Thursday, March 23, 2006
Criticizing ‘Ellen’s Energy Adventure’ at Epcot Center is a tricky proposition. It can easily be argued that when Ellen Degeneres became the host of Exxon’s Universe of Energy in 1996 (both on film and as an Audio Animatronic figure) the original show got a vital dose of pure entertainment value that was sorely missed. Sturm und Drang was replaced with levity and laughs, science fact was replaced with science light and the brooding orchestral score was replaced with, well, the theme song from Jeopardy.
But in their efforts to lighten the tone of the original show Imagineers perpetuated a dangerous trend that if continually embraced in further attractions will threaten to topple one of the company’s greatest legacies- its ability to create timeless entertainment.
From Snow White to Pirates of the Caribbean one of the hallmarks of the Disney brand was its ability to transcend the here and now and take us to worlds of universal appeal populated by characters not threatened by the passage of time or changes in fashion. Classic Disney storytellers deliberately shunned all things anachronistic, keeping a careful eye on any material that threatened to remind audiences of the real world they lived in.
But now with ‘Ellen’s Energy Adventure’ we have Ellen Degeneres playing Ellen Degeneres, Bill Nye playing Bill Nye and Alex Trebek playing Alex Trebek, all of it grounded firmly in 1996 with nowhere to go but stale. You can bet that in a span of time far shorter than the 14 years the original Universe of Energy played we will have long forgotten who Bill Nye was.
If we haven’t already.
Collective wisdom has it that it was Disney’s Aladdin that shattered the timeless taboo when Robin William’s Genie actually impersonated Arsenio Hall. Disney Theme Parks wasted no time in following the trend, with a robotic Regis Philbin, Drew Carrey and Whoopi Goldberg popping out amongst the scenery in DCA’s Superstar Limo, Animatronic Vegetables belting out contemporary rock tunes in Epcot’s Food Rocks and The Tiki Birds rapping like the birdies rap in ‘Under New Management’ back at the Magic Kingdom. Hopefully the fact that only one of these attractions still survives today is lesson enough.
Imagineers are at their best when they refuse to settle for the here and now and instead shoot for the stars. In chasing the hip and trendy they degrade the Disney Brand, cheapen the guest experience and lose out on the far more satisfying reward of creating something truly original, truly profound, truly timeless.
ADDENDUM: For those readers who have taken a certain glee in listing the many anachronistic moments in Disney film and theme park classics, from Pinocchio and Sword in the Stone to the Haunted Mansion and The Tiki Room, we implore you to see the message through the trees. As one reader succinctly put it, "It's a pay me now, pay me later sort of thing. You can invest in undated treasures and have something that lasts a long time, or you can climb on the back of a pop reference and have something that turns over in a few years."