Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Brer Rabbit's Laughin' Place

Uncle Remus stories furnished Joel Chandler Harris with a lifetime worth of material. His first book - Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings - launched his literary career in 1880. In 1883 and 1892 he returned to his fable-telling alter-ego, amidst other literary works published at a rate of one a year. In 1904, 1905 and 1907 he published several more tales. Sadly he passed away in 1908 at the age of 60, but left behind enough material for several more books, published in 1910, 1918, and 1948... Two years after the release of Disney's Song of the South.

Of the three animated vignettes in Song of the South, the story of Brer Rabbit and his Laugin' Place hails from one of the later books: Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories from the Old Plantation (1905). It is astonishing to think of how many stories Disney's production staff must have gone through between Harris' nine Remus books, just to pick out three good ones for film. This is especially true given the difficulty in mentally translating the regional dialect preserved by Harris into a modern one. That amount of work, as well as the technical accomplishment of the film itself, makes it doubly unfortunate that Song of the South cannot be seen within the United States and Canada.

Nevertheless, let us commence with another wonderful story about how Brer Rabbit outwitted his adversaries...

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The New Rivers of America

Image: Disney.
On the very day that Disneyland closed down the Rivers of America to begin installation of the new Star Wars-themed land, the Disney Parks Blog posted a beautiful piece of poster-worthy concept art showing what the new northern reaches of the far frontier are going to look like.

Since the concept art left too much to the imagination as to what the new shape of the river will take, I took the liberty of transposing it onto a Google map of Disneyland. Here is a speculative map of Frontierland's future...

Plausibly, the river could even be truncated more than that, but I think this gives a reasonably accurate idea of what to expect. The new Disneyland Railroad route will come out of Splash Mountain, cross over Critter Country, then swing back behind the Hungry Bear to a new route directly along the Rivers of America. It will then carry over between Star Wars Land and Frontierland, adjacent to Big Thunder Trail. Another trestle bridge appears to carry the train over guests who are veering off to A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Given the situation, I think this is about as good as it gets. It looks as though the two major features that were at risk of being lost altogether - the Native American village and Mike Fink's cabin (the former burning settler's cabin) - are just going to be shifted south along with the new waterfront.  The new alignment appears to provide some much-needed visual interest to both the railway and the river. For guests aboard the train, they will now receive a much more rewarding view of the river and a dynamic stretch of crags and waterfalls to cross. For guests on the river and Tom Sawyer Island, the old time, frontier-looking steam trains will actually be clearly visible from Frontierland for the first time in decades. The new waterfront does lose a certain aspect of the far-flung wilderness, since there will be virtually no time along the Mark Twain Riverboat's trip where you will be completely immersed in forest, but under the circumstances it's a relatively small price to pay.

Though having made my pitch for respecting Disneyland as a museum, and kvetched over the mounting losses of Disneyland's quiet spaces, I haven't been overly concerned or pessimistic about this project. I don't think I've ever met anyone who is dead set against any changes ever happening to Disneyland, which is part of what can make the blanket rebuttal of "Walt said Disneyland would never be complete, so any changes Disneyland does are automatically pre-approved and you can't be critical of them!" so frustrating. That is usually followed with crude dismissals about critics being emotional, nostalgia-driven haters of everything new, which unnecessarily muddies the discussion. Please, please just end that tiresome cliché. The question is always how necessary the changes are and how well they were done. Does the change actually improve the experience? Or does it diminish the experience? Is the change coherent? Does it respect the integrity, themeing, and pacing of the park, land, or the attraction? Does it respect the historicity of the park, which is important for a park only really set apart by its historicity? Is it merely a change for the sake of marketing or cost-cutting? Is the change any good?

I like the addition of Constance and the Hatbox Ghost to the Haunted Mansion, because they are coherent with the characters, technology, humour, and themeing of the ride. I dislike the addition of Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones to Pirates of the Caribbean, because they are incoherent with the characters, technology, and storyline of the ride, introducing far too many problems into the ride's narrative and mood than the changes are worth. I don't mind the addition of Disney characters to It's A Small World because they are relatively innocuous, but I don't like the addition of an America section because it literally looks like it is from a different ride (which it is, having been imported from the Paris version). The new animatronics and effects in the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Peter Pan's Flight are great, except that you can now see the edges of Neverland floating out in space. The Finding Nemo overlay to the Submarine Voyage is lame, for the same reason that any ride built around watching somebody else having an adventure is lame. It would be impossible for any person to argue that New Orleans Square was not an improvement on the Swift Chicken Plantation, or that taking the Court of Angels away from the average guest does not in turn diminish New Orleans Square. Given Disney's uneven track record in actually improving something that they "plus" or alter, receiving news of another renovation is justifiably met with apprehension. I'll never forget the announcement of Disneyland's Fantasy Faire at the D23 Expo in 2011, where the only applause was reserved for the news that they weren't completely tearing out the bandstand. Fantasy Faire did turn out to be a charming little extension of Fantasyland, but it says a lot when "exciting news" is met with anything less than excitement.

Anyways, that this project has involved a mere truncation of the river rather than an outright loss of Tom Sawyer Island, the Rivers of America, Mark Twain Riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia, Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes, and Fantasmic means that I'm not particularly offended by it. I was more offended by the addition of the Pirate's Lair to Tom Sawyer Island than by this decimation of its inaccessible north end. Tom Sawyer Island lost more of its historical and thematic integrity in that renovation and the various closures and demolitions that went with it, leaving the Tom Sawyer Island in Walt Disney World as the far more authentic version (which is a sad growing trend... Magic Kingdom is becoming the repository of what Disneyland used to be, both in what it has and in what it blessedly lacks). For what they have to work with, the changes look like they will actually add some interest to the far end of the Rivers of America.

For most people, the ultimate question is whether the addition of Star Wars Land will be worth this truncating of the Rivers of America, and the loss of Big Thunder Ranch. I'm sure that any Star Wars fan would automatically answer with an emphatic yes. As someone who is not a Star Wars fan, I actually prefer the idea of building a separate land for the franchise than the alternative, which was the rumoured evisceration of Tomorrowland. Hope springs eternal that Tomorrowland might yet be rehabilitated. Some people have raised concerns about where Star Wars Land is placed, but I don't think that is any more off-putting than having Mermaid Lagoon right as you leave Mysterious Island and across the river from the Arabian Coast at Tokyo Disneysea. As long as Star Wars Land is sufficiently hidden behind rockwork and train trestles, then I don't have to see or go into it. Star Wars Land lets me ignore Star Wars, which is a benefit for someone like me who goes to Disneyland because they like Disney.

I'm still holding out hope, and concern, that this new rockwork will be able to hide the sightlines into Star Wars Land. We'll see exactly how tall those rocky spires and red mesas tower when the thing is built. It probably would have been better to have set Star Wars Land on Tatooine or Jakku than whatever forest planet it is supposed to be. I'm assuming that this concept art is also showing us the back walls of the Star Wars show buildings. Time will tell, and then we can start heaping the real praise, or scorn.   

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

Song of the South - that most reviled and controversial of Disney films that most people who talk about it haven't actually seen - was based, in spots, on the "Uncle Remus" stories transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris. To be more precise, the three animated segments of the film adapt stories pulled from Harris' anthology of African-American folk tales, while the linking live-action narrative was penned by Dalton S. Raymond, Morton Grant, and Maurice Rapf. It is also the live-action segments that fuel most of the controversy, for portraying the complicated era of the Reconstruction with all the pleasantry and frivolity of a Disney movie. Though the African-American characters portrayed by James Baskett, Hattie McDaniel, and Glenn Leedy are friendly, positive, and full of song - acting as the well-adjusted foils to the broken family of the white plantation owners - Disney nevertheless “Disneyfies” a difficult time in American history, in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, when African-Americans were technically free but had nowhere to go, dealing with the trauma of slavery while racism was still rampant. It is offensive exactly because it is so inoffensive. Since I am not African-American myself, it is not up to me to tell people what they should or should not be offended by. Whether Disney ever resolves to release a DVD or Blu-Ray of Song of the South is up to them, and since Disney’s main product is their image, I can understand why they would be reluctant to do so.

It was this same time period that Joel Chandler Harris came into when he set about to transcribe and preserve the folk tales of African-American former slaves. Born in 1845 in Georgia to an unwed Irish immigrant mother and a father who fled immediately after his birth, 16-year old Harris took up work in a print shop on the Turnwold Plantation. During his time on the plantation, he became immersed in the lives of African-American slaves, feeling less self-conscious around them on account of his Irish heritage (including a shock of red hair) and illegitimate birth. The Uncle Remus character he later invented was a composite of several storytellers he knew, and Uncle Remus’ stories were those he heard around the evening fire. After the American Civil War, Harris moved from newspaper to newspaper, becoming a valued humourist and political commentator while promoting the vision of racial reconciliation in the “New South.” Eventually he set upon the task of transcribing the folktales he heard at Turnwold as a document of past times.

Like the movie based on them, Harris' writings are controversial. Some see his transcriptions as preserving an important part of America's cultural history, while others see him as having appropriated African-American culture. Some see his simulated slave dialect as a significant linguistic artifact, while others see it as demeaning. Some see the Uncle Remus character as a crude stereotype, others point out that according to slave narratives such personalities did exist. Harris was, on the one hand, a progressive advocate of racial reconciliation and African-American rights, and on the other he was paternalistic with a ingrained sense of nostalgia about the Antebellum South. In short, it may just be that in a country still dealing with the trauma of slavery 150 years later, it is simply impossible to write about it without courting controversy.

Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings was published in 1881 as an anthology of stories told by an African-American Aesop. The most famous of these stories, due no doubt to Song of the South, is the story of the "Tar Baby." It begins in Chapter II...

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Talismouse - Pirate Edition

Some time ago we posted on our Disney-based variant of the classic Talisman fantasy board game. From our recent trip to Disneyland we came back with the PVC figure sets for Mickey vs. the Disney Villains (which is basically a Fantasmic playset and they might as well brand it as that, frankly) and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. That in turn has given us the opportunity to add a few swashbuckling characters to our repertoire.

From Peter Pan...

Pirates of the Caribbean, the ride...

And finally, a new ending in which I gave the Thieves' Guild alternate ending a cosmetic makeover as the Pirates League. Much like the actual attraction at Walt Disney World, now that I think about it...

Jam-packed with pirates!
As a side note, I was very excited to see a figure set based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It was a nice change to see merchandise for the ride that has nothing to do with the movies, and it bodes well for seeing sets based on other attractions like Haunted Mansion and Splash Mountain. I'm really hoping they continue the line!

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Cory's Top 5 Disney Parks and Attractions - #1: Disneyland USA

The classic, the original... Disneyland USA takes my top spot for favourite Disney theme park. It's not the biggest (Magic Kingdom), and not necessarily the most advanced (Tokyo Disneysea) or the best laid out or most attractive (Disneyland Paris), but it is the Disneyland. This is the park that Walt built, that he walked in, that is rooted in legend and engrained in that period in the mid-Fifties when the Disney company rose to its post-war heights. This is the park that all other Disneylands and Magic Kingdoms are a version of.

I've made the case before that Disneyland should be a museum, which was to say that you cannot separate what makes Disneyland great from what makes it historically important. It is the first custom-built theme park as well as Disney's first theme park. It made innovations like tubular steel roller coasters and audio-animatronics and a daily operating monorail. It is a place of artistic and engineering excellence merged together and dedicated to the noble goal of being "a source of joy and inspiration to all the world." Disneyland is an integral part of America's mid-20th century milieu, a product of that same glorious era for the company that produced some of Disney's greatest animated films like Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp, and Disney's first live-action films like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and when the company almost single-handedly sold televisions to every family in America with the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Zorro, and when they invented the modern documentary with the True-Life Adventures and People and Places series. Disneyland even played its part to convince Americans to go to the moon!  

Disneyland is entitled to some sentimentality and nostalgia. Would that it were as good as preserving its history as it is at milking that sentiment! Nevertheless, while I may have a list of grievances at things demolished and replaced with substandard attractions, or simply not replaced at all, or growing encrustations of things that are not Disney in Disneyland, there is still an indelible charm to the original Disneyland. Its modest scale compared to other similar parks almost gives it the feel of a delightful, whimsical dollhouse. It is every childhood daydream come to life, from cowboys and jungles to princesses and space ships.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Cory's Disney in Review 2015

After my lament that 2014 did not hold enough things to warrant a "top five" list and just going ahead this year with an elaborate listing of my top five favourite Disney parks and top five favourite rides in each, it turned out that 2015 also warranted a top five in its own right! The following is my brief list of things that the company really knocked out of the ballpark this year.

#1: Cinderella
Disney has heeded the call of live-action remakes of fairy tales with a vengeance. After last year's dreadful Maleficent and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, Tim Burton's Dumbo, another crack at The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, and A Night on Bald Mountain (somehow) they are on top of things. Though Disney may be prepared to drive live-action fairy tales, superheroes and space knights with laser swords into the ground with multiple releases each year, sometimes they do end up actually being pretty good. Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was just such a case. Rather than try to revise the fairy tale, which crippled Maleficent, they chose to play it straight and elaborate on it instead. Everything in the story is nicely fleshed out, the Prince actually has a character arc, and the difficult subject of how to "have courage and be kind" in the face of the world's cruelty is dealt with admirably. Aesthetically, Cinderella was sumptuous. Hopefully Disney keeps playing it straight like this.

#2: Galavant
This might not be fair given that Galavant was a mid-season fill-in for Once Upon a Time on ABC and not technically Disney (well... technically it is Disney, but it's not the Disney brand, you know?). To be honest, though, of all the stuff anything associated with Disney did this year, Galavant was pretty awesome. Short, sweet, musical, self-aware, and hilarious, it hit all the right notes, so to speak. The only time it went off the rails was in the last episodes as it decided to string things along for a second season instead of neatly wrapping up the first. I can forgive that, though, since it's so much fun to watch the rest of the time.

#3: Trader Sam's Grog Grotto
Unfortunately our honeymoon in 2014 did not dovetail with the opening of Trader Sam's at Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort. That's a darn shame, since I'm a huge Jules Verne fan and would love to get my hands on one of those Nautilus Tiki mugs. Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel is perhaps my favourite restaurant on any Disney property (at least it's right up there with Walt's at Disneyland Paris), so extending the franchise while adding references to WDW's defunct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride is an exciting prospect. Our field scouts have reported back that it is a whole lot of fun... At least for as much as they remember.

Photo: Disney.

#4: Fantasyland's Refurbishment
Alice in Wonderland was the first of Disneyland's Fantasyland attractions to be refurbished with a new suite of effects last year, and the trend continued this year with Matterhorn Bobsleds and Peter Pan's Flight. I'm not an unquestioning aficionado of video projection mapping being used on rides... What you gain in the flexibility of video you lose, if done poorly, in the feeling of genuine dimensionality. Themeparks in general seem to be growing much too reliant on projection screens rather than practical effects as the bones of an attraction, leading to a comparable drop in the effectiveness and immersiveness of said attraction. Alice in Wonderland is a bit too guilty of that problem in a few places. But when used well, much like CGI in a film, it can accent and add life to an attraction. In the case of the Matterhorn, they support the excellent new Abominable Snowman animatronic. In Peter Pan's Flight, Tinkerbell gets a more sustained presence in showering you with pixiedust, and there is a nice bit of cinematic recall on the face of Big Ben. Between the three refurbished attractions, it looks like Imagineers have a handle on what they're doing, boding well for Snow White's Scary Adventure, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, and Pinocchio's Daring Journey.

Concept Art: Disney.

#5: Grizzly Peak Airfield
The problems with Disney California Adventure were well-known, as were the problems with Condor Flats specifically. Though a tribute to the aerospace pioneers of Edwards Air Force Base, the desert setting was uninviting and suffered from poor sightlines with the Grand Californian Hotel. With the arrival of Cars Land, having another desert section was redundant, so Imagineering went ahead and revitalized Condor Flats as an extension of Grizzly Peak Recreation Area. In turn, they finally ditched the Nineties extreme sports theme and went back to the golden era of the Great America Road Trip of the Fifties and Sixties. I love nature, National Parks, and their history, so all of this sounds good to me!

Honourable Mention: Tomorrowland
Regardless of what the movie was actually like, I know my fair share of Disney fans (myself included) who just wanted Tomorrowland to be a success for the sake of Disneyland's Tomorrowland. It seemed like this part-nostalgic reminiscence building up an artificial backstory for Walt Disney and the true-life Tomorrowland could have helped rescue that region of the themepark from the ever spreading encrustation of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. Unfortunately it didn't do as well as we had hoped, which is ironic given that the movie is largely about our own lack of faith in optimistic futurism. Apparently it really doesn't sell. Nevertheless, the movie was decent in its own right. Its presentation of techno-optimism was balanced, in the end, with a recognition that technological progress also needs progress in artistic, environmental and social values to go with it. It still left a slight aftertaste of Objectivism, but nothing like what I feared it might to begin with. As it goes though, when I like a movie - even a little bit - it tends to do poorly. So, uh, sorry Disney.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Cory's Top Five Disney Parks and Attractions - The Runner-Ups

Over the past four weeks we've taken a look at four of my top five favourite Disney theme parks and my top five favourite attractions in each. Before we look at my #1 favourite Disney park in the world - and I'm sure you can guess what it is by now - we'll take a gander at the lower brackets. What are my bottom four?