Friday, January 29, 2010

The Problem With Plot Part 2 (or, How I Couldn't Come Up With A Clever Title)

In the last entry, I skimmed upon the topic of plot in Disney attractions. The most important aspect of immersion is what story you have to tell; obviously no one wants to ride a roller coaster based on "Barton Fink". When Disneyland first opened, the rides there weren't rides, they were shows. All of the standards of film making - pacing, action, plot, performances, etc. - were present in these attractions. The concept of sailing into the port of a town under siege by ruthless pirates wouldn't be as exhilarating if none of them were yelling and firing off rounds. The thing that separates Disney from any run-of-the-mill amusement park is the careful attention to detail in the plot.

One of the oldest and most important (to me) aspects of telling these tales is what you see while you're waiting for the actual thing. Most parks (Six Flags, for example) have more of a "cold-open" feel, in that you wait in a line that literally tells you nothing about the experience to come. Contrarily, Disney (among other parks) has a highly detailed pre-show area for nearly every attraction. The queue area is what hooks the audience, immersing them in the world they've just entered. One of the best examples of a pre-show area is "Pirates of the Caribbean". The highly detailed walk through a Spanish prison heightens a mood of foreboding, especially evident through the lighting and sound effects in the distance.

Jumping ahead into the 80's, attractions like "Star Tours" and "Big Thunder Mountain" carry on this tradition, with the former giving a brief video presentation toward the start of the ride. The queue for "Star Tours" is a wet dream for any fan of the series, and it's here where the careful attention to detail and mood make the experience much more memorable. Everything, from the crates passing overhead to the subtle silhouettes flashing on the window, is done to make you genuinely feel like you're no longer in an everyday theme park. "Big Thunder", like "Pirates" or "The Haunted Mansion", utilizes a much subtler method, allowing the guest to discover plot points on their own (while the stretching elevator in "Haunted Mansion" is a little more straightforward, there is much more story to be found in the setpieces themselves).

The 90's brought two of the most popular attractions at Disney World, with some of the most memorable pre-show elements. "Splash Mountain" recreated the home of Br'er Rabbit, tucking away special elements in a fashion that suggests that the designers wanted people to find them, not have them shoved in their face. "Tower of Terror" recreates the lobby/boiler room of the Hollywood Tower Hotel, and even goes so far as to creating a dead-on "Twilight Zone" opener. This show is where a visitor can find some of the greatest executions of atmosphere in a theme park. From the cobwebs on the suitcases to the appropriate look of the freight elevators, you can tell a lot of research and hard work went into this area - and it pays off.

So what's the state of the pre-show now? Let's look at a more recent addition to EPCOT, "Mission: SPACE".

As you can tell from these images (courtesy of, everything here seems a little.... big. And by "big", I mean "fucking huge". There isn't much subtelty here, is there? Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the queue, but it seems like there's a distinct lack of small detail present. Even the clever reference to "Horizons" seems to be up in your face, like it was put there for a 6-year-old to find. The problem is a 6-year-old will have no idea what that means. Also, there are FAR too many pre-shows here. We have the outer area, then the 1st waiting area (with the gravity wheel), then the area where you're waiting to be put in the next waiting area (where you see Mission Control -- the only part of the queue with any sort of nuance), then the area where they show the pre-show film, and then the area where you wait to get in the vehicle itself. That's four separate queue areas. Then we have the post-show, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Another attraction, "Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin" (which, by the way, just recently celebrated eleven years of operation -- eleven!), doesn't give you much to look at while you wait. The atmosphere itself is fairly cold and dark, and it seems as though most of the attention was spent on the giant animatronic Buzz figure standing in your way, spouting 3 different sentences every two minutes.

While the "'Mission: SPACE' Rule of Making Your Pre-Show Huge" effect is indeed becoming more evident, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Shows like "Midway Mania" certainly make it work; you are a toy's size, after all. There's also no shortage of eye candy to look at while you're in the (never-ending) line.

Subtlety isn't dead, however. There are some shows that effectively allow you to draw your own conclusions about the story. A prime example is "Expedition: Everest", where the pre-show is a carefully detailed replica of a small Asian town, complete with a Yeti Museum. The attention to detail here is almost unparalleled; while you wait in line, you're free to draw your own conclusions as to what this journey is, why you're here, and what could possibly be so bad about the Forbidden Mountain's "guardian". The queue alone makes this worth riding more than once.

Alongside the pre-show element of storytelling, there's also the way the show wraps itself up. Traditionally, the story ends on the actual ride portion, and you're whisked into a gift shop where you can see your onboard photo. There are some attractions that try to add in a little more to that experience, through the post-show. The earliest post-show is found in "The Haunted Mansion", where - after you've walked outside - you can still find visual clues concerning the story of Master Gracey and his lovely ladies. Similarly, there are more tidbits of story exposed after riders disembark on "Dinosaur" (was the Iguanadon in the car with us?), as well as "Mickey's PhilharMagic", and " MuppetVision 3D". Some preshows, however, are a little lazy - or worse, corporate shills. Take "Mission: SPACE", for instance. When you leave your X2 simulator, after a harrowing landing on the surface of Mars, you are given the most underwhelming and anticlimactic post-show imaginable. A solid-white hallway that sometimes never ends (depending on which pod you were in). Add to this a song that sounds suspiciously like something you'd hear over the end credits of "Con Air", and you have the post-show's beginning.

Sound interesting? No? Well, wait 'til you see where the hallway leads! After walking for several minutes (hours?), you are launched into what can easily be perceived as the arcade that the Foot Clan owned in the first "Ninja Turtles" film. There's a giant screen with a group of tourists playing against each other something, and various other pointless space-themed junk. Guess who has their branding slapped all over it? HP!

We also have the post-show to "Test Track", which is like being dropped into the set of a Michael Bay movie. General Motors owns this area, which serves as a show floor for cars we'll either a)never be able to own, or b)never see on the market. More corporate whoring! At least that dreaded OnStar "Dream Chasers" shit isn't there anymore...

I understand that companies put a lot of money into these attractions, and expect to have some sort of profit returned through advertising. However, that doesn't mean that all originality and creativity can be stripped when creating these areas. It not only looks tacky, but it completely shatters the illusion that people have painstakingly worked on to create.

Some may perceive the lack of creativity in pre-shows for more current attractions as a sign that the company is losing faith in their ability to tell stories through these shows, but as long as we have the likes of "Expedition: Everest", maybe we can see that as a sign of pre-shows shifting back into the more detail-driven waiting areas we had years back.

What are your thoughts, humble readers? Do you have a favorite or despised pre-show?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Problem With Plot

One of the things I love most about Disney parks is the fact that elaborate stories are always present in one way or another. Almost everything in the parks has a back story, no matter how much visitors know about the source material. However, in the last few years, story has slowly taken a backseat to interesting and cutting-edge effects, as well as keeping the attention of the audience. Where there used to be attractions with fantastic subplots and enough background story to fill multiple attractions, there are now many elements of the parks that have visitors scratching their heads, wondering just what the fuck happened.

Let's take a brief look at the show I always pick on, "Stitch's Great Escape", which I consider to have some of the worst and laziest show writing in the history of Disney parks. The plot to Flight to the Moon/Mission to Mars was simple: You were going from Earth into outer space. The plot to "Alien Encounter" was a little more complex, but still simple: You were viewing a demonstration of XS-Tech's technology in a live, intergalactic demo. Now, let's get to the "Escape". Where, exactly, are we? Are we in space or on Earth? We must STILL be on Earth, since the show doesn't tell you at any point that you've somehow traversed the galaxy by walking into the preshow lobby. Why does Stitch (who calls himself "Stitch", despite the fact that this is a prequel to the film) go to Florida, if that's where we already are? Surely you can't claim that suspension of disbelief is called for, since Disney World plainly exists - Stitch either goes into Cinderella's Castle or on the Astro Orbiter. Also, since we're recruits for the security program, why are we strapped down for the entirety of the show? What kind of prison keeps the guards locked in their seat while the prisoner is in the room with them?


I get tired of talking about that fucking show so much. Let's try another one.

-One of the things that's always confused me about Mission: SPACE is where, exactly, we are. We're on Earth at the beginning, and I'm pretty sure this is a flight-training program, isn't it? So why are we on Mars at the end? Lieutenant Dan very plainly says "welcome to Mars", right? What the hell is going on?

-DINOSAUR has visitors going back in time to save an Iguanadon from extinction, for....what reason? The character of Seeker tells us that the specific Iguanadon we are to save (he marked it with a tracker, which makes you wonder why he couldn't get it himself) holds "the key to understanding these magnificent creatures." ....What? Wait, huh? Why that one, specifically? Also, I assume that the time travel would have been tested before they allow us to ride, so couldn't this have been done several times in the past? Also, why did we go back to the point in time where the asteroids were literally hitting the planet? Despite the fact that I love this attraction, it still makes no sense.

...The list goes on. Many would complain that these plot problems are easily forgivable, considering that these are theme parks. But just as people pay money to see a film with a coherent plot, some people (like me) enjoy getting the same out of these attractions.

There's an infinite amount of story floating around Disney World, and some of it isn't even told. Take this story found on Wikipedia (but paraphrasing a story told in the Hyperion book "Walt Disney Imagineering") about Blizzard Beach, for example:

"The theme of the park is the "Disney legend" of a freak snowstorm in the area, leading to the construction of Florida's first ski resort. Naturally, the snow didn't last long, leaving behind a collection of waterlogged but snow-less ski jumps and chair lifts. The failed resort was in the process of closing for good when an alligator was seen sliding down a flume and splashing into a pool of water, screaming "Yahoo!" Thus the "ski resort" was reborn as a water park, with the alligator (named "Ice Gator") as mascot."

No one really HAS to know that information, but the Imagineers cooked it up, anyway, just in case people were curious about why there's a blizzard-themed water park in central Florida. The same goes for "Big Thunder Mountain" (from the same source, though this excerpt is missing a bit of story told in the book):

"Some time in the late 1800s, gold was discovered on Big Thunder Mountain in the American Southwest. Overnight, the small mining town [of Tumbleweed] became thriving mining towns. Mining was prosperous and an extensive line of mine trains were set up to transport the ore. Unbeknownst to the settlers, the Mountain was a sacred spot to local Native Americans and was cursed. Before long, the settlers' desecration of the mountain caused...a flash flood, which befell the mines and town and they were abandoned. Some time later, the locomotives were found to be racing around the mountain on their own, without engineers or a crew. The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was founded in the old mining camp to allow tourists to take rides on the possessed trains."

There's no big video that tells you this. There isn't a narration, or anything of the sort. It's just backstory created for the purpose of good storytelling.

While some of the attractions made currently have interesting and creative storylines (I've always thought the Laugh Floor Comedy Club did an ok job with the story), attractions today seem to either eschew plot or throw it together as quickly as possible.

Next time, I'll talk about the art of pre-shows and post-shows, and where they are now. Until next time...

Friday, January 1, 2010

Analysis: "The Princess and the Frog"

Welcome to 2010, everyone! Hello, new and exciting clean slates! So long, trashy "aughts" sunglasses!

Whatever shall we do without them?

So, I promised a review of "A Christmas Carol" a few weeks back, and didn't come through with it, mainly because I didn't have much to say about it other than what'd already been said. I personally didn't like any aspect of it, most especially the motion-capture that makes the film look like a PS3 game.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the fact that I really don't have much to say when it comes to writing critiques like these, because I find that 90 percent of the time what I have to say has been said a million times over. However, "The Princess and the Frog" is a very special film - finally, a break from CGI and 3D! - so I'll try my best to be as original as possible in this piece. Also, I'm going to be speaking under the assumption that all reading have seen the film, so...


So let me just say this - I truly loved it. It's one of the better animated films Disney's released in the past decade (that's right, "Treasure Planet"), and I'm glad it's had the success it's had so far. Also, praise to Jennifer Cody ("Lottie"), who pretty much knocked it out of the park. It's also rare that you have a character like that and NOT have her be a bitch. Just sayin'. Also, I loved the animation. It was absolutely beautiful, especially the "Almost There" sequence. Now that that's out of the way...

1) The film didn't necessarily have any strong emotional ties for me. I didn't really care all too much about any of the characters or their motives. At least in the films of the "Disney Renaissance", I cared about the outcome. Here, I wasn't necessarily aware of the risks. Granted, the characters were likable, but I wasn't too interested in the character arc of Ray the Firefly. I felt no major emotional investment.

2) The film follows too closely to the aforementioned predecessors. There's the recurring theme of the child trying to live up to the expectations of the parent (Ariel and Triton, Belle and Maurice, Simba and Mufasa, Pocahontas Powhatan, Mulan and Fa Zhou, etc.). There's the outspoken young woman who doesn't know the true meaning of ____ until ____. It's all predictable to a degree - which isn't so bad - but despite the mimicking of those great 90's films, it doesn't bring anything new to the table.

3) The side characters were, while funny, almost pointless. Louis the alligator feels too tacked-on, and doesn't really progress the story. At least Ray got them to Mama Odie; Ray couldn't even do that. If the character didn't exist, the film would only have lost some comical moments. Nothing else. Also, I can't see either of those characters being too popular for years to come. This isn't necessarily that important to the overall enjoyment of the film, but it seems like the folks behind it intentionally added characters just for this purpose.

4) The villain was too unoriginal for my tastes. While Keith David did a fantastic job voicing him - and sounded like he had a lot of fun doing it - the character seemed to me to be too much of an amalgamation of other Disney villains. If Jafar and Hades had a black child, this would be the outcome. Even his demise was too similar to that of the "Hercules" heavy. I feel like his motivations were too one-dimensional and lacked complexity.

5) There were only 1 or 2 musical numbers that I had stuck in my head after watching. The film's songs seem to never reach their full potential, almost as if they're stopped short before a big climax. While well-written, there are no show-stopping, "Hakuna Matata"-esque numbers here.

6) Finally, I couldn't really tell what the moral of the story was. Was it "Be yourself"? "See others for who they are"? Or was it "Hard work equals great reward"? There seemed to be so many here that the number of messages numbed me to their importance.

I was honestly expecting this movie to be a minor footnote in the annals of Disney animation, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this film is a genuinely sweet, heartwarming, and funny ( I don't laugh that often in the theatre, but this film had me once or twice) film that fortunately wasn't bogged down in the negative attention or the shadows of it's bigger siblings. It's not perfect, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.