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A DISNEY DREAM

For a look at what makes "Fantasia/2000" great, witness the scene that takes place on Noah's Ark, to Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" marches.

During the opening gentle, stately theme, the sun is shining on the ark. The clouds haven't yet gathered for the great flood -- a fact that Donald Duck, as Noah's assistant, notes by skeptically rolling his eyes toward the sky. But the overworked Noah, a remote, robed figure, is too busy to answer his questions.

So, as the music becomes jumpier, Donald, who's in charge of rounding up the animals and checking them off, does his best. He's rattled, though, and there are just so many beasts, the ungainly rhinos, the unruly giraffes, and those big Disney rodents with their buck teeth. It looks as if he'll never figure things out. Worse, it's starting to rain.

Then, just in time for the big graduation march music, everything comes together. (It happens, one way or another. As they said in "Shakespeare in Love," it's a mystery.) The drums beat solemnly and, to the weighty strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," the entire pantheon -- from agile frogs, apes, ostriches and snakes to ponderous bison, hogs, hippos and elephants -- parades two by two, with immense dignity, up the ramp to the ark.

It's a magical moment, hilarious but, at the same time, majestic and touching. The huge Imax screen threatens to overwhelm because there's so much to gawk at at once: an ant's eye view of the elephants' huge, flat feet; the lizards flicking their tongues, the peacocks flashing their feathers. Much later, after the ark has finally lodged on the mountain (and the animals have paraded off, even more impressively, led by the lions) a tired Noah disembarks, rewarding Donald in passing with only the briefest pat on the head. Suddenly, it's easy to feel the ancient Old Testament story as a real happening, to think how exciting and exhausting the whole thing must have been.

Which is what Disney does best. Their creations bring incredible things down to our level, by mixing the believable with the unbelievable, the glorious with the goofy. Through the years, the trick has worked. In "Fantasia/2000," it still does.

Look closely at "Fantasia/2000," and you'll find more than a hint of nostalgia. (And we're not even counting "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," borrowed in its endearingly grainy entirety from the original 1940 "Fantasia.") During "Rhapsody in Blue," one line-drawn society matron closely mirrors a bosomy cartoon battleax from "Mary Poppins." The cute flamingo cartoon accompanying the finale of Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" has a retro feel -- probably because it was suggested by Joe Grant, who had a powerful hand in the original "Fantasia." Those famous Disney beavers with the buck teeth pop up on the ark, and "Firebird Suite" ends with another Disney stalwart -- the noble deer -- posed on a mountain, just like in "Bambi."

In other ways, though, "Fantasia/2000" is all about the future. It's on the huge Imax screen, with an astonishing palette of colors and effects. One enchanting sequence in particular, in which computer-animated whales pirouette among icebergs to the tune of Respighi's "The Pines of Rome," has an almost 3-D effect.

Heavier on the action than its 1940 forebear, the movie boasts sequences that make it too scary for little kids -- devilish, red-eyed rats in "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," for instance, and a violent volcano in "Firebird Suite."

But the 10-and-over set will probably love it. Parents will, too.

The miracle of "Fantasia/2000" is that practically every bit of it is good.

Between segments, the hosts are congenial -- James Earl Jones, Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Bette Midler. The music, conducted by James Levine, is sliced and diced somewhat -- a choir led by Kathleen Battle adds disorienting new heights to the "Pomp and Circumstance" finale -- but booms satisfyingly from those Imax speakers. (Imax sound, by the way, can be enjoyably quirky. It's startling to hear Donald Duck squeaking from a nearby wall.)

The animation is impressively inventive.

For "The Pines of Rome," it's funny that Disney ignored anything remotely close to pines and went deep underwater instead, to focus on a pod of whales. Clearly, though, the animator was in love with the animals' form. The whales are shown hilariously from every conceivable angle, now their ballooning bellies, now their big flippers, now their ridged backs. They look like huge cucumbers, with their mottled skins.

"Rhapsody in Blue" presents us with a new kind of charm. On a background with the texture of newsprint, it builds an Etch-a-Sketch-style picture, right angles outlining Manhattan. This sets the stage for an ingenious cartoon drama set in '30s New York. Like lightning, we glimpse all kinds of little dramas: an alley cat drinking the milk left by the milkman, a drummer barely making it in time to his day job as a construction worker on a high beam.

There's also the crumpled, sad-eyed guy at the lunch counter who can't find a job. (Nobody does hapless like Disney, as we'll be reminded again with Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice.")

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier," a beautiful match for Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto, is a rush of terror and movement. Back in the '20s, "Snow White" proved that Disney didn't quail from the dark side of those gruesome Germanic fairy tales -- and "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," with its evil jack-in-the-box and predatory sewer rats, is similarly unflinching. (Of course, the tin soldier and his beloved paper dancer don't meet their end in the fireplace the way they did in Hans Christian Andersen's morbid imagination. Disney had to draw the line somewhere.)

The fable accompanying "Firebird Suite" veers a little into Frank Frazetta territory; the sprite heroine, with her absurdly long hair, looks like a chinchilla. But the ending, when the whole big screen seems to burst into the greenery of spring, will thrill any winter-weary Buffalonian. A pared-down first movement of Beethoven's Fifth is accompanied by hallucinogenic showers of shapes that bring out the beat of the music.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice," lifted from the 1940 "Fantasia," stands as a tribute to the past. The old Mickey Mouse cartoon shows all signs, though, of holding up well.

It's vintage, sure, and a bit more muted than the rest of the new movie. To me, though, it's as frightening as it ever was. The relentless music, stomping onward as the brooms carry the water, Mickey panicking, the water rising, the brooms multiplying . . . it has an uncomfortably nightmarish feeling.

Speaking of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," it's bittersweet to see a flashback of Mickey Mouse reaching up to shake Leopold Stokowski's hand. With his courtly bearing, his glamorous tails, Stokowski is a figure from a vanished era. It's easy to miss the old maestro. But he'd be happy to know, I think, that his job is in good hands.

RATING: **** STARS

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