Fantasia 2000 Revisited

(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.)

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