'Fantasia 2000' And The Final Gasps Of The Disney Renaissance

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's final column, he discusses the 1999 film Fantasia 2000.)

Ambition is the great historical throughline of the Walt Disney Animation Studios. The notion of making a feature-length animated film was, in the early 1930s, seen as folly by many critics. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, of course, proved that notion wrong. A few years later, though, the notion of making a feature-length animated film comprised of short films scored to various pieces of classical music was seen as a much larger folly. Many of the films Disney released during Walt Disney's lifetime — many more than people today may realize — were seen as, at best, ambitious failures upon their initial release.

One of those ambitious failures, one of the few that deserves the categorization, was The Black Cauldron. It was the ignominious end of a dark era of Disney animation, but an ambitious film nonetheless. The Black Cauldron was an expensive attempt to marry classic animation with a more male-driven story aimed at teenagers, flopping painfully at the box office. The Disney Renaissance followed, with films that largely married ambition and success. But all good things come to an end, and so this era did with another ambitious, expensive film that has slowly gained appreciation over time. 

How fitting it is that the Renaissance concluded with Fantasia 2000.

A New Form of Entertainment

The third feature film in the Disney Animation canon, Fantasia, remains one of the boldest and most formally daring features ever released by a major studio. The content of the film isn't terribly challenging, though one section scored to Igor Stravinsky's controversial "Rite of Spring" in which a scientific as opposed to religious representation of evolution is depicted would likely not be recreated in the 21st century. 

If nothing else, what made Fantasia daring was the sense that a purveyor of all-ages entertainment would make a two-hour film comprised of a handful of animated, dialogue-free shorts, all scored to classical music and hosted by an opera commentator. We can argue all we like about whether or not the phrase "They don't make movies like this anymore" is overused in modern culture. But they really don't make movies like Fantasia anymore.

Fantasia, like a number of Disney's earlier films, was not a big success at the box office upon its initial release. This is in part because Walt Disney was ahead of his time in terms of theatrical presentations. In the fall of 1940 and early months of 1941, Fantasia was presented in a roadshow format around the country in eleven cities, all of which had installed something called Fantasound. In short, Disney had attempted to foist stereo sound onto major theatrical locations decades before it would become a commonality in theaters and most people's homes. Thus, while the film made $1.3 million from these roadshows, the cost of Fantasound installation coupled with the film's budget made it so Fantasia was something of a flop.

Walt Disney had envisioned much more for Fantasia; its basic concept lent itself to the idea that the concept could never grow old. Shorts could cycle in and out, but, as Richard Corliss noted in 1999, "Walt's plans for an 'organic' Fantasia, one that would be revived every year with new sequences replacing some old ones, were dropped." The very notion of a second Fantasia seemed impossible for decades.

Absolute Music

It wasn't until after Disney passed away that a second life for Fantasia seemed possible. As was the case for many of the studio's animated features, Fantasia received theatrical re-releases over the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. (The re-release strategy, not unique to this film, was created as much to allow audiences to revisit favorite films, as it was an easy way to goose up profits on older films in the days before home media.) In 1969, Fantasia was put back in theaters with a somewhat more unique way of advertising to a non-obvious audience: hippies.

The ad campaign for this 1969 re-release landed well with young adults, with journalists dubbing it psychedelic in ways that seem, even now, fundamentally ridiculous in comparison with what Fantasia actually is. But it worked: on this re-release, the film began to make a profit. The success was such that, briefly, Disney animators mused on reviving Fantasia as a new kind of film called Musicana. As author Charles Solomon noted in 1995 in a book on unproduced Disney projects, though, it was shelved in favor of the 20-minute short Mickey's Christmas Carol, released in the winter of 1983.

The true impetus to get Fantasia 2000 off the ground came with the advent of home media. Though incoming CEO Michael Eisner had floated the idea to Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, soon after arriving in 1984, Jeffrey Katzenberg was never a fan of the idea (per the James B. Stewart book DisneyWar) and the studio didn't yet have the resources available for a pet-project feature that didn't seem like it would ever make a profit. Upon the film's 50th anniversary, things changed. An anniversary re-release in theaters grossed $25 million in the fall of 1990, followed by a home-media campaign that prompted more than 9 million VHS pre-orders. (This was at a time when VHS copies of Disney films often cost around $20 to $25 each. So the Fantasia campaign likely sold more than $180 million alone.)

How Wrong an Artist Can Be

The numbers were unavoidable, just as they were back in the early 1940s. Disney's marketing machine had apparently achieved something with home media that the man himself never could. The massively successfully home-media rollout all but guaranteed that Eisner would greenlight a sequel, which he did in 1991. In the behind-the-scenes book Fantasia 2000: Visions of Hope, famed conductor James Levine wrote about being brought onboard the project to simply share his thoughts with Roy E. Disney, Peter Schumacher, and others in September of 1991, and gauge his interest in joining what was then known as Fantasia/Continued.

On its face, the film that eventually became Fantasia 2000, so renamed as the film's overall release date shifted closer and closer to the new millennium, matches with the 1940 original. Both films have eight overall segments, and they're both overseen by someone introducing each of those segments; those segments vary both in what's displayed and how it's displayed. But the final product of Fantasia 2000 is drastically different from its predecessor. Roy E. Disney had wanted the film to feature more than just one short from the original, adding "Dance of the Hours" and "The Nutcracker Suite" segments along with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", the latter of which made the cut.

"The Nutcracker Suite" came closest to staying in the final film, only getting the cut a few months in advance based on responses from test screenings. As Disney described in an article at Animation World, "In that mix, it was the signal to go to the bathroom." The final film, unsurprisingly, is a lot shorter than Fantasia, clocking in at just 74 minutes (including the end credits, which Fantasia didn't have). And perhaps the biggest obvious shift on the surface is that there's no longer an opera commentator onscreen. Levine took the place of Leopold Stokowski, a well-known figure in the world of classical music, but aside from his very brief cameo and introduction of the Disney-themed take on "Pomp and Circumstance", there are many other emcees, all of whom were much more recognizable celebrities. (It's perhaps ideal that Levine isn't much of the film, considering the recent sexual-assault scandals that have dogged him and otherwise darken his presence here.)

Camera Back on Me

According to Don Hahn, producer of many Renaissance-era films and the director of the live-action scenes in Fantasia 2000, the plan was originally to have just one host. But, as he described in the director's commentary track, the studio simply couldn't figure out the one right person to take the place of Deems Taylor, so they looked far and wide among various aspects of the entertainment industry. They landed upon an assorted bunch of performers, most of whom were already connected to Disney. James Earl Jones (the voice of Mufasa), Angela Lansbury (the voice of Mrs. Potts), Bette Midler (the voice of Georgette in Oliver & Company), Steve Martin (who started his career as a Disneyland Cast Member), and others make brief appearances, ranging from funny to hopefully funny to stately to, unfortunately, a bit obnoxious.

Midler, tasked with introducing the segment adapting Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", does so with the impetus that she's going to first highlight some of the aborted attempts at reviving Fantasia over the years. The script she's working with, co-written by Irene Mecchi and Dave Reynolds, among others, sounds — at least 20 years later — a bit too snarky considering the whole revival of Fantasia. Midler sounds oddly disdainful when she mentions one segment that never saw the light of day, using polka music in a story about a bagpiper. 

It's not this story sounds instantly compelling — quite the opposite — so much as the fact that a brief introductory script mocking the concept of Fantasia seems at odds with a new Fantasia. Animation junkies could also point to other concepts that never saw the light of day, such as a lyrical and lush animated sequence scored to Debussy's "Clair de Lune", which was then refashioned and re-scored to a short in the 40s-era package film Make Mine Music.

It's not that snarky humor is out of place in Fantasia 2000, but that the best snark comes soonest and quickest. Steve Martin pops up for a minute or so before the camera (which happily drifts away from him) leads to violinist Itzhak Perlman to introduce "Pines of Rome". Before Perlman is viewed, Martin describes how the original film was nearly called The Concert Feature. "I think we're all glad that they changed the name to Fantasia," he dryly replies, a less nasty bit of levity. The other introductions are mostly functional without being memorable, though the short intro featuring Penn and Teller (there to introduce "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", of course) is about as risqué as the film gets, showcasing a trick wherein Teller cuts off his own hand as proof of its fraudulence as a trick.

Whatever else is the case, the celebrity introductions feel like a concession. Certainly none of the emcees could claim to be the biggest movie stars in the world, then or now. (Martin probably is the most famous person in the film, outside of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.) But even the more musically inclined emcees, such as Quincy Jones, are there to ease whatever perceived burden there may be in an animated film not featuring the typical three-act structure or character arcs. Over time, too, the introductions haven't entirely aged well; the Jones and Lansbury introductions are best, if only because they're not written to be funny, so much as a classy way to invite you into a classy world.

Rhapsody in Blue

Speaking of classy: arguably the best sustained bit of animation in the last 25 years of Disney's output, "Rhapsody in Blue" is the last high point of the Disney Renaissance. Conceived and directed by Eric Goldberg (the supervising animator of the Genie from Aladdin), "Rhapsody in Blue" is both a gorgeous piece of animation and about the pinnacle of what Fantasia could be in follow-up stories. It takes one of the most familiar pieces of modern classical music, in George Gershwin's jazzy composition that had been part of popular culture and marketing for years, and it does so with an easy-to-follow ensemble piece with character arcs despite there being no character names or dialogue.

Aside from the music, which is impossible to resist in any form, what makes "Rhapsody in Blue" so special is the animation itself. Goldberg had already proven his ability as a gifted comic animator with the Genie, but the visual inspiration for that character fit in well with "Rhapsody in Blue". Where the illustrator Al Hirschfeld served as a North Star for Goldberg when creating the Genie, he was an official artistic consultant on the whole of "Rhapsody in Blue". The various characters in the segment — from a struggling jazz musician to a down-on-his-luck working stiff to an avuncular older man with a childlike streak inspired by Disney historian John Culhane — all feel as if they were taken straight from the curving character designs Hirschfeld had so often populated in The New York Times.

The presence of the animated line is unmistakable from the first shots, as we watch one line turn into two, three, and more as it creates the New York City skyline. Though Fantasia 2000 is not the first film from Walt Disney Animation Studios where the unseen presence of the animator is keenly felt — think of the deliberately rough line work in films such as The Aristocats and Robin Hood — the fourth-wall-breaking sense of the animator working tirelessly to craft each moving frame adds to the propulsive sense of "Rhapsody in Blue". The way Goldberg is able to match each soaring crescendo of Gershwin's composition to the story he crafts (as well as its predictably happy ending) contributes to a sense that this is the apotheosis of one type of Fantasia piece, telling a definitive story with a beginning and conclusion.

And There They Go

It's fitting that Fantasia 2000, meant to be something of a step forward in the blend of animation and music, offered its animators a more challenging task. Many of the new segments balance hand-drawn and computer animation. "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" has backgrounds that were created via hand-drawn animation, but its porcelain toy characters were created with CGI. The opening segment, scored to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, is a similar blend of the two styles of animation in an abstract piece (which isn't that abstract, as it depicts a generic battle of good and evil through distinctive shapes). Even the other short that Goldberg helmed, scored to Camille Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals", features computer animation in spite of being just two minutes long.

For the most part, the daring sense of the new isn't as on display in Fantasia 2000 as in Fantasia, in terms of what stories are chosen to be told. Children today may not be able to find much that's exciting in the "Rite of Spring" sequence in the original, but its willingness to visualize the Darwinian version of evolution is kind of remarkable. The flip side is what happens in the "Pomp and Circumstance" sequence; despite how just about everyone knows that piece as something you hear at a graduation, it accompanies here a version of the religiously steeped story of Noah's Ark, filtered through Donald Duck. 

On one hand, "Pomp and Circumstance" is cute enough, with a good number of gags at the expense of everyone's favorite grouchy Disney duck. There is, of course, a happy ending as Donald is reunited with Daisy Duck (after each of them, separately, believes the other has been lost to the flood). But just as "Rite of Spring" was a nakedly scientific take on evolution, the religious bent to this story catches you off-guard. The following segment, directed by the Brizzi brothers (who had overseen the Parisian Disney animation studio for a few years), is scored to another Stravinsky piece, "The Firebird Suite" focused more on the cycle of how nature destroys and rebuilds itself. The closer is meant as a parallel to the dual conclusion of Fantasia, "Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria". And to its credit, the sequence is gorgeously animated, and a thrilling, uplifting finale.

If there is, though, any issue with Fantasia 2000, it's that it feels hit-or-miss in ways that Fantasia largely avoids. (The 1940 film could probably do without the kid-friendly sequence in which Taylor "interacts" with a visual representation of a soundtrack, a bit that is not replicated or paralleled in the new film.) Some of the segments feel fully thought-out, such as "Pines of Rome" with its inexplicable, eerie, yet compelling whales soaring and bouncing high above the sky; or "Rhapsody in Blue" or "The Firebird Suite". Others, such as the Beethoven's Fifth scene and "Carnival of the Animals", are so brief that they almost feel like afterthoughts. (If Roy Disney's wishes had come true, and there had been three segments from the original in Fantasia 2000, it still wouldn't have surpassed the length of the 1940 film.)

The one area in which Fantasia 2000 managed to feel epic was in its original presentation. Just as Walt Disney wanted to go big with the original film, so too did the company he left in his wake with Fantasia 2000. As the original was an event, the sequel would be even if stereo sound was now a common thread in movie theaters. What wasn't yet common was major studio releases being projected on massive screens. Enter IMAX, which enabled Fantasia 2000 to be the first animated feature-length film projected in that format.

But just like the prescience of using stereo sound before it existed (and was called stereo sound), Disney's choice to work with IMAX, releasing the film in just 54 theaters in its opening weekend on January 1, 2000 (premiering in December of 1999 at Carnegie Hall), was a few years too early. Nowadays, if you live in a big enough city with an IMAX theater, you can no doubt watch a major new release in that format, upscaled to fit the large screens. Everything from Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to Joker is available in IMAX, if you go opening weekend. But in the year 2000, such things were still a unique option that wasn't going to pan out financially. Fantasia 2000 was a genuine trailblazer in this regard; no other major studio thought of IMAX as a theatrical option beforehand.

After its release in both IMAX and regular theaters, Fantasia 2000 grossed just $60 million domestically; with a budget of $90 million overall, it was never going to make back its budget. As critics had presumed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would be Walt Disney's folly, as noted in James B. Stewart's DisneyWar, Michael Eisner later saw Fantasia 2000 as Roy E. Disney's folly. There were hopes in the early 2000s that a third Fantasia could be brought to life, with a couple of shorts commissioned. But many of those shorts, such as Mike Gabriel's Lorenzo and Roger Allers' The Little Matchgirl, have barely seen the light of day. (If you have Netflix or, in a few weeks, Disney+, you can watch a collection of modern Disney shorts to check these out. Lorenzo is quite wryly funny, and The Little Matchgirl is maybe the saddest thing Disney Animation has made since Bambi's mom died.)

And So We Conclude

As an important reminder, the phrase "the Disney Renaissance" is entirely fan-made. So too was the decision to cap that period, previously, with Tarzan. There's no easy conclusive film within the Renaissance, if only because many of the creatives involved didn't leave Walt Disney Animation Studios, at least not for good. 

Since Fantasia 2000, Disney Animation hasn't ever really stopped making animated films. Even during the studio's darkest period — which would be the mid-2000s, surrounding the release of their first fully computer-animated film Chicken Little — Disney Animation kept releasing films. (Fun fact: the two-year gap between Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet is the longest gap between new Disney Animation films since the gap between The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company.) 

If there's an easy demarcation point, it was provided by the competition. In the summer of 2001, DreamWorks Animation released its first, out-of-the-box smash hit with Shrek. The animated adventure featured A-List stars like Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, played fast and loose with fairy-tale conventions, and seemed to spend as much time mocking Disney fairy tales as it made reference to modern popular culture. With hindsight, Shrek is a mostly obnoxious, hypocritical, unpleasantly animated film with painfully dated jokes. But in 2001, it was an unquestionable sensation, inspiring a massive franchise, boosting the fame of the band Smash Mouth (thanks for that one, DreamWorks), and poking so many holes in the Disney Renaissance that the studio could only scramble to stay with the times. (The aforementioned Chicken Little, the worst Disney animated film by a mile, seems like a direct, woefully late response to Shrek.)

Happily Ever After?

Also in the mid-2000s, as more of his decisions appeared to be panning out, Michael Eisner was voted out of the company as its CEO thanks to a campaign led by two men: Stanley Gold and Roy E. Disney. The same men who had voted in confidence for Eisner to join the studio twenty years previously now saw Eisner as a sign of trouble. Eisner left the studio in the fall of 2005 (a few weeks before the truly execrable Chicken Little arrived in theaters), followed by Robert Iger as the new CEO. Iger, CEO of Disney now for nearly 15 years, made a number of decisions immediately, one of which was to smooth over the acrimony between Eisner and Pixar honcho Steve Jobs. In early January 2006, Iger announced that Disney would buy Pixar, and Pixar creatives John Lasseter and Ed Catmull would oversee Disney Animation.

Though Lasseter and Catmull have since left Pixar — the former mired in sexual-assault scandals — their influence is still unavoidable. The buddy-comedy stylings of films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. have found their way into many of Disney Animation's recent hits, from Zootopia to Big Hero 6. After Eisner left Disney, he started an investment company called Tornante. Its most notable credit in the world of animation is the excellent Netflix series BoJack Horseman. (Yes, really: if you like BoJack, you can partially thank Michael Eisner.) Jeffrey Katzenberg steered DreamWorks Animation for over two decades, departing the studio upon selling it to Comcast in 2016. He's now one of the minds behind Quibi, an upcoming streaming option being unveiled in 2020.

Two of the most consistent parts of the Disney Renaissance never did leave Disney for good: John Musker and Ron Clements co-directed three more films in the 21st century. In 2002, they got to complete their pet project, a science-fiction version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. But while Treasure Planet has accrued something of a cult fanbase over time, it wasn't a hit in 2002, certainly compared to the other Disney Animation film that opened that year, the spiky Lilo & Stitch

Musker and Clements were invited by Lasseter to try and help revive hand-drawn animation with a classical fairy-tale-inspired musical, The Princess and the Frog. Though the 2009 film is absolutely delightful, it had the misfortune of opening opposite James Cameron's Avatar, and the hand-drawn revival stopped just as it began. Musker and Clements co-directed one more film together, the thrilling Moana, which offered modern Broadway-style music, a winsome female lead, an irrepressible sidekick...and computer animation. In March of 2018, Musker announced his retirement from Disney.

Eric Goldberg has mostly stuck with Disney in the intervening twenty years. His most notable credit aside from Disney came a few years after Fantasia 2000, when he served as animation director for Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Meant to continue in the spirit of Space Jam (but with the hopes of being enjoyable), Back in Action was a zany revival of characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck that failed to gain traction at the box office. After a couple more non-Disney projects (such as Son of the Mask), Goldberg returned to Disney where he gained credits on Wreck-It Ralph, Moana, and The Princess and the Frog. In the latter film, he was chiefly responsible for the lovely Art Deco animation in "Almost There", a scene that's in keeping with "Rhapsody in Blue" as anything else the studio has made in 20 years.

Don Hahn has been a Disney stalwart since the 1980s. Since Fantasia 2000, he's produced films such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire and the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast. For Disney aficionados, his shift into the work of documentary filmmaking has been invaluable. He was the director of the fascinating 2009 doc Waking Sleeping Beauty, in which he documents the decade-long period from 1984 to 1994 as Disney Animation's trajectory changed on a dime. (Notably, of course, the documentary ends with the release of The Lion King.) He's also produced a number of DisneyNature films such as Oceans and Jungle Cat.

Alan Menken, after his work on Hercules, wasn't part of Disney Animation's stable for a few years. He and songwriter Glenn Slater did the songs for Home on the Range (they would also compose the songs for Disney's computer-animated take on Rapunzel, Tangled). A decade after Hercules, he and lyricist Stephen Schwartz reunited for the playful riff on princess-movie tropes, Enchanted. Aided by the film's irresistibly charming star, Amy Adams, Menken's music came to life once more, both mocking and enforcing some of those tropes. His old songwriting partner, Howard Ashman, fittingly enough, became the subject of Hahn's most recent documentary, Howard (sadly still unavailable to stream, though it premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival).

Among the other directors of Disney Renaissance-era films, few would direct again outside the period. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise co-directed just one more film together, the 2001 adventure Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Like Treasure Planet, it's gained a cult audience online, but was a non-starter at the box office. Trousdale then joined DreamWorks Animation; neither he nor Wise have directed a feature since. George Scribner, of Oliver & Company, hasn't directed a feature again, though he did helm the theme-park short Mickey's Philharmagic in the early 2000s. The only other co-director with a notable credit to his name is Tarzan's Chris Buck, who has co-directed just two other Disney films: Frozen and the upcoming Frozen II.

In the End

Disney Animation has had something of a re-revival in the last few years. After the sadly underseen Winnie the Pooh marked the apparent end of hand-drawn feature animation, Disney Animation has released (including next month's Frozen II) eight feature films all with computer animation. In a flip of how things were in the 1990s, hand-drawn animation has appeared briefly in these films, supplementing them the way CGI used to supplement hand-drawn animation. (For Moana, it was Goldberg drawing the sentient tattoos on the demi-god Maui.) 

The studio's recent releases have largely performed well — both Frozen and Zootopia have been worldwide phenomena, grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide each. The state of Disney Animation has never been more solid. Where other studios, like Blue Sky (which Disney now owns), DreamWorks Animation, and Illumination, have seemingly struggled with their recent releases at the box office, Disney remains the gold standard.

In the year 2019, it seems impossible that Walt Disney Animation Studios was ever in so much trouble that it ceased to produce features. The era when the studio made expensive, ambitious failures is now long gone. And the era in which it felt even risky to make old-fashioned stories inspired by fable-like literary hallmarks is itself becoming a dim prospect, the kind of thing that a person in his mid-30s can describe to his five-year old son as something that happened "when I was your age". We are now twenty years removed from a period of American filmmaking as rocky, as unexpected, and as often thrilling as the art of cinema itself. 

The Disney Renaissance is still technically un-acknowledged officially by the studio, but the 13 films comprising this era are among the most important pieces of American cinema of the last century. The modern state of Walt Disney Pictures exists due to the success of these films and the ways in which the current studio all but weaponizes the nostalgia these stories inspire. This year, they've raked in billions of dollars on remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King, following on the heels of Beauty and the Beast, and soon to be followed by remakes of Mulan and The Little Mermaid

The Disney Renaissance is dead. Long live the Disney Renaissance.