Saturday, 20 May 2017

What Makes Something "Disney"?

Not very long ago, FoxxFur at Passport to Dreams posed the question of what makes a themed attraction, themed space, or theme park distinctively "Disney" in contrast to other amusement parks, rides, and spaces. What does it mean when we criticize something made by Disney of not being "Disney" enough? What do we mean when we say the so-called competition doesn't measure up to Disney, or has "out-Disneyed" Disney? Since I take my cues from Passport to Dreams apparently, which frankly isn't a bad place to take them from, I've been given pause to think seriously about what that means. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Story of Ngendei



Poor Ngendei, the Earth-balancer... Tormented by Pele, barely hanging on, wobbling around on the globe he is supposed to be supporting... If we descend into the original Fijian mythology from which Ngendi comes, however, it's really Pele who should be on the lookout!

Degei, also called Ndengei, is the supreme god of ancient Fiji. The first of the Fijian gods, he created the islands and peopled them, determines the fate of his people in the afterlife, and provides for them as they live, blessing them with fruits and rains... Or tormenting them with floods, famine, and devastating earthquakes. Like nature itself, Degei's moods change from kindly to wrathful, from provider to judge, jury, and executioner.

Fiji's coastline. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Walt's Era - Part 13: Disney in Transition, Part 2 (1961)


The process of finding new footing continued for Disney into 1961. The company paid off its existing loans, debuted Wonderful World of Color on NBC on September 24th (and introduced America to Professor Ludwig von Drake), and released its first truly new animated film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to theatres. Disney also ended their popular series of Donald Duck cartoons this year, against the backdrop of general changes in America's filmgoing habits. Nevertheless, they also acquired the rights to the Winnie the Pooh character. The first draft of Mary Poppins was finished, and it is in this year that the film Saving Mr. Banks is set, fictionalizing the challenges of working with Pamela Travers. Disney was setting itself up nicely for its new-new era.



Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Mark Twain and the Rivers of America

The Mississippi River is one of the great rivers of the world. Counting in its entire drainage basin, the Mississippi and its tributaries drain 31 states and the southernmost part of two Canadian provinces. It straddles the Rocky Mountains to the West and Appalachian Mountains to the East. It is the fourth longest and ninth largest river in the world. The Mississippi is the central artery of American industry, controlling it meant victory for the Union and defeat for the Confederates, it demarcates Country music from Western music, and the settlements along its ever advancing delta gave birth to Jazz. Sooner rather than later, the living river might bypass New Orleans and Baton Rouge altogether, rerouting its primary outflow to the Atchafalaya River. It already would be, if not for the engineering marvels placed by the US government attempting to bend nature to its will. Great industrial barges ply the urbanized riverscape today, but in Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and wherever Imagineers have transplanted the American frontier, the romance of the river's old steamboat days are perpetually rekindled.    


In Disneyland, the riverboat is named for the Mississippi's favourite son: Mark Twain. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain grew up to the whistle of the paddlewheeler. He served as a pilot aboard one before he stopped working and became a writer. Never quite prepared to leave that life behind, he penned a nostalgic tome entitled Life on the Mississippi, capturing the spirit of those halcyon days.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Story of Ferdinand


Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand and Disney's adaptation Ferdinand the Bull are a delightful story that shows just how closely the animators could hew to a source text if they chose to. As a visual example, consider how well they replicated the cover of the original book for the title card of the film.


The similarities don't end there. Visual echoes are clear throughout the short. For another example, here is Ferdinand en route to Madrid for the bullfights...




And both were inspired by the real Puente Nuevo ("New Bridge") completed in 1793 in the Andalusian city of Ronda, Spain.


And then these guys in funny hats...



That similarity in the art is to be expected, since the original story was really a venue for the illustration of Robert Lawson, who faithfully reproduced the sights of southern Spain. The story goes that Munro Leaf spent one afternoon in 1935 drafting the story on a single sheet of looseleaf, so that his illustrator friend could have a project to showcase his talents. That story is exceedingly short and simple, as we shall see.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Theme vs. Decoration

One of the most pernicious arguments put forward to justify the change from The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout is that it's still the same ride, "only" the theme is changing. Serious comparisons are often made to Mickey's Fun Wheel or Silly Symphony Swings as examples of rides that are the same, but simply had a change in theme. And it is an argument riddled with fundamental errors and misconceptions about what a themed attraction even is, as opposed to merely a ride with some decoration. Sadly it is a misconception that has grown ever more pernicious as the fan community fractures ever more deeply into those who understand the concept of theme and those who obsess with a thrill ride's letter-grade.

Basically the same as Guardians of the Galaxy.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Walt's Era - Part 12: Disney in Transition, Part 1 (1960)


1960 was the second-half of a losing fiscal year for Disney. The company's feature films were not its best line-up by any stretch of the imagination, and its television business went up in smoke. Walt Disney Productions bought out ABC's share of Disneyland and canceled The Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro at the height of their popularity. Walt Disney Presents also ran out its ABC contract with a few Zorro one-off episodes, Moochie of Pop Warner Football (further cementing Kevin Corcoran's status in the company), and trying to recapture the spirit of Davy Crockett with Daniel Boone.

On the plus side, the studios negotiated with NBC to begin Wonderful World of Color once the contract with ABC ran out. The company also bought out Western Printing's and Walt Disney's personal shares in Disneyland, making the themepark a wholly owned subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions. Disney also staged the Winter Olympic opening ceremonies in Squaw Valley that year, and this was the year that preparation began on Mary Poppins. The Sherman Brothers were hired on to the company and negotiations began in earnest with P.L. Travers. Walt had been trying to get the rights to the book since 1938, and only now was Travers even remotely sensitive to the dollars Walt waved in front of her face.

These conditions lead to another transitional period for Disney, only a decade after they found their post-war footing. Of course, a company like Disney is always facing new challenges and opportunities, but 1959/60 really seemed to mark the end of a period begun in 1950, reaching its apotheosis in 1954/55. True-Life Adventures and People and Places came to an end, Disneyland reached its most complete form until the additions and renovations of 1965-67, their relationship with ABC came to an end, a new suite of mostly child stars entered the company, new (and cheaper) production methods for animation were enacted, and an unending stream of uneven live-action films really start to become the company's bread and butter. Watching the films from this year, knowing in the back of my mind what's coming up, and learning what was going on behind the scenes, I can see how Disney's "best years" are behind it and most of its more negative reputation is going to be earned. Nevertheless, even "bad" Disney of the Sixties is better than most things! It's not like Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna, or Zorro are anything to sneeze at.

Walt on set with Haley Mills and Kevin Corcoran.