Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Cory's Disney in Review 2016

It's that time again, closing out the year with my top fives for 2016! But what to choose from? Some of the things on my list might seem a bit odd, but you've undoubtedly figured out by now that my tastes can skew to the unusual. There is a rhyme and reason to it though, so let's go...

#1: The Jungle Book
If we ignore Maleficent and anything produced by Tim Burton, then Disney is doing really well with their live-action remakes of classic animated films. Last year's Top Five lead off with Cinderella in #1, and this year it is The Jungle Book. Beautifully realized for a film pushing the boundaries of what even qualifies as "live action" anymore, the greatest gift that it gave to the story was providing a genuine emotional heart. Both the original film and the original books just had a series of things happening to man and animal alike. Dwelling on the credo of the wolves provided an emotional heart that paid off very, very well. If Disney can keep it up, then I suspect that next year will be lead off with Beauty and the Beast.

#2: Shanghai Disneyland
Disney's newest theme park came in second place because until China throws off the shackles of dictatorship, I never plan on going there. However, it's full of all sorts of neat things that would be nice to see spread across other Disneylands. I don't even mind the movie-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean, because at least it was custom-built that way instead of just imposing Jack Sparrow on an otherwise perfect attraction. I'm uncertain about Mickey Ave. but I do like the more robust castle, the Tron coaster, expanded Peter Pan's Flight, and Adventure Isle.

Photo: Disney

#2: Disney Parks Present: The Haunted Mansion
I grant that the quiet release of a picture book may seem an odd choice after Shanghai Disneyland, but this is as much a vote of confidence in the series as for the book itself. In 2011, Disney put out a picture book based on It's a Small World, which printed the Sherman Bros. lyrics with art by Joey Chou and a CD of the song. Apparently it did well enough that Disney Parks went ahead, declared an official series of books, and inaugurated it with The Haunted Mansion. Another CD joins the art of James Gilleard and lyrics of X. Atencio. It's a wonderful way to celebrate the music of Disney Parks and a fond way to remember the rides and shows at home. I look forward to the inevitable Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, and Country Bear Jamboree books!

#3: Camp Woodchuck
Can we just accept that I always pick offbeat things? Every time I've been in the US parks and seen anything to do with the Wilderness Explorers, be it in California Adventure or Animal Kingdom, I immediately think "tisk tisk, it really ought to be the Junior Woodchucks." And lo, Japan did provide a Junior Woodchucks based restaurant and meet-and-greet area! It's very well done, with tonnes of references to classic Disney, which is very pleasing, but I also like it for what it means. The Disney company itself seems to have a crisis of identity... An almost profound lack of faith in itself, leading to the imperial acquisition of IP after IP and proceeding to stuff those down everyone's throat. This past year I had a little outburst on one or another of Disney's Facebook pages exclaiming that I'm sick to death of hearing about Marvel and Star Wars. I'm a DISNEY fan dammit, and was one BEFORE they bought up these things. I just want DISNEY news. It was, of course, deleted by the moderators. Tokyo Disney doesn't seem to have this same problem, no doubt owing to the fact that the Oriental Land Company is licencing the Disney brand. They have very real faith in the strength of that brand and a clear apparent idea of what to do with its IP. They have an entire section of Tokyo DisneySea based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and for several years have been running a Duffy-like merchandise promotion based on the black sheep from So Dear to My Heart. For real! And now there's Camp Woodchuck. Who knows, if the new Ducktales does well, maybe a version of it will come over to North America?

Concept art: Disney

#4: Moana
I was modestly looking forward to Moana, being an aficionado of Tiki and Polynesian culture, largely thanks to Disney. But I've also learned to be reserved in my expectations, especially after the trailers and clips I had seen before the film's debut. To be honest, I didn't think the music and dialogue in those clips was much to look forward to. Nor did "Made by the studio that brought you Wreck-It Ralph", that infamously being the only Disney film I've actually turned off a half-hour in, and having done so while on a plane. Yes, I decided that doing nothing while trapped on an airplane was a better investment of time than finishing Wreck-It Ralph. Thankfully, those songs and clips from Moana worked a lot better in context. It ended up being a decent little film with a Miyazaki-esque vibe to it that was very welcome to see from Disney. As is the case typically, I would rather have seen a movie based on the actual legends of Maui, just like I would have rather seen more straightforward adaptations of The Snow Queen (Frozen) or Reynard the Fox (Zootopia). For what it was, however, it was fine and it was good to see representation of Polynesians in a major Hollywood film.


Dishonourable Mention
Dear Once Upon a Time, exactly what do you think you're doing?! Fans of the ABC television series Once Upon a Time have long had to face up to the fact that Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz only really had a good, solid idea for one season, and have been running on inertia ever since. The first season was phenomenal, and while the second season wasn't as good, it still had some interesting characters and ideas. The show began morphing from a story about defeating the villains to a show about redemption. Season three fell into the silly fad of breaking a season up into two half-seasons, with varying degrees of success. Seasons 3a with Peter Pan and 4a with Frozen were actually pretty good, season 3b with the Wicked Witch of the West (played by the horribly miscast Rebecca Mader) was just awful, and seasons 4b and all of five were mostly victims of missed opportunities that could have benefited from full-season story arcs. Oh yeah, there was an unwatchable and forgettable spin-off series in there as well, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, that only lasted one season.

That brings us to the current mess. The Land of Unread Books Untold Stories plot has been a bust. It hasn't provided anything this season that ought to have been done or couldn't have been done another way. With the Underworld being evacuated at the end of last season, they could have easily brought characters like Lady Tremain or Captain Nemo back to life, maintaining the essential integrity of those episodes. They never should have done the Count of Monte Cristo, which did such a disservice to the character that it outright offended Ashley, who counts the Alexandre Dumas classic as her favourite book. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could have just as easily, and more sensibly, come from the realm of Gothic Horror that they already established in season two, when they revealed Dr. Whale's identity. I've been dying to see them do more with that realm, from which they could derive Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, Dorian Gray, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Dr. Moreau, Heathcliff, the list goes on. That would be a heck of a season. I guess we'll always have Penny Dreadful for that, which is an excellent series that knew when to quit.

The worst part of season six, though, is the unending, repetitive drama of the leads. They had a brilliant opportunity mid-season five to explore how Rumpelstiltskin rebuilds his life and redeems himself after being released from the curse of the Dark One. Nope. Nope, he's just the Dark One again, and now we have to deal with interminable drama between him and Belle. Nor do I care about the Charmings anymore. Haven't we really said everything about them that we need to at this point? The separation of the Evil Queen from Regina could be interesting if Regina was at all a different person with her evil part gone, or had any real insights into the nature of good and evil. Poor Captain Hook has now suffered the malady of Badass Decay. Not that the season has been without highlights, but the best part is getting the least attention, being the B-plot with Aladdin and Jasmine. Right now, the most entertaining part of Once Upon a Time is reading Lily Sparks' irreverent reviews.  

For for a writing a depressing rant to end off what is supposed to be a celebratory post, but this one has been brewing for a while, as one might glean from its length. So in the spirit of ending on a high note, I will mention one of the highlights from this season of Once Upon a Time: seeing the Nautilus again. Luckily, it's easier to be flexible with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than with The Count of Monte Cristo. The latter is a very contextually specific book with a subtlety that can be missed if it's simply treated as a crude revenge story. For 20,000 Leagues, after decades of seeing Nemo and his creations in one movie after another, and speaking as a huge Jules Verne fan, all you really need to get right is the submarine. Thankfully Once Upon a Time chose to stick more or less with Disney's iconic design! Good job guys!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Top Five: Films by Land

December is the time for Top Fives... Last year we took a look at my top five favourite Disney parks and top five favourite attractions in each. This year, I'm doing something a little different. 

Disney's theme parks are, of course, built around their intellectual property. I've argued in the past that there has always been corporate synergy linking the company's film, television, and theme park products. In some cases, the connections are self-evident. Peter Pan's Flight is based on Peter Pan. Other cases may be more subtle.

The following is our list of the Top Five films for the five original lands in Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Disneyland Paris. Some of these films will be on the list because of a direct connection to an attraction. Others will be a more nuanced list of films from Disney's catalogue that did more to inspire or reflect the mood or setting of one of the lands. Either way, most of these are films we review in the months leading up to a Disney trip, just to get ourselves in the right mindset.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Walt's Era - Part 9: The Year of Fess Parker (1956)

We have hit something of a milestone with Walt's Era. For the first time in this series, an entry covers a single year and has no animated films. Fantasia was re-released on February 7th, but no new animated films came out in 1956. Of the four feature films that were released, all but one featured Fess Parker, star of Davy Crockett. The outlier was a True-Life Adventure.

A native Texan, Fess came into the Disney fold after Walt spotted his cameo in the classic Science Fiction film Them! He practically leapt off the screen as a pilot driven mad by the sight of gigantic, mutated ants, which appealed to Walt (who had been watching the film to check out lead actor James Arness for the role of Davy Crockett). Fess won the role of his career, and lead Davy Crockett into becoming a household name. Walt saw the makings of a legitimate feature film star, took him off television, and made him the company's #1 lead actor.

Fess Parker at a department store live appearance.

He stayed with the company from 1955 through 1958, when he and Disney had a falling out. In the mean time, he not only became the second most recognizable face of the company and helped to open Disneyland USA, but also had a series of LPs on Disneyland Records. Besides the storyteller and soundtrack albums for his films, he released Yarns and Songs in 1956 and Cowboy and Indian Songs in 1957. His irresistible folksy charm helped shape the company's image during the new Golden Age.