Thursday, 28 February 2008

Final Resting Place of the Nautilus

It's with a heart as heavy as walking out of Disneyland's gates on the last day of a vacation that we say goodbye to Walt Disney's Scientific Romances in a Magic Kingdom Month. To end it on an appropriate note, here is a promotional photo of the Nautilus' final resting place, in case you ever found yourself wondering what happened after she slipped beneath the waves...

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Treasure Planet Concept Art

The following are a pair of concept paintings for the central star map that leads Jim Hawkins and company to the legendary planetary treasure trove. Enjoy!

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Treasure Planet (2002)

The montage from Treasure Planet (2002) with
music by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls.

Disney's Treasure Planet (2002) is perhaps the company's most underrated film since Fantasia, and yes, that is a deliberate comparison. When Fantasia opened in 1940, it was years ahead of its time, both artistically and conceptually. In all probability, this visual orchestra was Disney's finest hour, and it all-but bombed at the box office for its troubles. Only in later decades was it recognized as the forward-thinking and beautiful film it is.

Treasure Planet also received poor box office receipts, low critical acclaim, and was even maligned by then company president Michael Eisner. The film itself came as one of the last in a string of more experimental animated movies around the turn of the century - including Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Brother Bear (2003) - that were poorly-received and consequently spelled the temporary doom of Disney's traditionally animated features.

This reception does not befit the film itself, which is absolutely spellbinding. The story is, granted, ultimately forgettable: a reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with a young man's coming of age plot that is Disney's second favorite after the young woman pining for love and freedom. What makes it worthwhile is the remarkable world this reimagining is placed in.

As evidenced by the title, this version of Treasure Island (which was itself adapted into live action film by Disney in 1950) has been transformed into a Science Fiction film, where the titular island has been changed into a titular planet. Rather than develop it into a straight Sci-Fi movie with high tech spaceships and robots (comparable to Don Bluth's 2000 film Titan A.E.), the animators decided on retaining the flavour of 18th century seafaring. In interview they revealed their 70-30 strategy: 70% old, 30% new. The result was a cosmos in which tall-masted sloops bore cyborg pirates and flintlock laser-wielding swashbucklers through asteroid belts and black holes.

The creativity in this 70-30 strategy is astounding and forms a model for any future 18th or 19th century celestial expeditions. Leatherbound holograph books open to project the exploits of the nefarious Captain Flint. Astronomer Dr. Doppler wears a space diving suit aboard the RLS Legacy ship. The crescent moon above Jim Hawkins' planet is stunningly revealed to be a massive space port. Pods of galactic whales and flocks of space rays fly alongside the sailors, riding the "Winds of the Etherium". Jim's coveted map to Treasure Planet is a three-dimensional, holographic version of a old seafarer's map, while the planet itself is a mechanical relic of an ancient civilization of observers whose rich backstory was developed for the writers but, sadly, not in the film itself.

Against these elements are a backdrop of the heavens pulled from the most magnificent of the Hubble Telescope's images. Treasure Planet's is not the deromanticized black abyss of the mid-20th century, nor even the anthropomorphized space of Georges Méliès and paper moon photography. Instead, it is richly vibrant and colourful, with hues of blues and reds and purples billowing about like wave and fog in spheres newly-romanticised for the 21st century. Easily some of the most beautiful visuals of any Disney movie around are found over and over again in Treasure Planet.

In a fair and just world, Treasure Planet would have been a success... Audiences would have recognized it for the stunning film it is and, among other things, Disney's attempts at remodelling Tomorrowland along Retro-Futurist and Scientific Romantic lines would have been capped by a simulator ride through the Etherium.

There is an endless opportunity for speculation in assessing why Treasure Planet underperformed at theatures. A theory that I think holds some relevance for a number of films from that period is that Disney is creatively caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, people complain and dismiss Disney as being a company that produces princess movies and other fairy tales. Granted, that is where they are at their most iconic, be it Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Aladdin or Alice in Wonderland. However, there has never been a shortage of experimentation either: once upon a time, Snow White was experimental. Fantasia and the other mid-century music anthologies were most certainly so, as were the Latin American-themed Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

Which leads to the other hand: people complain that Disney only makes fairy tales, and then refuse to see any Disney movie that isn't one. Is it any wonder that Disney's return to traditional animation is being heralded in by two fairy tales, Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog? When they attempt an Atlantis or a Treasure Planet, a moviegoing public cannot seem to wrap their minds around it. Nor can they, despite 20 years of Japanese animation being imported to Western shores, contemplate a mature Hollywood animated film like The Iron Giant or Titan A.E.

Unfortunately, like Fantasia, fans of the film will have to wait a few decades for vindication.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

1974's The Island at the Top of the World starring David Hartman, Donald Sniden, and Mako as the Inuit Oomiak, was part of a mid-late 1970's revival of period films that also included the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations At the Earth's Core, The Land that Time Forgot and its sequel The People that Time Forgot, and it featured a fairly standard "lost world" story where explorers go to the arctic and find a hidden, thermally warmed oasis. This time, however, instead of dinosaurs or Ice Age mammals, the explorers find a lost colony of vikings held over from the age of the great sagas.

Based on Ian Cameron's novel The Lost Ones, this central twist of a preserved Norse culture offers an interesting outing that is never fully capitalized on. While preserved, this culture has also developed uniquely over the past thousand years, and we catch too brief a glimpse at this in setting up the "Man Against Man" portion of the story. Having been isolated in this volcanic valley for a thousand years, the vikings have written their own saga about the rest of the world being an icy wasteland, prophesying that some day barbarians would come and try to invade the valley. It isn't too difficult to figure out who those "barbarians" are. Unfortunately, this glimpse at their culture is relegated to a set-up for the conflict between the explorers and the Norse, fueled by the fervor of the viking shaman in a rather uninspired episode of blaming everything on religious intolerance once again.

The "Man Against Nature" part of the program is primarily reserved for the fantastic airship Hyperion. The token piece of fantastic technology is actually a rather nicely designed hydrogen airship, and easily holds its own alongside other film designs, including Disney's own Nautilus. The Hyperion scenes are among the most stirring of the film: while the special effects leave a lot to be desired, the miniature diorama work with the airship is quite remarkable, offering an incredible vision of arctic wastes and montane peaks.

One thing the movie very consciously attempts to convey is the sense of sheer size. This is as true of the scenes with living actors as it is with those of the Hyperion ship. Everything on the Island is immense, from the mountains and the passes between them to the great temples and the statues inside them built by the vikings. The matte work is quite well done and gives a definite impression of the sublime, which is that greatness of scale that dwarfs the sense of self in comparison to Time, Space, Nature and Divinity. Even some of the most contrived aspects of Island, like the heretofore unknown "Whales Graveyard" (a transparent take off on the myth of the Elephant's Graveyard which motivates, amongst other films, the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man), are infused with this sensibility.

An admirable effort on the part of Disney's stalwart director Robert Stevenson and his writers was to remain true to linguistic and cultural characteristics of the characters involved. The primary example of this are the vikings themselves, none of whom are made to speak English save the one who was actually taught English by a shipwrecked whaler. Nor is the viewer even treated to subtitles, relying instead upon the characters to translate for us, and suffering their same uncertainty when we can read only expressions and body language.

However, not all is credible in Island. In a film that demands the suspension of disbelief when it comes to such fantastic elements as airships and lost colonies of vikings, leave it to the relatively mundane to cause some mental stumbling. In this case, it was the incredibly unrealistic portrayal of the rigors of the arctic. Tales of human survival in the polar regions are quite satisfying on their own, as anyone who has read Jack London or followed the Shackleton Expedition can attest to. The power of nature itself is highly dramatic, as seen in Disney's 1958 True Life Adventure, White Wilderness. But Island circumvents this by treating the arctic like a pleasant winter outing, as characters survive in flimsy winter coats and dive in and out of the North Pole's waters with nary a chilled breath or lost foot.

In any event, The Island at the Top of the World has become a forgotten Disney film, probably of no interest to anyone but fans of Scientific Romances and 20,000 Leagues. It did receive one special accolade however: the French-built Hyperion served the purposes of Disneyland Paris' Jules Verne-themed Discoveryland so well that a full scale model of it acts as the entrance for the Cafè Hyperion eatery.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

White Wilderness (1958)

Like 1955's The Vanishing Prairie, Disney's True Life Adventure feature White Wilderness begins by taking the viewer back in time... This time, beyond the white settlers of North America, and beyond the arrival of Native Americans. Then beyond even the development of modern North American ecosystems, all the way back to the Ice Age.

Through the art of Disney animation, we are shown the vast glacial sheet that stretched its frozen limbs across Europe, Asia and North America. Narrator Winston Hibler tells us of the great, forgotten legends of this time, immortalized on the painted cave walls of Europe: the mammoth and mastodon, the woolly rhinoceros and long-horned bison. This Ice Age drama still plays out, and like the national parks of the grasslands in The Vanishing Prairie, the vast arctic domain of the Canadian high north stand in for this ancient landscape of ice and snow.

Like most other True Life Adventures, White Wilderness follows the seasonal round. The north is introduced to us at the spring thaw, when the ice pack is cracking and straining against the increasing light and warmth of the sun. Here are unparalleled scenes of nature in its sublime might, as ice collapses off mountains, uplifts against strain and cascades into the sea, all to very fine and dramatic music from Disney's soundtrack department. This wilderness is one of desolation splintering and exploding in preparation for the life that will unfold before the cameras.

The first arrivals are the walrus, to whom not much time is actually given. Scenes of their lumbering and fighting on land soon make way for the second arrival: the polar bear. Hibler impresses the majesty of the great white bear upon the viewer as panic-stricken Walrus surge into the protective waters of the frigid sea. Not left to ego-inflating compliments on its legendary status, the cameras turn from adult polar bears to a pair of cubs discovering the world for the first time... With all the slapstick antics, play fighting, sliding (sometimes painfully) down embankments and all the generally cute moments expected of baby animals.

We're next introduced to another cute baby animal in the seal. Of greatest interest to the True Life cameras, however, are the lemmings. Disney spares no footage or time in exploring this fascinating, legendary creature of the north renowned for its suicidal mass migrations. Unfortunately, these legends are false, and White Wilderness did its painful share to compound the error with tragedy.

In nature, the lemming suffers one of the most variable population fluctuations of any known animal. Its numbers can vary wildly from year to year, which in years of extreme pressure can cause large numbers to strike off in all directions in search of greener pastures. Unfortunately, in these migrations, accidents can happen and missteps can occur, resulting in untimely deaths. There is nothing deliberately suicidal about these voyages, however.

The Disney photographers, no doubt acting under the mistaken impression that the legends were true, decided that it couldn't hurt to stage a lemming migration for the cameras. Contrary to the preface of every True Life Adventure film - which states that the films are unstaged and unrehearsed - they are well-known for staging dramatic scenes for the benefit of good footage. The amount varies from film to film, with some being almost entire staged in artificial enclosures to others having natural phenomena "helped along" by the hand of man. White Wilderness' camerapeople probably assumed they were doing the latter, but sadly were literally throwing hapless Lemmings to their watery graves.

This isn't the only incident of death and destruction in White Wilderness. Indeed, Disney seems to have gotten over their shyness about Nature Red in Tooth and Claw... Even modern documentaries are rarely so red and toothy. The rocky shores of the North Pole transition to the barren tundra where the caribou are migrating through the narrow valleys under the watchful eye, then high-speed pursuit, of wolves. Rather than turn the camera discreetly away from the kill, we see it in graphic detail. Caribou after caribou goes down beneath the fangs of the wolf, gored in a bloody feast.

When the scene transitions again to the northern boreal forest, we see the exploits of the vicious wolverine as it pursues any and everything. After a few failed attempts and a few skirmishes with other wolverines, this foul-tempered member of the weasel family finally succeeds in pulling a young osprey down from its nest despite the impassioned attempts of the mother to dissuade it. This is an almost shocking amount of violence for a Disney film, proving that a Disney film often surprisingly dashes expectations.

The end draws nigh. Some denizens of the arctic stay, but others make for the south. The seasonal round circles back and winter sets back in over the majestic, inhospitable waste of the White Wilderness.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Original Mickey Mouse Club

The Mickey Mouse Club is one of the most memorable pieces of 1950's pop-culture Americana, with catchy lyrics that have rung through time from Baby Boomers on down. This club, with its daily half-hour television show, song and dance skits, theme days and mouse ears, was not the first Mickey Mouse Club, however. Before Annette and Bobby, before "M-I-C See ya real soon! K-E-Y Why? Because we like you!", before television and Disneyland, was the original Mickey Mouse Club.

Created in 1929 by Harry Woodlin for the Fox Dome Theatre in Ocean Park, California, this original Mickey Mouse Club was a cartoon matinee club for gregarious, all-American youngsters. Clubs of this sort, based around a character with some drawing power like a Mickey Mouse or a Popeye the Sailor Man, were popular with both kids and theatre owners. The kids loved the opportunity to see their animated hero and win prizes, while the owners loved the radically increased patronage and profits they brought with them. Within a year, 150 theatres organized Mickey Mouse Clubs with some 200,000 members. By 1932, the number of members inflated to a million kids spread over 800 theatres.

The weekly club festivities would always get underway with its very own theme song, originally featured in the cartoon Mickey's Follies and comprising the very first original song written by the Disney studios: "Minnie's Yoo Hoo"...

Members would meet each other with a special club handshake and greeting. Then would follow the club's code of honour, turning this matinee club into the equivalent of a fraternal order. Among the club officers were an elected "Chief Mickey Mouse" and "Chief Minnie Mouse", presumably the most popular boys and girls respectively. Special merchandise was made available to club members as well, such as buttons and pre-orders of items such as The Mickey Mouse Book published by Bibo & Lang.

Of course, there were the latest and greatest Mickey Mouse cartoons. The little mouse hit the cinematic world with vengeance in 1928 with the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, and his star was still climbing during the heyday of the Mickey Mouse Club. It was only over time that cartoon shorts became ingrained as a children's genre, for at the time, many of them were downright bizarre and included much of what might be considered "adult content". Mickey himself was fond of animal abuse and making unwarranted advances on Minnie, smoking and drinking, and even leading prison riots before finally settling down into the wholesome, all-American character he is known as today.

Steve Renzi, of the Downtown Tusconian, recalls the Tuscon, Arizona, chapter of the Mickey Mouse Club:
Imagine a Tucson youngster walking into the first meeting of the Mickey Mouse Club at the Fox. It begins at noon on Saturday. Today, admission is free, and thereafter for many years the admission price was only ten cents. The Fox Theater just had its grand opening a little more than a month ago, so everything is new, clean, shiny and luxurious. Inside, the theater is big, air-cooled, and jam-packed with over 1,500 noisy kids. There is no assigned seating so everyone moves towards the front.

A Wurlitzer organ plays. Above your head hangs a six-foot chandelier, ablaze with multi-colored lights, and mounted onto the domed ceiling painted in fabulous art deco designs and colors. Behind and also above is a large balcony. In front, a wooden stage ensconced by two curtains, one a thick red velvet plush, the other, a shimmering white with black polka dots.

A typical itinerary of the Mickey Mouse Club was an afternoon of cartoons, movie serials, contests and games. Boys and girls attended. All the Mice had to learn the secret handshake, special member greeting, code of behavior and special club songs.

Over the years, there were roping, yo-yo, and costume contests, rodeo events, parades, and patriotic and citizenship activities. Many of the former members still remember the cartoon and movie serials like “Last of the Mohicans” and “Flash Gordon”, some of them divided into as many as fifteen episodes - cliffhangers till the end. Celebrities like Kate Smith, Will Rogers and Art Linkletter appeared on the Fox Theater stage. Also appearing was “The Flying Nelsons,” an acrobatic troupe and Pinky Gist, a rodeo clown with his two trained burros, Freckles and Peanuts. Also, not to be forgotten was Queen and Semi, two dogs who it was said could understand up to 700 spoken words.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Primeval World

Disney is interesting and pretty cool in its own right. So is Disneyland, where the two dimensional fantasy worlds of Disney animation and the dusty memories of romantic pasts and futures come as close to reality as they are ever likely to. Steam trains are an awesome and integral part of that romantic past. Going back even further than steam trains, dinosaurs are nearly as romantic as it gets, with these monsterous beasts hulking their way through prehistoric swamps.

How astonishing, then, to combine them together into one of the most amazing visual spectacles anywhere: Disneyland's Primeval World.

An unsung influence on this diorama of saurian life is the most magnificent of Disney's feature films, Fantasia. "The Rite of Spring" sequence of this classic movie is notable for many reasons. It was, for instance, the only piece of music used in Fantasia whose composer was still alive at the time. Igor Stravinsky originally conceived of "The Rite of Spring" ballet as a fantasy impression of pagan Russia and its rituals, but this was transformed to the pageant of prehistoric life in Fantasia. Initially approving of the story and the edited version of the music, the composer would turn on it in later years, condeming it in numerous ways.

Desite Stravinsky's objections, "The Rite of Spring" ingrained itself into the memories of children of nearly every generation since its 1940 release. The segment was extracted and shown in schools as an educational film as recently as the 1980's. Even though it is rife with what are known to be scientific errors today, it still marks one of the rare occassions in which traditional animation was used in a serious and artful manner to breathe life into extinct forms.

Fantasia's influence on Primeval World, however, is most obvious in the climax of both "The Rite of Spring" and the attraction. Though decidedly unfactual - since the competitors were separated by tens of millions of years - the memorable and dramatic battle between the plated Stegosaurus and the tyrant lizard king Tyrannosaurus was transfered from the one to the other. There are other echoes, such as the necks of the Brontosaurs craneing out of the water, the Pterodactyls on the cliffs, and the Ornithomimids huddling around a pool of water in a parched desert.

The excitement was building as the dinosaurs of Primeval World prepared to make their way from the 1964/65 World's Fair to Disneyland in 1966. The following bochure advertised the new additions, and you can see more pamphlets of this type here and here.

Every theme park attraction begins with a concept piece, being a work of art in its own right that charts the course that will be taken by the Imagineers who realize it in sculpted form. Primeval World is no different, and here is concept art for the brontosaurus family and the climactic showdown between the Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus.

The following set of promotional photos were frequently used on postcards, pamphlets and slides as souveniers of the park. Through them, you can see how well this concept art was realized. First is the family of Brontosaurs enjoying a visit down to the lake. Following this is the triceratops nursery and the showstopping climax.

For an audio-visual record of Primeval World, the Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland - Secrets, Stories and Magic DVD is indispensable. Included are the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color episodes Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair and Disneyland Around the Seasons, which chronicle the creation of the 1964/65 World's Fair attractions and their arrival at Disneyland.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Disneyland Railroad

The first thing that every visitor to Walt Disney's original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, sees when they enter the main gates and hear the pixie dust chime of the ticket readers is the Disneyland Railroad's Main Street station. Excitement builds as the famous prerecorded "voice of Disneyland", Jack Wagner, echos over the loudspeakers "Your attention please. The Disneyland Limited now leaving for a grand circle tour of the Magic Kingdom, with stops at New Orleans Square, Mickey's Toontown, and Tomorrowland. All passengers 'Booooard!" On the tracks above the floral arrangement mirroring Mickey's distinctive mug shot, visitors depart on any one of the five authentic steam engines for one of the most imaginative train ride anywhere in the world... Through steaming jungles, the wild western frontier, a magical land of fantasy, the world of tomorrow, the Grand Canyon and the prehistoric life of primeval times.

Walt Disney's boyhood fascination with steam trains led to living steam being an essential part of his theme park visions from the very beginning. When "Disneyland" was originally being planned as a quaint historical village across the street from Disney's Burbank studio, the train was everpresent. Eventually, Disney's ambitions outgrew the modest plot, and an orange grove in Anaheim was purchased for the new plans being drafted up. When Disney approached concept artist Herbert Ryman to bring colour to these designs, he told him that "I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train."

The original two trains rolled out on Disneyland's opening day, July 17th, 1955, and did indeed follow a track that completed enclosed the park. The #1 C.K. Holliday and #2 E.P. Ripley were built by the Disney Studio specifically for the park and named for the founder and an early president of the Santa Fe Railroad, respectively. Until 1974, Santa Fe served as the sponsor for the railroad, which was named the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad and had the added bonus of guests being able to use their Santa Fe pass to ride the train rather than the standard D-ticket sold at the park.

It was in building these two trains that the park hit unintentionally upon the standard narrow-gauge. Prepared to make a train custom built to Disneyland's needs, the men who would become Imagineers settled on a passenger door height of six feet. From that measurement, the rest of the train was scaled down, resulting in a 5/8th scale that was only a few inches off the regular three foot gauge used in narrow-gauge railroads. Because of this happy accident, Disneyland was then able to purchase pre-built narrow-gauge engines to expand their fleet. In 1958, the #3 Fred Gurley engine was added, which was originally built in 1894 and is the oldest engine in the group. In 1959, the 1925 #4 Ernest S. Marsh was also added, and both engines were named for then-present executives of the Santa Fe Railroad. The most recent addition was the #5 Ward Kimball, originally built in 1902 and added to the park in 2005 as part of Disneyland's 50th anniversary. Breaking from tradition, the #5 engine is not named after a Santa Fe official, but after Disney animator and director Ward Kimball, who shared Walt Disney's deep love of steam trains.

Kimball's first recognizable drawing as a child was of a steam train, and upon becoming a fairly accomplished illustrator, he was hired on by the Disney company in 1934. His screen accomplishments included creating Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio, animating the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee and Tweedledum for Alice in Wonderland and directing the Man in Space trilogy. Off-screen his love of trains reached epic proportions. Kimball owned and opperated his own narrow-gauge railway, the Grizzly Flats RR, on his three acre property and helped Disney set up his own backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific.

Before the Carolwood, Disney had a large lionel model railway set-up adjacent to his offices in the Burbank studio. In his formative years, Walt's uncle Michael Martin had been an engineer and young Disney himself got a job with the Missouri Pacific RR selling newspapers, drinks and confections to passengers. As the official legend goes, it was on a train trip back home after losing the rights to the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character that Disney invented Mickey Mouse. It was only natural, then, that he should want a backyard railway of his own. The Carolwood opened in 1950, and would serve as direct inspiration for the Disneyland Railroad.

Echos of these early backyard railroads can be found throughout the park. The station of Kimball's Grizzly Flats RR served as the model for the original Frontierland station. This structure still remains as the stationmaster's office across the tracks from the New Orleans Square station, as the Frontierland station was redubbed. The morse code tapping out from the stationsmaster's office is reciting Walt's dedication speech for Disneyland. A replica of the Carolwood Pacific's Lilly Belle engine, named for Mrs. Disney, can also be found encased in glass in the Main Street station, where it is flanked by displays of Disney railroading ephemera.

A long stretch of unattractive backlots between the Tomorrowland and Main Street stations necessitated the first major addition to the railway: the Grand Canyon Diorama. The longest diorama in the world, this 1958 addition measured 306' long by 34' high and featured the only real taxadermied animals in the park. As trains pass by the diorama, the familair refrains of Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite clip-clop their way into guests' memories.

The next addition to this diorama came in 1966 with the addition of Primeval World. Disney Imagineering was conscripted by several exhibitors at the 1964/65 World's Fair to develop pavillions that were uniquely entertaining and educational. For Pepsi-Cola, Disney gave artist Mary Blair free reign to create the "happiest cruise that ever sailed 'round the world", It's A Small World. For the State of Illinois, experimental Audio-Animatronics were given a test run in the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln exhibit. General Electric brought it's message of hope through consumer goods to the world with the Carousel of Progress.

The Ford Motor Company received one of the most elaborate of the exhibits developed by Disney. A special transportation system called the Magic Skyway was developed in which visitors could sit in new-model Ford cars to go on a Sunday drive only dreamed up in Science Fiction. Passing through a time tunnel, riders (who could tune the radio to English, French, German or Spanish narration) emerged into the prehistoric world of Brontosaurus, Pterodactyl, and Triceratops, catching a climactic glimpse of the battle between Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus amdist glowing lava fields. A bit further ahead, and they saw the evolution of cave men, the taming of fire, the hunting of Mammoths, and the invention of the wheel. Riders entered the time tunnel again and emerged in the skyways over the world of the future, where human technology and ingenuity have created a utopia in steel, neon and tail fins.

With the end of the World's Fair, Disney's exhibits found a home at Disneyland. The Pepsi-Cola and State of Illinois exhibits were brought over and remain as beloved attractions to this day. The Carousel of Progress enjoyed many revolutions in Tomorrowland until it was replaced by the now-defunct America Sings. The theatre housing it is the current home of Innoventions. The Magic Skyway technology became the basis of the Peoplemover that also occupied Tomorrowland, while the dinosaur animatronics found a place alongside the DLRR as Primeval World.

Speaking from experience, this author can tell you that there is only one thing more engaging for a fan of Scientific Romances than seeing a panorama of moving prehistoric life unfold before you from the majesty of a real steam locomotive... and that is to do so from the lushly-appointed, velvet-draped, wood-panelled VIP slon car, Lilly Belle.

When Disneyland opened, the railway was served by a wide variety of rolling stock. Many of these were passenger-carrying freight cars, but there were also several types of proper passenger cars. Among these were completely enclosed cars that were eventually removed after certain problems became too obvious. A limited number of windows created more competition for seats than the open cars, and the narrow doors limited passenger loading and unloading. Eventually, only the Lilly Belle presidential car remained, and even she was taken off the tracks.

However, when the new management regime of Matt Ouimet took over the Disneyland resort in Anaheim in time for the 50th anniversary, one of the top priorities was restoring the Lilly Belle and putting this piece of Disney history back on the tracks. The expensive work restored and refurbished both the interior and exterior woodwork and steel, reupholstered the furniture in plush velvet, and decorated the car with authentic antiques. Attention to detail was so exquisite that a black velevt smoking jacket hangs in the corner, serving no purpose except to look good. A rare photo of Walt with his wife Lillian, after whom the car and the original Carolwood Pacific engine was named, sits on a corner table. If you'd like to see it for yourself, it never, ever, hurts to politely ask a conductor.

Main St. Station decorated for the
50th anniversary, the #2 E.P. Ripley arriving,
and the Lilly Belle, exterior and interior.

No trip to Disneyland is complete without taking the "grand circle tour", and it is inevitable that trips on the DLRR will become a favorite way to get around the park (especially when parades are clogging up Main Street). For the steam train and Victorian adventure enthusiast, such a voyage through imagination cannot be missed.

Thanks to Steve DeGaetano, authour of "Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! The Complete Disneyland Railroad Reference Guide", for fact-checking this article!

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The Vanishing Prairie (1954)

In a time when numerous cable channels are at our fingertips, it's strange to think that once the wildlife documentary was a rare genre. Even stranger is the thought that it came into the popular consciousness thanks to Walt Disney!

1949 heralded the nature documentary's arrival with Disney's first True-Life Adventure, Seal Island. The formula was simple: craft an engaging, dramatic, visually-oriented storyline around the struggle for survival of the world's most exotic animals in the world's most picturesque and exotic locations. It worked, and it recieved the Oscar for best short subject. It also helped solidify Disney's expansion into fields beyond animation. The following year, they would release their first live action film, Treasure Island, and leftover footage from Seal Island formed the first People and Places documentary, The American Eskimo, in 1953. Then came that magic season of 1954-1955, with the Disneyland TV series, Davy Crockett, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the creation of Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, Lady and the Tramp and the release of the second True-Life Adventure feature film, The Vanishing Prairie.

The Vanishing Prairie followed on the succcess of the first True-Life feature The Living Desert, which was itself an outgrowth of the phenomenal popularity of the True-Life short features that were placed on the same bill as Disney's feature films. That first feature film brought the cameras back to America and looked at life in the deserts nestled into the American Rockies. The second took us to the other side of them...

What The Vanishing Prairie promises is to take the viewer outwards in space and time... We follow in the wagon-ruts of the pioneers to that vast expanse of North American savannah between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. This is entirely literal, as in many places along the famed Oregon Trail, the deeply worn grooves made by Conestoga Wagons over a century ago are still visible. Eventually we leave off the trail blazed by these European invaders and go back further to the mythologically rich world of the Native Americans, visualized by a wonderfully stylized Nativesque animated sequence. We learn the names given to buffalo and pronghorn, rodent and fowl, before being taken even further back. Narrator Winston Hibler intones that we are going back before even the Native Americans, to the untouched prairie before the arrival of humans. A few of these untouched places still exist under the protective eye of National Parks and private citizens, and the lens of the naturalist-photographer will use these to take us back to that pristine era.

Journeying across time and distance, we pick up the drama of the plains with the seasonal round. It is early spring and the ducks are returning from their annual migration to the south. Some arrive a little too early and the ponds are still frozen over, resulting in slipping and sliding ducks which Disney exploits to great commedic effect. Then as we move into summer, we're introduced to the mating displays of the prairie chicken, and the youngsters of the prairie dog and bison communities. A side jaunt into the Rocky Mountain foothills introduces us to the trials of deer, cougar and bighorn sheep. The picture finally climaxes with a massive prairie wildfire and subsequent flood. The denumont takes us to winter in the Rockies as bighorns collide and bison force their way through a blizzard that sweeps us back into the present day.

There are certainly criticisms that can be levelled against this True-Life Adventure format of edutainment. Thankfully, unlike The Living Desert, the majority of The Vanishing Prairie is actual field footage. The Living Desert had a few scenic shots, but for the most part is visibly constrained by most of it being filmed in a laboratory soundstage. However, though shot out in the actual prairies, that doesn't exempt The Vanishing Prairie from its share of staged shots. Roy Disney, nephew of Walt, recollects how the scene of ducks sliding into each other on early spring ice was the product of him and his staff bowling with them.

Legitimate footage is unfortunately hampered somewhat by an excess of a musical phenomenon called "Mickey Mousing". Mickey Mousing, named for those early Mickey Mouse cartoons with synchronized sound, is the effect of scoring a film to too closely reflect the action onscreen. In the case of The Vanishing Prairie, it means that ducks are sliding into each other to Ride of the Valkyries, prairie dogs are chirping along to Home on the Range and bighorns are engaged in brutal headbutting competitions to The Anvil Chorus. Meant to be entertaining, it sometimes skirts reducing the wonder of nature to comedy.

Not to say that the score is bad. On the contrary, at least when it's not Mickey Mousing, it's actually quite good. The refrain of the buffalo's majestic leitmotif will haunt you... As it did to audiences in 1954, who demanded a reprise. The theme was given a set of lyrics and rechristened The Pioneer's Prayer for the Fess Parker film Westward Ho the Wagons! (1956), about pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

The footage that wasn't staged is phenomenal, however, and that is the real saving grace of the film. Some of the scenes are absolutely astonishing, such as the tension of a cougar stalking around a hidden fawn. The cougar knows that something is there, but doesn't know what or where, and as a viewer, you're left biting your nails wondering what might happen. The question is legitimate as well, since the True-Life Adventures hold nothing back except the final gore of the kill. At another point, a cougar successfully kills an adolescent deer, even as the camera discreetly turns away from the deathblow and rejoins the cougar's feast, while Hibler gives a speech on how all of nature's creatures are given an equal chance for survival.

The scenes of the buffalo, the mighty monarch of the plains, are especially remarkable. The Vanishing Prairie was even banned in Boston for a brief spell because of the graphic depiction of a mother buffalo giving birth. The bison go from stampeding through grasslands (in a bit of footage reused for the episode Davy Crockett at the Alamo) to pushing their way through Rocky Mountain snowdrifts. It was no mean feat to get this footage either: the behind-the-scenes program Prairie, originally aired as a promotional piece on the Disneyland television series, shows naturalist-photographers dressing up as buffalos in Native American robes and headresses or employing newfangled snowmobiles to get dangerously close to their subjects.

For those of us who are North Americans, familiarity often makes it easy to forget how exotic a landscape our continent actually is. One of the great achievments of The Vanishing Prairie is to remind us, with the help of some Disney magic and animation, of its wonder.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Walt Disney World's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

A film as important as Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea meant that it has always had a presence at Disney's theme parks, in one way or another. A walk-through museum of the film's sets was originally planned for the Opera House on Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. before finding a home in Tomorrowland in 1956. Disneyland Paris stepped up the concept by floating a full-size Nautilus in Discoveryland's lagoon, allowing visitors to descend into it and examine Nemo's ship for themselves. Tokyo Disneysea took it even further and created the Mysterious Island: Nemo's volcanic base, with a full-sized Nautilus at dock and two rides based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Arguably the best of all, however, was Walt Disney World's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine voyage. When WDW opened in 1971, it imported Disneyland's 1959 classic Submarine Voyage. To provide some differentiation, this trip beneath the waves was transferred from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland and given a brand new overlay. Instead of the atomic navy submersibles of today, these became the iron-rivet crafts of the 19th century. Where other theme park versions of 20,000 Leagues have given the opportunity to visit the Nautilus and its berth, WDW's version gave us the opportunity to sail the seven seas aboard her.

The ride was essentially same between Anaheim and Orlando, but the Vernian version gave a few tweaks and nudges to fit the theme. Visitors would enter beneath the iron canopy of the dock to an acoustic medley of sea chanties, including Kirk Douglas' Whale of a Tale. The infamously unpleasant profile of the Nautilus would sweep into dock and helpful swabs would escort you to the red faux-leather seats where you would be able to see the adventure unfold through your very own porthole. To spice up this voyage through liquid space, (and heavy chlorinated animatronics) scenes were pulled right from the film, such as the oceanic farming and squid attack. The translation from the Submarine Voyage also meant that a few prime sequences from the novel not included in the film were accidentally restored, such as the trip beneath polar ice and the discovery of Atlantis.

Unfortunately, the Nautilus sailed its last in the mid-1990's. During an era of cutbacks, the submarine voyages on both coasts were scrapped. The revival of Anaheim's Submarine Voyage as a Finding Nemo ride (the fish, not the captain) could have brought hope for a revival of 20,000 Leagues, if not for the lagoon having long since been filled in. Where once cruised the fleet of Captain Nemo, there is now a Winnie the Pooh playground. Ridiculously, this was the second beloved attraction lost to him, as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was evicted for a proper Pooh ride as well.

The closest we can come anymore are the online videos collected by astute and nostalgic fans. The first video shows you the surface, with the Nautilus gently gliding along. The second takes you beneath that placid surface onto the ride itself. For more on the greatest journey through liquid space, do not miss the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - The Ride website.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

After several years of production, design and location shooting, Walt Disney released his second and perhaps grandest live-action motion picture in 1954... In fact, if the trumpeting is to be believed, it was the mightiest motion picture of them all. If you've seen Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then you know that this is a credible claim. If you haven't, then the only pertinent question is why not.

20,000 Leagues, starring James Mason as Nemo and Kirk Douglas as Ned Land alongside Peter Lorre as Conseil and Paul Lukas as Prof. Arronax, is perhaps the single most important Scientific Romance film. 20,000 Leagues came to the silver screen in a post-Hiroshima, pre-Sputnik era when atomic age Science Fiction was the darling of young imaginations and teenage drive-in patrons alike. Between voyaging to forbidden planets and fighting off prehistoric monsters, filmmakers quickly turned their attention back to the Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The first of these was George Pal's War of the Worlds, which updated Wells' tale by placing it squarely in the modern day.

Following Treasure Island, Disney sought another live-action project, and in doing so revived his love for Jules Verne. With production of the film, Disney had several things to prove. For one, the lavish spectacle of 20,000 Leagues demonstrated that Science Fiction was a credible genre deserving of serious treatment, in much the same way that Disney had treated animation before then and amusement parks with the impending opening of Disneyland in 1955. In a time when "serious" epics were swords-and-sandals pictures about ancient Rome or Palestine, Spartacus himself was shanghaied onto the Nautilus.

The pivotal choice was made, however, to retain the original 19th century setting of the novel. Not only that, but ostensibly futuristic motifs in Verne's original were downplayed, giving art director Harper Goff the maneuvering room to go from the novel's sleek, silver, streamlined submersible to the massive, iron-plated, iconic design seen in the film. This move would set the gold standard by which all subsequent design in the genre would be judged.

Being a financial and critical success, 20,000 Leagues inspired a sudden wave of Scientific Romance adaptations to the silver screen. James Mason himself would appear in another Verne adaptation in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). Other films, none of them being Disney but all owing to Disney's gamble, include The Time Machine (1960), the Oscar winning Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the Czech Fabulous Worlds of Jules Verne (1958), Vincent Price's Master of the World (1961), The First Men in the Moon (1964) and 1961's The Mysterious Island (both of which enjoyed stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen), and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). It also put Disney on some pretty stable financial footing that enabled them to produce other films in the genre, like Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and In Search of the Castaways (1962).

While amping up the Victorian aesthetics at the expense of the novel's futuristic designs, 20,000 Leagues also downplayed the novel's very Victorian sensibilities in favour of two concurrent plot lines that would be of greater interest to audiences of the 1950's. As one of Verne's famous Voyages Extraordinaires, the main thrust of 20,000 Leagues is simply a tour of the ocean's wonders, as guided by Nemo. Secondary to this is a barely registering subplot revealing Nemo as a political dissident using his invention to wage war on imperialism. This subplot was itself more of a device to get Prof. Arronax and company onto the Nautilus to begin with.

However, while travelogues make for good documentaries, they make less than stellar material for big screen action epics. The Voyages Extraordinaires were made substantially less extraordinary in favour of emphasizing the captive Arronax party's "prison break" drama and the cautionary tale about atomic power. On the one hand, the "prison break" storyline added some much-needed narrative structure that allowed for a degree of extraordinary voyages through the undersea farms and shipwrecks of the Bahamas. Unfortunately, this emphasis also left out many of the book's most striking scenes, such as the Nautilus descending upon Atlantis or getting trapped in the crystalline shards of Antarctica's icebergs.

On the other hand, the story about the price and promise of atomic energy responded to the concerns of a world caught up in the Cold War. In Verne's story, the electrical power source for Nemo's sub appeared to be a prognostication but really served as a plot device. Once the captives were on the submersible, there had to be some way of getting them around that wouldn't involve asphyxiating them with coal furnaces. Necessity is the mother of invention, even in speculative fiction.

In Disney's story, this power source was easily associated with atomic power, with Nemo representing both the threat and the opportunity it posed. If we can say anything about the film's moral, it is an "optimistic warning": Nemo pessimistically felt that the nations of the world would misuse atomic power, but that some day, humanity would progress to the point where it could be harnessed for useful pursuits. That day, Disney hoped and the film implies, is our day.

The final sequence of 20,000 Leagues serves as the introduction to Disney's 1958 documentary Our Friend the Atom. After a voice-over artist repeats James Mason's final, hopeful line that "some day, in God's good time" atomic power may be used for the benefit of humanity, the camera turns to Walt himself who states that it has come to pass... The future envisioned by Verne has arrived, with all its dangers and all its possibilities. The remainder of the documentary is turned over to former Nazi scientist Heinz Haber, who explains the development of atomic theory and the positive, beneficial uses of atomic power, which, with hindsight being 20-20, appear disastrously naive.

This ironic ambiguity in the message is only highlighted by the ambiguity of not only Captain Nemo, but of his cinematic creator. As noted by many thinkers, including Celeste Olaquiaga in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, Nemo is a paradox bordering on a hypocrite. Tired of the rule of violence and hierarchy above the waves, he goes beneath them in his magnificent Nautilus... Where he creates almost exactly the same society with himself as the head.

The astute viewer may notice that only one of the Nautilus' crew ever speaks, and that merely to affirm orders given by Nemo. We still don't know his name, or that of any of the other crewmen. Perhaps this was only a circumstance necessitated by the presence of Arronax's party, but there is no evidence that anyone is entitled to use the opulent salon except Captain Nemo himself. As Ned Land notes upon seeing Nemo's private quarters, he has done right good for himself. When Nemo dies, the crew agree to go to their own deaths.

Drawing comparisons between Captain Nemo and Walt Disney himself is inescapable. In many ways, Nemo and his Nautilus reflect Disney and his studio; the studio bearing Disney's name is just as much an extension of him as the Nautilus is an extension of Nemo... an apparatus by which the imagination of its mastermind could extend beyond the reach of his own body and talents.

Walt recognized in an abstract way the collective effort that went into every product of his studio:
Whatever we accomplish is due to the combined effort. The organization must be with you or you don't get it done... In my organization there is respect for every individual, and we all have a keen respect for the public.

With characteristic humility he recounted a story about what exactly his position is:
My role? Well, you know I was stumped one day when a little boy asked, 'Do you draw Mickey Mouse?' I had to admit I do not draw anymore. 'Then you think up all the jokes and ideas?' 'No,' I said, 'I don't do that.' Finally, he looked at me and said, 'Mr. Disney, just what do you do?' 'Well,' I said, sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the Studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody. I guess that's the job I do.

But at the same time, he was notoriously unresponsive on the particulars of whose creative brilliance was behind the creations of his company. Because of this, he was heralded as America's most culturally important artist, even as he could barely replicate his own distinctive signature. In private he confessed that the Disney name had taken on a life of its own, and that Walt the Legend more often than not eclipsed Walt the Man. Though teamwork was essential to him, only a very few Disneyphiles recognize the names honored on Main Street U.S.A.'s windows. A man of paradox himself, he revealed that
I don't like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It's just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess.

All the while he created his own Magic Kingdom (and threatened an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) in which the absence of wild nature is quite notable. Rejecting the abuses of colonialism on land, Nemo brings it to the ocean bottom, which serves as his own personal larder... Recalling countless Disney company tracts and documentaries that talk about ripping out wild nature in favour of productive farmland and spacious green lawns. Yet Walt still insisted that:
If certain events continue, much of America's natural beauty will become nothing more than a memory. The natural beauty of America is a treasure found nowhere else in the world. Our forests, waters, grasslands and wildlife must be wisely protected and used. I urge all citizens to join the effort to save America's natural beauty... it's our America - do something to preserve its beauty, strength and natural wealth.

Nemo, like the man under whose name he was given cinematic life, is an ambiguity.

In spite of - or perhaps because of - this ambiguity, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains one of the Disney's most profitable and most memorable live action films. Captain Nemo stands alongside Mary Poppins, Davy Crockett and Jack Sparrow as one of the classic Disney characters not made of ink and paint. The enduring success of 20,000 Leagues has led to theme park attractions in all of the Disney resorts, as well as being translated into Virtual Magic Kingdom. Nemo was himself resurrected from the ocean depths to sail again as a science hero in Gold Key's Walt Disney's World of Adventure comic series. There's no chance that this important film will be lost under the waves like the Nautilus.