Beginning in 1929, right after the debut of Mickey Mouse in his first talking cartoon, Walt Disney made a series of 75 animated visuals accompanying music performances called "Silly Symphonies." The most ambitious of those musical cartoons involved Mickey as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and conductor Leopold Stokowski arranging Paul Dukas' concerto. The project's budget swelled past $125,000, far more than the average "Silly Symphony" and, by its release at the end of 1940, the budget had become an enormous $2,280,000.
It wasn't until after Disney's death and a four-track stereo soundtrack was added in 1956 that the movie (named "Fantasia" by Stokowski) turned a profit. A 1969 release found a new audience (many of them stoned), and a 1977 re-issue (to many of the same viewers, now parents) release was also successful. Then on Jan. 1, 2000, a digital re-recording in the IMAX format was released in limited distribution, too.
Now comes a digital, enhanced version of the original with lots of cool music, available at a movie theater near you. It's fun.
You'll recognize the new as well as the old. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment runs like the original (only brighter and more vivid), but you'll find familiar images and themes in both a "Rhapsody In Blue" and a "Pomp and Circumstance" sessions.
What's best about this newest version, though, is a segment featuring Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome," the music accompanied by visuals of flying whales. Somehow, and gloriously so, it works.
The various sequences get introductions from well-dressed hosts, like Bette Midler and Steve Martin, and from well-known musical heroes like conductor James Levine and violinist Itzhak Perlman.They make for welcome breaks between sequences but add little more to the film, overall.
The true value of this sort of film lies in its inspirational worth. Many of the developers of this movie have noted their interest in animation, or music, or both, stemmed from a childhood viewing of "Fantasia." Indeed, you could argue that Disney's "Silly Symphonies" formed the bedrock foundation for onscreen music-appreciation from "Breakfast With the Arts" on A&E to VH1 and MTV.
"Fantasia/2000" offers an excellent chance for grown-ups and children to watch a movie together and have a later discussion that will not include sexual innuendo, explosions or gunfire of any sort. And the Disney folks have upgraded this well-worn old warhorse of a cartoon in such a way that it'll captivate even the most jaded pre-teen.
Along the long path of this project, much has been made of its place in animation history, the prominent names involved and the issues raised by re-releasing. Well, good. But if you dismiss all that and pay attention only to the show, you'll still have a great time.
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