Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Knowledge Gap

I was recently perusing the excellent blog 2719 Hyperion and found this article referencing the recent controversy over the supposed installation of The Three Caballeros into the EPCOT attraction El Rio del Tiempo. Having taken part in this debate recently on several fronts, it became evident to me after several posts that I was not only the only person who had seen the film recently, but one of perhaps only 13 – 15% of people involved in the debate which had seen it at all.

Truthfully, current Disney fandom displays an abhorrent lack of knowledge or interest in the actual history and accomplishments of the company in lesser known works. While dreck like High School Musical is wrung dry by the corporate structure, eternally seeking profits, a large percentage of the fandom, especially its’ younger members, embrace whatever Disney is promoting as “the best thing” du jour, effectively creating what I like to term a “middle brow fandom” which persues whatever carrot is dangled before it. So in the interest of helping others discover the varied and strange history of the Walt Disney Company, I tell you: throw out your copies of The Little Mermaid, Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas, and Kim Possible. Throw out your DVDs of High School Musical and Cinderella. And start over from scratch with this hastily-complied list of alternative Walt-Era classics:

Plane Crazy (1928): The really-for-real first Mickey Mouse short is hilarious and blissfully non-PC. Ub Iwerks’ gifted animation has Mickey torturing a whole barnyard of animals in an attempt to build an airplane so he can get Minnie up in the air and take advantage of her. Yes, you read that right. Don’t worry; she escapes from the lusty mouse by using her panties as a parachute. This was originally animated silent.

The Shindig (1930): This black and white short has just about everything that makes the early Mickey Mouse shorts so wonderful and also has just about everything that makes politically correct parents, the ones who complain about Pirates of the Caribbean shooting rifles at each other at Disneyland, want to go take a running jump off a cliff. It has Mickey snapping Minnie’s panties in time to “Pop, Goes the Weasel”. Clarabelle Cow lounges around naked with her udder hanging out, reading a dirty novel. And at the end, Mickey is literally flattened by an enormously fat girl pig.

Pluto’s Judgement Day (1935): The nightmare atmosphere this short generates compares favorably to the best output of the Fleisher studios from years before. In addition to being beautifully animated and having images and jokes as unsettling as they are funny, this is one of the best non-Silly Symphonies to demonstrate the Disney Studio’s amazing use of music to set tempo and tone. The cat chorus’ wailing cries of “we want Plu-to! We want Plu-to!” haunted many of my formative years.

Donald’s Lucky Day (1939): The Disney studio’s fantastic send up of Hollywood gangster movies has Donald carrying a ticking time bomb and battling a black cat who won’t leave him alone. The depth and quality of the backgrounds in this short is what makes it especially memorable and haunting, as well as the unusual ending for a Donald short of this time period.

Symphony Hour (1942): Not only is this the last color appearance of Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow (now wearing a dress and minus udders), it’s the last outing for Mickey, Donald and Goofy together. Donald and Pete (as Mr. Macaroni) steal the show, but it has plenty of complex, detailed animation as the musical instruments slowly fall apart at the hands of the musicians. It’s also very funny and you get to hear the big rodent announced as “Michael Mouse”.

How to Play Football (1942): This short is so funny it’s almost difficult to watch: the cheerleaders beating themselves unconscious with their routine, the bizarre ellipsis created by blocking out action and narration with the crowd, the team members strewn across the locker room, and the animation of the coaches. It’s one of the fastest paced and funniest shorts of the entire Disney canon.

The Vanishing Private (1942): Although it may not be as morale-boosting or have as great a song as Der Fuehrer’s Face, this is another short which is so funny you wonder if the Warner Brothers animators began sneaking into the studio and working on the shorts under the cover of night. Also necessary viewing is The Old Army Game, from the next year, where Donald and Pete thinks the duck has been sawed in half by barbed wire and commanding officer Pete gives Donald his pistol to kill himself!

Victory Through Air Power (1943): The beautifully animated segments make this under-seen masterpiece more than just an illustrated lecture, and the final segment of the Allies’ symbolic defeat of the Japanese empire (storyboarded by Marc Davis) may be one of the most powerful things you’ll find in a Disney film that isn’t called Bambi. More chillingly, we know that this film convinced FDR to strengthen the US’ air squadrons and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this film is a stepping-stone to Hiroshima. Released in some of the darkest days of World War II when it seemed likely that the Allies could actually lose the war, Walt Disney funded this film himself because he believed in its message and, given the results, we can count this as one of his most significant accomplishments.

Duck Pimples (1945): This short is so surreal and strange that I thought for years it was a dream I had as a child. Makes a great double feature with the similarly creepy, shadowy and spare Donald Duck and the Gorilla.

The Three Caballeros (1946): The end result of the studio’s experimentations with color, music, surreal images, and new techniques is this absolutely beautiful film – it’s a masterpiece and, technically, something of a Fantasia redux only set to a lively Latin soundtrack that’s one of Disney’s best ever. Much of the film takes place in Donald’s head as he literally goes out of his mind in a sex-fueled surrealistic reverie. Ward Kimball’s fantastic titular musical set piece is a highlight. The use of live-action and animation here is a forerunner to Song of the South, which is more logically structured but also not as interesting. It has a slow opening so be patient.

Melody Time (1948): This one is rather scattershot and slow, so having a DVD and being able to skip over the sometimes tiresome segments is actually a good thing here. But it has two absolute masterpieces wrapped up in it: Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill. The Pecos Bill segment, in particular, which begins with the haunting “Blue Shadows on the Trail” before building into the relentless pace of the story of Bill himself, is perfection itself and one of the studio’s best examples of sophisticated pacing, rising and falling action, and color stylization. Before DVD we had to sit through the much worse Gold Diggers of 1935 in order to see Busby Berkley’s masterful Lullaby of Broadway, so we shouldn’t be too hard on this overachieving package picture.

The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad (1949): Another underrated masterpiece, and much better than it’s follow up, the perennially boring Cinderella. Bing Crosby’s narration in the second segment is, particularly, a very sophisticated use of voiceover as Bing speaks both for and about all of the characters. Especially noteworthy is the wonderful “Tale of the Headless Horseman” number which sets up the famous chase through the woods and manages to make you laugh and feel very uncomfortable all at once. “A hip hip and a clippity-clop! He’s out looking for a head to chop! So don’t stop to figure out a plan – you can’t reason with a headless man!”

Out of Scale (1951): Those who are up on their Walt biographies will immediately recognize Donald Duck’s hobby in this short as a cute send-up of boss Walt’s Carolwood Pacific. Even better is Donald’s behavior in this short, which is at its’ most unhinged and erratic as he seeks to destroy Chip and Dale’s home as it’s “out of scale” with all of his miniature trees. The solution is particularly brilliant.

Teachers are People (1952): This one edges out the wonderful How to Be a Detective and How to Dance Goofy shorts for the best of the latter 50’s cycle because of it’s honesty in portraying young children as ruthless and bizarre violence obsessed little creatures. Goofy collects a succession of deadly weapons from young George. The ending is especially hilarious given our current school anxieties: “I will not bomb the school!”

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954): Walt’s best and most serious live-action work is actually a haunting portrait of a man driven to madness, with Captain Nemo as perhaps James Mason’s second-best performance (I’ve always had a soft spot for his wonderful villain in North by Northwest). Top notch effects work, great performances by Kirk Douglas (master of guitar twirling) and Peter Lorre, and Harper Goff’s fantastic Nautilus all give an air of excellence. Today it’s easy to overlook that the film ends with one of the most loaded images you could have in a movie released in Cold War America: Nemo’s final act is to destroy himself and his work in a nuclear explosion.

Pigs is Pigs (1954): The manic pace and unusual animation style, combined with the clever story and charming verse-jig of this short piece makes it a standout in the studio’s rather spotty later career after it had decided to retire its’ most famous animated stars almost for good. It’s also, unexpectedly, a very funny parody of bureaucracy and makes good use of dialect humor. And yes, the multiplying guinea pigs are adorable.

Dateline: Disneyland (1955): How bad can things get? Well, pretty bad. Some great off the cuff Walt material, madness in front of Mr. Toad, smooching random women while not noticing the camera is running, awkward Ronald Regan and more makes his fascinating viewing material as well as fodder for a great drinking game that nobody’s invented yet.

Paul Bunyan (1958): The last of Disney’s trio of “American Legends” shorts is just as good as the other two, with some great Paul Frees material (“T’weren’t nuthin’!”), a driving theme song and a touching ending. The animation is regrettably simplier than Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, and the short is badly in need of restoration.

The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961): This highly contested short has always enchanted me, and not just for its eccentric visual style, wonderful music and original concept, but a magisterial, ghostly ending that I find to be beautiful and affecting.

A Symposium on Popular Song (1962): All hail Ludwig von Drake. Hail, hail. All hail the Sherman Brothers. Hail, hail. All hail X Actencio and Bill Justice’s eccentric stop-motion animation which so enriches The Parent Trap and Mary Poppins. But wait – there’s a short that combines all of them! This hidden gem is as funny, strange and charming as it ought to be, with the Sherman’s hilarious lyrics set to Actencio and Justice’s creative paper cutout style. The best part is the reason it hasn’t been shown in years: the “sentimental oriental fortune cookie bakery man.” I lose it every time he chucks something in the “dishonorable trash bin.”

The Tenth Anniversary Show (1965): Perhaps the best way to remember Walt, he’s awfully charming and strange as he leads Julie Reihm around the WED model shop and won’t stop taking pictures of her. Later he stands in front of a process screen and promises us pretty girls in Adventureland. We love you, Walt.

Thanks for everybody’s feedback and support through this blog’s first few months, and everybody have a very happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Liberty Square: Successes and Failures

As the only area unique to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Liberty Square offers a unique if frustrating challenge for the serious student of theme park design. Unique, in that its’ detail, scope, and honesty is unmatched anywhere in the Magic Kingdom. Frustrating, in that a series of design hindrances hoisted on the entire park seriously curb its’ intent, especially compared to Disneyland’s masterfully planned New Orleans Square, which it encourages comparison to through both terminology (“Square”) and staple attraction (The Haunted Mansion).

What is sure about Liberty Square is that it is earnest, detailed, and complex. Born of a desire to bring American History to life in a serious and meaningful way, it isn’t hard to see that compared to the beautiful excesses of Adventureland, the designers of this area truly believed that this would be the conceptual heart of the park and the strongest tie to Walt Disney’s patriotism and interest in bringing history to life. For the time, this was in lockstep with the rest of the nation: with the bicentennial in 1976, Liberty Square was the most popular and potent area of the park. Today, it looks rather sentimental and perhaps too simple.

Liberty Square is filled with details, although ironically many of these are hidden from all but the most discerning eye. Buildings are filled with authentic propping and details which mark this area as the site of extensive planning and research. A quick glance at the interior of the Columbia Harbour House or Diamond Horseshoe reveals an incredible wealth of detail. Authentic hats and canes adorn umbrella holders tucked away into corners. Figureheads loom from rafters above the seating areas. In this fashion Liberty Square at least matches The Haunted Mansion in level of detail. It ought to. It was built by the same people.

These gables above the Heritage House intersect in a very sophisticated and realistic way.

But it has a unique problem of being one of the most poorly laid out areas of the entire park. Successful Disney themed areas present the visual equivalent of a “thesis statement” right off the bat, no matter where you enter the area from. Liberty’s Square’s buildings all face away from the central Hub; entering it from the most logical path means you’re going to be passing a lot of the sides and backs of buildings which have perfectly realized fronts which the guests won’t see unless they turn around and look back! Worse, many of the buildings are placed back, far away from the main throughfares of the park, tucked away behind trees and bushes. These facades are charming and interesting when you bother to walk far enough back to appreciate them, but who’s going to bother to actually do that?

Making the problem worse is that Liberty Square has a parade route right through the center of it. The widened pathway not only makes the area seem impersonal, but the forced perspective becomes more obvious. This is a casualty of Magic Kingdom’s mantra of designing for high capacity: it’s a design choice which creates awkward areas like the Fantasyland-Tomorrowland transition. New Orleans Square has it’s’ cake and eats it too: intimate streets and a huge pedestrian space. It’s achieved by placing the pedestrian walkway well outside of the Square itself, not trying to force traffic entering Pirates or Mansion down those tight and beautiful alleyways. Liberty Square could benefit from six to eight feet less sidewalk from building to building and building to river.

There is furthermore no revised “weenie” at the end of the street; the location of Disneyland’s Riverboat landing has not been revised. But Orlando’s river is located several feet below pedestrian level. Since the riverboat unloads a full level lower than it loads for capacity purposes, it has lost a full ten feet of height from street level. Thus, it can’t loom over anything or impress anybody: it doesn’t look any larger than its’ loading platform!

Liberty Square once looked like this. I know, it's scary.

Worse, subsequent development has actually hindered the area. In 1973 a new extended queue (Liberty Square was popular, I tell ya) for The Hall of Presidents was built, in the process covering up an area between the side of the Presidents show building and the south of the Harbour House which had been a beautiful village green with an unattractive white veranda-type-structure (See above). Not only did this deprive this village of it’s green – a key component of any Northern town as any Yankee will tell you – but it raised a huge white obstruction in front of some of Liberty Square’s most authentic looking facades: the townhouses lining the west side of the Presidents rotunda. Now you have to fight your way even further back off the main road, through an ugly food market, to appreciate these entryways. Trees grew up taller than the building themselves, covering or dwarfing the Georgian revival details, and now street level eatery umbrellas make nice hedges and brickwork even more difficult to admire. It’s not as supremely unattractive looking as EPCOT Center’s behemoth American Adventure building, but it’s not distinctly more appealing, either.

Once off towards the north to the Mansion or the south towards the Horseshoe things improve and unify, but too late to make much of an impression. Which is an awful shame as WED has worked some beautiful stuff into Liberty Square. There are beautifully sculpted hitching posts which you may not see because they’re usually full of guests leaning against them. Facing the Rivers of America, in an inconspicuous window, are two lanterns, lit by night. If you stand below the window, face straight out in the direction the lanterns are, then walk in a straight line out towards the river, you’ll end up in front of a small rise with cannons and munitions in the shadow of an elm. A country on the eve of independence indeed!

The heart of Liberty Square isn’t actually the Hall of Presidents or the Liberty Bell, strong contenders but ultimately too self-important. It’s the interior of the Liberty Tree Tavern, beautifully appointed in seven rooms with seven fireplaces and full of authentic feeling dressing. The place actually appears to be in use with its preponderance of occupied coat racks, hats, and china cabinets. The glass is wavy and when inside on quiet afternoons the effect is total: the world of the area is “stratified” upon the viewer’s consciousness, and Liberty Square could go on forever. It’s a potent moment of design in an area which sometimes otherwise feels like a rather monotonous march of historical reverence.

Interior detail: Liberty Tree Tavern, George Washington room

Sunday, December 10, 2006


OK, so in the process of starting to write up a nice new article / photo essay on Liberty Square, I won an eBay auction for a 1972 "pictorial souvenir of Walt Disney World" - the first that was actually produced for Orlando - which I missed out on at a recent convention. I figured the copy of "The Story of Walt Disney World" and Disney on Parade programs I won at the same time were just the sweeteners.

If anybody out there is a WDW history buff and doesn't have a copy of "The Story of Walt Disney World", they're missing out on a real treat. These classy, softcover books were produced throughout the seventies in the shape of a big black Walt Disney World D with a die-cut window in the cover revealing a nice picture of Cinderella Castle behind. What I lucked out on was that I actually won a 1971 printing of the thing and when I opened up to page 10, this is what I saw:click for larger

I had first seen these fantastic Phase One maps backstage at Magic Kingdom years ago - yes, that is Western River Expedition you see to the far West, and outside the park the Asian Resort, due East of it the Venetian. After spending some fruitless hours searching for a copy, of course one just drops into my lap - even if it is rather low-resolution and bound into a book.

I found a few other things, too. I nearly had a geek attack when I found this next picture from 1972. Following it is a similar picture reposted from an earlier Blog entry:

What a difference a few years a vegetable growth makes! And how barren and desolate a pre-Tom Sawyer's Island Rivers of America looks! The second photographer even zoomed in to minimize the effect of what was even a few years later a pretty barren landscape. See the Fantasyland Skyway peeking up over the hill in the 1972 shot?

This got me thinking, and I revisited the excellent pre-EPCOT souvenir video A Dream Called Walt Disney World, as well as the theatrical short subject The Magic of Walt Disney World, from 1980 and 1971, respectively. (Don't confuse A Dream Called... with The Magic of... just because the theme song for A Dream Called... is actually named The Magic of Walt Disney World!) Which leads me to an honest and passionate plea: does anybody have a clean, clear, complete copy of Buddy Baker's haunting Walt Disney World musical theme in any media?

It's really a beautiful piece, actually much nicer than his Monorail and Peoplemover themes, just as energetic and wistful but also more melodic and soothing. Today it really sounds like an echo from beyond the veil, when Walt Disney World was beautifully pristine and new and minus three other parks saddled aboard and all around nothing but oranges.

If anybody's not sure how it sounds, follow this link, load up the video, skip ahead to about 3:30, and start listening carefully after Walt finishes speaking. The Walt Disney Story actually made fantastic use of this theme during its' EPCOT (the city) segment, which was genuinely stirring.

Thanks for everybody who wrote in with kind words about my Marc Davis pieces - they're works in progress and feedback will be carefully considered to help with any changes I intend on incorporating in future versions. Interestingly enough I found out a few more things about the evolution of the Bears show even after posting, and now all that work is starting to look woefully incomplete to me...

'Till next time!