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Disney redesigns a classic for a new age, a new audience and a new millennium. 

Flights of Fancy

What a difference 59 years make. When Walt Disney released the ambitious "Fantasia" in 1940, the pioneering animator and producer found himself awash in controversy and facing possible financial ruin. Why? Because for his third full-length, animated film Disney had decided to return to his roots: marrying animation with existing music.

While his early experiments with sound techniques in "Steamboat Willie" and his "Silly Symphony" cartoon series met with great success, "Fantasia" stepped over the line. Music purists were outraged. How dare he vulgarize classical pieces with the creation of popular and often whimsical imagery? What could the great conductor Leopold Stokowski have been thinking when he collaborated with this man who amused the masses with his little cartoons about a mouse?

Worse, audiences who flocked to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Pinocchio" were staying away in droves.

Although high-minded reviewers wondered for whom this amazing feat of animation was intended, most were willing to embrace "Fantasia's" stunning originality, magnificent color and groundbreaking use of multichannel stereophonic sound. Interestingly, one of the few reviews to put Disney's future masterpiece in perspective can be found in the archives of "Box Office," one of the longest-running trade journals for those in the hometown business of running movie theaters:

"'Fantasia' defies all precedent. Whether the forerunner of a new entertainment format or not is something for time — and the fate of 'Fantasia' itself — to determine."

Time, of course — and Disney's well-calculated rerelease program of his movies — has made "Fantasia" a classic. And later generations of fans and critics rightfully have dubbed it a masterpiece.

Now at the dawn of a new millennium, Disney's dream of revisiting, revising and revamping his little concert experiment has come true. And in keeping with Disney's innovative, groundbreaking spirit, "Fantasia 2000" has been designed to play on the big screen — the really BIG screen.

"Fantasia 2000" once again makes animation and cinema history by being the first animated film to be formatted and exhibited in IMAX theaters around the world. Magnified many stories high and scored through the theater's multichannel sound system, Disney's original wish for audiences to "see the music and hear the pictures" has taken on epic proportions.

Formatted 10 times larger than the conventional 35mm frame, "Fantasia 2000" is an audiovisual sensation.

Like the original, this extravaganza of sight and sound defies description. While perhaps not as controversial as its predecessor, "Fantasia 2000" will still have many wondering for whom it is intended.

Each viewer will have his or her favorite scene. Little ones will be bored or frightened by some of the thunderous music and the scary animation. And some adults will nod off as the music and images work to soothe the savage breast.

While watching "Fantasia 2000" at the Science Museum of Virginia's Ethyl Corp. IMAXDOME recently, I found myself missing much of the whimsy I remembered from the original. Most of us baby boomers can't hear certain snippets of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" without images of mushrooms-turned Chinese coolies springing to mind or dandelions that become Russian squat-kicking peasants prancing into our subconscious.

And Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is forever tied to Mickey Mouse. Upon returning home, I popped the original into the VCR and a strange thing happened. I found myself recalling the images of "Fantasia 2000."

How could I have thought the new film lacked whimsy? What could be more whimsical than a pink flamingo with a yo-yo? And as groundbreaking as the original animation was for 1940, it pales in comparison to the technological advances which allow the wood nymph in Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite — 1919 version" to fly, flow and morph before our eyes.

Equally, now that I have seen Donald and Daisy Duck reaffirm their love for one another aboard Noah's Ark accompanied by Sir Edward Elgar's best-known work, "Pomp and Circumstance," the piece will always bring to mind the sight of all God's creatures ceremoniously marching off the ark two by two.

Although "Fantasia 2000" offers IMAXgoers recognizable works by Beethoven, Gershwin, Saint-Saens, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, my absolute favorite piece is Respighi's "Pines of Rome." As imagined by a group of Disney animators, this work evokes nothing of Italy or evergreens. Instead, these gifted artists — backed by The Chicago Symphony under the baton of James Levine — create for us a pod of magical, graceful gray whales. When the music swells, we discover that these marvelous creatures can also fly. Dramatic, emotional and whimsical, this selection was an awesome pairing of images and notes.

Others will enjoy the seemingly natural coupling of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the spare, flowing lines from the pen of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld as interpreted by animator Eric Goldberg. For the 96-year-old Hirschfeld, who wrote the New York Times review of the original "Fantasia," helping to carry on Disney's vision was flattering. "All of Disney's work starts with the line," Hirschfeld explains, "and he used the movement of that line to communicate to the viewer. 'Rhapsody in Blue' shows that it still works."

Yes, it does. Beautifully. Full of fantastic images and incredible music, "Fantasia 2000" is a music lover's treat. Magnified and projected onto the IMAX screen, the overall effect is
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