Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Brushing Up On The Classics
Ask current guests of the Disney Parks what their favorite couple attractions are and you’ll almost always hear Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. It’s as if they’ve always belonged in the same sentence.
Both are nearing their 40th birthday and both have yet to be topped at any theme park anywhere in the world for their sheer audacity, artistry and showmanship. Will modern audiences ever see new original attractions that even begin to compare? More importantly what do these two attractions have in their DNA that hasn’t been as successfully replicated since their debut?
The answer is elusive yet at the core very simple.
As both attractions were designed and built by people with long and illustrious careers in film, these first generation imagineers shared a storytelling philosophy that deeply informed these shows. As far as they were concerned Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion were three act plays obligated to unfold much like great motion pictures do. Screenwriters, directors and cinematographers still bandy about the same buzzwords these early imagineers were all too familiar with; spine, structure, premise, thru-line.
Though not stories in the traditional sense (and this cannot be stressed enough; these were NOT literal narratives and were not burdened by plotting), these E-ticket experiences still share an underlying structure that informs the very best storytelling. Both start with a first act proposal and continue to play out a carefully choreographed climax and resolution, with every last show detail, from lighting, to costumes, music and animation at the service of a carefully crafted progression of events.
With Pirates the proposal is that we better keep a ‘ruddy eye open’ because ‘there be plundering pirates lurking in every cove.’ Act 1 serves as a sort of warning with the skeletal remains of past treasure seekers scattered throughout a cavern and the promise that ‘dead men tell no tales’, then turns course with our inadvertent discovery of that ‘cursed treasure’. Act 2 begins with the arrival of a pirate galleon at the forts of a port city intent on finding that treasure. Tension mounts as we witness the marauders sell off the town’s women, get drunk, pillage loot and, in the third act climax, burn up the city.
In Haunted Mansion the proposal is that if we remain quietly seated we might very well see a ghost. Act 1 and we only sense their presence as rooms stretch, candelabras float and doors knock by themselves. Act 2 and the spirit world seems ready to make an entrance, but only fleetingly. Act 3 and an entire graveyard of ghouls throw caution to the wind and partake in an outrageous party to die for, now so comfortable with our presence that they promise to haunt us until we return.
With imagineers fully understanding the classic traditions of storytelling it’s no accident that both of these attractions start with quiet and end with mayhem, begin in small intimate spaces and climax inside giant show buildings, weave several variations of a musical theme throughout, showcase running gags and characters, employ set-ups and payoffs, tensions and release. Was it any wonder these theme park attractions inspired actual motion pictures 35 years after they opened?
Arguably Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye was the last stateside attraction that came close to usurping the crown in 1995 but take a more critical look and you’ll realize that when it comes to visual storytelling (at least in the actual ride thru- the queue is spectacular) there’s no comparison. Though rich in detail and full-up of state of the art technology, the tone is singular, the context confusing and its set pieces rarely interested in informing and building upon the last. In the end it’s all sound and fury signifying very little; a somewhat empty thrill.
If Imagineers are to reclaim the glory of these earlier E-tickets it’s best they take a long hard look at what truly sets Pirates and Mansion apart. It’s not rocket science. It’s just visual storytelling.
And in this time of change at the Mouse House there’s no harm in brushing up on the classics.