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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