This is perhaps the most underrated work in the Disney Animated Canon, mainly because people resent it for being a ‘sequel’ to the original Fantasia, and for not living up to that illustrious film. Firstly, it is not a ‘sequel’, at least not in the sense that the slew of direct-to-video cash-ins Disney was releasing around this time are sequels. Fantasia cannot, by definition, have a sequel because Fantasia does not have a continuous narrative.
This film merely takes the basic technique Fantasia was built on…that of setting artistically ambitious animation to pieces of Classical Music…and creates more works in that vein (and let’s remember that Walt Disney himself always intended to produce more works in that style). And while this movie does not quite equal the illustrious masterpiece that proceeded it in this very narrow genre, it certainly had enormous merit on its own terms.
Of the film’s seven new segments (the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the original Fantasia is recycled here), five are superb. The opening, an abstract piece depicting a Good vs. Evil battle between orange and black triangles set to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is actually a better and livelier opening than the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, its equivalent in the original Fantasia. This is followed by a gorgeous-looking segment featuring flying CGI whales set to “The Pines of Rome”. The movie’s two showpieces are a tribute to the art style of Al Hirschfield set to “Rhapsody in Blue”, and a visually stunning piece starring a life-giving nature sprite set to the “Firebird Suite”.
The segment set to “Pomp and Circumstance”, featuring Donald and Daisy Duck as assistants on Noah’s Ark, has been criticized by some, but I’m going to stick up for it. It may take a (to put it kindly) well-worn piece of music, but in tailoring the action on-screen to the music, it allows to actually _hear_ this overexposed piece, perhaps for the first time. The story it tells is also quite touching, as Donald and Daisy are each led to believe that the other didn’t make it on the ark and was lost in the flood, and the scene where they finally meet again, their faces light up, and they embrace to the final swell of the music is one of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen in an animated film.
Of the two segments that don’t work, the more egregious is a retelling of The Steadfast Tin Soldier to a Shostakovich concerto that actually gives the piece a happy ending. I realize that Disney had rather notable success with another happy-ending retelling of an Anderson fairy tale, but once you remove the tragic elements from The Steadfast Tin Soldier, there’s not really a lot left. There is also a forgettable and crudely animated three-minute segment to “Carnival of the Animals” involving flamingos and yo-yos, which isn’t exactly horrible but was clearly included purely for the sake of padding.
In addition to the mostly excellent animation, the accompanying music was conducted by James Levine, arguably the greatest living conductor of classical music now that Bernstein and Karajan are dead, so the music is gloriously served throughout. Granted, the ‘celebrity guests’ who announce the segments are for the most part extremely irritating, but that’s merely a cavil, since they aren’t really the point of the feature anyway and can, at least on the DVD release, be skipped over fairly easily.
This movie may not live up to the original Fantasia, but it doesn’t have to: what matters is that it’s a glorious movie in its own right, arguably the finest animated film of the decade, and I personally hope Disney eventually does more works in this format, which is at its core a brilliant artistic idea.