Tuesday, March 04, 2008
A World of Tears
She was Walt Disney’s favorite conceptual artist, a woman whose sense of color and design influenced the look and feel of numerous Disney projects from 1942 to 1970.
Inarguably her crowning achievement was the 1964 New York World’s Fair show “It’s a Small World”, which later moved to Disneyland where it’s been enchanting guests for more than 40 years. By this summer five versions will exist, the newest appearing in Hong Kong.
The classic model, Mary’s pitch perfect original at Disneyland, is now down for ten months so that the boat flumes can be replaced with a deeper design more appropriate for todays heavier boatloads.
Unfortunately W.D.I. has taken ill advantage of the downtime by staking out areas throughout the attraction to place a selection of smiling Disney characters to spice up the proceedings. Imagine a grinning Stitch in Hawaii, a demure Belle in Paris, a Peter Pan in London.
And in one of the most egregious and downright disgusting decisions in Disney theme park history, the gorgeous New Guinea rainforest scene, replete with some of Mary Blair’s most whimsical character creations (a crocodile with an umbrella, colorful birds hatching from eggs) and her drummer children with Tiki Masks on the opposite shore will be replaced with a Hooray for U.S.A sequence.
Mary Blair’s formidable legacy has taken enough of a beating with the destruction of her Tomorrowland murals back in 1998. This recent move, if it goes through, would be nothing less than a brutal dismissal of her profound and enduring influence on the Disney aesthetic.
The insertion of Disney characters into this classic E-ticket is troubling enough. “It’s a Small World” may be a color and design masterpiece but more importantly the show’s simple message of shared humanity using children of the world and their innate innocence as the metaphor makes it a cultural touchstone and a casebook example of uncluttered visual storytelling. Cute as they may be, Belle, Mickey, Stitch or Nemo have nothing to do with selling the core values of UNICEF, the show’s original partner. Their appearance not only trivializes the central theme but more disturbingly seems to emphasize global brand marketing and franchising above all else.
When the attraction re-opens several months from now this salute to the children of the world will have turned into yet another guest search for hidden Mickeys, the earlier cleaner message all but lost on future generations. Here, also, is where Small World finally becomes yet another prelude to selling more plush, having now devolved into an elaborate hyper commercial window display, all charm and sincerity leeched from its bones.
It’s hard enough to stomach the addition of completely out of place Disney characters in this visionary gem of an attraction, harder to fathom the removal of the rainforest sequence but all out infuriating that it will be replaced with a loud, garish, tacky and aggressively incongruous Hooray for U.S.A. set piece. Nobody does Mary Blair quite like Mary Blair, but the concept art released by the Walt Disney Company for this section of the ride appears to have been designed by artists not even aware of her existence, let alone her singularly specific design sensibility. Gone is her use of a harmonic color palette, gone is her keen eye for shape and form, gone her impeccable taste and theatricality.
And when the rainforest goes, it goes for good, replaced with a group of sets never intended for American audiences from the show’s very inception. In consciously excluding a large scale U.S.A.-land from It’s a Small World (a lone cowboy and indian in the finale was just enough), the original show writers were asking American audiences to step away from their own national consciousness and take stock in the wider world around them. It’s a Small World was never about nationalistic fervor. It was about finding our common humanity outside our own borders.
This is not a change at Disneyland to take lightly. Letters should go out to all corners of the company pleading for a halt to the desecration of Small World once and for all. A campaign to “Save Our Rainforest” is appropriate, one with tee-shirts, wristbands and a countdown clock. It’s safe to say that with enough of a hue and cry from those of us who actually pay the bills at W.D.I the company might do an about face. Fortunately this was a concept that was pitched to executives before Bruce Vaughn and Craig Russell took the reigns at Imagineering so there’s still room for hope.
“It’s a Small World” is a work of art. Those fortunate enough to be the caretakers of a masterpiece are more than welcome to try on a new frame once in a while, to carefully restore its surface, switch out the lighting or even move the piece to another room.
But even the most fool-hardy owner knows not to paint over the original canvas.
Disneyland is your land. Don’t let this happen.