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.

Main Street USA
There are no shortage of films and cartoons which hearken to the nostalgia of the Gay Nineties. Disney did a stock in trade on nostalgic Victorian-Edwardian family films around the time Disneyland was built and after. Outside of soundtracks, few are directly referenced on Main Street USA, but Main Street USA is very much an extension of these films.
  1. The Nifty Nineties - This Mickey Mouse short is essentially a thesis statement for Main Street USA and everything it represents.  
  2. The Happiest Millionaire - This musical about the lives and times of eccentric Philadelphia socialites is far removed from small Midwestern towns, but it has a lot of great Gay Nineties images and it furnished a good part of the soundtrack for the land. Also, the Fortuosity shop. 
  3. So Dear to My Heart - This wistful reminiscence could have easily gone under Frontierland, because it goes to the other extreme of the Gay Nineties in America's rural communities. You've got farm life, small towns, race horse fanaticism, a beautiful high-ballin' steam train, and the county fair. 
  4. Pollyanna - Disney's other archetypal film of Gay Nineties Americana is an adaptation of one of the most popular books from the time. Gorgeous mansions and equally gorgeous period dress, Victorian courtship, and a town carnival fill out the nostalgic images here. 
  5. Casey at the Bat - One of America's great comic ballads about America's national sport, it is replete with striped uniforms and handlebar moustaches.
Honourable Mention: I suppose I should have included Mary Poppins here as well, by virtue of the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe, but as some have noted when objecting to it for some reason, a film set in Edwardian England doesn't have quite the same Midwestern vibe of Main Street USA.  

Surprisingly few dramatic films actually tap into the sensibilities of Adventureland, and most of them aren't even Disney films (African Queen and the Indiana Jones movies, mainly). That is likely because the land's original inspiration were the True-Life Adventure wildlife documentaries. Nevertheless, in one way or another, this is what Disney has to offer.
  1. Swiss Family Robinson - Disney's great jungle adventure film, which also gave birth to the original Swiss Family Treehouse still found in the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris. 
  2. The African Lion - Since the True-Life Adventures inspired Adventureland, I would be remiss in not including one of them to capture the mood of the place. 
  3. The Jungle Book - I suppose you could take your pick on whether I mean the original animated version or the recent live-action one. Both are quite good, for different reasons, and add the flair of the jungles of India. 
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - I'll throw this one in here because Pirates of the Caribbean is in Magic Kingdom's and Disneyland Paris' Adventureland. Despite the diminishing returns with each installment, and my annoyance at having Jack Sparrow thrown into everything, the first Pirates movie is actually, really, very good.  
  5. Aladdin - Once Aladdin came around, Disney tried force fitting it into Adventureland. Disneyland Paris does the best job, both because it was the first to be custom built after Aladdin premiered and because France has a more definite connection to North Africa in its colonial history. 
Honourable Mentions: I guess one must acknowledge Tarzan, because he evicted the Swiss Family in Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland. To it's credit, it's actually a good movie and a good adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes. And I suppose if one is desperate to tie a movie to everything, then Moana is customized to Adventureland's Tiki content the same way The Princess and the Frog is customized to New Orleans Square. If you're heading to Disneyland Paris, you might want to review Treasure Island as well, given that a section of Adventure Isle is based on it.

After Fantasyland, Frontierland was probably the easiest to tie to any particular Disney films. Frontierland grew from the real, vibrant popularity of Westerns in the mid-century, and Disney readily tapped into that on film and television.
  1. Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier/Davy Crockett and the River Pirates - Outside of a few mannequins or a perfunctory renaming of a store or a canoe ride, there has never been a Davy Crockett attraction. Nevertheless, the land has always been inexorably tied with Disney's most famous frontier character. 
  2. Song of the South - The inspiration for Splash Mountain, as well as capturing the aura of the Southern plantation (however controversially it may have done so). Technically you're not allowed to watch it, but we all know how to go about seeing it, or at least the cartoon segments.
  3. The Vanishing Prairie - My favourite of Disney's True-Life Adventure feature films, this film acquaints one the great expanse of the wild American West when it still was the frontier. 
  4. The Legend of Pecos Bill - Ostensibly the inspiration behind the Golden Horseshoe Revue, this is Disney's greatest Western cartoon. 
  5. Westward Ho the Wagons - Another Fess Parker vehicle (and in desperate need of a proper widescreen release), it has some questionable portrayals of Native Americans but is a consummate Western about the Oregon Trail.  
Honourable Mentions: One True-Life Adventure was listed as a must-watch for Frontierland's mood, but one could do worse than watching the other shorts and features that look at the vast North American wilderness, including Beaver Valley, The Olympic Elk, Bear Country, and The Living Desert. Originally, with the Rivers of America and Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, Frontierland was just as much inspired by the True-Life Adventures as was Adventureland.

And here we have a batch that are self-evident. Almost every Fantasyland attraction is based on a Disney animated classic. Since there's no point mincing around about it, I'm just going to list all ten of the major ones.
  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - Snow White's Scary Adventures, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Snow White's Grotto.
  2. Sleeping Beauty - For the castle, of course.
  3. Cinderella - For the other castle.
  4. Peter Pan - Peter Pan's Flight.
  5. Pinocchio - Pinocchio's Daring Journey and the Village Haus Restaurant.
  6. Alice in Wonderland - Mad Tea Cups, Alice in Wonderland, and Alice's Curious Labyrinth.
  7. The Wind in the Willows - Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and Toad Hall Restaurant.
  8. Beauty and the Beast - Enchanted Tales with Belle, Be Our Guest Restaurant, and Belle's Village.
  9. The Little Mermaid - Voyage of the Little Mermaid.
  10. Dumbo - Dumbo the Flying Elephant and Storybook Circus.
Honourable Mentions: With those out of the way, I want to add in two others. One is Third Man on the Mountain, for the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The other is Toby Tyler, which nicely captures the atmosphere of the historic circus, as relevant to Storybook Circus.

If Fantasyland was the easiest and most self-evident, Tomorrowland was the most difficult. Given the current status of Tomorrowland, a list of franchise IPs would simply be Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel. That is a big part of the problem with Tomorrowland as it stands today. What about the mood that Tomorrowland originally had, and in an ideal world still would?
  1. Man in Space / Man and the Moon / Mars and Beyond - This trilogy from the Disneyland television series really capture what Tomorrowland was supposed to be all about: the marrying of scientific fact and eventuality, an entertaining package of education and speculation. 
  2. Magic Highway U.S.A. - Autopia: The Movie. This episode of Disneyland demonstrates the ethos behind why there is an Autopia at all and how the automobile came to define America, as well as having a tonne of great retro-futuristic images. 
  3. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - There was a 20,000 Leagues attraction when Tomorrowland first opened in Disneyland, and still is one in Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland (it was in Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom), but this is still a relevant film because through the lens of Jules Verne's adventure story it still touches on the themes of atomic anxiety and technological development.
  4. Our Friend the Atom - Much like the previous two entries from the Disneyland TV series, this episode Disneyfies the threat and promise of atomic power, offering a naive but optimistic dose of science education and retro-futurism.
  5. Eyes in Outer Space - An educational short film about satellites, with an excellent retro-futuristic sequence about weather control. Actually doing what they predict would have a terrifying environmental cost, but they were quainter in the 1960's version of the 2000's.  
Honourable Mentions: I don't think these are technically relevant to Tomorrowland, but Grand Canyon and The Rite of Spring are relevant to the Disneyland Railroad and the dioramas that back onto Tomorrowland.

Honourable Mention: Liberty Square and New Orleans Square
Then there's the other land. Disneyland Paris doesn't have one, but Disneyland has New Orleans Square and Magic Kingdom has Liberty Square. The former's film is obvious, but the latter actually has a few relevant films.
  1. The Princess and the Frog - First, New Orleans Square's token film, which as I said before, seems virtually custom-made for that section of the park (or for showing on the lawn of the Port Orleans - French Quarter resort). 
  2. Ben and Me - This short shows the creation of the United States through the eyes of a mouse who lives with Benjamin Franklin. Obviously for Liberty Square.
  3. Johnny Tremain - And then comes the human version of events, via a fictional young man caught up in these larger than life events. The particular image of the Liberty Tree in Liberty Square hails from this film as well.  
  4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - Washington Irving's seminal American story gives rise to a fast food window and provides atmosphere for Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion. 
  5. The Legend of Johnny Appleseed - The historical John Chapman was born just before the Revolutionary War broke out, but the animated short still bears aesthetic similarities to Legend of Sleepy Hollow (thanks to Mary Blair) and inspiring context for the idea of explorers in the early 19th century heading out from the East. 
Honourable Mentions of the Honourable Mentions: For a sense of the bayou on which New Orleans Square is supposed to sit, one could watch Prowlers of the Everglades, the last of the True-Life Adventure shorts.


  1. "Outside of a few mannequins or a perfunctory renaming of a store or a canoe ride, there has never been a Davy Crockett attraction."

    Not so! For a time, we in Anaheim had the Mike Fink Keelboats on the Rivers of America. They were discontinued as a ride in the mid-Nineties after an accident that tipped a boatload of guests into the water. At night. Pretty scary. But the Gullywhumper parked outside Mike Fink's cabin isn't just a prop but the actual ride vehicle, serving a new function in its retirement.

    1. True, but is that a Davy Crockett attraction or a Mike Fink attraction ;)

    2. Depends on whether "Davy Crockett" is a franchise or only a single character.