Thursday, April 24, 2008

Walt Disney World & the Early Films

One of the strangest and hardest things to describe about what was lost at Walt Disney World during the "Eisnerification" of the resort is that the property lost a sense of cohesion - of aesthetic beauty and harmony and balance amongst all elements, from the Magic Kingdom to the golf courses to the Lake Buena Vista shopping complex. This is a not incorrect but perhaps rather obvious statement - after all, until just about after EPCOT Center opened a lot of the same people who put the place together in 1971 were still making decisions and were in a position to uphold what they thought was a responsible vision for Walt Disney World. People say that, once, things were quieter at Disney, and it's true. Of course there have always been 80,000 attendance days at Magic Kingdom and whatnot, but outside the parks you could spend a relaxed couple of hours on Treasure Island, ride the tiny train over at Fort Wilderness, and take your complimentary bus over to the beautiful and sedate Shopping Village. Nothing was out of balance with another, and even the opening of EPCOT did not tip the scales for EPCOT offered things found nowhere else at the time.

Today Downtown Disney is as loud and frenetic as the loudest of Magic Kingdom parades, unique dining and shopping experiences are being homogenized for today's homogenized Americans, the parks are starting to become pretty hard to distinguish and Treasure Island / Discovery Island is abandoned. There are still places to relax but the onslaught is ceaseless and the people are louder and more demanding as ever. Sometimes there's no good place to get away from it. That voice of WED's golden era team of designers has been dimmed under the boisterous racket of Eisner and his heirs' Barnum-like philosophy of sell it all, sell it now. It is perhaps inevitable but no less unfortunate.

I recently visited the Hall of Presidents - whose interior Rotunda area is still a zen-like garden of peaceful blue & white - and was reminded of the original version of this still remarkable but none the less dumbed down attraction. I then felt the need to revisit The Walt Disney Story and was surprised, watching those two masterfully edited short films back to back, just how good and how smart the first generation of Walt Disney World entertainment was. Limited adults with limited minds think Country Bear Jamboree is kid's stuff, but it's a sophisticated show made by smart people about dumb bears. Although even the strongest of purists will probably not oppose that Mission to Mars is probably best gone from Tomorrowland regardless of the shrill and tacky parade which replaced it, the two Circle-Vision films which once played across the Tomorrowland promenade were made by very talented people. These early films and entertainments weren't afraid to speak to their audiences like they were experienced adults and not overgrown children - beings with actual attention spans and knowledges of culture and literature and art. They were also shot and cut and staged and programmed by people with both talent and tact. And of them all, two were linked artistically and conceptually in some very interesting ways.

The Magic Kingdom is supposed to be the Disneyland-style park which represents the wishes of Walt Disney best - his interests in fantasy, technology, history and fun. If Walt Disney is some kind of meta-American then his Disneyland park and it's Florida counterpart do in fact represent a vision of America, specifically his. Facets of his personality and life are to be found throughout the park, but it is arguably Main Street USA which is his real Fantasyland - the childhood home which reared his youthful imagination. In the Disney parks the Main Street USA area represents Walt Disney, America and Home, and so it was an intelligent decision on Disney's part to anchor the whole area, and by extension the whole park, with their own tribute to Disney. It was called The Walt Disney Story.

What is remarkable about this film is that, in comparison to the Eisner-era Walt Disney shrine One Man's Dream, there is compelling honesty and intelligence with which the film is put together. While one could expect and is delivered a touch of saccharine, the tact of Disney's surviving confederates and the fact that the film is "narrated" by Disney himself as culled from interviews lends the piece both authority and anchors it from drifting too far astray into outright mawkishness. That it tows the company line is inevitable, but the most remarkable thing is that Disney kept it running intact long after the abandonment of Disney's EPCOT city - and this, a film which showed you the city while Walt Disney himself says that it will be the heart of "whatever Disney does in Florida"! There is no diffusion-filter, no sentimental crane shots of the park, and no condescending narration by one of Disney's current stable of inoffensively bland celebrities.

It's remarkable to hear Walt Disney say things that currently not in line with company policy, especially a pointed moment where he says that there will never be another Disneyland and that the Florida version will have to be significantly different. One wonders what Jay Rasulo and his generic "Disney Parks" logo would say to that. But perhaps the biggest moment comes right at the end, where he says:
"You know one day a little boy asked: 'Do you draw Mickey Mouse?', and I had to admit that I do not draw him anymore. 'Well then you think up all the jokes and ideas!' No, I said, I don't do that. Finally he looked at me and said 'Mr. Disney just what do you do?' Well, I said, sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area in the studio to another and gather pollen... and sort of stimulate everybody."
Let's recall that this is a company that will have a 15-month promotion based around Walt Disney, will put the name "Disney's" atop things great and small, and still cannot place placards outside each attraction with a list of notable contributing personell. There is a Walt Disney actor who sits on the first float of the Magic Kingdom parade and draws Mickey Mouse, and promotional materials left and right fawn over "Walt's Dream" while they treat every frame of every Disney produced film as if it were his own. The names of the actual directors of Snow White and Fantasia are things you have to open reference books to find. And here, in 1973, is an actual company-issued piece of promotion on Walt Disney in which we personally hear him speak of his actual role in his studio. The machine outlived the man and the machine admitted it.

The film was shot in a unique widescreen process which could accommodate a nearly three-to-one aspect ratio, and the film plays out as an animated scrapbook into which the camera plunges at the very start of the film. Being a scrapbook, a good deal of the film is concerned with panning across images and animating them thusly: as a young Disney leaps into a water hole the whole screen rapidly shoots down the static image, then back up as he "surfaces". Two still images are intercut as flashframes so rapidly one suspects it would impress Sergei Eisenstein, and throughout there is an emphasis on the voice as Walt Disney seemingly speaks to us from the past. It's all supported by one of Buddy Baker's best continuous soundtracks, rivaled only by Impressions de France at EPCOT. For simple craft and tact, The Walt Disney Story is better than a great many Disney theatrical films released in 1973.

Where the aesthetic links to is back a few years in the past and across to another attraction, The Hall of Presidents. While the Hall of Presidents may have a very different effect in mind when it comes to sentimental stimulation and the 1971 version of the show was by no means perfect, it was a quiet and, moe importantly, balanced attraction. When the Eisner re-make of 1993 - which is not wholly without merit - hit, the most extensive cutting to the show happened in the film section, while the audio-animatronics section was more than doubled in length. While previously the role call of presidents was rapid and respectful, the narration currenty plods along at what must be 30% speed, with lots of gaps in between for Presidents to chat to each other, nod off, wrie essays or slowly shift their attention from one end of the room to the other. This is meaty, beautifully programmed stuff, but it would not be nearly as offensive as it is if the original Lincoln speech still wrapped up the program. Instead a functionally bland new speech has been written which is not significantly shorter than the original and the more measured and beautifully effective ending has been reduced to a mere flash. Taken in concert, all of these changes disrupt the careful balance of the original presentation.

What they seem to be doing is reducing and abbreviating the film as much as possible under the assumption that Americans have little paitence for an eighteen minute film on history, ignoring the fact that the film was one of the most beautifully structured and edited films on property. The film is constructed of a succession of slow zooms and crawls over period-correct pieces of fine art, which are minimally "animated" with camerawork such as fades, pans, and cuts. Besides being aesthetically interesting these techniques underline the attraction's theme of history comes alive. The audience is first presented with history as they have been primarily exposed to it, only now careful editing makes the paintings immediate, reacting, thinking, breathing. This is a brilliant set-up to that final scene, one of WED's most remarkable accomplishments, of every President on stage together, as in life, while now the voice of Lincoln emenates not from a painting, but from the man himself. WED copied the same technique when enshrining Walt Disney of bringing his voice back to life.

Another brilliant structuring technique of the attraction is what can be termed the "layering" of the presentation; space is continually transformed. When the show begins the audience is seated before a blue curtain which encircles nearly 180 degrees of the auditorium. At first, the show is projected onto this blue curtain for the preface of the show while the Constitution is introduced, but once the scene-setting begins of Philidelphia in 1787, the blue curtains slowly open to reveal three huge screens onto which Philidephia is projected only onto the space between the curtains as they part. The effect is intended that the course of history lies literally beyond the curtain, an effect which is accented in the original film when Baker's score emphasized the moment with triumphant flourishes of music and which the new show jettisons in favor of a more discreet opening of the curtains during the preface. The idea took time to convey but it was an intellectual concept which did add something to the presentation, and if it is no longer present then it isn't adding, but detracting.

The next moment the curtains opened during the film, and they still do, is during Lincoln's speech before the Civil War, where he says "I know there is a God and that he hates injustice and slavery." At this point the curtains again pull back to reveal two more screens to the left and right, bringing the presentation to encompass the full width of the auditorium, and probably intended to represent America's entry into the modern age. The "modern era" section of the film was cut in its' entirety in 1993, causing an abrupt shift from Reconstruction South to modern space travel, and with it went the symbolic expansion of the screen: in the current show once the Civil War is over the curtains again close and the screens exist for mere spectacle.

The strangest moment in Disney filmed attractions is probably the end of the film section of the Hall of Presidents, where the curtains close to 60% their original space and suddenly the screens tear apart at their joins and pull away, to the left and the right and up, revealing yet another curtain, a red one now, rather than a blue one, and slightly transparent. And the curtain raises on the actual Hall of Presidents, now a beautifully decorated interior space - an actual place - rather than just the name of a building which houses an attraction. And the show has one more secret in store, as the blue curtains behind the Hall open at the climax of that part of the show to reveal the Capitol dome at dawn. So if we count them each in order, the Hall of Presidents has seven layers the presentation carefully works through:

Blue Curtain
Screens B, C, D
Screens A, B, C, D, E
Red Curtain
Hall of Presidents
Rear Blue Curtain
Capitol Dome & Dawn Sky

History is peeled back, layer by layer, and becomes more vibrantly alive the further back we go. That's not a bad message to convey to audiences, with or without an emphasis on slavery.


In many ways we can see the end of these attractions' lease on life at the Magic Kingdom as an extension of the public in general's increasing weariness of anything they'll have to sit still for for an extended period of time, a tide change which Disney was more or less unable to respond to through the 70's and 80's. Of course you have to be willing to sit still for art to experience art, and that is perhaps why many of Disney's most interesting attractions have fallen by the wayside. As mores and attention spans change it was inevitable that a modest show like the Walt Disney Story was removed and a featured attraction like the Hall of Presidents was revised. And while the social factors for revising the Hall of Presidents are fairly suspect, Disney has at least made good on it's debt to Walt Disney with the tasteful One Man's Dream.

People say that, once, things were quieter at Disney, and it's true. Things were once much more tastefully assembled and, once, things were all of a consistent voice. Now other minds have wrought other things and the vision has been diluted. Once, it was easier to take The Magic Kingdom as a coherent work for all attraction and facilities turned in unison. It's been a long time since then, and if we cannot take Disney seriously on her word it's because of this fragmentation of what was once an at least a consistent vision.