Fantasia 2000

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Almost sixty years ago, the original “Fantasia” was released and hard as it may be to believe it now, the response was unenthusiastic. Today, images like Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the little black Pegasus getting some extra help learning how to fly and the dances of the mushrooms and the ballerina hippos are a part of our culture. Walt Disney hoped that “Fantasia” would be released each year with new episodes, but the lacklustre box office and the distractions of other ventures meant that the idea of adding new material was shelved. Still, the animation studio hoped for another chance, and one of the pleasures of this movie is the chance to see some of the proposals for new episodes submitted by animators over the years.

Disney called the original “a grand mixture of comedy, fantasy, ballet, drama, impressionism, color, sound, and epic fury,” and that well describes the very worthy successor. As the first theatrical release designed exclusively for IMAX screens, it fills the eyes of the audience with splendor. Now on video and DVD, it is still a delight, even better in one respect because you can see the entire screen and catch some of the details that are lost in the vast expanse of the IMAX experience.

The audience is reassured from the beginning that this is not going to be some strange or boring culture lesson. Glimpses and sound clips from the original float into view, and then suddenly we are in the midst of the most famous opening notes of classical music, the da da da DUM of Beethoven’s Fifth, accompanied by an abstract battle between groups of triangles. Then Steve Martin comes on to make a joke, and we’re off to the next episode, whales in moonlight, to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The light on the water, the stillness, the dignity and grace of the whales in the water and then as they float up into the sky are magnificent.

Other segments include a rollicking Al Hirschfeld-inspired look at 1930s New York, to the music of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a very romantic “Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Dimitri Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, and a mystical tale about death and rebirth in the forest, to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” From the original, we get Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with glowing colors and dazzling detail. And Donald finally gets his chance, as Sir Edward Elgar’s famous “Pomp and Circumstance” accompanies not a procession of graduates to their diplomas but a procession of animals to Noah’s ark. Celebrities like Angela Lansbury, Quincy Jones, and James Earl Jones provide smooth transitions.

The movie is rated G, but the experience may be overwhelming for some children. A three year old sitting near me in the theater was in tears throughout the first segment, though she enjoyed some of the others. Parents should also know that magicians Penn and Teller do a trick that may scare some kids, though they immediately show that everything is all right.

Families should talk about the way that music makes pictures in our heads, and experiment by asking children to draw pictures as they listen to music. Ask children why the people in “Rhapsody in Blue” are sad, and how they find what they were dreaming of. They may be especially interested in the rich little girl who is dragged around to all kinds of lessons by her nanny, but who dreams of spending time with her busy parents. Talk to them about the spirit of spring in “The Firebird Suite,” who learns that she cannot prevent death, but can help the forest to renew itself. Ask them about “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (which has a Disney-ized happy ending). Why did the solider first like the ballerina? Why did he think she would not like him? Why was the Jack in the Box so jealous? Show children some of the drawings of legendary artist Al Hirschfeld, who hid the name of his daughter “Nina” in his pictures. Kids who are interested in the adaptation of his work for “Rhapsody in Blue” will enjoy the award-winning documentary about him, “The Line King.”

Families should watch the original, and compare them — one has a segment on the coming of fall and one on the coming of spring, both have music by Stravinsky, both have a non-representational segment, both have a processional number, and both have a funny animal segment — this one “answers the age-old question, ‘What would happen if you gave a flamingo a yo-yo?'” And see if kids can figure out the closest approximation in the new version of the original’s little black Pegasus. All of this may require a repeat viewing, but hardly anyone will object — and it will give you time to search for the Ninas in “Rhapsody in Blue!”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy three new Disney releases on video — originally produced as “Fantasia” follow-ups with modern music. “Melody Time,” “Make Mine Music,” and “Fun and Fancy Free” feature some of Disney’s classic animation, with outstanding segments like “Peter and the Wolf,” “Casey at the Bat,” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”

DVD note: The DVD version has some exceptionally entertaining extras, including commentary by Hirschfeld on his segment and a hilarious commentary by Mickey about his experiences making “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” — he is reassuring that no brooms were harmed in the making of the movie!

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Mission to Mars

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Director Brian DePalma is known for movies that have two qualities — striking visual flair and frustrating narrative incoherence. If you are the kind of person who talks about the plot on the way home, this is not your kind of movie. But if you would enjoy seeing an old-time “Flash Gordon”-style movie with 21st Century special effects and computer graphics, you just might want to see it twice.

The movie takes place in 2020. Don Cheadle plays an astronaut who leads a team to Mars to investigate the possiblity of colonization. But on an expedition a huge tunnel-like dust storm kills the rest of the team, and communication with the space station is cut off. Four of his colleages, played by Tim Robbins, Jerry O’Connell, Gary Sinese, and Connie Nielson, go on a rescue mission.

Trust me, that’s really all you want to know about the plot, which makes “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” seem like rocket science. It even makes “The Day the Earth Stood Still” look like rocket science. But the pictures are pretty.

Parents should know that characters are in peril and there are a number of tense moments and several deaths, one graphic. Creationists will also be upset by the way the plot develops.

Families who watch the movie will want to talk about the choices made by the characters, including one who commits suicide to save the lives of others, and about the prospects of space exploration and colonization. And it is worth pointing out to kids who watch today that they are the same age as the characters in the movie, who would have been children back in the year 2000. Point out the brief home movie footage showing two of the characters circa 2000, around 11 years old, and already dreaming of going to Mars, and ask kids what their dreams are, and help them think about what they will need in order to get there.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy “2001,” and might even get a kick out of the first big-budget outer space film, “Forbidden Planet,” with Leslie Nielson long before “Naked Gun.”

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Action/Adventure Fantasy Science-Fiction

Godzilla

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

The classic Japanese monster film has been updated by the team that produced and directed “Stargate” and “Independence Day,” and what we get is basically “Jurassic Park” with one very, very big dinosaur. Nuclear testing has resulted in the mutation of a fish-loving lizard who seeks out Manhattan as an ideal place for him to lay eggs (he is a self- reproducing hemaphrodite). Godzilla roars around knocking down buildings, bespectacled scientist Nick Tatapolous (Matthew Broderick) works with the US Army and a mysterious group of Frenchmen to try to stop him, and Audrey (Maria Petillo), the girl who broke Nick’s heart in college, tries to break into the broadcast reporting big leagues by getting the inside story.

On the scariness scale, this one fits in at around the “Jurassic Park” level, with a few jump-out-at-you surprises and some tense moments. The special effects are state-of-the art, but not particularly innovative. There are some striking visuals and a few clever plot turns. But the movie sorely misses the quirky charm of “Independence Day’s” Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum and the story never captures the heart. As far as I am concerned, the real special effect in this movie is the way they managed to make it appear that Manhattan was evacuated almost instantaneously.

Parents should know that younger kids aware of India’s recent nuclear testing may be concerned that real mutations could be occuring. Some kids may be confused because at times, Godzilla is presented sympathetically, especially as he/she shows protective fury in finding her babies have been killed. Parents of older kids may want to talk with them about why it was important to Phillippe (Jean Reno) to take responsibility for Godzilla and why it was wrong for Audrey to betray Nick’s trust.

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Fantasy Remake Science-Fiction

Pleasantville

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

In “Dave” and “Big” screenwriter Gary Ross gave us characters whose innocent honesty and goodness revealed and transformed the adult world. Now, as both screenwriter and director of “Pleasantville,” he has created teen-aged twins who are transported into an idyllic black and white 1950’s television sitcom where everything is perpetually sunny and cheerful, married couples sleep in twin beds, the basketball team never loses, and messy complications simply don’t exist. Tobey Maguire (David) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer) are well aware of the messy complications of the modern world. David has retreated into reruns of “Pleasantville,” a television show that makes “Andy of Mayberry” and “Father Knows Best” look like hard-hitting docudramas. And Jennifer is something of a self-described “slut.” When a mysterious TV repairman played by “Andy of Mayberry’s” Don Knotts gives them a magic remote control, David and Jennifer find themselves transformed into Pleasantville’s Bud and Mary Sue. As the twins interact with Pleasantville’s black and white world, they cannot help revealing its limits and ultimately transforming it. “Mary Sue” mischeviously introduces the concept of sex to her high school classmates, and then, more sensitively, to her Pleasantville mother (Joan Allen). “Bud” tells them about a world where the roads go on to other places, where the weather is not always sunny and mild, where people can decide to do things differently than they have before. As the characters open themselves up to change, they and their surroundings begin to bloom into color, in one of the most magical visual effects ever put onto film.

But some residents of Pleasantville are threatened and terrified by the changes. “No colored” signs appear in store windows. New rules are imposed. When the twins’ Pleasantville father (William H. Macy) finds no one there to hear his “Honey, I’m home!” he does not know what to do. He wants his wife to go back to black and white.

At first, Jennifer thinks that it is sex that turns the black and white characters into color. But when she stays “pasty,” she realizes that the colors reveal something more subtle and meaningful — the willingness to challenge the accepted and opening oneself up to honest reflection about one’s own feelings and longings.

High schoolers may appreciate the way that the twins, at first retreating in different ways from the problems of the modern world, find that the rewards of the examined life make it ultimately worthwhile. Topics for discussion include the movie’s parallels to Nazi Germany (book burning) and American Jim Crow laws (“No colored” signs), and the challenges of independent thinking. NOTE: parents should know that the movie contains fairly explicit references to masturbation (and a non-explicit depiction) and to teen and adulterous sex.

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Drama Family Issues Fantasy

Pokemon: The First Movie

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Human scientists have figured out a way to create a bigger and stronger clone of the most powerful Pokemon ever, Mew. The result is a sort of Maxi-Mew called Mewtwo. Mewtwo decides to go after that goal of all movie bad guys worth their salt, total world domination, by capturing and cloning all the Pokemons.

Mewtwo lures the best Pokemon masters to his island for the ultimate battle. He points out – and here I have to side with him – that the Pokemons are slaves to the humans. Then each of the Pokemons has to fight its clone in a sort of existential crisis. This was very appealing to the little boy in front of me, who chanted happily, “Two Pikachus, two Jigglypuff, two Bublasaur…” like a Pokemon Noah. Then it all ends happily – if hypocritically, with everyone in favor of cooperation instead of fighting. (NOTE: The movie is preceded by a strange short movie about a Pokemon trip to an amusement park.)

Anyone who has ever seen the TV series, played the game, or bought the cards knows what to expect here. Every generation of children has some hideously annoying cartoon series to provide parents with much agonizing and many, many buying opportunities. The characters usually undergo some transformation or make use of a secret to attain power. This theme is endlessly interesting to kids who can feel overwhelmed by a world built on a scale that is often too large for them.

Kids, especially those ages 6-10, also love to memorize and sort endless facts, whether about Pokemons, dinosaurs, cars, or Beanie Babies. It gives them a sense of mastery, especially because they can do so much better than adults. And it becomes an important part of their social development, creating a shared language with their friends. This can be particularly meaningful for kids who are insecure about talking to other children.

Still, excruciating as it can be for parents to endure, it may be worthwhile for kids to see the movie. If it makes it any easier, remember that before too long, this will be over and by the time the next one comes along your children will be past that stage.

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