Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Atlantis: Milo's Return (2003)

A Mignolaesque, Lovecraftian excerpt from
Atlantis: Milo's Return (2003).

Atlantis: Milo's Return, despite it's relatively poor animation, still manages to capitalize on one of the significant draws of the original film. It is the inspiration of comic artist Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy and designer for the original Atlantis, which grants this otherwise blasé sequel any highlights whatsoever. The story is divided up into three discrete but loosely interlinked episodes, the first of which focuses on a Norwegian fishing village and the Kraken plaguing it. This episode shows the Mignola influence most strongly, with the Kraken and its human slave looking almost like they leaped right out of the pages of his comic. The Lovecraftian eldritch horror air to the episode was also strongly evocative of Mignola's work on Hellboy and DC Comics' Elseworlds.

The underlying intention of Milo's Return ends up understating the ending and undermining the film as a whole. It is evident that they had intended it to be a full series, which would develop Princess Kida's climactic decision across a broader expanse of time and experience. Such as it is, and we won't give away the ending, it seems flimsy and poorly motivated, and the movie as a whole doesn't do it justice. What brings the happy Atlantean couple back to the surface is the possibility of ancient Atlantean technology affecting the WWI-era world. Though the first case, the Kraken, turns out not to be any such thing, the following two cases in the American southwest and Iceland are. The premise here for a series is clear, and the final Iceland chapter would have made a decent enough conclusion to a 22 episode season. For a three episode film, the case isn't well made.

In one sense, we can be thankful that these few episodes that were made were released at all. It depends on one's logic, and to whether or not they feel they should be thankful for having any continuation at all, even if it isn't as well done as it could have been. Personally, we would have placed an Atlantis series in the same class as Disney's The Legend of Tarzan weekly (poorly) animated series, in that it would have been enjoyable if not taken as seriously as the films they continue the story of. Where The Legend of Tarzan's strength was in the use of Edgar Rice Burroughs' concepts (Opar, Pellucidar), an Atlantis series, once more, would have been most inspired as an animated form of Mike Mignola's work.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Part of Michael Eisner-era Disney's late period of experimentation with North American animation, 2001's Atlantis: The Lost Empire was sandwiched between Mulan, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000 and The Emperor's New Groove on the one side and by Treasure Planet, Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear, and it's final traditionally-animated feature Home on the Range on the other. Like the majority of these, Atlantis was equally maligned for many and dubious reasons.

One grants that, of the lot it is thrown in with, Atlantis is not the unsung and inevitably-to-be-recognized classic of Treasure Planet. Nor is it in the dire dregs of a Home on the Range. Its biggest fault may only be that it entered into a culture where animated films mean a certain thing and audiences will fight tooth and claw (or dollars and cents) against being shown anything else. That is also its greatest strength.

In short, we make the untestable claim that were North America actually Japan instead of North America, Atlantis may have had a fighting chance. One might even be so bold as to argue that had the film been released in the wake of the Hellboy franchise and advertised accordingly, then it might have been the better for it (not to mention it being six years ahead of the Steampunk fad). This stems from the observation that it is perhaps less of a Disney film and more of a Mike Mignola one.

Mignola - most famous as the creator and artist of Hellboy, numerous other comics and the Amazing Screw-On Head pilot for the Sci-Fi Network - was a consultant on Atlantis, and more than that, its primary inspiration. In later interviews, Mignola recounted the discomforting sensation of walking into Walt Disney Studios and being confronted with walls of drawings and notes dissecting his distinctive style of illustration. Eventually the animators felt that to get the exact tone, they had to consult the man himself.

For those familiar with Mignola's penchant for Lovecraftian themes of ancient civilizations and eldricht horrors, Atlantis is as nearly perfect a rendition as is possible with in a PG rating. All of the quintessential Mignolaesque stuff is there, from weird monsters to angular designs to bug-eyed monumental statues and block characters, all wrapped up in a fantastically designed Edwardian setting. If there is one real complaint that we would throw at the film, it would be that too little use is made of the Ulysses submarine and its navy of podships. Their brief mission seems to have been to provide a plot device that sold toys. Which it did, to this reviewer, so its purpose was served.

Besides that, one can't say that Atlantis is particularly deep (pun intended) despite its New Age pretensions that may ultimately have more to do with its occultic Mignolian setting than a genuine spiritual message. According to the critics, the conspicuously multicultural cast can be construed as an annoyance as well. It doesn't stop that cast from having some ridiculously funny dialogal exchanges. The rest is what it was most likely intended to be: an animated summer action flick with a stylish edge. Again, its purpose was served.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Les Mystères du Nautilus

The Mysteries of the Nautilus attraction at Disneyland Paris was prefigured a long time past by the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit at the original Disneyland, which showed from park opening in 1955 to the redevelopment of Tomorrowland in 1966. Needing something to fill the empty spaces spotting his own world of tomorrow, Walt Disney pulled the set pieces for 20,000 Leagues out of storage, lined them up in the building that presently houses Star Tours, and introduced visitors to the bowels of Captain Nemo's fantastic submarine vessel. The exhibit gained in posterity what it lost in exact themeing, preserving and displaying the authentic objects from the film. At least, it had until it was removed and the organ shipped over to the Haunted Mansion's ballroom. Mysteries of the Nautilus loses out on that count, though it makes up for it with presentation.

Any reasonably astute fan of the film will easily tell you how the ship floating in the lagoon of Disneyland Paris' Verne-inspired Discoveryland does not match the one on celluloid. Rooms are out of place and staircases are completely missing. But goodness if it isn't the Nautilus. There she is, her famous profile emerging from the bubbling water. Descending a staircase in the neighbouring lighthouse, one walks through wooden tunnels with anticipation until they reach a hole cut in the side of the ship. Then the wonders of Nemo's craft, slightly different but nonetheless meticulous, reveal themselves, culminating in a squid attacked viewed through the portals of the grand salon.

The Nautilus sits in Discoveryland's lagoon,
the lighthouse guarding the entrance into
Captain Nemo's secrets.

The treasure room/ballast tanks.

Nemo's quarters.

The map room.

Diving suits in the dark.

The grand pipe organ.

Squid attack!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Disneyland Paris Posters

Reflecting the Vernian influence of Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland - their version of Tomorrowland - these posters for attractions in their land are things of beauty. First is the marvellous poster for the original Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon, which most strongly carries the Victorian theme through. Second is the poster for the Videopolis eatery, with it's overhanging Hyperion airship from The Island at the Top of the World. Following this the poster for the giant orrery/rocket-jet ride Orbitron, which in real life is a fantastic piece of kinetic sculpture. Finally is the now-absent Le Visionarium show poster, in which the kindly robot took visitors on a journey through the history of scientific progress, starting with Jules Verne.

And then a ride that was conceived but never executed...

Friday, 13 February 2009

Premio Dardo Awards

Valentine's Day is a time for love... in this case, love between bloggers. To our great pleasure, TheoFantastique has awarded us a Premio Dardo!

A what?

The Premio Dardos are a kind of meritocratic meme amongst bloggers which "acknowledges the value that every blogger shows in his or her effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values every day." By bloggers, to bloggers!

In turn, the recipient of a Premio Dardo is supposed to nominate a handful of fellow weblogs that they believe are worthy of the award. Our first inclination is to renominate TheoFantastique, as it is a wonderful weblog delving into the philosophical depth of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction. While genre films are perpetually stuck in a ghetto - being relegated to the technical awards even as recently as this year's Oscars - it is fantastic to see a weblog giving them the attention they deserve.

However, the rules of a Premio Dardo are unclear on whether or not that's possible, so here are a further five nominations...

  • Because it is so hard to choose between them, we'll do a group nomination for the 2719 Hyperion family of weblogs, including 2719 Hyperion, Imaginerding and Passport to Dreams Old & New. Not that they'd need our pithy acknowledgement, since all three are amongst the most popular and revered weblogs of the Disneysphere. Their content is excellent, ranging from the high academic to a best-of-the-web "Geek-end Update" that is itself like a weekly award.
  • Music You (Possibly) Won't Hear Anyplace Else is a music weblog dutifully maintained by Lee Hartsfeld, in which he shares his fantastic collection of 78's with the world. Every few days he painstakingly pulls together a compilation of freshly ripped vinyl and shellac, featuring music from the 1910's to the 1950's. Occasionally he posts photos of his army of cats as well!
  • A trip aboard the Viewliner Ltd. is a journey into the history of American pop-culture and transportation. Highly visually-oriented, it features everything from planes, trains, and automobiles to advertisements and magazine photos from the mid-20th century. It's like living on Route 66, and I've been honored to have written for it as well.
  • Usually quite obscure outside the halls where literate, neo-orthodox, Oxford-type Christians gather, G.K. Chesterton deserves to be better known... especially in our current day where the dominant "dialogue" about religion involves the two extreme ends shouting obscenities back and forth. Not that Chesterton is a moderate by any particular standard: he is passionate in his embrace of Wonder, Intellect, Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Indeed, he might be told that he is irrational and superstitious, and begin his biting 200-page response with "Well yes Mr. Dawkins, and thank goodness!" Since few of us have a good chunk of time in which to read those 200 pages, The Hebdomadal Chesterton doles out weekly doses like a drug to enchanted minds.
  • Perhaps our strangest nomination is the Tarkio Valley Sloth Project. This weblog is an outgrowth of ongoing Ice Age fossil excavations in Iowa by Holmes A. Semken, Jr and David J. Brenzel. Besides the simple curiosity of seeing palaeontological science unfold before us, the weblog also features extremely well-written and thought-provoking articles about the habits of prehistoric life and how its echoes can still be heard today if we know what we are listening for. The romantic notion they so deftly articulate is that the world as we know it now evolved in partnership with those great beasts of the past - the woolly mammoth, sabre-tooth cat and giant sloth - and still bears their mark even though they may be gone.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

In Search of the Castaways (1962)

A scene from In Search of the Castaways.

Robert Stevenson, that great stalwart director of Walt Disney films through the 1960's and 70's, was given the helm of the company's forgotten foray into Jules Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires in 1962. Based on the novel Captain Grant's Children, In Search of the Castaways starred Wilfred Hyde-White, Michael Anderson Jr., Keith Hamshire, Maurice Chevalier and another Disney regular, Hayley Mills (Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat!). Coming two years after Swiss Family Robinson and nearly a decade after 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Castaways is a later entry into the throngs of Atomic Age adaptations of Scientific Romances and Disney's second dance with the master of the genre.

This particular film sees the young Grant children in a search for their shipwrecked father across South America, Australia and New Zealand. And just about anything that could set upon them does, including earthquakes, floods, jaguars, cannibals, volcanoes, alligators, hurricanes, gun-running mutineers, giant condors, tobogganing down the Andes on a boulder, and aristocratic English snobs. Quite a lot for a couple kids and their company of adventurers to deal with, which is where Uncle Walt comes to the rescue.

Castaways possesses in its hour and half running time many of the typical features that have come to be associated with Disney live action family films. Everything is profoundly upbeat, with even the most dismal of circumstances being nought but a prelude to a song about enduring hardships with a smile and taking whatever life hits you with as an experience of personal growth and wonder. Everyone has a smile on their face, except for the stuffy English lord who comes around by the end, and the children even have a young romance angle thrown in for good measure. Whether these elements make the film enjoyable or contemptuous is up to the individual viewer to decide, but just be warned that it is thick with them. If there is any moral to this story, it's that perserverance pays off and that to just have the experience is worth any trouble you have to go through during it. Chin up, old man!

Depending on one's mood, this becomes the insufferable awfulness of the picture or its saving grace amidst absurdity. There is no sense in which Castaways is a serious film. With Maurice Chavalier singing away, it is likely impossible to have a serious film. However, it isn't required for every film of a Verne novel to involve a tortured genius waging war against the world. Unlike 20,000 Leagues' mix of bitter and sweet in the moral conflicts of its protagonists, there is an explicit lesson in wonder on an emotional level as smiling Frenchmen sing songs about climbing mountains or making breakfast while trapped in a jaguar-infested tree because of a massive deluge that brought alligators with it.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

A ubiquitous part of mid-twentieth century American pop-culture was the Tiki lounge. Troops returning home from the Pacific front after World War II brought with them a taste for the salty breeze of the South Seas, and this was soon followed by notable advances like the admission of colonial territory Hawaii into the Union and Thor Heyerdahl sailed into fringe science history with his 1947 Kon Tiki expedition from Peru to the islands on a balsa wood craft. Polynesian Pop captured the American mind, and made its way into every hip joint and dashboard-bound hula girl.

As Bigbrotiki of the Tiki Central message board put it, Tiki lounges were "the emotional bomb shelters of the atomic age". Primitivism became an essential counterpoint to the futuristic aesthetics of Googie architecture. Some expressions got as primitive as could be, as with The Flintstones and their mirror images, The Jetsons. However, for every boomerang, tail fin and starburst, there was a leafy palm, bamboo wall and tiki mask.

This epitome of hipster chic might seem a jarring contrast with arch Victorian sensibilities. Tiki gods and steam trains? As odd a pairing as it may seem, Scientific Romances and lounge lizards did meet, though briefly, in the mid-twentieth century.

The Atomic Age of Science Fiction saw its own resurgence in adaptations of Victorian Scientific Romances and Voyages Extraordinaires. The imaginations of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells proved fertile fields from which to harvest ideas that, though Victorian in origin, reflected the hopes and anxieties of the Sputnik era. Unsuprizingly, then, Tiki worked its way into these cinematic masterpieces, in a spectacular example of cultural cross-pollination.

The primary figure to exploit this possibility was Walt Disney. In these post-war years, one doesn't find a better pop-culture thermometer than Disney. In his magnum opus, the Disneyland theme park, Walt covered all his bases by exemplifying every major aspect of American culture. The Space Age was present and accounted for in Tomorrowland, while the Wild West found a home in Frontierland. Disney imposed his own fairy tale animations by way of Fantasyland, and Tiki reposed in Adventureland.

Naturally, Disney played with the combinations in several of his live-action films of this time. First and foremost was the seminal 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which features a brief Polynesian moment. Trapped on a coral shallow, the enigmatic Captain Nemo (James Mason) allows harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and scientific assistant Consiel (Peter Lorre) to row to the shore of a nearby island to collect specimens for the shipbound Professor Arronax (Paul Lucas). Despite Nemo's warnings to remain on the beach, Land uses the landing as an attempt to escape. In doing so, he runs afoul of a tribe of painted cannibals and their warrior catamarans.

Disney made one last trip into Polynesia with his adaptation of Jules Verne's globetrotting In Search of the Castaways. Young Hayley Mills is in search of her father, lost at sea and presumed dead. Following the clues left in a bottle found within the belly of a shark, Mills and her entourage first cross South America but end up in uncomfortable proximity to the stew pots of New Zealand's Maori people. Bamboo and facial tattoos abound, though this is Disney, and if you're expecting a fair and reasoned representation of the Maori, you already know better than to find it here.

The king of all Tiki-laden Scientific Romances, though, is Disney's Swiss Family Robinson. This 1960 production starred John Mills as Father Robinson, Dorothy McGuire as Mother Robinson, James MacArthur as Fritz, Tommy Kirk as Ernst, Kevin Corcoran as Francis, Janet Munro as Roberta and Sessue Hayakawa as Kuala the Pirate Chief. Even better that this cast of 1950's and 60's Disney regulars, the film also starred the Swiss Family Treehouse itself, and all the magificent engineering one could muster from the broken bits of a shipwreck and some excess turtle shells.

A fully decked out three-room home with kitchen (no mention of a bathroom was made), the Treehouse had all the modern appliances that a post-Napoleonic War family from Switzerland could want, from skylights to running taps to a refrigerator that worked by water evaporating off the sides. The Robinsons also enjoyed their own personal island zoo from whence came the elephants and zebras that supplied their recreational races. There was also the citadel rock - complete with rolling logs, coconut bombs and tiger pits - that helped the family stave off the attack of the same dreaded Chinese pirates that shipwrecked them on the island to begin with.

The shame of this island dream come true is that it has been relatively abandoned by the company that brought it to life. The Swiss Family Treehouse still lives at Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris, but at the original and Hong Kong Disneylands, they've been evicted by Tarzan. Not only that, but now their name has even been usurped by one of the latest Disney CGI cartoons. It's really a shame given that Swiss Family Robinson is such an entertaining, and occassionally dramatically complex, film.

The Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland.

Kevin Corcoran's Francis is inevitably annoying and one hopes that if it came down to members of the family cannibalizing eachother to survive, he'd be the first to go. Full of childlike adventure and childish stupidity, he often gets the Robinsons into trouble. Nowhere does this reach its peak of idiocy than when the family is successfully hiding from pirates in their citadel and Francis decides to whistle for their two dogs to come, giving away their position.

The love triangle that grows between Fritz, Ernst and Roberta also takes its piece out of the viewer. The most frustrating part of it is watching Tommy Kirk's Ernst make a fool of himself in his zeal to win over the only nubile girl on the island, embarrassing himself with such vigour that you really kind of want him to at least get the girl if he can't stop being so frustrating.

The affair is a bit of a serpent in the Eden of a Disney family film, but it doesn't stray too far. Mother and father Robinson are still the rock upon which the family is built, and the family that fights pirates together, stays together. It is all in good fun after all, since not a one of the pirates seems to die despite being bombed, rolled over by palm trees, thrown off cliffs and dropped into tigers. One wonders if its possible to be post-modern and neo-orthodox about mid-century family films, recognizing that not everything has to be blood, gore and guts and allowing the odd film that's just plain fun into the mix.

At the very least, one can be post-modern and kitschy with the Tiki. About the only thing missing from this island Adventureland are the Tiki-god statuary.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Space Mountain: Mission 2

On April 9th, 2005, Disneyland Paris decided it was time to "go further" by reinventing and reinvigorating its most popular attraction, Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon. After a full decade of shooting park guests to the moon from the Columbiad cannon, Space Mountain: Mission 2 promises to go beyond to the furthest reaches of the universe.

The original From the Earth to the Moon was a very conscientiously French affair, being inspired by the Jules Verne novel of the same name. From the outside, one can see the tremendous cannon which blasts the rocket cars into the space. In fact, from this outside vantage point, one can even see the cars being shot through, accompanied by a puff of gunpowder smoke!

The building itself is a marvellous take on the classic Space Mountain design, pioneered at the American Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Instead of a stark, antiseptic white carried over from the 1950's, the Disneyland Paris version retrofitted it into a very Victorian design, with rivets and plates and all sorts of aesthetically satisfying antennae, viewing scopes and the like. It is indeed part cannon and part mad Victorian astronomical laboratory.

Inside, the visitor passed through a series of rooms and hallways, the requisite waiting areas in which one spends a good portion of their time. As they passed through, they could see the effects of the Blue Moon Mining Company, owned by the Balitmore Gun Club president Col. Impey Barbicane. They could also catch their first glimpses of the Man in the Moon himself. Reaching the end of the cue, the visitor found themselves in a rather metro-like platform draped with red, white and blue flags. After being sorted into cars and departing, the rocket is loaded into the cannon, and then the ride begins.

Like the other Space Mountains, the Paris version is still essentially a giant roller-coaster in a dark building. But to distinguish it from its predecessors and to satisfy its Vernian theme, From the Earth to the Moon added quite a few things to the journey. Foremost amongst these were the asteroids being mined by the Blue Moon Mining Company. Zipping between and even through the celestial bodies of rock, those on the ride could spy the companies drilling machines and space-suited workers before taking off to the moon. After a high speed ascent to the moon, with the face of the Man in the Moon leering at you and occasionally winking, the rocket car would shoot back to earth through the dazzling Electro de Velocitor, after which the guests would depart at the loading platform.

Unfortunately, after being built in 1995, the ride was allowed to deteriorate significantly. The audio, the paint, the animatronics and effects... All were in a state of decay. Furthermore, the Disneyland Paris park as a whole had been suffering for many years, culminating in a $2.2 million bail-out from the Walt Disney parent company. Things were in need of a change and Space Mountain, already the most popular attraction despite its detractions, seemed the best target.

The premise of Mission 2 is that the Columbiad cannon has been well-tested over the past 10 years of sending visitors to the moon. Now it is time to go further, to the farthest reaches of the universe. Though retaining certain distinct Victorian flourishes, it attempts to fuse this Vernian aesthetic with the polished and chromed world of Gene Roddenberry, to mixed success. In fact, the design work on the poster and signage very strongly recalls that on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, while perhaps finding a more direct precedent in Disney's own Treasure Planet.

As the visitor waits in the cue, they will no longer gaze upon the quaint mechanics of the Blue Moon Mining Company. Instead, they will see viewscreens with stunning celestial photography. After being oriented by videos, guests enter the de-francophoned and more open-feeling loading platform. From there, it is once again off into space through the barrel of a gun.

Asteroids are still there to threaten the rockets as the pass "the gauntlet", but it certainly goes beyond the moon. After chasing a comet and passing a starfield, the cars swing around a star going supernova before returning to earth. Making use of up-to-date technology, many of these projections and other effects give one a greater feeling of careening through space than one may find in the darkened rooms of the other Space Mountains. Unfortunately, what it makes up for in being a souped-up version of those it loses in not being what it was before.

It is certainly unfortunate to see such a radical change in one of the major Scientific Romantic destinations on this sphere, but time will tell if Mission 2 can deliver a successful fusion of Vernian charm with futuristic style.