The National Catholic Review
Fantasia/2000
Dr. Sanford Cinematz, F.A.P.A., P.C.: Dreams. Yes, yes, your dream.
R.A.B.: It’s morning. I’m on a boat, below deck. Just finishing a breakfast of freud eggs and sausages. Noise above. We’ve been boarded by Vikings. Leader is Eric Ericsson. No, Leif. Eric (the Red) was his father. Wants me to sail back through several stages of development. I resist.

Dr. Cinematz: Resist, you say.

R.A.B.: Yes. He lashes me to a mast. The bondage is painful, but oddly pleasurable, with the craft ebbing out on the tide. We’re in the middle of the ocean. It’s quite dark. I cannot see where the ship is headed.

Dr. Cinematz: Oh, sea. Can you say by the dawn’s early light?

R.A.B.: No, more like the twilight’s last gleaming. The light is flickering. As my regression continues, I’m sitting on my mother’s lap. We had spent the morning playing a game of cards with two decks and a plastic tray. Jocasta?

Dr. Cinematz: Canasta.

R.A.B.: Whatever. I’m very jung, perhaps four or five years old. The flickering light coalesces into an image moving on a screen. Yes, now I remember. It was my first movie. A wonderful little mouse with a funny bathrobe and pointed hat is dancing to very loud music. Brooms come to life by magic. Water starts to pour into the room. The mouse may drown. My terror rises, and I begin to scream. My mother rushes me out into daylight. It’s safe, but that poor little mouse back in the theater! The horror! The horror! I’ve repressed that memory all these years. No wonder that in my adult life I became so adlered.

Dr. Cinematz: Addled.

R.A.B.: Addled.

Dr. Cinematz: Try to recapture the experience as an adult.

R.A.B.: How can I? The original "Fantasia" came out in 1940. It was Walt Disney’s idea of blending classical music with cartoon art. Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, shakes hands with Mickey Mouse. A kitschy blending of high art and low art. I know that now. It must have been out a few years when I first saw it. You know, the kind of entertaining and educational family fare that mothers use to ruin their children’s lives. A baby sitter with brass knuckles. Am I making progress?

Dr. Cinematz: Progress? Hmmm. Well, after all these years you have finally confronted a childhood trauma.

R.A.B.: No, not really. I can’t recover the original experience. Disney originally intended to update the prototype every few years and create an anthology of classical music, but first came the war and then television. In the late 1960’s the original came back, and it became a favorite in the grass huts of campuses and coffee houses. Bad for image: lovable Mickey as star of a pot-boiler for the spaced-out generation, even if they didn’t inhale. Bad for me trying to recapture my lost cinematic youth.

Dr. Cinematz: I see. Life constantly presents us with opportunities. Don’t you now have another chance?

R.A.B.: No, no, no. This time the computer nerds have robbed me of my therapeutic memories. Fantasia/2000 contains seven new episodes along with the old, classic wetmouse chronicle. It’s the original Disney concept of adding new material, but the magic of the first version is lost forever. The techies put together their computer-generated graphics for the huge Imax screen. You know, that huge dome-like theater that surrounds you with images that make you seasick and noise that blows up your ear canals. That version came out last January. The new 35 mm print is just now making its way into ordinary theaters in smaller markets. (Anything to pick up a few clams on a rainy day at the beach. At 75 minutes it won’t give frantic parents more than a momentary breather from a restless kid.) Dancing, flying whales might have been impressive floating across a 150-foot convex surface, but put them on a standard sized flat surface and they look like screen savers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s cheaper and more convenient to stay home and watch flying toasters between games of solitaire.

Dr. Cinematz: Good. That’s very good. I’m getting a sense of your feelings now.

R.A.B.: You want feelings? Here’s feelings. What a waste. This film has a lot going for it, but no one bothered to script the pieces together or even to make sense out of the individual numbers. Steve Martin is funny; so is Bette Midler. The team of Penn and Teller is an acquired taste, like dying, and fortunately one I have yet to acquire. Angela Lansbury has a wonderful presence, and she remains the top pin-up among the prune juice and Geritol set. (Gasp, my contemporaries!) So, put all these talented people together and what do you get? One-minute introductions to segments that look like celebrity endorsements for a new line of mouthwash: "Now even a good ol’ boy like me, George W., am nice to be near since I started using the new, improved Dentuflush."

Dr. Cinematz: Do I sense hostility here?

R.A.B.: There’s a waste of a lot of musical talent as well. James R. Levine, the distinguished conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, leads the Chicago Symphony, but in an attempt to make him and the music accessible, the script gives him a terminal case of the cutsies. Similarly, Itzhak Perlman has to play straight man to Steve Martin and his leaden fiddle jokes.

Dr. Cinematz: You’re very harsh. Isn’t this a child’s movie?

R.A.B.: Well, yes, but I imagine children would be an equally tough audience. The opening sequence, a selection from Beethoven’s Fifth, is done with abstract images, vaguely resembling butterflies. Talk about screen savers. The wittiest section, a rendition of Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue," tries to recreate the atmosphere of New York during the Depression through a cartoon style inspired by Al Hirschfeld, the legendary caricaturist who has been a regular in the Sunday New York Times since before Mortimer Mouse changed his name to Mickey. I suspect the Big City subtleties and Jazz Age allusions would be lost on most kids.

Dr. Cinematz: Would you like to talk about your angry fixation on Mickey Mouse?

R.A.B.: Hold it just a minute. The Mickey reprise of Ducas’s "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" provided the high point for me, antiquarian that I am. His pal, Donald (the Big D) Duck, does a star turn with his legendary squeeze, Daisy, as first mate for Captain Noah and his arcade of animals. Hokey, the way the star-crossed lovers get lost in the crush of the furry, feathery and leathery, but the flimsy story line gets us through the pomp of Elgar’s circumstantial music. No mean achievement that.

Dr. Cinematz: I think our time is up. We’ll get back to this in the next session.

R.A.B.: Wait. You should know about the last segment. Stravinski’s "Firebird," but the thing is so muddled that the fire comes from a dyspeptic volcano just as the earth thaws from its winter ice pack. Volcano belches and turns all the new foliage into a cosmic ash tray. The "bird" awakens from the her post-barbecue stress trauma and then slithers over the countryside bringing life out of the ashes with her magic tears. Pretty to look at, but did someone at the studio mix "Firebird" with "Rite of Spring"?

Dr. Cinematz: Yes. For the next session please.

R.A.B.: Doctor, you can’t leave me like this, tormented by fantasies of mice and ducks and sailing ships and Leif Ericsson, too. How can I endure seeing all this spectacular technique reduced to a shopworn cliché?

Dr. Cinematz: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. But maybe you think you’ve heard that line before as well. Your time is up. Session ended. That’s all, folks.

R.A.B.: The horror! The horror!

Richard A. Blake, S.J.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

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