Fantasia began as a project that would be reborn and reimagined every time it was told. Walt envisioned it as the epitome of the artistic achievement of animation, and would relaunch it every few years with new sequences, new ideas and new ways of telling stories.
The problem was, after it was told the first time, it wasn’t touched again.
As the studio realized the strength of the animation renaissance that was gripping it, a few characters behind the scenes began scrapping ideas together for a Fantasia revival as early as 1991. The best storytellers in the company were invited to be a part of this project. Directors for each of the shorts in Fantasia 2000 were sourced from the crews of The Lion King, The Rescuers Down Under, The Fox and the Hound, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and even Hercules.
They were doing Walt’s work. But then the machine of the modern studio got in the way. As with many projects that try to live up to their history while renewing themselves, it turned into far more of a production than it needed to be.
The original 1940 production continues to be admired by millions. It was so brilliant because filmmaking stood aside and let artists be artists. With a single conductor, a trained orchestra and classical music, the animators let every creative whim find its way to screen. And while Fantasia 2000 lets some very creative people have their way with music — sometimes even in a way contradictory to what the composer had intended — it’s the package as a whole that feels off, more than the individual segments.
Fantasia 2000 feels more purposeful than Fantasia ever did. Walt created Fantasia to say: “Here’s what our artists can do!” His nephew Roy and Michael Eisner created Fantasia 2000 to say: “Look how amazing we are.” It’s a subtle, but important, difference. Every sequence is introduced by a different celebrity who extolls on the excellence to follow. Mickey and Donald play in the orchestra to buy time before Donald’s sequence begins (“Pomp and Circumstance” in which the procession is animals entering an ark two by two). Don Hahn, the brilliant producer behind Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, was put in charge of these introductory sequences. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” even makes a second appearance to show the continuity of the show and how faithful they were to Walt’s original vision.
It took nine years to come to fruition, and, by the time it did, the whole thing felt like a three-ring circus. That it was released one minute after midnight as the clocks ticked over to the year 2000 is a perfectly appropriate cherry on top of that cake.
But to me, what made Fantasia 2000 so disappointing was how similar it was to Fantasia. I had been a fan of the original production since I was a child, and “Night on Bald Mountain” still sends a shiver through my bones. When Fantasia 2000 was released, I saw it in theatres as soon as I could. But from the opening abstract sequence featuring Beethoven’s “Symphony No.5,” to the story-telling Firebird sequence to the fun-animals-doing-odd-things sequence in Pines of Rome, it all felt too familiar. Even Donald filling the ark with animals — written by Eric Goldberg who began that project almost immediately after completing his work on Pocahontas — felt like it was trying desperately to be a modern “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Each had their equivalent sequence in the original film. Fantasia 2000 was a retelling, but not a reinvention. It was artistic, but not art. It was a modernization, a remake or a reboot of what came before.
The most original of the bunch, and to my mind the best of them all, is the heartbeat of a city set to “Rhapsody in Blue,” also by Eric Goldberg. The Gershwin classic was written in 1924 and could well have been included in the original. But its modernization for the madness of the city, drawn to emulate the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld. The modernization and clean interpretation of classic work is spot on, and this sequence is what Fantasia was supposed to be all about: Not the celebrities who could pump up the work, but of making music and animated art relevant for a modern audience in a new, clean and entertaining way. Hirschfeld reportedly saw the sequence shortly before his 96th birthday and was thrilled with how his classic style had been adapted.
The New York Times disagreed with me, calling the “Firebird Suite” at the close of the film the best Fantasia 2000 had to offer, but agreed in its closing remarks: “But despite its science fiction title, the movie is really a compendium of familiar Disney attitudes and styles, one that looks to the past more than to the future.”
Fantasia was never designed to be a money-maker, though the first certainly did that. This version recouped $90-million in revenue on an $80-million budget.
But for all the criticism the studio endured at the end of the 1990s for formulaic films and cutesy presentation of difficult subjects, Fantasia 2000 proved that the studio was still willing to take risks, still willing to push the envelope and still willing to spend nine years going where no other studio would ever dare go. That’s something that’s uniquely Disney and very Walt. For that they should be applauded, and applauded heartily.