Re-Views: 'Fantasia 2000'

Just about every large multiplex has a so-called "IMAX" screen nowadays, and it's common for spectacle-oriented blockbusters to be played on them. But it was not always this way! No, children, gather around and I will tell you of yesteryear!

Way back in the 20th century, IMAX theaters -- actual, full-sized, curved-screen IMAX theaters -- were rare, their primary purpose being to showcase 45-minute nature and science documentaries rather than two-hour Will Smith movies. Disney's "Fantasia 2000," released on New Year's Day of that year, was the first feature-length animated film to play in IMAX. It opened on 54 screens nationwide, which was almost all the IMAXes there were at the time. There was, in fact, only one IMAX screen in all of Los Angeles -- and Disney couldn't negotiate an agreement with the theater owners to show "Fantasia 2000" there. Disney instead spent $4 million to build its own temporary screening venue, maybe out of commitment to showing "Fantasia 2000" in the proper format in L.A., and maybe out of sheer stubbornness.

It was a good investment. "Fantasia 2000" set new records for IMAX box offices, earning $50 million during its four-month IMAX run. When it was released in 1,300 regular theaters in June 2000, it only made about $10 million more: nearly everyone who wanted to see it had already done so on the BIG big screen.

I adored "Fantasia 2000," apparently. My review raved about it. (Most other critics were also positive.) To read it, you'd think the film had had a tremendous impact on me -- at the very least, enough of an impact for me to watch it a second time. But no. And so here we are, 12 years later, giving it another look.

(Those big, true IMAX screens are still rare, by the way. The reason you see "IMAX" everywhere is that the IMAX company lets cinema owners apply the name to theaters that are just bigger than average -- theaters that 10 years ago would not have been IMAX-worthy. We call these Lie-MAX. But that's a topic for another day.)

What I said then: "'Fantasia 2000' is awe-inspiring, entertaining, even touching at times -- all while maintaining that perfect blend between pictures and music that can almost make you weep, it's so beautiful. Seven new segments are shown here, along with the famous 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' segment, unchanged, from the original film. I'm glad they included it, because it confirmed for me that my recollections of 'Fantasia' were accurate: cute, maybe a little magical, but nothing spectacular. The new segments, by contrast, are stunning.... This 'Fantasia' has depth, humanity and soul, as well as entertainment value. It compares favorably to the more story-oriented masterpieces like 'Beauty and the Beast.' View it not as an introduction to classical music (though it may be suitable for that), but as a wonderfully fulfilling movie experience." Grade: A [Here's the whole slobbery review.]

The re-viewing: The only segment that stuck with me over the years was the one set to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a New York story drawn in the style of legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. It is basically the centerpiece of the film, and rightly so. When I re-watched it for the first time last week, my immediate reaction was go back and re-watch it again.

This segment is a beautiful encapsulation of the way drawings and music can complement each other. It helps that the music in question is one of the greatest compositions of the century, and one that, even without pictures, conveys a variety of moods and feelings. But the animation (overseen by Eric Goldberg, who also drew the Hirschfeld-influenced Genie in "Aladdin") tells a simple, joyful little story about disparate New Yorkers in search of something: the unemployed man wants a job, the construction worker wants to be a musician, the rich girl wants her parents' attention, the henpecked husband wants relief. Their wishes are fulfilled, New York is where dreams come true, and so on and so forth.

My affection for the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment is probably what influenced the rest of my original review. The hugeness of the IMAX format no doubt helped. Even pleasant-but-vacant bits like Donald Duck on Noah's Ark (set to "Pomp & Circumstance") are rendered magnificent when projected in 70mm on an enormous screen. The brief first chapter, with abstract shapes flying and fighting, was dazzling in IMAX, considerably less so on DVD.

In the end, I think "Fantasia 2000" has the same problem (if it is a problem) as the original 1940 version: it appeals more to artists than to average moviegoers. For an animator, crafting a "Fantasia" piece is like solving a complex puzzle. You have to come up with images that will complement a preexisting piece of music, and then do the intricate work of making the cartoon movements sync with it in a way that looks natural. Ideally, you want it to seem like the music was composed to match the picture, not the other way around.

Everything in "Fantasia 2000" succeeds in that regard, which is probably very satisfying to viewers who are also visual artists. But for the rest of us, even if we appreciate the technical skill involved, there isn't much else to latch on to. "Rhapsody in Blue" transcends the limitations to become a perfect marriage of art, music, and story (a weird three-way marriage, I guess) -- but it's the exception. The other sequences feel like excellent demonstrations of a technique that only a small portion of the audience has any affinity for.

Do I still love this movie? I'm not totally goofy over it, but it's no mickey mouse operation, either. (KILL ME!) The "Rhapsody in Blue" segment is a legitimate masterwork, followed closely by the "Pines of Rome" segment (with the flying whales). The others are entertaining enough, and none of them run on too long. The film was obviously a labor of love -- the Disney company wouldn't have waited 60 years to make a sequel if all they wanted to do was cash in -- and that goes a long way. Even if there isn't much substance to the film, it's drawn and animated with skillful enthusiasm. Grade: B