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Thursday, November 11, 2010

When Disney was King

This enthralls and depresses me:

Many of you don't remember, but when I was a kid, Disney was the king of technology. Before Star Wars, Disney was the world leader in movie special effects. Look at films like Darby O'Gill and the Little People, the Medfield College movies, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and then look at other films of the time that used special effects. Disney rarely looked cheesy, and, to those audiences, the special effects were amazing.

When Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out, Disney was relegated to playing catch-up, with copycat The Black Hole the norm and TRON the exception. Now, Disney's films are full of CGI-laden special effects, and we are amazed. It's amazing to see how far computer animation, an art form pioneered by Disney, has come. I remember seeing Glen Keane's work in the early tests for "Where the Wild Things Are" and marveling at the (now considered primitive) clockwork in The Great Mouse Detective.

The theme parks echo this. Disney was the unquestioned master of theme park attractions, and then, somehow, they lost their way. Movies were considered superior to audio-animatronics because they were relatively cheaper to produce and operate. Universal began creating attractions that matched and, in the case of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, surpassing Disney. David Mumford told me a funny but depressing story. At WDI, before they do the actual model of an attraction, they do a paper mock-up. When they took out the charming Kitchen Kabaret to replace it with Food Rocks, one of his friends working on the attraction makeover showed him the show's progress. "That mockup looks good," David said, "when are you going to start on the model?" His friend replied, "That IS the model!"

Sigh. I saw the show once; that was enough. Um...the lighting was good. The lighting was very, very good. Yep. Good lighting. If you want to see the difference, you can look on YouTube or get one of Jeff Lange's excellent DVDs. World of Motion, a charming Ward Kimball trip through the history of transportation (and that catchy tune, "It's Fun to be Free") became an attraction where unpleasant thing after unpleasant thing happens to you, capped off with a wild trip over the employee parking lot at the thrilling speed of...well, about ten miles per hour less than you take to work. But the turns are banked! And don't get me started about Imagination. Seriously. Who thought of that? I'd like to kick him or her firmly in the shins. I wouldn't, of course, but I'd like to. David oversaw the rescue efforts for the attraction, along with the incredibly talented Larry Nicolai and the rest of that fantastic team, but the intro is still gone.

See? I do like to complain. But I'm not some kook yelling alone in a field. One of the most popular shirts at Epcot is one with all of the old symbols on it. Disney's answer to this was to release more "vintage-style" EPCOT CENTER shirts, but they're not reading the message: people really love that old stuff, because it was good, high-quality entertainment, with original music and characters, and the education tempered with fun. Horizons was my favorite attraction, because it echoed back to one of Disney's triumphs of the past and a good memory for me, Carousel of Progress, and was full of hope for the future.

But the people who came up with this:

are still there in the company, as far as I know.

Depressing, isn't it?

I think tomorrow I'd better just blog about some of the many things Disney does right, for balance.



  1. I was listening to a podcast today that talked about how the Lights of Winter at Epcot weren't done last year because they were "obsolete technology". The difference between the "old" Disney and "modern" Disney is that people at the old Disney would have said that sincerely and come up with a more advanced display to replace it with, rather than use it as an excuse for yanking something without a replacement.