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"Fantasia 2000" A Review

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: Ralph Daniel Issue 60 - March 2000

I saw "Fantasia 2000" Friday night [In January 2000, ed] at a Regal Imax Theater, and I was impressed enough to write my own review of the feature. I suppose that tells you right away that I liked it; indeed, about halfway through I decided I was going to have to see it again, even though it's over 100 miles (160 km) round trip to see it. This Regal Imax Theater is in the Mall of Georgia, which is off Exit 46 (until they change the exit numbers) of I-85. Although it's in Gwinnett County, it feels like it's in South Carolina.

"Fantasia 2000" is now shown in IMAX Theatres like this until the general 35mm release later this year. See it while you can. IMAX engagements ends March 31, 2000.

Since Imax is special, the theater manager gave a talk before the movie began. Imax is not new to Atlanta; Fernbank has had such a theater for years. Most of the people in attendance raised their hands when asked if they had seen an Imax movie before. Although he gave a lot of statistics (how many watts for the projectors, how big they were, frame size for the film, etc.), he made an error when describing the sound system. He said that a separate film was used for the sound (true for older Imax systems). The Regal installation uses DTS discs synchronized to the film, much like any other DTS theater.

SYMPHONY NO. 5, FIRST MOVEMENT by Ludwig Van Beethoven. The movie started with panels of the 1940 "Fantasia" floating about the screen, with Deems Taylor's commentary on the soundtrack. When Taylor described some music as existing simply for itself without trying to tell a story (he was describing Bach's "Toccata & Fugue in D minor" from 1940), the picture immediately boomed into the First movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. A 3-4 year old kid near me who had been talking profusely up until that time quickly dropped his jaw and remained silent for the next three numbers. The images were completely abstract, closely paralleling the 1940 treatment given to Bach. At the end, there was scattered applause. Normally I think applause at a movie is pointless, as the artists are completely removed from what you just saw and heard, but I must admit feeling the need to do so at the end of every following segment.

Then came the first of many introductions to the next segments. This one was done by Steve Martin, who I suppose was funny, but not really in keeping with the mood of the program. Some of the introductions were OK, but in my opinion, most could be scrapped and replaced with simple title slides stating what's coming up next. Most of the time, you just wanted them to stop talking and get on with the music.

PINES OF ROME by Ottorino Respighi. Like its counterpart "Nutcracker Suite" in 1940, the next segment ignored the title and story of its music and launched into a different theme. In this case, there was beautiful imagery reminiscent of the "Save the Whales" movements from the 1970s. In this case, there seemed to be too much music for the artists to completely fill with corresponding images, as the story seemed to slow down at times.

RHAPSODY IN BLUE by George Gershwin In 1940, Walt Disney wanted to include this number, but could not do so, either due to time restraints or copyright clearance. The animation for this segment was completely different from the style of the others, with caricaturist Al Hirschfeld acting as consultant. I wonder if there were any "Nina"s in the linear drawings. I'll look closer next time.

PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2, ALLEGRO, OPUS 102 by Dmitri Shostakovich The story which accompanied the music was "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" by Hans Christian Andersen. The characters were more fully developed in this segment than in any of the others, save possibly "Pomp and Circumstance". Character development is particularly hard to do in pantomime, since no words are spoken to interrupt the music.

CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS, FINALE by Camille Saint-Saens In 1940, "Dance of the Hours" had hippos and elephants wearing tutus. Here, it's flamingoes with yo-yos, with equally funny results. 

THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE by Paul Dukas. This was the only segment retained from 1940. The image was grainy, but not really objectionable. The characters appeared sharp, but apparently the computer enhancement simply couldn't handle the textured backgrounds when the camera would pan across them. This probably won't be noticeable when 35mm prints are projected in normal theaters. Surprisingly, the sound was as good as the modern digital recordings. There must have been some really heavy signal processing to get there.

Afterwards, Mickey Mouse approached Leopold Stokowski to congratulate him as before, and upon departing, went across the stage from silhouette into the light to greet James Levine and the Chicago Symphony, which provided all of the millennial music. This is a very nice touch. Mickey soon begins looking for Donald Duck, who is late for his appearance in the next segment. The six-channel Imax surround sound is used to maximum effect as Mickey looks for Donald. This interstitial segue works the best of any of them.

POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE - MARCHES 1, 2, 3 AND 4 by Edward Elgar. Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" unfolds to the surprising and amusing accompaniment of the Noah's Ark story, which is given the unusual twist of casting Donald Duck as the elderly captain's assistant. Donald's antics are winning, whether he is desperately trying to plug a hole drilled in the ark by a woodpecker or pining for the sweetheart he thinks he's lost. The six-minute segment represents good, solid Disney cartooning for any era. Unfortunately feature soprano Kathleen Battle is too loud and out of place for the rest of the music. This is probably the only musical misstep in the entire feature.

FIREBIRD SUITE - 1919 VERSION by Igor Stravinsky Stravinsky is the only composer represented in both 1940 and 2000, and images of nature accompany his music in both features. Here it is a female sprite, looking much like a painting by Maxfield Parrish. It is a good way to end the show.

I don't usually read reviews until AFTER I've seen the show, because I don't want someone else's opinions to give me any preconceived ideas of what I should expect. Having read some of "Fantasia 2000"s reviews now, I can see that today's critics are just as clueless about this type of movie as those were in 1940. The Entertainment Weekly critic carped about the Beethoven abstract segment, because he couldn't figure out whether he was looking at bats or butterflies. Duh - that's why it's called abstract! I have to agree with Variety's critic who said it was too short. Hopefully some of the music which was considered and rejected will now be reconsidered and included in a longer future release, much the way Walt had originally intended.

There was a small surprise for those who stayed until the very last credit rolled on the screen. I won't say what it was, but there were quite a few of us die-hards still around.

This is the first feature film to be presented in the Imax format, and it pointed out some problems which must be addressed in any future feature. First is the shape of Imax, which is still very square-ish. It was obvious during the inter-segment talks that "Fantasia 2000" was not filmed originally with Imax in mind, as the heads of the speakers were close to the top of the tall Imax screen, requiring the audience members to crane their necks backward over the tops of their seats. During the animated images, this was not such as problem, as the animation was fairly equally distributed over the entire surface. I am wondering whether "Fantasia 2000" was filmed in a wider aspect ratio and then the sides trimmed off to fit Imax, or if it was filmed in the old Academy ratio, and the top and bottom will be trimmed to make it wide-screen for normal cinemas. For any future feature, this will present a real problem to the cinematographer, because close-ups won't fit both Imax and widescreen.

"Fantasia 2000" probably represents the limits to which Computer Generated Imagery can be stretched. Most of the time, the images were incredibly sharp, but there were a couple of instances where a line was nearly horizontal, but not quite, and the "jaggies" which occur when a raster-scan line crosses from one pixel to the next, were visible. These passed so quickly that by the time you noticed them, they were gone.

Disney had problems booking the feature into some Imax theaters which are controlled by museums or other scientific institutions, including Fernbank, Chattanooga, Charlotte, Boston, Portland, and even Los Angeles itself. In the case of L.A., Disney decided to build its own Imax theater, so "Fantasia 2000" could at least be shown on its own turf. In all, there are only about 50 theaters in the US where it is being shown, but it still managed to be the number 12 film in box office receipts, a good showing considering other films are showing in thousands of theaters. But this bodes ill for future feature films in the Imax format. After all, what studio wants to produce a film which can't or won't be shown in such theaters? Imax has a problem here that must be fixed, or the process will be forever relegated to novelty status.
 

Further in 70mm reading:

in70mm.com's IMAX Page

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Updated 22-12-16