Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Passport to Dreams: Old, or New?

What you hear:

"Citizens of Tomorrowland! Join Buzz Lightyear on a daring space mission to save the universe from the evil Emperor Zurg!"

What you see:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

One from the heart...

"Nice is different than good."

-Stephen Sondheim

And so it goes. On a wet Friday last February ‘It’s a Small World’ finally re-opened to the public, this time with 29 fresh faced Disney characters dotting the landscape from England to the Great Southwest. Yes, our Small World didn’t stop spinning after all. Life will go on as it always has before.

And, at least on this branch of the great Disney Blog-o-sphere, this will be the last you will hear about it.

The omniscient tone of Re-Imagineering has been a hallmark of this site since its inauguration back in early 2006. The ragtag group of professionals that contributed rarely personalized their opinions in an effort to raise the level of discourse above the general fanboy rabble.

But in this instance I can only speak from the heart.

For me, ‘Small World’ was my childhood. Having grown up on the coast meant nearly every day opened under a blanket of grey fog so it’s easy to understand how Small World’s kaleidoscopic wonderland profoundly affected the neural freeway inside this five year olds head. From that first boat cruise my childhood could easily be dated BSM and ASM, the orgiastic display of color, music, light and animation forever rewiring my sense of self.

As adolescence demands reassigning the Small World esthetic as cheesy, childish and annoying, I dutifully stepped in line. However, once I joined a burgeoning group of animator wannabes at Walt’s art school dreamland in Valencia, California, it was time to grow up. There the rigorous demands of design class, taught by some of the finest mid-century artists of their time, gave all of us a renewed respect for the masters of the form. Enter Mary Blair.

No longer would it be possible to dismiss the visual construct of this Disney attraction as kitchy, naive or childish. The color and design sensibilities on display were a wonder to behold; the more you studied it the more complex and sophisticated it all became. Several generations of animation students, smitten by the Mary Blair touch, have tried repeatedly to imitate her style. Rarely do they even come close.

But the merely visual does not a work of art make, as what truly etched this into the collective conscience as a classic work of pop art had everything to do with its simple, crystal clear conception. To sell world peace the show writers had the audacity to cast the children of the world, separated only by costume, skin color and setting, as a way to underscore our inherent innocence and common humanity. Thus was born a profound subtext that gave this Disneyland attraction a relevance that has lasted 45 years.

And so we come to where we are today, when the children of the world move aside to make room for dozens of distinctly different and specific Disney kids and kinfolk. And, as could be expected, endless debate on the merits and demerits of such an endeavor exploded on the internets.

On my first trip through Small World 2.0 I had the notebook out as well.

• New boats? A little cheap looking, but appropriately toy-like and should hold up well.

• Matte black ceiling. Very nice.

• Everything’s so bright and shiny. Bravo.

• Alice and the White Rabbit. Delightful, actually. If this were the only addition it might very well have been a fitting tribute to the creative legacy of the shows stylist.

• Peter Pan. Tinkerbell. Oh dear. There’s a reasonable argument for adding characters that are a part of the cultural folklore of their specific land. But isn’t the United Kingdom a bit overloaded?

• Cinderella has her own pedestal with Jaques and Gus staring up adoringly. Imagineering Ambassador Marty Sklar promised these characters wouldn’t say, ‘look at me, look at me’. This one screams it. What’s a flat painted bluebird on the backdrop doing? Wouldn’t the original designers have created this in three dimensions? Still, at least Cinderella is not portrayed in her Disney Princess ® finery, but in her populist rags.

• Pinocchio, looking encephalitic, chubby and squished, uncharacteristically hanging on strings and propped up under an arch of 26 lights belies the Imagineer’s watchword ‘Unobtrusive’.

• Aladdin, Jasmine and Mulan succeed in being unobtrusive.

• The African Jungle. Still bliss with or without the Lion King characters.

• Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles puppets in South America? As authentic to the culture as the taco is.

• Ariel in the South Seas? Imagineering Senior Vice President Tony Baxter said that if a character stood out we’d be ‘looking at it for the wrong reason’. I was looking at it for the wrong reason. Ariel’s long strands of bright woolen hair, her own awkward solo and white hot spotlight gave me the heebies.

• Nemo, Dory and Flounder? Well, they’re only fish, though it can be argued the super shiny Flounder may actually be more obtrusive than his diva Mermaid friend.

• Stitch. So charming. So wrong.

• Relocated Rainforest? Thank you.

• American Southwest. Easily the most egregious misfire of the entire endeavor. Static children, out of step stylistically, flat unappealing scarecrow and hybrid cow-pig that, again, should have been realized in three dimensions if at all. Poorly art directed. Wonky, awkward Toy Story Woody and Jessie characters. Best to look down at your lap till the finale.

• Re-instatement of the gorgeous Farewell Tapestry, balloons, finale sun. Beautiful.

Still, for all the scribbling, cross chatter and geeky blogger debate, the point remains. The children of Small World were intentionally homogenous, but now some of them are a bit more ‘special’ than others. In Imagineering’s effort to make every last attraction at the parks more relevant by adding Disney characters, Small World’s core message has been compromised.

More relevant? No.

Less relevant? Absolutely.

There’s a cabal at Imagineering that bristle at those of us who appear to constantly reject any change at the parks. Their argument, not unfounded, is that when an attraction is so inexorably tied to the nostalgia of our childhoods any tampering is going to feel like a personal attack. Their remedy? Get over it. As audiences taste change, so must the park.

They’re absolutely right, but in patronizing those of us whose irritating ‘nostalgia’ keeps cramping their style, they’re also discounting the real message behind our madness: Is what you’re doing different or better?

Regardless, there are signs everywhere that the leadership at Imagineering, though faltering here and there, is doing the difficult introspection necessary for a vibrant and exciting renaissance. As I exited Small World 2.0 with a close friend (and one of the finest Disney historians on the planet) we both admitted that, overall, this is probably a minor misstep in the recent evolution of the Imagineering brand.

"Well," he remarked with a roll of the eye, "At least it's fix-able."

It’s not as if those pesky Disney characters can’t eventually be removed and the ride restored to Walt Disney's original vision. After all, Disneyland will never be completed.