Monday, May 18, 2015

Song of the South: Disney's Loaded Gun

"Don't you know you can't run away from trouble? There ain't no place that far."

In 2012, two books were published within two weeks of each other, each with dueling viewpoints but which come to similar conclusions. The first, Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South by Jason Sperb, is an excellently written cultural history. Sperb, however, falls into the trap so many other Disney critics have fallen into since the 1940s by working himself into an aesthetic lather over the racism of the film, and the presumed racism of Walt Disney. Contrasting the Sperb book, Jim Korkis' Who's Afraid of Song of the South? is a production history from the perspective of an unabashed fan who comes down on Disney's side.

Every Disney blog, it seems, has a post about Song of the South. This is mine. Now, of all of the eras of Disney animation, the period of fevered creativity and pinched budgets between 1941 and 1949 interests me the most. I own three bootleg copies of Song of the South, because each has slightly different visual qualities. I've been showing it to everyone who will sit for it for over a decade.

I'm not convinced of the film's greatness, but I think it's a really interesting movie.

And I'm not going to come down on the side of either Sperb or Korkis. I'm not convinced that Walt Disney was as malicious - or as naive - as he's often portrayed by film academics. However, I'm also not going to follow in the footsteps of so many other Disney bloggers and act the know-nothing when it comes to having to confront the problematic aspects of the film either.

Song of the South is not an easy movie to level with. Merely watching it requires that one take a position, and ask tough questions that don't yield ready answers. These are generally the criteria for a deep dish cinema masterpiece, not a frivolous nostalgia piece occasionally touched with brilliance. It would hardly seem to be worth the effort for a film whose cultural expiration date is long past. But engaging those questions and coming out the other side is the reason it's still worth discussing.

Let's begin by prodding the sensitive underbelly first. It all began a long, long time ago...

1) The Song of the South Problem

The default position of many Song of the South advocates is to either ignore or hand-wave at the basic problem of racism in this film. After all, it's easy to counter, the film was reissued in 1986 and met with no real opposition, the concerns of racism in the film are just overly sensitive allegations. No problem. Don't see any problem here.

This is bullshit.

The key issue comes down to representation, which is still something worth fighting over, because images carry power. Non-white, non-straight people are still fighting for better representation in films and popular culture. But truthfully, the fact that representations of persons of color onscreen have improved dramatically in the past few generations does not enter the Song of the South equation, either. The key character in question, Uncle Remus, no longer is forced to stand alone amongst a relatively narrow group of peers.

In 1946, Remus represented a complex, unusually central role for a black entertainer in a major Hollywood production. By 1986, an era when black actors were striving to escape from a screen ghetto of limited representation, Remus was an impossible throwback. In 2015, when we expect diverse and complex casts in major motion pictures, Remus looks more like a figure of fantasy, which isn't too far from how he was perceived in 1946.

This isn't to suggest that strides cannot still be made in these areas onscreen, but simply to point out that Remus, taken in isolation, is no longer the gigantic problem he once was. We're more likely today to admire Baskett's dignified, moving performance in the midst of a maelstrom of a film of absurdly old-fashioned attitudes than to perceive this sort of Uncle Tom stereotype to be a normal or common perception of a black man. He's so far from our modern reality he's become fiction again.

No, it isn't Remus, it's his context in the movie which is problematic, and the reason it's problematic is because the film splits its black characters between the "culturally black" animal comedy trio of Br'rer Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear and the "manifestly black" cast of actors who represent the labor force on the plantation. The "Br'er" critters have craft and power - they have an agency in their own plot which is not reflected in the plantation laborers, Remus included.

This lack of agency in the story is exactly why it's possible to mistake Song of the South for a film set in the Antebellum period, before the Civil War. There's plenty of scenes between the white, upper class family and the black laborers, but if the word "slave" never appears, neither does the word "employee". We never even find out what they're growing on the old plantation, nor do we ever see Uncle Remus doing any real work, or are told how he gets by or what he's retained, exactly, to do.

We do see him living in what appears to be slave quarters near the house, although we never discover where the rest of the labor force lives. There isn't even a date to clue us in to when the film takes place. All we see are black laborers doing something, white people running the place, and a living situation that looks like it dropped out of Gone With the Wind, David O' Selznick's 1939 bad taste extravaganza. The title actually cues us to think of Gone with the Wind. They even sound kinda similar. It's a clear cue to the movie buying public: "Did you like that film? Here's something similar."

In other words, the film doesn't do anything to dispel the impression of Remus as an old slave, perhaps one beloved and trusted as a member of the family, but undoubtedly a man treated as a piece of property. His attempt to leave the plantation at the climax of the movie is so underdeveloped that it hardly seems to matter, and arrives long after most of the damage has been done.

Not helping matters is Hattie McDaniel, a wonderful actress familiar from films of the 1930s, essentially reprising her role of Mammy from Gone With the Wind. Like most vintage movie fans, I love Hattie - any appearance by her is a reason to celebrate - but she isn't given much of interest to do here. Her character may be hired help, but all the film ever gives us images of Hattie singing and baking. Simply put, to expect post-Gone With the Wind audiences not to process such an image as "slave" is the equivalent of putting Anthony Hopkins in an orange jumpsuit behind a Plexiglas wall and asking us to remember that he's not a serial killer. It doesn't work that way.

Many commentators also like to bring up the happy singing field workers, although this is a case where I'm not sure if this accusation isn't somewhat off base. Truth is, we don't see them clearly enough or often enough to decide if they're jolly or simply singing. But the fact is that by then in the film, it's given any critic looking for a racism angle more than enough rope to hang it. Audiences and critics turn to Song of the South looking for evidence of the racism of noted white guy Walt Disney, and the film over delivers. I've even seen multiple online articles indicate that the reason the father leaves suddenly at the start of the film is to fight for the Confederacy!

But if we want to point accusing fingers anywhere for this state of affairs, it isn't at lazy audiences or inattentive critics, it's at Walt Disney himself. Disney hired left wing screenwriter Maurice Rapf to temper the unfortunate inclinations of the screenplay by Dalton Reymond, and Rapf told Walt directly: he would have to be very clear about the situation and social context of the film, or risk appearing to endorse slavery. This, incidentally, is the key event for Jason Sperb, who takes Walt's "refusal" to clarify the situation as evidence that he didn't care if the film offended anyone.

And so, in maybe one of the worst story decisions ever made at Walt Disney Productions, Walt gifted us millions of words of commentary on a film that in some ways seems hardly deserving of it. How simply it all could have been, if not avoided, then greatly reduced. All it would take is uttering the word "sharecroppers" or giving us a date. But the film refuses.

The sad fact is that there were likely other factors playing into all of this. In the 1940s, with home video still a generation away, films were basically temporary things. They were expected to go out, make their money, and then probably vanish forever. The possibility that future generations from a very different culture would be sharpening our rhetorical knives over this film was not even a realistic consideration. Walt had to do what was right for the film in 1946. And, the fact is, in 1946 and even well into the 60s there were many places in the South where films had, historically, been given a hard time at the box office due to their perceived progressiveness.

MGM released Cabin in the Sky in 1943 and 20th Century Fox had Stormy Weather in 1944, two all-black musicals which today look like two of the best Hollywood musicals ever. In the Jim Crow South, there's places where these wonderful films were refused distribution outright, which meant they had no chance of returning a profit to the studio in certain sectors. Disney met with 20th Century Fox producers to discuss Stormy Weather, so right there goes Sperb's fantasy that Disney simply didn't care. In this case, he may have simply chosen the path which guaranteed a financial return for his shaky motion picture studio, which, shamefully, was to choose no path at all.

Is Song of the South racist? By our modern standards, yes it is. It's foolish to ignore this, because it's the whole reason the film isn't available, which by extension is the whole reason to discuss it. It's reductionist, naive, and to most modern eyes, about blissfully servile slaves. To try to pretend that that just isn't there in the film isn't fooling anybody.

And yet! And yet.

And yet it's also just as foolish to insist that that is all that Song of the South is. Because for all of the cultural hand-wringing over Uncle Remus, he is undeniably Walt Disney's surrogate in this film. He's the most compellingly drawn character, and the only character in the film to have an emotional arc.

The film allows us nearly no empathy for the white characters: Bobby Discoll's character is an annoying wimp and spends most of the film wearing a "dramatic" expression that suggests constipation. His mother is a hysteric who consistently makes the wrong decisions, and his grandmother does nothing to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. We don't blame Johnny for wanting to spend all of his time with Remus; we do, too. Baskett's Remus and Glenn Leedy's Toby are the most likable characters in the movie.

Remus is our identification point, and he's Disney's too. He's a wise but humble storyteller whose stories not only teach valuable life lessons, but save the boy's life and even appear to reshape reality. We can also enjoy the way in which Remus is a master manipulator of his white employers, always making careful allowances to maintain the fiction that his suggestions were their ideas, all along. That's not exactly progressive, but it's something.

This does not obliterate everything I've said before, but it does complicate it. I'm in no position to judge if the Walt Disney of 1946 was racist or not, never mind the Walt of 1926 or 1966. You aren't, either. People aren't that simple. All we have is the film, an alarmingly troubled work about a heroic stereotype. It's not simple enough to come off as a total fantasy, but it's not complex enough to allay our modern unease and easily put the film in its place. So now we have to deal with that.

2) Song of the South Into the Present Day

Audiences in 1946 didn't see it the same way we do. Coming out the other side of a world war, the American film  industry was at an all-time productive high. The post-war era in American pop culture is a fascinating one, and tough, serious film making like Rebel Without a Cause sat cheek to jowl with blistering satires and totally absurd escapist fantasies. The all-star movie musical roared back to life with a vitality it hadn't had since the pit of the Great Depression. Song of the South is one of these escapist films.

If we pay close attention to fashion and dress, it's possible to realize that Song of the South is set right about the turn of the 20th century, or in other words the world into which Walt Disney was born. The 1950s saw a revival of interest in "The Good Old Days", visible in such films as The Jolson Story, The Music Man, Night and Day, Man of a Thousand Faces, and reaching its most immortal expression in Disneyland's Main Street, USA.

Song of the South represented to 1946 audiences an escape into a pre-modern fantasy world, of a world before automobiles and airplanes and mechanized warfare, a dimly remembered cultural fantasia. Today's audiences are, depending on one's perspective, either more informed or more cynical, which makes the acceptance of these nostalgic fantasies tougher to take. We're more likely to look for and expect to see the downsides of a reconstruction south presented even in a fantasy film in ways that 1946 audiences likely would not. This would not last long, however.

According to my first edition copy of Leonard Maltin's The Disney Films, Song of the South was reissued without incident in 1956. Throughout the 1960s, Disney kept Song of the South more or less out of view. The Br'er Rabbit animation segments were featured in episodes of Disneyland and Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear could be found in New Orleans Square, but it would not be until 1972 that it was reissued.

Many modern commentators have opined that Song of the South was not reissued during the 1960s due to the turbulent political situation at home, but I think that's stretching the point a bit. If there's any secret reason the film didn't re-appear during the 60s, it may be because Walt Disney remade it - as Mary Poppins, in 1964. Now, Poppins is quite a different film, but the basic situation of a central, mythologized figure who brings animation and magic to a young boy and girl and in doing so mends a broken family strikes a familiar cord.

It's possible that Walt saw a way to recycle a mythology he found special meaning in into a less controversial, more technologically sophisticated film, and he was willing to do it with either Mary Poppins.... or Eglantine Price. Poppins in the finished film is actually extremely remote and mysterious, not at all like the jovial, magnetic presence of Remus. At the suggestion of the Sherman brothers, the emotional core of Mary Poppins is the father, who isn't even present for most of Song of the South.

Given the comparative excellence and sophistication of Mary Poppins, it's possible that this film could have totally eclipsed Song of the South. Today Song of the South could be one of the studio's many obscurities from the 1940s, like So Dear To My Heart or The Reluctant Dragon. But, in 1989, Disney did the one thing that will ensure that demand for Song of the South will never dry up and its legend will loom ever larger - they opened Splash Mountain.

From the perspective of 2015 it seems incomprehensible that Disney would green light an attraction based on a film they had no intention of releasing, but things were different back in 1985.

Back in the 80s, Song of the South had become a perennial money maker for Disney. Reissues in 1972 and 1980 had been wildly successful in a way the film just wasn't in the 1940s, and another was slated for 1986. In other words, audiences in 1989 were expected to recognize the Disney Uncle Remus characters alongside such characters as those from Cinderella and The Jungle Book.

In fact, the entire original version of Splash Mountain at Disneyland is designed based on this assumption. The characters are introduced very casually - the dynamic between Br'er Rabbit, Fox, and Bear isn't even set up, visually or verbally, since we're just supposed to know who is who. Pumpkins, red earth, mint juleps, willows and cattails belong unambiguously to the deep Georgia south of the film.

At Disneyland, the journey through Splash Mountain begins in an old barn, pointedly one of the few structures explicitly built for the interaction of humans and animals. From there, the queue moves past a fireplace with a cast iron pot, and is routed so guests must walk across the hearth. This represents the fireplace where Remus tells Johnny the Br'er Rabbit tales in the film, and to make the connection clear, a direct Remus quote from the film is painted on the wall above the fireplace. Although Remus is never referenced or seen in the attraction, to the familiar observer, the signposts and connections to Song of the South are many.

Daveland at Disneyland
I'd give a lot to know when exactly Eisner instituted his ban on Song of the South. If the stories told about that key visit to Imagineering are correct, then the design for Splash Mountain had been solidified by 1985 in time for it to be seen by Michael Eisner and Breck Eisner and green lit. Song of the South was re-issued both in theaters and internationally on home video in the 1980s, and of course the Disneyland ride is a direct continuation of what riders would be expected to recognize from the film.

But when Splash Mountain appeared at Walt Disney World in late summer 1992, there were changes both obvious and subtle that reflect Song of the South's status as banned goods. Relocated to Frontierland from a dedicated "Critter Country", holes and tunnels became mine shafts and saw mills. A musical score which previously was a fairly conservative recreation of Daniele Amfitheatrof's 1946 orchestral arrangements was re-imagined as homespun, bluegrass ditties. The final version of "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" employs a gospel singer.

More pointedly, the Florida version of Splash Mountain works overtime to introduce riders to the core characters as if they had never existed before. Disneyland's Splash Mountain starts in media res; Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear are out to get Br'er Rabbit because that's what they always do. Comparatively, Magic Kingdom's version uses framed portraits and signs to introduce us to the cast of characters and locations before the ride even begins, then makes all of the characters chatterboxes. We splash down into the cartoon world and see Br'er Fox and Bear spying and plotting about Br'er Rabbit; Br'er Rabbit sings about leaving home and then a porcupine sings about his decision to leave home being a bad one. Two rabbits and a roadrunner six feet later repeatedly remind us of what Br'er Rabbit is up to. Absolutely nothing is left to chance.

Perhaps even more pointedly, the Florida Splash Mountain removes nearly all of the Uncle Remus quotes from Disneyland's queue and jettisons the hearth, making the film's central character seem more like a distant echo. Instead it creates a character who functions as a sort of replacement Remus - Br'er Frog, an incidental character from the film, now sets up the story seen in silhouette in a (brilliantly framed) introductory queue tableau.

In other words, the Magic Kingdom Splash Mountain goes to great lengths to cut its ties with Song of the South, giving us a new world for Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear to exist in, one unique to Frontierland. They even changed the color of Br'er Rabbit's fur from brown to grey, almost as though they were afraid anyone riding would make the connection.

Despite appearing in its own Critter Country separate from Westernland, the Tokyo Disneyland Splash Mountain repeated the "bluegrass" aesthetic of Magic Kingdom's version, thus creating a "Splash Mountain Universe" that the Disneyland version doesn't quite belong to.

Generally, I view creative decisions as just that - decisions, existing in a timeline of the creative process, which must be made because decision must be made, but I can only conclude that the 1992 Splash Mountain seems to be a deliberate attempt to remove the ethnographic origin of the Uncle Remus characters from the "Disney Splash Mountain Universe". Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox, in particular, speak in the 1946 film and 1989 attraction with cadences, phrases, stammering and stuttering very obviously directly descended from African-American comedy conventions of a bygone era. And let's not forget that James Baskett himself appeared on Amos 'n Andy.

Jess Harnell's Br'er Rabbit sounds a great deal like Johnny Lee's Br'er Rabbit, but what he doesn't sound like, is black. Br'er Rabbit's attractive sass and swagger is totally gone, as are his memorable film dialogue lines retained for the 1989 Splash Mountain, like "'I'm gonna bust you wiiiide open!". With his grey fur and stock hijinx, the 1992 Br'er Rabbit could just be a Bugs Bunny clone with all of Bugs' gender queerness removed.

Even with a core cast that's been literally whitewashed, Splash Mountain is the single thing that's probably kept Song of the South alive in the public consciousness. As Bob Iger said in 2009, the film actually is "antiquated" and "fairly offensive", yet literally thousands of people can ride through a major thrill attraction based on it every day of the year. And these same people can now go on the Internet and discover that those clever, well realized characters and world come from a film Disney doesn't want you to see. In any other circumstances Song of the South probably would've ridden off into the sunset reserved for all entertainment whose cultural expiration date is long past, but Splash Mountain is like a billboard off a major highway advertising a place you can't go to.

And yet despite all of that, there's one defiant scrap of Song of the South left in the Magic Kingdom attraction, and everyone who exits the ride walks past it. It's a tiny, framed black and white photo of Br'er Rabbit gesturing to the Briar Patch from the film. More people likely see it in a single day than have seen the film in three decades.

1986 reissue poster
3) Give Us Dirty Laundry

Nothing spreads faster in our Internet culture than bad news.

Now, in my decades of talking about this movie to people, I've come to the conclusion that most Disney fans, and indeed most people born during or slightly before the ban was instituted, have never seen the Song of the South. They haven't sought out the bootleg DVDs or watched it on YouTube. Disney fans are, if nothing else, above all loyal. But everyone, and I mean everyone, knows about the movie.

Or at least they know that it's "banned". What I've realized is that fewer seem to know what it's banned for. Unacceptable racial attitudes, yes, but that's where the understanding ends and the hyperbole begins.

Since the early 2000s and the wide spread of Internet culture, one of the default understandings of Walt Disney has become popularized by shows like Family Guy and Robot Chicken. Charges of racism, juvenile exploitation, and antisemitism are seemingly bolstered by the fact that there's a "forbidden" Disney film out there - Song of the South - so racist, so I've been told, that the NAACP picketed the film upon its release.

 In other words, there's a popular mythology growing out there which positions Song of the South as Disney's version of Birth of a Nation - an abominable film of undisguised hatred. And that doesn't describe Song of the South at all. For starters, the bulk of the film it isn't even entertaining enough to be offensive.

Part of this comes from the fact that Walt Disney hasn't been a fashionable guy to admire in a long time. Today, admiration for filmmakers behind the scenes like David O. Selznick or Daryl Zanuck is limited to a subset of movie fans, and today we're more likely to speak about directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford than the money and organization men who believed in them. A great deal of Disney history today seeks to highlight the geniuses who worked for Walt. This very blog is as guilty of it as anyone - look at the number of posts I've tagged Marc Davis and the number I've tagged Walt Disney.

Since the 1970s, renegade geniuses who did their own thing and beat the odds have replaced the kind of unusual institutional bodies who made films through the end of the 1960s. Walt Disney couldn't even draw Mickey Mouse and is only credited for directing one film - and it's a lousy one. It takes some knowledge of film history to understand him as the creator of so much of the first half of the 20th's century's most potent popular art.

The Walt Disney Company has largely allowed this to happen in the past fifteen years. The Walt Disney Story was closed before Splash Mountain even opened. One Man's Dream, which opened in 2001 and has been updated only once, gives people an overview of Walt's accomplishments but no real personal sense of the man. Neal Gabler's 2005 biography of Walt Disney, positioned by Disney as a definitive Walt book, is a crashing bore, thicker than the complete works of Shakespeare, and seems to be written from an ambivalent perspective about the man's legacy. Saving Mr. Banks, the 2013 film, is widely derided by fans as a fantasy but at least attempts to give some sense of who Walt Disney was.

This means that in popular culture the character of Walt exists in a vacuum, and it's pretty much filled up with the kind of rumor mongering and character assassination that popular culture has been pumping into that vacuum for some time. If you're a Disney fan you've likely been asked point blank if Walt Disney was an anti-Semite (or a Nazi sympathizer) by somebody in the past fifteen years. Walt Disney, noted white guy, has become Walt Disney, likely racist, and Song of the South is his dirty laundry.

This is why I worry that keeping Song of the South out of circulation does as much damage as it does good. By removing consumer's ability to choose for themselves, then the choice to keep it under wraps becomes an eternally self-renewing cycle. It isn't available because it's racist. It's racistand so it isn't available.

This decision to withhold it is really our loss. We're being denied the pleasure of James Baskett and Hattie McDaniels' performances, and the voices of the Hall Johnson Choir. We aren't allowed to see the perfection of Ub Iwerks' special effects, 40 years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Song of the South is the first Disney animated film stylized after Mary Blair's artwork, and the character animation is among the best and funniest the studio ever gave us. It's also the only color film and one of the last films shot by Gregg Toland, on the short list of the greatest cinematographers of all time. This last point, in particular, is very painful for cineastes because Toland is famous for his dark chiaroscuro effects in Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane, and the dark, fire lit passages of Song of the South turn into a blurry mess in all available copies of the movie.

Surely all of those positives are worth something to history. They can't be worth tossing out entirely. But how do you reconcile a film whose reputation requires handling with kid gloves with the massive, moving target of a modern multinational corporation in the shooting gallery of pubic life?

4) Disarming the Loaded Gun

But to get to the core of the reason why Disney hasn't let Song of the South out yet, we have to compare the problem that Song of the South represents to how they've handled similar problems.

Disney has a spotty record when it comes to self-censorship. Things pop on and off the forbidden list randomly, more or less depending on who's paying attention. In the early 2000s, Roy O. Disney requested that cigarettes be removed from certain cartoons - Saludos Amigos and Melody Time - while permitting the cigar smoking in Three Caballeros and Pinocchio to remain. At the same time, he asked that the opening sequence of Make Mine Music - The Martins and the Coys - be removed due to offending sensibilities, but more likely because of cartoon violence and gun play that no child who's ever seen a Tom & Jerry cartoon would bat an eye at. Melody Time and Make Mine Music are still censored in the United States, while Saludos Amigos was presented without cuts on the "Walt & El Groupo" DVD release a few years later.

On the Walt Disney Treasures DVD releases, much stronger material was presented with little but a comment or two from Leonard Maltin, including a number of suppressed Pluto cartoons where his master is a bossy Aunt Jemima type, and several examples of pretty hardcore wartime propaganda like Education For Death.

In a similar vein, the VHS release (and as far as I can tell,  subsequent home video releases) of The Lion King have zoomed in several shots in the "Be Prepared" sequence to make the goose-stepping hyenas a little less apparent.

Closer to home, at some point Disney did major censorship to Dumbo, removing entirely the jive-talking crows from all but their final appearance in the film to sing "When I See An Elephant Fly". And the famous black centaurettes have been missing permanently from Fantasia since the 1960s. Yet despite this, there's never really been any attempt to remove the humiliating "What Makes The Red Man Red?" sequence in Peter Pan.

The reason Disney can't - and I'm not saying they won't, I'm saying that they cannot - release Song of the South has to do with, surprisingly, the success of their home video department.

If I asked you to, I bet that it'd be easier for you to come up with a list of places where you cannot buy Disney movies and DVDs than places you can. Electronics shops, mega marts, pharmacies, gas stations, automotive repair stores, supermarkets... children's entertainment on home video is a gigantic market segment and, best of all, it's recession proof.

During the DVD boom of the early naughts, films of all stripes were flying out the door, but once the market collapsed, home video has returned to levels of business fairly comparable to what it was like in the 1990s. If you grew up in the VHS era, as I did, think back to what movies your friends and family likely owned on VHS, and you're going to be picturing rows and rows of movies in those distinctive white puffy clam shells - Disney movies. Mixed in there was going to be, say, your friend's dad's copy of Goodfellas, or maybe Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or something. In other words: hit movies, and kid's films. Then as now, that's what moves copies of films on home video.

Why? Because kids are easily bored and any parent knows that a bored kid is a recipe for disaster, so it's good practice to keep a bunch of them on hand. To kids, the word "Disney" means a good way to spend time. For adults, it means nothing more than "probably safe for your kids".

As Disney fans we tend to forget this, but for the vast majority of the consumer population Disney movies are used as electronic babysitters. Disney even has a special feature on their discs to facilitate this, and they market it like it's a huge benefit - Disney's FastPlay, in which an inserted disc will play assorted trailers, ads, the feature film, and even bonus material clear through, exactly like a VHS.

They've been using it for 12 years now, and if you look carefully, most other animation studios have followed suit with their home video releases, so they must be hearing from people that this is what they want.

This is the market that Disney fears. It isn't the people who are going to line up to attack a 70-year old movie, and it isn't pointy headed geeks like we who are worried about the aspect ratio of Melody Time, and it isn't the think piece in Huffington Post they're worried about, it's Joe and Jane Blow.

Disney movies are sold everywhere, which means they've locked their product into a massive distribution network that empties out into places like a Publix in Hollywood, Florida. It just isn't practical for them to do a small release of a film like Song of the South, because for Disney releasing a product - any product - on video is the equivalent of pressing a huge red button that vomits 10 million copies of everything into every store in the United States.

If you were collecting the Walt Disney Treasures DVD releases, you've experienced this. If you wanted one of the discs, you had to get to your retailer of choice money in hand on release day. The Treasures discs came in on the truck with all of the other Disney releases for that day, and when they were gone, they were gone.
Given this scenario, it's easy to see Jane Q. Public thoughtlessly throwing a shiny new Blu-Ray copy of Song of the South into her basket at Target because there's a fun looking rabbit on the cover, and turning into a raging consumer volcano upon discovering that the film features less than flattering depicting of - are those slaves? It's not nerds, but Moms, that Disney lives in constant fear of. They have spent generations building up goodwill and brand recognition to potentially degrade it by releasing something that's not really okay to most Americans.

So, if Disney is even going to think about a release of Song of the South, they have to find a way of releasing it in such a way that nerds can find it but casual Disney consumers cannot.

They could, for instance, sell it directly to fans at the D23 Expo, which given the cost to get in is all but guaranteed to screen out anyone who's going to be walking into Song of the South blindfolded. This would certainly bolster D23's tenuous claim to be "by fans, for fans", although it would encourage scalpers and bootleggers - but doesn't the current strategy do that already? If anything, the opportunity to purchase a legitimate copy of Song of the South direct from Disney could be a powerful incentive for some to attend.

Disney could also contemplate a limited distribution strategy through, say, their Disney Movie Club, which they're already using to make available such less-marketable titles as Pollyanna and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Using this method it's still not impossible that Song of the South could end up in "The Wrong Hands", but the risk is far less than a wide release.

An even safer bet could be a direct digital download with, say, a click-through acknowledgement and an attached video disclaimer with Leonard Maltin.

Or, they could use a DVD boutique label.

Boutique labels are an interesting abnormality in the history of home video. The basic concept dates from the laserdisc era, when laserdiscs were an expensive product with a limited consumer base. The true money was in the inferior VHS format and the video rental business, and so while studios poured money into releasing their movie titles on magnetic tape, they often pawned off the rights to release their cult or classic films of more questionable commercial prospects to companies like Image Entertainment or Voyager on laserdisc. This, in turn, allowed these companies to lavish more time and attention on these cult items, and market them especially to collectors and nerds.

The long term benefits of this splitting of the market segment had undeniable benefits in film culture. Successful laser releases of catalog films meant that more and more older films were going to be restored and preserved. At the same time, the cinephilic bent of the format meant that more and more consumers were demanding not only better, but definitive releases of films.

Laserdiscs introduced the notion of alternate cuts, like the duelling versions of Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon, and the now highly marketable Director's Cuts, like the long version of Lawrence of Arabia. Films which had previously existed in altered and truncated versions began to be put back together. Our modern, improved opinion of directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone stems from reconstruction efforts which began as attempts to sell laserdiscs.

This is the model the industry is returning to, by the way. Video stores no longer exist, but the big multi-million dollar agreements of today are over streaming services, while the shrinking video market is increasingly being split up amongst boutique labels. Three of the best today are Olive Films, Twilight Time and Shout! Factory. And then there's Criterion. If you've come all the way to this blog I likely don't need to tell you what Criterion is, but just in case, here it is.

Criterion was the label for art house movies. Their first release ever was Citizen Kane. They pioneered the concept of added-value content on disc, recording the first ever commentary track - for King Kong. They printed essays about the films on the rear on their laserdisc sleeves. And they cleverly assigned each release a number - subtly encouraging collectors, like Pokemon, to get them all.

The impact of Criterion on our modern cinephile culture cannot be underestimated. For the first time, fans like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson could watch a movie and then listen to its director speak about it on a commentary track. Criterion releases were film school in a box and paved the way for our current home video standards - director involvement, correct aspect ratios, high picture quality, and bonus features. As a result, each Criterion film release has, for some, acquired the character of the canonization of a saint.

The respect and prestige conferred on Criterion means that a Criterion release of a film or director can actually turn the conversation of the film around. In the late 1980s Criterion released a gigantic laserdisc set of Terry Gilliam's costly, controversial Brazil and it's probably on the basis of their release, and then again on DVD and Blu-Ray, that the film has graduated slowly from curious cult item to established classic.

Isn't this what Song of the South needs? A careful release that will turn its image around while keeping it out of the hands of casual consumers? A release will confer instant prestige on a troubled film?

This strategy comes with a certain degree of insurance against wandering hands. To begin with, Criterion goes to great lengths to design unique covers which reflect the films inside, a world away from Disney's standard "a bunch of characters looming" method. The upshot is that the release would look nothing like a normal Disney movie. And, of course, Criterion releases are priced at a premium price point - more than twice the price of other movies. All of these factors tend to keep Criterion discs out of mass market retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, where the majority of Disney product moves.

Well, that's how I'd do it. There is no perfect solution to the problem. As I said at the start, Song of the South is a film which demands an interpretive scheme - it demands that the viewer have a point of view. You cannot watch it passively. Even with a careful release and thoughtful roll out, those who want to view Walt Disney as a racist and The Walt Disney Company as an evil corporation will find plenty of ammunition in it. But what does it matter? They were going to take that position anyway. Meanwhile others who may have judged the film harshly based on reputation will be given a chance to re-evaluate their position and make up their own mind. It won't happen right away, but bit by bit the film can be pulled back into respectable company. Hey - it happened for TRON.

Disney's point of view is that the film doesn't exist. By keeping it out of sight they hope it will eventually just go away. It isn't going to work this way. Escape From Tomorrow was allowed to go out unchallenged because Disney correctly guessed that it wasn't a good enough film to be more than a passing novelty.

But Song of the South is a film they advertise to tens of thousands of people a day inside their parks. And what's more, most people who see it tend to like it. By failing to take a position, Disney is fleeing the problem like Br'er Rabbit hopping away from the briar patch. And, just like Uncle Remus said, any place they go will never be far enough away.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Theme Park Trope List

(Updated April 8, 2015 with three new tropes)

Theme Parks have been at it for a long time now. Technically for about 60 years, but theme park-style experiences go back even further, to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and Coney Island, and on. There was even an early chain of amusement park attractions - Hale's Tours - that were pretty similar, in concept, to rides like Back to the Future and the Hogwarts Express. And, once you take into consideration the unique style that Universal Creative has cultivated since the 1980s, and the way the WED house style, and WDI house style, and the Universal house style have cross-pollinated and informed each other, there's a pretty rich history of traditions to draw on.

Or, to put it another way, there's a whole history of rhetorical devices, narrative conceits, motifs, and cliches that theme park attractions draw on to communicate with us strongly and basically visually. We can call these tropes. And no, I'm not going to pull a TV Tropes here and catalog every single device or theme that's been used in the history of human endeavor. I'm after most or all of the big ones, however. So no, you wont see "Exit Thru the Gift Shop" here because they're as much formal expectations at this point as they are narrative cliches, which to me would be like calling editing in films a "Trope". For this same reason you won't see things like a Themed Queue or Ride Vehicle. I want to dig into the deeper predictable patterns of the experience.

So myself and my friend Brandon (@DCAlover on Twitter) put our heads together and came up with a pretty extensive list of the various reasons and ways rides have been dropping us down waterfalls, spinning us in circles, and running us over with trains (or garbage trucks piloted by Stan Lee) for generations.


Invisibility Cloak On - A classic of WED design. In Pirates of the Caribbean, we're expected to be concerned about getting exploded or shot in the face, but the pirates don't seem to see us - are we really there or not? Often results in a weirdly voyeur-like experience.
Examples: Pirates of the Caribbean, Horizons, World of Motion, Primeval World, Swiss Family Treehouse

Harold Isn't Going To Like This - a.k.a. The Fourth Wall Won't Save You, and the opposite of Invisibility Cloak On. Often used in scary or intense attractions to "imperil" riders, especially Universal shows, although Disney pioneered the form by killing guests with a train! It's any time a dangerous or villainous character notices and/or pursues the riders.
Namer: Matterhorn Bobsleds
Examples: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Revenge of the Mummy, The Haunted Mansion, Jaws, Indiana Jones Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Captain Rex Day - Every day is Captain Rex Day, because every day is your guide's first day of doing something highly dangerous! You're nearly guaranteed to hear this if your theme park experience includes a live actor.
Namer: Star Tours
Examples: Jungle Cruise, Poseidon's Fury, Cranium Command

The Nickel Tour - Arguably the foundation conceit of most theme park attractions, this trope claims that the attraction is actually a tour of an imaginary, specific indoor facility or location. It's the next logical evolution away from the "themed scenery" mode of attractions like Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland or Jungle Cruise, which often include multiple, abstract locations.
Examples: The Haunted Mansion, The Living Seas, Back to the Future, The Disney-MGM Backlot Studio Tour

Not a Tape - There's many reasons why that recorded narration you're hearing isn't meant to be that recorded narration you're hearing. It could be... spooky ghosts! Or the invisible crew of your tiny submarine! Or the thoughts of Paul Frees suspended in inner space! How about a radio transmission?? Please don't think about this too thoroughly.
Examples: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Indiana Jones Adventure, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Space Mountain

Three Hour Tour - Happens every time a narrated ride, often a leisurely one, claims that those ten minutes you just spent looking at fiberglass critters in relative comfort constituted days or weeks of your life. There is never any apology or rationale given for this timeslip. You are now old.
Examples: Disneyland Railroad, Jungle Cruise, Mike Fink Keelboats, Sailing Ship Columbia, Kilimanjaro Safaris

Easy On The Curves - Wouldn't you know it, it's the darn finicky cutting edge / patched together / shopworn technology going and breaking down and/or messing everything up! I never could have anticipated this happening in a theme park. Your Uncle who only buys products from The Vermont Country Store and writes with a typewriter was right all along.
Namer: Indiana Jones Adventure
Examples: Alien Encounter, Honey I Shrunk the Audience, Stitch's Great Escape, Dinosaur, Timekeeper, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem!

Eisner Institute - You know what's boring? Going somewhere and having something amazing and impossible happen. Wouldn't you much rather go to an institute or research center where there's drywall and doors with names on them and then have something whimsically unexpected go horribly wrong once you're there? Wouldn't that be so much better?
Namer: Michael Eisner, the patron saint of institutions
Examples: Test Track, Journey Into Your Imagination, Body Wars, Back to the Future, Mission: Space, Dinosaur, Alien Encounter, Honey I Shrunk the Audience...

We Have To Save Elroy - A normal theme park demonstration is interrupted when - oh no! - a plot device occurs! Being the red-blooded Americans that we are, the entire audience is enlisted to help. "Elroy" can also be a macguffin (the gift in Despicable Me) or a red herring.
Namer: The Funtastic World of Hannah-Barbera
Examples: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Transformers the Ride 4D, Ghostbusters Spooktacular, ET Adventure, Kilimanjaro Safaris

Little Red is OK - Corollary to We Have To Save Elroy, where of course "Elroy" is always OK at the end. Sometimes other trams/boats full of people will be shown to have perished, but the nearest any theme park ever got to actually doing off a supporting character was the unlucky submarine 13, crushed by a giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Namer: Kilimanjaro Safaris

Torturing the Recruits - At Imagineering in the 90s and early naughts, if you weren't going to an institute you were always some kind of recruit. You apparently got drafted by walking in the door. What could be more lighthearted??
Namer: Stitch's Great Escape
Examples: Alien Encounter, Men in Black: Alien Attack, Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, Mission: Space, Body Wars, Ghostbusters Spooktacular

Background Action - Mostly-Universal-Specific Corollary to Torturing the Recruits, where you're supposed to be playing extras in a film shoot of some sort. Unlike real movie extras, you don't get a free lunch out of it.
Examples: Earthquake: The Big One, Revenge of the Mummy, Backdraft, Disaster!, Twister: Ride It Out!, Catastrophe Canyon

Sherrie Wants To Kill You - Sherrie may look pleasant sitting at that desk near Bill McKim, but she actually wants to murder you by driving you into a wall. Sometimes an innocent-looking secondary character, sometimes the main antagonist.
Namer: Test Track
Examples: Snow White's Scary Adventures, Revenge of the Mummy, Alien Encounter, Tower of Terror (TDL), Indiana Jones Adventure

You Die At The End - Especially if you go to hell.
Examples: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Snow White's Adventures, Fata Morgana (maybe), Men in Black: Alien Attack (maybe)

I Got Some In My Mouth - Nothing could possibly make any ride more cutting edge and intense than spritzing the audience with water, right? Nobody's ever done that before! Bonus points if the water is supposed to be dripping blood, as in Revenge of the Mummy (Hollywood).
Namer: Alien Encounter
Examples: Mickey's Philharmagic, Jurassic Park, Stitch's Great Escape, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Toy Story Midway Mania, Revenge of the Mummy, Muppet-Vision 3D, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Ellen's Energy Adventure, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Captain EO

Beware of Glass - Inexplicable Universal-only subset of I Got Some In My Mouth, where being spritzed with water can also represent glass shattering nearby.
Examples: Terminator 2 3D, Revenge of the Mummy, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

EllenBot - It's a bad idea to cast a recognizable person in your attraction because their audio-animatronic incarnation will probably look nothing like them. Is that Tim Allen or a Country Bear??
Namer: Ellen's Energy Adventure
Examples: The Hall of Presidents, Superstar Limo

The Book Report Ride - An attraction which shows exactly the same events which occurred in the source film in the same order. You know these well.
Examples: Peter Pan's Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Seas With Nemo and Friends

Ride the Movies - This is what happened after that movie you saw probably recently! Sometimes, the theme park attraction is the proper direct sequel to a film, but represents an alternate universe if the source movie got another sequel, as in the case of Terminator 2. Or, the story can be dropped into a specific point in a movie chronology rather than being set "after" the main events of the story.
Namer: Universal Studios Florida
Examples: Back to the Future, E.T. Adventure, Indiana Jones Adventure, Men in Black: Alien Attack, Star Tours, Jaws, Stitch's Great Escape, Revenge of the Mummy, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, Jurassic Park The Ride

It's Not About Finding Hot Tubs - Subset of Ride the Movies, and differentiated from the Book Report, where an attraction specifically tells you that the events depicted therein take place after the movie -- but everything that happens is just something that happened in the movie.
Namer: Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
Examples: Radiator Springs Racers, Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy

The Enchanted Tales Razor - The rule that states that no explanation is sometimes better. Named for Enchanted Tales with Belle, where a straightforward character meet and greet is burdened with an absurd time travel conceit which not only makes no sense, but conveniently vanishes after it's no longer needed.
Examples: Enchanted Tales with Belle, Mission: Space

Why Did It Have to be Tourists - "You're sending a bunch of wet behind the ears tourists out in the SCOOP?" Or: any time a beleaguered hero has to save your miserable ass because you were a bunch of dumb tourists. You are lower than dirt.
Namer: Indiana Jones Adventure
Examples: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Star Tours, Transformers the Ride 4D, Dinosaur

Where Have You Been?! - A Harry Potter-specific subset of Why Did It Have to be Tourists. Harry Potter is constantly saving your ass. There's no moment when he isn't. Dementors? Voldemort? Whomping Willow? Harry Potter saved your ass. Theme Park Harry Potter is more competent than movie Harry Potter, book Harry Potter, and fanfic Harry Potter rolled into one. That time you nearly fell trying to buy a carton of milk in Target? He saved your ass that time too. Harry Potter is the hardest working guy in theme parks. He hates you so much.
Namer: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Examples: Hogwarts Express, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Harry Potter and You In Line For Butterbeer, Harry Potter and the........

I'm Bill Paxton - Most commonly used in Universal attractions where an actor appears on a screen to address you before the main experience; also snuck into Disney rides in the 90s.
Namer: Bill Paxton in Twister: Ride It Out!
Examples: Steven Spielberg in E.T. Adventure, Angela Lansbury in Murder: She Wrote Mystery Production Theater, Ron Howard in Backdraft, John Michael Higgins in Test Track, Wallace Langham in Countdown to Extinction / Dinosaur, Gary Sinise in Mission: SPACE, Jeffrey Jones in Alien Encounter, Patrick Warburton in Soarin Over California

The Hunky Tuna Tostada - Corollary to I'm Bill Paxton. Any time a highly recognizable celebrity or entertainer pops up unexpectedly in the middle of an attraction experience for a cameo, it's always going to take the audience out of the experience, even if it's intended strictly as a joke.
Namer: Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management
Examples: The Timekeeper, Disaster, Ellen's Energy Adventure, Revenge of the Mummy, Superstar Limo

Mission: Tortilla - OK, listen, maybe you didn't like all those institutes or research centers,  but Eisner sure loves industrial tours, because that's where people who actually have to work for a living are! Fascinating! Bonus if you get a free food sample for showing up.
Name: Mission Tortilla Factory
Examples: Universal Studios Tram Tour, Boudin Bread Factory, Disney-MGM Studios Backlot Tour

Expiration Date - In an effort to show how not-lame and with-it a theme park institution is, a new attraction opens featuring the latest music, or cool visual style, or hottest sitcom stars. Inevitably, it's absurdly dated within five years. The defining example was probably the "fountain of fashion" at the exit of Adventure Thru Inner Space, but this was also less of a problem before the 90s, when sponsors and Disney replaced attactions pretty regularly. Interestingly, supposedly Universal designs their studio park attractions to have a shelf life of ten years.
Examples: America Sings, Innoventions, Wonders of Life, DisneyQuest, Food Rocks
(Suggested by 'Judah Ben-Hur')

After These Messages - is practically an extinct park trope, but it was once the norm. Enough sponsorship money being thrown around can result in, for a price, your very own ride-through corporate advertisement, complete with a catchy theme song. Probably the best example is the rotating furniture showroom known as the Carousel of Progress, but plenty of other attractions toed the corporate line, dispensing approved nuggets about microwaves, textiles, and agriculture. Interestingly, one of the last of these - Horizons - subverted the trope by being lavishly funded by General Electric but presenting no overt product placement.
Examples: Kaiser Hall of Aluminum Fame, Monsanto Home of Future Living, Adventures Thru Inner Space, Listen to the Land, Universe of Energy

Parkception - Universal has been up to a lot of this lately, but it's actually Disney that started the whole current boom. More than an attraction that's aware it's an attraction, it's a miniature amusement park, often depicted of being below theme park quality, inside a theme park. The first one, of course, was Jurassic Park, but it's Disney that set the template with their kitsch tributes Chester and Hester's Dino-rama and Paradise Pier. Lately, miniature amusement parks have sprung up around The Simpsons Ride and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem.
Examples: Dino-rama, Paradise Pier, Krustyland, Super Silly Fun Land
(Suggested by Hastin)

Feel free to propose any we may have missed in the comments! If I like one, I may add it to the article!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Seeing/Not Seeing the Parks and Fan Typology

There's a really funny story in Patton Oswalt's new book, Silver Screen Fiend. In it, Patton and a childhood friend go to a movie theater to see the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing. Last Man Standing, as you likely don't remember, is a remake of Fistful of Dollars, which itself is a remake of a Japanese samurai movie called Yojimbo, so that the film in question is a remake of a remake. Ah, but it doesn't stop there, because Yojimbo itself is a riff on an American novel by Daschiel Hammett called Red Harvest. So Last Man Standing is a remake of a remake of a remake.

Anyway, Patton casually explains this to his friend before the movie begins and it totally destroys the movie for this poor guy. He spends the entirety of this inconsequential Bruce Willis movie sweating out what it all has to do with Italians and Japanese. Afterwards, he's angry at Patton for spoiling the film for him by revealing this tiny piece of trivia.

Experiences and perceptions have a lot to do with expectations, don't they? For the past few weeks I've been ruminating on a post which was forwarded to me by friend and sporadic Disney blogger Ian Kay, written by Film Crit Hulk, a highly insightful film writer who none-the-less gets angry and WRITES IN ALL CAPS.

Hulk was writing about the culture of spoilers in film and TV viewing, and in doing so he delineates 4 levels of film viewing which most viewers fall into, or between. I think this criteria can spread to all media forms, but because I think it's especially pertinent to talking about Disney theme parks, so I'm going to outline them here:

Group 1 is a group who view media very naively, and are powerfully and very directly affected by what they see. This is you seeing Star Wars or The Lion King when you were 7. Group 1 does very little thinking while watching films, and their emotional engagement is very strong and hard to shake. Many, many adults spend their whole lives in Group 1. You probably know somebody who won't see "downer" or "challenging" films because they're simply unable to escape from the effect these stories have on them.

Group 2 viewers have seen enough media that they know the ins and outs of how stories are constructed. They don't really worry if Anna will be de-iced in Frozen because by now they understand that children's films have something of a safety net. But they still view media largely as emotional experiences which distract from daily life. They will try, constantly, to recapture that feeling of when they were Group 1 viewers - and, when a film really delivers that feeling, as Lord of the Rings and Guardians of the Galaxy did, these experiences are often handsomely rewarded by a hugely grateful groups of adults.

Group 3 viewers are, simply put, usually professional critics. They have viewed such a body of media in their field that they've become adept at deconstructing the qualities of the product as they watch it while still trying to leave the door open for a Group 2 or Group 1-style experience. Most viewers cannot and will not cross the threshold into 3 because there's a fear that the quality of the experiences will suffer and, often, it does - it becomes far easier to pick out bad goods. The flip side is that the great experiences stop being merely fun and become transcendent, religious - and stimulating. This is the high the critic craves, and it drives them into increasingly obscure corners to find it.

Group 4 are Industry people. Veteran TV cameramen, video game programmers, newscasters - these people are so used to troubleshooting and running the wires behind the scenes that when they view media they see nothing but the strings. They can assess exactly, specifically, technically where it succeeds or fails. These people are the auto mechanics of the entertainment world.

The whole point is that all 4 categories are equal - one is not better than the other - but Groups 1 and 2 often simply cannot comprehend the viewpoint of Groups 3 and 4. Personally I've been hearing the same line forever - "You always over analyze things! Why can't you just relax and enjoy the movie?"

It's the same way with theme parks. Get me or HBG2 talking about Haunted Mansion and you end up on a spaceship launching off to some unknown conceptual destination. He'll talk about theology. I'll talk about Sergei Eisenstein and Moby Dick. And somewhere, people's eyes are spinning around in their sockets.

And the answer is, no, I can't just relax and enjoy it, because I'm on the other side of the looking glass now. I sit somewhere between 3 and 4, perhaps nostalgic for my days as a 1, but aware that I feel inherently more fulfilled for having made the journey.

Now, about theme parks.

Theme parks, and Disney ones especially, are a strong drug. That specific blend of total sensory assault, giddy excitement and surging nostalgia produces a high better and stronger than any chemical, and it can last for as long as you're able to pay. Who hasn't, at one point, wished they could just live at the Polynesian Village? Or above New Orleans Square? Just like Star Wars, Disney is handing you down the key to a golden kingdom where time seems to go haywire, simultaneously rushing past like a freight train and standing still, even reversing. For sentimentalists, this is the ultimate high. Anyone who's ever read Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine should recognize the causes of his grateful, almost tearful attachment to Disneyland, a personal magic door into his better place.

And here's the thing: it was that way for me too. But it isn't any longer. And that has not "ruined" these places for me. It's made them stronger.

The way Disney parks are designed and indeed marketed, they tend to produce a Group 1-style response in almost everybody. There's multiple reasons why. There's the excitement of being on vacation and, for many, the sacred feeling of a family vacation or indeed yearly ritual. This is our time to (fill in the blank). The park, meaning the physical cluster of concrete structures, is a sort of stimulus/social lubricant that can result in quality experiences and genuine bonding.

The average person who's walking around Epcot right now, today, as you're reading this cannot afford - literally cannot afford conceptually, cannot afford emotionally, and cannot afford financially - to analyze the experience. After traveling from Nebraska and trading on Jane's college tuition to bring the family to Epcot, if the product were anything less than exemplary in their view the result would be catastrophic. Very intelligent people pay lots of money to shut off their brains and walk under Spaceship Earth into a place where mortgages and crime don't exist. In any other situation these people would be in Group 3 or 4, but today, for now, they're resolutely Group 1.

If you go online and read Disney fan discourse, you're going to be reading a lot of emotional appeals. Often they're gussied up at some attempt at "objectivity" but they're anything but. Gran Fiesta Tour is great because Timmy clapped his hands on it, a memory you will always treasure. The Circle of Life at The Land is a family favorite because Grandpa fell asleep. We got engaged during Wishes. These people are arguing from an entirely gut, emotional point of view. They're trying to validate reliving moments, but what they're not doing is discussing things.

After so many years of going - first as a tourist, then as a Cast Member, then as a local Annual Passholder where I can drive in and see Main Street without spending a hot dime - the bulk of my experiences in these places are no longer the sanctified vacation experiences most have. I haven't had a Walt Disney World vacation in 15 years but I've probably spent 4000 times the amount of time there I spent on vacation. Oh yes, I've been there, but for mere hours at a time and the stresses of the real world don't leave because I know being back at work is just 12 hours away. Or I already am at work.

Where most visitors look at a building in Frontierland and see a charming old west saloon, I see and appreciate the illusion of an old west building, but my knowledge goes deeper. I know that it's fiberglass and lathe over a steel girder superstructure, and that behind that blacked out window is a green file cabinet, and that in the attic above the Trading Post is a shitty old couch I crashed on, once, because I've crawled thru the whole thing. And over there, a few feet away, is where a guest took a swing at me on New Year's Eve while I was working two-way traffic on an hour of sleep and earning barely above minimum wage. And ten feet past that is the lamppost where I found the stroller in the bush during that ten hour stroller parking shift in April 2004. And over there is where the sewer erupted on Christmas Eve and sprayed 34 people with raw sewage. And I even have X-Ray vision and can "see" the cast Corridor that runs behind the building, and the shop on the other side, and the street beyond that.

A certain breed of Disney fan would find that view disrespectful, but those aren't even the bad memories - they're just the accumulated detritus of years and years spent at these places, willing or not. When you're on vacation, you don't see the strings. You don't notice that the flute player in the Haunted Mansion has a busted actuator in his left arm because you don't know and don't care. You see and experience symbols, not things. When I look at these places, I see specific things from the inside out and back again.

This is why everyone thinks these parks were always in perfect working order when they were kids - when you're on vacation, you don't see chipped paint and blown out lights. you don't have time. Stuff was still broken and beat up at Magic Kingdom in the 1970s - its just that there wasn't any internet or annual passholders to report it.

January 1975 - and look at all the crooked, blown out lights!

I used to do this sort of willful obstruction too. I used to sit at home after a Walt Disney World vacation and become paranoid because I couldn't remember the color of the pavement at EPCOT Center. If I couldn't remember it, did it exist? Did I get the absolute most out of my limited time there? Did I dream the vacation?

But Walt Disney World and Disneyland are bigger things than your memories or the moments you spend there.

They're also magic tricks and fiberglass bricks, wooden beams holding up the set, those beautiful murals outside the sets in Horizons, and nasty stanchion poles and trash compactors and computer systems that crunch numbers and a broken down car in the Cast parking lot. And the more I became aware of the secret Walt Disney World, the vibrant life behind the "life", the more I loved it. For a while there I was a hardcore Group 4'er. Now I'm more like a 3.5. But once you pull back that curtain, it's impossible to go back to being a Group 2 or Group 1. Your eyes never see it the same way. It gets inside you and changes you from the inside.

And this is, I think, the main source of discord in the Disney online community: occasional, high spending 1 and 2 consumers getting very upset with more regular, casual, or professional Group 3 and 4 thinkers. Annual Passholders can show up for reasons of boredom, or for social obligations - as an Orlandian you spend a lot of time meeting out-of-town friends inside theme parks. It makes sense, because who would want to catch a movie at a crappy strip mall when they could be spending their precious vacation hours inside Epcot?

I've "had" to go into theme parks to meet friends where I'd rather go literally anywhere else, and it was even worse while I worked in these same places. That sounds like the most disingenuous complaint, but these are crowded, exhausting places to be for a social obligation. Would you want to go back to your workplace to spend your day off?

I admit that I'm coming around to the notion that jealousy plays into it, too, for some commentators. A Disney park, for them, is a ritual place, sacred ground, which they only see, God willing, every few years if the chips come down right. And yet here's another group who could be there every day and all they see are the paint chips and blown out lights. How rude! How ungrateful! Jealousy sours into resentment. All of these Walt Disney World locals are a bunch of haters! And worse of all, because of social media, you know every single time they're there.

And some people do so want that Disney high to last forever that they take the step of moving to Orlando to be near to Disney. But eventually, they start to become Group 3's, too. One day they walk into the Confectionery on Main Street and realize that that $35 they spent on fudge would have been better spent on rent. And that fudge they were sure to come and buy on every single Walt Disney World vacation, it vanishes forever. The real fudge can still be bought but their fudge, their vacation fudge, can never be reclaimed. They start, day in and day out, to imperceptibly see the place differently.

Exquisite fairytale castle? SEEN IT!

It all comes down to that, I feel. Fans fight each other in these endless loops of aggression because they see the place fundamentally differently. Vacationers only see the places through the tourist filter. Then somebody like me, where I've been crammed through so many filters and sieves that I'm surprised any bit of that childlike awe at the accomplishment of the place is left. It's not about opinions but experiences and perceptions.

I think the rancor is unfortunate, and not just because there is something wonderfully human and optimistic about those who construct a place entirely out of memories. Why wouldn't they be mad? To them, Dumbo wasn't a fiberglass elephant circling a concrete pit, it was the smile on their three-year-old's face in the early morning Florida heat. I find that perspective to be very moving, but it's also inherently limited, because they weren't really seeing the place, but some alternate reality warped by time, perception, and that Disney high. They're no more seeing the physical space of Walt Disney World than Raoul Duke saw The Flamingo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So, if I opine that Dumbo isn't a very good ride, then to them I'm not talking about a fiberglass elephant but their personal memory of their personal happy place, the weave of memory is too tight to peek through.

And goodness knows I don't wish I could get that too, sometimes. I don't think my viewpoint is noble so much as inevitable. I haven't experienced a truly new-to-me theme park in 14 years. This summer, I'll finally be going to Disneyland Paris, and I'll have to be deprogramming myself out of my old habits - I'll have to remember to go into shops, for one, or pace myself to spend 16 hours in a theme park instead of 2. I'm curious if my critical apparatus will turn off.

I secretly don't think it will. I'm too fond of analyzing.

Now, I'm no fool. I'm not expecting this article to stop people on the internet from arguing, and besides, some people are only out to make others miserable anyway. But I do think it's time for the Groups 1 and 2 and Groups 3 and 4 to recognize that, for others, it literally is not the same place. Annual Passholders and those with a critical eye don't have your same memories, and to vacationers, even the most prolific and profligate spenders have only a fraction of the experience of others. One viewpoint is not a corrective to the other. The point is that both sides are needed - and need to recognize each other - to create an honest, healthy whole.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

All About Western River Expedition, Part Three


Let's talk about Marc.

Whenever I've spoken to or heard from somebody who worked directly with Marc Davis, the most common way I've heard him described is "extremely serious". This seems to directly contradict his reputation as the master of zany visual comedy and weird jokes, but the description is pretty consistent. Despite the obvious levity he brought to project after project, it's clear that he thought hard about the medium he was working in.

Here's a guy who studied to be an artist in a traditional mold who was brought into Disney in the 30s due to his superior drafting skills as part of a classically trained support group behind Ham Luske, Jack Campbell, and Grim Natwick in the creation of Snow White. Snow White, the most complex, subtle animated character ever attempted at Disney at that time, started Davis off on a career path of animating leading ladies: Cinderella, Alice, Tinkerbell, and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. He had some opportunities to show some range too: Brer Rabbit, Cruella deVille, and Maleficent hint at Davis' extraordinary skill, but he largely was given technically demanding women's roles while artists like Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas cut loose with comedy characters.

In later interviews, Marc never had too much to say about his leading ladies. He had very complimentary things to say about Sleeping Beauty's effort and design, and I've often wondered if his dual role in that film (animating both Aurora and Maleficent) was a result of some kind of bargain to land a better character role. He left feature animation after his work on Chanticleer bottomed out.

excerpt from his autobiographical "A Thumbnail History of Marc Davis"
In contrast, Marc characterized his time at WED Enterprises as the part of his professional career where he was truly satisfied. He was, I believe, the first of the Imagineers to really take a critical look at what made Disneyland tick. After Walt sent him out to look at the place and gather ideas, he made it a habit: careful observation of how people acted and reacted inside the parks. The lessons learned in Enchanted Tiki Room he carried over to Country Bear Jamboree. Lessons learned in Country Bear Jamboree he carried on to America Sings. The enjoyment he took in this new medium, and level of serious thought he devoted to it, is evident in much of his work. You don't come up with powerfully communicative, funny stuff like the Trapped Safari at Jungle Cruise without putting a lot of thought into how to pull it off.

But I think what Marc really wanted was to be able to do what Claude Coats did. It was the fusion of Claude's sensibilities for atmosphere and color and Marc's sensibilities for comedy and visual communication that elevated Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. But if you really have to choose a style that makes those two attractions work, it's Claude's. Marc learned the power of a richly developed atmosphere from Claude, and Western River Expedition was his chance to put his learning to good use and do it all himself.

So despite their obvious affinity for each others' styles - Marc and Claude continued to work together, on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and again on Enchanted Snow Palace - Marc would always get a little cagey in describing Claude Coats in later years, and I think this is why. You can call it jealously if you like, but Marc wanted  to offer more than gag and character designs.

So it's interesting to examine how things Marc always said about Pirates of the Caribbean ended up being transposed in transformed ways into Western River Expedition. He praised Coats' haunted grotto in Pirates as being "very effective", so Western River has two caverns, but each one with a very different effect.

The first cavern takes the place of the "time travel" conceit from Pirates in favor of a more artful approach to drawing us into a fantasy.

Rock formations in the opening cavern suggest one Old West image after another, and as we pass each, a piece of the Western River Expedition theme begins to play one part after another until there is an entire musical piece. In this way, the Old West of the prairie, cowboys and indians, and Dry Gulch seems to come out of our own subconscious associations as we see seemingly familiar shapes in rocks. There's no need for a big pile of cursed pirate gold because Davis artfully prompts us to make the leap into fantasy ourselves.

The second cavern repeats the spooky atmosphere of the Pirate caves but this time adds all of the waterfalls which make the Disneyland caverns so memorable. I think the idea of motivating the waterfalls as being the result of a flash flood, thereby making them a direct threat to riders, is ingenious. And then there's the trip up the waterfall.

Marc always called out Walt's trip up the waterfall at the end of Pirates as an element he pointedly did not like, so what's it doing in Western River Expedition, the dream project he had total control over?

I think Marc probably noticed something about the "Up the Waterfall" scene which can still be observed in the park today, which is that people expect a big payoff for going up the waterfall. They raise their arms in anticipation of a big drop. If you read his objection to the scene again, you'll notice that his specific complaint is that guests "sit there wondering what the hell [to] do next". This is why using the trip up the waterfall to build suspense at the climax of the ride solves his stated objection. Western River Expedition cleverly uses the up-the-waterfall gag to raise suspense for a coming confrontation as our situation goes from bad to worse. He turned an (apparent) liability into an asset.

Other items from Pirates of the Caribbean got a total rethink. The idea of turning the fiery finalie into a natural disaster is an interesting one, but Davis zeroed in on the beautifully effective "swaying timbers" scene for expansion into literally an entire burning forest about to come crashing down onto the boats. Western River was as much an experiment to place every element from Pirates into its most dramatically effective order as it was a plan to "outdo" it. Perhaps they would have seemed redundant sitting next to each other in the same park at first, but I think Western River Expedition was up to enough genuinely new stuff to earn a place as a standalone piece.

Oh, and about Pirates of the Caribbean in Florida. I don't think it's necessarily a coincidence that when Marc was tasked with designing a cut down version of the attraction for Magic Kingdom that the stuff he excised is the stuff that would have been most redundant with Western River Expedition. Ride up the waterfall? Gone. Slow atmospheric build to the start? Gone. Slow crawl underneath burning timbers? Gone.

If anything, the fact that the FL Pirates dispenses with all of the atmosphere building and gets us right to the meat and potatoes of the ride - the town under siege - makes even more sense considering exactly how much of Western River was supposed to be atmospheric vamping. So, yes, the pitifully small budget contributes as well, but in 1971 and 1972 when designs were underway, Western River Expedition was still officially being prepped for construction at Magic Kingdom. Davis seems to have been going out of his way to make both attractions complimentary instead of competitive. It's unfortunate that Pirates was left holding the short end of the stick in 1973, but that's what happened. I suspect we'd be having a very different discussion about this if WRE got off the ground.

In fact, nobody ever seems to mention that if Western River Expedition was Marc's first stab at reworking Pirates, and Florida Pirates of the Caribbean was his second, he went back and did it all a third time: for Tokyo Disneyland, in 1983. Tokyo's Pirates makes for very interesting direct comparisons for those who know Disneyland's well and with Marc in mind. This time he got to leave in the Blue Bayou, shortened but dramatically redesigned the haunted caves, lengthened the town sequence and the munition storehouse shootout, but dropped the trip up the waterfall.

I'm going to such lengths to point all this out because if Marc is mentioned in the fan community these days it's for one of two things: conceiving crazy character gags and for saying "[Walt Disney] didn't like the idea of telling stories in this medium. It's not a story telling medium. But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates." That's a brilliant quote, but as far as Marc is concerned that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Because the two attractions Marc had total control over, Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings have heavy on character gags but light on atmosphere, and because of that perniciously complex quote about story, Marc often gets painted as a guy against all forms of in-park storytelling, heavily lobbying for attractions full of crazy gags and characters.

Nobody ever points out that he began to push Claude Coats-style atmosphere heavier and heavier in 1969 and 1970.

The gorgeous interior of the Florida Tiki Room? That's Marc Davis. The deep, dark queues of the east coast Pirates of the Caribbean? That's Marc Davis. The fact that he designed the entirety of the Florida Jungle Cruise, which is the Jungle Cruise most devoted to atmosphere, is not widely known. In fact, the 1971 Jungle Cruise is the ride where he began to paint Coats-style scenic layouts, some of which you have seen in last week's article. Every rock and every figure in that Jungle Cruise is placed exactly where he wanted it.

Enchanted Snow Palace, too, was built on the rock of atmosphere. A shimmering symphony of Yale Gracey light effects, Buddy Baker music and eerie but beautiful atmosphere, it was intended to be an adult counterpoint to It's A Small World. Yet this was designed nearly concurrently with America Sings, which is wall to wall crazy animals. The guy had range.

And then we come to Western River Expedition. Here's a ride that's mostly atmosphere. The character gags take up only a short section in the middle. It's based on Pirates of the Caribbean yet it reorders and reemphasizes large and small things from Pirates to improve the clarity of the storytelling. Western River was Marc swinging for the fences. Yet what's largely happened to it in the popular imagination is it's become a collection of online curiosities, most of which were not intended for the ride, like:

In other words, it's been streamlined into the mainline narrative of his work at WED as the master of random gags. But if we take Marc at his word, then his ideal attraction concept, his personal baby, is a ride with a rigorously conceived dramatic arc, the best kind of theme park narrative. Marc's right: it's not a story with traditional leading characters and a dramatic denouement, but I think Western River Expedition represents one of the most carefully put together "theme park stories" ever. It's not book or film storytelling, but it is Disneyland storytelling.

This is why I've worked so hard to give a complete, correct version of the experience of the ride. Because I think understanding what it really was supposed to be is a key to understanding the way Marc thought about a medium he loved. I mean, he could have gone on after his WED Enterprises career ended and worked with independent animators like Don Bluth and Richard Williams, but he didn't. What he kept doing was designing characters and concepts for Independent Theme Parks like Circus World and designers like Gary Goddard. Disney be damned, he kept working in his chosen field.

1982 piece for Goddard Design Group

In this respect, the tragedy of the failure of Western River Expedition's development cycle is compounded. We were not just denied a great attraction, but a terrific insight into one of WED Enterprises' most engaged critical thinkers.

I hope these articles have gone some way in the direction of helping to improve the understanding about and discussion surrounding this ambitious project and its primary creator. Untangling the webs of misinformation around Thunder Mesa has been daunting but keenly personally rewarding. Western River Expedition may never get built, but in design and conception it's reams and reams of intensely valuable, brilliant thought about the possibilities of a medium that could use a few more masterpieces.

Western River Expedition Series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three