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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Cats Don’t Dance

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

A singing, dancing cat named Danny goes to Hollywood to become a star in this colorful and energetic animated musical suitable for all but the very youngest toddlers. He finds, however, that no one in Hollywood thinks that animals can be stars. A Shirley Temple-style moppet named Darla Dimple pretends to help him audition with his friends, only to sabotage their big number by flooding the soundstage. Danny, humiliated, decides to go back home. But he can’t give up, and the rousing finish has all of the animals staging a spectacular musical number, with the inadvertent help of Ms. Dimple.

The animation is well above average, if not quite up to the Disney standard, and the voice characterizations are excellent, with Scott Bakula and Jasmine Guy as the leads and Kathy Najimy, Don Knotts, and George Kennedy outstanding in supporting roles. Parents will appreciate some sly satire and the music, written by Randy Newman and performed by Natalie Cole.

Themes to discuss include judging others on their talent and character, rather than their appearance, and about working for your dreams, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. Kids may also like to talk about Darla Dimple, why she was so threatened by the talented animals and the contrast between the way she behaved in private and when she was in the public eye.

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Quest For Camelot

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

A young girl named Kayley dreams of being a knight like her father, who was killed defending King Arthur from the brutal Ruber. When Ruber steals Excalibur from Camelot, Kayley goes into the forbidden forest to find it. There she meets Garrett, a squire befriended by her late father, who left Camelot after he became blind. Joined by a two-headed dragon, they find the sword and fight Ruber to return Excalibur to Arthur.

This is the first attempt by Warner Brothers, home of Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, to get into Disney territory with a full-length animated musical drama, and it is a step in the right direction, even if it does not match Disney or even non-Disney features like “Anastasia.” questforcamelot.jpg
The movie’s greatest strength is the first-class talent providing the voices: Cary Elwes as Garrett, Jane Seymour and Gabriel Byrne as Kayley’s parents, Don Rickles and Monty Python’s Eric Idle as the dragon, and (all too briefly) Sir John Gielgud as Merlin. The animation has some good moments, especially a sleepy ogre. The heroine and hero are spirited if a bit too generic. But with the exception of the dragon’s cute duet, the songs add little and slow down the story. Themes worth discussing include the importance of cooperation, loyalty, and the strengths of those considered disabled.

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Stuart Little

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

E.B. White’s story of a family whose son happens to be a mouse is lovingly Hollywood-ized. In other words, it bears very little relationship to the book but has a lot of great special effects. Fans of the book will do well to stay at home and re-read it, but families looking for some good action scenes, appealing characters, and a wise-cracking cat will enjoy it very much.

Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) drop son George (Jonathan Lipnicki) off at school on their way to the orphanage to adopt a child. They fall in love with Stuart (voice of Michael J. Fox), who is charming, insightful, unselfish — and a mouse. Despite warnings against “inter-species” adoption, they bring him home.

George is disappointed. He does not see how Stuart will ever be able to play with him. And maybe he is a little more jealous than he was expecting. He insists, “He’s not my brother — he’s a mouse!”

But that is nothing compared to the ferocious resentment of another member of the Little family — Snowball the cat. Snowball (hilariously voiced by Nathan Lane) is furious at being told that “we don’t eat family members,” and humiliated at having a mouse as “an owner.” He plots to get rid of Stuart.

Stuart manages to surmount the literally enormous obstacles of a world way out of proportion. He even wins over George, after he demonstrates his courage and loyalty in a boat race in Central Park. But he still feels an emptiness inside, and wonders about his birth parents.

Then two mice show up claiming to be his birth parents. Stuart realizes that the Littles are his real family. “You don’t have to look alike. You don’t even have to like each other.” Your family are the people who stick with you. His home is where they are.

This is a terrific family movie. Stuart, created entirely through computer graphics, is perfectly integrated into the live action. And I do mean action — the boat race and chase sequences are among the most exciting on screen this year. The script by the screenwriter/director of “The Sixth Sense” does not talk down to kids and has some genuine insights about sibling rivalry, the fear of failure, and family.

It is worth noting that this movie had by far the most enthusiastic audience reaction of any I saw this year, with shrieks of joy when Snowball went into the trash can and cheers at the boat race and chase scenes. I have to admit, I felt like cheering myself.

Parents should know that the movie is rated PG for brief mild language and scenes of peril.

Adoptive and foster families may want to think carefully about whether the themes will be upsetting or reassuring to their children. They should prepare adopted or foster children before they see the movie. They can emphasize the way that the Littles selected Stuart because they could tell he was right for them, and they should make it clear (if appropriate) that they would never let anyone take their children away. Like Stuart, they can explain that they recognize that families are people who stick up for each other. In the movie, it was not just Stuart who learned that lesson — the Littles also learned that they were wrong in thinking that Stuart would be happier with mice than with people.

All families who see this movie should talk about what makes people feel that they “fit in,” about jealousy and the way it makes us think that hurting others will help us feel better (but it doesn’t), and the importance of Mr. Little’s advice about trying — and George’s success in reminding him about it at the right moment.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy another movie based on a book by E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web.”

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The Tigger Movie

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

What is a family? Is it people who look like us? People who like the same things that we do? People who always have time for us? Tigger learns something about what family really means in this pleasant animated musical that draws much more from Disney than it does from Tigger’s original author, A.A. Milne.

As we know from the well-known Disney song about Tigger, he’s “the only one.” But when he has a hard time finding a friend to bounce with and seems to be getting in everyone’s way, he thinks that maybe he should try to see if there are some other Tiggers after all. He thinks that if he can find others like him, he will feel accepted, understood, and proud.

Many small children will identify with some of Tigger’s concerns. He shows signs of sibling rivalry right at the beginning, when he lets us know that most of the stories are about Pooh, but this one is about him. He has a hard time understanding why he can’t get anyone to play with him and gets upset when others get mad at him for breaking things and making a mess. His dreams of finding a place where everyone will be just like him will appeal to kids, who are always surrounded by that strangest of species, grown-ups.

Make sure kids learn along with Tigger that what makes a family is not looking alike, enjoying the same things, or even getting along all the time, but love, loyalty, and caring for each other. When Tigger runs away, his friends follow him and they all work together to get home safely. Once they are back home, Tigger shows his appreciation by giving each friend the one special gift that most shows how carefully he listened to each of them, even while he was bouncing.

Anyone over age 8 may find the movie slow, but a couple of bright musical numbers (by the same Sherman brothers who wrote the music for “Mary Poppins” and the original Pooh movie) and a running time of 75 minutes make it relatively painless. Parents should know that there characters are in peril, but nothing too intense.

Kids who like this movie should make sure their parents read them the books about Winnie the Pooh and his friends. They’ll also enjoy the other Pooh movies on video, especially the early ones.

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