A Kim Jong-Il Production: A True Story

Today I'd like to talk to you about the director of 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up.

It's been some time since my last book review, and I've been trying to keep away from that sort of thing (I've read a lot of books in 2017, and while they've mostly been great and I've got a lot to say about them, they haven't had much to do with movies). I haven't done a proper film review in some time, though I've got some planned. Don't get it twisted; movies are still my favorite act of escapism; I just read when I've got a little bit of downtime and I'd to look away from a screen for a bit. Ocular health is important, kids.

More to the point, I've just come across a book that needs to be talked about. North Korea is back in the news (really, it never leaves the news), and that led me to ponder about the world's most mysterious evil dictatorship. Specifically, I was reminded of a story I had read several years ago involving the abduction of a South Korean film director who was forced to make a particularly shitty Godzilla rip-off, who then made his own daring escape from the country in a story that really could have been made into a movie itself (and, in fact, it has).

I remembered the story recently, and decided to purchase A Kim Jong-Il production off Amazon on a whim. This is the best purchase I've made in a very long time. Paul Fischer has created a singularly spectacular work, a book which rises above every other book I've read on North Korea. It is the single greatest piece of literature I've read on film, even better than Harlan Ellison's Watching. Hell, it's the best damn book I've ever read, period. I'm completely serious.

Cast your mind back: it was the 1970s. The Beatles had gone their separate ways. The Miami Dolphins had a good football team. People thought Gallagher was funny. The world had discovered a few decent movies like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, Star Wars, Rocky, and the unforgettable Western classic, Trinity Is Still My Name. Kim Jong-Il had seen 'em all.

Well, maybe he hadn't seen Trinity yet.
That's a surprisingly pretty big deal for a North Korean - even someone with as much clout as a despot like Kim Jong-Il. See, in the world's merriest hellhole, it was (and remains, to my knowledge) illegal to consume foreign media without the watchful guidance of the state. The reasoning seems to have been if you watch a movie like Annie Hall, you might be tempted to turn capitalist - in an authoritarian state where you're forced to live as a socialist anyway. Heaven forfend someone watch a pro-capitalism movie like Blazing Saddles. Thus, the unwashed masses didn't get to watch classics like Alien and Animal House. There are special rules that apply when you're a psychotic megalomaniac who's deified by millions, though.

"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia!"

Kim Jong-Il was only the second-in-command at the time, but he still had nearly as much power and freedom as his father, Kim Il-Sung. He mostly used this to amass a frankly astonishing library of films; something like 20,000 movies were held in his private collection, and he watched all of 'em. I can't lie: I'm a little impressed. Then again, he admitted one of his favorite series was Friday the 13th, so it just goes to show that no matter how many movies you watch, it's not gonna improve your taste. Look at me; I've seen 1,200 movies and I still love John Leguizamo in Spawn.

As Kim Jong-Il stared forlornly out the window of one his many opulent villas, he grappled with an intense problem: why didn't people love his beautiful, perfect, picturesque country? Was it the authoritarian control that enforced a cult of personality on the heads of state? The mass starvation? The total lack of freedom? The multiple torture camps? No, Kim realized; it was none of the above. People didn't love North Korea because its movies sucked.

Kim Jong-Il was many things, but he wasn't completely delusional. He knew that North Korean cinema was significantly far behind the rest of the world in terms of quality. There are many reasons for this, and having a socialist dictatorship certainly didn't help (for more information on this, read page 333 of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty), but one of the reasons that's fairly obvious and more-than-fairly critical is that the rest of the world was free to pursue works of practically any nature, any genre, any message. In North Korea, all works have to glorify the wonder of the state in some capacity. This neuters the medium, as much as Kim refused to admit it. There had to be another reason. He decided it was a lack of talent.

Solution: kidnap the most famous actress in South Korean history, Choi Eun-hee, and force her to make movies for you. Kim Jong-Il did just that. She was less than thrilled about the prospect, naturally. That wasn't enough, though: he then moved on to kidnap the most famous director in South Korean history, Shin Sang-Ok, and told him to make some movies for the clearly superior North Korea. It's important to note that the book is really more about these two individuals, and the fascinating lives they led. They were huge in South Korea (which wasn't a particularly fun place to live after the Korean War), and Kim Jong-Il knew it. Shin and Choi had even been married, but they divorced later and lost touch somewhat. After the kidnappings, neither knew what had become of the other. Shin made two daring escape attempts (each would be excellent scenes in a Hollywood thriller), but he was caught and sent to a North Korean torture camp.

I have to say something important here.

Throughout this piece - and every piece I've posted here - I've made a variety of jokes about this, that, and the other thing. I cannot make any jokes about the North Korean torture camps. They are among the darkest marks in the history of humanity. Every description of them chills your blood and damages your soul. They are pure evil. The horror that comes from these dark places is enough for me to warn any prospective reader: things get more than a little intense. It only gets more terrifying when you realize they still exist today - and everything that means. North Korea is a nightmare.

It took some time, but Shin eventually cracked. He finally agreed to make Kim's damned movies. Kim loved this. He invited both Shin and Choi to one of his massive secret parties, with singing, dancing, massive alcohol, and the Joy Brigade (teenage girls well trained in the art of "entertaining") running around. These were fruits that 99% of North Korea could not only enjoy, but not even know about. You had key members of the military, government elites, and the aforementioned Joy Brigade; everyone sycophantic in their praise of Kim Jong-Il. There, they met for the first time in years.

Shin had been in a torture camp just days before this picture was taken.

Shin and Choi were very happy to be reunited, and they quickly fell back in love (they even remarried, in a very heartwarming moment). They also set to work making movies for the state, but they did something else that was even more important: they set to work surreptitiously recording their conversations with Kim Jong-Il. This was extremely risky, but it was essential to prove their innocence: people thought they willingly defected to the North, and Kim forced them to admit this in public. The tapes would prove otherwise.

Shin and Choi went on to make the best films in North Korean history. This doesn't sound like much, but a couple of these movies are pretty damn good in their own right. Salt is an enjoyable watch, for instance. Unfortunately, Shin was also forced to direct Pulgasari, which might very well be the worst kaiju movie ever made (and if you know the genre as well as Mr. Pataki does, that's saying something). Basically, imagine if Godzilla was a parable about the virtues of socialism.

Excellent fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000

Back on planet earth: Shin and Choi had been gaining more and more respect from the world's shortest evil dictator, and were even allowed to go to Vienna. Not a particularly brilliant move on Kim's part, considering what Vienna represented to the world at that time in history. There, they engineered a daring escape from their omnipresent North Korean minders, leading to a thrilling taxi chase that ended with them taking refuge in the American embassy. They then relocated to Reston, Virginia.

The very place I now call home.

This book is the most incredible true story I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It's better than most fictional stories, to be perfectly frank. One of my favorite things is the appendix, where all of the author's sources are listed in meticulous detail. It is a very sad, unfortunate thing that some people still doubt this story; Paul Fischer does an excellent job at the end of the book of dispelling any doubt as to the veracity of the story's events. Choi Eun-hee was asked what she wanted everyone to take away from her account, and she said this: "That the truth is the truth." I think this book conveys that masterfully.

An important note is that the basis of the story itself, that an evil dictator wanted to improve his nation's film industry so much that he kidnapped two people to make a shitty Godzilla knock-off, is pretty funny on its face, and indeed much of the book is farcical, but it's nowhere near as funny as I thought it would be. That's not at all a bad thing. The story is thrilling, mystifying, horrifying, tragic, touching, fascinating, and shocking. Even if you're as well-versed in North Korean history as I am, you're still finding yourself white-knuckling the pages and staying up to find out what happens next. I slept 13 hours over a period of three days while reading this book (combined with my 10-hour days at work), and I don't regret a second of it.

There was a time in Bill Clinton's life where every gift he gave to people was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. This might be something I will emulate in the future, giving everyone a copy of A Kim Jong-Il production. I know it's not Anna Karenina, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or The Art of War. I don't care. I love this book more than any other I've ever read, and I want everyone to know about it. If you see it delivered to you at some point in the mail, expect it as a present from me. Happy birthday. Merry Christmas. Blessed Solstice. Whatever. You all need to read this book. Everyone needs to know this story. It's not about coming to grips with the iniquitous system of governance in North Korea; it's about learning the extraordinary journey of two incredible people.

Please buy this book. Also, make sure to check out our podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and GooglePlay. It's the second-best podcast ever made.

Tekken: The Motion Picture - Somehow Not the Worst Tekken Iteration

Someone actually drew this.

Tekken: The Motion Picture

Directed by: Kunihisa Sugishima
Written by: Ryota Yamaguchi
Starring: nobody
Runtime: under an hour

I'm not entirely sure how long it's been since I began writing about the Tekken series, but I've never been one to give up on finishing what I start (unless it's my dreams). It's not like this has been a special review, long in the making: I've just been putting it off because I know exactly what it is. For me personally, Tekken died right after Tekken 3, so the initial plan was only to write about anything from the first game to the third, with anything in between. Sadly, this includes the anime that Japan saw fit to release on January 21st, 1998.

Take a seat, I'm gonna be straight with you folks: this was a risky venture on Namco's part to begin with. As mentioned a year or so ago, fighting games aren't especially adept in the story department; we all saw what happened with the hilariously inept Mortal Kombat animated short, and no one's in a hurry to make another Street Fighter adaptation for fairly obvious reasons. All that being said, I've made the case - and I stand by it - that Tekken has by and large featured a more believable and easily-followed storyline than its competitors. I mean it. Yes, the game with the battling dinosaurs, bears, and demons. Really says more about Dead or Alive than it does about Tekken when you stop and think about it.

I suppose I should divulge my honest thoughts on anime here, as I'm bound to step on some toes here: I'm not a fan. Don't get me wrong, there's some good stuff out there: Cromartie High School, Death Note, Cowboy Bebop, Akira, and the year's best movie, Your Name. Here's the problem: that's all the anime I've ever enjoyed. I don't count Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I'm not sure whether I can include the American dub of Ghost Stories (both of which I enjoyed immensely, for what that's worth). No, I do not want, do not need, and will not heed your recommendations. I've seen every Hayao Miyazaki movie, didn't like any of them. I don't have time for Naruto or Bleach or FullMetal Alchemist. Save your pocky-flavored breath. I'm not going to sit here and pretend that all anime is obnoxiously perverted; that would be like saying all glam rockers are pedophiles. I respect the medium; I just so rarely see respectful work from those in the field. If you want to know my problems with anime, just look up Rosario + Vampire, any episode chosen at random.

When last we spoke, we had just finished up the events of Tekken 2, a somewhat underappreciated classic that played great and even had a fun storyline just because of how little was revealed (the characters never spoke). Buckle up, the anime's going to have full voice acting for nearly everyone. It's also a loose interpretation of Tekken 2, so if you were thinking you might get to see what it would be like for Lei to chase Yoshimitsu between tournaments, keep dreaming (as I do).

We start off with some serious-minded gentleman yelling about serious fighting is and how seriously we need to take fighting, before segueing into child Kazuya comforting child Jun in her dream.

This is going to feel a lot longer than 60 minutes.

Already hard at work on growing out those magnificent eyebrows, I see.

We all know how this is going to end: Heihachi grabs his son by the scruff o' the neck, tells him if he's truly strong, he'll be able to climb back up this cliff, and launches him like Rex Grossman launching a standard five yard hitch.

Go on, fling him sidearm! Go for distance!

Turns out it was all a dream. Like, it actually happened, but (adult) Jun Kazama was reliving it, despite not being there in the first place. It's a side effect of her psychic powers, and already it's becoming more and more difficult to believe my own words that the series is easier to follow and believe than any other fighting game franchise. Just try to bear with me on this one.

It's really not that bad - the remains of some sort of long-extinct reptile were found by a fishing boat, lending credence to the idea that the Mishima Conglomerate has been performing genetic experiments on dinosaurs. Already I'm into this idea entirely; the sooner we get to dinosaurs with boxing gloves, the sooner I'll forgive the absolutely shameless shower scene, inserted because they had to have *some* way to keep up with the Street Fighter anime. Yes, that exists. No, you're not getting a screenshot. I have dignity.

Jun is tasked by 3WC, some sort of government organization, to investigate the Mishima Conglomerate and figure out exactly what's going on there. Certainly a bit of a step up from the World Wildlife Foundation she was representing in the second game. That's not going to be easy, though; the Mishima Conglomerate is guarded like a fortress and owns 70% of the world's defense industry. The only avenue open to Jun is to enter the King of Iron Fist Tournament, which you'd think they'd pick someone else for. Jun looks like she weighs 119 lbs soaking wet; this is a prime job for anyone from the Expendables movies. Apparently her bogus fighting style is enough to instill confidence in whatever 3WC is, and she's sent in alongside Lei Wulong, who greets her by throwing a punch at her while her back is turned and screaming like a howler monkey. Typical Philadelphia greeting.

The voice acting in this pretty well below average, and it really becomes noticeable in the next scene when Heihachi talks to Lee Chaolan, his adopted son (who I never really got was a big deal in the second game till I went on the internet). Lee's voice actor speaks in a nasally drone, like the weird kid in math class who thinks nothing could be more fascinating than differential equations.

One of the things I loved about the first three Tekken games is the music, and I was worried that I'd be subjected to some absurd J-rock whiner that would make me have to turn on subtitles. Not so, for a pleasant surprise rears its beautiful head: "Clean My Wounds" by Corrosion of Conformity. There's not much you can do to match the big beat of Tekken 3, but throwing in some late nineties butt rock is probably the best thing you could possibly do. What's butt rock, you ask? Pretty much any sort of not-quite-heavy-metal-definitely-harder-than-punk-rock musical interlude with CHUGG CHUGG CHUGGing guitars and lyrics about the invisible wounds in your soul. Basically, if you procrastinated on doing your homework while listening to it, there's a good chance you were listening to butt rock. There are songs by Soulhat, Stabbing Westward, The Urge, and even The Offspring. I've never felt so safe in an anime's poorly-drawn hands.

Lee thinks there's no reason for Heihachi to be worried about his son - you know, the one he tried to murder in cold blood - possibly being a bit miffed about that and coming back for revenge. Turns out he's working with Nina Williams, which doesn't bother me at all; the question of who she's working for is a question even she isn't able to reliably answer during the course of the games.

Nina then goes onto ambush Kazuya while he's sleeping in a hotel room. I must admit, seeing a trained assassing use an assault rifle and a grenade makes a lot more sense than her using aikido. Kazuya and his incredibly deep voice escape the explosion; Nina somehow gets away too. He tells her to "let my father know: he should clean his neck while he's waiting for me." I don't know what that means.

Turns out Lee is two timing Nina with her sister Anna behind the former's back (and probably behind the latter's back, if the evening goes well for him). Meanwhile, Lee and Jun plan for the tournament. They approach the boat, only to witness a fight between Jack-2 and Bruce. Jack-2 (no Russian accent? really?) beats the tar out of the kickboxer (which is bullshit first of all, Bruce is such a better character than Jack-2), and is allowed on board the boat to Heihachi Island, as I've come to know it spiritually. You never see Bruce again either, it's a real tragedy. It's almost as bad as the artwork in this thing.

Anime is art, and I will not have you besmirch the noble name of my beloved medium, gaijin.

When the boat sets sail, Kazuya jumps from a bridge onto the deck because this was made in Japan. He confronts Lee and...nothing happens. They make it safely to the island. Complete swing and a miss with the bat slipping out of your hands and into the stands, goofus. At least Enter the Dragon had the good sense to make the boat ride somewhat entertaining.

This is the only time you get to see Kuma.

It quickly becomes clear that this is more of a mishmash of Tekken and Tekken 2. Kazuya is out to get revenge on his father, and Jun is going to investigate him just as much as she investigates his father. Whatever, I guess I can dig it, although the coolest part of Tekken 2 was that Heihachi was front and center as the protagonist rather than obscured in the shadows like he is here. Jun confronts Kazuya and shows him a locket that she somehow possesses. I thought she got it via dream powers, like in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it turns out it wasn't entirely a dream - she really was there as a child, just as much as he was. We're full on retconning here (not that future games won't do that), but not to worry - this anime isn't considered canonical. It is somewhat distressing, however, that such a thing as the Tekken canon exists in the first place.

In a pretty humiliating bit of exposition, Kazuya explains nonchalantly that he survived the fall in the chasm only because he made a deal with the devil in order to get revenge on his father. It's one of those things that might've been more compelling if conveyed with the art of moving pictures, but I guess words are cool too. It's not like anime is a visual medium or anything.

Jun and Kazuya are arguing about whether revenge is acceptable in a story that's entirely about fighting, when the tenor of the atmosphere changes somewhat: Nina reappears with a garrote wound tightly around Kazuya's neck. Jun saves him, Nina attacks with a knife and screws that up too. Anna comes in to rebuke her with rude words and a bazooka. I probably would have enjoyed this when I was eight years old, but it's more than a bit bombastic for a series based around martial arts. You wouldn't see a Bruce Lee movie subjecting itself to this stuff.

These are the only times you will see Yoshimitsu, Armor King, Law, Paul, Baek, and King. I'm HEATED

The next morning, everyone is gathered outside on the beach to finally meet the big fella in charge, Heihachi Mishima himself. Jun tells Lei that she has no intention of fighting in the tournament, and I believe her: the anime focuses very little attention on fighting, and is far more devoted to infiltration, talking, and glaring. Heihachi addresses the combatants, most of whom we'll never see again, but he's interrupted by Michelle, who leaps into the air and tosses a tomahawk at him (you know, the one we saw in the Tekken opening that we never see her use in the games?), only for this to happen:

No wonder you guys like anime.

There's no denying it's the best part of the movie and one of the best moments in Tekken history. I don't even care if it's not canonical; this anime is worth watching just for this one moment. I could comment on how much of a pity it is that you only get to see Baek, Kazuya, Ganryu, and Michelle fighting for about eight seconds afterward, but all I'm going to be thinking about is that tomahawk chomp.

Lei and Jun split off from the group to begin their infiltration of the Mishima complex. We see Jack-2's backstory explained (he's searching for Dr. Boskonovich to save Alice) and we see Michelle's motivations explained (Heihachi burned her village and killed her father), neither of which is particularly breathtaking, but it leads to a hilarious moment: Kazuya is about to kill Michelle with a heel drop, only to be stopped by Jun. Kazuya says "...it's you" and I swear to the lord almighty that he sounds just like an adult Dooley from King of the Hill. As if that's not enough, it's immediately followed by Jack-2 using his eye lasers to hack into a security code to reveal a secret passage, leading Lei to ask "Hey! What the Hell is that?!" in a dead-on impression of Jerry Seinfeld. This anime might actually be growing on me.

Some more bullshit happens that isn't worth the hours of sleep I'm losing writing this to explain in any sort of detail, when Anna gets killed (!) by a camouflaging dinosaur (!!). Lee reveals to no one in particular that this was his plan all along, that he has no use for the King of Iron Fist Tournament and plans to dominate the world with a race of invisible dinosaurs. Not gonna lie, this isn't a bad moment at all.

Kazuya fights off the invisible dinosaurs and defeats Lee with one punch. Makes sense to me; he was pretty overpowered in Tekken 2. Heihachi and his biological son commence to fighting while running through the island's forest; meanwhile Lee takes out his frustration by murdering all of the operators in his secret underground computer lab. This whole time I thought they were robots because of their monotone voices - this is the level of voice acting you had to accept in the late nineties. Heihachi makes a big speech about how humanity generally sucks and the only way to deal with that is to raze the planet to the ground and build a new society atop the rubble. I wonder who makes the cut; if it's just the King of Iron Fist competitors, I guess I'm down. Lee decides to blow up the building he's currently in for some reason, and the island starts to self destruct. Islands can do that; haven't you seen Kong: Skull Island?

Anyway, time for the big climax: Jun convinces Kazuya not to kill his father because murder is bad or something. The island stirs up a volcano (I think?) and everyone but Heihachi escapes the island. Kazuya lives. He and Jun have a son named Jin, though Kazuya is apparently a deadbeat since he's nowhere to be found. It's clear the makers of this anime never played the games, and I have no idea what they were going for, but at least I got to see a guy with ridiculous eyebrows uppercut a dinosaur.

What have we learned?

Honestly...it really wasn't a complete waste of time, and that's high praise for an anime when it's coming from me. I'm not going to pretend like this is something you should spend money on, and it's definitely aided by its short run time (a second over 60 minutes and it would have overstayed its welcome), but it's an enjoyable watch for fans of the series, and almost as enjoyable for people who have no familiarity with Tekken. The voice acting is abysmal, sure, but that's part of the fun. I love the goofy ass eyebrows on the Mishima family, I love the ridiculousness of the tomahawk and dinosaur scenes, I love Lei's stupid yells, I love the Williams sisters' penchant for high explosives, I love the butt rock, and I love how ludicrous the whole thing is. 

That's not to say this is a pure good-bad anime, though. The mispronounced names really cheese me off, and worse there's a real distinct lack of fighting. It can't be that hard to animate an entertaining fight; Dragonball Z did it at least once an episode. The shower scene is completely shameful and exploitative, and it goes against a lot of what I appreciated so much about Tekken. There's also the massive amount of blood, which isn't so much bad; it's just weird. Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against blood; Evil Dead 2 is one of my all-time favorite movies, regardless of genre, and it's one of the bloodiest movies ever made. It's just like...my younger brother and I used to try out these moves on each other, and (owing to our skill at wrestling and high pain tolerances) it was a lot of fun. Drawing blood was a sign that we definitely took things too far, that the game wasn't fun anymore. That's not to say that Tekken: The Motion Picture isn't fun - it's a lot of fun in a small package - but the blood is a bit odd in a game that doesn't feature any blood (besides Yoshimitsu's ending in Tekken 3).

Still, there are a hell of a lot of worse ways to spend your time. You could be playing Tekken 4, for example. You could watch the live action Tekken movie. With Tekken: The Motion Picture, you can watch something fun and goofy in under an hour on a Wednesday night and still have time to get in some rounds on Tekken 3, one of the greatest works of art ever constructed. Speaking of, I think it's time to reward myself.

Now this is going to be a fun review.

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Announcing Our New Terrible Podcast

Terrible Podcast for Terrible Listeners

It is my great pleasure to announce to everyone who's been following this site that, in order to diversify the content we provide on an entirely irregular basis, Big Bob Pataki and I have collaborated on a brand new podcast. Mr. Pataki has seen fit to name it Reel Deal, No Sex Appeal (he confesses he can't even remember coming up with this name), and I wholeheartedly endorse it for its accuracy, if nothing else. 

This has been a small struggle; we're very new to the podcast game, so we've taken some time to work out the kinks of recording, scheduling, and crafting the content. We're taking our time because we give a shit. We work hard at what we do, and we truly believe that what we put on here is worthy of your time and worth consuming. A fair warning: our first episode, on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, honestly isn't great; my mic was way too loud and overmodulated. Our second episode, on Wonder Woman, is much better. We'll try for some semblance of consistency as far as releases go, but we're both going to be working overnights soon, so there are some kinks to be worked out.

Some basic facts: we're hosting this audio nonsense on soundcloud. You can certainly listen to the podcast there, if you'd like. Go ahead, click this link: https://soundcloud.com/user-538895427. If you prefer more conventional methods of tuning in, I highly advise searching for us on iTunes and Google Play or whatever the equivalent is for Android users. Like, subscribe, unsubscribe, resubscribe, rate, comment, etc. E-mail me at butts@terribleblog.net for other inquiries.

The absolutely stunning cover art was conceptualized, designed, drawn, and created by the incomparable Krystal Miner. There is no other image on God's grey earth that better represents what exactly we're all about. All credit to her for understanding better than I when it came to what I was looking for.


Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000

Fantasia was released some 77 years ago, a result of Walt Disney's misreading of the citizenry's support for animation. What should have been the zenith of Joe Public's recognition of animation as high art was instead a masterpiece that didn't make any profit until 1969 - 29 years after its initial release - and even then it was released as a sort of gimmick with a psychedelic-styled advertising campaign (if you need drugs to enjoy Fantasia, there is something dangerously wrong with you). Featuring some of the most beautiful animation the world had ever seen set to some of the most beautiful music the world had ever heard, with the entire crew working the hardest they ever had or would, the movie should have been the biggest thing to hit the art world, more powerful than a revolution - a giant steel obelisk standing as testament that none before or since would compare to the majesty of Disney.

But it didn't make enough money.

The problem wasn't that people disagreed; the word just didn't spread. Nearly everyone who saw Fantasia loved it; it received incredible praise from incredulous critics, and while I'm not a time traveler from the 1940s, I can safely assume most members of the culturally unwashed liked what they saw. Even so, it wasn't nearly as successful as Disney's previous ventures. Maybe the Night on Bald Mountain segment was too scary for kids. Maybe the evolution depicted in The Rite of Spring was too controversial. Maybe people just decided to go see Rebecca instead. Maybe, at over two hours, the movie was just too damned long. Maybe people cared more about World War II. Whatever the reason, the length or the war, Walt Disney realized his dreams were no more: he had been so enraptured with the thought of Fantasia being both a cultural milestone and a financial moneytree that the initial plan was to rerelease the film every couple of years, with a couple of changes. Remove a segment here, add a segment in its place, and if you accidentally remove a fan favorite, you can swap it back in later. It was a fairly ingenious idea.

But it didn't make enough money. 

So the idea floundered and eventually dissipated into the ether. Fantasia itself was re-released with no changes repeatedly in multiple attempts to recoup their losses. After the re-release returns in 1990 coupled with the ensuing video purchases, Disney was finally ready to reconsider the idea (if 1990 seems particularly far removed from the late 1999 release date, remind yourself that animation – particularly Disney animation, particularly Fantasia animation - is an intricate process that takes a significant amount of time; the movie was largely worked on between other feature films). Eventually it was decided that Fantasia 2000 would be released with (almost) entirely new segments. The final product of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s combined – and not insignificant – efforts is a bit of a mess, at times so brilliant it greatly surpasses the original, and at times so abysmal that it’s an insult to compare it to the original. I find it easiest to break this movie down into sections, mostly to analyze each segment as though Fantasia 2000 were an anthology film, even though I guess that’s not really what it is. I would’ve done this for the original Fantasia but I don’t have anything to say about the segment where the alligator dances with the hippopotamus. What do you want from me?

Symphony No. 5 (1st Movement) by Ludwig van Beethoven

Immediately – the very second you fire this up on Netflix, it’s made clear that this is unlike the vast majority of Disney feature films. The animation is so much better than that of The Lion King, or Cinderella, or…I don’t know, Home on the Range. One is compelled to lean forward a bit, to quiet down, to put the phone away. The image of paint cascading down from the clouds into a shapeless void is such an excellent way to begin this movie, and even then it’s the music that does the heavy lifting. Harkening back to the first Fantasia is a pretty safe move; it’s showing respect to the studio and the art form at what many argue was each entity’s peak. While the first movie opted to show some abstract images set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Beethoven’s fifth symphony is set to abstract images with a bit more direction; it seems as though two critters made out of triangles are family, trying to escape from a deadly flock of enemy triangle critters. It sounds odd, and of course it is, but when I saw it in a glorious IMAX theater at the tender age of 10-years-old, it was just perfect – the find wanders all over, and in a very good way. You’re invited to wonder at the motivations of these pseudo-characters, all while viewing stunning animation and beautiful music. It’s not as good as the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from 1940, but that’s a high bar to set, and Beethoven’s Fifth sits firmly in the same ballpark. I remember watching this in theaters, thinking it’d be another typical Disney affair, and instantly thinking I had better treat this more maturely, that I had to set a good example for my 8-year-old brother and my 3-year-old sister. There wasn’t going to be any forced comedy or

Steve Martin

God dammit. If you’ve never seen this film, I’m not trying to turn you off, but there are celebrity cameos. The first thing you see after this excellent segment is Steve Martin at his dirt worst, trying desperately to fit in with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and doing a miserable job of it, while also not being funny. Steve Martin is and always has been monstrously overrated, but he’s just so abysmal in this that it’s a) a wonder that he was ever famous at all and b) that no one looked at this and thought about replacing him with someone with more talent, like maybe Gallagher. This is what I meant when I said there were times where Fantasia 2000 gets so awful and pedantic that it seems like a slap in the face to the original. Fantasia’s Deems Taylor had dignity; it didn’t treat its audience like children or adults, but rather as humans – humans that needed cultural enrichment of the highest order. Fantasia 2000 has Steve Martin acting completely unlikeable (moreso than usual, I mean). Compare these quotes, if you will:

Deems Taylor: "How do you do? My name is Deems Taylor, and it's my very pleasant duty to welcome you here on behalf of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and all the other artists and musicians whose combined talents went into the creation of this new form of entertainment, "Fantasia". What you're going to see are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good. Now there are three kinds of music on this "Fantasia" program. First, there's the kind that tells a definite story. Then there's the kind that, while it has no specific plot, does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. And then there's a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake. Now, the number that opens our "Fantasia" program, the "Toccata and Fugue", is music of this third kind, what we call "absolute music". Even the title has no meaning beyond a description of the form of the music. What you will see on the screen is a picture of the various abstract images that might pass through your mind, if you sat in a concert hall listening to this music. At first, you're more or less conscious of the orchestra. So our picture opens with a series of impressions of the conductor and the players. Then the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination. They might be... oh, just masses of color, or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space. So now we present the "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" by Johann Sebastian Bach, interpreted in pictures by Walt Disney and his associates, and in music by the Philadelphia Orchestra and its conductor, Leopold Stokowski."

Steve Martin: "Oh! Oh, sorry. Could I have another stick thingy, please? Oh, and camera back on me? Camera back on me. Ca-…Am I done?"

Thank goodness Itzahk Perlman (no relation to Ron) is able to save this debacle by introducing the next segment. He tells us that the Disney animators thought of something very different from trees lining the street when creating the next segment. This is what Fantasia is all about: taking familiar classical works and just animating something creative, even if it’s not at all related to the title of the music. I guess I wouldn’t have minded Ron Perlman instead of Steve Martin.

Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi

Like I said, this is what Fantasia is all about. Rather than seeing a bunch of trees lining a street, the audience is treated to a number of magical flying whales that break out of the ocean and into the sky. Pines of Rome, the most beloved fan favorite in Fantasia 2000, is one of those movies that more than justifies the IMAX release of this movie. What it does is necessitates the use of IMAX. While the movie is totally watchable on your television, you really need to see this on an IMAX screen to get a scope of just how big it is. This was a bit of a risky segment too; the animation is almost all done by computers, and not by Pixar. It’s all Disney, in-house. I think they succeeded for the most part (they still drew the eyes by hand, as computer generated imagery simply wasn’t sufficient at portraying realistic eye movement, but I couldn’t possibly begrudge a studio for taking the easy way out if it makes the movie better). The Pines of Rome segment is so good that it’s hard to believe it was written in 1924; it feels like it was written specifically for this animation. This is Fantasia doing what it does best.

Quincy Jones

Eh, he’s fine.

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

Back we saunter to the childhood of 10-year-old Chris, down the road of recall to a distinct memory that is forever etched into the contours of my skull. I remember before the music started up, my mother leaned over to me and whispered that this was the first song by an American composer in a Fantasia movie. I wasn’t particularly sure of the significance, but I straightened up. This must be a pretty big deal if a grown-up thought to tell a kid who was more interested in LEGOs than classical music composition. I can say now with some level of certainty that I think I do realize the significance – it’s not that America suddenly joined the rest of the civilized world by appearing in a movie with a talking cartoon mouse, but it is a legitimization of the art form amongst Americans. There are a lot of classical songs that even the culturally unwashed are familiar with (you all know the tunes, even if you don’t know the names), but the fast majority of them hail from Europe. To pick one from America – that a song by an American is so good that it deserved to be recognized by the greatest animation studio in history – is something worth whispering to a 10-year-old so he takes note.

Rhapsody in Blue was, at the time, my favorite Fantasia 2000 segment (until I saw the ending). The entire introduction of drawing the scene as the music plays is a major throwback to the original Fantasia in a very good way. That’s not just because of the Al Hirschfeld-inspired art work (although that’s a major reason I loved it), but the music (the longest running piece in the film) is set so perfectly with the action on-screen that I can’t imagine one without the other. Just like how Pines of Rome will always make me think about flying whales, Rhapsody in Blue will forever make me think of bustling life in the busy city – of an inept young girl who just wants to be with her parents, of a jobless man who just wants to be productive to society, of a man in the wrong job who just wants to create music, of a henpecked man who just wants to be free. I don’t know if this one of those segments that would get swapped out in an alternate timeline in which Fantasia 2000 was successful enough to warrant sequalage with swapped-out segments, but Rhapsody in Blue deserves to be mentioned with The Rite of Spring as one of the iconic Fantasia segments.

Bette Midler
Why? Who? What?

Sorry, let me try to regain my composure.

Why was the decision made to cast celebrities, and of all people, why Bette Midler? Who was idiot executive who thought to himself so triumphantly, “Yeah, we’ll get that lady from Hocus Pocus  - you know, the one who had a voice like a seagull getting an enema - that’s what the people want!”? What was so wrong with just keeping the conductor talking about the pieces and the animation? As soon as Midler says “Hi!” you’re instantly reminded that this is a corporate product, that the importance of the success of the movie financially outweighs the importance of the success of the movie artistically. I’m not going to pretend like that’s surprising; we live in America, a capitalist state, and everyone’s political proclivities aside, capitalism has gotten Disney where it is today. However, there was something noble in Fantasia’s failure 77 years ago. Walt Disney believed in his art far more than he believed in his pocketbook, and the movie showed. Of course he wanted it to be financially successful. He just cared more about it being good. Casting Bette Midler to introduce anything is like Hillary Clinton dancing on Ellen. It reeks of desperation in appealing to the masses and is more embarrassing than it is relateable.

Maybe I’m just mad because I would have preferred Lucy Lawless at the time.

Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro, Opus 102 by Dmitri Shostakovich

Yes, this is the nadir of the movie. The most forgettable segment in either movie involves a fairly forgettable piece with fairly forgettable animation depicting a fairly forgettable story. While Disney’s first outing with 100% computer animation doesn’t look bad by any means, it never approaches the slopes of the colossal mountain that was the Pines of Rome segment. Nothing about this segment stands out at all, though I have to admit it’s frustrating when the tin soldier sees a bunch of terrifying rats and just stands there, since that’s pretty much all he does. The joy of Fantasia 2000, however, is that as bad as things get, they’re never actually bad. If this had been released on its own, perhaps before another movie, I might have thought it was harmless enough. It just doesn’t belong in a Fantasia movie. What irony that Midler had the unmitigated audacity to talk about other attempts at segments that just didn’t quite make the cut…right before a segment that shouldn’t have made the cut.

I would be remiss if I did not relate this personal anecdote: in 2014 I taught young children in South Korea. Every day I chose a book from the library to read to the especially young (5-years-old) girls in the kindergarten class. I made the near-fatal mistake of choosing a book written by Hans Christian Anderson, a man of extraordinarily literary prowess and presumably a total lack of any sort of joy in his miserable existence. Please do not ever read The Christmas Tree  or The Little Mermaid, as either story will flay the hope from your soul and rend the happiness from your heart. Similarly, the story of The Steadfast Tin Soldier was a terrible book to read to the girls, and not just because “steadfast” is a difficult word to teach a young non-native prospective English speaker. The original ending has both the soldier and ballerina burning in the fire. After I got done reading it, the girls looked at me as squirrels who’d just lost their favorite walnut to a grizzly bear. I decided the day would be better spent composing new endings to the story. So yeah, I’d rather read a story by Heo Joon-Ah, age five, of Yeongtong, South Korea, than by Hans Christian Anderson.

James Earl Jones

Now this isn’t so bad. Not only was JEJ actually in an animated Disney feature (no, I don’t care that Bette Midler was in Oliver & Company, she’s still awful), but he’s got the kind of voice befitting a work of art like Fantasia 2000. They really could have had him as the Master of Ceremonies like Deems Taylor was in Fantasia, but that’s outside our control now. Really, honestly, truly listen to his voice – I’m completely serious when I say I’d rather have him narrate my life than Morgan Freeman. He really does lend a sense of refinement to a movie that features a flamingo with a yo-yo th-

The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns

Really? We’re doing this? Alright.

Often considered by many to be the weakest segment in either Fantasia or Fantasia 2000, this segment gets bad-rapped by far too many people. It’s short, harmless, and gone before you’ve even noticed it, and even a decent palate cleanser after the mostly worthless Steadfast Tin Soldier bit. Yes, The Carnival of the Animals stands out for not taking itself seriously when the point of Fantasia is to take itself seriously, but I suppose I’m particularly impressed by the fact that it was all animated by one guy. I can’t even imagine that. It was also my mom’s favorite segment, so I guess I’m biased.

Penn & Teller

Look, really, c’mon, I like Penn and Teller, they’re both very funny and talented individuals and deserve recognition as one of the great comedy duos of our time, but this isn’t their venue. This isn’t right. They don’t belong here. Their introduction isn’t funny, it isn’t informative, and it isn’t even based in fact. The least they could do would be to inform the audience that they kept the most iconic segment from Fantasia to show again in Fantasia 2000 – then cut the mics before they revealed this was only a gross attempt to appeal to familiarity with famous imagery than selecting the best segment(s) from the original film. I’m not saying they had to include A Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria, and I can see why they chose it, but it just makes the movie seem hollow. As it stands, this celebrity cameo is somehow less dignified than casting Bob & Doug McKenzie as those two moose in Brother Bear.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

It is not within my job description to make bones about anything. I do not now, nor have I ever, nor do I find it likely in that I will in the future, enjoy The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Back in 1940, I’m sure it was impressive. This was the best Mickey ever looked (they even finally gave him real eyes), and it’s clear to see how this influenced the rest of Fantasia. The idea originally was just to release this as a short, but that didn’t make sense financially, so they released it as part of Fantasia, which didn’t pay off for nearly three decades. This segment just bores me; the water doesn’t look right, I don’t particularly care about Mickey outside of the fact that I don’t like seeing him screw up like this, his shoes look stupid, and the silhouetted destruction of the broom is really kinda grisly. To think we could have seen The Pastoral Symphony instead

Mickey Mouse

Really, James Levine is the one introducing the next segment, but it’s clearly Mickey that everyone is focusing on, and for good reason (“he’s the most popular and recognizable cartoon character of all time” does not count as a good reason). Mickey’s disappearance into the side of the theater, in a desperate search for Donald Duck does a pretty nifty job of breaking the fourth wall and making it seem like this really is some sort of concert performance, and certainly does a better job of making the characters seem real than Penn Jillette implying he learned everything he knew from Yensid. One of my family’s most treasured memories is of my 3-year-old sister frantically looking all round – bamboozled by the IMAX theater’s surround sound – trying to find the talking mouse and duck. It’s a beautiful memory of just what awe a movie can strike in a young person’s soul.

Pomp and Circumstance – Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4 by Edward Elgar

It is with this penultimate sequence that the feeling really sets in: this movie can’t quite measure up to Fantasia. I happen to really like this segment – I like it more than The Pastoral Symphony, and I like it more than The Rite of Spring – but I know in my heart that those are both better animated and better musically. I suppose it’s human weakness rushing in and convincing me that it’s just so nice seeing Donald and Daisy find each other, especially after having been so distraught at the prospect of losing one another. I suppose the idea of relating a biblical story must have raised controversy somewhere, but it shouldn’t – no matter what your belief system of choice, the Bible had some pretty good stories, even if they were just stories. Noah’s Ark is one of the good ones.

Angela Lansbury

I know I can get a bit controversial on here, particularly with how obstinately opinionated I am. That doesn’t apply here. Angela Lansbury is golden, and nothing is going to diminish her star. She could guest star on Ren & Stimpy and she’d still be Angela Lansbury. Here’s what she had to say:

“Walt Disney described the art of animation as a voyage of discovery, into the realms of color, sound, and motion. The music from Igor Stravinsky's ballet "The Firebird" inspires such a voyage. And so we conclude this version of "Fantasia" with a mythical story of life, death, and renewal.

Here’s what I would have said:

“The next song was written by Igor Stravinsky. It’s called The Firebird. Ladies and gentlemen, Walt Disney Studios proudly presents the most spectacular thing I have ever seen on a movie screen.”

The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky

Begin with a snow-covered forest nestled at the foot of an enormous mountain.

Enter an elk, venturing out across a chilled pond to the underside of a large tree, wherein hangs a lone icicle – concealing magic and life. The elk blows his hot, musty breath on the icy stalactite, releasing a few drops into the water below. From these droplets emerges a Water Sprite, a beautiful supernatural creation in the form of a young humanoid girl, holding near-supreme power over nature.  The Water Sprite flows over the snow-laden ground, becoming a Flower Sprite who begins to bring spring to the wintry meadow. Realizing that her powers seem to dissipate on the cliffs of a nearby mountain, the now-Neutral Sprite decides to investigate the summit of this mountain. Within the recesses of the of the top lies a lone object, an H.R. Giger sort of egg, perhaps four times as large as the sprite herself. Our heroine reaches out slowly – in a fatal mistake. The sleeping firebird awakens from a cocoon of rock and molten lava, unleashing billowing clouds of skull- and ghoul-shaped smoke, spreads its enormous wings, and reveals itself to in fact be more than fifty times the size of this naïve sprite. The Firebird screams a stream of ugly, cacophonous lava from its hideous beak, obliterating all that stands in its wake. The lava flows down from the volcano in pursuit of the sprite, destroying what had once been beautiful blooming trees. As the sprite futilely scurries up the tallest tree in the wood, the Firebird has grown to more than a hundred times the size of the sprite, bears its monstrous wings, opens wide its terrible beak, and swallows the sprite whole.

Begin with black. Black beyond the comprehension of mankind. Black as the space beneath a heel pressed flat to the floor. Black as the soul wiped free of forgiveness.

Enter grey, smoke and soot and charred remnants of life. The ground still stands, as does the mountain, but the forest is no more. It is as barren as a long-since abandoned battlefield. The elk returns home to this once-upon-a-forest, searching for the sprite. He finds the Ash Sprite, a few bits of mist and dust, as corporeal as a tissue in the ocean. She is small, cold, alone, afraid, ashamed, and sorry. But this is not the time for grieving. The elk nudges her, and at last she allows herself to be lifted onto his antlers. Her tears fall from the running animal, moisturizing the ground, sprouting vines, bringing new life to this desolate wasteland. Invigorated with hope, she realizes that redemption is at hand, and thus she transforms into a Rain-Wave Sprite, dousing the area with the milk of life. Seeing the area properly set, she at last becomes a Grass Sprite, more powerful than ever before, the forest becoming more beautiful than it had ever been in eons prior; even the dormant volcano is covered with flora. The elk watches as the Grass Sprite disappears into the wind, realizing he has played a significant role in a miracle.

House lights on, play a couple catches of music from previous segments, credits roll, throw away your empty bag of popcorn, and follow Mom and Dad out of the theater. The 10-year-old boy walked with a downcast, scrunched up face, two fists balled up deep within his pockets, hunched shoulders, and an ineluctable headache. No one could quite figure out why he was in such a sour mood. The movie didn’t seem that bad.

Maybe I owe the world – and my family – a decent explanation.

Nowadays I have this very bad – and easily mocked – habit of getting rapturously enthusiastic over anything that really impresses me. It’s one of the reasons I started writing for this blog; it makes it a bit easier than going up to every person and telling them how much I loved Your Name. I wasn’t always like this though – there was a time I would get wicked jealous of everything I found incredibly impressive. I was so mad that Disney came up with that depiction of the Firebird and I hadn’t. Envy marked me, but it was more about frustration. I really, honestly, truly believed I would never make anything nearly that good. I suppose I haven’t yet. The important thing is I’ve come to grips with it, and I’ve decided to just appreciate something good for what it is. I count myself lucky to have seen it in IMAX when I did.

If I haven’t made it clear already, The Firebird is the absolute best animation I’ve ever seen, and it’s not particularly close. It’s better than Spirited Away. It’s better than WALL-E. It’s better than Beauty and the Beast. It’s better than Coraline. It’s better than Akira. It’s better than Zootopia. The bar was set extraordinarily high after Fantasia ended with Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria, and it was cleared by The Firebird. If another Fantasia is made, you’ve got to swap out The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and tack The Firebird on at the end. In all my years, with all the over 1200 movies I’ve seen, I do not think I’ve seen a better nine minutes in a movie theater, on a television, or on my laptop.

Okay, so now what?

Somehow I have the feeling the chances of another Fantasia are pretty slim. Fantasia 2000 is not a bad movie. It wasn’t good enough, but it certainly wasn’t bad. Even the deepest, most dismal parts of the celebrity cameos are too brief to ruin the movie. They’re more just weird and ill-placed than bad or offensive or insulting. The best parts, particularly The Firebird, were even better than the 1940 version, but the vast majority of the movie was only okay to good, which is still better than most movies.

But it didn’t make enough money.

Sure, Fantasia 2000 made a little bit more money than it cost to make, but that’s nowhere near enough to warrant a sequel. The chance of it getting re-released in theaters, let alone IMAX theaters, is probably pretty small as well. That’s a damn shame, because there’s a whole lot of songs I’d love to hear in a movie like this. How about Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition? How about Maurice Ravel’s Bolero? How about the Four Seasons, by Vivaldi (no, Big Bob Pataki, not the dragon from Ocarina of Time)? There are so many possibilities, and the likelihood we’ll ever see this dream realized is staggeringly slim.

Every time I bring this movie up, people asked whether I liked it, whether it’s a good movie. That’s extremely difficult for me to determine. It was mostly good, I suppose. And I guess I liked it, for the most part. Can I squeeze a recommendation out of that? Yes, absolutely. In fact, I can safely say the segmented presentation is precisely what makes it so worth watching; if you can just fast forward to the parts I’ve recommended, you should be in business. I might recommend watching it alone and with the volume cranked like you’re in a theater; it just feels better that way. Just make sure to skip the celebrity interstitials.

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