Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Top Ten Disney Films - #5

More animation from me today, which is a surprise, because I tend to favor the live action films, and I think 11-20 on my list might actually be mostly live action, but you can’t resist the classics.

5. Beauty and the Beast

The only animated feature ever nominated for Best Picture, this one is a no-brainer. Of all of the second Golden Age films, this one is the best film, by far. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite, but from a pure filmmaking standpoint, this one is the best.

Let’s start with the animation – it’s breathtaking. This film’s character designs are one of the best of any of the modern films. Belle and the Beast are classic characters, and are still as popular today, over 16 years later, as they were when the film was released. Even side characters like Lumiere and Gaston still have a shelf life. But the true wizardry is the amazing animated sequences, like the ballroom scene, the dinner sequence and the final mob scene. All of them feature multiple actions, sweeping camera angles and great character moments.

The characterization is one of the keys to this film. The voice acting is superb, especially from Belle and the Beast. When you see Belle, you are consumed by her character, drawn into the contradictions – she is a doe-eyed Disney princess, yes, but she is more interested in books and knowledge than fancy dresses or tea parties. Belle is a complex character, not a one note stereotype, and that is a huge step forward for Disney.

Similarly, the Beast has layers to him, as a tortured young man trapped in a horrific beast’s body. He starts the film as a brutish, selfish man, and becomes transformed to a selfless, caring prince. Sure, that’s the story of the film, but can you trace a character arc like that in Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White or Cinderella? The main characters in those films stay the same throughout, and the world revolves around them. What singles out Beauty and the Beast is that the growth of the characters is what drives the plot.

But you can’t talk about this film without mentioning the music. The songs are integrated into the plot in a way that they move the plot forward, enhance the story and stick in your head. Almost every song is a classic – “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Gaston” are still heard in the parks every day. Kids who watch this film start singing the songs immediately.

I’ll admit, I have some sentimental attachment to this one as well. When I first met my wife, I went to the Lion King with her, and she got me into this film. This was her favorite, and in our house we have a cel, several statues of Belle and the Beast, and multiple copies of the movie (VHS, Spanish, DVD). Our son used to come home from preschool and beg to watch “the girl” as he said it, and his sister is equally enchanted by this film. It’s practically a family tradition.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Top Ten Disney Films - #6

Another classic animated film today, which is surprising to me. I had thought originally that I preferred the live action films more, but it’s turning out to not be the case.

6. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

Okay, admit it, all of you love this one. Sure, it’s not technically a feature originally, as all these films were part of the shorts program, but the animation is top quality, and it was released as a feature, so it counts.

The tight story that I praised in Cars and The Parent Trap is not present here. Pooh is a film of short stories, with fun meanderings and sidebars throughout. But that’s what it is supposed to be. The entirety of this film is designed to transport the viewer into a dreamlike quality, happy to be spending time in the Hundred Acre Wood, lazily passing the day.

To me, that is the appeal of Pooh, the ability to spend all day in wonder at the beauty of the woods, passing the time with your friends and generally relaxing. That’s probably why I never got the Playhouse Disney series, My Friends Tigger and Pooh, because instead of stumbling into adventures as they do in this movie, Tigger and Pooh are out solving mysteries. Bad idea.

Obviously, the characterization in this film is secondary, but it is quite good nonetheless. Most of the characters are stereotypes, but not in a bad way. Pooh is a not so smart bear, heavy and hungry, but he’s also endearing and charming in a way that is hard to explain. Tigger is a loudmouth, but he’s also caring and concerned about his friends. It’s a touching film in that way, that the main theme is friendship.

What really cinches it for me, though, is how much of this film sticks in my mind. Often, around the house, you’ll find my wife or I tapping our heads and saying “Think, think, think,” or singing the “Rumbly In My Tumbly” song. I think about things from this film all the time. It’s one of the most memorable Disney films, and the music, the characters and more make it one of my top ten.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Top Ten Disney Films - #7

So far on this lists, we’ve had a PIXAR film, a live action Disney film and a traditionally animated film. So, which way do we go today?

7. The Parent Trap

Again, this has sentimental reasons. Mainly, I loved Hayley Mills as a kid. Either one of the twins in this movie were like heaven to me. I saw this movie over and over again, and I never got tired of it.

The Parent Trap is just good filmmaking. The technical aspects of course take the lead, with Ub Iwerks’ development of the matte process allowing Hayley Mills to act opposite herself. Despite the years that have come since, and all the technological advances, it’s hard to watch this movie now and tell where the matte shots are. That’s a testament to Ub and his technological wizardry.

But the real charm here is Hayley Mills as Susan and Sharon. There are moments when the premise could be come unbelievable, but the acting pulls it through, as she plays both parts perfectly. She is charming, witty and believable, which is all you could ask for from a film like this.

Plot wise, this is a great film for the Disney canon. It features the familiar trope of a misunderstanding between people who later become friends, but it also has romance, comedy and melodrama in spades. The basic idea is good, as the two girls meet each other and decide to reunite their parents, but it’s simple enough to be easily explained and doesn’t hinder the movie from comedic heights.

Similar to Cars, The Parent Trap is also tightly plotted. Each scene features an important part of the puzzle of fleshing out who the characters of Susan and Sharon are, and how important it is to them to have their parents back together. It’s not nearly as streamlined a film, but it’s definitely well done.

Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara as the parents are also quite good. Keith plays the comedy quite well, especially considering his size and commanding presence on screen. He has very subtle reactions to his daughter that show a father struggling to comprehend the mystery of a teenage girl. O’Hara is brilliant as always, playing the foil to Keith’s blustery dad perfectly.

The main thing is that this movie just makes you feel good, which all great Disney films should. I just re-watched it a week ago, and felt great when it was over. The success of the girls gives you hope that true love survives, and anything is possible if people can work together. It’s a great message for any film, but feels quite satisfying coming from Disney.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Top Ten Disney Films - #8

And so it continues…

8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Okay, again, laugh if you want to, but this is probably a sentimental favorite more than anything. Let me give you my story on this one first, before I delve into the charms of the picture.

In college, I was not a Disney guy. I barely read books, even though before I went to college, I had been a voracious reader. I mainly watched TV, listened to Van Halen, ate way too much and stayed up way too late. I wasn’t a partier, but I sure didn’t care about school. Until I met Sally.

Sally was a year ahead of me and she had it down. She’d figured out how to have fun and get the most out of school. I pined for her for a while, then we started dating, and 14 years later we’re still together, 11 of those years spent in marriage. I wanted to spend time with her, so we went to the Lion King together, and she turned me on to Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid. I was hooked.

Hunchback came out in year three of that relationship, while we were engaged. She spent the summer in Mexico, on a college abroad program, and I spent it at home. Her influence had gotten me to buy the Disney soundtracks, and of course I got this one the day it came out. So I spent that summer listening to Hunchback over and over again, while playing computer games, reading and daydreaming of what married life was going to be like. It was beyond my wildest dreams.

So, yes, this movie holds a special place in my heart. But it’s also an amazing piece of animation. It’s the most adult animated film Disney has ever made. The themes are very adult, with the ideas of faith, lust, greed, envy all intertwined with a message about social castes and mores. No doubt, this is a deep film.

The scene that hooked me, though, was right at the beginning, when Clopin is telling the children the story of how Quasimodo came to be in the tower. As the authorities chase his mother through the streets, the camera shoots the action from above, with parapets streaming past, obscuring the shot below. It’s an amazing piece of cinematography, made even more amazing by the fact that none of exists except on a piece of paper and an animator’s pencil.

The music is also wonderful. “God Help the Outcasts” as sung by Esmerelda is especially touching, but Quasimodo’s pleas in “Out There” tug at the heart strings as well. Tony Jay’s vocal performance as the villainous Judge Frollo is amazing, and to me, he is the most menacing of the Disney villains. Frollo is not a huge demon like Chernabog or a one note shrill woman like Cruella De Vil. No, he is a conflicted man of faith, trying to reconcile his own feelings with the word of the church. Those are dangerous men, and Frollo is no different.

So, despite the extenuating circumstances, I still think Hunchback deserves a place on this list for its artistry alone. Of course, Michael Eisner loved it, so I could be completely wrong.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

My Top Ten Disney Films - #9

Continuing along in listing my top 10 Disney films, before getting into the features, we’ll start today with #9 –

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Laugh all you want and tell me that this is a poor man’s Mary Poppins. It is, and I have no problem with that. You can probably guess that Mary Poppins will end up higher on this list, but I cherish Bedknobs and Broomsticks very highly as well.

True story – one weekend, when I was a kid, my parents went away to a football game, and I was stuck at home with my cousins and our babysitter for the day. We watched this movie that day on the Disney Channel, and then spent the rest of the day in my room, tapping the bedknob and hoping that somehow we would be able to travel the world. That is what Disney is all about – seeing magic and making it personal for the viewer.

If you haven’t seen this film, you’re missing out. Angela Lansbury is the star, as Eglantine Price, and she is perfectly good, but the real star of the show is David Tomlinson, who came off his performance as the father in Mary Poppins to serve here as Professor Emelius Brown. To me, this is a showman at his peak, as Tomlinson acts serious, funny and charming all at once, performing songs, dances and monologues with equal grace.

While the songs in this film are not nearly as recognizable as Mary Poppins, the Sherman Brothers still turn in some gems here, primarily the climactic “Substitutiary Locomotion” sequence. But there is also the tour de force “Portobello Road,” which weaves elements of various cultures together visually and musically, and Tomlinson’s two big numbers, “With a Flair” and “Eglantine,” are also quite good.

The children in this film are much like any Disney movie, there as window dressing and cuteness for the adult comic actors to play against. However, I must say I do quite enjoy the oldest child, Charlie, and his mischievous streak. Plus, as a good Irish man myself, I always enjoy a kid asking for bangers and mash. That’s sausage and mashed potatoes for those of you uninitiated. Try it at Raglan Road at Downtown Disney next time you’re in Walt Disney World. You’ll be glad you did.

All in all, Bedknobs and Broomsticks does not feature any Oscar worthy acting performances or one of a kind special effects, but it is to me a summation of what Disney is and can be. It’s a family musical featuring an animated sequence, comedy and a heart warming tale of triumph over adversity. The flaws are there, to be sure, as it’s probably a little too long and the story is in no way tightly focused, but the charm of those extended sequences makes up for it. If you haven’t watched this one in a while, take it out and have another look. You’ll be glad you did.
All images copyright Disney.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Top 10 Disney Films - #10

So, as best I can tell, I should get Alice the Peacemaker in house in the next week or so, and that should be just about the time I finish this current series of articles – my top 10 Disney films.

I thought it would be a good idea to talk about what my favorite Disney movies are now, before I start to get to the features, and see what changes throughout the course of this project. I’ll talk about each one for the next 10 posts, and hopefully by then we’ll move on to the remaining Alice Comedies. So….

10. Cars

Yes, I’m counting PIXAR films, because they were distributed by Disney and all the filmmakers are now part of Disney, so to me, it counts. Anyway, I have always thought that John Lasseter’s genius was not in the fact that he saw the future of animation with computers, but in the fact that he recognized that story was the key to making good animated films at Disney. Cars is a prime example.

If you are reading this, I assume you have seen it, so I won’t summarize the film. What I love about this movie is that the story is so tight and so packed, that Lasseter as director did his job in placing each scene perfectly in place to create a greater whole. That sounds simple, but it’s not.

Think about movies like Snow White, Pinocchio or Cinderella that are all classics. Not every scene in those films is essential to the story. Think of the dwarves washing up for dinner, for example, as an example of a scene that is funny, but not essential to the story. In Cars, those scenes don’t exist. It’s a tight, focused story that is extremely compelling.

In addition, I am a big fan of WWII and forward American history, and Route 66, the never named but assumed road in this film, is a big part of that. My dream is to one day take a trip through the Midwest all the way to Disneyland using Route 66. The mystery and majesty of the Mother Road is a great addition to the film.

But ultimately, it’s the way the story relates to the well-drawn characters that makes this such a good film. You instantly know who Lightning McQueen is, same with Mater, and those two are the core of the film. But even the side characters are well done, like Doc Hudson and Sally. Sure, there are some stereotypes, like Luigi, but as a whole, the characters are very well done.

That’s even more remarkable when you consider that the animators had to get emotion out of cars, not traditional human faces or even animals. The fact that they could do so and make it look realistic is amazing. So, Cars makes my top ten list based on the story, the setting and the characters. Nine more to go!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Walt in Nixonland

Please allow me a brief diversion here, as I get ready to start a new series of posts tomorrow about a new Disney film subject, I’m thinking about some broader themes today. So, if this post is not your thing, please forgive me.

If you have the chance, I urge you to pick up the book I am currently reading, Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. Regardless of your political leanings, this is a fascinating story about America in the 1960s. I’m not even close to finished yet, but the basic idea is tracing what happened in the country between the political landslide victory by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 as a Democrat and the equally impressive landslide by Nixon in 1972. The idea of the book is to see how the mood of the country switched so drastically in just 8 years.

Stick with me, this is Disney related. One of the things that happens during those years is the Watts riot in Los Angeles. If you haven’t read about Watts, you must do so, in order to understand American history. The riots took place in 1965 in Los Angeles, and were based on the fact that an African-American was arrested for what other African-Americans considered wrongful causes, touching off a storm that raged for days.

Okay, on to the Disney connection. After the riots, people looked around and wondered why such a thing happened. One idea was that the squalor that people were forced to live in around Watts led to unrest among the residents. One story in the book is about a man who was arrested while speeding his wife to the nearest hospital, an hour and a half away, for an emergency.

Now, think about what Walt Disney was working on in the late 1960s. That’s right, EPCOT. Not the theme park we know today, but instead the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. This was urban planning on steroids, designing a city that would eliminate the conditions that some people said had caused the Watts riot.

We can debate over and over again whether those conditions actually caused the riot, but the fact of the matter is that Walt was busy at work on solutions to those problems, even before the riot. These conditions were evident in other cities, and riots continued throughout 1965 and 1966, leading to a Republican group taking back seats in Congress in the 1966 midterm elections, and eventually to Nixon.

Imagine what would have happened if Walt had lived, and EPCOT had been constructed as he had intended. Say it opened in 1970 or 1971. The problems that were brought to light in the Watts riot could have been solved at EPCOT. If people saw the success, who knows what kind of America we would now live in. Would we have monorails, people movers, mass transit and the like? Would we have less pollution and commuting, more town squares, and a better sense of community? These were the aims of EPCOT.

It’s not like the problems that Walt was aiming to solve in EPCOT have been taken care of today. They haven’t. But you have to wonder what would have happened if America had seen Uncle Walt showing them the way to fix things in our cities on our televisions every Sunday evening in the early 70s. Something to think about for sure.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Enchanted and Bolt

Before we get started today, yes, I am still chasing Alice the Peacemaker, and as soon as I have an update on that, I will post it here. It’s getting to the point where I may have to skip it and come back, which I hate to do, but I know the reason a lot of you read this blog is to follow along with me in the tour through the Disney films, and we have not done those reviews lately. So, I’ll be thinking it over this week, and will either recap where we have been so far and move past Alice the Peacemaker or continue to wait. If you have thoughts either way, let me know.

Now, today I wanted to talk about two films that I think we will look back on as examples of when Disney started becoming Disney again. It’s all well and good to put out blockbuster films like Pirates of the Caribbean or cheapie TV sequels like High School Musical 3 and Hannah Montana, but we all know that Disney at its heart means quality animation.

The first film that I think is going to be viewed in a different context years from now is Enchanted. Granted, it was not a huge box office success when it opened a couple of years ago, but this movie has had a long lasting impact. It showed that audiences would take a princess movie again, even if it had a new twist. At it’s heart, Enchanted was a typical princess film, and it succeeded, even if just a little bit.

It also showed that audiences could take hand drawn animation again, when believe it or not, many people in Hollywood wondered if that was the case. Don’t get me started on the reasons why hand drawn films started tanking at the box office (just watch Home On the Range and you’ll understand), but suits kept thinking that hand drawn animation was no longer viable. Enchanted, by including just a small bit of it and succeeding, showed that was not true.

The second film, and probably the most important one, is Bolt. Again, not a huge box office success in the US, because of being released in the wake of Twilight, but look at what’s happening overseas. Bolt opened as the top film at the box office in the UK last weekend, besting date movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and Oscar hopeful Slumdog Millionaire.

Bolt was a good movie, a good animated movie, and a good movie at a time when many doubted that Disney could do good animation anymore. By all reports, John Lasseter was the driving force behind reviving this production, although credit must be given to the many talented artists and writers who worked on it before Lasseter showed up. However, if Lasseter has been given free reign to improve films like this, we could be seeing the beginning of the Third Golden Age of Disney Animation.

Yes, I said it. Snow White launched the first, The Little Mermaid launched the second, and I say that Bolt will lay the groundwork for the third. Much in the same way that The Great Mouse Detective showed that Disney could do successful animation, Bolt is pulling off that trick again. All of this leads up to the upcoming release of The Princess and the Frog, the new traditionally animated film coming out this December. If that movie hits big, Disney hand drawn animation will be back. And when Disney animation is doing well, the company does well. And it may all be because of a live action princess and a computer animated dog.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday Tidbits

Well, after my lengthy tribute to Touchstone Pictures on Friday, it seems as though there may be a reason to retire that brand. Confessions of a Shopaholic, the new Touchstone film released over the weekend, did not do so well. It opened in 4th place, pulling in just over $15 million, behind the new Friday the 13th movie and He’s Just Not That Into You as well as Taken. Not great results for a date movie on a holiday weekend combined with Valentine’s Day. Could it be that people don’t want to see a movie about a shopping crazy girl in this kind of economy? I haven’t seen the film, but it could be a case of wrong place, wrong time.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to wonder about the prospects of Disney’s big film release for the spring – Race to Witch Mountain. Why, you ask? Because the buzz is building at an epic rate about a big action adventure movie coming out one week earlier…Watchmen. Watchmen is actually a complex film with shifting moralities, but the trailers are wisely presenting it as a popcorn flick about superheroes, and I have a feeling it will be a huge hit. Will it steal the thunder from the marketplace a week before Witch Mountain hits on March 13? It is beginning to look that way.

Speaking of new Disney films, High School Musical 3 is out on DVD today. I should probably not admit this, but I loved the first two films. I wasn’t able to make it to the theatres to see this one, but I plan on watching it soon. To me, these films are the types of things Disney should be making. Mix High School Musical and Hannah Montana with movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Race To Witch Mountain, and you’ll keep your core audience for years.

Finally, my favorite bit of Disney news today – Disney has signed a deal with LEGO! My son and I are LEGO fans of the highest order. We’ve put together tons of the Star Wars sets and they’re just great fun. When the Pirates films came out, we bought the Mega Bloks sets that were based on those films, and they are just not the same. LEGO sets hold together better, the parts are more useful and multipurpose, and they’re just more fun to play with. The deal calls for LEGO toys based on Toy Story 3, Cars and Prince of Persia, that will be released in 2010. From there, who knows? I know I would love a LEGO Haunted Mansion, or a LEGO Cinderella Castle to put together. How about you?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Touchstone Pictures

Today sees the release of the latest film from the Walt Disney Company, Confessions of a Shopaholic, starring Isla Fisher and based on the novel by Sophie Kinsella. I have not seen the film yet, and don’t anticipate seeing it before it reaches DVD, but I will at some point. What interests me is not so much the film itself, but the banner it is being released under – Touchstone Pictures.

Think back to the early ‘80s. Disney didn’t release PG films, and they definitely did not put out films that had nudity, sexual themes, or much violence beyond cartoon violence. And so, Touchstone Pictures was born, with Splash being the first release. The success of Splash convinced the suits that Disney could release these films, and Touchstone Pictures would be the outlet by which they would be released.

Over the next 15 years, Touchstone released some of the most memorable films of the time. When I was getting ready for this article, I looked up the list, and it’s pretty staggering. At first, it was mainly more mature films, like Down and Out In Beverly Hills, Ruthless People and Color of Money. Then, more adult comedies came into the mix, like Three Men and a Baby or Good Morning, Vietnam. Touchstone would be the outlet for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, as well as The Nightmare Before Christmas, two very influential films.

Additional blockbusters like Cocktail, Beaches, Pretty Woman and Dead Poets Society followed. Towards the late 1990s, though, some new films started coming through the Touchstone banner. Con Air was the first big Jerry Bruckheimer project, but many more would follow, like Armaggedon, Enemy of the State, and Gone In Sixty Seconds. High concept adventure films that were much in the spirit of the old Disney adventure comedies, but with a modern flair.

Soon though, the quality films would start disappearing, to be replaced with duds like Corky Romano, The Hot Chick and others. Sure, there were still some great films coming out of Touchstone, like The Prestige, but as we enter the latter half of this decade, Touchstone is now a shell of its former self. Instead of a fully functioning studio, it exists merely to supplement the Disney banner, releasing films that are deemed too much for a “Disney” audience.

With the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney rightly concluded that audiences were prepared for more adventure and violence in their family films. This PG-13 film paved the way for its two sequels, but it may also have ended the road for Touchstone Pictures.

Today, however, I would like to pay homage to Touchstone, and the legacy of films that it has left behind. So, this weekend, why not figure out your favorite Touchstone film, and remember this now defunct arm of the Walt Disney Company.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Disney Film I Want To See

The hot news out of the Walt Disney Company lately is the distribution deal that the Mouse signed with Dreamworks, which means that Steven Spielberg will soon be making films for Disney. Obviously, for someone who’s interested in Disney films like me, this really is big news.

Jim Hill today has the hot rumor, that Spielberg’s first film will be a bio pic about Abraham Lincoln, starring Liam Neeson. I can do nothing but applaud this idea, because Lincoln is one of the most fascinating figures in American history. If anyone’s been reading about him and watching CNN today, you know what I mean.

But to my mind, there is a more important film waiting for the Walt Disney Company that simply needs to be made. It’s a film that could vie for Oscars, which would be a welcome return to prominence for the Walt Disney Studio, which has been sparse on Oscar nods recently. And it’s also a biopic. The subject?

That’s right, Walt Disney. True confessions time – I have long harbored the desire to write a screenplay for a Disney biopic, and may still do so someday, but ultimately, I just want to see this film get made.

Think about the possibilities. There are so many interesting settings for a Disney biography that would come across magnificently on film – Chicago and Kansas City during the gaslight era, World War I Europe, rural Marceline, the emerging Hollywood, South America and more. It’s a director’s dream.

Plus, there is no lack of conflict and story to be mined in Walt’s life. The question would be what to cut? Imagine the possibilities of a big screen version of the famous story session where Walt gathered all the animators and told them the story of Snow White.

Or what about things like the 1964 World’s Fair, the opening of Disneyland, Walt’s South American trip, the conflict with Ub Iwerks, and so much more? All of it would be amazing on the silver screen. And even better, it would surprise most audiences who don’t know all the amazing details of Disney’s life.

I have to admit, I have the perfect guy in mind for this part. Best of all, he works with Disney a lot these days, and he’s an Oscar worthy actor.

Can’t you imagine Johnny Depp as Walt? One of our greatest living actors portraying the role of a lifetime, playing a creative genius. It could be absolutely amazing. So what do you guys think? Is it time for a Walt Disney movie? I’ll start writing today, if you want, Bob Iger.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Big Uproar Over a Small World

There has been much furor in recent days about the all new it’s a small world ride at Disneyland, featuring characters from the Disney and PIXAR animated features. Much of the coverage has been negative from the fan community, mainly from Al Lutz over at Miceage. Now, I greatly respect Al and have followed his website and columns for years now, but I have to disagree.

Since I’ve commented before on characters in the parks, allow me to say that based on what I have seen from pictures and video on the internet, I’m in favor of this renewal of the classic attraction.

You can read the full negative opinion on other sites, but the basics are that the ride itself was meant to be the view of the world from a children’s eye, and the dolls in the ride are representations of each nation’s culture. The idea as originally presented was for the world to come together in peace and recognize that we are one world, with a future shared together by our children.

By this view, the addition of the Disney characters to the ride undermines that message, by inserting discordant notes of commercialism to sell plush. The characters in the ride, along with the new “Spirit of America” scene, are supposedly working against the main theme of a united world future.

I’m sorry, but I can’t help to disagree. First of all, we have plenty of rides in the parks that do not feature characters at all. Some of the best loved attractions, like the Haunted Mansion, the Jungle Cruise and the Matterhorn at Disneyland are free of characters. If someone had tried to shoehorn Tarzan into the Jungle Cruise, I would have objected loudly. But this is not the same thing.

After all, the original objections about Jack Sparrow and Barbossa taking up residence in Pirates of the Caribbean have died down, haven’t they? Originally, everyone was up in arms on why you would want to put those characters in the classic ride, but when it was done with minimal disruption of the original, it seems as though all are in agreement that Pirates is an updated and better experience now.

I sense no such consensus on it’s a small world. However, to my mind, this is a similar conversion. Let’s face it, the audience coming to Disneyland today is not the same audience that came to the park decades ago when this ride first opened. Back then, the crowd was wowed by colors and imagery. Today’s crowds want fast paced action, familiar characters and things more magical than what they can get at home on their video game systems.

Is that reason to change the ride? Not by itself, no. But can you change it without harming the spirit of the original? I think so, and I think that’s what they have done. After all, if the idea is to showcase the spirit of togetherness among the children of the world, don’t they all have a fondness for these characters? And many of the characters themselves are children, like Lilo, Peter Pan, Nemo, Ariel and others.

To my way of thinking, the idea is to give new audiences a reason to ride small world and get the message to more people. And yes, I’m sure Disney wants to help push plush of the characters, but they are a business, right? Shouldn’t they try to make money, so they can then build bigger and better attractions?

For my money, I know that my 7 year old and 2 year old will enjoy this ride a lot more when we travel out to California next year. As it is, I force them to go on the ride in Florida every time we visit, but it’s just that – forced. Now, these are kids that love classic Disney cartoons, will watch old episodes of the Disneyland TV show, and know who Walt Disney is instantly on sight. But they still don’t care for small world as it is in Orlando. And if we’re trying to bring the kids of the world together, shouldn’t they enjoy the experience?

All images copyright of Disney, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Myth Making with Walt and Abe

Last night, I was catching up on my DVR, when I watched the Colbert Report that aired last week, featuring Henry Louis Gates, the author of a new book on Abraham Lincoln. Something that he was discussing struck me as very interesting, and extremely relevant to our struggle on this site.

Gates discussed the fact that Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday. His funeral service was held the next day, on Saturday, and then on Easter Sunday, pastors and priests all around the nation were comparing him to Christ. The point that Gates was making was that Lincoln was only a man, but there is something in the American spirit that encourages myth making, and turning figures into heroes.

Stick with me here. Lincoln was absolutely a commendable figure and a great president. He held the country together through the Civil War, freed the slaves, and accomplished a great deal in his time. But, if you read through his letters and papers, as Gates did, you see that he did not believe that blacks should have the right to vote, own property or many other basic human rights. So Lincoln was not perfect, although he was great.

It seems as though a similar thing has taken place with Walt Disney. If you read Disney centered web sites or fan writings, you would get a clear picture of who they think Walt is and what he would want. According to these fans, Walt Disney always went for quality over money, he was an artist first and a businessman second, and he despised sequels, preferring to break new ground. Is all of this true? No.

We’ve already seen in his early career, how Walt changed the artistic content of his films to meet the demands of Margaret Winkler, his distributor for the Alice Comedies. A stark example of Walt’s balancing act with money and quality was the opening of Disneyland. It always amazes me that people go to Disneyland to support their theories about Walt’s preference for quality over money. I mean, when that park opened, the Tomorrowland section was not complete, and there were only a few attractions throughout the park that operated.

In fact, Disneyland as opened was something that most Disney fans today would deride as a half day park, like Animal Kingdom. It consisted of the Fantasyland rides, the mule and stage coach rides in Frontierland, Autopia, the Mark Twain and Golden Horseshoe, and the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland. There were other things, but not the lush, vibrant landscape we see today.

Make no mistake, Walt was a dreamer who wanted the best for his park and his films. But he was not afraid to cut costs if needed. That doesn’t make him any less great to my mind. Think of what he did during World War II, when he was able to continue making films, learn more about his craft, and emerge from the war as a live action and animation producer of the highest order.

As we move through Walt’s history on this blog, we’ll talk more about these contradictions between Uncle Walt that we all saw on television, and the real life Walt that his family and friends knew. Both were wonderful, but one was a real man, and the other was a character on television. Reconciling the two is part of what I’m interested in doing with this project.