Saturday, 1 July 2017

Requiem for Pirates of the Caribbean

"We wants the grandfather clock!" Image: Disney.

I had already stopped reading the largely depressing spectacle that is the Disney Parks Blog some months ago, so I had to hear about this through the grapevine. I would imagine that it says a lot right there that the major source for official news is depressing enough for me to stop reading it. When I hear people attempt to defend Disney when they do things like this by saying "You just have to trust Disney, they know what they're doing," I see no evidence to support that claim.

If somehow you have not heard about this, the current refurbishment of the Disneyland Paris version of Pirates of the Caribbean will include not only Jack Sparrow, Davy Jones, Blackbeard, and Barbossa (inserted unceremoniously into the scene with the skeleton at the helm, because at this point why not?), but an altered auction scene in which it is not wenches up for sale, but the villagers' loot. Because, after all, why would pirates be looting loot themselves when they could just buy it? Furthermore, these changes are not limited to Disneyland Paris: they are set to be introduced to rides in Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 2018. The offending post can be read here. The comments are golden.

Concept art of Barbossa in the skeleton at the helm scene,
like a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Image: Disney.

Presumably the changes were undertaken with the idea of making the ride more politically correct in respects to the status of women. Really, this is a logical trajectory after the alteration of the scene where pirates were chasing women. After the vandalism perpetrated to the ride through the addition of Jack Sparrow as the entire ride's focal point, inappropriate projection effects of Davy Jones and Blackbeard, and ill-fitting clips from the film soundtrack, the ride no longer has artistic or narrative integrity anyways. I can't really muster outrage for the Disneyland and WDW versions of the ride, because they have already been irredeemably wrecked. 

What I'm most upset about is the vandalism to the Disneyland Paris version. Though the layout of the attraction is different, it was the last remaining version that retained the spirit and intent of the original. The movie-based vandalisms had not yet been applied, and all the original show scenes were intact, including the pirates chasing the women. When we rode it on our trip to Paris in 2013, I actually began tearing up because I had forgotten what an amazing ride Pirates of the Caribbean used to be. When all the elements work together in a coherent whole, it is one of the best themed attractions ever designed. Or was.

The usual tonedeaf, clueless interviews with Imagineering (including dusting off Marty Sklar) came with the news. One particular nugget, from Kathy Magnum, Sr. VP of Imagineering, sums up the entire problem:  "Our team thought long and hard about how to best update this scene." Any thinking Disney fan knows the appropriate response to this: "WHY?!" The scene didn't need updating. Keen to vandalize the work of their predecessors, they decided to needlessly destroy one of the ride's most iconic scenes and replace it with... nothing. A wry and witty scene that everyone understood was based ultimately in the fact that pirates were bad people is being replaced by a nonsensical scene in which nothing really happens. The new redhead pirate just stands there, the former auctioneer just stands there, and I guess the guys across the shore will be just be sitting there. There is no joke implicit to this scene, and nothing memorable about it. Though I guess in a ride where the highlight is now catching a glimpse of a Jack Sparrow animatronic just standing there, we're expected to take the redhead pirate just standing there as a memorable moment. I'm not even confident that, with this accumulation of changes, what Magnum herself described as "the standard for the theme park industry for half a century" even qualifies as a good attraction anymore.

Some might retort that Disney has to keep changing in order to keep drawing guests, just like how the curators at the Louvre make little changes to the Mona Lisa every year to keep it fresh. I've already wasted my time and breath addressing that particular argument though. Great works of art are timeless because they are great. They don't need to be made "fresh," they don't need to be "updated" to remain relevant. No, I don't hate change: I hate the wanton destruction of great, beautiful, important things.

"Our team thought long and hard about how to best update the
Mona Lisa. The painting has always represented great
Da Vinci storytelling, but it's a story you can
continue to add fun to," said curators at the Louvre.

Some time ago, I watched a video on the question of what would be the "last straw" to finally make you stop going to Disneyland. It occurred to me that if it was anything, it would probably be something that, on it's own, appeared kind of petty and silly. That's because my growing dissatisfaction with Disney is really a death by a thousand small cuts. It's not the addition of Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean on its own, or the loss of the Court of Angels on its own, or the truncating of the Rivers of America on its own, or the loss of Big Thunder Ranch on its own, or even the loss of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror on its own (though that was certainly enough to swear me off California Adventure)... It's the cumulative effect of turning Disneyland into a place that is increasingly alien, inartistic, and unpleasant.

Could this be the last straw? I don't know. But I do wish that when we took our last trip to Disneyland in 2015 that I knew about all the changes that would come in the past year and a half. I would have spent more time savouring what would be lost, understanding the very real possibility that our last trip could well be our last trip.


  1. I have mixed feelings about this move, and the negativity is more to do with Imagineering's recent track record than the inherent qualities of a scene where one pirate auctions off her loot to other pirates.

    Sooner or later we have to engage with the fact that we are expected to be entertained - and obligingly *are* entertained - by a scene of women being sex trafficked. If the ride were built today we'd never tolerate it. At some point you have to weigh the preservation of a classic against the fact that said classic depicts something undeniably horrible as a source of humor.

    Happy Canada Day, by the way.

    1. I get those concerns... Listening to the original soundtrack, the lines by the pirate who has the woman trapped in the barrel basically amount to saying that he wants to rape her and pass her around to be raped by the other pirates. It's disgusting and disturbing. So it doesn't terribly hurt my feelings that this scene is gone from a social justice perspective.

      That said, there are a couple caveats:

      1) Pirates were bad people. If we follow the logic through that pirates should not be depicted doing bad things, then we really ought to get rid of the ride entirely. I'm actually MORE bugged by the implicit softening of the message that pirates were bad (i.e.: Jack, and now the Redhead, are heroes) than seeing them do bad things.

      2) There is more subtlety to the scene in question than simply human sex trafficking. The humour of it is built on those subtleties and comic reversals (i.e.: the fat one actually looks eager for a husband, and the Redhead is deliberately upstaging them all).

      3) It's perhaps the third most iconic scene in the ride, after the jailed pirates and the skeleton at the helm. Changing it is like the Sr. VP of Imagineering talking about how they "thought long and hard" about getting rid of Madame Leota, taking out the flight over Neverland, or removing the bathing pool of elephants.

      4) They're replacing it with nothing. Based on the concept art, it's a dead scene with nothing interesting happening. You can see the humour and subtlety of the scene already in Marc Davis' concept art (because the guy was an absolute MASTER of his craft... Imagineering should be learning from his work, not effacing it). This new scene has nothing. And if the humour is going to come in from other sources (like the dialogue) then it is a failed themed attraction scene. It would have softened the blow a little bit (like a brick wrapped in a blanket) if they at least replaced it with something.

      My wife (who does fundraising and awareness work for groups fighting human sex trafficking, BTW) actually had a good idea about this. Her's was that if they wanted to redress the auction scene, they should have put the Redhead in as a pirate later on in the ride, ordering the other pirates around. That would empower her (by having her go from victim...ish... to a full-fledged pirate) as well as mirror how historical women pirates actually did rise to their station. But I'm sure that even that would be lost on whatever hypothetical guest was offended by the scene to begin with, if indeed anyone was.

      Anyways, thanks for the Canada Day wellwishing... We're celebrating in appropriately Canadian fashion, which is to be ashamed and embarrassed of ourselves and our history. Sorry!

  2. To respond to your points:

    1) The issue is not that pirates should not be seen to do bad things, it's what *kind* of bad things we are comfortable depicting in a humorous context. It's not often brought up - perhaps because it is so obvious - but the direct counterpart to the auction scene is the preceding well-dunking scene, which also features captives (all the same gender) roped together in a line and awaiting a terrible fate. I think it garners far less criticism because a) we as a society are more comfortable with men being victimized than women (which is its own set of issues, beyond the scope of this discussion), b) the crime being committed against them (torture for information) is not gendered, and c) it hits less close to home, in that torture for information is not a systemic crime in the real world the way sex slavery is. Even if you assume that all those dudes are getting shot as soon as one of them gives up the goods, it's not something that most men fear happening to them.

    All of this is a rather long-winded way of saying that sex crimes are generally viewed more harshly than other sorts of violent crimes and we may be reaching a tipping point where it's just not acceptable for theme park entertainment.

    2) Those subtleties are not lost on me...but they improve matters only slightly. Elsewhere online, someone summed up the fat woman's coy expression as "Homely woman is grateful for a chance at being raped," which is itself a sentiment I think we have had more than enough of. It's not *quite* as bad as the surface-level reading of the scene where the captive girls are completely terrified *and* we're supposed to find it entertaining, but it's bad enough.

    3) I never said it wasn't a real dilemma. Art is valuable, even art that makes us uncomfortable. But so much cover gets given to genuinely harmful B.S. on the grounds of "historical accuracy" or "product of its time," and I want to be careful to hold the things *I* love to the same standard as things that other people love.

    4) I'm not busting out the sackcloth and ashes over a single piece of concept art in any case. If you can't think of a way to get humor out of the visual presentation of inanimate objects, then we must not be thinking of the same ride.

    As for your wife's suggestion, I think that might work if Pirates were built from the start as more of a narrative ride, but it's not, is it? It's weird enough that they tried to force a narrative with the Jack Sparrow animatronics. No other character appears multiple times on the ride, because we're meant to view all these events as happening more-or-less simultaneously in different parts of the town.