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.

The Island at the Top of the World stars David Hartman as archaeologist-historian Professor Ivarsson, Donald Sniden as robber-baron Sir Anthony Ross, and Mako as the Inuit hunter Oomiak, together seeking a "lost world" in the Arctic... A hidden, thermally warmed oasis said to be the graveyard of whales. Untold riches in whale oil and ambergris drew the son of Sir Anthony, and now he must enlist the aid of Ivarsson to find him. Instead of dinosaurs or giant apes, the explorers discover a lost colony of Vikings ripped straight from the Sagas. 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. As if on queue, the invaders arrive aboard an omen of ill fortune, and the Viking shaman capitalizes on the panic to consolidate his own power. 

The ill-omen in question was the great airship Hyperion. Disney's most original addition to the story, this beautiful hydrogen airship of French design easily holds its own against other fantastic contraptions of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romance, including Disney's own design for the Nautilus. The Hyperion's appearances are among the most stirring in the entire film, rendered through full-sized sets, miniature diorama work, and exquisite matte paintings of montane peaks and Arctic wastes. Yet even that is a frail skeleton of what was originally intended. Concept art from as early as 1968 shows a more ambitious craft for a more ambitious film.

Original exterior of the Hyperion. Image: Disney.
Original interior of the same. Image: Disney.

The strangeness of scaling back the film's scope becomes more apparent from reading Cameron's original novella. The Lost Ones is a modern Scientific Romance, set in 1960. It is filled to the brim with the romance of exploration, adventure, history and the far-flung corners of the world, with well-studied accuracy in the details and a creative concept. There is no Oomiak or Ivarsson. They are replaced by the narrator, a whaler named Keith Rogers, and Professor Somerville. There is no airship, though young Donald Ross did arrive to the titular island via helicopter. The rest arrived by pontoon plane and dogsled. What they arrived to was not the verdant valley of the film, but a rocky volcanic plateau populated not by full-blooded Norsemen, but "blond eskimos" with fair skin and names like "Freyja" and "Loki" (who nevertheless refer to the interlopers as "white men"). It's not an overwhelmingly excellent novella, but like Tim Powers' novel On Stranger Tides decades later, Disney saw the skeleton of a good story and optioned it. On this skeleton they built up the musculature of proper Edwardian dime novel characters and fantastic inventions while enhancing the wonder and exoticism of their destination. Then cut it back.

There is still much that Island at the Top of the World gets right. 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. Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings are well done and give 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. Ellenshaw first began working with Disney on Treasure Island, their first live-action film, in 1950 and his style lent a distinctive, painterly quality to Disney's films that imbued a fanastical, artistic sensibility reflecting the best in Disney's animation.

Island at the Top of the World trailer.

Enthusiastic over the potential of Island at the Top of the World, Tony Baxter at Walt Disney Imagineering envisioned the film as the focal point of a new area at Disneyland. Frontierland has always been one of the great, classic lands on Disney property. In the middle of the 20th century and its fad for Westerns and Davy Crockett, it was a powerfully resonant landscape recapitulating the origin myth of the USA's westward expansion. The Rivers of America wound their way around an island playground based on the works of Mark Twain. A paddlewheel steamboat named for the author plied the waters alongside canoes and keelboats. On the mainland, a saloon welcomed guests to what would become the longest-running live entertainment show in history, the Golden Horseshoe Revue. On the far side of the shoreline, New Orleans Square had just risen prior to Walt Disney's death, and just afterward, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion had opened. The largest parcel of land in Frontierland belonged to the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, a quaint mine train ride past animatronic vignettes pulled from Disney's True-Life Adventures series of nature documentaries. 

That quaint main train ride was beginning to get a bit stale by the Seventies, so Baxter first looked to import a concept he had developed for the recently opened Walt Disney World called the "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad." This mine train roller coaster would occupy the loading area of the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland. For the backcountry, he plotted out a bustling San Francisco-inspired wharf called "Discovery Bay." Boarding the Mark Twain Riverboat, the park guest would pass by New Orleans Square and deep into the frontier. Making their symbolic way West, they would turn the bend in the river and come across the San Francisco-inspired harbour of Discovery Bay. There, they would see the usual dockside buildings and the mooring of the Sailing Ship Columbia, the Mark Twain Riverboat's companion on the Rivers of America. However, a double-take would reveal the Nautilus half-submerged in the bay and the Hyperion airship pulling out of its hangar. The Disneyland Railroad would pass along a trestle bridge past a giant, sparking Tesla Coil. Towering over it all would be Big Thunder Mountain with its runaway mine train. 

Concept painting of Discovery Bay. Image: Disney.

Work on Discovery Bay began almost as soon as Baxter finished up the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine attraction at Walt Disney World. Vernian imagery was in his head and in the air at Imagineering, translating into an extraordinarily ambitious project. The Nautilus alone would have "housed" up to three different attractions. One would have been a walkthrough of the ship, much like the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit in Tomorrowland from 1956 to 1966, though more convincing of actually being inside Captain Nemo's vessel. The second would have been a restaurant, offering guests the chance to dine in the grand salon (though presumably without purees of unborn octopus and other such delicacies). The third, and most interesting given the mid-70's vintage, was a simulator ride taking visitors themselves 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Nautilus salon restaurant concept art. Image: Disney.

Echoing the San Francisco wharf setting, Discovery Bay would have included a "Chinatown" with Asian fast food options and an explosive version of the shooting gallery. In a tent off to the side, Professor Marvel would have demonstrated a number of curious inventions and sideshow oddities in a Carousel of Progress-style show. The giant Tesla Coils - dubbed "The Tower" - would have been the framework on which a new roller coaster would have been hung. A balloon ascent would rise over a new mountain (disguising the show buildings) and connect to an expanded "Dumbo's circus" area in neighbouring Fantasyland. There was also discussion of a Lost River Rapids attraction, with a boat ride through mysterious chasms into a world of living dinosaurs. This might have made use of the dinosaurs from the Primeval World diorama along the Disneyland Railroad. There had also been discussions of moving the dinosaurs to the Jungle Cruise or building them into a copy of the Dinosaur! attraction in Tomorrowland. So far, Primeval World remains. 

Concept art for the "Spark Gap" coaster. Image: Disney.
Concept art for the Professor Marvel attraction. Image: Disney.
Concept art for the Lost River Rapids. Image: Disney.

Centrepiece of the extension would have been the ride dedicated to The Island at the Top of the World. Guests would enter the Hyperion's hangar, where they would have boarded the airship to experience what was outlined in the following Imagineering memo:
Amid the sounds of cold engines and some obviously disturbed chickens, the balloon ascends into a blazing sunset. As the glow fades, a surrealistic lighting effect becomes prominent. The Captains begins to recount the numerous legends regarding the Aurora Borealis, but is interrupted by heavy air turbulence. The First Mate's report indicates that the safest air zone to be right at surface level.

Far below, the outline of ice formations can be seen floating on the dark waters, as the vast ship tips forward and begins to descend. Gradually, the ice flows expand in size, until the shadow of the airship can be seen against the snow banks, pursuing some apparently frightened reindeer.

The balloon continues downward until it is moving amongst the great fields of ice. It is here eye-to-eye contact is made with the animals of this frozen world.

A great field of arctic hares, a polar bear family, seals, walrus, and a snow leopard regard our presence with varying degrees of suspicion. All the while a never-ending procession of whales continues forward toward a great wall of ice. Cut into this wall is a narrow gorge through which the whales continue to pass.

The storms have hampered our planned flight above the ice wall. Therefore, progress will have to continue somewhat cautiously through this narrow channel. The ship is engulfed by the walls of ice -- but before long, the gorge opens into a large crystal labyrinth. Tinkling sounds accompany shattering ice crystals. The Captain gives the order to "Shut down engines!" Even the slightest vibration may set nature in motion. Deep within the grotto lies the seaward gate of the lost civilization of Astragard. Dominating the entrance is a temple of ice -- apparently conceived to pay homage to the great sea beasts (providers of both food and material for these ancients). Huge icicle-draped whale bones frame the eerie scene ... "The Temple of the Whales! According to Captain Brieux, it served as the seaward gate to the Island at the Top of the World ... how strange! It's now only a frozen testimonial to ... nature's ... Good Lord... !"

The Captain is interrupted by an unprovoked attack of whales leaping out of the waters below. "Start up the engines -- pull her up!" The aircraft pulls away just in time, for the commotion has caused the delicate ice crystals to shatter.

Directly ahead lie the ruins of the ancient city of Astragard. Here, amid volcanic-tempered pools, a great people once thrived -- but as the warmth failed, the surrounding ice took a firm grip on the city. The people of Astragard fled Southward, and with them came tales of fantastic beasts that lived in this land. Captain Brieux, who charted this expedition, claimed to have seen several of these creatures -- but was not able to verify his sightings. To this day, only these stone images remain as ... "Captain! The thermal gauge indicates an unusual temperate zone directly ahead."

The Captain is at a loss for words, but the report is confirmed as the Hyperion glides out over a melted ice brink and into a lush Eden-like garden, basking in the warmth of a huge volcanically-fed altar stone.

"The great Temple of Astragard -- for centuries buried and protected by a mantle of ice. The flaring of the Temple altars has once again allowed the grounds to break free to the Arctic skies."

In the Temple garden, the Hyperion discovers living creatures rivaling the most exotic creations of man's fantasies. It is not long before the temperatures on board the Hyperion begins to rise and with this comes the warning that too long a stay could cause the airship to rise up out of control and become lost above in the churning storms.

The Captain ignores the warnings and in the interest of science proceeds deeper into the Temple ruins. He is fascinated with the possibility of capturing one of these creatures.

The passengers get their first glimpse of the Temple interior -- the huge stone deities, and the flaming altars. The temperatures continue to rise. Basking in the warmth are an incredible array of life forms -- even more exotic than in the previous garden. Suddenly the Hyperion lurches upward and into a spiral.

"Keep her down! Keep her down!"

"She won't come around, Sir! She's rising fast!"

Cold air rushes into the ship as it is buffeted to and fro, finally disappearing into the clouds. The passengers are cautioned to remain seated and the airship enters the driving storm. This begins a visual and physical sequence of increased speed and buffeting activity, climaxed in the eye of a vast electrical storm. As the turbulent cloud and wind assault begins to fade, the Captain regains control of the airship and it's not long before the familiar landmarks of Discovery Bay can be seen silhouetted in the moonlight.

The passengers disembark amid the confusion of an airport arrival. They pass a news photographer who is patiently trying to pose the Captain and his newly-acquired friend ... a very strange mascot!"

Tony Baxter at work on the model of Discovery Bay. Image: Disney.
Overhead view of the Discovery Bay model. Image: Disney.

A television show, The Discovery Bay Chronicles, was also in the works to promote the new land. Unfortunately, The Island at the Top of the World underperformed at the box office, removing any and all impetus to pursue these projects. It is one of the great "what if?" questions in Disney fandom and a vain hope was held out that some day, some version of Discovery Bay might be made. Now that Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge occupies the parcel of land that Discovery Bay would have taken, it is finally time to let that dream die.

No idea at Imagineering ever truly dies though. In the latter half of the 1980's, Baxter was given the lead on the Euro Disneyland project. Given the opportunity to design his own Magic Kingdom from the ground up, he seized the chance to resurrect Discovery Bay and solve a longstanding problem in Disneyland. The problem with Tomorrowland was that "tomorrow" inevitably becomes "today," and eventually "yesterday." Walt originally intended that Tomorrowland be a perpetually changing and improving showcase of modern technologies. Disney company executives were less enthusiastic about the constant outpouring of money that would require. Baxter lit onto the idea of changing Tomorrowland into "Discoveryland"... A land still dedicated to science fact and fantasy, but with less obligation to keep pace with the future. Jules Verne became the prime inspiration for Discoveryland, in part to appease France's cultural gatekeepers who were themselves unenthusiastic about Disney setting up shop in the Paris suburbs. Two of Discoveryland's main attractions were a walkthrough of the Nautilus, sailing in Discoveryland's lagoon, and a hangar housing the Hyperion airship (and a fast food counter service). The Tower roller coaster was planned but eventually dropped in favour of a Space Mountain based on Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. Discoveryland went on to influence Port Discovery at Tokyo DisneySea, which in turn influenced remodels of Tomorrowland at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris.
Cafè Hyperion at Discoveryland in Disneyland Paris.

Cafè Hyperion in Discoveryland was given a different backstory, wholly unconnected to The Island at the Top of the World, which remains a relatively unseen and underappreciated film in Disney's oeuvre. 

As to why it failed, any number of reasons could be provided. The manner in which the studio pulled back from a truly awe-inspiring motion picture may be one. A lack of realism, ironically, could have hurt the film. Tales of human survival in the polar regions are quite satisfying on their own, as the stories of Jack London and 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. Yet Island at the Top of the World undersells these, even to the point of damaging its own credibility. Characters seem to suffer no ill-effects, or even inconvenience, in Arctic snowstorms or diving in and out of the Arctic Ocean. One shouldn't underestimate the often poor quality of the acting, especially from the Scandinavian actors who seemed to be hired more for their size and fluency rather than ability. It might also be that nobody cared about Vikings. 

Another reason might be a more general public disinterest in the genre. When Island at the Top of the World started production in 1968, the fad for Retro-Victorian Sci-Fi films was in its last stages. It began in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and peaked around 1960-62 with The Time Machine, The Mysterious Island, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Master of the World, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and Disney's own In Search of the Castaways. The number began to dwindle thereafter, and by the time Island at the Top of the World was finally released in 1974, the moviegoing public couldn't have really cared less. Even Victorian-Edwardian Broadway-style musicals (My Fair LadyMary Poppins) and comedies (The Great RaceThose Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines) were getting out of fashion. It was after this that England's Amicus Productions would release a series of genre films adapting the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Regardless of the reason, Island at the Top of the World didn't pay off for Disney. Their slump in the Sixties and Seventies continued until a new management regime took over in 1984. Yet ideas developed to cash in on an anticipated success still came to influence Disney theme parks for decades. 


Anonymous said...

Just saw this - amazing post Cory!! I loved the film (sometimes I think I'm the only one...), the Discovery Bay concepts and everything that came out of it! -Jeremy Fulton

Cory Gross said...

Thank you Jeremy!

The film is one of my "guilty pleasures", but it's Discovery Bay that REALLY captures my imagination. I would have loved to see that, or some version of it, reach fruition. It also pains me that Discoveryland is getting less and less like its original intentions. But I guess I too am in the minority, and if I really want Vernian adventures that badly, I can go to Tokyo DisneySea :)