Thursday, February 05, 2015

All About Western River Expedition, Part Three

VI. MARC DAVIS AND THE WESTERN RIVER EXPEDITION

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

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