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Criticising Criticism…

Warning: Unsafe amounts of navelgazing follow. If you go ahead and skip to the next post I won’t be offended.

Jay Sherman, critic, and Figment“It STINKS!”

I realize that there’s been less news and more commentary and history here recently than is usual. Part of this is due to my ever-shifting attention span, but a great deal of it is because the flow of news about things park-related and animated have slowed to a tiny trickle. Also, starting a series based on the top ten things I’d like to change in Disney parks kind of necessitated a more critical eye. This isn’t a permanent shift, of course – once the executives move Walt Disney World out of the deep freeze and start to build new attractions we’ll be there to cover it. But in these fallow times, it’s OK I think to look back at where Disney has been and where we think it should go in the future.

So, the validity of Disney criticism in general was on my mind when I stumbled by chance upon a blog post elsewhere that had been written last year in response to an article by Jim Hill. Hill’s article – you know? The kind where he posts inflammatory unattributed quotes by people who speak exactly in Hill’s writing style? Anyway, the article was about an Imagineer pal of Hill’s who was complaining to him about fan criticism of Toy Story Midway Mania. Regardless of the fact that the initial criticism they were discussing was an actual, valid technical concern that WDI was at that moment working to correct, Hill’s spurned Imagineer expressed his ire for the “foamers” on the internet – those horrible people who actually care about Disney and have an opinion of its actions. The implication of the piece was that WDI in general had a great deal of contempt for these fans, portrayed as straw men who hate everything new that WDI produces, and that the Imagineers had instead decided to focus on the once-in-a-lifetime guests to WDW whose standards, it was assumed, are lower.

First, I have no idea if any of that is true. Painting with such a broad brush is useless in meaningful discussion, whether you’re talking about Imagineers or fans. The world is more complicated than that; WDI and fandom are neither monolithic entities – they’re composed of individuals who are all very, very different. We all know the litany of artistic geniuses who work at WDI; like any institution, though, there are probably a few hacks in the mix as well. No doubt some element of online fandom consists of mouth-breathing keyboard monkeys, while most are just well-intentioned fans and some are thoughtful, concerned and valuable members of the community.

Nothing WDI produces is all good or all bad; even the greatest attractions have room for improvement and even their greatest failures have some measure of good intent behind their creation. I’m as guilty of anyone of hyperbole from time to time – it’s an unseemly side effect of caring just a wee bit too much about one’s field of interest while offering even well-meaning criticism from a distance. Without real skin in the game or informed knowledge of the situation, it’s hard to keep proper perspective about something awful like Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor – I don’t know the story that led to it being there, I just know it doesn’t work so that’s all I can say.

Yet even all criticism need not be seen as negative. Saying, for instance, that the Animal Kingdom is a wonderful concept executed well, yet still woefully incomplete, is not an evisceration of those behind its creation – in fact, it’s essentially asking for more of the same quality work. Knowing that WDI can do magnificent work and wanting more of it isn’t even a criticism of them – it’s a condemnation of those who prevent them from creating places like DisneySea here in their home country. There are a lot of arguments more nuanced than simple saying The Enchanted Tiki Room – Under New Management! makes baby Jesus cry (although it does – I told you about the hyperbole!).

In defense of criticism, including nattering nabobs like myself, the last 10-20 years have seen some marked changes in the realm of Disney parks and many of those changes, especially recently, have been for the worse. No doubt I was wrong as a kid when I was convinced that WDI could do no wrong – one learns over time of all the compromises they were forced to make even in those glory days – but while the golden days might not have been always 24 karat, I’m not willing to blame the explosion of Disney criticism entirely on the internet.

I sincerely doubt that anyone at WDI would ever have cause to stumble upon this site, save for the occasional quirk of Google, and if they did wind up here I doubt anything I’d have to say would interest them in the least. But if someone from Flower Street wound up lost in the byways of Progress City, I’d have them know that, by and large, those “foamers” out there do in fact respect their work, and at the very least they can find solace that people care enough to observe as they do.

As for me, I’ll admit that I have a predilection for obsessively examining how I can improve things. There’s some little editor in my brain that forces me to take things I enjoy and think how I would improve them – I’m constantly re-cutting and re-writing films in my brain as I watch, and even while I’m riding through Imagineering’s greatest achievements I’m always thinking about how I would make them better. It’s not because I think I’m better than the titans of filmmaking or themed design – far from it! They’re actually doing the work and I’m just a critic. Nor is it out of some dyspeptic need to find misery at every corner – on the contrary, I love to walk through EPCOT (my favorite park, after all) and catalogue the changes I would make if I woke up one day as the boss man. It’s kind of like SimCity but in your brain, and with no budgetary limitations. Sure it’s ridiculously pointless and no one’s ever going to ask me for my ideas in the first place, but it’s an amusing pastime and isn’t that the point?

In the end, I think my biggest problem is with those who would paint critics as miserable malcontents who seek to project gloom on others. In some worst case scenarios – Disney Studios Paris, for instance – there’s little joy to be found at first. But the fun of pointing out what’s wrong is turning it around and thinking about what the alternatives could be. At least, that’s what’s fun for me. Maybe it’s maladjusted, and maybe it would put those wonderful Imagineers off if they were reading, but what the heck – as Peter O’Toole said in Lawrence of Arabia, “It’s my manner”.

Sorry about the meta – we’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming momentarily…

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2 comments to Criticising Criticism…

  • I, of course, would welcome more commentary and history and less news, but that’s me. ;) I would also welcome more people who write like me on Jim Hill Media and less people who write like Jim, but that’s just his creepy eccentricity. ;)

  • Hehe thanks – Well, let’s just say news about the select subjects I’m interested in, not on Pixie Hollow or High School Musical. I just get a little weirded out when everything on the site becomes “MY IDEAS” over and over. I don’t take myself even remotely seriously enough to let that happen. I really wish I could do more long history thingies like you do, but they just take me so ridiculously long to write I have to have something to fill in the cracks… And then I have my attention span in general to deal with hehe.

    About JHM, no comment. Except that I think I’m going to start a monthly “questions from readers” segment in which every question I answer will be thickly written with my easily identifiable verbal affectations…

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