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.


Spokker said...

I stopped caring about the current state of Disneyland when I started doing drugs. Now I can go back to any Disneyland era I want to and best of all my money goes to a sleazy drug dealer instead of sleazy Disney executives.

Come on over and we'll ride the People Mover.

Unknown said...

Well said. I'm glad someone else noticed how out of sync the America scene was. It really stood out in the rest of the attraction. I could ignore every other change - really - but not that one.

Also, I wasn't pleased with the rainforest relocation. I'm really not familiar with IASW very much because it's the ride I go on the least, but didn't the rainforest fill up the entire America scene before? I can't remember, but I vaguely remember being really wowed by the rainforest before, so I presume there was more to the rainforest than the one or two little set pieces that remain.

I agree that different isn't necessarily better. I see the point of view of the Imagineers, that some of us fans are just curmudgeons who don't want the Disneyland of our childhood to change so dramatically that we can't recognize it. But I think, really, if things were made better, or changed for good reasons rather than to push more merchandise, a lot of us would stop whining so much. I know I would.

If they want to change things so much they should just build a new park, maybe in the midwest. There comes a point where it's just change for change's sake, and I think the changes to IASW were just that.

That all said, I really liked Alice and the White Rabbit, and Mulan. All the rest stood out a bit too much.

What would be wonderful is if they just rotated one set of characters in and out at random, every few months or so, to keep guests guessing which they'd see on this trip. Then it wouldn't be such an overload of known Disney characters.

Still wouldn't fix the America scene, though. Absolutely terrible.

Flerg said...

I find it very annoying when so-called Disney fans keep mentioning the "Brand". How many times did Walt talk about the "Brand"? Money should not be the top concern of a true (Walt) Disney fan.

Anonymous said...

IASW was just a decoy to keep us busy while they built Dream Suites.

Anonymous said...

That was actually a good point in saying that now some of the children of the world are more "special" than others....Doesn't this all contradict the original message of the ride itself?? Children should unite and sing in harmony together, not as backing vocals to celebrity children.

I think a more clever, knowledgeable, imaginative and caring group of Imagineers would have stopped the addition of characters at "subtle homage" and let marketing take care of the rest (new boats! everything shiny and new! rainforest! YAY!).

I want to become an imagineer more than anything, but it scares me to think of ever being involved in a project like this.

Anonymous said...

Very well said, Mr. Banks. I agree that the message of the ride has been diluted by the addition of more SPECIAL kids.

This ride is still wonderful and charming. They certainly could have done the additions in a manner where they don't leap out at you.

The biggest mistake for me is the AMERICA scene. It's just not very good. lacks charm, and has terrible characters placed in it.

At least people are talking about it, and Disney pumped some funds into it to keep it fresh.

Although, i can't wait to se what the SIMPSONS or SOUTH PARK do with it...

Digital Jedi said...

I don't know which is more disturbing: the American section of It's a Small World, or a stoned Spokker asking my to ride his "People Mover".

Goggles Piasano Ritardo said...

I think your right. Why do they have to stamp Disney on every experience with a branding iron. Part of Disney for me is the escape. I don't need to be reminded at every turn that Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse are part of the scene. Disney is so much more than the characters that have been created over the years. I hope they don't do this to the Haunted House.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay - smart, constructive, even-handed. You don't wholly condemn or condone, you simply explain. That's more than good blogging; it's good journalism.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this article was humble enough. You complained for over a year about a change and now you actually "don't mind" a few of them. Thank god Disney doesn't always obey the whim of the fans.

Mr Banks said...

I would suggest reading it again. I mind all of the changes that affect the show conceptually. What I criticized from the very beginning is what I criticize today.

Anonymous said...

Just to add some context to all of this, Mary Blair and Rolly Crump gave IASW an incredible signature in their design, but there were other artists that were doing the same thing that no doubt inspired them. Charles and Ray Eames and as linked here Alexander Girard, a key graphic source that was in the mix with this look in the late fifties and early 60s. I thought the dolls and graphics shown in this video were really close to the childlike graphic approach that IASW ended up to be. The ride is also an optimistic echo of the Kennedy Era times it was created in.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I'm the only person who likes the America scene. It always bothered me that the previous IASW featured no Americans other than the little cowboy and Indian in the back of the room in the final scene. Though I find the new America room a little claustrophobic, and the Toy Story characters just bizarre, I was still overjoyed to see myself finally represented.

Gene Cowan said...

After visiting Disneyland for the first time since "last century," I was struck by the brand -- I mean, you're in Disneyland, is it really necessary to stamp "Disney's..." over the entrance to every attraction?
The addition of the characters was just another extension of this branding that went too far. The people in the know ride the ride and try to find the characters, a new generation of hidden Mickey searchers. The Americans in the boat learn about stereotypes around the world; with the addition of the western-themed America room, the foreign guests can now experience the same stereotypes about our vast diverse nation.
Despite all this going through my head, I still couldn't avoid smiling at the gorgeous pop art of Mary Blair on the happiest cruise that ever sailed. Weird, that.

Anonymous said...

"is it really necessary to stamp "Disney's..." over the entrance to every attraction? "

Yes it is. It's the good housekeeping seal of approval of needless change and brand aberration. How else could we be sure that Star Tours and Indiana Jones and are Disney?

Anonymous said...

I'm curious why you think we are on the verge of a renaissance. What makes you think that things are suddenly going to change? Everything the imagineers have done in the past three years, except for Toy Story Midway Mania, has been a misfire. Pirates, Spaceship Earth, It's a Small World- all terrible and misguided changes that show a serious failure to understand what made Disney great to begin with. And what new attractions do we have to look forward to? Cars: the ride. Mickey Mouse: the ride. Little Mermaid: the ride. Sure, those aren't the names, but you get the point. I see no renaissance, no creativity. Unless management's way of thinking changes and the imagineers stop being ego maniacs who wish to put their mark on everything, the parks will only get worse.

Anonymous said...

Disneyland on acid is a trip, to say the very least. As my shoes say, "Just Do It."

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time poster,

No one has yet mentioned all those lovely pins alongside the article. C'mon, there was no commercial intent whatsoever in introducing the characters, right?

Capt. Tomorrow said...

Let’s face it boys and girls, Disneyland will never be the same because of one thing and that one thing is Walt Disney. While everything was a collaborative effort at Disneyland for the first 10 years, in the end there was just one man and his vision that guided it all. Now everything is designed by a committee (or committees), focus groups, merchandise sales projections, blah, blah, blah. Walt Disney instinctively KNEW what people would enjoy, now we are TOLD what we will enjoy. IASW is a perfect example. We were told that the Disney characters would blend in and be unobtrusive; they are not. We were told that the America scene would have the same look as the rest of the attraction; it does NOT. We were told that the theme and the message would not change; it certainly HAS.

Anonymous said...

Have you noticed that less and less people are leaving comments as they recognize the points of view by Mr. Banks and others as narrow?
I think more and more some of the posts here are becoming passe. Everything is negative and nothing is positive. It's like any change done is bad, even though Disneyland should change.
It's okay to disagree, but the arguments used are becoming very shrill.

mr wiggins said...

> We were told that the Disney characters would blend in and be unobtrusive; they are not. We were told that the America scene would have the same look as the rest of the attraction; it does NOT. We were told that the theme and the message would not change; it certainly HAS. <

And we were told that Tony Baxter just happened to be at a fan convention where he just happened to find a gen-u-ine piece of never-before-seen Mary Blair artwork that just happened to look just like the America scene that WDI had already designed.

Thus giving new meaning to the term, "Disney Magic."


Gary said...

I haven't seen the Small World update, as I live on the East Coast and rarely get to visit Disneyland. I did, however, see the original at the 1964 New York World's Fair, and it was life changing. It was the first time I had experienced ANY Disney apart from TV or movies, and I was awestruck. It's probably what propelled me into a career in art. I gladly defend IASW as possibly THE best attraction that Disney has ever produced! My question is: If Disney can create IASW, why does an insult like Journey to Imagination still exist at WDW? IASW expresses the joy and wonder of imagination so much better! Won't someone do something about Journey? Please?

Digital Jedi said...

Anonymous said:
>>>Have you noticed that less and less people are leaving comments as they recognize the points of view by Mr. Banks and others as narrow?
I think more and more some of the posts here are becoming passe. Everything is negative and nothing is positive. It's like any change done is bad, even though Disneyland should change.
It's okay to disagree, but the arguments used are becoming very shrill.

No, I see just as many comments as I ever have. What I see fewer of is blog posts, which the authors have already stated (several times) is because many things at Disney are starting to change and some feel that they may be heading in the right directions again. In the meantime, we still have some things from left over projects in the works that are still bad ideas. The arguments here are mostly very on point, and there's nothing narrow about sticking to a philosophy of quality and craftsmanship.

If you'd been reading the comments, you'd know that your argument about how Disney should change is a Straw Man that no one EVER suggested shouldn't happen.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think the argument can be made that it's not an entirely bad thing to evolve the message of the ride. I know some are perceiving it as an insult, because the original message is profound, but I think it actually has a kind of postscript now for the kids of today.

What I mean is that individualism has become more and more a dominant mode of thinking. The addition of the characters some are objecting to as "special" addresses this in a way that will influence children before they're even old enough to understand the ride's message: these individuals are still a part of the same song, the same message, etc. They may call attention to themselves or sing differently, but the ultimate message is still that we all, even each precious special snowflake, live in a "small world."

I suppose I could take or leave that change overall, but some of the other objections seem to have similar intentions: for example the new addition of Donald and company makes South America important in a way that it just wasn't before. And let's be honest, even a halfway positive glance at Latino countries will influence how tomorrow's kids think. I'm more interested in whether the inclusion will result in a new South America/Donald film.

Lastly, the largely disliked SW America scene. Yes, it's ugly and fairly boring. But let's remember this is going out to the world. My overall thought is that ugly and boring is a fairly safe depiction of Americans that won't further promote American superiority abroad (which is also easily identified with - everyone has farmers). And since everyone else gets stereotyped into something they may not particularly believe to be representative, it seems only fair.

I agree that some of the changes I don't like as much as I did before, but I think the imagineers are trying to do something very large through relatively small shifts. And I have to respect that there's obviously much more thought than "hey, let's just throw in our characters" - they've clearly put thought into why they made these changes, and how. If it's not a perfect change - well, that's what the future is for...

Digital Jedi said...

Anonymous, read the article again and then look at the pins all along the side of the page. Not even the proponents of the new additions to the attraction pretend this is anything more then a marketing gimmick and brand placement.

Teevtee said...

Consumer goods is quite separated from other aspects of the company. They will certainly jump on EVERY possible chance to sell crap to tourists but they really do not dictate what goes into the attractions.

I think not unlike governments people over estimate how connected the various arms of the Disney organization are.

I am not passing judgement one way or the other here, I have given my thoughts on IASW on other threads... but to suggest that consumer good somehow dictated changes made to IASW is simply not correct.

In reality I believe that this is some poor judgement from executives outside of WDI who saw what was going on in HK and thought it would be a good idea to add it here. It gives them a chance to get more merchandise out there, it gives them a chance to add new publicity (which to the general public has been overwhelmingly positive) about the ride and maybe, just maybe they actually thought it would improve the ride. WDI is simply a design firm in essence being hired to complete a task... even a task they may not fully agree with, and so they do it to the best of their abilities given the budget and the directive.

Spokker said...

"It's okay to disagree, but the arguments used are becoming very shrill."

You've never posted on A.D.D. have you?

The arguments on this blog are like old ladies talking about spinning yarn or whatever old ladies talk about compared to the old Usenet days.

Melissa said...

I only got to ride IASW once, when I was twelve. Of course, at that age, I thought it was equal parts creepy and overwhelming.

Recently, I watched a video of the pre-revamp ride, and I literally wept with the beauty and profundity of it.

Then, I watched a video of the new ride, and it was a huge WTF moment.

I guess my point it, one doesn't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool nostalgic fanboy curmudgeon to think that a lovely thing has been cheapened.

Anonymous said...

Relax everyone, it's only a ride, for God's sake!

Spokker said...

Relax anon, it's only an online discussion!

Tom said...

Anonymous said "Have you noticed that less and less people are leaving comments as they recognize the points of view by Mr. Banks and others as narrow?
I think more and more some of the posts here are becoming passe. Everything is negative and nothing is positive. It's like any change done is bad, even though Disneyland should change.
It's okay to disagree, but the arguments used are becoming very shrill."

Have you noticed that if the attraction (or discussion of) has remained true, there would be no need for discussion. The negative debates are over things that probably shouldn't have been adjusted, redone, plussed in the first place...etc,etc...

I for one, think that the shotcallers at the themeparks have way bigger battles to pick, and by plussing/adding additional characters to already popular rides, defeats the intended storyline, without doubt.

Instead of hackjobbing rides/attractions that are already established and popular, why not work on ones that are not-so-hot.

DCA(which hopefully will offer more to do, this time around)
Big Thunder Ranch(wasted space)
Boat Ride in Fantasyland
Fort Wilderness

*not sure on current situations, but I know from reading this blog, and other disney messageboards, there are some definate problem areas/attractions yet to be resolved, including the latest blog about TTA.

The negativity is what keeps this blog alive, and not only allows people to share and debate opinions, but also helps to fuel better ideas. Whether or not Disney would listen to any posted material here is a crapshoot, but you never know who is behind the posts! There is always hope if people take the time to come here, read and post their feelings about the topics.
All of the contributors like Mr. Banks, as well as the comment makers like Spokker and the rest, are valuable to the subjects, even if I may not totally agree(Which, I usually do anyhow..)

I know I'll be back to lurk, and to post, should a subject catch my eye.

1987 Disneyland said...

As of recent, I was able to attend Disneyland and ride IASW in the early morning without anyone else aboard the boat. I have to concur with most that has been said, and I know its like beating a dead horse around here, but here is what I observed.

I saw Ariel, Pinnochio, the Three Caballeros, Nemo/Dory, Woody and Jessie, all look to be in the likeness of themselves, and NOT in the style of Mary Blair.
The above mentioned also stood out like sore thumbs within the attraction with blazen spotlights, and or "Main Street" type lighting all around them like Pinnochio and Three Caballeros.

The Rain Forest was in fact, just a little bigger than the size of a Smart Car with only the Alligator holding his umbrella over 11 strands of rain. It was literally the single biggest dissapointment to me, because that area seemed so magical as a child with all of the birds, multi colored lights and glitter, it just doesn't compare.

Finally, the western scene seems so one dimensional compared to all of the other areas having depth, and the characters seem really out of tune with the Mary Blair styled finale. Woody looked like Pixar Woody and not a "in the style of Mary Blair".Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter lied to the public, period.

Sure, children of today will not no any different, and neither will all of the first generation families who attend the Park. They don't know any better, nor do they have any concept of what American Culture REALLY is. Disneyland is American Pop Culture. And as for myself, I DO know better, and better was a past time ago. Will I still go to the Park? Of course, simply because it still has some magic left to it like ETR, HM, Mark Twain, Space Mountain, etc,etc. Until Gilbert Gottfried starts hosting Tiki Room, or they add a Jim Evers character to Haunted Mansion, I'll continue to go. If those changes happen, I'm out for good!

Now Mr. Banks, there are alot of rumors floating around Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln...Are there any truths or facts of what imagineers really plan to do with the Show?

Spokker said...

Disneyland? That place still around?

wonderboss said...

When is somebody going to quit complaining about all this vandalism and do something about it? I mean, there are historic preservation laws on the books in all 50 states! When tasteless millionaires and bulldozing developers buy up old movie palaces, art deco hotels, arts-and-crafts bungalows, etc., in any other part of California (and Florida, too!) they get TAKEN TO COURT AND MADE TO STOP, private property or no private property. I mean, my God, if the current Disney management decided to cut footage of Johnny Depp into MARY POPPINS don't you think Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese and the rest of the film preservation set would cry bloody murder? Well, it ought to be the same with Disneyland. That park contains one-of-a-kind, personally-supervised works of art by an historic figure (dead nearly 50 years now) who was every bit as important to our cultural heritage as Walt Whitman or Frank Lloyd Wright. In other words, we goofed when we accepted the "Disneyland isn't a Museum" argument to begin with. II IS A MUSEUM...whether the current mgmt thinks so or not, whether Walt himself thought so or not! So let's just get in touch with the So Cal historic preservation people (with their long experience at such things...and their numerous and wickedly tenacious pro-bono lawyers) and have 'em go after these clueless philistine bastards. We don't have to take this anymore, guys! Repeat after me: I am not a watery-eyed nostalgic kid, I am a HISTORIC PRESERVATIONIST. And Disneyland IS a museum...or will be after we take it away from them!

Adamn said...

It wasn't exactly terrible, it wasn't exactly great. The children in our boat (not with us) liked the additions, so I have to factor that into the equation. The America sequence reminded me of the Muppets, with the "finale about all nations of the world, but mostly America" joke. I would have liked something about my USA, but this wasn't blended into the attraction IMHO. I went to Tomorrowland and looked at where the Mary Blair wonderful artwork is hidden and gave a sigh. To me THAT is where the true rape of IASW happened.

Anonymous said...

I was at the park recently and in the shops they now feature new Disney character themed IASM merchandise.

What a shock!! Could this have been the idea all along?

Anonymous said...

How long will it take before they say, "You will like the Spiderman, Iron Man and the Hulk addition to IASW in the supeheroes of the world section."

"It will fit in 'seemlessly'. You will never know that they were not part of the original ride."

"Oh and don't forget the X-Men vs Barbosa battle in the POTC ride."

"It's a natural because the X-men will be in the next Pirates movie fighting alongside Jack Sparrow."

Don't laugh. You know that Disney is just crazy enough to do it!

Unknown said...

I thought the added characters in Small World were okay. But those characters should have been singing along with everybody else; it is jarring to suddenly hear another musical theme coming out of an isolated scene. THAT, in my opinion, is what makes them stand out for the wrong reasons. I think it's fine to have the specific characters in the show, but they need to be participants in Small World, not overlays on top of it.