A Study in Disney: ‘Fantasia 2000’ (1999)

| January 26, 2022

Disney has been with us for almost a century now, and so it is safe to say that there might only be a finite number of people left whose childhood wasn’t touched by one of Walt’s confections.  They’re part of our culture, part of our collective imagination.  Over the next several months, I am going to be looking into their animated features.  It’s a journey that is sometimes magical, sometimes baffling, but always, purely Disney.

Fantasia – all the classical music used in the Disney film - Classic FM

When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs shocked the world in 1937, Walt Disney’s mind began racing, and he spent the next three years trying to take animation to new places, expand the boundaries of this artform and explore its possibilities.  The ultimate expression of his desire was Fantasia, a bold and somewhat vain attempt to match the medium of animation with some of the most famous classical music ever written.  The result has bred mixed results ever since, both from music lovers who thought Disney a fool for trying to visualize Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shubert, Muggsorgsky and Beethoven and from audiences too impatient to sit through a movie that doesn’t employ a three-act structure.

Disney’s overconfident desire to create art backfired on him.  In the wake of the film’s disappointing returns he lamented, “We’re through with caviar.  From now on its mashed potatoes and gravy.”  Never-the-less, over the decades, respect for the film never dimmed, although its reputation with the public remains divided, and three decades after Walt Disney’s death, the executives and artists at the Disney company made a valiant, not entirely successful, attempt to continue his work.

Fantasia 2000 was released at the end of the millennium but was met with mixed results, some of them positive but very few of them were overly enthusiastic.  Part of the middling response came from the fact that the time when such an experiment as Fantasia could inspire shock and awe had passed.  The original Fantasia was a new and innovative sensory experience; no one had ever seen anything like it before.  Walt’s idea was to have the film be an experience, with the audience surrounded by the sounds of the music while the images floated in front of them.  The process to accomplish this was called “Fantasound” and used an assembly of 64 speakers to serve the audience an experience that would be accomplished by Surround Sound in the years to come.

Sixty years later, however, nearly every new release was advertised as a bold and exciting sensory experience.  The new technological innovations were now in place, so every major release had the benefit of massive six-track digital sound and many would become part of the newly minted advent of the IMAX process.  Even in our living rooms, the revolution of home video, of the clarity and sound of DVD and Blu-Ray promised a sensory overload.  With this new technological revolution, what could Fantasia 2000 promise that wasn’t already in place?  Even the animation doesn’t seem all that new.  The Disney Renaissance revitalized the animated form so that even animated features released in the 90s that weren’t so good story-wise were at least gorgeous to behold.

What Fantasia 2000 benefits from is the same as its predecessor in that each of the seven segments has a different agenda as well as a different artistic pallet.  It is an anthology in which the artists were free to use their boundless creativity in creating something new and unique.  The difference is that the sequel often feels weighed down by executive decisions.  One can feel the heavy hands of the corporate paperweights trying to anchor the project in mass appeal.

That might explain the over-crowding of celebrities between the segments.  In the 1940 original, our orientation was offered solely by composer and critic Deems Taylor who spoke to the audience in a way that a conductor might during the symphony.  In the sequel, we are treated to a gaggle of guest celebrities, some of whom are welcome – like Angela Lansbury, Quincy Jones and Bette Midler and Steve Martin (fitting because they all have musical backgrounds) – and some are not, like Penn and Teller.  Pen and Teller?!  What do they have to do with music, or anything to do with this film?  Their unfunny comedy bit in introducing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice stops the movie cold.

Another drawback is that while the previous film included segments that were complete streams of consciousness, the sequel keeps its segments close to individual narrative structures.  While you can admire the segments of Fantasia 2000 for how they look, it is hard to pinpoint any one of the seven segments that doesn’t feel tied to a narrative.  Let us take a look at the segments individually:

* Symphony No. 5, first movement is introduced by Deems Taylor and uses Beethoven’s stirring 1808 piece as a backdrop for an abstract representation of triangular shapes resembling butterflies in various colorful shades, hues and tints as they swirl around and explore a world of light and darkness.  They are countered by a series of black triangular shapes representing bats. 

Of all of the segments, this is probably the one that is the most abstract, but it still ebbs close to a story structure being colors and light battling darkness.  It is very representative of the opening of Fantasia in that it is all about color and movement without an agenda to get to a point.  Yes, there are minor characters here but you never feel locked down to a narrative story even though there are strains of one.

* Pines of Rome is exactly what audiences expect from a movie called Fantasia and a grand use of the IMAX process.  It is an exhilarating use of the medium of computer animation and proof that the creators of this film are going to use it to its full glory.  Illustrated by Hendel Butoy, it follows a pod of whales as they move from the sea, to ice caves, to the sky, and even into outer space.  The computer animation is crucial here because it makes us feel the full gravity and weight of the whales as they move across the screen backed by Ottorino Respighi’s beautiful tone poem.  This, arguably, may be the best segment of the film.

* Rhapsody in Blue is an odd segment to follow Pines of Rome but it works as a change of pace featuring animator Eric Goldberg’s high-energy piece of animation inspired by the work of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and backed by George Gershwin’s stirring composition.  The “story” takes place in 1930s New York City and follows four sad souls as they pine for their dreams while being forced into the drudgery of everyday life.

Duke is a construction worker who wants to be a jazz musician.  Joe is out of work and jobs are scarce.  John is a hen-pecked husband who never gets to have any fun due to being tied to his nagging wife.  And Rachel is a little girl whose parents struggle through the bad economy while she fails at one thing after another: music lessons, dancing lessons, singing lessons, swimming lessons, etc.  All of the characters have a different goal, but they all have the same destination, and in the end they all come together in a way that each gets what they want.

The music and the movement of this segment work beautifully in capturing not only the flavor of Gershwin’s music but a the thin-lined composition that is supposed to be inspired by Hirshfeld’s drawings.  Actually, the style and movements are more reminiscent of old Warner Bros. cartoons of the 50s and a pantomime style reminiscent of Disney’s animated shorts from the 20s and 30s.  But if there is one small critical observation, it may be that this segment doesn’t really fit with the “Fantasia” model.  It feels like something that might have been more comfortable in the compilation films that Walt Disney released in the 1940s like Melody Time and Make Mine Music.  Here, it doesn’t really fit the program.

* Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro, Opus 102 is an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and might be comfortably seated in the Toy Story universe, although this segment was developed before either of those films.  It’s interesting, but unfortunately, it is somewhat lackluster when compared with the segments that precede it and, out of the whole program is probably the least impressive.  It is based on Anderson’s classic story although with the slightly lighter ending and takes place in a boy’s bedroom where a broken tin soldier works to save a porcelain ballerina from the creepy advances of a rather odious Jack-in-the-box.

The first thing to note here is that the animation feels kind of low-rent.  It is full CG animation, but it has a look that one might find in an old computer game.  There’s no depth to the world and the characters look and feel animated without any realistic textures.  It’s less-than-stellar look might have something to do with the fact that it came before Toy Story.  The look in that film was impressive but also developmentally a work-in-progress, and that’s likely the story here.

* Carnival of the Animals, Finale is reminiscent of the “Dance of the Hours” sequence from the original Fantasia in that it tells a story that is complete nonsense from a practical standpoint but is basically a fun visual matched to a piece of music.  The idea here is overturned in the introduction as presenter James Earl Jones involves us in what is promised to be a piece about our relationship to animals before he is handed a card that instead informs us that we will now be treated to Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns “Carnival of the Animals, finale” accompanied by a flock of dancing flamingos tormented by a yo-yo.

This segment is oddly short at just under three minutes, but it is fun none-the-less, just putting together a silly idea in which the flamingo’s dancing routines are interrupted by a yo-yo that is just an excuse for color and movement and comedy.  It works and its funny, but again, why so short?

* The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is redistributed here, and is the only segment from the first film to return to the program.  The idea was to reestablish Walt Disney’s plan of adding and subtracting segments from the program in re-release so that audiences would be able to see the film again but also be treated to the addition of some new segments.  Unfortunately, this is an innovation whose time has passed.  The age of home video virtually killed off the notion that a film could be re-released in a theater, and the controversial 1997 re-issue of Star Wars more or less soured the public on the idea that a film could be retooled and reissued with new footage. 

In the case of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the segment is still one of the perennial pieces of Disney’s animation and possibly the most famous short featuring Mickey Mouse.  But given the passage of time and the innovations both current and dated, the inclusion of this segment into Fantasia 2000 arrives with a bit of confusion.  It feels out of place, like a glorified re-run.  The basic thought is, “Why am I watching this again?”

* Pomp and Circumstance or “Donald’s Last Roundup” is the most confusing of all of the segments, a fusion of art and slapstick that ultimately do not work together.  The segment re-tells the mythology of Noah’s Ark in a beautiful piece of CG animation that is reminiscent of The Lion King as all the animals of the Earth approach and board the massive craft for the fabled 40 days and 40 nights.

Unfortunately, the seriousness of the visuals, of the sundrenched elephants, birds and giraffes boarding the ark are forced to share space with the comedy shenanigans of Donald Duck who has been assigned by Noah himself to get everyone organized.  But he’s distracted because one of the tenants of the ark has gone missing: his beloved Daisy.  This segment has a bizarre tone problem.  It moves between the slapstick comedy of Donald trying to get the animals on the ark, to his melancholy of losing track of Daisy and, of course, the tragedy of the approaching storm.  It is difficult to carp about a piece of animation that looks this glorious – it really looks beautiful – but again the tone of the story feels a bit jarring. 

Plus, the inclusion of “Pomp and Circumstance” is a bit jarring too.  Edward Elgar wrote the six marches as a series of musical pieces inspired by the presentation of the pageantry of a military procession before World War I killed off the notion of pomp and circumstance following men into war.  It’s modern iteration – bound in the most famous of the marches, “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 In D” – remains in the common culture as the procession music that follows a graduation ceremony.  So, in either form – as a military march or as a graduation accompaniment – how does it fit with Noah’s Ark?

* The Firebird Suite is probably the most current of all of the segments, dealing with the destruction and renewal of the environment – a very relevant topic at the end of the millennium, dealing with the vigilance of an elk and a water sprite (representing the rain) as they realize that a fire bird (a volcanic eruption) is about to destroy the natural landscape.  To try and describe this piece of animation on a book page would be an act of futility – this is not something to described.  It can only be experienced.

Suffice to say that The Firebird Suite is the most breathtakingly ambitious bits of animation done by Disney in the computer age, not only utilizing their modern technological advancements but also borrowing heavily from the Japanese influence, the minted popularity of anime, and all set to Stravinsky’s beautiful compositions.


So, what is the ultimate verdict?  Let us bow to critical consensus and agree that while it is entertaining, it is difficult to call Fantasia 2000 ground breaking.  The masterstroke of Walt’s original concept was that he was offering the audience something that they had never seen before, something that would break away from the standard form and structure of motion pictures that they were used to.  In tossing out the three-act structure, Fantasia challenges us – then and now – to rethink our expectations.  This concept was ahead of its time in a way that the general audience never quite caught up. 

Fantasia 2000 doesn’t really rise to that challenge.  It aims lower to meet the audience expectations and the radical thinking that went into the original is never really present here.  It is very entertaining, but given its lineage you kind of find yourself pining for a film that reaches rather than settles.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.