ADAM I thought that had the same dispiritingly humdrum quality as when we go to see all the Oscar-nominated animated shorts. Which I did not do this year. But every year it’s much the same.
BETH Except here we didn’t get to see how long they were in advance.
BROOM This is much shorter than the animated shorts show often is.
BETH No, it’s about the same.
ADAM I think the idea of remaking this was sort of in poor taste, unfortunately. Or maybe it’s just that the individual pieces they chose. I don’t mean to shower this with my negativity, but… everything they picked sounded like they picked it because it sounded like cartoon music. It was very difficult to hear the pieces as anything other than cartoon music. Whereas the cartoons didn’t have any value to them other than as accompaniments to music. Everything was worth less than the individual pieces.
BETH I was thinking about how challenging it must be to start with pieces that exist and try to craft a story to them. They didn’t usually work, but they were interesting. I think we should probably go one by one.
ADAM Any other blanket thoughts before we do that?
BETH I thought the famous-people aspect was really distracting.
ADAM It was a little bit like watching an Oscars presentation from the late nineties.
BROOM Yeah. But I thought the frame was more or less okay. What else could they do?
BETH But why did they need a frame? I think I would have enjoyed it if it was more like one of those early medleys.
BROOM How did you feel about the frame in the original Fantasia, where Deems Taylor talks to you? Do you think that’s too didactic?
BETH I don’t love it, but I think it works better than multiple hosts who are making bad jokes. I think the bad jokiness makes the whole thing feel out of touch. And now weirdly out-dated. It will always feel like that moment. Which I guess is fine, because it’s called Fantasia 2000, but it’s just strange.
ADAM Yeah, the people they picked were unusually dated.
BETH Penn and Teller?
ADAM “Angela Lansbury and Quincy Jones bring you…”
BROOM Well, they each have a sort of significance. But fine, I hear you. It was exactly like an Oscars broadcast.
ADAM I thought it was interesting to watch the original sequence of “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” which obviously marries famously well with its piece. But they didn’t try to choreograph or illustrate every little note in the piece. Did there really need to be a leaf or an ash or a butterfly wing for every single note in every single piece this time around? That’s what I mean by “in poor taste.” It was just much too literal.
BROOM I definitely agree. I feel like the “Sorceror’s Apprentice” piece being here just points up all of what has gone missing over the generations in between. But you have to remember the sequence this is part of, and that it comes at this historical point. Remember we just watched Mulan and Tarzan. Even the gesture toward art and a respect for their own heritage, toward trying to be classy — even at that Oscars-show level, I want to encourage this. “Good! Go in this direction, guys!” And they don’t. This was an anomaly, and I think Roy Disney had to sort of force it into being.
BETH But if it had been done better, it might have started a tradition. It’s their own fault, I think.
BROOM I think the first Fantasia has so much greater feeling for the music and for what the animation can be, and this one was hampered by the lack of insight into those things in the present day.
BETH They had a lot to live up to.
ADAM The colors and the look were so garish.
BROOM Especially when you see “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” and the color design is so tasteful and effective, everything else is this overblown nineties look. Which I guess they’ve improved somewhat since then. I guess the post-Lilo and Stitch movies have better use of color?
ADAM You’ll find out!
BROOM There’s just a certain sensitivity and taste lacking.
ADAM Yeah, there’s no understatement. Having to have everything magenta and green is the same as having to have a little swoop or flourish for every note, which is the same thing as picking… I mean, these pieces are ludicrous. “The Pines of Rome”? What the hell is that?
BROOM It’s a piece that’s the musical equivalent of exactly what you’re talking about, except it’s the fascist Italian equivalent, it was like Mussolini’s favorite piece or something. [Ed. Okay maybe not… but the association of Respighi with Mussolini’s regime is long-standing if perhaps unfair]
ADAM But it was like a tasteless…
BROOM It’s known for being a tasteless piece, yes.
BROOM You’re saying they didn’t need to match something to every note, and I agree with that, but there were also places where I wanted them to match something in the music and they had neglected to, usually because they’d gone for a very literal approach — “there’s a beat here and there’s a beat here” — rather than feeling the real flow and meaning. Like the “Rhapsody in Blue,” which we’ll talk more about in a second: I felt like they had addressed the largest issues in a reasonable way, and the smallest surface issues in a reasonable way, but the middle-ground of actually feeling what the music was doing, they were sort of blind to it. And that’s what’s so effective about “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”; you really feel that the animation is a proper complement to the piece. All right, let’s go through in order.
ADAM First was the dreadful butterflies piece.
BROOM Beethoven’s Fifth with butterflies. That’s the one that’s most tone-deaf in the sense that I’m talking about.
ADAM Yeah. They start the evil butterflies midway through the first part.
BROOM Right, they introduce the blackness when nothing has shifted in the music. And there’s three elements — rays of light from god, and pastel butterflies, and evil butterflies — but there’s not really three elements in the music. And that the pastel butterflies had to play little games in the water with each other, which doesn’t correspond to anything in the music. And that one of them gets its wing injured by the evil butterflies…
BETH It was harsh.
ADAM And it was so gratuitously CGI. Haven’t they gotten used to CGI by now?
BETH It reminded me of the Donkey Kong video game, when all those spiders would come at you.
BROOM When there’s a mass of them on the screen like that all squirming around, it’s ugly to look at. The first time I saw this I remember being really dismayed. This time I tried to figure out what it was that the artist who made it had cared about. I think there were some layouts that they had felt strongly about.
ADAM The only thing that was at all pleasurable about that was the massed clouds of black and red butterflies.
BROOM Oh, that’s what I’m saying was ugly.
ADAM At least it was something.
BROOM It all displayed a depressing lack of feeling for the piece.
BETH Yes, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with it.
BROOM It seemed like they thought that making an “abstract” animation for “abstract” music meant not feeling any of the obvious points. Like when it sounds happy or sad. What’s next? “Pines of Rome.”
ADAM What was the accompaniment to that again?
BETH Flying whales.
ADAM Oh man. Well, at least, of all these pieces, that had a weird mysticism that was sort of engaging.
BETH I found it compelling.
BROOM I agree with that. It doesn’t go with the music exactly, but it at least felt the music somewhat.
ADAM When he goes into the ice cave, it is different than when they’re swooping.
BETH That’s exactly when I thought it was the most effective.
BROOM The first movement of that is the worst.
ADAM When they go underwater, before they emerge, that was also effective.
BROOM The finale of “Pines of Rome” is noted for being this infinite march of triumph over and over, and I thought the whales surmounting the clouds, and then the stars, and so on — I thought that was about right. And I didn’t mind it. But that there was a baby one? It’s still sort of a reflex Disney action.
ADAM Every one of these, no matter what, had to have some conflict, no matter how ill-adapted, and had to have some cuteness, no matter how ill-thought-out. Why?
BETH Who is this for? Is it for kids?
ADAM It’s meant to be enriching, isn’t it?
BROOM That’s a question about the original too. I think a lot of the flaws of this are things that many people would say are flaws of the original, but I personally would debate that. We just read an essay where someone knocked it, and that’s kind of the critical party line in a lot of ways, that Fantasia was this supremely tasteless endeavor. But I don’t feel that way. I feel like what Disney had in mind is a legitimate use of animation and a legitimate way of listening to music. And that this one missed the boat because they didn’t feel it, they didn’t know what the answers to those questions were. So I don’t know who this was for. I think it was “whoever Disney movies are for, except our assignment this time is classical music.”
ADAM Then it was “Rhapsody in Blue.” The most stylish, certainly, and the best characterized.
BETH I basically was okay with it.
ADAM There were funny things where they used mood notes in the music to do unlikely things. Like the thing with the nuts. Really?
BROOM There are things in there that are satisfying to me, and then there are other things. In nearly every scene. If they’re going to make Rhapsody in Blue a panorama of the city with six different stories, you’d think that the places they’d switch from story to story would be between the chunks of the music. There are completely discrete themes, and they always plateau out in obvious ways and then the next thing starts. But here it would change in the middle of a melody — it would pan across town to the next guy, and the first half the melody would be synced to one kind of action and the second half to another.
ADAM Maybe that’s meant to be like when Maya Angelou would read her poetry and intentionally not recognize the line breaks.
BROOM Yes, it is like that it. They clearly chose to do it that way intentionally. But you want it to reach this balletic sync where everything flows. When you see the people scurrying to and from the subway out the window, that feels good to me. And when they go down into the subway and everyone’s riding the rhythm, that felt good to me too. But like, the kid who has to work on the construction site? All the stories…
ADAM It was much worse than The Triplets of Belleville, which was the same thing.
BROOM I don’t remember The Triplets of Belleville well enough, but I do remember being irked by it so I’m not sure I’m going to agree.
ADAM It was sort of a jazz fantasia in the same way, with some of the same characters even, like the big woman dragging along the little henpecked man.
BROOM All the stuff they gathered into a “Rhapsody in Blue” world was about right: Hirschfeld, and the color scheme, and the Thurber-type people, the New Yorker cartoon types. And when they pan up and there’s George Gershwin at the piano, it feels earned. “Yeah, he could be there.” But the actual dance of it, and the story-ness of it, felt like it came out of a cartoon playbook that wasn’t as sensitively thought through.
BETH Nonetheless, it was fun.
ADAM Fun to watch.
BROOM It’s a reasonably classy effort. Just flawed.
BETH I think the animators were able to get that piece more than the other ones they were working with, because it’s more accessible to contemporary people.
ADAM I thought having the wistful dream sequence to the American Airlines music — that’s not the only way to do it, but it works.
BROOM But again: that being people dreaming, and that being people skating at Rockefeller Center, seem right to me — but that being people projecting themselves into their fantasies which are to: have a job, play snare drum, fly like a bird, and be loved by your parents… I guess she was sort of a reference to Eloise. But she didn’t look like Eloise, she looked like Little Lulu.
ADAM Apparently the way to be loved by your parents is to run into traffic.
BROOM All the ideas were okay but the directorial instincts were off.
ADAM Next came the toy soldier.
BROOM I believe first there was the flamingos. [Ed. i.e. “Carnival of the Animals.” Incidentally Broom is wrong and Adam is right about the order]
BETH Oh right.
BROOM I think it was one of the most successful in actually feeling musical. And it has all that sort of strong color direction in the background, but done so correctly, for a change, that you hardly notice it.
BETH Actually, I did appreciate that.
BROOM And the sync to the music was strong and clear and genuinely funny in the way it meant to be, in a musical way.
ADAM Yeah, but it was easy. They clipped the piece of music so it had only one emotion.
BROOM Fine! They did something that had integrity to it. As a complete farcical throwaway, at least it had integrity. In the way that the others felt like they were almost not what they thought they were. This was exactly what it meant to be.
ADAM Somebody tell James Earl Jones! “Flamingos with a yo-yo?”
BROOM I found it satisfying.
ADAM But it was not ambitious.
BROOM A silly thing well-achieved is less uncomfortable for me than grandeur that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing.
ADAM Then the toy soldier. As a story I guess the characters were the best-developed. Sort of. I mean that Jack-in-the-box was creepy. The deus ex fish was a little odd.
BROOM I think that’s in the Hans Christian Andersen story.
ADAM Then fine. I don’t remember a thing about the music.
BROOM Shostakovich Piano Concerto number two. It’s actually one of the most unusual musical choices, repertoire-wise. I liked it okay. I wanted it to have more of the quaint toyshop atmosphere, and their facial expressions sort of prevented that. And the synthetic low-framerate CGI look…
ADAM The pre-Toy Story look.
BROOM It was post-Toy Story but it was intentionally stylized to look early that way. They made them stiff – I think they thought it would make them seem like toys. I wanted it to have more atmosphere and character than it had. It felt sort of smart about the music too, which is more than can be said for other stuff.
ADAM I don’t know. When the rats were there, it wasn’t correct.
BROOM Yeah, it’s a bit forced. Those rats with red eyes came out of other movies. Lady and the Tramp. I like the piece, and I think that way of storifying it isn’t bad, but it never quite lands. If you ask people about this movie more than ten minutes after they’ve seen it, they will not remember that one.
ADAM That’s the one that would win the Oscar, and you’d come out afterward and be like, “That one??”
BROOM It doesn’t have quite enough oomph to it. Then “The Sorceror’s Apprentice.”
ADAM A classic.
BROOM One of the great pieces of animation, I feel like.
BETH It is.
ADAM It fits so perfectly. The music is meant exactly to suggest what is happening there.
BROOM More or less. The dream sequence I think is their own imposition on it, but it’s appropriate. And the illustration is just so perfect. When he goes outside and you see the sunlight, it feels so storybook-satisfying.
BETH And the characterization of the wizard is great. I love at the end when he’s angry but amused, and it shows in very small facial expressions.
BROOM It’s very well done and they don’t got it no more. Then Donald Duck. [Ed.: “Pomp and Circumstance.”] That’s the worst one.
ADAM That was the worst one. Ugh, that was so bad.
BETH Why did they do that?
BROOM Totally tasteless.
ADAM Ugh. Everything about that.
BETH Everything about it.
ADAM The chorus that comes on at the end reminds me a little of… I don’t know, “Gangsta’s Paradise” or something.
BROOM People talk about how Walt was this tyrant, but I think that’s why the movies were better in his day. There was some one person who had a real vision. Once you put it into the hands of the various craftspeople… that obviously was made by professional animators, but it had no vision. No vision.
ADAM Yeah. It was gross. The colors in that were the worst. And then, ugh, Daisy? What were they doing there? And what was with their Three’s Company storyline?
BROOM I can explain it to you if you need. Note that this was Daisy’s first and probably last appearance in a feature film.
ADAM That’s really sad.
BROOM And it’s been a long time since Donald had any role. But this didn’t feel like the real Donald.
ADAM She’s so simpering, and they didn’t look right, and they didn’t have any personality.
BROOM He didn’t do any Donald stuff. And when Noah’s face wasn’t shown, I thought, “it’s just Noah!” If it were God, then I would agree, yes, you should just show his back.
ADAM Is there anything redeeming in it? Um… no.
BETH It’s terrible.
BROOM Some of the animal animation was… competent for those animals.
ADAM After that was the finale, “The Firebird.”
BETH Did you guys like that? I really zoned out.
ADAM No. I wrote poems like that when I was in fourth grade. You know, “The Rebirth.” I could have written that. I remember writing a poem in fourth grade about a homeless man who gets a quarter on the sidewalk and sees “a ray of light across his once-dark valley.” It’s sort of at that same pitch.
BROOM I felt like this was more or less on par with the whales. “Nice try; I’ll go with it because why not, but.”
ADAM I understand that there’s something delicious about spring coming, but why is spring just a rippling aqua-green sheet that doesn’t change? There was nothing inventive about the way they depicted that.
BROOM She seemed like she came out of a Miyazaki movie, sort of Japanese in inspiration.
ADAM The only thing I liked was the firebird’s eye.
BROOM I liked when she made a flower by rubbing her hands together and then made a bigger one by doing it more vigorously.
ADAM There were so few touches like that, given that it was supposed to be this rippling sensuous “life is coming!” It was like the backdrop to the Smurfs when you’d see the same four frames over and over again. And why did she and the firebird look exactly the same? They just had long capes of different colors. And at the end they just gave up. There weren’t even different tones of green! It was really ugly.
BROOM The haunted-castle-is-reborn-as-a-technicolor-castle ending is pretty lame at this point, it’s true. But I felt at least like that one had some connection to the music. So let’s talk about the big picture here. We’ve worked our way through the twentieth century, as Disney has become more and more a set of rote gestures and reflexive not-quite-ideas. And this felt like a good-faith effort to recapture something that they had genuinely forgotten how to think about.
ADAM I think that the whole concept of the year two-thousand, in retrospect, was tasteless and overblown. I have an image of New Year’s Eve nineteen-ninety-nine into two-thousand, of Bill Clinton in a tuxedo, presiding over a ballroom — I remember seeing this on the front page of the newspaper the next day — and that’s exactly right. It’s all the schlockiness of the nineties but done up in this mock-seriousness of the millennium. It’s like — do you remember the commencement ceremony where they gave Nelson Mandela the honorary degree? It’s like that. It has all that inflated sense of self-worth, but also this gross… the whole concept of the year two-thousand in retrospect is stupid and embarrassing. But pompous at the same time. And this movie is the kind of thing that summarized the year two-thousand, to me.
BROOM I don’t think this movie was made because it was the year two-thousand.
ADAM I know, it’s like Windows 2000.
BROOM Calling it that does make it sound like a Microsoft product. Or a Chessmaster. When people write about Fantasia nineteen-forty, they talk about things like whether it’s a legitimate artistic project or just kitsch, whether it shows Disney’s limitations or shows him at the height of his art. Whereas when you read people talking about this one, the context and the framework for thinking about what kinds of products might come out of a cultural factory like Disney is so much narrower. The ambition implicit in the project isn’t actually active, alive. There is no one who was working on this who was motivated by the idea “we will make music come alive with animation!”
BETH People by that point had such a different relation to classical music than they did in nineteen-forty to begin with. I think it was probably difficult to muster that.
ADAM Yeah, people are more illiterate listening to classical music by an order of magnitude than they were in nineteen-forty. So maybe you have to hit people over the head.
BROOM You’re talking about the audience, but she and I are talking about the people who made it. Not to be overly grandiose, but the original inspiration seems right: animation seems like an art with affinities to classical music. And that these people don’t feel that seems to me symptomatic of their not really feeling animation. Animation art in the nineties — as we talk about these movies we lower and lower our expectations because the minds making it seem to have smaller and smaller ideals.
ADAM There’s maybe a reason no-one has ever undertaken the project we’re undertaking.
BROOM Because it’s depressing?
ADAM Yeah. I mean, it’s worth doing now that we’re so far along, but I didn’t realize we were going to flame out in mediocrity.
BROOM Did you not know that?
ADAM It is not my recollection.
BROOM When you look at the present day do you not feel that you are in the midst of the flame-out-in-mediocrity of most culture?
ADAM I feel like I often draw my attention to forms of culture that were not in existence a hundred years ago, and those feel exciting and have no reference point.
BROOM Like what?
ADAM Well, you probably don’t go to a lot of electronic dance parties, but… I do. And that is a thing I can appreciate without having to think, like, “ugh, I wish it was nineteen-thirty!”
BROOM But you don’t see it as the same form as the dance party of nineteen-thirty where the music was in fact so much richer and better?
ADAM No. Or, like, you know, HBO series.
BROOM Beth was doing a workout video earlier today, and the music in the workout video is this electronic pulse like in a thriller movie, just pounding over and over. And I was thinking, “why is it so grim and robotic?” And I was trying to think what the music was like in the Jane Fonda Workout video we had when I was a kid. I assume it was exuberant.
BETH I remember what it was like. It’s slow, like, [commercial soft-rock beat].
BROOM I’m not going to say that nineteen-eighty-five or whatever year that was was a high point for the human spirit or anything, but at least that music is about feeling good. It seemed like this music was about continuing to live out some kind of fantasy that you were like a robot on a track.
BETH I didn’t even hear it though.
ADAM I don’t know, have you been to one of the redesigned Starbucks? There’s new Starbucks now where all of the finishes are extremely dark wood and more natural, and it’s nice. It’s nicer than the old ones. There are things about modern life that are fine. We went through a great period of riotous architecture in the last ten years. All kinds of things. But living among forms of art where the air has gone out is depressing.
BROOM You know that I would take issue with saying that this is a heyday for architecture. I feel like a lot of it is anti-human in various subtle ways. I feel like a lot of this stuff lacks a humanist impulse. So maybe you think that we’re in a heyday of animation too; you don’t need to agree with me.
ADAM We’re obviously not. I obviously don’t think that.
BROOM How did you feel about Toy Story 3?
ADAM It was really sad. It was not as good as everyone said it was, but it was good. Ratatouille is as good as Bambi.
BROOM I disagree.
ADAM Well, Spirited Away is as good as anything in animation. It’s as haunting and moving to me as any work of animation I’ve ever seen.
BROOM It definitely is its own thing. It feels legitimate.
ADAM So fine, this one company that became a massive corporate conglomerate and one of the twenty-five largest corporations in the United States, yeah, they maybe don’t have the gift anymore.
BROOM Well, as David Thomson writes, Walt Disney is probably the most influential person in the history of the aesthetics of the medium of film. The ideas and the ideals of Walt Disney have such a huge sway. You can disagree with that as a claim, but there’s definitely an importance to what the Disney company believes in. And I feel like they think they’re believing in the same thing they always have, but it’s actually shrunken down to a tiny little hole that they’re looking through.
BETH As the rest of culture has pressed it in, I think.
BROOM You can say that, but I think there’s no reason that they couldn’t have gathered to them the people who still had that vision.
ADAM Well they don’t have any writers. They don’t have any artists. They just have illustrators.
BROOM They put “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in this movie because it can still be released to the public now. The piece really hasn’t aged in any way, in any sense that relates to people and the way they listen to music or the way they look at film. It’s just that we don’t have the people who can make it anymore, because the ideas that need to be in the heads of the artists are not in very many people’s heads anymore, and the company doesn’t know how to prioritize those kinds of ideas. They don’t even distinguish.
BETH But it’s also that the kids who decide to become artists — there are fewer opportunities for them to be artists now, so they end up with very technically-minded animators. That’s who succeeds in the business now.
BROOM I guess the saddest thing is that it feels so strongly like it lacks heart, and also that the accusation that it lacks heart is so period-specific that it’s not even legitimate to level against the movie, because that’s just the kind of world that it’s from. Why should we feel comfortable saying that there was a time in history that lacked heart? Do we say that of any other times? Do we say it about the fifties? Maybe.
BETH Yeah, a little.
ADAM I think this has more to do with the fact that we’re a certain age than anything else. This is every old person’s lament. Although in this case it’s a lament about our own childhoods.
BETH Everyone throughout history has always said that everything’s worse than it was before. For any given time. When are things not going to hell?
ADAM Yeah, cheer up!
BROOM I try to keep that in mind. I try not to be that person. But the thing here — it’s not going to hell, it’s just losing sight of itself. It’s frustrating because there’s nothing stopping them except for the cultural norms. It takes a stronger vision to make something sensible and humanist now because the culture less and less has that stuff implicit in it.
ADAM Irony’s about to end.
BETH That was going to happen ten years ago.
BROOM He’s saying it ironically.
ADAM No, I’m saying by the time the next movie comes out, irony will have ended.
BROOM But that’s simply not the case. As you well know.
[we read the Times review]
ADAM Stephen Holden’s not a very good writer. It was both poorly thought out and poorly organized, and really wordy.