Sunday, December 12, 2010

Even Greater Moments

It seems odd to fixate on a fireplace mantel when discussing the return of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland nearly a year ago. Yet fixate we must, as in that presumably simple pre-show set piece is a sure sign that wisdom and clarity are returning to the halls of Imagineering.

It wasn’t too long ago that executives would have been hard pressed to have Lincoln return to Disneyland at all. Not relevant, not cost effective, not inclusive to a synergistic game plan.

Yet a budget was drawn up not only for the return of this attraction but for, among other things, the creation of a fireplace mantle for the pre-show lobby that provides an elegant footing for the new film that introduces the show. Of course it’s not just any mantle as it takes its cue from the one seen in John DeCuir’s masterwork “The Burden of War”, a painting used first for Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents and now appearing in this freshened up version of Great Moments. It’s a clever touch, a classy prop, a nice bit of theming.

But it’s important to recall that the number crunchers of days gone by would have argued vehemently against such a costly and superfluous extravagance. Something as simple as a pre-show mantel wouldn’t have gotten past the first brainstorming session.

But here we are and there it is; a touch of genuine elegance at Disneyland that in the broader sense spells out why no other theme park in America comes close when it comes to quality showmanship.

Thankfully it doesn't end there. While strolling through the pre-show gallery check out the wall coverings, the carpet, the crown molding, the light fixtures, the placard spotlighting, the cabinetry. It’s all top-drawer extravagance that would give an Eisner era bean-counter an aneurysm, all the while screaming, “This is an amusement park, dammit, not the Hermitage!”

And we haven’t even entered the auditorium.

Kudos goes to the entire Lincoln team for placating the purists while bringing a fresh new sheen to this Walt Era masterpiece. You’d think a mash-up of The Hall of Presidents, The American Adventure and previous Great Moments incarnations would create a messy dissonant presentation but good taste prevails, with the creative team pulling the best parts of these shows together into a cohesive, heart-tugging whole.

Luckily, anything resembling the egregious and disturbing ‘Civil War’ version of Great Moments from 2001 is nowhere to be found, along with the gimmicky headsets, the graveyard consecration and the uncomfortable moist lapping at the ear.

Back is the classic red-velvet curtain and white Ionic column version from the ’64 World’s Fair.

Back is the now digitized Sam McKim slideshow introduction, this time making room for many additional paintings in service of a gorgeous rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’. Irving Gordon’s ‘Two Brothers’ from American Adventure returns from the 1984 version to help illustrate the Civil War.

Back is the original music, chorus, Royal Dano and Paul Frees.

And back is a refreshed Lincoln along with the bulk of his original and always relevant speech. (Purists can forgive the exclusion of his ‘grave and the gay of all sexes’ comment, a move that insures guest relations will have a slightly shorter line to tend to.)

It’s certainly a thrill to see Lincoln’s technologically enhanced facial features but far more thrilling to finally witness, after decades of missteps, his most stately performance since 1984 when a breakthrough in animatronics made him both more ‘compliant’ and more hyper. Hats off to the current team of imagineers who understand that, despite advancements in audio-animatronics, just because a figure can flap his arms like an orangutan doesn’t mean it should. By toning down the trickery Lincoln has not only become more uncannily life-like but far more dignified.

If criticism be leveled at all, it falls not on the show but on the exit corridor. Portraits of America’s innovators, sports legends, entertainers, creators and philanthropists flank the walls; most of them time-honored revolutionaries. But in company with Martin Luther King, Amelia Earhart, Bob Hope and Elvis is the alarming inclusion of Miley Cyrus. If you’ve ever whacked your head against a stone doorway as you exit the Sistine Chapel then you can imagine the feeling of bumping into her here.

Regardless, the overall whole is a tour-de-force of Imagineering know-how and intelligence all at the task of resuscitating a true Disneyland gem. Kudos to Tony Baxter (Senior Vice President, Creative Development), Josh Shipley (Creative Show Director), Kim Irvine (Pre-Show Design), Ethan Reed (Animator), Brian Scholz, (Show Producer), Chris Tietz (Art Director) and the entire team that pulled this one off.

And finally, kudos to the executives. Disney brass certainly had plenty of arguments against bankrolling the endeavor, including that pesky superfluous John DeCuir mantle homage.

But they did.

And the Happiest Place on Earth just got a lot happier.

Thank you.