Saturday, 24 September 2011

Disney and Avatar. No, not the cool Avatar.

This past week, the Internet howled in outrage at the latest news released by Disney Parks. Bob Iger, Tom Staggs and co. have brokered a deal with James Cameron to bring his blockbuster feature film Avatar to their themeparks. Disney fandom responded with a collective “Wait, you're serious!?”

The first expression of this partnership is slated to be a recreation of the alien world Pandora in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. The Disney Company cited Avatar’s themes of communion with nature, conservation and individual initiative as the conceptual bridge linking the franchise with their zoo-come-themepark, despite how fallacious that argument is. Avatar is really more of an odd cartoon parody of environmentalism. The whole premise of this predominately digital film is a man downloading his consciousness into an empty biological machine that comes with a built-in USB cable which jacks into a planet-wide fibre-optic network, allowing him to pwn n00bs with his gaming skills. My last hike in the mountains was not like this. It's a supposed allegory of nature for the computer age, environmentalism for people who don't go outside. In other words, its wrong. Besides, I think that if one wishes to watch a movie about the modern, liberal version of White Man’s Burden – in which we rescue the savages not from themselves, but from ourselves – they would be better served by seeing Dances With Wolves, which at least involves real human beings in real settings of real nature in real history.

Milder criticism for the move asks why Disney is putting Avatar in Animal Kingdom and not in the Hollywood Studios themepark where some random tacky Hollywood movie would better belong. They see through the nonsense about any redeeming qualities the film may have and recognize what is really going on. Disney sees dollar signs in their eyes, with Avatar being the 14th highest grossing movie of all time after adjusting for inflation.

Milder approval for the plan, put forth by people who may not exactly be frothing at the bit for Pandora to become real(ish), agrees and argues that Disney needs the franchise to compete with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter down the street at Universal Studios. First of all, Twilight is the far more durable franchise if that's all this is about. Yet this idea of needing a "Potter Swatter" is a key spark flaming the outrage amongst Disney fans. Disney does not need Avatar to compete with Harry Potter. Disney is the competition with Harry Potter. Disney only needs to be Disney.

Despite the hopes raised by the New Fantasyland project at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and the renovations of Paradise Pier and Buena Vista Street at Disney’s California Adventure , the Avatar license is yet another example of Disney’s lack of faith in itself. It began in a measurable way with the acquisition of Pixar, whose CGI films were trouncing Disney’s own. As Disney flailed in a period of experimentation after their 1990’s renaissance, Pixar lit onto a successful formula and rode it into a -$7.4 billion purchase of Disney in 2006. The result was a still flailing Disney animation studio and Disney themeparks filled not only with Pixar rides and Pixar characters, but whole Pixar lands. Observe that at California Adventure, it’s specifically a Cars Land we’re getting instead of a Route 66.

On it goes under Iger's acquisition-heavy managerial strategy. Disney has added the biological and technological distinctiveness of The Muppets to their own, which they pretty well drove into the ground, and again with Marvel. Defenders of the Avatar deal cite the previous leasing of Star Wars and Indiana Jones as successful examples of cross-company fertilization. Even that is an example of this fundamental self-effacement by the Burbank suits. Certainly put Lucasfilm in Hollywood Studios-style parks if one must, but “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” has never once belonged in the Land of Tomorrow, let alone marching down Main Street USA. Matters have only become worse now that Star Tours has been “Special Editioned” to include the trilogy that vast swaths of Star Wars fans, let alone the rest of us, would just as soon pretend did not exist.

Fair enough, but what of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror? I grant that, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, it is a fantastic ride. It was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror that prompted me to investigate the original Twilight Zone series, of which I am now an ardent fan. Then I went to Tokyo Disneysea and saw the Tower of Terror there. It was just the Tower of Terror – sans a Twilight Zone license that has no resonance in Japan – imbued with an original story and original characters, including who is now one of my favorite Disney characters, the delightfully dickish Harrison Hightower III. It is through the lens of Asia that we see clearly what is going on.

Though Disneyland USA will always hold a place in my heart as the Disneyland of which all others are merely versions, because it is the original built by and walked through by Walt himself, the best Disney parks in the world in terms of quality are all overseas. They have the best rides, the most original attractions and the most accomplished theming. It frankly does not get better than Tokyo Disneysea, which includes the original Mediterranean Harbor with Fortress Explorations, a whole Little Mermaid-theme port and Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage (which should be made into an animated film). Across the concourse there is Tokyo Disneyland, who’s Winnie the Pooh ride is the unreserved highlight. In spite of its persistent cultural problems, Disneyland Paris is a study in unified and visionary design. Pirate’s Lair at Tom Sawyer’s Island only wishes it could be Adventure Isle, and Phantom Manor and Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon were inventive adaptations of Stateside classics. Hong Kong Disneyland was underwhelming to start but, with the exception of one, new plans for it are shaping up to something novel. The recently released concepts for the castle at the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland look utterly magnificent.


There is something that all these parks have in common that make them what they are: they are not wholly-owned by Disney. They are foreign companies that have leased the Disney brand because they have faith in it. They trust in the ability of Disney to draw money and the ability of Disney’s Imagineers to work unfettered. Certainly there are other licensees at these parks – Tokyo Disneysea has Indiana Jones and Turtle Talk with Crush, and Disneyland Paris has Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear – but they are overwhelmingly a Disney experience. It is the height of subject-relevant misfortune for a North American Disney fan that they have to book a flight all the way to Asia or Europe to go to a Disney park that is a Disney park.

Criticisms of the Avatar deal have been light on positive solutions, so indulge my armchair Imagineering to supply some. The conceptual origin of the project was in the planned “Beastly Kingdom” section of Animal Kingdom that was never built. This area would have focused on mythical and cryptozoological creatures, such as dragons and centaurs and the canon of Disney fantasy creatures. The section never made it past the Blue Sky stage, but has reemerged in principle with Pandora. So our focus should be on the fantastic (not like those boring old real animals, right?).

Imagineers are already developing one take on this idea for Hong Kong. Mystic Point is intended as an extension of Hong Kong’s Adventureland, offering a new take and new setting on an old classic. Whereas Disneyland Paris has the Wild West-themed Phantom Manor in place of the Haunted Mansion, Hong Kong Disneyland will enjoy Mystic Manor. As it would be inappropriate in Chinese culture to populate a manor house with the ghosts of departed ancestors, the mansion of Victorian adventurer Lord Henry Mystic is possessed with artifacts come to life. A mummy lives in the Egypt room, Giant Venus Flytraps threaten in the conservatory and more vignettes show colonialism cursed by its own mania for collecting. Mystic Point itself could be filled out with more animal attractions, perhaps importing the Raging Spirits coaster or an Indy-less Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and, dare one suggest it, the return of the Adventurer’s Club.

In the storyline of Mystic Manor, Lord Henry Mystic is a member of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, the organization whose exploits underpin many of the storylines weaving throughout Tokyo Disneysea (Is there a way to become a member of this group? I would carry the card proudly!). It is to Disneysea that we next turn our attention and derive from it the next recommendation that you knew had to becoming. The central landmark of that park is a Disneycentric port whose two amazing attractions are plotted specifically to the exploration of the last, unexplored frontiers on Earth. Of course I am speaking of Mysterious Island, with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Within the steaming caldera of Mount Prometheus are such fantastic creatures and startling underworld vistas that it should satisfy any imagination.

James who? Sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of Jules Verne.

Suppose, however, that we wanted to feature alien worlds. Isn’t Disney working on a movie that takes place on another planet, which features high adventure and strange forms of life, pregnant with opportunities for dazzling attractions and exhibits on exobiology utilizing research actually being conducted by NASA on the very planet on which this film takes place? Why yes, they are!

To give Disney the benefit of the doubt, I should hope that if John Carter occurred to me it must have occurred to them as well. I’m not a fly on the wall of any decision-making, but I would not be overly shocked if the Marketeers decided to bide their time on whether to invest in themepark support for this aspiring franchise. It is unfortunate, especially considering that when Walt Disney plunked Sleeping Beauty Castle in the middle of his brand new park, the film on which it was based was still four years away from premiere. If Marketeering doesn't feel confident enough to throw serious cash behind the franchise, what are we to think?

All of this idle quarterbacking assumes that overt fantasy is even required. There is still much ground that Animal Kingdom could cover just on this planet. Disneyland's past could easily blueprint Animal Kingdom's future if we are hard-up for ideas. For example, the average Disney World guest has no more seen the great North American savannah than they have the African one, providing the perfect validation for Conestoga, stagecoach or pack mule tours past herds of bison and pronghorn antelope. Animal Kingdom's "Vanishing Prairie" could be supplemented by a Native American dance circle, Marc Davis' long lost Western River Expedition or, sparing the derivatives, a Pocahontas attraction. After the closure of its original 20,000 Leagues attraction, Walt Disney World has been wanting for an authentic submarine ride. West Edmonton Mall in Canada used to have one into which were set aquaria of real fish. If a mall can accomplish this in the 1980's, certainly Disney can now.

As Werner Weiss has pointed out, this sort of kvetching is fairly pointless. The deal is done and its coming whether we like it or not. If there were any vibes I could send to Disney though, if I had any one wish for them it would not be for any one specific thing like restoring Pirates of the Caribbean after its vandalism (though I do want that) or avoiding Avatar (likewise) or even importing a Mysterious Island or Mystic Point (though I certainly want those too). It would be for the company to have faith in itself again... No Pixar, no Marvel, no Muppets, no Lucasfilm, no Avatar, no shortsighted crutches for the shareholders; just a recognition that it already sat atop one of the great repositories of characters, films, franchises, and most importantly, creative talent in the Western world. That is why people already flock to Disney Parks.


Anonymous said...

The modern liberal version? Did it ever occur to you that many of your readers are modern liberals who care about the environment. Why don't you just keep your conservative right-wing bullshit to yourself and stick to subjects that you know something about?

Cory Gross said...

You, whoever you are, are the first person to have ever accused me of being a conservative right-winger. I kind of want to send you a prize. No, seriously. E-mail me and I will pull something off my giveaway pile for you.

For the record, I'm a fairly insufferable pacifist and anti-war advocate, I'm an enculturated Canadian socialist, and I'm theoretically an anarchist but pragmatically a democrat, and so much so that I've also taken up the cause of electoral reform and proportional representation here in Canada (because any party getting a Parliamentary majority on an electoral minority is bullshit, let alone Stephen Fucking Harper). I am a Christian, but one of those mainline liberal Protestant academic types, which translates to me being openly antagonistic to both Fundamentalist Christians and Fundamentalist Atheists... I actually preached a whole month-long sermon series at my church this summer in support of GLBT equality. I also work part-time at my local zoo where I even teach about conservation. I grant that most people don't know this about me because, by in large, I don't really try to use this blog to preach my pet issues or aggrandize myself. Usually.

My snarky remark about "the modern liberal version of White Man's Burden" is a reference to an actual tendency for otherwise well-meaning, progressive people to still frame discussions about ethnic, traditional, minority and oppressed or disenfranchised groups as a narrative about themselves. Those poor foreigners over there become the foil for Western guilt: how we Western folks are just so awful and we have to save those noble savages from us! Instead of legitimately concerning ourselves with how we can assist others to achieve their own self-determination and self-fulfillment (which usually entails us just getting out of the way and not being douchebags), we want to lead them and make them pawns in our own self-satisfying political partisanship or self-conscious desire to consider ourselves good, progressive, liberal people.

Avatar is a perfect example of this. Of course it has to be the Euro-American male who rescues the poor noble savages and leads them to victory. They couldn't do it themselves, no sir. Apparently, in the course of his existential self-discovery, he even made a better Na'vi than the people who were actually born Na'vi. "Modern liberal White Man's Burden" is a condescending Mary Sue fantasy in which the Other are accessories to our own navel-gazing.

Speaking as a well-employed Euro-Canadian male, it's not about me.

grouchomarxist said...

They didn't call Avatar "Dances with Smurfs" for nothing.

IIRC, Cory's critique of Avatar's plot was shared by quite a few liberal and lefty blogs. And this old lefty environmentalist agrees with it.

I get what Cameron was trying to say about humans and our relationship to our own planet, and there's no denying he was dead on in that respect. Plus I give the film high marks for its stunning depiction of a well-thought-out alien ecology. (I've admired Wayne Barlowe's work since the early 80s; it was a big treat to see it come to life in state-of-the-art CGI.)

Unfortunately, Cameron has a tendency to take a good idea way too far, to get too preachy when he should have had more faith in his audience to get his point. Which I guess is a roundabout way of saying he can at times be a self-indulgent hack.

Funny thing is, the John Carter trilogy which starts off Burroughs' Martian series is essentially the same narrative, without the environmental trappings.

Anonymous said...

Star Tours 2 is actually very well done, you should give it a chance.

Cory Gross said...

Oh, I have no doubts that it is well done. I have no doubts that, from a purely technological standpoint, Avataropolis will also be stunning. The point was more that the source material is less than desirable. Star Tours 1.0 ended up being cool, for me, because it was the last vestige of old school original Star Wars. Now it's going to be all crap from the crap films that were crap.