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?

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Cory's Top 5 Disney Parks and Attractions - #2: Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris has seen its share of problems, from poor public perception to low investment in maintenance to an ageing set of attractions. There are also attractions found in other Disney parks that are conspicuous in their absence here, like the Jungle Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room. Nevertheless, Disneyland Paris is, in my opinion, the perfection of the Disneyland concept.

Disneyland Paris was the fourth Disneyland, Magic Kingdom-style park to be built after Disneyland USA, Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland. The latter two, while having their own innovations like Liberty Square and World Bazaar, were still based fundamentally on the same model as the original, which makes cohesion a bit touch-and-go. Disneyland Paris was redesigned from the ground up for two main reasons. One was the necessity of adapting the park to a more refined culture that was already suspicious of Disney. Second was seizing that opportunity to simply rethink Disneyland.

The mark of having to appease France's cultural gatekeepers is all over Disneyland Paris. It is felt most keenly in Discoveryland, their re-imagining of Tomorrowland. Originally this was based more heavily on the influence of French author Jules Verne, with three whole attractions - Space Mountain, Mysteries of the Nautilus, and Le Visionarium - based explicitly on his life and works. They also pulled in the Hyperion, the airship designed by a French aeronaut in the film Island at the Top of the World, and appealed to motifs from Leonardo Da Vinci and H.G. Wells. The opportunity seized here was to address the problem of Tomorrowlands always becoming out of date. By appealing to Retro-Futurism, that is no longer an issue.

The marks are seen elsewhere. Fantasyland skews even more deliberately European, with overt references to authors like Charles Perrault. The design of Sleeping Beauty's Castle was forced by the reality of authentic castles down the highway, and original blue-sky ideas included replacing the castle entirely with a Retro-Futuristic tower. Adventureland also skewed towards European stories - Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island - and the European colonial experience rather than the images of Hollywood and American topical exotica (hence no Enchanted Tiki Room). Main Street USA was tweaked to take place in the Twenties rather than the Turn of the Century, and its two walkthrough arcades (addressing the practical problem of moving people around when it snows) refer to Jules Verne-style invention and France's gift of the Statue of Liberty.

Doubling down on these alterations, Imagineers went further. Frontierland was taken beyond a vague theme to having an actual storyline. Frontierland and Adventureland were flipped, so that Adventureland lay beside Fantasyland. This change allowed them to cluster Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jolly Roger and Skull Rock, and Peter Pan's Flight together into a pirate-themed mini-land. It is one of my favourite areas of any Disney park. The landscaping at Disneyland Paris is stunning, as is the architecture. The castle walkthrough was more elaborate, and there is a greater emphasis on walkthroughs in general. I suspect this is partly because those are cheaper to maintain, but they also reflect a more European attitude. Disneyland Paris isn't a carnival for thrill ride seekers. It is more of a genteel stroll through a beautiful park. Copenhagen's Tivoli, second-oldest amusement park in the world and inspiration behind Disneyland, has its share of rides but is also renowned as a beautiful pleasure garden.

Perhaps the reason why I like it so much is that I myself prefer the "genteel stroll through a pleasure garden" to the mad dash after E-tickets. Sure I would like it to have the Jungle Cruise or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, or a real Haunted Mansion, but it has a solid foundation. Whatever the reason, I would go to Disneyland Paris again and again and again.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Christmas in Disneyland

Ashley and I were considering doing a trip to Disneyland next year, having let the post-Walt Disney World overload work its way through our system. The announcement that Star Wars Land was being built and therefore the Rivers of America, Mark Twain Riverboat, Tom Sawyer Island, Disneyland Railroad and Fantasmic would all be shut down for the next two years or so forced our hand. As of January, if we wanted to go it wouldn't be worth going until 2018 at the earliest. Therefore, as soon as we were done our shifts at work on Monday, we hopped on the bus to the airport, landed in Orange County about 10:30pm, hit the ground running to Trader Sam's, and then spent the next three days enjoying the parks despite the unseasonable cold snap.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Cory's Top 5 Disney Parks and Attractions - #3: Tokyo Disneysea

What can be said about Tokyo Disneysea that hasn't already been said by so many? This park designed by and licensed from Disney but owned by the Oriental Land Company is one of the best theme parks in the world. It is arguably the best from a technical perspective. Tokyo Disneysea is a masterpiece of Imagineering, housing a plethora of wonderful rides and having been designed from the ground-up along a central, engaging theme. Virtually everything in Disneysea "works."

That central theme, and what I find most enchanting about Disneysea, is the wonder and adventure of discovery and exploration. Every attraction in one way or another reinforces this theme. It is not merely about the ocean, but where the oceans take us. You can go along with Sindbad on his storybook voyage, or journey with Captain Nemo under the sea or to the centre of the earth, or investigate a temple with Indiana Jones. Even the Tower of Terror reinforces this theme, in its own satirical way. The stories of each ride are not driven by violent conflict per se, but rather, the thrill and happenstance intrinsic to exploration. Not only does the park have a unifying theme, but there is a tapestry of interweaving stories throughout the park. One of the major ones is the fate of Atlantis, which begins with a few picturesque but unobtrusive ruins lining Mediterranean Harbour and resolves in the depths of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Oh yeah, and it helps that it has an entire section with two attractions inspired by my favourite author and one of my favourite Disney films!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Star Wars Prequels In My Head

Ever since The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, and shortly before that caused some people *cough cough* to lose interest in Star Wars altogether, fans have taken it upon themselves to articulate not only what was wrong about the prequels, but how they could have done 'em better. With Episode VII due shortly in theatres, I felt I might as well use this venue to dish out what has been lingering in the recesses of my mind for 16 years.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark in Context

Star Wars and (to a lesser extent) Indiana Jones have taken on lives of their own as some of the most popular franchises in the world. After the first Star Wars became a smash hit, it launched a commercial empire that saw two sequels, a pair of Ewoks TV movies, two animated series (Ewoks and Droids), toys, merchandise, comics, vinyl records, tie-in novels, that star-crossed Christmas Special, and the Star Tours attraction at Disneyland. By the late Eighties and early Nineties it had been all-but forgotten except by a relatively small handful of dedicated fans, until Timothy Zahn wrote the blockbuster Heir to the Empire trilogy of novels and Dark Horse Comics picked up the licence to publish the Dark Empire series. Star Wars entered the public consciousness again, exploding with comics, books, and merchandise, multimedia campaigns like Shadows of the Empire and culminating in the release of the "Special Edition" trilogy and the infamous prequel trilogy (which, oddly enough, is right around the time I stopped being a Star Wars fan, even trading in my Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell record). Now, with Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm, we are looking down the barrel of not only a new sequel trilogy, but a whole Star Wars "cinematic universe" to rival Disney's Marvel brand. Despite four films, a series of books and merchandise, and Disney rides of its own, Indiana Jones was never the same powerhouse as Star Wars. Nevertheless, Disney is also looking to 007 the brand by starting a new series of films with Chris Pratt rumoured to don the hat and crack the whip.

With all of that, it is easy to forget that, at one time, there was only Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the pet projects of the auteurs of 1970's "New Hollywood." It's clear just from watching the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies that these first films were never really intended to be more than they were. The legend that Star Wars was always supposed to be a nine-part saga is absurd on the face of it: "Episode IV" went through a belaboured process of four different screenplays with countless rewrites and refining of the concept. Before becoming Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the last draft was titled The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. Even without that background knowledge, its pretty clear that Luke and Leia being siblings was made-up on the fly, as was Darth Vader being their father. There is nothing in the first film to indicate either, and plenty to indicate otherwise. As Red Letter Media observed in their marathon analysis of the prequel trilogy, part of what undid episodes I-III was the undue emphasis on The Dark Lord of the Sith, who is presented in Star Wars as merely the black-clad gestapo creep who roughs people up, the SS occultist operating sideways from the rest of the Nazi regime. Darth Vader is essentially the same character as Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who was himself an homage to the sinister characters played by Peter Lorre in many films of the Forties. There was a definite reason why George Lucas called Star Wars "Episode IV" and it had nothing to do with having eight other scripts in his back pocket. The episodic pretense at least gave him an opening for The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge Return of the Jedi; when it came time to do a follow-up to the neatly wrapped-up and happily-ever-aftered Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas resorted to a prequel.

This is why it is valuable to look again at Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark in context. What was going on, specifically in the mind and career of George Lucas, that gave rise to these two films as the standalone pieces of cinematic art that they originally were?

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Cory's Top 5 Disney Parks and Attractions - #4: Magic Kingdom

It was difficult to decide the veritable tie that Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom held in this contest. What was being weighed was the fact that even though the Magic Kingdom falls much behind Disneyland USA and Disneyland Paris in our list of Magic Kingdom-style parks, we still went to it four times in the course of our honeymoon to Walt Disney World while only going to Animal Kingdom once (we opted to cut corners by not getting the parkhopper, committing ourselves to only one park per day). Was that because it was better than Animal Kingdom or because it happened to be the only Magic Kingdom park available? Generally our loyalty lies most strongly with whatever park has Fantasylands, Haunted Mansions and Enchanted Tiki Rooms, so the Magic Kingdom comes in at number four.

As I said, it wasn't our favourite Magic Kingdom-style park. Conspicuous in their absence were attractions like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Snow White's Scary Adventures, and the Storybookland Canal Boats, which somehow made Fantasyland feel more sparse than its counterparts elsewhere, despite having the same number of attractions. In comparison to other Magic Kingdoms, the duplicated attractions generally fared worse: Space Mountain was physically painful to ride, Peter Pan's Flight wasn't the best version, the Enchanted Tiki Room was edited down in weird places (and I couldn't eat my citrus swirl inside), and so on. Nonetheless, any Magic Kingdom is better than none, and Walt Disney World's had its own unique charms. I've listed those below...

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Cory's Top 5 Disney Parks and Attractions - #5: Disney's Animal Kingdom

Unfairly maligned, Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park enters in at my fifth favourite of Disney's theme parks around the world. Of the three additional theme parks at Walt Disney World, two are elaborations of lands within the Magic Kingdom. One could readily argue that Epcot is an elaboration of Tomorrowland, and Animal Kingdom is an elaboration of Adventureland. I suppose that if Disney ever went ahead with the plans for "Disney's America" it would be fitting to have it at Walt Disney World as an elaboration of Frontierland and Liberty Square. Epcot, unfortunately, suffers for many of the same reasons that Tomorrowland suffers; namely, the future keeps catching up and the best thing Disney can think to do to compensate is inject more Disney characters. I had no particular love for the Maelstrom ride - it's somewhat overrated in my opinion - though I do wonder at what point the Norway pavilion will cease to be Norway.

Animal Kingdom, on the other hand, is entirely brilliant. I think it's dodgy that Disney freaked out about Universal Studios and jumped the gun to get the Avatar licence... A totally needless albatross around their necks at this point. They would have done much better to 1) have waited to see how Universal's expansions ended up being a numerical non-threat, and 2) have concentrated on ideas that would have had more integrity in Animal Kingdom's subject matter. In the alternate reality that is made to my specifications, Disney would be in the process of importing Mysterious Island from Tokyo Disneysea and Mystic Point from Hong Kong Disneyland.

Another poor line of thought that went into saddling Animal Kingdom with Avatar was the persistent myth that Animal Kingdom is a half-day park. That myth is, I think, perpetuated by an attitude that doesn't necessarily understand what Animal Kingdom is supposed to be for. They might look at the four E-ticket rides - Kilimanjaro Safaris, Kali River Rapids, Expedition Everest, and Dinosaur! - and arrive at the conclusion that there's nothing to do there. That misses the point of the park, which is to slow down, take your time, and immerse yourself in its flawless environments to appreciate the wildlife and cultures of those exotic areas of the world. You're supposed to enjoy the animals, the performers, strike up a conversation with a castmember who is actually from India or Africa, the foods, the flowers. Literally, stop and smell the roses.

Having been to Africa - Ashley to South Africa and me to Madagascar - we can attest that Animal Kingdom is about as close as it gets without actually going. Just being in the park is an adventure unto itself. A couple E-ticket rides aren't even the best part.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Cory's Top 5 Disney Parks and Attractions

At the end of 2014, I wrote a listing of my favourite extinct and extant Disney theme park attractions from around the world, in lieu of a best-of the year. This December, I'm going to elaborate that into a weekly countdown of my top five favourite Disney theme parks, and my top five favourite attractions in each. On every Wednesday through the month, beginning on December 2nd and running till December 30th, we'll be a posting a new entry.

I cannot comment on what I haven't seen personally, which means those Disney parks in Communist dictatorships where my religion is illegal are out of the running. The pool does, however, include the Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Paris, Walt Disney World, and the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. That is a total of nine theme parks to choose from (we didn't bother with the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris, for the simple reason that it was right beside Disneyland Paris... a comparable problem faced by Disney California Adventure).

2015 actually marked a unique anniversary for me. It was 10 years ago, in May of 2005, that I went to Disneyland for the first time. It was just after the 50th anniversary celebrations began and not only was it my first trip to Disneyland, but my first trip to any Disney park. In looking back, I've been to some Disney park somewhere in the world almost every year of the last decade. Only 2007, 2010, and 2011 didn't find us in Disneyland USA, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney, or Walt Disney World. Perhaps it isn't as weird for those of you who go to a Disney park once or more per year, but it's amazing to me to think about it! In a few weeks we'll be going once more to Disneyland USA, for the 60th anniversary and our first Christmas together in a Disney park (and to see it one last time before it is altered irrevocably). If you happen to see us, make sure to say hi!

By now, if you have been reading this blog for any length of time (or are among the half of our readers who know me personally), you know that I have some pretty off-kilter tastes. So you can probably already anticipate that this is not going to be merely a list of all the E-tickets Disney has made in the last decade. Some will be on the list, though not even in the top spots. My purpose in listing them is not merely self-indulgent, as "favourite" lists tend to be, but also to pique your interest in maybe looking at some of these attractions in a new way or putting these parks on your must-do list.

I would love to see your list of favourite attractions in each of these parks as well, so be sure to leave comments as we're going along!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast

In the words of the great Edwardian proponent of fairy tales G.K. Chesterton, the noble lesson behind the fable of the Beauty and the Beast is that one must be loved in order to become lovable... Someone treated like an animal will become an animal, someone treated with worth, dignity and beauty as a human being will become a human being.

Demonstrating this in the story itself is always difficult. It always proves problematic for writers and filmmakers to make a credible leap in projecting this wonderful truism into a tale about a woman who falls in love with a literal animal who is a vicious, abusive brute. That a romance with an animal would take on morally discomforting overtones is one thing. That he spends a good portion of the story being a monster within as well as a monster without makes it that much more troublesome. It is even open to modern criticisms that it teaches girls to stay in relationships with abusive men in the vain hope that their love will somehow shine through and heal the abuser.

Such is the secular interpretation. A more sacred one sees in the timeless story an allegory of the amor Dei, the love of God for humanity. In such a reading, humanity is the prince whose cruelty turns him into little more than a walking beast. From beyond the Beast's isolated world where, in the gaze of cruelty and hate, other people have become mere objects, the Father enters. The Beast, unable to conceive of the Father's motives of love, imprisons him in a deathly web of dogma. To liberate the Father, the Daughter most fair comes, whose relentless love redeems the Beast's humanity.

Of course, such an interpretation runs against the problem of the strenuous relationship between the two protagonists. French Surrealist artist Jean Cocteau suffers no less from this dilemma. In his 1946 film adaptation of the story, he practically dispenses with the attempt to justify how it is that the ingenue Belle comes to have affection for the Beast. Their relationship is civil for the most part, with the occasional shouting match and her constant spurning of his offer for marriage. On the one hand she has a growing respect for him, and on the other a kind of angry pity. One scene has her yelling at him to clean himself up and stop acting like such an animal. Their is a complex, uneasily romantic, relationship, as might be expected. Consistent with his literary form, the Beast is not the abusive character seen in other versions. His crime is to keep her captive, which he is able to do by her own sympathy. Nonetheless we must make the leap to accepting that somehow she sees something in him that is not apparent to us. Such is love!

It is a leap, however, that Cocteau asks of us from the beginning. In one of the most touching breaks with the fourth wall in cinema, the director begs the indulgence of the audience in allowing those magic words of childhood - "once upon a time" - to forgive any lapses. It is not difficult to forgive him either, for in the end the story is very charming and full of redeeming compassion. Whereas in the beginning of the film Cocteau begs the indulgence of our childlike sympathies, by the movie's close he tells us that being childlike may yet save our soul from becoming beastly and brutish. It was not any particular cruelty of Marais' Prince Ardent that caused him to be turned into a beast: it was his parents' disbelief in spirits and fairies that caused these supernatural beings to take their revenge upon them through their son.

The film's themes are further elaborated by understanding the drama at play beneath it. The same actor to play both the Beast and Belle's semi-villainous suitor, Jean Marais, was the gay lover of Jean Cocteau. Beauty and the Beast can easily stand as an allegory of the trials of homosexual affairs in an era before their social acceptance. To be lovable one must be loved, and love must search out the inner depths and inner identity of another to find that hidden self. That cannot be done while one is shutting themselves off from the world around them, reverting to a state that is feral and distorted by self-loathing.

However the story is treated, what truly stands out is the artistic direction and set design that portrays a quintessential haunted manor. In fact, it is said that the design elements of other, more famous Haunted Mansions were inspired by such pieces in Beauty and the Beast as the wall-mounted candelabras made of moving arms. There is an eerie aura of foreboding and mystery to the moving sculptures with their leering eyes, the aforementioned candle-holders, the doors that open and sheets that pull off themselves, and the billowing drapes in darkened corridors. The scene of Belle's arrival in the castle is in peak form, as she glides eerily past otherworldly enchantments. It frequently swings from the magical to the frightening, closely aligned to the classic horror films by Universal Studios and European Expressionists. It never reaches their full terror, though, since this is still a fairy tale. A very French fairy tale at that. Exteriors of the Beast's castle were filmed at the Château de la Roche Courbon and Château Raray, highlighting its French character.

Beauty and the Beast is an unsung classic, occupying a place in artistic film of the mid-century where, once discovered, it enshrines itself in the heart as a masterpiece.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a very old story type found in cultures around the world. In Switzerland it is The Bear Prince, in Denmark it is Beauty and the Horse, in Japan it is the tale of Monkey Son-in-Law, and in China it is The Fairy Serpent. The oldest known form is the star-crossed love of Cupid and Psyche from the second century AD.

The form in which we have it today was transcribed by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Originally published in French in 1756, the story is one of several told through the framing device of a governess imparting important lessons to her young female wards. This device might even be the truth, as La Belle et la Bête was written while Leprince de Beaumont was working as a governess in London, where she was able to establish a successful writing career, remarried (her first marriage to a wanton and a drunk was annulled), and was thereafter able to retire comfortably in Savoy. Leprince de Baumont's version may itself be a slimmed down revision of a version published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot, Dame de Villeneuve in 1740, which numbers at over 200 pages. In that version, Belle is the daughter of a king and a good fairy, while the Beast is a victim of a wicked fairy whose advances he spurned. In both versions, the Beast is not a bad character who must learn his lesson. He is a victim, and the lesson to be learned is Belle's.

Like all fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast sustains many possible interpretations. If we take our lead from G.K. Chesterton, then "There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast'; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable." If we examine the social context presented in the work - Belle's family are the rising merchant class, the Nouveau riche - then we might see a cautionary tale about interactions with inherited aristocracies. If we take Leprince de Baumont's moral at face value, then it is that virtue makes a person truly lovable, not brains or looks.

The following translation derives from The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality Her Scholars, published in 1783. Illustrations are by Walter Crane from an 1874 edition.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Disney Dream Treats

Disney Dream Treats is a new pay-to-play mobile game from Disney Interactive in which players take a culinary tour of Disney's theme parks. Similar to many puzzle games available for Apple and Android products, this game has players connecting lines of identical snacks. Unlike other puzzle games, this one has the Disney brand and Disney assets behind it. For Disney fans, it makes it a lot more fun when you're in the Plaza Inn, scooping up Dole Whips for Mickey Mouse, and the Fantasmic fanfare plays when you beat the level.

The download itself is free, but they find ways they hope to extort real money. When the game is first downloaded, you are given five hearts that are required to play the levels. You can keep playing for as long as you have hearts. But every time you lose a level by not finishing it in the allotted number of moves, you lose a heart. Once all the hearts are gone, a window pops up offering to let you buy more with in-game tokens that can be purchased with real cash. Since hearts regenerate over time, all running out of them really accomplishes is giving you an excuse to stop playing for a while.

Where they really try to separate the coin from your wallet are the power-ups that become increasingly necessary as levels become increasingly difficult. Different power-ups scramble the board, clear away lines, and so forth. After an initial gift of a few, they become a monetary commodity. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any set algorithm for each successive level becoming more difficult. They throw an increasing number of obstacles in your way (snacks that have to be "unwrapped" before they can be cleared, snacks that have to be "unwrapped" twice, snacks that have to be "unboxed" before they can be "unwrapped" twice, snacks that have to be "unboxed" twice before they can be "unwrapped" twice), with a random assortment of snacks, with a limited number of moves per level. If you are of the disposition to not throw away money on pay-to-play games, this has the potential of getting frustrating.

Another way to spend money is by buying outfits for your avatar. The game allows you to snap a photo of yourself and your friends to use as faces on the avatars you're feeding with all these snacks. Different hats, t-shirts, and so on can be purchased with in-game tokens.

The use of Disney's assets is the both the greatest benefit and greatest weakness of Disney Dream Treats. On the one hand, it is really fun to be visiting the Plaza Inn in Disneyland USA, the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Walt Disney World, and Buzz Lightyear's Pizza Planet in Disneyland Paris to clear away Dole Whips and churros. On the other hand, those are the only places you go, and only identifiable Disney treats you clear.

Levels only alternate between those three aforementioned restaurants, which serve as visual backdrops for the puzzle. It would have been better to rotate between different restaurants in those three resorts, maybe even increasing in stature as the player rises in levels (e.g.: from, say, Jolly Holiday Bakery to Pinocchio's Village Haus to Plaza Inn to Rancho del Zocalo to Cafe Orleans to Blue Bayou in Disneyland, or at least have Toad Hall, Cafe Hyperion, Casey's Corner, Silver Spur Steakhouse, Auberge de Cendrillon, and Walt's - An American Restaurant in Disneyland Paris). The lack of variety is compensated for having different characters host each level: Mickey and Friends for the Plaza Inn, Princesses for Askershus, and Toy Story characters for Pizza Planet.

Most of the snacks are generic things: purple cupcakes, green Key Lime pies, red Mickey donuts, etc. Only Dole Whips and churros stand out as real Disney snacks (unless I missed something because the last thing I would go out of my way to eat at Disneyland is pie or cupcakes). It might have been nice, in a visually rich game that doesn't have to rely on colours, to include turkey legs, Mickey ice cream bars, candy apples, beignets, Mickey waffles, mint juleps, and other distinctly Disney treats.

Despite those missed opportunities, Disney Dream Treats is still a fun little time waster to tide one over between trips to the theme parks. There are enough visual and auditory cues to stir fond feelings. If it is compatible with your device, download it before its shelf-life wears off.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Hollywood ROOSEVELT Hotel

Looming over the corner of Hollywood Boulevard opposite the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is an unmistakable influence on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror found in the Disney resorts of Anaheim, Orlando and Paris. Completed in 1927, this Spanish Colonial Revival hotel was financed by some of the luminaries of Hollywood's golden age, including Hollywood's first couple - Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford - and producer Louis B. Mayer. By 1929, it's fame was such that it hosted the first Academy Awards banquet in the Blossom Ballroom on May 16 of that year. Far and away from the modern spectacle, the first ceremony was a more intimate gathering of 270 industry professionals and lasted a whopping 15 minutes. Charlie Chaplin was granted a special award that evening, but the top honours went to Wings for "Outstanding Picture" (now the "Best Picture" category) and Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans for the now-defunct "Unique and Artistic Production."

At a time when hotels would take extended stays of months, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named for Theodore Roosevelt) was home and home-away-from-home for such cinematic legends as Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, David Niven, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Al Jolson, Harold Lloyd, Mary Martin, Will Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Marilyn Monroe's first photoshoot was on the diving board of the hotel's pool while she was a resident. It is also said to be home to her ghost and other assorted hauntings.

In the hotel lobby.
The lobby from above. 
Detail of the lobby ceiling. 
A corner of the Public Kitchen and Bar restaurant. 
The Blossom Ballroom, venue of the first Academy Awards.
Entrance to the Blossom Ballroom, just off the lobby. 


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Disneyland Needs Quiet Spaces

Back on September 24th, Disney announced that the construction of the new Star Wars themed section of Disneyland would necessitate the temporary closure of the Disneyland Railroad, Rivers of America, Mark Twain Riverboat, Tom Sawyer Island, and Fantasmic for over a year, and the permanent closure of Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo and Barbeque. The Disneysphere lit up with questions about what, if anything would happen to the established attractions while the towering peaks of some planet from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away rise up. Disney's social media accounts confirmed that the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad would have a new route, and websites have fermented rumours that this rerouting will involve a reduction of the Rivers of America by 25% and a shaving down of the publicly-inaccessible north part of Tom Sawyer Island.

The reduction of the Rivers of America doesn't actually bother me as much as one might think, though in a perfect world where Disneyland should be a museum, it would be left inviolate. It may mean the loss of both the Native village and Mike Fink's Cabin, yet one hopes that those can be replaced on another spot along the truncated river. Perhaps I'm finally hitting "peak indifference" when I hear of Disneyland botching up something else, like they did with the renovations of Club 33 and New Orleans Square, or perhaps it really doesn't matter that much. At least the Rivers of America are staying, even if the Mark Twain Riverboat becomes a mere 10-minute ride.

There are two things, though, that legitimately concern me with these plans. The first are the sightlines across Frontierland into Star Wars Land. Little projects like allowing Rapunzel's tower in the Magic Kingdom to be visible from Liberty Square, or dotting the faux-Mississippi with pirate shipwrecks, don't fill me with a whole lot of hope that Imagineers care much about sightlines anymore. However, if they successfully disguise the backside of Star Wars Land and block out views of it by resurrecting Cascade Peak, I would consider that a net benefit. We'll have to see what happens there, and only time will tell.

The second and more pressing concern is the loss of the Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. What I mean is what the loss of Big Thunder Ranch does and represents about Imagineering's ambivalence to having quiet, secluded spaces.

As I observed in our review of our honeymoon in Walt Disney World, what makes a Disney park appealing and superior to the "competition" is the variegated list of attractions and spaces that provide a layered, well-paced experience. E-tickets are great, but you also need to have A, B, C, and D-ticket attractions, good restaurants, well-themed and visually interesting spaces, and places to sit down that aren't charging you for it. These together make for a nicely rounded and pleasant day.

Couple this with the #1 thing that causes a good day to be ruined: crowds. There is a very deliberate reason why Ashley and I always endeavour to travel anywhere (let alone a Disney park) during the off-season. It is because lines are interminable, and no matter how beautiful and interesting and fun and inspiring a place may be, that experience will always be diminished by a crowd. There was no place on Earth I wanted out of more than the Palace of Versailles.

"Hell is other people." - Jean-Paul Sartre.
Of course there is nothing that a tourist hates more than other tourists. Typically I am critical of the snobbery that says that I am the only person who should want to visit somewhere and everybody else should stay home. Anybody who can pay has the right to visit Disneyland whenever they want. It is not my private playground. But as Disneyland's attendance continues to skyrocket, there is an increased need to manage those crowds effectively so that the experience does not become a victim of its popularity.

Constantly raising prices, while sound from a supply and demand model, is the laziest answer and apparently no solution. The crowds keep coming with every increase in ticket prices. The unending cry of "more rides" isn't the answer either. The "competition" needs more rides to drum up attendance; Disneyland needs to manage record crowds that are already attending. E-tickets that can keep hundreds of guests locked in lines for hours is fine and I am not one to turn down new rides, but that is not the only thing that a crowded park like Disneyland needs. It also needs places to get away from the crowds. This is where Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo comes in.

Ashley is a Highly Sensitive Person, which is not some cheesy, self-diagnosed Internet mental illness, but simply an acknowledgement that she gets easily overstimulated by noise, dynamic visuals, and crowds. I'm not exactly a big fan of crowds either, as I already explained. During our last trip to Disneyland in May of 2012, crowds were already at such a high during what was traditionally part of the off-season that there were several instances where we had to "time out." In Disneyland there were already a limited number of places to do that, the main two being the Court of Angels and Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. We got to know the animals in Ranch quite well. It really is a hidden gem in a park that has been combed from top to bottom.

Even the goats find Big Thunder Ranch relaxing.
The Court of Angels has already been taken away from use by the average guest. Apparently having quiet spots is a luxury to be reserved for the super-rich and well-connected, not for the plebeian rabble. Carnation Plaza became the Fantasy Faire. The Disney Gallery with its lovely courtyard was punted to the Bank of Main Street to make away for an exclusive apartment, and then punted again to make way for a shop. Now Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo is being taken away as well, with the entire Big Thunder Trail area soon to become a major thoroughfare for access to Star Wars Land.

Disneyland is a small park with an understandable need to economize space as much as possible, but those quiet spaces to get away from crowds and to relax are every bit as important to the theme park experience as are those big ticket rides and money-guzzling stores and restaurants. They help to thin out the crowds and provide a break from them, with all the physical and psychological benefits that come with it. They offer the opportunity to recharge in a way that being bombarded with merchandise or animatronics don't. One of the most common words of advice for guests to a Disney park is to leave in the middle of the day and have a nap back at the motel... Quiet spaces in the park let guests have that sense of rest without having to leave, which is more efficient for guests and profitable for the company. These spaces allow for moments of personal reflection and more intimacy with friends, family, and loved ones. It is amazing what even a few minutes on a bench in the shade with proportionally few people around can do to pick your mood back up and energize you for another few hours.

The "courtyard" model of each land makes crafting these spaces difficult - if Adventureland is already a courtyard flanked by the Enchanted Tiki Room to the east, Adventureland Bazaar to the north, Jungle Cruise to the south, and Tarzan's Treehouse to the west, where could you even put a smaller courtyard? Aladdin's Oasis maybe? It would befit the name - but a few still remain. Snow White Grotto is one. Some of the back spaces along the boulevard to It's a Small World and the lagoon can help a bit, though it has Monorails gliding overhead. Even the Rivers of America qualify as a quiet spot, if you can find a nice place on Tom Sawyer Island or the Mark Twain Riverboat to sit still and enjoy it. The island still exists for the time being, as laborious a process as that is to get to and from, but those spaces are dropping and dwindling fast. This is also why I hold out hope for a new Cascade Peak: to maintain the peace and solitude of the River.

In some ways, the dollhouse-like quality of Disneyland in which everything is small and close and crammed together lends a certain charm. That charm is diminished as increasing numbers of people are also crammed in there without relief from one another. I suppose the simplest solution would be the old refrain "if you don't like it don't go," which can be arranged but isn't the ideal situation when we still love Disneyland. We just need places to relax for a little bit throughout the day that aren't a line or a restaurant or in the middle of a thoroughfare. I can't imagine that we're the only ones. The loss of Big Thunder Ranch is a done deal, but for future reference, providing those small, secluded spaces should be as high on Imagineering's list of priorities as the next shop or ride.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Wilderness Lodges of Yellowstone - Part 3

Yellowstone National Park's stunning vistas of mountains, valleys, lakes, and wildlife cover a terrible secret. The park's variety of thermal features and igneous rock layers in turn betray it. Roiling beneath Yellowstone is a magma hotspot; an up-swelling of material from deep within the earth that fuels the park's system of geysers and mineral springs, as well as the 1000-3000 earthquakes that happen there per year. Periodically, this hotspot has become so unruly that it vents itself in a pyroclastic fury of unimaginable scale. In its last major explosion 640,000 years ago, 240 cubic miles of ash and debris were thrown into the atmosphere, falling back to earth as far south as the Mexico border. Its caldera measures 34 miles by 44 miles across.

What exactly causes the Yellowstone Hotspot is unknown, but it has lain beneath North America for approximately 16 million years. As the continent moved through plate tectonic action, a succeeding number of volcanic blasts carved out the Snake River Plain that cuts a swath through southern Idaho, terminating at Yellowstone. Moist air from the Pacific channelled up this valley condenses and collapses on Yellowstone, dumping 150 to 300 inches of snow each winter. Some 2.1 million years ago, the hotspot arrived beneath Yellowstone. That was when the first of four eruptions happened that shaped the park as it stands today. A second and smaller explosion happened just outside the park's modern boundaries about 1.3 million years ago. The third happened 640,000 years ago, with the last minor eruption happening about 174,000 years ago. The caldera of this much smaller eruption was filled in by water from Lake Yellowstone, forming the West Thumb. The shore at West Thumb is dotted with thermal springs and minor geysers that have entertained and entranced generations. In the early days, when such activities were permitted, guests could fish in Yellowstone Lake and then swing their line over to a geyser, drop the fish in, and cook it on the spot.

The "Black Pool."
The shoreline at West Thumb Geyser Basin,
dominated by the "Big Cone" geyser.

"Fishing Cone," where visitors would boil fish on the line.
Springs drain into Yellowstone Lake.

Nowhere is the energy of the Yellowstone Hotspot more apparent than in the famous geyser basins. As that 150-300 inches of snow melts and sinks into the earth, it becomes superheated by the magma beneath. Returning to the surface, it explodes in magnificent geysers, bubbles out hot mineral springs and mudpots, or evaporates out in billowing fumaroles. There are an estimated 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone, with the world's highest concentration of geysers. More than that, these geysers are nearly half of all the known geysers in the world. The most famous of Yellowstone's geysers is, of course, Old Faithful.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Wilderness Lodges of Yellowstone - Part 2

When stories of a surreal wonderland of geysers and mudpots began to surface, the American public could not believe what they heard. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones it was called "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The first was financed and led by David Folsom. Charles Cook, and William Peterson of Monatana. There was still fear that explorers into Yellowstone wouldn't be taken seriously, so Folsom was reluctant when invited to speak to a group of prominent citizens in Helena, Montana. He eventually did, and that speech along with journals from the expedition inspired Montana's Surveyor-General, Henry Washburn, to mount an expedition of his own in 1871. With funding from Northern Pacific Railroad, expedition member Nathaniel Langford went on a speaking tour that led to the formation of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden was a geologist, and his expedition was a veritable army of botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. For his part, Langford was made the park's first superintendent.

Just south of Roosevelt Lodge is one of the great scenic spots of the park. On Tower Creek just before its confluence with the Yellowstone River, Tower Fall is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. At 132 feet, it was a picturesque stopover for the Washburn Expedition as they explored the region for several days en route to Lake Yellowstone.

Calcite Spring, near Roosevelt Lodge.
Tower Fall from the upper viewpoint.
The feature is named for the rocky spires
that rise above the water. 
Mount Washburn.
The high-country plains and forests of Yellowstone's north.
Following the path of the Washburn Expedition and past the mountain named in Washburn's honour, visitors arrive at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. At 24 miles long and up to 1200 feet deep, hewn by the Yellowstone River and its two rumbling waterfalls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has inspired reverence and awe from the moment of its discovery. Charles Cook described the moment he accidentally happened upon it in 1869: "I sat there in amazement, while my companions came up, and after that, it seemed to me that it was five minutes before anyone spoke." The Hayden Geological Survey included the artist Thomas Moran, whose painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone helped promote the creation of the park to the public and the Congress.

Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.