Classical Notes

Fantasia 2000 - Classical Tunes and Disney Cartoons

treble clef graphicIt was only a mere century or so ago that opera tunes were whistled in the street, folk songs provided the building blocks of great symphonies and there was no need for “crossover” ventures to bridge a gaping cultural divide between “serious” and “popular” music. But times surely have changed. Especially among kids, pop rules supreme and classical music has become anathema.

Now, along comes Fantasia 2000, one of the most ambitious attempts yet in the struggle to turn the masses on to classical music. But danger lurks among such noble intentions - by trying to popularize an elitist art, the result can co-opt its splendor and disserve its lofty purpose.

Disney's new superflick is a long overdue sequel. The 1940 trend-setting original began as a collaboration of Walt Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski to adapt Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice into a classy “Silly Symphony” cartoon. Ultimately, Fantasia grew into a feature-length compilation in which diverse animation styles complemented eight classical pieces from Bach to Stravinsky. While the Sorcerer's Apprentice, “starring” a mischievous Mickey Mouse, was the undeniable hit, most of the other segments were equally striking - the Sugar-Plum Fairy and Chinese mushrooms cavorting to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, the upheavals of a lava-drenched earth and battles of dinosaurs in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the graceful dancing hippos, elephants and alligators in Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, and the haunting elegance of the Ave Maria pilgrim march finale.

Fantasia had integrity. Each of its fantasies was firmly rooted in the connotations of its music and brilliantly achieved the creators' objective of making the classics accessible and relevant. The opening number neatly crystallized the whole concept. Beginning with majestic stylized silhouettes of Stokowski and his musicians, the images evolve into increasingly abstract forms suggested by the shapes of the instruments, as vibrant lines, sinuous curves, phallic peaks and sparkling walls of light trace the dramatic unfolding of Bach's Toccata and Fugue. To this day, it's a stunning example of the unique ability of music to transcend tangible associations to fuel unfettered imagination.

Hugely expensive for its time, Fantasia's technical opulence matched its artistic ambitions. The animation was state of the art - vibrant, strongly characterized and richly detailed. It still looks great, even on video. The music, too, set a new standard for exhibition. “Fantasound” featured nine recorded tracks mixed down to four for playback (left, center, right and rear), but rather than stereo as we have come to know it, the process was used to spotlight a particular instrument or section. The spatial perception was of essentially mono sound careening wildly around the audience. (Warning - if you're susceptible to motion-sickness, don't even think of listening to the current video edition with headphones!) While primitive by our modern standards, Fantasound was a staggering technological achievement in its day - and remember, this was before tape, so all the recording and mixing was done with optical soundtracks!

Although nowadays we remember Fantasia as one of Disney's greatest successes, in fact it was one of his few failures. Disney envisioned an ongoing project with annual editions combining classic and new episodes. His ambitious plan was doomed, though, by an America preoccupied with war preparations and the collapse of the European market. (Fantasia finally found its audience and turned a profit in re-release, thanks in no small part to its unwitting “psychedelic” overtones.)

Now, nearly 60 years later, nephew Roy has at last dusted off the baton, sharpened the color pencils and produced a long-awaited sequel. Like its forbear, the 2K version boasts the best and latest picture and sound technology. For its initial release, Fantasia 2000 is being showcased in IMAX theatres. The technology of this process is indeed impressive - each print is 5 miles long and weighs 350 pounds, the film frames are 15 times the size of standard 35 mm, and digital sound engulfs you with 12,000 watts in six channels.

Yet, Fantasia 2000 squanders these opportunities. Much of the animation itself is bland, and far too many shots fail to fill the enormous space of the five-story high screen with the detail and peripheral information that can draw you into an IMAX world. The sound, though, was just too damned loud. Please understand - I'm a child of the rock generation. I like volume. But impact requires contrast. All great musicians, from symphonists to rockers, know that you have to throttle things down once in a while for a climax to be effective. The constant din of Fantasia 2000 blunts the intended power of its musical emphases.

Part of the problem with the sound may have been audiences turning a blind eye (and deaf ear) to the spectacle. For the two shows I saw in the Waikiki IMAX (OK, so I'm not a beach person!), only a dozen others ventured into the cavernous 360-seat theatre. Perhaps more absorbent bodies would have lowered the volume and enriched the gratingly shrill fidelity.

Other frustrations stem from the producers' need to accommodate modern taste. Fantasia had been didactic, perhaps overly so - the erudite Deems Taylor hosted each segment and during an intermission introduced the novelty of stereo and even the soundtrack itself (although a real optical track barely resembles the Disney artists' cutesy depiction) - but now we get utterly irrelevant bits from such cultural luminaries as Steve Martin, Bette Midler and Penn and Teller. Much of the music is cruelly cut - less than half remains of the already concise Beethoven - and often bowdlerized - an Elgar march appears as a clumsy jumble of four fragments topped off by a full chorus and screaming soprano. (In fairness, Fantasia wasn't exactly a paradigm of authenticity either, reordering the Rite of Spring, paring half of the Beethoven Pastorale Symphony, and substituting the sugary Ave Maria for the restrained close of Mussorgsky's Night on Bare Mountain.) And while the original held attention for two hours plus intermission, the new show is a far quicker thrill, over in 75 minutes. The message offered is decidedly mixed, as if to say that a few slivers might be OK but a full dose of unadulterated music would be unbearable.

The specific segments of Fantasia 2000 are an eclectic grab-bag of styles, offering something for just about everyone. (I've noted the timings and, for abridgements, a “typical” duration):

  • Beethoven - Symphony # 5 (First Movement) (2:51 / as compared to a “normal” 6 1/2 or so). In a misguided attempt to emulate the striking Bach opening of the original, the introduction here randomly tosses together garish triangles, butterflies and thunder in a clash of the natural and abstract that makes no sense at all, either intrinsically or in relation to the huge drama of the Beethoven (or what little we get of it).

  • Respighi - The Pines of Rome (10:18 / 16). In a jolting collision of animation styles, a smooth rendering of soaring whales clashes against jerky, crude backgrounds and bubbles. The depiction follows the music quite literally, each cymbal crash illustrated with a bolt of lightning (much as the weakest episode of Fantasia treated the thunderclaps of the Beethoven Pastorale). Even so, the Disney artists know how to push just the right emotional buttons - the cavorting of cute babies is undeniably charming and the powerful finale makes a strong impression.

  • Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue (12:32 / 17). This poignant tale of soaring aspirations during a Manhattan workday is tangibly connected to the urban feel of the music. The episode is drawn in homage to the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld, whose bold, clean, modern visual style is a refreshing break from dense Disney realism.

  • Shostakovich - Piano Concerto # 2 (first movement) (7:22). This segment depicts its source of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” quite literally in bland Saturday-morning cartoon style. Unfortunately, the Toy Story movies and their ilk have raised the stakes on this type of animation and, sad to say, this portion is eclipsed by their formidable standard.

  • Saint-Saens - Carnival of the Animals (finale) (1:59). A flamingo gets tangled up in a yo-yo - it's intense, absurd, hilarious and reminiscent of the vivid personification that was a hallmark of classic Disney animation. It's so incredibly good that it leaves you aching for more, or perhaps an instant replay.

  • Dukas - The Sorcerer's Apprentice (9:33). In keeping with the original concept, there's a reprise of the wonderful segment from the original Fantasia. Despite six decades of computer animation and other alleged progress, it's still the star of this show and serves to remind us that artistic inspiration is timeless. But while evoking fond nostalgia, it also serves as a reminder that technology is a cruel and demanding master - the exaggerated contrast, dupey color and blurry grain of this copy are a pale reflection of the glorious IB Technicolor original and look truly awful when blown up to IMAX proportions.

  • Elgar - Pomp and Circumstance Marches (amalgam of #s 1, 2, 3 and 4) (6:18 / no comparison possible). Sir Edward wrote perfectly good marches, thank you very much, so it's unclear why “improvements” were needed; awkward transitions between shards of four marches render musical nonsense of the superb flow of the originals and a gratuitous concluding chorus and descant soprano will scour your ears out with IMAX intensity. The story has Donald Duck as Noah searching for his Daisy among the animals of his ark; while there's some trademark Disney fauna cuteness, the overall impact is mere trivialization. Even the animation is weak; while some impressive far shots of animals approaching from afar take advantage of the huge IMAX field of vision, other scenes are disappointingly static.

  • Stravinsky - The Firebird Suite (9:11 / 21). Best of all is the finale. Taken literally, the plot is trite nonsense - the forces of creation and innocence crushed by evil and then redeemed by a moose. Yet, the final sustained climax creates a huge emotional impact that stands as a soaring tribute to the power of music and movies - each art liberates our imagination but taken together they're even more potent. Despite the inconsistencies of the rest, this segment alone redeems Fantasia 2000 and, coming as it does at the end, concludes the entire venture on an overwhelmingly upbeat note.

It's easy to deprecate Fantasia 2000 from the lofty vantage of high culture. Even aside from the abridgements, the selections are conservative and the performances by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony are bland. Yet, like its illustrious forbear, Fantasia 2000 fundamentally respects music. Let's face it - classical music is being woefully neglected in most modern school curricula and has acquired a cultural stereotype as something aloof and inaccessible. Exposure to great music in contexts that don't completely crush its dignity can only help to compensate.

Will audiences bound out of Fantasia 2000 and into the nearest concert hall? Probably not. Like so many other good things in life, classical music is an acquired taste. But animation is a potent lure that can stimulate curiosity and exploration, especially among those who otherwise would have no interest at all in the classics. If the new Disney flick turns a few otherwise reluctant moviegoers on to the wonders of Beethoven, Gershwin or Stravinsky, it will have fulfilled Uncle Walt's noble vision.

True, it's just a cartoon. But you have to crawl before you can walk … or sprint … or dance.

Copyright © 2000 by Peter Gutmann

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