Directed by Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, and Paul and Gaetan Brazzi
Starring Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, Angela Lansbury
Achieving balance is one of the great high-wire acts of family films. Some filmmakers attempt to make universal pieces of entertainment, to appeal to adults as well as to children. Many don’t, but the best of the films from Walt Disney Pictures succeed at that balance, or at least try very hard and come close to succeeding. The most obvious example of a group of people trying to make something as accessible for kids as it is for adults, something that everyone can enjoy on some level, are the two (as of now) Fantasia films. Both movies work within the medium of animation to transcend commonly considered tropes of storytelling. But the people behind both films went about achieving that balance in different ways.
Fantasia is an impressive achievement, simply because it ever existed. Both in 1940 and now, a movie as elegant, mannered, and unfriendly to basic kiddie-style entertainment like that wouldn’t get made. Or, if it got made, it wouldn’t look the same. Perhaps it would look a bit closer to its sequel, Fantasia 2000. While both films have the same concept—animated segments set to different pieces of classical music—the execution is wildly different. Fantasia 2000 tries a bit too hard to appeal to kids, making the film a little less accessible to adults, where Fantasia perhaps tries too hard to appeal to adults, making it less accessible to the younger set. While each film has excellent segments—including a shared one—and standout animation, neither is wholly successful.
Who is this film for? This question is never fully answered, or has multiple answers within the same segment. I almost always avoid this kind of question, because when it comes to Disney films, wondering who the audience is can be dangerous. Typically, I’m not the target audience for a Disney movie, at least according to the marketers who work for or around the Walt Disney Company. But some of the films they make have an issue of who’s meant to get the most out of the film. Realistically, no matter what the film is, anyone should be able to get something out of it. Even if you don’t love horror as a genre, films such as Alien or Psycho work because they don’t operate under most of the obnoxious tropes that are driving the genre into the ground.
The basic point here is, a family movie should be for everyone, hence the descriptor “family.” Whether or not you have kids, you are part of a family. As such, entries in the genre are (or should be) aimed at you. Most family movies assume they’re just for kids, and assume those kids are idiots. Whatever flaws may be inherent in Fantasia 2000, I appreciate that the filmmakers tried for something a bit more highbrow than standard-issue family fare. But they too often attempt to please the younger crowd. On the one hand, I smile at the “Carnival of the Animals” sequence, where a flamingo with a yo-yo angers and frustrates his brothers and sisters. (Its brothers and sisters? Her? No idea.) But on the other hand, it’s awfully slight—I could be wrong, but if it’s over 5 minutes, I will eat a shoe—and feels almost tossed-off, considering how sparse the animation is outside of the characters themselves. The question you never want to ask with any movie is “Why am I watching this?” The question you don’t want to ask, but the one that comes up too often, with this movie is “Why is this sequence in the film?”
Most often in Fantasia 2000, the answer is something like, “Keeping kids entertained is most important to us.” The “Carnival of the Animals” sequence, the “Pomp and Circumstance” sequence, even repeating the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence. None of these are bad or unsuccessful—the latter sequence remains as potent and exciting today as I imagine it felt in 1940—but it somehow feels less mature than Fantasia ever felt, despite my misgivings. Donald Duck as the shepherd on Noah’s Ark could have been a more stately piece of work, but because Donald is typically a beacon of Disney-style wackiness and insanity, there’s a manic tone to the “Pomp and Circumstance” sequence. Moreover, the tonal differences here are far sharper than in Fantasia. Both films veer between somber respectfulness and goofiness, from the creation of life to dancing hippos or nutty flamingoes to an environmental polemic. But there’s a distinct feeling of whiplash inherent in jumping from Donald and Daisy Duck finding love during the fabled flood to a stately vision of life, death, and rebirth around a volcano.
The fact that the mostly uncontrollable shifts could’ve been made worse—for example, the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” sequence ends far happier than its source material by Hans Christian Andersen—doesn’t eliminate the feeling. What’s more, this scattered feeling is only emphasized by the interstitial sequences. Where the Deems Taylor-led interstitials in Fantasia were overly dry and dull, those in Fantasia 2000 are not only lighter, they’re shorter and more forgettable. There’s a good chance that you could combine all of the introductory sequences here, and they’d be shorter than a single Deems Taylor sequence. And they’re just as superfluous. The celebrity appearances, ranging from Quincy Jones to Steve Martin to Angela Lansbury, are a hodgepodge, a mélange of polite attempts at humor or gravitas.
Fantasia 2000 suffers greatly in comparison to its predecessor, yet is so frequently inviting that comparison. Obviously, being a sequel to such a vaunted film means it would be ridiculous and foolish to ignore the connection. But this film pales in every way, despite being enjoyable to watch. Like the original, Fantasia 2000 has eight segments but one is carried over from Fantasia, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Unlike the original, almost all of Fantasia 2000’s segments are very, very short compared to the massive, nearly half-hour “Rite of Spring” sequence. By minimizing the length but keeping the same number of sequences, the animators sacrifice a level of ambition. The longest piece here is the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment. While it’s my favorite of the entire film—and is nearly 20 percent of the running time—it feels far more rudimentary in its style as well as its scope.
I know what you’re thinking—isn’t the animation in that sequence inspired by the deliberately crude yet distinctive artwork of Al Hirschfeld? While you, dear reader, are quite right, and while I love the work of Mr. Hirschfeld, I wonder if the length given to this sequence could’ve been transferred to the climactic “Firebird Suite” segment. That one’s not my favorite, but it’s quite strong, and the animation is excellent. Expanding the world of that scene would’ve been more than welcome. Though these are, I guess, nitpicks in the grand scheme of things, a lot of nitpicks turns into something you can’t ignore. Fantasia 2000 should be as impressive and ambitious as Fantasia. Being a pale shadow isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially when that shadow isn’t as pale as it could be. But this movie really ought to be better.