Thursday, 31 January 2008

20,000 Leagues Concept Art

Here are a couple rough but beautiful scenic pieces of concept art for Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I imagine that these are by matte painter extraordinaire, the late Peter Ellenshaw. Enjoy!

Scientific Romances in the Magic Kingdom

If Scientific Romances have had any great patron in the 20th century, the applause might have to go Walt Disney and the company that bears his name. The resume of Extraordinary Voyages that he has taken us on is quite impressive: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, In Search of the Castaways, The Island at the Top of the World, The Rocketeer, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet... And those are just the films that can be be said to be directly inspired by Scientific Romances, Imperialist Adventures and Pulp Fiction. What of the theme parks, with the former 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine voyage at Walt Disney World, the Verne-inspired Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris, the 20,000 Leagues-based Mysterious Island at Tokyo Disneysea, or the love affair with nostalgia and steam at Walt's original Disneyland in Anaheim, California? And on top of it all is a wide-eyed enthusiasm that carries through so much, whether it's animation or live action, True Life Adventures or Disneyland, that seems to pull directly at the same heartstrings.

Not that Disney hasn't received criticism for these flights of nostalgic fancy. On the contrary, the name has become synonymous with cheapness and fakery... A sad irony for a man who was driven by perfectionism. Against those who are willing to dismiss these as trite, empty-headed kidstuff, there are always an array of defenders. One of the best is Ray Bradbury, one of the great pioneers of modern Science Fiction, who wrote in response to a blistering review of Disneyland by Julian Halevy. Against such scathing words as "The overwhelming feeling that ones carries away is sadness for the empty lives which accept such tawdry substitutes" and "the pathetic gladness that illuminated [a Jungle Cruise guest's] face as a papier-mache crocodile sank beneath the muddy surface of the ditch was a grim indictment of the way of life for which this feeble sham represented escape and adventure," Bradbury had this to say:
Dear Sirs: I think it goes without saying that I am as critical as you people are of many facets of American life. Lord knows I've raised my voice often enough. But when someone like Julian Halevy equates Disneyland and Las Vegas (The Nation, June 7), I begin to doubt his or my sanity.

Not that I haven't met his type before. The world is full of people who, for intellectual reasons, steadfastly refuse to let go and enjoy themselves. Mr. Halevy damns himself immediately when he states he is glad he didn't take a child with him to Disneyland. I did better than take a child; my first visit, I accompanied one of the greatest theatrical and creative minds of our time, Charles Laughton. I've never had such a day full of zest and good humor. Mr. Laughton is no easy mark; he has a gimlet eye and a searching mind. Yet he saw, and I found, in Disneyland, vast reserves of imagination before untapped in our country.

I admit I approached Disneyland with many intellectual reservations, myself, but these have been banished in my seven visits. Disney makes mistakes; what artist doesn't? But when he flies, he really flies. I shall be indebted to him for a lifetime for his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on that fabulous city, in his Peter Pan ride. The Jungle Boat ride, too, is an experience of true delight and wonder. I could go on, but why bother?

I have a sneaking suspicion, after all is said and done, that Mr. Halevy truly loved Disneyland but is not man enough, or child enough, to admit it. I feel sorry for him. He will never travel in space, he will never touch the stars.

In the absence of iron rivet submersibles and aetheric sailing ships, providing a window for the imagination to soar from is a wonderful thing. Ultimately, that is what Disney represents, why the worldwide resorts can credibly advertize themselves as the place "where dreams come true": imagination given the means to be realized, dreams made into reality. Yes the means are corporate and capitalistic, but who of us wouldn't want a Nautilus or a Hyperion? Or at least, the next best thing?

The Disney experience, as it were, is always at its best when it provides that platform for taking us along on trips to places that have never or no longer exist... Into the worlds of Jules Verne and Captain Nemo, along Mark Twain's river in a sternwheeler or Davy Crockett's wilderness in a canoe, flying over Neverland or falling into Wonderland, the pristine wildernesses of the True Life Adventures, waltzing through Sleeping Beauty's Castle, creeping into a Haunted Mansion or bobsledding down the Matterhorn, hitting the candy shoppe along a 19th century main street or blasting into outer space in an 18th century tall ship, into realms of history and nature, adventure and nostalgia.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

One Night in Paris '08

As I joked to my colleagues, my real cross-cultural immersion experience on this three-week globetrot happened on when I navigated the streets of Paris by myself at night. Madagascar had its highlights and I do have to say that I'm glad that I can tuck that in my curriculum vitae, but it also went awfully long and I was glad to be heading home... with this brief layover.

My ambition for a single afternoon and evening in Paris was threefold: a brief visit to Disneyland Paris, followed by worship at Notre Dame de Paris and a walk to the Eiffel Tower. Not without some delays and disconcerting ignorance as to my whereabouts, I accomplished what I set out to.

The first was Disneyland Paris, which entered onto the itinerary at all because of the features that make it so unique relative to its American counterparts. Any visit to a Disney park must be started by a visit to the castle. In the fantastical Parisian version of the Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant, an animatronic dragon lurks in underground caverns while above, an upper gallery renders the story of Sleeping Beauty in stained glass, tapestry, statuary and recreated props to the stirring excerpts of Tchaikovsky's ballet.

Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant.

The main attractions, however, were Les Mystères du Nautilus and Space Mountain: Mission 2 in their Vernian, da Vinci-inspired Discoveryland. The full-sized walk-through of the Nautilus - though in no way properly echoing the layout of the ship in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - was phenomenal. The highlight, above and beyond being a highlight unto itself, was the grand salon with the iris window, which opens periodically to expose a giant squid attacking the submersible.

Les Mystères du Nautilus.

Following this came Space Mountain: Mission 2. Unfortunately, I had missed the previous "From the Earth to the Moon" theme by some years and had to make due with the less-inspired "Mission 2". Relative to the American Space Mountains, this was better realized as a manic fly through the spheres, but I would naturally have preferred the more Méliès-influenced original. A short trip through the Phantom Manor and run through Adventure Isle saw me off from the most expensive-by-minute amusement I've ever enjoyed.

Space Mountain: Mission 2.

Notre Dame Cathedral was magnificent... So much so that it actually mocks my verbosity. Notre Dame is a spiritual experience, an incredible, soaring, vaulted edifice through which echoed the hymns and prayers of the faithful. It stops only short of the cathedral of the Heavens I stood beneath in Africa.

Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, outside and in.

Though it seemed only a short walk and I was fueled by adrenaline and ambition, the walk to the Eiffel Tower from Notre Dame was lengthy. Lengthy and worth every step, as there is no better way to experience the life of the city except at street level. After some blocks the cheap souvenir shoppes gave way to legions of pubs and restaurants (including "The Great Canadian Pub", which I was very tempted to patronize), which themselves gave way to institution after institution with grand Renaissance, Revolutionary and Victorian architecture. Though more urbanized and claustrophobic than I'd prefer in a city I'd want to live in, Paris still has unparalleled beauty.

I finally made it to the Eiffel Tower, which was astonishing. One simply does not get an appreciation for the size of it until they are actually there. No photo I've seen does it justice. Some antique photos of the old Paris Expositions from ground level show in an intellectual sort of way how huge it is, but one cannot really comprehend it until they are in its presence. It was incredible.

Going up it was somewhat anticlimactic, however. It is fascinating, of course, but my interests lied in looking at the Tower itself, which is the one thing you can't do when you're actually in the Tower. There are restaurants and clubs, exhibits, souvenir shops, and every other amenity. You still can't really see the Tower though... Or at least, you can't see the Tower for the girders. Back outside, on ground level, I just sat for minutes on end in slack-jawed wonder at it.

My time in Paris was much too short and far too much was missed. I could have done with a day in Disneyland alone, let alone having missed entirely on the Louvre, Moulin Rouge, French cuisine, and sites of interest to appreciators of Verne, Robida and Méliès. (as well as Dorè, Rodin...) Nevertheless, the visit was a quite satisfying adieu to this whole excursion.

The City of Lights.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Madagascar '08

I have returned from my three-week sojourn to Madagascar and amidst unpacking, reconnecting with loved ones and catching up on some much-needed sleep, I've found sufficient time to collect my thoughts on the trip. From the outset it should be noted that this was not a pleasure trip. On the contrary, visiting Madagascar was a practicum towards my efforts at a sheepskin and a clerical collar, and as such, we spent time studying and worshiping with our colleagues at the Lutheran seminary in Fianarantsoa, as well as seeing the work of missionaries and environmentalists to improve and protect both the disadvantaged people and the rapidly depleting rain forests. A Lutheran commune for the healing of the sick and demon-possessed was on the itinerary, as was the secluded city of Soatanana, in which men and women clad in white robes have devoted themselves to the religious life of prayer and hospitality. We also visited an operating sapphire mine in Ilakaka: an overnight boomtown resurrecting the spirit of California and the Yukon, with pit mines resembling something from a century ago in the Valley of the Kings.

The Lutheran Seminary at Fianarantsoa.

The faithful at Soatanana.

The nature of the trip meant that many parts were quite unpleasurable. There was the heartrending encounter with the kind of desperate poverty that one simply doesn't see in the Western world, even amongst the destitute and homeless. Not long into the trip I suffered my bout of dysentery, and at approximately the beginning of the third week I began to feel the acute mood swings of culture shock. There were also many long and monotonous hours spent in the cramped conditions of an autobus, for which Monsieur Jules Verne was a welcome companion.

Nevertheless, mine eyes have seen wonders. We were surrounded by the primal nature of the untamed jungle at Ranomafana National Park. This last vestige of the great rain forest that once spread the full length of Madagascar's eastern coast was so lush and full, with vines and leaves covering every hill, and those dripping with ever present moisture. The water itself swelled with power as it fell spectacularly over the bare rock of the riverbed while unseen life teemed audibly in the forest.

Ranomafana National Park.

This verdant greenery was a welcome relief from the stark beauty of the desert landscapes of Isalo National Park. As though built in miniature on the pattern of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the sheer stone walls of the plateau rose out of the arid flatlands, serving as a gateway to fanciful natural sculptures out of the living rock. This harsh environment was run through with the most perfect of oases, in which a stream drained by waterfall into the mossy grottoes of a palm-lined gully.

Isalo National Park.

Prior to Isalo, we stayed at the tropical port of Fort Dauphin. Flanked by palm trees and sublime rocky shoreline, I stood against the tide of the Indian Ocean for the first time, setting my face towards the next closest landmass: the continent of Antarctica. I opted against taking a reprieve in the ocean, preferring to comb the beach for countless varieties of shells and corals.

The beach at Fort Dauphin.

Winding roads took us through picturesque mountain passes, where the perfectly cut tiers of vividly green rice paddies rested in the shadow of imposing grey mountains. For the Malagasy people, mountaintops are high places reserved for royalty and the deceased, which mark the closest points of connection to the spirits and define the boundaries of whole kingdoms. We visited the historic castles of Ambohimanga and Antananarivo, in addition to the Old City of Fianarantsoa.

A mountain pass in Madagascar.

Working the rice paddies.

Ambohimanga served as the seat of power for Madagascar's first unified king in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was further developed thereafter as the summer palace for the Queens of Madagascar, prior to colonial occupation by the French. The Queens, as well as her Prime Ministers, held castles on the hilltop overlooking the capital of Antananarivo, but reserved Fianarantsoa for their governors. All were the type of the exotic mountain town, with steep and labyrinthine cobblestoned streets snaking through houses stacked haphazardly one upon the other.

The castle at Ambohimanga.

The Prime Minister's palace in Antananarivo.


The outstanding destination of the country was, for myself, Berenty. Deep in the wide expanses of red-sand and cactus-laden outback of southern Madagascar, this former domain of the Androy people now serves as a home to numerous varieties of lemurs... That prosimian icon of an island separated geologically and evolutionarily from the rest of the world. We had not checked into our rustic cabana for more than an eighth of an hour when the welcoming committee of ring-tailed lemurs arrived to ensure that we were comfortably settled in.

Ring-Tailed Lemurs at Berenty.

Sifaka Lemurs in Berenty's trees.

After a day of trekking through brush to see ring-tails, the famous leaping sifakas, and a rare roost of flying foxes, myself and a colleague retired to the porch of my cabana for alcoholic relief. While enjoying our wine, we could not help but remark at how quickly tribes of lemurs sauntering by in the night became the normal and pleasurable course of life. On the eleventh hour the electric lights were doused, and as they were, the stars of the vast African sky emerged. I have only rarely seen the night sky so clear and the Milky Way flowing through the spheres with such beauty. It truly defied description. The only fitting hymn is the prayer and praise of the unfettered heart experiencing it.

All journeys must come to an end and this was no exception. Three weeks is an awfully long time... At least in a world where 80 days for a global journey seems like an absurdly high count rather than an absurdly low one. As a former French colony, the path to and from Madagascar leads through Paris, which formed an excellent conclusion to this adventure.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Happy New Year...

... Let's celebrate with a hiatus!

I know it is poor form to abandon a weblog only two months after starting it, but I have a valid excuse. For three weeks starting tomorrow, I will be on a cross-cultural practicum halfway around the world in Madagascar!

The trip is a necessary intensive course complimenting my past semester's Globalization and Ethics class. Over the coming weeks, we will be visiting justice and charity organizations in Madagascar, meeting and homestaying with members of our sister denomination and seminary, seeing first-hand the effects of corporate globalization, and of course, touring the country, swimming in the ocean and bushwacking the jungle. We will be seeing lemurs, which are among my favorite animals. I wouldn't mind seeing a coelacanth while I'm at it, but I don't want to be too demanding.

On top of that, the international flight from Canada to Madagascar connects through Paris! The layover includes an afternoon and overnight, which I'm as excited about as Madagascar itself. There won't be enough time to really appreciate the sights and sounds of the city in winter, which means I will be content enough just to visit the Eiffel Tower and take a cursory stroll along the Seine. Nevertheless, I find it astonishingly appropriate that the home of Jules Verne, Georges Méliès and Albert Robida will be my own gateway to a real-life Extraordinary Voyage.

Without it even needing to be said, Voyages Extraordinaires will not be updated while I'm on the other side of the globe in one of the world's most desperately impoverished countries. When I return in the last week in January, I may post a trip report if I feel up to it. (I'll undoubtedly have much sleep to catch up on, many photos to sort through and plenty of footage to edit into videos, provided I don't expire of malaria) We will return to our regular schedule in Febuary with our next theme month, however. Mark your calendars for a Febuary spent in the Magic Kingdom!

In the mean time, thank you all for your patronage of this fine weblog. Take care and we'll be seeing you again at the end of the month!