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.