Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The Magic Door
A central concept in Pixar’s hit “Monsters Inc.” is a magic door through which the workaday spooks of Monstropolis can travel to the human world to collect the screams of children.
These dimensional portals instantly captivate the imagination. What viewer does not come away from the film with a secret wish to step through such a door, to be instantly transported from one exotic location to another? And with a warehouse full of magic doors stored like dry cleaning on a moving/hanging conveyor, the possibilities for a personal journey through a raucous dimension-hopping Disneyland attraction are endless.
Like the plunge into Alice’s Wonderland rabbit hole or the leap from the Darling nursery into flight with Peter Pan, here is a truly visual and experiential story conceit, ready-made for Imagineers to exploit.
When California Adventure’s only dark ride, the shockingly ill-conceived “Superstar Limo” - - a bad acid-trip chase through the Touchstone Hollywood of cheesy B-celebrities (and Cher) - - was retrofitted as a “Monsters Inc.” ride, there was cause for celebration. Even on a limited budget and with a locked track layout, a C or D level dark ride through those magic portals couldn’t help but tickle the wishbone of our fancies. After all, it wasn’t the extravagant budgets of the old Fantasyland rides that made them favorites for 50 years, but their ability to convincingly transport the rider to Never-Never Lands of our imagination.
Yet, when the awkwardly titled “Monster’s Inc: Mike and Scully to the Rescue” attraction opened to the public, it was many things: cute, pleasant, mildly amusing, sure to charm the kiddies, a huge improvement over the prior tenant - - but, well, yet another dark ride disappointment that falls short of its promise.
Though we see magic doors, pass magic doors, even find a warehouse of magic doors, we are never taken THROUGH one single magic door.
During the ride, we are teased with, but never actually given the wish, the desire, the key experience. It’s foreplay without penetration. Monstropolis Interruptus.
(Well, there IS a colorfully painted plywood door on the exterior facade that “transports” us from the sidewalk to the queue, but this is somehow less than magical…).
Rather than traveling through dimensional portals – an experience we are unlikely to have outside of Disneyland – we find ourselves stopping to “interact” with a cranky secretary robot spouting custom insults (already a daily annoyance for most of us in industrialized nations).
Like so many of the Disney dark rides of recent years; “The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh,” “Journey Into Imagination,” “Superstar Limo,” “Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin,” “Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters,” “The Great Movie Ride,” even the neo-classical “Splash Mountain” - - we are carted past stagey, episodic, distant set-pieces like tourists in a Disney Store wax museum.
We become mere passive spectators of a contrived scenario, burdened with more plot than necessary (“Help save Boo from blah, blah, blah…”). We are watching a mini-version of the film, not participating in it.
It’s a marked contrast to the original Fantasyland dark rides in which the guest was plunged into a first-person experience AS Snow White or Mr. Toad - - or the pinnacle 60’s triad of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Haunted Mansion” and “Adventure Thru Inner Space,” which took voyagers on extravagant first-person journeys to fantastic other-realms of the historic, supernatural and psychedelic.
Walt wanted “Pirates” to make people feel like they were in the middle of a cocktail party, tuning in and out of the enveloping action. We were not passive-viewers at a modern amusement park, but part of a fantastic story come-to-life! The action is not confined to static sets on the right or left, but surrounds us in every way. We are lead in, on, over, under and through the story, not just past it.
This of-the-moment approach has proved to be far more durable and repeatable than the complex, episodic storylines and overwritten backstories of more recent creations. These elements seem to help the writers more than the riders.
Who cares what the dead bride’s silly maiden name might be - - why Boo is being kidnapped - - or why our vehicle is being hijacked? Talky exposition always hits the Omnimover like a lead balloon. When poorly written or staged, it can all-too-easily remind us that this is an artificial experience.
If the ride is so un-involving that I care to crick my neck trying to see the nostalgic remnants of a former, superior attraction - - or to spot kitschy design trivia - - there is a big problem. Do the storytellers really believe in the illusion at hand? If they don’t, we won’t.
Walt’s original Imagineers had all cut their teeth on that most completely visual of all filmmaking genres, the cartoon, and that experience clearly made a difference in their more elemental approach to theme park story. A simple situation with a visual/thematic progression and climax would suffice, much as it did for a cartoon short or a single sequence in an animated feature.
While cartoonists undoubtedly contributed gags and ideas to “Monsters, “Pooh,” or “Splash Mountain,” the overall product doesn’t feel much like it belongs to them, but more to a committee. Those show designers more experienced in technology, engineering, architecture, real-estate, marketing or theatre lack the same gift for immersion, non-verbal showmanship and elegant simplicity. Their priorities lie elsewhere.
It’s not obtuse theme park logistics and theory that matter to guests, but a transcendent emotional and visceral payoff. Those early Imagineers seemed to know instinctively what part of the story a rider wanted or needed to experience - - whether that concept was derived from a film or an entirely original situation. They could convincingly visualize themselves into the role of protagonist on an epic adventure. And we would follow them gladly.
As one wag put it, “Watch Alice go down the hole… or go down the hole? I just can’t decide.”
The magic for Disneyland guests was always the ability to travel THROUGH dimensional doorways to other worlds.
Disneyland needs more Magic Doors and fewer Hidden Mickeys.