it would have to be just a spotlight following the notes on music paper, a la Chuck Jones' Blue Note.

Still, while the film on a whole is neither more nor less mature than the first Fantasia, there are indeed a couple of segments that give way to unfortunate moments of coy cuteness. "Symphony No. 5" (I like to call it "The Night of the Shards", which is the only way I can describe it to others) is one such piece. It has wonderful elements to it, especially its visual interpretation of the four most famous consecutive notes in all classical music, and the realization of the massive hoard of black butterfly-shards. Seeing this on the IMAX when I first saw this film was an amazing sight. But I feel consistently let down each time I watch the segment by the subplot-of-sorts with the two butterfly-shards that are clearly meant to imply a parent and a child. I feel like this semi-story could have been told without the cutesy-poo style of the "child", with it instead merely being about the good shards versus the bad shards. The two character shards that we're given, however, are inherently unable to be compelling figures because they're just not expressive enough, making their small interlude sappy without reason.

The other segment that really bothers me with its elements of cuteness is "Pines of Rome". It's a magnificent realization of a wonderfully absurd idea - flying whales. It is easily to the credit of Hendel Butoy, the director, that he was able to take a piece like "Pines of Rome", which implies a very specific setting, and transfer it so far elsewhere that those who watch would be confused to try and place the music in the world of Rome. Still, the child while is problematic, in a similar fashion to the "child" shard in "Symphony". It is certainly not that children are unpleasant to watch (the very next segment, "Rhapsody in Blue", will feature a superb subplot regarding a little girl), but rather that this young whale is one of those "Aww, look at him try!" kids. The young whale only becomes in any way fascinating once stuck inside the iceberg, and even then, it would have done much, much more for his character had he found the way out on his own, instead of being guided by his folks from outside. As it stands, though, he's just brainlessly having fun, and I as an audience member tired of seeing him when I'd rather be watching the majesty of the bigger whales.

"Rhapsody in Blue", on the other hand, has none of these types of problems, and it surpasses many others. It is, indeed, my favorite Fantasia segment from either film. Of course, I should own up to my particular biases when it comes to this piece. I'm from New York, I love Gershwin's music, and I, like director Eric Goldberg, love the Hirschfeldian artistic style. Thusly, it's not too hard for this piece to please me, but even so, I esteem it as the best creation of the Fantasia mold. It creates an animated world that functions purely from the feelings and direction of Gershwin's music, as perfectly established in its opening moments when the Hirschfeld line creates the whole city to the simple notes of Gershwin's introduction. It tells four different, complete, and heartfelt stories, all starring wonderfully memorable characters. It functions as a magnificent visual interpretation of the music, like the scene at the revolving door, Duke cracking open his walnuts, and even for Gershwin's cameo. For me, it remains the ultimate example of what the Fantasia format can produce, a work of astounding emotion, style, and beauty.

Following up that standout is another superior segment, "Piano Concerto No. 2", set to the story of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier". While I was underwhelmed by Butoy's whales earlier, I find his work here to be remarkable. For one, his triad of computer-generated leads are superbly constructed, seamlessly engaging the non-computer backgrounds. The soldier is wonderfully expressive and soulful (Butoy's eyes work so much better here than they did on the child whale). The ballerina is both incredibly graceful and astoundingly textured; watching it, you know exactly what material she's made of. Finally, the jack-in-the-box may deserve placement among the pantheon of great villains merely for having one of the most perfectly designed evil grins ever in animation. There was a significant search to find the right classical piece for this story, and Shostakovich's music is a perfect fit. It leads the story with constantly rising dramatic tension, and its climax is deftly emotional (good of Butoy and his crew to recognize the soldier's fall from the drain to the sea as the point of no return for him, and thusly his climax). When the main couple is finally reunited at the end, it feels like you've watched an epic adventure and romance in the course of a few minutes, having neither overstayed its bounds nor failed to achieve any of its potential.

Eric Goldberg comes back after his masterwork "Rhapsody in Blue" with the lark of "The Carnival of the Animals". If "Rhapsody" was a love letter to Al Hirschfeld, who inspired Goldberg's line, "Carnival" is an homage to the Looney Tunes, who inspired Goldberg's sense of humor. The construction of the piece is inherently Termite Terrace-esque. It focuses on two opposing forces, one an oppressor and one a rebel, the resulting conflict of which is comedic. It shares the Looney predilection towards commedia dell'arte-style lazzi (gag sequences), like the rebel flamingo creating a yo-yo star out of the pyramid of oppressing flamingos, or even the piece's final payoff. It has the Chuck Jones quality of telling more story with single character expressions than entire monologues could convey, as especially seen in the mug on the rebel flamingo's face when he's kicked into line. Thusly, with all this similarity, there should be no surprise that this is essentially the funniest of all the Fantasia segments.

I spoke of "The Sorceror's Apprentice" in dance terms last week, so to show how it had a similar style to the rest of the first film. However, I'd argue that in its soul, it is more at home in Fantasia/2000 than it is in Fantasia (likely meaning that Fantasia/2000 is almost entirely made in the wake of this particular segment more than any other one). It tells a very simple and effective story about the failure of over-ambition, as a young apprentice played by Mickey creates a situation and a creature that is far beyond his power to control. In that, the story owes much to the tales of Frankenstein or the myth of the Golem. Another element that is quite remarkable is how stark the violence is, even in silhouette. When Mickey finally tries to destroy the broom, it is both electric and horrible, and the next moments after that are dead and even colorless, creating a silent commentary on the aftermath of violence on the attacker's soul. The recent masterpiece Mystic River used several monologues to get at this theme; "The Sorceror's Apprentice" does it in a few seconds.

While "The Sorceror's Apprentice" is easily the more accomplished and brilliant segment, "Pomp and Circumstance" is better than it would have any right to be by virtue of two elements. One is due, I must begrudgingly admit, to Michael Eisner himself, who reportedly was the one to suggest the Sleepless in Seattle approach to the Noah's Ark tale. This is a stroke of genius, as the Ark has never been properly given due as a hotbed of romance; it's all about a massive lot of couples who are all meant for each other, surviving in the cruel world! It's a fresh spin on familiar material, and it often produces the best results. The other element, of course, is Donald Duck, who truly makes this segment what it is. Donald is far and away the best of the Disney stock characters, being the only one to have a significant, complex, and established personality. (Mickey, in comparison, has no personality at all, and has to adapt himself to whatever situation he is cast in.) Donald is a uniquely flawed individual, which makes him all the more dramatically interesting. Consider the last moment, when he and Daisy walk out into the beautiful new land; he waves him arm as if he himself was responsible for its very beauty and he's presenting it to Daisy for a gift. It's that kind of ludicrous pomposity and humanity that we love in Donald.

Capping off the affair is "The Firebird". On one hand, this piece can be enjoyed as mere spectacle, which it most certainly is. The effects animators must've developed brain tumors dealing with the demands of this segment. But it is at its core a fragile and worrisome debate between three individuals: the Sprite, the Firebird, and the Elk. The Sprite is life, naturally, eager to create and embellish the life that she sees around her. The Firebird is death, emblazoned in his blank stare of fire; he is death in its most relentless and yet non-cruel, as his gaze implies him to be completely impassionate about his wrath. However, it is the Elk that promotes rebirth: while keenly and sadly aware of the destruction around him when it happens, he is still unfazed by it and just as strongly believes in the creation of life out of what once was dead. The Sprite needs the Elk to remind her of this so that she can be born again, bringing life to where she even could not go before, as in rebirth she is stronger than she even was in first birth. I find this piece to be most thought-provoking and quite beauteous.

What else is there to say? A word or two about the interstitials. For Fantasia, it is clear that there needed to be a concerted effort to prove the piece as no mere form of cheap entertainment, and while Deems Taylor was a famous individual back in the day, he still is clearly aiming to elevate the tone of the piece with elegance and dignity. Fantasia/2000, however, has been made in the 60-year wake of this film, and nobody needs to be convinced of its superiority anymore. Thusly, the interstitials in the newer film are more celebratory and honorary, acknowledging the remarkable place the first film has achieved in our modern culture. While there are certain celebrities I definitely like more than others (James Earl Jones over Bette Midler, for example), this is a mere matter of individual taste. Neither interstitial format is greater than the other, as they have different goals.

These films have provided many things. They reintroduced classical music into the modern vernacular better than any other source (quite the boon that neither film ever named the pieces anything other than their music's original titles). They gave free reign to the many artists of their respective periods to reach far beyond the standard expectations of animated art, with much less concern of "marketable elements". More than anything, they've entertained millions of families and individuals for more than 60 years, and for that, the Fantasia films should be praised. It is a kind of entertainment that had never been seen before, and doubtlessly will never be seen again. Unless they make another Fantasia film.


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Dec 6, 2003

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