Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Saint Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum

Walt Disney World is replete with pirates, from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and A Pirate's Adventure: Treasure of the Seven Seas interactive game, to Peter Pan's Flight and the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage (not to mention the great Pirates of the Caribbean game in DisneyQuest). An approximate three-hour drive from Orlando, Florida brings visitors to the centre of a town bristling with a true-life legacy of pirates: Saint Augustine. 

Saint Augustine was the first town founded by the Spanish on the continent, thus making it the oldest city in the United States. After the town was established in 1565, work began on a series of forts, culminating in the stone Castillo de San Marcos. These forts frequently fended off attacks by English and French privateers, with varying degrees of success. One of the worst attacks was by Sir Francis Drake, whose crew managed to occupy and ransack the town for three days at the end of May, 1586. 

Given such a legacy, Saint Augustine was a natural place for entrepreneur Pat Croce to relocate his collection of authentic pirate artifacts. Right across the street from the Castillo de San Marcos, the Saint Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum is a marvellous institution to cap off a visit to a city with so many connections to historical scallywags and swashbucklers.   


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Bambi, a Life in the Woods

It's rather cliche to exclaim that a book is better than the movie based on it. In most cases this is simply because the book allows greater length and depth than two or even three hours on screen can permit. Rarely is it because a work is so suited to the medium of literature that transferring it to the visual medium of film necessarily causes it to lose what makes it beautiful. This may be the case with Bambi, a Life in the Woods by the Austrian author Felix Salten. Published in 1923 and translated to English by Whittaker Chambers in 1928 - and, of course, adapted by Walt Disney in 1942 - Bambi is heralded not only as one of the first environmental novels, but one of the masterpieces of nature literature.

1932 edition illustration by Kurt Weise.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Tomorrowland: Origins of Plus Ultra Easter Eggs

This past week, Disney released a pair of animated videos explaining the origins of the mysterious "Plus Ultra" organization featured in the upcoming movie Tomorrowland. Originally slated to appear in the film itself - presumably in a scene set in the 1964-65 New York World's Fair - it was cut from final edit for time and posted online. The following are a few Easter Eggs we noticed while watching.

First of all, of course, is the style of the cartoon. It is very much in line with the "Tomorrowland" episodes of the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series: Man in Space, Man and the Moon, Mars and Beyond, Magic Highway USA, and Our Friend the Atom. The following scene is even a direct homage to a scene from Our Friend the Atom...

Scene from The Origins of Plus Ultra
Comparable scene from Our Friend the Atom.

The short was narrated by Maurice LaMarche, most famous for giving his voice to The Brain of Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs. In this he is likely trying to channel the spirit of Orson Welles, who he also portrayed satirically in Animaniacs. Welles achieved notoriety for his 1939 radio performance of The War of the Worlds, which purportedly convinced America that martians actually were attacking. In reality, only a relatively small segment of the radio-listening public who didn't hear the show's introduction thought that an invasion was actually happening, and they assumed it was an invasion by the Nazis, as the Second World War had already begun in Europe. Nevertheless, Welles was one of the first to test the public's credulity of mass broadcast media.

"Since the dawn of recorded history,
mankind has boldly pursued its destiny...
TO TRY AND TAKE OVER THE WORLD!"

In our next scene we catch a glimpse of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, France. The Eiffel Tower was originally constructed for this Exposition as a temporary monument. But floating around the Eiffel Tower is a rather obscure Disney reference: the Hyperion airship from Island at the Top of the World. In the 1974 film, it was built by a French aeronaut and employed by a British industrial magnate to search for his lost son in the far Canadian Arctic where a colony of Vikings have survived to the Edwardian Era. It is more frequently seen today in the entryway to the Café Hyperion at Disneyland Paris. It is also an Easter Egg in The Great Mouse Detective, acting as Ratigan's dirigible.


The Hyperion in The Origins of Plus Ultra.


The Hyperion in Island at the Top of the World.
Model of the Hyperion at Disneyland Paris.

Cafe Hyperion, Disneyland Paris.
Ratigan's "Hyperion" pursues Basil.

According to the video, the Eiffel Tower hosted an illustrious gathering of learned Victorian men who founded Plus Ultra: Thomas Edison, Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, and Nikola Tesla. I'm not convinced that four Victorian men would come up with a name for their organization that sounds like a brand of laundry detergent, but I'll let that rest.



A little less forgivable is how Tesla and Edison carried on one of the great scientific rivalries of all time. The main contention between them was electricity, the so-called "War of the Currents." Edison (top) backed Direct Current while Tesla (bottom) back Alternating Current. Of course, the mythology of their conflict has built up over time, and this Forbes article does a good job of dispelling some of them. This page from the U.S. Department of Energy gives a good overview of their considerable accomplishments. 


Gustave Eiffel is best known for the tower that bears his name. He was already an architect and engineer of renown before constructing the Eiffel Tower, including the design of the Statue of Liberty three years before the Exposition. France's gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States is commemorated at Disneyland Paris in the Liberty Arcade that runs behind Main Street USA. His long list of credits count numerous bridges, viaducts, gasworks, cathedrals, theatres, hotels, and train stations. Whether or not Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla were there, Eiffel did host Thomas Edison in his offices at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Mannequins replicate this scene in those same offices.

Edison meets Eiffel.

As evidenced by this short, Tomorrowland is going to appeal to the myth of Jules Verne as a technological optimist who was just shy of being an inventor himself. Verne, of course, is the author of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, In Search of the Castaways, From the Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, each of which have been made into films, rides, or both by Disney. Due in no small part to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney has largely been responsible for creating the image of Verne as a technological optimist. I will discuss this at greater depth in a future series of articles, but for the time being, suffice it to say that Verne had a keenly observant mind that didn't always like what it saw about humanity. He was still a deeply humane writer - for example he could never bring himself to unleash the kind of devastation on humanity that H.G. Wells practically salivated at - but grew weary and increasingly cynical in his old age. Here we get the Disney version of Verne, complete with Harper Goff's design of the Nautilus.


In the offices of Plus Ultra, the film shows an army of draughtsmen (and women) hard at work making plans for Progress City... er, Tomorrowland. Dan Jeup, animator of this sequence, acknowledges that two of the engineers are references to Imagineers Mary Blair and Marc Davis. Blair's attraction It's a Small World will feature prominently in Tomorrowland

Silhouettes of Mary Blair (left) and Marc Davis (right corner).
Mary Blair.
Marc Davis.

And one last reference for the Disneyphiles... Did you catch Space Mountain in the model of Tomorrowland? That is a nice reference but actually isn't new, since it had also been spotted in the official movie trailers.


Are there any other Easter Eggs you noticed? Leave a comment below!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Victoria's Gardens

Though intended to capture the spirit of the entire country, Epcot's Canada pavilion is a very charming pastiche of Victoria, British Columbia. It's understandable that it would be very difficult to encapsulate the second-largest country in the world in a mere one acre of space, with all of its variety and ethnic diversity, and therefore they focused on the space around one particular city. While the cobblestone streets upwards of Hotel du Canada are intended to represent the old city of Quebec, and the mountains are apropos of nothing since they're the wrong colour and shape of anything in Canada, the combination of grand hotels, English heritage, Native totem poles, and beautiful gardens is most clearly indicative of that quaint city on the Pacific Coast.


Epcot's Canada.
Epcot Canada's Victoria Gardens.
An actual photo from Victoria... Not Epcot's Canada!
The Empress Hotel in Victoria's Inner Habour.

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: