Saturday, 14 January 2017

Walt's Era - Part 10: Disney's Lost Years (1957-58)

1957 and 1958 coasted along fairly well for Disney, with a few hiccups. Walt started the experiment of taking True-Life Adventures to their next logical place, with his first (and only) "True-Life Fantasy"... A scripted film featuring animals. On October 10th, 1957, the first episode of the legendary Zorro series debuted. In 1958, Walt added to the largest model train set in the world with the addition of the Grand Canyon Diorama, the  #3 engine, and a new station at Tomorrowland. That wasn't the only change in Tomorrowland either. Large parts of it went down for renovations, including the Viewliner train that only opened in 1957. On the other side of the park, the Sailing Ship Columbia, Fowler's Harbor, and the proper Alice in Wonderland ride opened. In September of 1958, Walt Disney's Disneyland on ABC becomes Walt Disney Presents. Apparently the need to so directly build up Disneyland's name recognition was no longer urgent.

Guy Williams doing a public appearance in Frontierland, in character, in 1958.
Photo: Disney.

The biggest blow to the company in this period came with Fess Parker's departure in late 1958, though they probably didn't really notice. After such a banner year in 1956, in which he carried the company's live-action films, Fess was severely underutilized through 1957 and '58. He only made one film for Disney in 1957 - Old Yeller - and another in 1958, and in both he was merely a supporting actor. Recognizing this, how his character was essentially the same in every film, and how little he was being paid by a demanding institution with so many fingers in so many pies that they could really care less about his well-being or career, he wanted to pursue other opportunities. Walt refused to lend him out to other studios for any role that did not conform to Disney's vision for him. This included missing out on a meaty role opposite John Wayne in The Searchers (which he only found out after the fact, when Walt told him in passing) and as Marilyn Monroe's leading man in Bus Stop. Therefore, when Fess was ordered to begin filming a bit part for Tonka in 1958, he refused. He was put on suspension, and eventually walked away from his contract.

What I find most notable about this period, though, is that so much of it is missing. Of the 20 films listed in this part, 10 are not available in any current format and a further four are not available in their theatrical form. Four of those films that are unavailable in theatrical form don't even have a recorded release date. Also of interest, three of those were "Tomorrowland" featurettes: Our Friend the Atom, Man and the Moon, and Man in Flight. In retrospect it would have been interesting to have had a second Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland DVD with the theatrical versions of these shows and Man in Space and Mars and Beyond, as well as missing episodes like Magic Highway U.S.A. Maybe that could have gone alongside the People and Places DVDs that should have been made alongside the True-Life Adventures DVDs. The vast majority of the missing films in this section are People and Places shorts. Unfortunately both Walt Disney Treasures and the Walt Disney Legacy Collection DVDs stalled out long, long ago.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Three Little Pigs

When Disney's Silly Symphony short The Three Little Pigs was released in 1933, it was a runaway success. In Disneyana: Classic Collectables 1928-1958, authors Robert Heide and John Gilman attribute this to the short's echoing of the Great Depression's darkest depths...
1933 has been called the worst year of the Great Depression, and those who kept their jobs worked hard to keep the proverbial wolf from the door. In the 1930's, the Big Bad Wolf served as a euphemism for the landlord, the mortgage company, or the bill collector... The story of the three little pigs and their frantic attempts to outwit the wolf, as well as their desperate search for security, captivated adults and children alike, who identified with them in those difficult times. 

The original nursery rhyme has an enduring quality because those trials faced by the titular swine aren't unique to the Depression. Originally, the story began with a sow sending her children off to make their own way in the world, as all children eventually must. The wise pig builds his house of bricks and demonstrates sufficient craft to outwit those who would take advantage of him. The other two pigs less so. Like many nursery rhymes and fairy tales, it was a cautionary tale about the world. An acquaintance of mine once described fairy tales as "the horror stories we tell children to prepare them for the horrors of the real world."

The story is of unknown provenance. The first printed edition comes by way of James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips' The Nursery Rhymes of England, published in 1886. That version gives us the same basic outline found in all subsequent versions, and is credited directly by Joseph Jacobs, who quoted almost verbatim in his English Fairy Tales book of 1890. Jacobs was a pioneering folklorist and is responsible for popularizing many of the stories that are still passed on today (and which became fertile source material for Disney's Silly Symphonies). The following rendition, and illustration, is from Jacob's book:

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Cory's Disney in Review 2016

It's that time again, closing out the year with my top fives for 2016! But what to choose from? Some of the things on my list might seem a bit odd, but you've undoubtedly figured out by now that my tastes can skew to the unusual. There is a rhyme and reason to it though, so let's go...

#1: The Jungle Book
If we ignore Maleficent and anything produced by Tim Burton, then Disney is doing really well with their live-action remakes of classic animated films. Last year's Top Five lead off with Cinderella in #1, and this year it is The Jungle Book. Beautifully realized for a film pushing the boundaries of what even qualifies as "live action" anymore, the greatest gift that it gave to the story was providing a genuine emotional heart. Both the original film and the original books just had a series of things happening to man and animal alike. Dwelling on the credo of the wolves provided an emotional heart that paid off very, very well. If Disney can keep it up, then I suspect that next year will be lead off with Beauty and the Beast.

#2: Shanghai Disneyland
Disney's newest theme park came in second place because until China throws off the shackles of dictatorship, I never plan on going there. However, it's full of all sorts of neat things that would be nice to see spread across other Disneylands. I don't even mind the movie-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean, because at least it was custom-built that way instead of just imposing Jack Sparrow on an otherwise perfect attraction. I'm uncertain about Mickey Ave. but I do like the more robust castle, the Tron coaster, expanded Peter Pan's Flight, and Adventure Isle.

Photo: Disney

#2: Disney Parks Present: The Haunted Mansion
I grant that the quiet release of a picture book may seem an odd choice after Shanghai Disneyland, but this is as much a vote of confidence in the series as for the book itself. In 2011, Disney put out a picture book based on It's a Small World, which printed the Sherman Bros. lyrics with art by Joey Chou and a CD of the song. Apparently it did well enough that Disney Parks went ahead, declared an official series of books, and inaugurated it with The Haunted Mansion. Another CD joins the art of James Gilleard and lyrics of X. Atencio. It's a wonderful way to celebrate the music of Disney Parks and a fond way to remember the rides and shows at home. I look forward to the inevitable Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, and Country Bear Jamboree books!

#3: Camp Woodchuck
Can we just accept that I always pick offbeat things? Every time I've been in the US parks and seen anything to do with the Wilderness Explorers, be it in California Adventure or Animal Kingdom, I immediately think "tisk tisk, it really ought to be the Junior Woodchucks." And lo, Japan did provide a Junior Woodchucks based restaurant and meet-and-greet area! It's very well done, with tonnes of references to classic Disney, which is very pleasing, but I also like it for what it means. The Disney company itself seems to have a crisis of identity... An almost profound lack of faith in itself, leading to the imperial acquisition of IP after IP and proceeding to stuff those down everyone's throat. This past year I had a little outburst on one or another of Disney's Facebook pages exclaiming that I'm sick to death of hearing about Marvel and Star Wars. I'm a DISNEY fan dammit, and was one BEFORE they bought up these things. I just want DISNEY news. It was, of course, deleted by the moderators. Tokyo Disney doesn't seem to have this same problem, no doubt owing to the fact that the Oriental Land Company is licencing the Disney brand. They have very real faith in the strength of that brand and a clear apparent idea of what to do with its IP. They have an entire section of Tokyo DisneySea based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and for several years have been running a Duffy-like merchandise promotion based on the black sheep from So Dear to My Heart. For real! And now there's Camp Woodchuck. Who knows, if the new Ducktales does well, maybe a version of it will come over to North America?

Concept art: Disney

#4: Moana
I was modestly looking forward to Moana, being an aficionado of Tiki and Polynesian culture, largely thanks to Disney. But I've also learned to be reserved in my expectations, especially after the trailers and clips I had seen before the film's debut. To be honest, I didn't think the music and dialogue in those clips was much to look forward to. Nor did "Made by the studio that brought you Wreck-It Ralph", that infamously being the only Disney film I've actually turned off a half-hour in, and having done so while on a plane. Yes, I decided that doing nothing while trapped on an airplane was a better investment of time than finishing Wreck-It Ralph. Thankfully, those songs and clips from Moana worked a lot better in context. It ended up being a decent little film with a Miyazaki-esque vibe to it that was very welcome to see from Disney. As is the case typically, I would rather have seen a movie based on the actual legends of Maui, just like I would have rather seen more straightforward adaptations of The Snow Queen (Frozen) or Reynard the Fox (Zootopia). For what it was, however, it was fine and it was good to see representation of Polynesians in a major Hollywood film.


Dishonourable Mention
Dear Once Upon a Time, exactly what do you think you're doing?! Fans of the ABC television series Once Upon a Time have long had to face up to the fact that Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz only really had a good, solid idea for one season, and have been running on inertia ever since. The first season was phenomenal, and while the second season wasn't as good, it still had some interesting characters and ideas. The show began morphing from a story about defeating the villains to a show about redemption. Season three fell into the silly fad of breaking a season up into two half-seasons, with varying degrees of success. Seasons 3a with Peter Pan and 4a with Frozen were actually pretty good, season 3b with the Wicked Witch of the West (played by the horribly miscast Rebecca Mader) was just awful, and seasons 4b and all of five were mostly victims of missed opportunities that could have benefited from full-season story arcs. Oh yeah, there was an unwatchable and forgettable spin-off series in there as well, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, that only lasted one season.

That brings us to the current mess. The Land of Unread Books Untold Stories plot has been a bust. It hasn't provided anything this season that ought to have been done or couldn't have been done another way. With the Underworld being evacuated at the end of last season, they could have easily brought characters like Lady Tremain or Captain Nemo back to life, maintaining the essential integrity of those episodes. They never should have done the Count of Monte Cristo, which did such a disservice to the character that it outright offended Ashley, who counts the Alexandre Dumas classic as her favourite book. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could have just as easily, and more sensibly, come from the realm of Gothic Horror that they already established in season two, when they revealed Dr. Whale's identity. I've been dying to see them do more with that realm, from which they could derive Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, Dorian Gray, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Dr. Moreau, Heathcliff, the list goes on. That would be a heck of a season. I guess we'll always have Penny Dreadful for that, which is an excellent series that knew when to quit.

The worst part of season six, though, is the unending, repetitive drama of the leads. They had a brilliant opportunity mid-season five to explore how Rumpelstiltskin rebuilds his life and redeems himself after being released from the curse of the Dark One. Nope. Nope, he's just the Dark One again, and now we have to deal with interminable drama between him and Belle. Nor do I care about the Charmings anymore. Haven't we really said everything about them that we need to at this point? The separation of the Evil Queen from Regina could be interesting if Regina was at all a different person with her evil part gone, or had any real insights into the nature of good and evil. Poor Captain Hook has now suffered the malady of Badass Decay. Not that the season has been without highlights, but the best part is getting the least attention, being the B-plot with Aladdin and Jasmine. Right now, the most entertaining part of Once Upon a Time is reading Lily Sparks' irreverent reviews.  

For for a writing a depressing rant to end off what is supposed to be a celebratory post, but this one has been brewing for a while, as one might glean from its length. So in the spirit of ending on a high note, I will mention one of the highlights from this season of Once Upon a Time: seeing the Nautilus again. Luckily, it's easier to be flexible with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than with The Count of Monte Cristo. The latter is a very contextually specific book with a subtlety that can be missed if it's simply treated as a crude revenge story. For 20,000 Leagues, after decades of seeing Nemo and his creations in one movie after another, and speaking as a huge Jules Verne fan, all you really need to get right is the submarine. Thankfully Once Upon a Time chose to stick more or less with Disney's iconic design! Good job guys!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Top Five: Films by Land

December is the time for Top Fives... Last year we took a look at my top five favourite Disney parks and top five favourite attractions in each. This year, I'm doing something a little different. 

Disney's theme parks are, of course, built around their intellectual property. I've argued in the past that there has always been corporate synergy linking the company's film, television, and theme park products. In some cases, the connections are self-evident. Peter Pan's Flight is based on Peter Pan. Other cases may be more subtle.

The following is our list of the Top Five films for the five original lands in Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Disneyland Paris. Some of these films will be on the list because of a direct connection to an attraction. Others will be a more nuanced list of films from Disney's catalogue that did more to inspire or reflect the mood or setting of one of the lands. Either way, most of these are films we review in the months leading up to a Disney trip, just to get ourselves in the right mindset.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Walt's Era - Part 9: The Year of Fess Parker (1956)

We have hit something of a milestone with Walt's Era. For the first time in this series, an entry covers a single year and has no animated films. Fantasia was re-released on February 7th, but no new animated films came out in 1956. Of the four feature films that were released, all but one featured Fess Parker, star of Davy Crockett. The outlier was a True-Life Adventure.

A native Texan, Fess came into the Disney fold after Walt spotted his cameo in the classic Science Fiction film Them! He practically leapt off the screen as a pilot driven mad by the sight of gigantic, mutated ants, which appealed to Walt (who had been watching the film to check out lead actor James Arness for the role of Davy Crockett). Fess won the role of his career, and lead Davy Crockett into becoming a household name. Walt saw the makings of a legitimate feature film star, took him off television, and made him the company's #1 lead actor.

Fess Parker at a department store live appearance.

He stayed with the company from 1955 through 1958, when he and Disney had a falling out. In the mean time, he not only became the second most recognizable face of the company and helped to open Disneyland USA, but also had a series of LPs on Disneyland Records. Besides the storyteller and soundtrack albums for his films, he released Yarns and Songs in 1956 and Cowboy and Indian Songs in 1957. His irresistible folksy charm helped shape the company's image during the new Golden Age.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Story of Hina Kuluua

Outside the Enchanted Tiki Room, Hina Kuluua and Tangaroa-Ru work together to shower refreshing rain on the Edenic lanai. The plaque beside her attributes the happiness of the garden to her, for it is her mists that make orchids boom and rainbows shimmer. Her ability to do that, however, does not have so happy a story behind it.

The story of Hina Kuluua is bound with that of her mother, sisters and brothers. The greatest of her brothers is Maui, the same Maui who conquered the sun. Their mother is Hina, and of her sisters, the most relevant in Hina Keahi. The latter Hina is a goddess of fire and it was one of her exploits that led a jealous and haughty Hina Kaluua to her end. Their exploits were centred around the area known today as Rainbow Falls and the city of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. In the native tongue, the river feeding Rainbow Falls is called the "Wailuku," which means "Destroying Waters." As melting snow from the peaks of Mauna Kea and precipitation from the lush woodlands of Mauna Loa rush down to the sea, they whip up into such a torrent that rocks and trees can be pulled from their moorings and sent out to sea. In the airy cave behind the falls, Hina was said to have her home.

Rainbow Falls, Hilo, Hawaii. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

What the New Epcot Needs

At the recent Destination D convention, Disney Parks CEO Bob Chapek confirmed that the beleaguered Epcot would be undergoing the same massive revitalization process enjoyed by California Adventure, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, and to a certain extent, Animal Kingdom. Imagineers have been instructed to "dream big" in these initial blue sky planning sessions, stating that it would be both "more Disney, timeless, relevant, and family friendly" while at the same time staying true to Epcot's original theme of education. 

Epcot, originally known as EPCOT Center, has long been a trouble spot for Walt Disney World. Designed as a permanent world's fair of culture and technology, it has faced the ongoing struggle to remain abreast of technological developments while suffering managerial ennui. Anyone who has been paying attention to Epcot's status in the last few years might even bristle at the statement that it needs "more Disney" or to be more "relevant" and "family friendly"... Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Three Caballeros may be my favourite current attraction in Epcot, but Frozen Ever After was a controversial addition to Norway and rumours have a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction planned for the future. In the wake of our honeymoon in WDW, we had to admit that we loved World Showcase but found Future World uninspiring to say the least.

Besides the shortsightedness of merely injecting franchises into the park to spike merchandise sales and cross-promote feature films, which is an interior challenge of managerial will, Epcot's biggest external challenge has been the rapid rate of technological advancement since 1982. Most of us go through two or more versions of a smartphone before Imagineering can run a new attraction through the planning and building process. That problem shows no signs of diminishing any time soon, which is why the best course for Epcot may be to circumvent it altogether by slightly altering the theme of Future World. That alteration, if I may be so bold, is to evolve beyond the theme of technological progress to feature scientific discovery in general. 

That slight alteration can expand the subject matter of possible attractions, unshackle them from keeping pace with new technology, and present a more unified theme for the entire park. The new Epcot could move forward as celebration of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences, a testament to the diversity of cultures, histories, and peoples in a multicultural, globalized society and the ongoing improvement of our lives through scientific discovery and technological development. It would present, in an entertaining and picturesque format, a comprehensive story about our "Spaceship Earth," its place in the cosmos, the people who live on it, and the forces shaping our modern world. Epcot could become a place that helps us to better understand quantum mechanics, theoretical astrophysics, and one another. It would be, as I said, a celebration of human diversity, curiousity, and ingenuity. In this respect, it could mirror Animal Kingdom, which already celebrates natural and culture heritage with a wide range of natural and cultural attractions.

Lots of people will come up with specific attraction ideas, and I'm no different.  Personally, I would appreciate a new version of Spaceship Earth that diminishes the Eurocentric, Post-Enlightenment biases of the original to include aspects of traditional Indigenous ways of sharing knowledge, thus presenting a more nuanced view that challenges guests with a broader view of the human story. Mission: Space could stay, but Communicore West could certainly be useful for an exhibit on space exploration with participation from NASA, the Smithsonian, Chinese National Space Administration, Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, Roscosmos, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or whoever. What about a new version of Adventure Thru Inner Space in Communicore East, talking about quantum mechanics? What about replacing the Universe of Energy with a more full-bodied and educational attraction about prehistory, including the creation of the Earth and the development of life, with a segment on the future, climate change, and the importance of allowing Earth's natural cycles to continue unhindered by human activity? How about kicking out Nemo and getting back to SeaBase Alpha? Disneynature seems like a more valid franchise to tie into Epcot than Pixar or Marvel. And what about adding a few more countries to World Showcase, especially non-European ones? I assume a new Journey into Imagination is a given. It's always worth remembering, though, that the idle speculations of us armchair Imagineers has nothing to do with the considerations that actual Imagineers have to make.

Such is my idle speculation, but I would be happy with Imagineers first taking a program in STEAM studies - Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math - and expanding Epcot to that celebration of human diversity, curiousity, and ingenuity in scientific progress and global cultures. That, I think, is more important than any particular widgets, geegaws, or recognizable movie characters, which is the atomistic thinking that got Spaceship Earth a giant wand and Hollywood Studios a giant hat, and got Animal Kingdom stuck with Avatar. It would become, and should become, the fundamental guiding principle of any development in Epcot. For this to turn out well, Epcot needs to have a good, solid, defined purpose and I can't think of a better one than to celebrate the story of humankind and its place in the cosmos.