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.

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