THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Fantasia 2000’

The one that finally fulfilled Walt’s dream.

After changing the landscape of cinema in 1937 with the first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney set about crafting the most ambitious work of his career. With 1940’s Fantasia, Walt fused animation with classical music to create one of the most daringly unique feature films cinema had ever seen. Unfortunately, the entire experiment was a total financial disaster.

Walt insisted Fantasia could only be shown using a new process called Fantasound, which required the installation of new $85,000 speakers to create a surround sound experience. As such, the film only played in 13 cinemas across America in an experimental roadshow style release. With audiences gripped by World War II panic, no one was in the right frame of mind to watch an animated classical music concert. The film consequently flopped, costing the studio millions and leaving Walt completely shattered.

At the time, Walt envisioned Fantasia as a constantly evolving project, with plans to re-release the film every few years featuring updated animated segments mixed amongst those of its predecessor. When the film failed, those grand plans were immediately shelved. When Walt passed away in 1966, many assumed the idea of a Fantasia follow-up died with him. Six decades after Fantasia debuted, Walt’s nephew Roy finally made his uncle’s dream a reality.

In the decades that followed its initial release, Fantasia received several re-releases which finally saw the film turn a profit, particularly after a surprisingly successful late 60s release was lapped up by young adults of the psychedelic era. In 1980, animators Wolfgang Reitherman and Mel Shaw began preliminary production on a pseudo-sequel entitled Musicana, which followed the same Fantasia format but was planned to feature a more eclectic mix of music styles. But the project never truly flourished and was eventually cancelled.

Four years later, vice chairman Roy E. Disney floated the idea of a true Fantasia sequel to newly-minted Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who was somewhat curious to the idea but felt the animation department needed to revitalise itself with more commercially viable projects before tackling such a potentially risky venture. It also didn’t help the new head of Walt Disney Pictures Jeffrey Katzenberg had no interest in the project whatsoever.

After the 1990 re-release of Fantasia grossed a staggering $25 million in the U.S. and the subsequent VHS release in 1991 sold over 9 million units (which equated to roughly $180 million in sales), Disney saw his opportunity to pitch the sequel again. With the numbers on Disney’s side, Eisner finally greenlit the project in 1991 and allowed Disney to serve as the film’s executive producer, given his passion for the sequel far exceeded anyone else’s at the studio.

Disney and Walt Disney Feature Animation president Thomas Schumacher began the search for a conductor for the project, eventually settling on Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, who leapt at the opportunity. In November 1992, Disney, Schumacher, Levine, producer Donald W. Ernst, and supervising director Hendel Butoy met in Vienna to discuss the project and potential classical music pieces to serve as the film’s eight segments. With Katzenberg continuing to express disdain towards the project, Disney reported directly to Eisner, which was practically unheard of at the time.

With the studio’s focus keenly set on major upcoming projects like The Lion King, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Fantasia sequel project sat in development hell for much of the 90s, even after Katzenberg’s sudden departure in 1994. It wasn’t until mid-1997 the project officially began production under the working title Fantasia Continued, with Disney originally planning to include four new pieces mixed amongst three original Fantasia segments, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Nutcracker Suite, and Dance of the Hours.

Eisner felt Disney’s plan was doomed to fail, particularly given so many households now owned a permanent copy of the original film on VHS and would be unlikely to pay to see a sequel featuring numerous original sequences. Much to his chagrin, Disney dropped The Nutcracker Suite and Dance of the Hours, but kept The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a tribute to his uncle and his famous creation Mickey Mouse. The segment soon began a painstaking digital restoration to match the picture quality of the new pieces surrounding it.

To capture the excitement around the dawn of the new millennium, the film was soon retitled Fantasia 2000. Disney decided to open the sequel with an abstract segment in the same vein as the surrealist Toccata and Fugue opening of Fantasia. Directed by French artist Pixote Hunt, the segment would be scored by Ludwig’s Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and depict a battle of “good” multi-coloured shapes against “evil” darker tones formations. The sequence took over two years to craft and combined hand-drawn pastel and paint backgrounds with computer-generated shapes and special effects. Hunt and his animators took inspiration from the movements of butterflies and bats, which were keenly studied through the use of slow-motion footage.

Set to Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the film’s second segment had technically been in production since the early 1990s, with concept designs created as far back at 1993. Directed by Butoy, the animation would tell the story of a family of humpback whales with the magical ability to fly, with the pod of whales journeying from their home in the water up into the clouds before ascending into outer space. The whale designs were originally crafted using pencil sketches before being scanned into the CAPS system where they were digitally altered and multiplied dozens of times using a technique that was subsequently adopted for the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King.

For the first time in either Fantasia film, a piece from an American composer was chosen, with director Eric Goldberg selecting George Gershwin’s classic New York City-inspired jazz piece Rhapsody in Blue for the film’s third segment. Goldberg approached American caricaturist Al Hirschfeld with the idea to craft the sequence with illustrations in the style of Hirschfeld’s work. Hirschfeld would serve as an artistic consultant on the piece and gave his blessing for the animators to adapt his previous works for the segment. Set in New York City in the 1930s, the segment followed the lives of four Manhattan residents who all wish for more from their lives. The rendering process for the sequence was so complex, it ultimately delayed production work on Tarzan.

The film’s fourth segment was a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Steadfast Tin Soldier, set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Walt had originally considering adapting Andersen’s tale in a cancelled production featuring several of the writer’s fairy tales in one package film, with preliminary design work completed in 1938 by artist Bianca Majolie, the first female storyboard artist at the Disney studio. Majolie’s work was stored in the Disney archives, which Butoy used as inspiration for the new segment.

In a first for the Disney studio, the segment featured main characters created entirely from CGI, with both the tin soldier and the ballerina created within the computer animation system itself. Initially, Butoy had considered asking Pixar Animation Studios to handle the animation, but the Disney animation team convinced the director they were up to the task of producing it themselves. The animators studied live-action footage of ballerinas to authentically capture the toy ballerina’s movements. The team used rain animation cels from the production of Bambi for the segment, with the original drawings scanned into the CAPS system and digitally altered to organically flow within the sequence.

As a homage to the sequel’s predecessor, Goldberg sought to craft a sequence featuring comical animals as a nod to the famous Dance of the Hours sequence in Fantasia. Set to Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals, Finale, the film’s fifth segment was originally set to star a clumsy ostrich playing with a yo-yo, but Goldberg soon changed the animal to a flamingo to avoid lazily rehashing elements from the original film. The director was inspired by his Pocahontas co-director Mike Gabriel, who was frequently known to play with a yo-yo during production breaks. Over 6,000 watercolour paintings were created for the segment, with the animation team closing studying the anatomy and movements of flamingos at the Los Angeles Zoo.

The film’s seventh segment (the sixth is the digitally restored The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was covered in the Fantasia piece) came from a suggestion from Eisner to use Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance in the film after the CEO attended a graduation ceremony and felt the song’s familiarity would sit well with American audiences. Eisner initially suggested the piece should feature famous Disney princes, princesses, and other heroes in a wedding procession, with each couple carrying their children to present to the world. Several animators found the idea to be an appalling abuse of Disney icons and Eisner quickly dropped the idea.

Director Francis Glebas instead suggested a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis, starring Donald and Daisy Duck. In the segment, Donald is portrayed as Noah’s assistant and tasked with rounding up each pairing of animals before the great flood arrives. In the process of boarding the ark, Donald and Daisy are separated, with each thinking the other has perished, leading to a glorious reunion in the segment’s final moments. The animation was heavily inspired by the “Circle of Life” sequence from The Lion King, with the animators closely studying the authentic animal creations found in the 1994 film.

For the film’s closing segment, Disney desired to produce a sequence that was as emotionally resonant as the beloved Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segment that brought Fantasia to a close. After initially considering Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, he settled on Igor Stravinsky’s stirring Firebird Suite. The segment told the story of an ethereal entity from Greek mythology called a Sprite, who accidentally awakens the Firebird spirit, who brings a wave of fiery destruction to the land surrounding a previously dormant volcano. After the Sprite’s rebirth, she restores life to the forest in a spectacular sequence of colour and movement.

Directed by French twins Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, who were stationed in Disney’s Paris animation department, the sequence took almost three years to create and employed the use of the newly-created 3D animation software known as Houdini. Throughout the course of the segment, the Sprite changes form a total of six times, taking on the form of a Water Sprite, Flower Sprite, Neutral Sprite, Ash Sprite, Rain-Wave Sprite, and finally a Grass Sprite. Each metamorphosis required the animators to design the character with a unique colour scheme and facial expressions to differentiate between each form.  Each scene was filmed in front of a green screen to allow shots of the orchestra or the set to be digitally placed behind them

In a further bid to connect the sequel to its predecessor, Disney felt Fantasia 2000 should also use interstitials between each segment to provide an “emotional palate cleanser” between musical movements. The bridges enlisted a series of well-known identities to introduce each segment and provide brief context and information on the proceeding piece. Disney cast comedian Steve Martin (who very first job as a youngster was selling guidebooks at Disneyland), violinist Itzhak Perlman, composer Quincy Jones, magicians Penn & Teller, and Disney voice actors James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, and Bette Midler to star in the segments. Each introduction was filmed in front of a green screen to allow shots of the orchestra or the set to be digitally placed behind them.

In a bid to build buzz for the film’s January 2000 release, Fantasia 2000 premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City on December 17, 1999, for a three-night concert series featuring live accompaniment from the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Levine. This event was replicated at the Royal Albert Hall in London on December 21, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on December 22, the Orchard Hall in Tokyo on December 27, and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California on December 31. Each event cost over $1 million to produce.

In an unprecedented move to create “a sense of event” for the film, Fantasia 2000 opened only in IMAX theatres for an exclusive four-month run from January 1 to April 30, 2000, becoming the first feature-length animated film to be screened in the large-screen format. At the time, IMAX was still in its infancy, meaning only 75 theatres worldwide were able to screen the film.

Disney demanded each IMAX theatre exclusively screen the film and drop all other titles for the four-month run. Many cinemas rejected the proposal, including Los Angeles’ sole IMAX theatre at the California Science Center. As such, Disney built a temporary 622-seat IMAX theatre at a cost of $4 million to allow the film to be shown in Los Angeles. By the end of its IMAX run, Fantasia 2000 had grossed $64.5 million worldwide.

Fantasia 2000 opened in general cinemas on June 16, 2000, to mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert called the film “splendid entertainment,” while Time magazine praised it as “a gorgeous blend of traditional and computer animation.” However, The New York Times felt the film “often has the feel of a giant corporate promotion” and was “not especially innovative in its look or subject matter,” while Empire felt the film lacked the “abstract grace” of its predecessor.

Despite early successes with its IMAX run, Fantasia 2000 essentially flopped once it hit regular theatres. In its opening U.S. weekend, the film only grossed $2.8 million, leaving it outside the top 10 performers of the week. By the end of its initial run, Fantasia 2000 grossed $60.7 million in the U.S. and a further $30 million internationally for a tepid worldwide total of $90.8 million. The film itself had cost $90 million to produce and that doesn’t factor in the expensive marketing campaign which preceded its release, including the $7 million price tag of its December 1999 premiere run.

Much like its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 was soon declared a financial failure, with Eisner subsequently referring to the project as “Roy Disney’s folly.” While Disney’s dedication to fulfilling his uncle’s vision was admirable and the result was occasionally spectacular, Fantasia 2000 simply wasn’t the film audiences of the early millennium were yearning for. By this point in time, animated features were back to being little more than fodder to keep children entertained, and few parents were willing to plonk their child down for a 74-minute classical music concert. In hindsight, it’s little wonder the experiment failed just like it had in 1940.

For many, the inherent problem with Fantasia 2000 is how closely it emulates its predecessor, with some Disney purists finding the film to be little more than a bastardisation of a genuine Disney treasure. Personally, this notion has never sat well with me. Fantasia 2000 was Roy E. Disney’s loving tribute to his uncle, so the idea it should have stood on its own two feet with something completely original seems rather idiotic. Walt clearly envisioned any Fantasia sequels to stand as an evolution of both music and animation, and that is precisely what Fantasia 2000 represents.

With its fusion of traditional animation with computer-generated imagery, Fantasia 2000 highlighted the advances in technology now at the disposal of Disney animation team. Alright, so those CGI whales now look rather asinine, but 20 years ago, they were rather groundbreaking. In all honestly, I find the experience of viewing Fantasia 2000 far more pleasant and enjoyable than the original. The sequel rarely drags, which is something no one can say of Fantasia. Each segment offered wildly different animation styles and themes, featuring some of Disney’s most dazzling animation creations.

Whether it’s the bizarre yet beautiful whale ballet of Pines of Rime, the giddily enjoyable fun of Pomp and Circumstance, the wonderfully unique Hirschfeld-inspired animation of Rhapsody in Blue, or the sweeping majesty of the stunning sequence that is the Firebird Suite, it’s a film that leaves a mighty impression and one that I will defend until my dying breath. This was a deft display of everything animation could deliver and it’s unfathomable most deny this film the admiration it deserves.

While Fantasia 2000 may have been “Roy Disney’s folly” and a total financial disaster, it captured the spirit of Walt Disney’s original work and presented another spectacular combination of classical music and animation. Sure, it followed the formula of its predecessor a little too closely, but therein lies its endless charm.

Is Fantasia 2000 a Disney Classic? While the original is one of the great Disney Classics in the studio’s history, few would honour the sequel with a similar title. However, the two films feel like the perfect package deal, and if one is considered a Disney Classic, surely you can bestow the same title to its compatriot.

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