For Disney fans of a critical bent, it used to be easy knowing where to channel one’s rage. Disneyland falling apart from neglect and mismanagement? Blame Paul Pressler and his gang of idiots. Key elements of Animal Kingdom’s master plan left out on opening day? Blame Eisner, or the “pencil pushers”. California Adventure? Blame everyone VP level or above. Once Disney began its long slide into mediocrity, beginning noticeably around 1994 and cratering out about ten years ago, the villain was remarkably consistent and easy to identify – cheapness. Penny pinching. Cutting corners. Basically, the refusal by management to commit the resources necessary to creating new things in the tradition that made Disney great.
A lot has changed since then. Management is different at the top, and in many places at the bottom as well. Eisner’s replacement, Bob Iger, seems much more willing to spend on projects that he finds worthwhile and he mended a number of bridges to the creative community that had been burned. John Lasseter of Pixar was brought in as a creative consultant to Imagineering, which many – including myself – thought simply had to be a good idea. Most importantly, money is being invested in the parks; a billion dollars has been poured into an effort to make California Adventure habitable, a long-needed overhaul of Florida’s Fantasyland is underway, and other projects wait in the wings – projects like the Avatar-themed area of Animal Kingdom that surprised everyone when it was announced earlier this year.
So, all is well… right?
A certain element of fandom will not brook any criticism of the Disney organization, no matter how badly show standards fall. Even during the darkest days, when the company was trying to foist things like Walt Disney Studios in Paris off as a “theme park”, there were those who bristled at the fact that anyone would point out that the Disney parks output suddenly seemed to range from mediocre to embarrassing. Those who felt that Disney should do better than California Adventure, or that EPCOT deserved a Space pavilion more space-worthy than Mission: Space, repeated a litany of simple pleas to Disney management: Please start spending money like you used to. Please give us some lavishly-themed attractions like you used to. Please start budgeting attractions for more detail, theme and atmosphere. Stop being so damnably cheap and loosen those pursestrings!
And, so it would seem, that started to happen. As the aforementioned projects began to roll out, it was clear we were entering a new era. The new areas announced for California Adventure were indeed lavishly themed and decorated, and certainly not done on the cheap. The Fantasyland renovation was actually re-jiggered after its original announcement to make it more elaborate, and while we know next to nothing about “Avatar City”, we know that James Cameron does nothing small.
Big projects. Seemingly adequate spending. Lots of detail, lots of theme, lots of atmosphere.
So why are so many – including myself – still left feeling completely unenthused about these developments? How to frame the argument that, even though what you thought was wrong with the company’s offerings has been resolved, you still feel these projects are desperately unexciting and creatively bankrupt?
Honestly, I found it hard to talk about at first because one starts to simply feel like an ingrate. We wanted spending – and they’re spending. Carsland at California Adventure is going to be big, elaborate, and expensive. Construction photographs shows massive, lusciously detailed rockwork and meticulously crafted environments. The designers at Imagineering are definitely “bringing it.” But that doesn’t shake the fact that it is an entire massive section of the park devoted to Cars. That’s like giving someone a solid gold set of bagpipes. I mean, wow, it obviously signifies a great effort on your part, but what the hell am I supposed to do with it?
It’s a hard needle to thread, critically. Basically the argument one is trying to make is that Disney is doing the wrong thing (building Carsland) for the right reasons (wanting to spend money to make California Adventure less of a joke). It’s kind of the reverse of Eisner’s early years, where he was doing the right thing (investing in parks) for the wrong reason (to become the grandest mogul of all, have the grandest hat at the hat parade, and crush all who lay in his path). You find yourself saying “Yes, nice hustle there. I can tell you’ve worked really hard on this and it looks great. But it’s an affront to what the company should be doing and I really kind of hate it.”
Let’s look at these projects one by one. First, there’s the Fantasyland remodel in the Magic Kingdom, which I really have no beef with. It’s looked consistently better ever since it was first announced, and even if it didn’t have anything I would ever ride, it’s at least making that section of the park nice to look at for the first time in almost twenty years. That’s a net improvement in and of itself.
Of course the real problem with Fantasyland comes when you compare it to its Disneyland counterpart; having spent a lot of time in the Anaheim park recently it’s hard not to be jealous of the sheer number of offerings in its Fantasyland. In a fraction of the space we have in Florida, Disneyland manages to cram in a slate of attractions that the Magic Kingdom will not approach even after this ‘expansion’. Wonderful dark rides based on Pinocchio, Mr. Toad and Alice in Wonderland, the charming castle walkthrough, and the exquisite Storybookland canal boats are all noticeably absent in Florida. A shame, as the Magic Kingdom’s larger scope and potential for grand vistas would allow them to breathe.
What’s more, it’s hard to imagine that after the money and effort is spent sprucing up the area that management will take a second pass to add in some of the missing attractions, or even new attractions built along similar lines, like the long-planned Fantasia Gardens boat ride. There are so many other areas of the park – notably Tomorrowland – that are currently below spec, that it would be exceedingly unlikely to get a “phase two” to up the Fantasyland attraction roster. Remember – these new attractions are only replacing capacity that the park lost during the 1990s closures. If you think of Mermaid as a replacement for 20,000 Leagues, and the Snow White coaster as a replacement for the Snow White dark ride, we’re pretty much breaking even on that front.
But that’s not really condemning the Fantasyland remodel for what’s there, but rather for what’s lacking. A failure of ambition at the top, perhaps, but what will be built looks great; at least we’re not left with some monstrosity that will never be removed, and it does leave the door open for expansion in the future.
California Adventure is not so lucky; alongside the truly lovely aspects of its renewal, such as Buena Vista Street and the Paradise Gardens area, it’s getting Carsland – a steel and concrete monstrosity that, due to its scope, expense, and “pet project” status for grand poobah John Lasseter, will never be removed.
Ah, but you say – Carsland looks great. It’s so detailed and elaborate and expensive. And maybe, you even say, I love Cars. But here’s a really critical question: What in heaven’s name does Carsland have to do at all with California? The park is, if I recall, California Adventure. So…?
Yes, California has a car culture. Yes, people in California drive cars. And yes, a lot of them work at Pixar and obsess over their vintage autos which were paid for by the billions of dollars worth of merchandising revenue raked in by their Cars franchise (and, of course, the money they save not having to pay for cereal). But Cars did not take place in California. Radiator Springs, the town recreated in the unimaginatively named “Carsland”, was not located in California.
Why does this matter? Well, because the park is called “California Adventure” for one reason. It’s also debatable whether, in a theme park allegedly dedicated to the real people and wonders of a real state, it’s wise to use the single largest space left for expansion for an entire land based on a single film franchise, about a load of cartoon cars that live in New Mexico or something. Did they run out of California stuff to talk about? I hope so, because with all the real estate Carsland eats up you’d better hope you have it covered already in Hollywood Backlot, the Grizzly forest, and the weirdly east-coast-seeming amusement pier. Also, there’s a Little Mermaid ride in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. So, you know, California.
Carsland indicates a general creative laziness that seems to be washing through the company’s efforts. We’re well aware of CEO Bob Iger’s obsession with the idea of “franchise”, and this seems to have become a crutch for the company’s imagination; instead of creating new realms filled with new experiences, we just get retreads from movies. This is doubly troubling since instead of putting guests into environments where they can create their own adventures, as in the original Disneyland, they’re instead relegated to re-living the stories of others – just re-enacting the things they just watched on Disney Blu-ray ™. This kind of mindset would never have brought us Jungle Cruise, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or the Haunted Mansion or Tiki Room or… you get the idea. Even if it’s a multi-million dollar experience, it’s still re-heated leftovers.
It’s also worth noting that Pixar has become past master and patient zero for the irritating and limiting “franchise as land” concept. The first land I can think of that was dedicated to a single property was California Adventure’s “a bug’s land”, and since then we’ve been saddled with Carsland and two separate Toy Story Playlands – one in Paris and one in Hong Kong. Both are awful. (As an aside, I can track the specific moment I completely lost faith in Pixar impresario John Lasseter. It was in the featurette, included on the Toy Story 3 DVD, wherein he breathlessly hypes the excitement and wonder soon to appear in the then-under-development Toy Story Playland. How wonderful it would be, he promised! No, dude. It’s really, really terrible.)
Building an entire land based on a single property limits you. It limits you creatively and logistically and sets you up for a situation, decades later, when your parks start to look awkwardly and embarrassingly stale. Did you ever go to one of those second-tier amusement parks when you were a kid, and they had the Flintstones, or the Smurfs, or Snoopy walking around many, many years after their prime? And it felt kind of sad? Cars may prove to be timeless, even though I kind of doubt it, but Disney is ensuring that a huge section of their California park will be locked to that specific movie for years to come. Better hope those direct-to-video sequels hit.
Which brings us to Avatar City. When, out of nowhere, Disney announced in September 2011 that it had partnered with filmmaker James Cameron to bring an Avatar-based land to Animal Kingdom in Florida, it came as a surprise to pretty much everyone. Including, as a matter of fact, Disney’s own Imagineers, who were taken as off-guard as anyone.
A deal hammered out at the highest echelons, assumedly in response to the wild success of Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disney’s alliance with Cameron is intended to snag a “major” intellectual property to compete with the boy wizard and get some warm bodies into Animal Kingdom. Disney estimates they’ve lost as much as an entire guest day to Universal thanks to the success of Potter, and apparently they think reeling in the highest-grossing film of all time will help stem the tide.
My response is this – who do you know that is an Avatar fan? Not people who enjoyed the film, or thought it was cool, or really liked it; who do you know who is a fan? For what it’s worth, how many of you remember a single character’s name from the film? I saw it two or three times with different groups of friends and I remember “Marine dude”, “Angry old Marine dude”, and “Sigourney Weaver.”
For what it’s worth, I actually enjoyed Avatar on the IMAX screen. Sure it had a wildly generic script, paper-thin characters, and a strange lack of humor, but as spectacle it was incredibly effective. Cameron does spectacle better than anyone else, although he seems to have retreated into his technology much like George Lucas and forgotten what made his early successes great. Films like Aliens and Terminator weren’t profound, but they were fun; Aliens was chock-full of stock, stereotyped characters, but they were fun and memorable. And you remember their names: Ripley, Hicks, Newt, Bishop, Vasquez, Apone, Hudson, and…. Paul Reiser. I’m pretty sure Paul Reiser played himself in that one.
But this isn’t a movie review and to tell you the truth I don’t think Avatar’s shortcomings as a film matter in this context. People were quick to bring up the film’s narrative and character flaws when the project was announced, but those aren’t elements that really matter in the realm of theme parks. One major problem that has plagued new-era Disney attractions is a dependence on character and narrative at the expense of letting the guests have their own experience. It’s what I was speaking about with Carsland; that film had a (derivative) narrative and (annoying) characters but they were distinct and memorable, and basing a land on that relegates you to merely living those adventures over and over again. Avatar’s great strength was in worldbuilding; I’m not sure I’d be interested in watching it on a standard definition television, but on the IMAX screen it was immersive and functioned in many ways as a themed environment. The film didn’t gross nearly three billion dollars because people were eating up the snappy dialogue, and there was no breakout Han Solo character – they were going because they wanted to spend time on Pandora. And that’s what an Avatar land could provide – a chance to experience the film’s elaborate environments and lavish production design without having to wonder why Crusty Military Guy’s mecha suit has an oversized gag prop knife.
So, the Avatar project would create an intriguing environment, with an assumedly top-dollar budget, in a park that desperately needs something. And with its themes of nature and fantastic creatures, it’s at least more theme-appropriate for its park than Carsland is. So why the ambivalence? I still have yet to satisfactorily summarize the reaction I had upon this news; it’s less a verbal reaction than a very specific and indescribable face. Perhaps the closest lingual equivalent would be, “Whuh?” It’s just bewildering to me. Why this? Even though I know the underlying executive logic, I keep asking – why this?
Somewhat to my surprise, my reaction seemed to be well above the median for positivity among online Disney fans. I was just baffled and unenthused, others are downright hostile. For some reason – I have no idea why – I seem to occasionally have a reputation for being critical of Disney’s decision making. But reading the online communities after the Avatar announcement, I felt positively Pollyannish.
First there were the people that just hated Avatar, or hate Cameron. There were those who thought it an inappropriate film to be represented in a Disney park. There were those who thought it an inappropriate film to be represented in Animal Kingdom. Almost everyone seemed to like the two better-known Animal Kingdom expansion ideas – Beastly Kingdom and Mysterious Island – and many seemed none too pleased about these concepts being usurped by a licensed property from another corporation entirely.
This is perhaps a key point of contention in many peoples’ opposition to this concept – why does Disney feel they have to reach outside the company to find a suitable concept for their parks? We know Iger’s habit of buying outside intellectual property, whether it be Pixar or Marvel, but while that’s not entirely a bad thing it also shows a fundamental lack of trust from management that their own company can produce something new and worthwhile. Which, if so, what does it say about management that they cannot run the company in a way that successfully produces new and popular product?
This lack of confidence can be seen throughout the modern Disney organization, from an animation studio that can’t commit to a production schedule to theme parks that have to buy other companies’ ideas to draw visitors. The entire reason so many fans have rebelled against the franchise mania – Cars here, Toy Story there – is it illustrates an underlying insecurity at Disney that they won’t be able to get people in the gate without a movie property they can slap up there to assure people. This condemns Imagineering to a spiraling circle of mediocrity, and ensures that they are not allowed to produce something that wows or surprises us like Pirates, or Mansion, or Western River Expedition.
Perhaps this is why the EPCOT Center of 1982 is so beloved? Because it took risks, and was unafraid to be its own thing? Disney attempted to create new stories, and in doing so invented Dreamfinder and Figment – two of the most beloved theme park characters ever. Sure a lot of the tools and technologies used in EPCOT were tried-and-true, but there was a concerted effort to bring people something new.
For what it’s worth, that was also the case for a great deal of Animal Kingdom. The park’s flaws are well-documented and manifold, and the elements derived from theme parks and zoos are clear, but it did try to mix things up, and present people an experience unique in Disney’s oeuvre. And maybe that’s why Avatar seems to clash so greatly. The major themed areas of Animal Kingdom are their own unique thing, not dependent on any franchise or brand, and it feels the possibilities there are endless. If you add in an Avatar area, complete with trademark and copyright markers everywhere, it clashes with the whole. It feels out of place. And it makes that specific part of the park uniquely limited in its range of possibilities.
Of course, what actually will wind up happening is as much your guess as it is mine. No one inside the company even knew about this until September, so it isn’t as if a slew of ideas have been percolating around for ages. Many seem to doubt that there’s actually been any art or specific proposals yet; it seems as if we’re pretty much at the “Hey, let’s do something Avatar” phase. It’s hard to imagine what form this expansion could even take – Animal Kingdom already has a giant tree; does Disney plan on building a huge military contractors’ base in the middle of their peaceful “nahtazu”? Will you go from a scenic African safari to firing a chaingun at blue dragons in a splintering forest?
Again – if it happens, it’ll probably be fancy. It’ll probably be expensive. And it’ll probably look great. But like so many of the things that corporate management and the feckless Imagineering bureaucracy have cooked up in recent years, is it the right thing to do?
These aren’t mistakes that can be swept away as easily as an off-the-shelf spinner ride. And no matter how much lipstick you slather on a pig – even if it’s a billion-dollar pig – it’s still a pig. Which would still make more sense in California Adventure than Carsland.
Am I an ingrate? Maybe. But maybe Disney will learn that the Beatles were right after all – money can’t buy you love.