05 December 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: SOUND AND SIGHT

The official line is that the Disney Renaissance ended with Tarzan in the summer of 1999, for that film was the last outstanding financial success in string of hits; it was also the last $100 million Disney picture for a while; and it is implied often though not always stated outright that Tarzan was also the last really good Disney animated feature. That's a tremendously subjective thing to say, and frankly anyone who can say terrible things against the quality of The Emperor's New Groove is no friend of mine. Anyway, if we mean to judge by sheer aesthetic considerations, Tarzan has a lot more in common with the sometimes horrible movies to follow it, rather than the decent to great films of the 1990s: Deep Canvas, no musical numbers, a more boy-friendly adventure narrative.

At any rate, I think that a stronger argument can be argued that the Renaissance really ended with the next Disney feature, Lucky Number 38, and the first film released in the year 2000, on January 1, which some would say makes it the first film of the millennium, but I am not one of them. But yes, here we are, with Fantasia 2000, a film that at long last fulfilled the dream that Walt Disney had never been able to complete; and there are those that will tell you that it was his frustration at this fact that soured him on animation and led him to find new creative outlets, chief among them being Disneyland. Initially, Fantasia had been imagined as a permanent traveling exhibition: year by year, new segments would be created and would replace older segments, so that it would be a constantly-changing collection of old favorites and exciting new pieces. But the massive indifference that hit the film upon its 1940-'41 release killed that idea in its crib. Walt's ambitious, career-defining attempt to fuse classical music and state-of-the-art animation would not be realised as a success during his lifetime and the idea of a rotating, evolving Fantasia program became a complete impossibility.

Eventually, as the existence of Fantasia 2000 attests, Roy E. Disney had the right combination of influence and power, just after Fantasia sold like gangbusters on its VHS rebut, to see that his uncle's long-dormant dream should finally be realised, in some manner at least. A new film was to be created using pieces from the old Fantasia and new sequences, some of them dusted-off ideas that had been kicked around back in 1940, before Walt's dream was crushed; and while it wasn't ever intended to jump start that new, permanent but evolving Fantasia project, it at least was meant to prove that there was some energy in the battered old thing yet.

I call this the last film of the Disney Renaissance not because it was a hit: grossing $60 million domestically and half that in the rest of the world, it followed in its predecessors footsteps by losing money, at least once the marketing campaign was taken into account. Nor do I think that it belongs with the Renaissance films because it is as good as they: in fact, I was in 2000 a bit underwhelmed, and am not slightly more impressed now, by the weakness of most of the film's segments. But it was born in the fever of possibility that the Renaissance brought into being, and I think that the very notion of revisting a decades-old idea and breathing new life into it could only possibly be thought of as a Renaissance-era impulse. Besides, and more pragmatically, the particular way that Fantasia 2000 was produced means that it is, in a very literal sense, a product of the Disney Renaissance: nearly all of the shorts were designed to be projects for the animators to work on during the lulls in-between feature projects; the oldest short that premiered in Fantasia 2000 was completed in 1995, before Pocahontas opened.

It is one thing to say, "we are going to make another Fantasia", and something else entirely to make another Fantasia, but Roy E. Disney and the rest of the company certainly put their all into making Fantasia 2000 - which is neither remake nor sequel, but some kind of continuation that marketing blokes don't have a word for yet - the biggest event they could. Following upon Walt's quixotic Fantasound concept, the new film would do for visuals what its ancestor did for the soundtrack, and this became the first animated feature to be screened in IMAX - exclusively in IMAX for the first four months of 2000, which probably goes some way to explaining why it lost money. If you were the kind of person who followed American animation in the waning months of the 1990s, you perhaps remember how big of a deal this all was; how much it felt like Disney was doing something momentous and ambitious and wildly exciting. I certainly remember. It was like having Christ's second coming announced in a corporate press release.

Which made it doubly disappointing that Fantasia 2000 proved to be such a lightweight affair, a casualty no doubt of the long-entrenched idea that Disney movies were kids' stuff; even the best and most ambitious of them had to have ample kid-friendly touches. That was simply not even on the radar in 1940 when the first Fantasia was created. There's one statistic that to me sums up everything that is different about the two projects: Fantasia runs either 120 or 125 minutes long, depending on which cut you're seeing, by some 30 minutes the longest film in the Disney animated canon. Fantasia 2000 is 74 - 50 minutes shorter - while containing exactly the same number of musical pieces. Two hours is about the right amount of time to ask sober-minded grown-ups and the more patient, artsy kind of children to experience classical music married to sometimes abstract animation; an hour and a quarter, and you've conceded that you're making a movie for little ones.

The second point of comparison is that Fantasia, in 1940, gave a place of prominence to Igor Stravinksy's Rite of Spring, that had 27 years earlier incited riots in Paris. For Fantasia 2000 to match that, it would have to include the most ambitious, crazy, revolutionary piece of music from 1973; and while people weren't still rioting over classical music in 1973, you can still imagine the film producers slipping in some old-school Philip Glass, maybe, if they wanted to shake up the audience a bit - though only by Disney standards would Glass count as a shake-up to anyone who watched movies in 2000. But there is no minimalism in Fantasia 2000, nor modernism or spectral music. The most challenging composer to make an appearance on the film's soundtrack is Dmitri Shostakovich, and they even picked one of his most famously undemanding pieces.

One last little thing, and then I'll get to the film itself: Fantasia was hosted, throughout, by composer and music historian Deems Taylor, a man of easy language and good humor who nevertheless imparted at least the pretense of seriousness to the affair. Fantasia 2000 gets a new host for every segment, from Steve Martin to Better Midler to Quincy Jones to Penn & Teller. They all deliver bad jokes and read their dialogue with a stiff unease: it is exactly like watching Oscar presenters. If that doesn't prove that Fantasia 2000 is operating on a rather lower level of artistic pretension than its predecessor, nothing does.

The only flat-out bad piece among the eight sequences is the first, an adaptation of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor (making Beethoven one of two composers with a different piece in each iteration of Fantasia). This is baldly, even explicitly an attempt to replicate the opening of the first film, with J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, an example of what Deems Taylor identified in 1940 as "absolute music" paired with an abstract animation. There is but a single problem, which is that the animation here is not in fact abstract. It is in fact a narrative about a flock of triangle-shaped butterflies in many colors that are attacked by triangle-shaped black bats, representing the struggle between light and dark. I'll give it this much, it looks pretty, and there are many water animation effects that are pleasantly reminiscent of the style in which water was drawn at Disney in the early 1940s, thus tying the two Fantasias together.

But pretty only goes so far in the face of the unfathomable conceptual idiocy of the piece. I happen to think that the Toccata and Fugue sequence is over-appreciated, but at least it makes good on its goal: it creates a visual representation of what listening to music can do in your mind, as you first think of this instrumental line and then that, eventually slipping into a reflective state where no particular image at all appears, only the sense of movement and energy. The Symphony No. 5 short, perhaps springing from the reading of the piece that its famous opening bar is the sound of fate knocking on the door, tries to apply a half-assed narrative to the music that is neither compelling on its on, nor does it do much the elucidate Beethoven's composition - not that it would be able to, what with the first movement of the symphony getting chopped down to a generous three minutes.

Taken on its own merits, I don't have a great deal of use for the second segment, either, but it's a great relief after the Beethoven travesty. The earliest sequence animated for Fantasia 2000, it's based upon Ottorino Respighi's lovely 1924 tone poem Pini di Roma, or The Pines of Rome. We might call this this Pastoral Symphony of the new film, for it too takes a piece of music written on a very specific subject and gives it a narrative treatment totally unlike the composer's intent. In this case, the music is used to score the travails of a family of humpback whales. Excuse me. Flying humpback whales.

What possibly connection the story has to Respighi, I cannot even guess: there is a family of three, and the mommy and daddy whale both fly about in the air over the Arctic ice, while the baby whale gets trapped under an iceberg and is sad until he finds a way out, and joins the might flock of whales soaring through the air, up to the heavens. I'll say this much: at least director Hendel Butoy (whose only other directing credit outside of this anthology was The Rescuers Down Under) and story developer James Fujii understand that the chief point of animation is to depict action that cannot otherwise be seen. But then, is there any real reason to desire to see flying whales? I remain a bit boggled by this sequence, just as I was almost ten years ago.

This was the first fully CGI project made by the Disney Animation Studios, and if they had just released it in 1995, it might have fared better; but the technology advanced so quickly that by the time Fantasia 2000 saw the light of day - and much more so now - the animation looks extremely crude and dated. In particular, the need to hand-draw the whales' eyes is a major point against it, for the eyes thus float above the whales' heads in the most eerie and unsympathetic fashion. It is hard to feel for the little whale baby, because he is clearly a zombie. But I must be fair when it's due, and admit that the actual movement of the whales is elegant and beautiful; and the lighting effects are positively brilliant. As far as watching CGI whales go, The Pines of Rome presents the natural fluidity of the cetacean with no small success, and boy, if only they'd stayed in the damn water, I might have even liked this one a lot.

Still, it doesn't have much to do with the music, which is once again chopped to ribbons and used as nothing but dramatically appropriate underscoring. The first Fantasia made its mission statement to create visually dynamic counterpoints to music, not to break the music apart and function just as a series of shorts, and that remains an irritation throughout much of Fantasia 2000.

The third segment is the one I was most excited for back on the first day of the year 2000. Eric Goldberg, a talented animator good at rounded caricature (he supervised Aladdin's Genie), had been developing an animated short paying tribute to one of his most beloved influences, the great cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. For reasons that aren't obvious but sure do seem like they are, he felt that the best way to evoke the spirit of that artist was through the music of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue - which just happens to be my favorite piece of American music of the 20th Century. Closely collaborating with his wife Susan, working as art director, and consulting with Hirschfeld himself, Goldberg at first meant for this just to be a pleasant little short, but when the story development of The Emperor's New Groove hit a vicious snag in the late '90s, Disney asked him to plug the short into the Fantasia project, hoping that it would give the Emperor animators something to do with their time while they waited for that project to start up again. It is thus the latest of the Fantasia 2000 shorts, not completed until deep into 1999.

I'd love for it to be a complete success, but it just isn't. There's something about watching very Hirschfeldian character designs moving about like fully-functioning characters that doesn't feel right to me, not at all; the best moments are the ones with the most limited animation, such as a shot in a crowded subway car in which only the passengers' hands are moving. There's also an unfortunate overabundance of story, as we follow four different New Yorkers (an African-American youth with a construction job, a bored husband of a mirthless society woman, a jobless middle-aged guy, and a little girl who hates all the activities her busy parents force her into), which is more than we need; if indeed we need anything at all. The film works perfectly well as a study of urban life in the 1930s, and most of the memorable moments involve snapshots of moments involving people we never see again. Tying it all up in a packet with a "lonely souls in the city" ribbon is unnecessary, and makes the short too much tepid character drama. Also, the bored husband - who looks just like Mr. Snoops from The Rescuers, for he was also modeled on animation historian John Culhane - floats in the air in one scene, because apparently things that can't float in the air doing so is one of the major themes of Fantasia 2000.

But I'll give it this: the Rhapsody in Blue sequence actually does manage to dig into the music a bit, demonstrating how it reflects the hectic, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes lovely existence of a city dweller. And while the piece has been cut just a bit, at 12 minutes, this is the longest segment in the feature. It would have been one of the shortest pieces in the first Fantasia. Chew on that a moment.

The fourth segment, and finally we get a real keeper: Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro, Opus 102, with a story taken from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" (the second time Andersen has saved Disney from mediocrity), directed again by Hendel Butoy. This story had been on the drawing board for years, but no-one could figure out what music to use; eventually it was found that the Shostakovich piece, having been suitably cut down to size (oh my GOD), tracked the narrative rather well, while requiring the addition of a happy ending.

The story of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" is pure fairy tale fluff: at midnight, all the toys come to life, and a one-legged tin soldier tries to protect a ballerina doll from a licentious Jack-in-the-box. At ten minutes, this is perfectly-paced, and the Piano Concerto is used to smashing effect, though of course it's an irritation that the music had to be chopped apart. But the real appeal of the segment isn't the story it tells, but the style in which is made: this was another early Disney Studios CGI project (there are also several hand-drawn elements), but it looks like no other CGI you've ever seen. While most fully-rended CG images look as they they have depth and dimension - hence the inaccurate division of animation into "3-D" and "2-D", where "computer-generated" and "hand-drawn" or "traditional" would be vastly more appropriate - the characters in this sequence look flat, and have the same uniform texture and color of any given CAPS-colored figure. Yet at the same time, they have a tactility and interactivity with their environment that could only come from CGI. It's the best of two worlds, and I have never been able to understand why this style wasn't used in later features. From the evidence of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", it could have resulted in some of the most beautiful movies in Disney's canon. But no, we got Chicken Little instead.

That the filmmakers knew they had something is probably clear from the knowledge that another Andersen story, set to a piece by Aleksandr Borodin, was planned for the aborted Fantasia 2006. It found life as the tremendous short "The Little Matchgirl", a seven-minute miracle that happens to be the best thing produced by the Disney Animation Studios in the '00s.

Having found a groove of quality, the next item in the program is, for my tastes, absolutely the best new piece in Fantasia 2000: a slapstick comedy involving flamingos set to the Finale of Camille Saint-Saëns's Carnival des Animaux. This has the unmitigated benefit of being the first piece that isn't cut, although it likely helps that in its initial form, the Finale is all of two minutes long. This is the Dance of the Hours analogue: a funny, light, fast-pace comedy with animals.

Here's how I heard the story: after having had no fun at all co-directing Pocahontas, Eric Goldberg wanted to animate again, and finding that there was a scanty little flamingo project for what was still being called Fantasia Continued, he asked for the job and got it. I don't know whether it was Goldberg's idea or if it was part of the project already, but the genius was that Carnival of the Animals was to be done entirely in watercolor. Entirely. The backgrounds, the effects animation, the characters. Goldberg didn't do the color himself, but he did every single frame of the animation - a team of six artists painted over his drawings, and the result was one of the most mind-blowing things in the history of Disney animation: a hallucinatory chunk of neon eye candy, undoubtedly the most vibrantly-colored piece in the studio's history. Full watercolor animation is an insane labor-intensive process, which is why Disney never did it before or since, and examples of the technique throughout history are extremely rare. So let us be all the more thankful that it exists here: the most visually stunning piece in Fantasia 2000 in a walk, and actually a pretty fun, goofy bit of physical comedy that, as the tremendously game guest star James Earl Jones notes, answers the age-old question of what happens when you give a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos.

Sequence six is the best part of the film, but it doesn't count, because it's The Sorcerer's Apprentice from the 1940 Fantasia. It hasn't been so long since I saw and reviewed it that I have any new insights, save one: viewed even at a rate of one a day, the transition of Disney animation throughout the years is a subtle process, but to have something from the Golden Age thrust so violently into the modern era points out dramatically how very far Disney has come, and not really for the better. At any rate, it's not Fantasia without Mickey fighting brooms, which is why I expect that we'll see the same sequence in Fantasia 2060, or whenever they make another one. Incidentally, this was not to have been the only 1940 segment in the new film; The Nutcracker Suite was cut late in the game, when it was felt that movie was running too long. Another clear sign of the miserly ambitions for this project.

With Mickey getting his moment, Doald Duck has to have one too; and after a little interstitial in which the mouse interacts with both Leopold Stokowski and James Levine - who conducted all the new music in Fantasia 2000 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - we get the mercenary but vaguely charming Noah's Ark, set to a montage of Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1, 2, 3, and 4. There's no point in Fantasia 2000 that better demonstrates how little value was put on the musical end of things in this go-round; Elgar's compositions get hacked apart and recombined so much that it hardly seems right to credit him.

The plot of the sequence follows Donald's attempt to help Noah get all the pairs of animals in the ark before the rain falls, but in the process losing track of his beloved Daisy, and each duck believes the other to be dead until after the 40 days have ended and the waters recede. As a sequel to The Sorcerer's Apprentice, this is thin, measly stuff indeed; and as a Donald short, it makes no attempt at all to take advantage of The Duck's excellent comic personality flaws. But as an example of straightforward CAPS animation, it's reasonably lovely, and it's always exciting to see classic Disney characters rendered in the newer animation styles, for novelty if nothing else.

The finale is based on the 1919 suite that Igor Stravinsky took from his much longer 1910 ballet The Firebird. It's no Rite of Spring, that's for sure, which may be a good or bad thing; the music is simpler, more triumphant, and the story is a simple little eco fable put together by the French twins Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, who had done some excellent sequence directing work for both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan. Ironically, their first major solo credit proved far less interesting than their contributions to either of those films: The Firebird Suite is definitely in the upper half of Fantasia 2000 sequences, which says a lot more about the movie than the sequence. It's a bit reminiscent of the twerpy 1992 20th Century Fox animated feature Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, of all helplessly random things: a nature spirit of the springtime who makes the plants grow finds and accidentally awakens a nasty giant thing (the firebird, defined here in a way that Stravinsky would never have imagined, not that he'd imagined the dinosaurs the first time) that causes a volcano to erupt. The land is ruined, and all seems lost, until a kindly elk breathes life back into the spirit, who resumes her duty of bringing life back after death.

It's sweet and all, but a bit sappy, and the animation is not of particularly memorable quality. Certainly, it's good animation: but outside of some nifty character design used to define the firebird and the spirit as equal opposites (they take the same general shape, but their color schemes are totally different), there's nothing much to take with you, except, oh hoorah, another floating thing that spins around to a triumphal horn section.

I've sounded meaner than I wish to; Fantasia 2000 is rarely "bad", just mediocre at times, and the two new segments that work are nothing shy of masterpieces of animation, making me wonder how exactly they got stranded in here. I'd even ultimately say that they make the film worthy of viewing, particularly since the Firebird and Rhapsody in Blue sequences are not themselves without tiny merits that are partially obscured by their general simplicity and family-ready carooniness. But despite some momentary flashes of brilliance, this is no successor to the great Fantasia: it's a noble attempt to keep animators employed by siccing them on a number of different middleweight shorts. If I'm right that the Disney Renaissance hadn't ended already, this would certainly be enough to do the job.

4 comments:

Kata said...

I saw this movie just after watching Fantasia and I couldn't help but feel very disappointed. Especially about the Rhapsody in Blue-sequence, one of my favourite compositions, which is a very picturesque piece of music, with many opportunities for vibrant, hectic, expressive animation. However, the results were rather insipid and unimaginative. The worst part for me was The Firebird suite, which was turned into complete kitsch (that spring fairy thing, ughh). The flamingo scene was entertaining but short indeed. And yes, the whole movie is outrageously short. I wonder why.

goodtimingman said...

I was rather depressed at the state of animation after watching Fantasia 2010. Next to the splendor of the Original Fantasia I couldn't help find the whole thing rather choppy and uninspired. But the thing that really turned me off was the Sorcerer's Apprentice being inserted in a letter-boxed pan and scan format, with black bars up the right and left sides of the screen, because they couldn't be arsed to restore a full-screen print, and thought it good enough for modern viewers to have this classic with 30 percent of the frame hacked off.

fattom23 said...

That brings up an interesting question: How was the aspect ratio difference between Sorceror's Apprentice the rest of F2000 handled when it was displayed theatrically? IMDB claims F2000 is in 1.44:1, but I can't imagine it being projected in most theaters that way.

Trish said...

*sigh* I myself have an inordinate soft spot for "Fantasia 2000". Not least because I think Walt Disney's plans for the original "Fantasia", had it been a hit, are the single most haunting "coulda been" of American animation. That and I am an unabashed fan of fantasy creatures flying around to epic music.

Truth is, I miss the mentality at Disney feature animation that even allowed "Fantasia 2000" to get made in the first place.