Disney's Fantastic Voyage

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OLD-FASHIONED FUN: A flamingo explores aerodynamics in Carnival of the Animals

Once upon a time, around 1940, there was a popular commodity called middle-brow taste, a comfortable culture of refinement. It included Impressionist reproductions, Pearl Buck novels and light-classical music. Middle-brow provided a semblance of breeding and was pervasive enough that the manufacturers of mass entertainment wanted to tap it. So radio networks featured operas and symphonies. And Walt Disney produced Fantasia, a melange of pieces from the concert-hall repertoire set to swirling, splashing cartoon images.

Now moviegoers could not only hear, say, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, conducted by Maestro Leopold Stokowski and recorded in stereophonic sound (then a rarity in film exhibition), but also see it brought to life as a titanic dinosaur duel. A man of artistic ambitions--pretensions, if you will--Disney had a missionary fervor to bring fine music, mediated by his own exquisite middle-brow instincts, to the masses. "Gee," he gushed when he saw one segment of Fantasia, "this'll make Beethoven!"

Yet even then, Fantasia was a critical and box-office flop (Disney's first). Audiences who were pleased to watch the animated cavorting of mice and dwarfs didn't care to be elevated. And from the high end, Walt got contempt. Oskar Fischinger, the famed abstract filmmaker who had worked briefly on the project, called it "a conglomeration of tastelessness." Walt's plans for an "organic" Fantasia, one that would be revived every year with new sequences replacing some old ones, were dropped. It was not until a 1968 reissue, when hippies flocked to it as a head movie, that Fantasia shook off its rep as Walt's Edsel. The success of its 1991 video release persuaded the company to bankroll a freshened version, under the supervision of Walt's nephew Roy.

So here is Fantasia 2000--seven new sequences and an old favorite, The Sorcerer's Apprentice--arriving in the age of the middle-brownout. The portion of the moviegoing public that readily consumes, or is even exposed to, classical music has shrunk. The animation in this Fantasia--we'll call it F2K--has enough verve and humor to appeal to folks for whom even Kenny G is too rarefied; but will the masses swallow what's good for them? Something that might be called art? "I use the word art, and then I bite my tongue," says Roy Disney. "I hope this is judged not as a piece of art but as a piece of entertainment. And I think it will probably make us a few bucks."

Disney typically gambles big, then hedges its bets. To make F2K an event, it will premiere the film on Dec. 17 at New York City's Carnegie Hall, with James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera, conducting the London Philharmonia. The orchestra will also play during the movie in London, Paris, Tokyo and, on New Year's Eve, Pasadena, Calif. Then, for four months, the film will be shown only on the gigantic screens in 75 IMAX theaters. (Our advice to moviegoers: sit in the back!) And to camouflage a high-art stigma, F2K employs genial onscreen hosts: Bette Midler, Quincy Jones, Penn & Teller and, best of all, Steve Martin in his suave-idiot mode, to introduce Itzhak Perlman, "who, I have just been informed, plays the violin."

But F2K's real audience is people who believe in the artistic potential of animation. The movie celebrates that potential, often spectacularly so. Respighi's Pines of Rome metamorphoses, in director Hendel Butoy's vision, into a classic fairy-tale theme of a child separated from its parents. The child is a whale, inside a hollow iceberg; it fretfully watches its parents' shadows outside the ice wall as it tries to escape. Then it magically floats up on a shaft of light and joins the rest of the pod. Together they all soar, through clouds, until with a great splash they come to the surface of what may be heaven. It's a superb, uplifting flight of the spirit.

Butoy has another lovely piece: Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier grafted onto Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto. The one-legged soldier and his ballerina love battle an evil Jack-in-the-box in a gorgeous blend of traditional and computer animation. Eric Goldberg has a snippet set to Carnival of the Animals--flamingoes playing with yo-yos--that is giddy enough to remind you of Bob Clampett's 1943 cartoon classic A Corny Concerto. The Goldberg variation on Rhapsody in Blue is a smartly syncopated tribute to ageless caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In the style of the NINAs that Hirschfeld hides in his drawings, the piece is crawling with furtive graffiti: a few Ninas, a "Goldberg" apartment house and, everywhere, the word Doug (a tribute to Disney layout artist Doug Walker).

Stravinsky's The Firebird, animated by the brothers Gaetan and Paul Brizzi, becomes a volcano dweller who destroys a forest; an elk and a wood sprite must somehow restore the glade. The story is similar to the Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke but told in under 10 minutes and with a more vibrant palette.

Bringing Fantasia back to life has been a long slog for the Roy Disney team. They considered including jazz, world music, the Beatles, Andrew Lloyd Webber; finally they stuck with the Old Masters. Among the candidates (some of which had been proposed for Walt's "organic" Fantasia): Flight of the Bumblebee; the Mozart piece that incorporates Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; Brahms' First Symphony; Dvorak's Ninth; even Beethoven's Ninth. Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini had a nifty concept (a nightmare and a dream struggling for a sleeping child's soul), but it fell through, as did the revival of a segment prepared in the '40s by Salvador Dali; a few clips from it are shown in F2K.

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