El Gallo pretends to kidnap Luisa with the help of his troupe, which includes elderly Shakespearean actor Henry Albertson and his mute sidekick Mortimer, and arranges for Matt to rescue her. The couple settles into what they anticipate will be domestic bliss, but through the eyes of of El Gallo and company they see the harsh realities of the world, and their innocent romanticism is replaced by a more mature understanding of love.
The theatrical production traditionally is performed on a bare stage with four-piece musical accompaniment. The film adaptation transposed the action to the farm country of the 1920s American West, affecting a look similar to Oklahoma!, and most of the songs were rearranged for a full orchestra.
The songs were performed live by the actors rather than dubbed in afterwards, as is the usual practice with a musical film.
Scott Foundas of Variety called the film "little more than a curio, notable more for its lavish, labored efforts to revive the old-fashioned movie musical than for its success at reimagining the intimate tuner for the bigscreen . . . The Fantasticks is hampered almost from the start by the distinct lack of chemistry between McIntyre and Kelly as well as by McIntyre's seeming inability to alter his expression from that of perpetual, wide-eyed bewilderment. Kelly acquits herself more adequately as a singer than does McIntyre. But neither performer ever seems truly in thrall of the various fanciful goings-on . . . while the film is inarguably Ritchie's most visually adventuresome since Downhill Racer 30 years ago, the songs and performers seem overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the visual design. The relative claustrophobia of the carnival set is the film's greatest aesthetic strength, the big skies of big-sky country its greatest weakness, wherein the private dreaminess of the text seems to evaporate. The attempt to make a film of The Fantasticks that would function as the same playful homage to movie musicals that the play itself is to musical theater is admirable, but the resulting film is one of too much reverence and not enough satire."
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann said, "The Fantasticks doesn't try to reinvent the screen musical, as Cabaret did in 1972, but revives the conventions of the '50s, when big-screen musicals were opened up for wide-screen formats and actors still broke spontaneously into song . . . [it] has slow patches and requires a generous suspension of disbelief. But it's also sweet and optimistic - a welcome antidote to gloom."
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "pure enchantment that emerges as an inspired transposition of a musical to the screen - one that manages to honor the theatricality of the source yet becomes a fully cinematic experience . . . [it] is a gem, but so virtually extinct is the screen musical that the looming question remains as to whether people will care. It's one thing to pack Manhattan's small Sullivan Street Playhouse with The Fantasticks decade after decade, and quite another to pull crowds with gossamer, lyrical make-believe to the country's multiplexes."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said, "It was folly for Ritchie to shoot a spare theatrical piece against the sweeping landscapes of the Arizona prairie. But the folly sometimes pays off. Joe McIntyre, of New Kids on the Block, and Jean Louisa Kelly catch just the right note of youthful yearning in their voices . . . even as the movie threatens to derail, the charm of the score . . . keeps breaking through."
TV Guide says, "While the cast and songs are top notch, the predictability of the madness makes it pretty clear that this musical shouldn't have left the stage."