Wednesday 29 November 2017

Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars)

Though unmentioned, the spectre of the Great War looms large over the 1918 Danish film Himmelskibet. Called A Trip to Mars in its English release, it begins as any self-respecting Scientific Romance ought: a daring adventurer sets out on a celestial expedition to Mars, facing down derision and disaster in his quest for scientific truth. When he and his crew arrive, they encounter a pacifist utopia custom-made to counteract the horrors of the conflict ravaging Europe at the time.

The hero of the story is Captain Avanti Planetaros, late of the marine corps who has taken up aviation as a hobby. His sister, Corona, is romantically entwined with Avanti's friend, the scientist Dr. Krafft. Their father is Professor Planetaros, an astronomer who gazes longingly at the Red Planet through his attic observatory. Their nemesis is Professor Dubius, friend of their father and inveterate cynic. While flying one day, Avanti is seized with the idea of creating a flying machine that can take him and stalwart crew to Mars. Other than Dubius living up to his name, nothing stands in their way and they are soon off on an expedition.

Six months out, while those left behind on Earth wonder if they have survived at all, the space madness infects the crew. Some have turned to drink and there is talk of mutiny to take control of the ship - named Excelsior - and turn it back around to home. Before they can affect their plan, a ray from Mars captures the ship and it is sped to the surface of the planet. There, the crew encounters a veritable paradise and its highly enlightened citizens.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Darius Green and his Flying-Machine

Originally published circa 1867, Darius Green and his Flying-Machine by John Townsend Trowbridge, was a simple verse mocking the aspiration towards human-powered flight, the genre of Scientific Romances, and the boy geniuses who populated such stories in the dime novels of the day. For example, The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis would be published in 1868, featuring a comparable boy genius though with somewhat more success than the country bumpkin of Trowbridge's poem.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Disney's Island at the Top of the World and Discovery Bay

The Disney company was faced with challenging times throughout the late 1960's and 1970's. Walt Disney passed away in December of 1966, leaving the company rudderless. It never truly recovered from a loss in the fiscal year of 1959/60, after which it resorted ever more to inexpensively produced, live-action films with equally diminishing returns. The list of truly classic Disney films from the Sixties is short: Mary Poppins (1964), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Pollyanna (1960), The Parent Trap (1961), and The Love Bug (1968). The Seventies were even more barren. The world changed around Disney, and by the discontented years of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Sexual Revolution, Uncle Walt's 1950's utopian promises and quaint family movies were painfully square. Up to 70% of the company's revenue came from its two theme parks - Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida - and a growing majority of its films were theatrical re-releases of past glories.

Something daring was necessary, and it was in this spirit that Disney turned to a distinctive little adventure book written by Ian Cameron in 1961. Titled The Lost Ones, it featured an expedition to the Canadian Arctic that uncovered a mysterious society descended from the Vikings who migrated across the Atlantic a thousand years before. Though set in the modern day, producer Winston Hibler, director Robert Stevenson, and script writer John Whedon saw in it the seeds of a grand Victorian-Edwardian adventure in the tradition of Jules Verne. After all, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea proved to be a landmark film for the company in 1954, so perhaps a similar sort of story could propel them into success once again. An aspiring Imagineer by the name of Tony Baxter seized the opportunity to propose an entirely new addition to Disneyland centred on both this film and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Yet studio executives got cold feet, scaled back the budget, and when The Island at the Top of the World was released in 1974, it was not the hoped-for commercial success. The film, a planned sequel, and Baxter's ideas were quietly shelved.