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Disney Unwraps 'Fantasia' Sequel, After a Long Spell

Movies * Years in the planning, updated version of classic animated feature premieres at Carnegie Hall to much fanfare.

December 20, 1999|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It's a good bet that steel magnate Andrew Carnegie never anticipated that whales would fly in the famous concert hall named for him, nor a pink flamingo play yo-yo.

But after a reminiscence from Roy Disney--"It was over 60 years ago that I first heard my Uncle Walt talk about his vision"--a packed house here even saw another era's most well-known Donald, the quacking one, help save the world on Noah's Ark.

The longest delayed movie sequel on record finally had its premiere. Walt Disney Pictures' "Fantasia/2000" was shown at Carnegie Hall, concert-style, three times over the weekend. The soundtrack--famous excerpts from classical music--was played by the London Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, while the animated film was shown on a giant screen above the stage.

Under a schedule sure to tax the stamina of the musicians, the concert team will hit the road this week for performances in London, Paris and Tokyo, setting the stage for Disney's New Year's Eve "Fantasia/2000 Gala" at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. After that, the film opens, without live orchestras, at Imax theaters nationwide.

Here in New York, tickets for the two concert performances open to the public--on Saturday and Sunday--sold out within hours of being offered for sale in September. But the premiere Friday evening was a black-tie, invitation-only event, drawing a crowd of celebrities from Henry Kissinger to . . . well, virtually the entire Disney hierarchy from California, from Michael Eisner on down.

In classic Disney fashion, there was spinoff merchandising too, but not the sort tied to "Toy Story 2," whose characters now abound at hamburger franchises and in cereal boxes. Here, the tuxedoed crowd lined up before the concert to see artistic interpretations of the seven new "Fantasia" segments prepared by the likes of Tiffany & Co., Harry Winston jewelers and Mikimoto, the pearl experts, all to be auctioned off by Sotheby's in June.

Then the screening began with the brief introduction by Roy Disney, who has served since 1984 as chairman of the company's feature animation division. He also had been spearheading efforts--almost since then--to come up with a new version of his uncle's 1941 "Fantasia," which is credited with introducing generations of American youngsters to classical music.

The new film pays homage to the old by including its most famous segment, Mickey Mouse as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

"Fantasia/2000" adds seven new segments, based on Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and other well-known crowd-pleasers.

The whale segment, set to Respighi's "Pines of Rome," drew one of the two largest ovations of the evening. In trademark Disney fashion, it focuses on a baby whale who gets separated from his parents in iceberg-crowded seas, and for a time seems in jeopardy. But by the end, he's with the pod again, jumping not only out of the waters, but higher and higher, into the clouds and then to the heavens, as a supernova bursts before them.

The other opening-night favorite was the Noah's Ark segment, set to Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance," the brainchild of Disney boss Eisner.

He originally hoped that the new "Fantasia" would be completed by the 50th anniversary of the original in 1991 and had spoken with the Leonard Bernstein (now deceased) about conducting it. Though Roy Disney headed the project, Eisner suggested "Pomp and Circumstance" after hearing it at his son's graduation from Los Angeles' Harvard-Westlake School. Eisner joked that it's taken so long to make the film that "my son has gone to Dartmouth, worked three years, then he went to business school, now he's working again."

The "Pomp and Circumstance" segment also has a long history. Eisner wanted one of the new "Fantasia" segments to use familiar Disney characters, much as the original used Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. But when the "Pomp" segment at first was written as a mass wedding, "we had a revolution inside our animation department," Eisner recalled. "They said, 'How can you carry off all our characters?' "

Thus the Noah story, in which Donald Duck is the apprentice, helping Noah get all the pairs of animals on board only to lose track of his own love, Daisy, until--again no surprise--the happy ending, set to the music's grand climax, augmented by choirs on the Carnegie Hall balconies.

"Hey," shrugged Eisner, accepting handshakes after it was done, "I go for the emotion."

Eisner pledged that it will not take so long to produce a third "Fantasia."

"It took 60 years between the first two," he noted. "I'd like [the third] to be in my lifetime. And I doubt I'll live to 117."

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