The Fantasticks must live up to its name on the New York stage because it's the longest running musical in history, having entered its fortieth year. But could the production attract such a healthy audience if put to film? Director Michael Ritchie believed so, and captured the story on celluloid in 1995. But the studio, MGM, had its doubts. After five years of storing Ritchie's reels, the Lion that once successfully roared many musicals onto the silver screen, was contractually forced to release his work. Industry veteran Francis Ford Coppola, who sits on MGM'S board of directors, was called in to reedit the movie and cut over 20 minutes of not-so fantastic footage.
What's left is a simple story about a boy named Matt (Joseph McIntyre) and Luisa (Jean Louisa Kelly), the girl who lives right next door. Occupying the only two houses in a wind swept valley that stretches for miles, the pair are madly in love in spite of their bickering fathers Amos (Joel Grey) and Henry (Bernard Hughes). But while they are secretly meeting under the oak tree, what they don't know is their parents are actually scheming to get them married. The fake feud is only a reverse psychology ploy.
Wanting to provide the catalyst for their offspring to tie the knot, the men employ the mysterious El Gallo (Jonathon Morris), proprietor of a carnival that conveniently rolls into their hamlet, to stage an opportunity for Matt to save his maiden in distress. But when the gig's over and their parents' meddling is revealed, the children's attraction literally fades by the light of the next day. Determined to discover the real world before settling down, Matt and Luisa set off on divergent paths. Perhaps because it is the only show in town, they both end up at the carnival.
In the grand tradition of this genre, their coming of age quest is represented in an artsy musical sequence containing many allegorical elements that provide more questions than answers. The carnies show Matt the raunchier side of mortality by giving him a liquid concoction that induces bizarre images (including two brief shots of men behind wooden cutouts of women with their large breasts exposed), and introduce him to the physical pains of life on the street (such as being beaten up for his wallet and placed on a bed of nails). Meanwhile El Gallo, acting as tour guide, accompanies Luisa on a tunnel of love style ride where she witnesses the trials of Matt, who looks rather mediocre when compared to her devilishly desirable host.
The Fantasticks alerts you to the danger of allowing the lure of adventure to tempt you into faraway pastures while overlooking the good things in your own backyard. So it may be parents who determine if the dark turn in the middle of this other wise beautifully shot and memorably scored musical will prevent it from being a success as a video release, or if MGM's hesitation is an example of not heeding the warning of the story.