Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Looming large over the history of the Disney company is their adaptation of Jules Verne's classic novel of adventure and scientific romance, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Walt Disney had been trying for some time to film a wholly live-action feature and the success of a series of films shot in England with funds tied up by WWII - Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue - was sufficient to prompt Disney to finally take the plunge and build a soundstage for a Hollywood production. A suitable subject was found in a name pulled from Walt's misty boyhood: Jules Verne.

Illustration of Captain Nemo based on Jules Verne,
by Alphonse de Neuville,

Disney took the Zeitgeist of atomic anxiety and the recent copyright expiration of Verne's books to bring 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to theatres. A new soundstage with a water tank was built on the Disney lot to accommodate the full-size deck of the ship, designed in retro-Victorian fashion by Harper Goff. Unlike George Pal's feature film War of the Worlds the preceding year, the conscious decision was made to retain the mid-Nineteenth Century setting of the novel. Though Verne's literary Nautilus was a sleek, hydrodynamic vessel, Goff's was cast-iron and rivets to put the exclamation point on this being a Victorian submarine. This choice to set it 100 years in the past helped to provide a safe ideological distance from which to discuss the pressing concern of atomic power, which forms the philosophical underpinning of the film.

The literary Nautilus, by Alphonse de Neuville.

Disney trusted his instincts as a filmmaker, altering the novel substantially. It's worth keeping in mind that Verne has suffered from notoriously poor English translations, and the translation that Disney was working off of would have itself been missing about 20% of the original material. The film slimmed it down even more, though it did retain that key sense of wonder that is ultimately what the novel is about. Many scenes were excised that would have made for a phenomenal film in their own right, such as a trip to Atlantis that was, ironically, used for both the Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneysea 20,000 Leagues attractions. Robust characters portrayed by charismatic actors James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas carried a fairly standard "jail break" plot against any high-minded philosophical meditations on warfare. It also had a song and a funny animal. And it was a major hit. Disney has gotten mileage out of 20,000 Leagues for decades, from cinematic re-releases to comic books to children's records to theme park attractions in Disneyland and Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneysea. It has surfaced again most recently as a drink at the new Trader Sam's Grog Grotto bar in Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort. Though not as well-known today as it should be, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is integral to understanding how Disney developed as a company and it is a plain old good film in its own right.

The fiery fate of Atlantis, by Alphonse de Neuville.

Due in no small part to the Disney film adaptation, Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has emerged as the pre-eminent classic of Victorian Science Fiction, or what were called "Scientific Romances" at the time. Verne alone published 54 Scientific Romances during his lifetime, bearing the brand label "Voyages Extraordinaires." The term was invented by Verne's publisher, Jules Hetzel, to describe a brand new genre of literature designed "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe." As some critics have observed, based primarily on shoddy English translations, Twenty Thousand Leagues is for the most part a novel about fish. Though an inventive extrapolation on existing submersible technology, the Nautilus is for the most part a plot device by which Verne takes his readers on an unparalleled oceanographic expedition through each of the seven seas. Over its 200-some pages, Captain Nemo is a tourguide through oceans, beneath icecaps, past famous shipwrecks, and beyond Atlantis. But Verne was also an insightful critic of society as well as a literary inventor of technological contraptions. There is more to Twenty Thousand Leagues than fish, or submarines.

Peering out of the salon window,
by Alphonse de Neuville.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Pirates of the Caribbean to Become a Club 33 Exclusive

Soon the Wicked Wench will only sail for Club 33 members.

In a quiet press release this morning, Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Tom Staggs announced that after a short refurbishment period, Pirates of the Caribbean would become an exclusive ride for members of Club 33.

"We are very proud to provide this exclusive new opportunity for our valued members of Club 33," said Staggs. "Walt Disney's original vision for Club 33 was to provide the very best in themed entertainment experience for his executive guests, and we have finally been able to realize that long-held dream."

News of Pirates of the Caribbean becoming a Club 33 exclusive has been met with some mixed reactions. Said one Disney Parks Premier Passport holder, "I can't believe that they are taking something away from the general public so that only wealthy people in an exclusive club can enjoy it! Who has the money for that kind of thing?!" However, another blogger and Club 33 member was quoted as saying "some people just don't like change." He added, "I don't see what the big deal is. You can still see it, you just need to be a Club 33 member. Disneyland is not a museum."

Conversion of Pirates of the Caribbean into a Club 33 exclusive will include the Pieces of Eight store, which will be expanded into adjacent shop space and sell Club 33 merchandise in addition to Pirates of the Caribbean. Fans of Pirates of the Caribbean need not worry though: the same Pirates of the Caribbean merchandise will be available in every other shop throughout the Disneyland Resort. According to the press release, the Blue Bayou will not become part of the turnover. Instead, the restaurant will be walled off for the privacy of Club 33 members and new projection mapping effects applied to the walls to simulate being inside of a building simulating an evening on the bayou.

Among the upgrades scheduled for Pirates of the Caribbean's refurbishment is an interactive system that will read the information from the RFID chips embedded in Club 33 members' MagicBands, beginning the popular technology's integration into the Anaheim resort. These will allow each pirate to speak a greeting to every Club 33 member in the boat by name. "The ability to stop the show and personalize a message to our guests is exactly the height of immersion that Walt Disney himself envisioned," said Staggs.

"Mr. Staggs, what will ye offer for this winsome wench?"

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Story of Maui - Part 2

Besides taming the sun and raising the Pacific Islands, Maui's other great feat is bringing fire to the people. In the Maori version he tricks the fire goddess Mahuika into giving it, to which she responds with enraged fire across land, sea, and sky. Thankfully his ancestors send rain to douse the flames and save his life. The fire-god is male in Samoa, and dwells in the underworld, where Ti'iti'i journeyed to obtain fire. He did so, but Mafui'e the fire-god blew on it and broke up the oven in which he placed the fire for safekeeping. The two wrestled and Ti'iti'i emerged victorious. The price of defeat for Mafui'e was to surrender the secret of making fire.

Hawaiian fire dancer. Photo: Mynameisben123.

Thankfully, the Hawaiian version of Maui did not have to confront Pele to obtain fire. His adventure was far more comic. Once more we turn to the Hawaiian legends transcribed by Rev. A.O. Forbes:

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Mickey's First Feature Film Appearance

According to official Disney files, the first feature film appearance of Mickey Mouse was Fantasia. That may be his first feature film appearance in an official Disney film. However, Walt Disney rented is creation out in 1934 for a cameo in the MGM film Hollywood Party.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Perrault's Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper

Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper is another of Charles Perrault's most famous fairy tales. The oldest written version of the story is found in the posthumous works of Italian statesman Giambattista Basile, published 1634. In his version, dictated from oral folk traditions, tells of Zezolla, the daughter of a widowed prince, who is being oppressed by her governess-turned-stepmother and six stepsisters. After being given an enchanted set of gardening tools and a date tree seeding, she grows a magnificent tree whose resident fairy grants a new identity by which to attend the king's ball.

Perrault's version was published 60 years later, and subsequently translated into English whereupon it became a noted classic that was adapted by Disney into the celebrated animated film in 1950 and a live-action film in 2015. Many interpretations of the fairy tale have been suggested, the least interesting (as always) having to do with sexual awakening. Could the prince going around the countryside trying out whether all the maidens "fit" be an innuendo? My preference always defers to the great Edwardian Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton. In this excerpt from his 1908 book Orthodoxy, he discusses the wholesome lessons to be learned from fairy tales:
But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat -- exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast"; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.    
For those unfamiliar with the Magnificat, it is Mary's hymn of praise when she receives news that she, a maiden girl, will give birth to the Saviour:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46b-55)
It also echoes that Saviour's teachings called "The Beatitudes":
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-11)
That, I think, is the most robust of interpretations. Cinderella's is a story about the exultation of the humble, the liberation of the oppressed, and the vindication of the kind-hearted. Though forced into wretched circumstances, Cinderella's beauty - an external projection of her inner spirit - outshone that of her stepmother and stepsisters, for whom no amount of ostentatious finery could mask their cruelty and meanness. No doubt this most important of messages has contributed to the story's enduring power and popularity.

The following translation was by Charles Welsh, for his 1901 anthology The Tales of Mother Goose. Illustrations for this tale come from the incomparable pen of Gustave DorĂ©, for an 1862 compilation of Perrault's fairy tales.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Story of Maui - Part 1

Virtually every society has what anthropologists call a "culture hero." These are great heroes, often with fantastic powers, who shape the landscape and culture of the people to whom he (usually its a male) is a hero. In some cases these may be "just-so stories," but more frequently they have embedded within them lessons on proper behavior. In the case of a pure culture hero, these are lessons on how to behave. In cases where the culture hero also acts as a trickster, these can just as easily be lessons in how not to behave.

A prime example of a culture hero is Paul Bunyan. In the Disney cartoon telling his exploits, he becomes responsible for carving out the Dakotas, raising Pike's Peak so he can look out over the landscape, building Yellowstone Falls for a shower, and knocking the Aurora Borealis into the sky. His story also chronicles the transition of the far Western frontier into a civilized, mechanized society. Likewise, Pecos Bill painted the Painted Desert, dug the Rio Grande river, and filled the Gulf of Mexico with rains he lassoed in from California.

The great culture hero of the Polynesian peoples is Maui, who roped the sun and gave his people time.

Illustration of Maui snaring the sun by Arman Manookian, 1927.