Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A is for Atom

In my research on Disney's Our Friend the Atom, I came across this interesting little film from 1952. Titled A is for Atom and produced by General Electric, it covers essentially the same ground, in almost the same way, as Disney's later episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland. It doesn't have the same production values behind it, but it does have a lot of nice, mid-century modern style and the same unenviable task of making atomic power seem less frightening than it (rightly) did.


Saturday, 8 July 2017

Walt's Era - Part 15: Clear Sailing Through the Early Sixties, Part 2 (1963)

This year brought a generally good slate of films... Mostly nice, solid, and some classic pictures like Sword in the Stone and The Incredible Journey... but once again the biggest advancement for Disney was in the theme parks. 1963 was the year that Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room debuted, revolutionizing the art of mechanical animation. The attraction still astonishes and enchants me every time I see it today, even with all the improvements in audio-animatronics in the past 50-some years. I can only imagine what a bolt from the blue it must have seemed like in 1963.

Walt visits the Enchanted Tiki Room. Photo: Disney.
On the business side of things, Walt began scoping out locations for the future Walt Disney World, settling on Florida. An assortment of false-front companies started buying up the necessary land, hoping to keep it under wraps to suppress avaricious real estate inflation. Walt also extended his 1953 contract with Walt Disney Productions, which included his ownership of the DLRR, Monorail, royalties from his name and WED creations, and this newest enchanted attraction. Even today, the attraction is formally known as Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, as a nod to the day when it was personally owned by Walt Disney and charged a separate admission fee of 75 cents. 


Saturday, 1 July 2017

Requiem for Pirates of the Caribbean

"We wants the grandfather clock!" Image: Disney.

I had already stopped reading the largely depressing spectacle that is the Disney Parks Blog some months ago, so I had to hear about this through the grapevine. I would imagine that it says a lot right there that the major source for official news is depressing enough for me to stop reading it. When I hear people attempt to defend Disney when they do things like this by saying "You just have to trust Disney, they know what they're doing," I see no evidence to support that claim.

If somehow you have not heard about this, the current refurbishment of the Disneyland Paris version of Pirates of the Caribbean will include not only Jack Sparrow, Davy Jones, Blackbeard, and Barbossa (inserted unceremoniously into the scene with the skeleton at the helm, because at this point why not?), but an altered auction scene in which it is not wenches up for sale, but the villagers' loot. Because, after all, why would pirates be looting loot themselves when they could just buy it? Furthermore, these changes are not limited to Disneyland Paris: they are set to be introduced to rides in Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 2018. The offending post can be read here. The comments are golden.

Concept art of Barbossa in the skeleton at the helm scene,
like a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Image: Disney.

Presumably the changes were undertaken with the idea of making the ride more politically correct in respects to the status of women. Really, this is a logical trajectory after the alteration of the scene where pirates were chasing women. After the vandalism perpetrated to the ride through the addition of Jack Sparrow as the entire ride's focal point, inappropriate projection effects of Davy Jones and Blackbeard, and ill-fitting clips from the film soundtrack, the ride no longer has artistic or narrative integrity anyways. I can't really muster outrage for the Disneyland and WDW versions of the ride, because they have already been irredeemably wrecked. 

What I'm most upset about is the vandalism to the Disneyland Paris version. Though the layout of the attraction is different, it was the last remaining version that retained the spirit and intent of the original. The movie-based vandalisms had not yet been applied, and all the original show scenes were intact, including the pirates chasing the women. When we rode it on our trip to Paris in 2013, I actually began tearing up because I had forgotten what an amazing ride Pirates of the Caribbean used to be. When all the elements work together in a coherent whole, it is one of the best themed attractions ever designed. Or was.

The usual tonedeaf, clueless interviews with Imagineering (including dusting off Marty Sklar) came with the news. One particular nugget, from Kathy Magnum, Sr. VP of Imagineering, sums up the entire problem:  "Our team thought long and hard about how to best update this scene." Any thinking Disney fan knows the appropriate response to this: "WHY?!" The scene didn't need updating. Keen to vandalize the work of their predecessors, they decided to needlessly destroy one of the ride's most iconic scenes and replace it with... nothing. A wry and witty scene that everyone understood was based ultimately in the fact that pirates were bad people is being replaced by a nonsensical scene in which nothing really happens. The new redhead pirate just stands there, the former auctioneer just stands there, and I guess the guys across the shore will be just be sitting there. There is no joke implicit to this scene, and nothing memorable about it. Though I guess in a ride where the highlight is now catching a glimpse of a Jack Sparrow animatronic just standing there, we're expected to take the redhead pirate just standing there as a memorable moment. I'm not even confident that, with this accumulation of changes, what Magnum herself described as "the standard for the theme park industry for half a century" even qualifies as a good attraction anymore.

Some might retort that Disney has to keep changing in order to keep drawing guests, just like how the curators at the Louvre make little changes to the Mona Lisa every year to keep it fresh. I've already wasted my time and breath addressing that particular argument though. Great works of art are timeless because they are great. They don't need to be made "fresh," they don't need to be "updated" to remain relevant. No, I don't hate change: I hate the wanton destruction of great, beautiful, important things.

"Our team thought long and hard about how to best update the
Mona Lisa. The painting has always represented great
Da Vinci storytelling, but it's a story you can
continue to add fun to," said curators at the Louvre.

Some time ago, I watched a video on the question of what would be the "last straw" to finally make you stop going to Disneyland (sadly the video seems to have disappeared down the memory hole). It occurred to me that if it was anything, it would probably be something that, on it's own, appeared kind of petty and silly. That's because my growing dissatisfaction with Disney is really a death by a thousand small cuts. It's not the addition of Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean on its own, or the loss of the Court of Angels on its own, or the truncating of the Rivers of America on its own, or the loss of Big Thunder Ranch on its own, or even the loss of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror on its own (though that was certainly enough to swear me off California Adventure)... It's the cumulative effect of turning Disneyland into a place that is increasingly alien, inartistic, and unpleasant.

Could this be the last straw? I don't know. But I do wish that when we took our last trip to Disneyland in 2015 that I knew about all the changes that would come in the past year and a half. I would have spent more time savouring what would be lost, understanding the very real possibility that our last trip could well be our last trip.
  

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Brave Little Tailor

Employing Mickey Mouse in the title role of the Brave Little Tailor (1938) was a natural, as both characters share a good deal in common. Both are small but plucky, solving problems through wit and guile rather than brute strength or political power. In the original fairy tale transcribed by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 anthology, the valiant tailor suppresses seven flies in one strike and sets off to brag about it. Responding to his unwarranted pride, a giant takes him for more powerful than he actually is, and the tailor is not about to correct him. Eventually the tailor is taken before the king and is charged with several missions designed to get rid of him, but which the tailor succeeds at tremendously. Everybody seems to want to be rid of the little braggart who seems to have no sense of his own insignificance, and at every stage he outsmarts them.

In many ways, The Valiant Little Tailor reads like a farce… A comedy of errors in which the hero is not too shrewd to be conquered, but too daft to know that he ought to be. Unlike in Disney's cartoon short, where Mickey is frightened and reluctant but overcomes out of desperation, this tailor is totally unflappable because he just doesn't know any better. That said, we may derive a good lesson about self-confidence here. Cunning can take you far, and as the saying goes, it's not bragging if you can back it up.

Disney's Brave Little Tailor was voted the 26th greatest cartoon of all time by the animation industry and nominated for an Academy Award (which it lost to another Disney film, Ferdinand the Bull). Today, references to the short can be seen in the Sir Mickey's shoppes in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris Park. The following translation of the original German story was by Margaret Hunt, for the two-volume publication Grimm’s Household Tales in 1884.

The tailor confronts a giant. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Château de la Chatonnière

Not far from Azay-le-Rideau and its famous château in the Loire Valley is the Château de la Chatonnière. No castle, this is a charming country estate that brings to mind the humble home of Cinderella. The current owner Béatrice de Andia has employed the services of master gardener Ahmed Azéroual to surround the château with stunning thematic gardens on the ideas of science, romance, and fragrance. Unfortunately during our visit in May of 2013 we were too early to appreciate the gardens in full bloom. The trade-off was made with having virtually the entire estate to ourselves. Much like the Château d'Ussé that we visited on the same day, this charming villa is off the beaten path and decidedly worth the visit.











 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Walt's Era - Part 14: Clear Sailing Through the Early Sixties, Part 1 (1962)


1962 is another landmark year in this series, in a certain way. This is the first year that not only lacks an animated classic, but lacks any kind of classic to speak of. There isn't even anything that might be called a minor, cult classic among Disney fans "in the know". The films are not bad, but not a one of them is on most people's top 10, or top 20, or maybe even a top 30 list. In Search of the Castaways, Moon Pilot, The Legend of Lobo, Big Red, etc. are pretty okay films and on the balance, 1962 was a pretty okay year. There are no truly awful films - even Bon Voyage has its merits -  at the expense of nothing truly outstanding. Luckily the company also re-released Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp to offset things.

Behind the scenes, WED moved from the Disney studios to Glendale as construction began on New Orleans Square in Disneyland. The Swiss Family Treehouse also opened this year, adding the second actual attraction to Adventureland and its first expansion since opening day. Walt Disney Productions renewed its contract with Walt and WED Enterprises. Walt received some $3500 per week plus another $1666 in deferred payments and a percentage of profits from the films, with an additional $1500 going to WED.  


Swiss Family Treehouse, circa 1962.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Songs from the Tiki Room - Barcarolle


You stay off'a my back and I'll stay off'a your back!

When the Enchanted Tiki Room went down in the early Nineties for a refurbishment, its sometimes tolerance-testing 17 minute duration was trimmed to a taut 12 minutes by the exclusion of the peaceful Barcarolle number. Borrowed from Jacques Offenbach's opera Tales of Hoffman, the Barcarolle offered a calming interlude after the explosive introductory song The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room. It was, however, an unspectacular use of the attraction's signature audio-animatronics. Any use of audio-animatronics in 1963 was astonishing, and the Barcarolle served a proper function in the pace of the show, but 30 years later it simply tried the patience of audiences eager to get out and ride the Haunted Mansion or the Indiana Jones Adventure.

A barcarolle is a type of folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers or music in that same style. In Tales of Hoffman, which is regularly described as one of the most popular melodies in opera, the barcarolle is a piece entitled "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" and is sung between the Venetian courtesan Giulietta and Hoffman's muse Nicklausse, disguised as a male companion. In the opera, the pleasant melody underlines something sinister: Hoffman believes that Giulietta is in love with him, but in fact she is seducing him under orders from Hoffman's enemies.

Most uses of the song outside of Tales of Hoffman have employed this contrast in melody and intent. For example, in the film Life is Beautiful (1997), it contrasts the height of European culture with the collapse into fascism. Disney evidently thought that it just sounded nice, and previously used it in the 1931 Silly Symphony cartoon Birds of a Feather.


Birds of a Feather (1931)