Won’t Someone Think of the Phoenicians?!

Or, “If We Can Dream It, Then We Can Complain About It.” I am a middle-aged man who has strong opinions about Epcot.

Now that the D23 Expo is over, we’ve all got some more info about how Disney plans to restructure Epcot, and out of all the news, the single thing that surprises me the most is how angry I’m not.

I’ll be the first person to concede that I tend to be a Disney apologist, but I’m also super-possessive of everything about the parks, and I’ll complain loudly to anyone who’ll listen when I don’t like a change. But yesterday I found out that one of my favorite places on Earth since I was a teenager is going to be effectively destroyed, and my reaction was, “Cool. Let’s see what they come up with to replace it.”

I got the D23 news not from the Disney blogs or YouTube channels like usual, but from watching the Instagram feed of theme park reporter Carlye Wisel. I think she’s great — funny, honest, opinionated, and clearly passionate about theme parks, while still able to acknowledge it’s kind of a weird, niche specialty, but insisting that that doesn’t make it any less valid — and anyone interested in theme parks should be following her and reading her articles. While I found myself disagreeing with her take on the changes, specifically the changes coming to Spaceship Earth, I had the unsettling realization that a generational shift had happened.

Wisel talks about the current version of Spaceship Earth — narrated by Judi Dench and ending with cutout versions of your future and thanking the Phoenicians for the alphabet — as if it’s the definitive one. Whereas I, a sophisticate, recognize that the One True Version of the ride is the one hosted by Jeremy Irons.

Or really, the One True Version is the version of the ride that’s in my head. Which is, like the model of Disneyland at the end of the Walt Disney Family Museum, a fantastic version that never actually existed, but is an amalgamation of decades’ worth of changes and embellishments. It’s mostly narrated by Judi Dench; has a brightly-lit version of the scene where cavemen hunted the mammoth; the classic animation of the chariot on an infinite loop leaving Rome; the black woman computer programmer from the current version; the kids speaking to each other from opposite sides of the world in realtime-translated English and Japanese on the descent; and most of all, the space shuttle and astronaut floating over the projection of Earth at the top, this time narrated by Walter Cronkite and set to a majestic soundtrack that makes me tear up every time I see it.

I absolutely sympathize with anyone who’s upset that something they love from Epcot is going to be changed or destroyed. At several times over the past 30 years, I’ve been that person. In fact, whenever I’ve visited the park over the past several years, I’ve realized that almost everything I love about Epcot is wrapped up in nostalgia. For the World of Motion, and the Dreamfinder and Figment, and the rainbow tunnel, and the Communicore, and the roller-coaster-building touchscreens, and the hydrolators, and the Tapestry of Nations parade, and visiting with my family, and my early teen years. It’s mostly about stuff that doesn’t exist anymore.

So the current incarnation of Spaceship Earth has long felt like a stopgap to me, a retrofit of a retrofit. A ride that was initially sponsored by a communications company to have a specific message, but has been retooled and repurposed so often that it now has to act as a stand-in for everything that Future World used to be.

But everything in Future World now feels like a stand-in for what it used to be. As much as I love it, the park has been long overdue for an overhaul. When we visited in February, I watched the Reflections of Earth show twice, and I cried like I was at a funeral, mourning the death not just of a fireworks show, but of the feeling of optimism and globalism that the show — and the entire park at the turn of the millennium — celebrated. If Epcot in 1982 was the manifestation of an idea, then Spaceship Earth on one end and Illuminations on the other were the last surviving vestiges of that idea.

And that is part of why the plans for the new version of Epcot are encouraging to me. Disney is finally letting the other shoe drop, after letting it hang over everyone’s head for over a decade. They’re finally acknowledging that the version of the park that existed in the early 1980s, and even the version that existed in 2000, is gone. And I like that, not just because it feels like ripping off the Band-Aid once and for all, but because if it’s successful, Epcot will be able to “mean something” once again.

Early Epcot undeniably had a voice and a message, but it’d be revisionist history to claim that the voice and the message always worked. And Disney fans are experts at revisionist history. How else do you explain how Maelstrom instantly went from being one of the parks’ most ignored if not outright reviled rides, to being one of the most beloved, the moment it was announced that it was going to be replaced by a Frozen ride?

Within five years after Epcot opened, Disney had already found itself having to chip away at the “pure” Epcot experience. It had gotten a reputation for being boring, because some people thought it went too hard on the “edutainment” angle. Some guests didn’t want to go on 30-minute-long rides when on vacation, especially not ones that had didactic messages about technology or corporate sponsorships. All of the attractions hit the same one note of a middle-of-the-road Carousel of Progress-type experience; there was little for small children to do, and there were no thrill rides. And almost everyone, not just Michael Eisner, wanted to see more of the characters.

The new proposed changes are obviously and undeniably an attempt to retrofit the entire theme park to drag a concept from 1982 into 2020, while trying to make it seem it’s been that way the whole time. But Disney’s been updating the park practically since it opened, and sometimes it’s worked. Sometimes WDI has had a very practical goal to fulfill — like maintaining a General Motors sponsorship and making a family-friendly thrill ride that’s still educational — and they pull it off so brilliantly that I can’t even be mad that it replaced my previous favorite attraction at Epcot.

But then other times, they make “Journey Into YOUR Imagination.” If Spaceship Earth is the icon of Epcot, then the Imagination pavilion is its heart. Or more accurately, the haunted painting it keeps in the attic. I purposely avoid finding out too much about the internal goings-on of Disney or the rumors around project development, preferring to let the parks just speak for themselves. But at least from my perspective as an outsider and frequent guest, it seems that throughout the history of the park, if you wanted to see the overall state of Epcot, you could just look at the state of the Imagination pavilion.

When it opened, it was a bridge between the Magic Kingdom/Disneyland and Epcot. One one side, it was the attraction most like a traditional dark ride, with a cute cartoon character, a song from the Sherman Brothers, and a queue reminiscent of “it’s a small world.” On the other side, it was part of the “voice” of Epcot, based on an abstract concept, intended to be as informative as it was entertaining, using original characters with no ties to an existing property, encompassed by a corporate sponsorship that defined the pavilion’s overall “message,” and being part of an hour-long experience instead of just the 12-minute-long ride.

And over the next decade or so, it aged like the rest of the park: eventually becoming a dark ride representation of 1982 Epcot whose original “message” had gotten diluted. Either from the loss or change of a sponsor, or updating part of the pavilion without touching the ride, or bringing in elements that were no longer unique to Epcot.

Finally, Disney essentially sacrificed Figment to the spirit of the 1990s. The company was trying to counter the popular conception that Disney was childish and dated, and they hadn’t yet learned how to spin that into a positive by calling it “classic” and “timeless.” They chose to get rid of everything that made the pavilion unique to Epcot, instead going for a cartoonishly simple-minded attempt at “corporate synergy” by tying it into the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise. And they did it all under a ridiculously constrained budget.

(Which is the one aspect of Disney I still just don’t understand at all. Every parks project in the US is hit by budget constraints that bafflingly persist no matter whether the company is doing gangbusters or is in a financial downturn. Even though they’ve seen in the Tokyo parks that putting money into the parks pays off with massive attendance. I don’t get it).

That was received so poorly that they tried to course-correct to the current version, which is a representation of the state of how Epcot’s been more or less limping along in the new millennium. It’s pretty much summed up in the new name “Journey Into Imagination With Figment.” They’re eager to try and appease fans by adding back the stuff they think fans love: the dragon mascot and a catchy song. It’s more or less well-intentioned, but it’s soulless. It’s a patch fix that tries to fix the surface problems, but ignores the core problem, which is that the pavilion no longer has a message or a voice. It’s now just a dated ride and a children’s play area.

The changes to Epcot as presented at D23 — even though they don’t mention Imagination at all, which is a little troubling — make me optimistic that they’ve finally recognized the problems from the last two refurbs. They’re not just acknowledging but embracing the history of the park (because they can sell merchandise to nostalgic fans like me, for a win-win!), so they’re unlikely to just throw everything out for the sake of a movie tie-in. But they’re not hamstrung by the history of the park or beholden to preserving it exactly, since the legacy of the park isn’t just its characters or songs, but its ideas.

So the names they’ve proposed — World Nature, World Discovery, and World Celebration to retroactively fit in with the existing World Showcase — are clunky, but people don’t use the Disney-branded themed names for things in practice, anyway. The role they serve is to pitch an idea: it’s no longer a somewhat-awkward mashup of an 80s Tomorrowland plus a permanent World’s Fair, but it’s a single cohesive whole. And what I think is the most ingenious part: they took what could’ve been a crass and soulless attempt to “Disney-fy” an obstinately high-minded theme park, and instead made it work by going back to the original acronym and presenting it as a true “Community of Tomorrow.” The sections aren’t called “lands” but “neighborhoods.” The attractions aren’t trying to educate (which people on vacation tend to resist) or to accurately predict the future (which has been proven multiple times to be futile in a theme park setting), but are meant to celebrate human achievement and shared experiences, which is traditionally one of Disney’s core strengths.

I’m also optimistic because I’ve seen this approach work before. I already mentioned Test Track — they kept almost none of the surface details of the original World of Motion, but they kept the overall theme, and significantly, its tone. The refurb had an updated sense of humor that worked perfectly (and which, unfortunately, was entirely drained out of the current version).

Disney has also gotten better at putting IP into the parks while keeping it feeling intentional and natural, instead of awkwardly shoved into otherwise original experiences. The Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout ride is absurdly fun and an improvement on the DCA version of Tower of Terror (which was itself an attempt to copy an “original” idea but do it on the cheap) in every conceivable way. And Cars land and Pandora take two licenses that I really don’t care about at all, and manage to make fun and interesting experiences out of them even for non-fans.

This article about the changes to Epcot and the other parks, written by Todd Martens in the LA Times, talks about fans’ concerns that stuff original and unique to the parks is being shoved out in favor of experiences based on other properties and copied in multiple parks throughout the world. It’s a tension that’s been going on for a while — even (especially?) I have been guilty of lamenting that original stuff like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain, is falling out of favor. But I think the most telling quote in that article is from a guest who’s worried about Figment and “The Three Caballeros,” which the article acknowledges was already a case of Disney adding an existing property to an original ride concept. I love the Grand Fiesta Tour (the name of the new version of the ride), I think it’s another improvement over the original in every way, and it’s a perfect example of how they’re able to add existing properties to the parks and make it feel seamless and natural. I’d hate to see the company abandon original concepts completely, but I also think it’s a mistake for us to be too precious about the evils of IP. It’s been part of the parks since Walt called it Sleeping Beauty Castle, Imagineering is doing a better and better job of incorporating it and making it feel natural, and it’s been a tension for so long that there are likely dozens of people working in the company now who grew up wanting to see it done right.

And finally, I’ve already seen a similar transition take place not just within a single ride, but across an entire park. Animal Kingdom started out as a too-hot half-day park, where there was little to do apart from a 30-minute long traumatic Safari ride and be endlessly harangued about the evils of poaching while you were just trying to enjoy your vacation. Now, it’s one of my favorite parks in the world. It started out with a voice, a commitment to original and unique experiences, a rejection of IP as much as possible, and an insistence on “purity” of the experience, for lack of a better word. And I don’t feel that any of its integrity was sacrificed as over the years, its voice was softened and made less strident, and it was allowed to relax.

So yeah, I think I’m cautiously optimistic about the new Epcot. I appreciate that they’re spending a year pandering to — I mean pleasing the fans who grew up with the park, re-releasing attraction posters and park icons and a “limited time” fireworks show that promises to use all the old songs. (And which means I have to book another trip to Florida within the next year). But even more than that, I appreciate that they seem to be committing to a genuine “re-imagining” of the park, forgoing quick fixes in favor of making everything fit into a cohesive theme. And I have to say it’s a relief to be once again optimistic about a place that was always supposed to be about optimism.

Just don’t mess with the mural outside Spaceship Earth, please.

The mural at the entrance to Spaceship Earth, which could totally be about the history of storytelling and not just the history of communication, so hands off.

Postcards from Batuu

Photos from an excellent birthday trip to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland

No Toy Left Hanging

Toy Story 4 is my favorite in the series, a perfect farewell to the characters and the more satisfying conclusion I didn’t know I needed.

I can’t write a “One Thing I Love About Toy Story 4” blog post, because I loved pretty much everything about it. If I were forced to pick one thing, it might be how if you stay to the very end of the credits, that one commando action figure finally gets his high five.

One thing I see consistently in reviews is that Toy Story 4 isn’t “necessary,” that the third entry was a perfect conclusion, and the additional installment is well-made but superfluous at best. I disagree. I think it actually reveals what was missing from Toy Story 3, which is something I didn’t notice at the time: that movie didn’t actually complete its main characters’ stories, but instead just left them hanging indefinitely in stasis.

I dug up my thoughts about Toy Story 3 that I wrote right after seeing it for the first time, and I still stand by most of it. (Even though part of it I have to stand by with clenched teeth and an explanation later in this post). The part where I was wrong was stating that Pixar had taken characters I’d assumed would just go on existing in perpetuity, and given them a story arc.

I interpreted the main message of Toy Story 3 as an allegory about growing up: acknowledging the things that we love from our childhood, and moving on with memories of them as important parts of our lives, instead of just abandoning them. Maybe it was the fact that I spent the last 15 minutes or so of that movie just in heaving, ugly, sobs, but I never noticed that the only character really given a conclusion to their story arc was Andy. But the Toy Story series was never really about Andy; it was always in one way or another about Woody.

The series started with a neurotic toy consumed with anxiety that he was no longer a child’s favorite. As of about nine years ago, it ended with that neurotic toy learning to let go — before immediately going right back to an unhealthily dependent relationship on another child. If it were an allegory for parenthood and empty nest syndrome, it seemed to say that the only cure for feeling sad your children are leaving for college is to have another kid ASAP.

Which might help explain why I could never find fault with Toy Story 3, but I still never felt like I loved it and never had much desire to see it again. (I honestly can’t remember if I ever saw it that second time). The ending is spectacularly, relentlessly, emotional, but I don’t think it felt cathartic. And I wonder if that could be subconsciously because it just leaves its characters locked for eternity in a nightmarish purgatory of sublimating their own desires out of fear of abandonment from a callous child who will inevitably abandon them.

I’m only exaggerating a little. The premise of the franchise is that toys are imbued with life when children play with them, but to some extent, Pixar has spent decades treating them less like characters who’ve come to life, and more like inanimate objects they can pull out of storage every few years to put together into a new sequence of emotional moments.

The “When She Loved Me” song in Toy Story 2 was the emotional core of the movie, but after getting used to reinforce Woody’s anxiety in the third movie, and then used as a plot device in Toy Story of Terror, it soon started to feel like “chronic fear of abandonment” is the only aspect of Jessie’s character. By the fourth movie, it’s become full-on PTSD, as Jessie starts to hyperventilate at the thought of being left in a closet. At the time, it seemed weirdly out of place in tone. (And for all I know, it could be the result of multiple rewrites of that scene from different creative teams). But when put in the context of the rest of the movie, it feels like an attempt to take all the more sinister ideas of the franchise and treat them as aspects of real characters instead of just gags.

I liked that Toy Story 4 took a lot of the same core components of the last two movies, and then started asking new questions about them. Do we have to see our villains humiliated and/or tortured, or can we get an even more satisfying resolution by acknowledging that our villains are motivated by the exact same anxieties as our main characters? Has Woody been turned into Pixar’s Mickey Mouse, i.e. stripped of the flaws and neuroses that made him an actual character, and turned into just a blandly wholesome protagonist for whatever random story they decide to tell next? At what point have we invested enough into these toy characters that they have stories of their own? (And also, are ventriloquist dummies “toys?” And can they talk without a person controlling them?)

One of the most memorable moments in the first movie is Woody asserting to Buzz, “You are a toy. A child’s plaything.” It’s satisfying to see the series saying now, after so many years, that it’s not as simple as that. We can define ourselves instead of letting other people tell us what we are.

Which leads into the other part of my old post about Toy Story 3, where I agree-but-with-significant-caveats:

That’s the main reason I don’t see any merit in the common complaint that Pixar movies haven’t had female lead characters — Pixar doesn’t need to be making movies to order or to fill some sort of quota; they need to keep making movies that feel honest.

It’s gross that I inadvertently used the same language that mens rights activists and other bigots often do, and especially awkward considering the issues that the studio has gone through, but I have to say I haven’t changed my mind since 2009. That’s definitely not to say I’m against more diverse representation and better roles for female characters, because that would be trivially stupid. But at the time, the arguments about representation in Toy Story 3 were frustratingly reductive and simplistic. Reviews at the time were reducing it to a zero-sum situation, in which it was impossible to call for more women’s voices without faulting Toy Story 3 for not being given a female protagonist. Instead of actually calling for diversity, they were holding one movie as somehow responsible for decades of male-dominated stories. Like so many things on the internet, it was in danger of devolving into self-parody, like The Onion’s “Chinese Laundry Owner Blasted for Reinforcing Negative Ethnic Stereotypes.”

Toy Story 4 just feels more inclusive, and it does so organically, whether it was actually organic behind the scenes or not. And the character of Bo Peep is so well developed and well handled (and excellently voiced!) that it puts the question to rest more effectively than a billion different think pieces could. They took a character who existed pretty much solely for Woody to have a girlfriend, and turned her into not just a bad-ass but the emotional core of this entire film (if not the entire series)! Plus at Disneyland last weekend, I saw they were selling toy versions of Bo Peep’s staff, so everybody’s happy (apart from the chuckleheads who get overly invested in the gender of cartoon characters of toys).

More diverse casts and more diverse creative teams make for more interesting characters; it’s just that simple. And I like that Pixar chose to show instead of tell. What makes it especially satisfying is that it’s not just an obvious transformation from “hand-wavingly feminine” character to “infallible bad-ass,” either. The message, both implicit and explicit, is that you can be whatever you want to be.

And the feeling of inclusiveness goes beyond gender. I’ve loved most of the Pixar movies, but even among my favorites there’s been something “othering” about them. They’re “family movies” in the literal sense, which is that they’re pretty adamant about the importance of having a particular type of family. Underneath every one there seems to be a voice whispering from Emeryville, saying this isn’t really for you, because you don’t have children. Even when they show non-traditional families, it seems as if the universe of the story aligns to provide surrogates for all the traditional roles, so they can feel “proper” again by the time the movie concludes. I’m skeptical that it’s at all intentional, but it still feels like I’m not their target audience and never will be.

For the first time, Toy Story 4 seems to present a world in which two-heterosexual-parent, one-child families exist, and they’re not they only option available. You can be single if you want. You can choose to have a kid or not. You get to decide whether you’re trash or not. The movie doesn’t put a value judgment on anything except letting other people define what’s right for you.

It’s kind of a subtle thing, but it was just so nice to feel like I wasn’t just enjoying someone else’s movie, but I was actually being rewarded with a movie that I loved and was made big enough to include me. And it was nice to see Woody plucked out of limbo, turned into a real live character, and rewarded with an actual conclusion to a genuine story arc that leaves him in a different place than where he started.

One Thing I Love About Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run

The new Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland reminded me a lot of the source of all dark side evil on Dagobah, but in a good way.

There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda’s daring Luke to go into this dark side cave they found, and Luke asks what’s inside the cave, and Yoda says “only what you take with you.” That came to mind when I was trying to think of how to concisely sum up the new Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland: at least at this stage, you get out of it what you put into it.

I mean, not literally. Thousands of people have spent countless hours and countless dollars to build this place and make it perfect, twice. It’s not as if Disney just puts you in a black room and tells you to think about Star Wars. But more than any other Disney experience I’ve had (even including Disney Quest!), Galaxy’s Edge felt less like being passively entertained and more as if it depended on my participation.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the whole thing. Considering what an emotional attachment I have to Star Wars, and especially after watching YouTube videos of fans losing their composure at the sight of the park (which I genuinely love), I expected that I’d be having some kind of breakdown as soon as I caught sight of an A-Wing or the full-size Millennium Falcon. Once I saw it in person, though, I was too removed from it to be overwhelmed.

Part of that was because of the crowds — although Disney did a remarkable job at crowd control, we were still in a pack of at least a thousand other Star Wars fans being shuffled from one line to another. Part of it was because I’d been watching so many videos that there was little left to surprise me. And part of it was the disappointment at having made a reservation to get in the land but still being turned away from the Cantina and the light saber experience. But I also believe it was intentional in the design; it’s more interested in creating a sense of place than a sensory overload.

Galaxy’s Edge seems to be an extension of a design philosophy that’s been prevalent in Disney parks for the last couple of decades — from Animal Kingdom, to areas like the New York Waterfront in Tokyo DisneySea, to Cars Land at California Adventure. The idea focuses on making a fictional place that feels real, instead of a collection of a bunch of themed elements. One of the best examples is comparing the China pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase to the Asia section of Animal Kingdom. The former takes a bunch of architectural, cultural, and conceptual highlights from all around China and combines them into one place, to act as a kind of fantastic tour of the country. The latter goes all in on creating a fictional kingdom of Anandapur, located somewhere near Nepal or Tibet, trying to act like a highly detailed functional city that can serve as a kind of representative sample for a large section of Asia.

I’ve loved the Animal Kingdom approach for years, but it wasn’t until I saw it applied to Star Wars that I really appreciated a side effect of it: it sacrifices spectacle in favor of immersion. There are still bits of spectacle, of course: Anandapur has a beautiful camera spot set up with an altar to the Forbidden Mountain in the foreground and the mountain itself in the distance across a lake; and Galaxy’s Edge is designed so that multiple entry points all yield a gradual, cinematic reveal of the Millennium Falcon. But most of the lands are deliberately designed to look as if they haven’t been deliberately designed. You’re made to feel less like a visitor to a theme park and more like a street photographer; you’re not being explicitly shown what to look at, but pulling interesting details out of the environment.

(Which works especially well with Star Wars, since one of the most interesting aspects of Star Wars is how creatures and technology that are fantastic to the audience are seen as familiar or even ancient to the characters. The centerpiece of the land and its most obvious photo opportunity is something that multiple characters think of as “what a piece of junk.” So Batuu and the Black Spire Outpost can seem exotic to visitors but no big deal to the locals).

All of that background is relevant to Smuggler’s Run because it explains how the ride isn’t just an updated version of Star Tours. In that ride, you’re a passenger who’s riding along with someone else’s adventure. I think that never would’ve worked with Smuggler’s Run because getting into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon is all about wish fulfillment. It would’ve felt like a catastrophically missed opportunity to be in the ship and be forced to just watch passively.

And the interactivity isn’t like that of Men In Black or Buzz Lightyear or Toy Story Midway Mania, or any interactive ride I’ve seen before. In fact, it reminds me most of the Pirates of the Caribbean experience at Disney Quest. It’s cooperative instead of competitive, so your “score” is based on how well you work with the rest of the people on the ride with you. Which is the one thing I like the most about Smuggler’s Run.

A couple of friends posted an article by Robert Niles in the San Jose Mercury News giving his take on how the ride encourages cooperation. And while it was likely well-intentioned, it made me fear the worst. In particular, it made me fear getting stuck on the ride with someone like the writer, who took it upon himself to debrief his crew on how to correctly experience the ride, and whose key takeaway from the experience was how it was important to take control to guarantee the most successful outcome of the mission. Which made him sound completely insufferable.

I already dislike being forced to engage with strangers. I think that theme park designers frequently assume that guests are all going to be as extroverted as they are, so they design experiences that demand a certain level of audience participation. That’s bad enough, and when you add a layer of gameplay on top of that, it gets worse. Anybody who’s played enough cooperative board games, or gone through escape rooms, has encountered the type of person who appoints himself quarterback, telling everyone else how to “best” play the game. Niles’s article made it sound as if he were doing exactly that. It’s either spoiling the surprises of the ride for people who haven’t ridden before, or presuming to tell them that he understands the ride better than they do, and that what he wants out of it should be the same thing that they do. What’s the harm in “laughing as the whole thing comes crashing down?” That’s pretty much the entire premise of Star Tours, which has been beloved for decades. Suddenly I was anxious about getting stuck with someone who decided to tell me what to do, and my having to tell him to stay in his own lane and let me enjoy my damn vacation how I wanted to.

What actually happened, though, was the kind of “magical” interaction with strangers that is rare for those of us who are introverts. For our first ride, we were put into a group with four people who’d ridden before. I was assigned the engineer position, and I was a little disappointed because I’d already read reports that the pilot was by far the best experience on the ride, if not the only one worth doing at all. But as soon as they heard it was our first time on the ride, the other people on the ride offered to let us be the pilots, both so we could see it and so that they could try all the different positions. Once we got on board, they were cheering us on as pilots, clapping whenever the group accomplished something, gasping at stuff we hadn’t seen before, and generally making the whole ride feel like a big cooperative adventure.

We got to ride two more times that night. Each time felt as if the group energy brought as much to the ride as any of the visual effects. The second time was with a pretty quiet group of strangers (I believe they weren’t native English speakers), and I thought the experience was neat but unremarkable. The last time was with a couple of guys who’d been trying to ride with all the different roles, and we’d chatted a little bit in the waiting area while I was trying to get a picture at the chess table, and the ride felt more communal and fun.

Granted, this was during a period in which most everyone was seeing the land and the ride for the first time, and we’d all had to make reservations in advance, so it was a group of people predisposed to love everything Star Wars more than a representative sample of the public. Also, the reservation system meant that waits for the ride were rarely over 20 minutes, so we could ride multiple times and didn’t have too much investment in it. Maybe the dynamic will change once the flood gates open and people aren’t able to ride without a long wait, and then change once again after everyone has become familiar with the ride. (No doubt there will eventually be “min-maxers” who’ll be happy to coach you on how best to perform each role).

But for now at least, it’s a ride that takes one of my least favorite things — being forced to talk to strangers — and makes a magical, communal experience out of it. I hope to never be one of those people who tells people the “right” way to experience the ride, but I do know that the only “wrong” way is to expect it to be a sit-back, passive experience like Star Tours. In fact, I think the ride’s tendency to pull you away from facing forward and interact with buttons to your left and right isn’t a design flaw, but actually an element that encourages that kind of immersion. You can’t just sit back and watch. And that’s fine, because the point of the ride isn’t what’s on the screen, but what’s happening in your group.

Impressions de Disneyland

Sleeping Beauty Castle
Last week, we went to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland to celebrate my 44th birthday. It was my third trip to Disneyland this year and no, you’re the one with the problem. I’d never been to Universal in Hollywood, although I’ve been to the Orlando version a few times.

Join me for a magical journey of memories and unsolicited opinions, won’t you?

  • Universal Hollywood is surprisingly fun. “Surprising” because I’ve always been an obnoxious Disney snob and thought of the Universal parks in Orlando as pale imitations. (Except for the Spider-Man ride, which is awesome). I still think it’s fair to judge the Orlando parks on that basis, since I think they’re clearly trying to compete with Walt Disney World. But Hollywood is its own thing, built up around a deservedly famous tram tour and functioning studio, and committed to making its own type of attraction.
  • The studio tour was the best part. I’ve been seeing ads for the tram tour for as long as I can remember — the queue area cleverly shows scenes from ads, promos, and movies that have featured the tour, establishing it as something “historic” in itself — and it didn’t disappoint. The fact that it’s a random assortment of highlights over the past few decades was a feature, not a bug, because it added to its charm. I’d just wanted to see the Bates Motel and Psycho house, so everything else was a bonus. The best aspect of it was that they got the “charmingly cheesy” tone exactly right: they don’t take anything too seriously or oversell it as a fantastic spectacle, but they don’t let it devolve into the Jungle Cruise, either.
  • The Kong 3D section of the tour was amazing. Easily my favorite part of the entire park, and, like the Spider-Man ride in Orlando, one of my favorite attractions at any theme park. The synchronization of the effects and the motion simulator was perfect, and more important than that: the show itself was designed to immerse the guests (and the tram) into the experience completely, with real pacing and an actual climax instead of just a sequence of effects.
  • The Rock gets it. This year’s highlight (and honestly, the main reason we went) was the Fast and the Furious “ride,” which turns out to be not so much a ride as the finale of the tram tour. It was fine, and fun, and appropriately campy, but it seemed a little too enamored of its “story” and effects and special guest stars to really work. The beginning was way too talky to setup what was just “batshit crazy race through LA;” they would’ve been better off going the “King Kong fights monsters, the end” approach. Plus Dwayne Johnson was the only person who seemed to realize it was supposed to be goofy and fun instead of wry and extreme; he was clearly having a blast with it.
  • Universal is still lousy at crowd control. We were warned to get to the park obscenely early because of the Fast & Furious crowds. Being the third group of people waiting in line before the park opened seemed like a waste… until we tried to leave later, and were hit with an unstoppable wave of people just showing up and headed for the studio tour. Going early not only meant we got to avoid the crowds, but we rode everything we wanted to and were done before noon. It gave room for the Despicable Me and Simpsons rides to be charming and fun without having to be Big Event showstoppers. And there’s no way in hell I’m going near the Harry Potter land when it opens in Hollywood. Even in Florida, where they have plenty of space, it still feels overcrowded and claustrophobic; in Hollywood it’s going to be bonkers.
  • Universal should make an effort to take bigger guests into account. It was a lot more jarring and infuriating in Orlando, after being immersed in Disney’s obsession with making rides accessible to absolutely everyone possible, to be confronted with an attraction that took millions of dollars to create but won’t let you ride if you’re too big. But even after going into the Hollywood expecting it, it was still a drag to be jammed into small seats with uncomfortably tight restraining bars. We didn’t even ride the Mummy coaster because the test seats ended up being too tight to be worth it.
  • Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary is more about the shows than the rides. The Matterhorn and Haunted Mansion got some new effects, and the newly-refurbished Peter Pan ride was doing a soft open for annual passholders (that we skipped because the lines were too long). But the highlights are the new World of Color show at DCA, and the fireworks and “Paint the Night” parade at Disneyland.
  • The Hatbox Ghost is excellently done. Granted, it’s something that’s aimed exclusively at Disney nerds, so it’s barely enough to be a draw on its own. But it fits so perfectly that it seems like it’s been there since the ride opened. And it actually kind of hurts the scene with the bride in the attic, which is something I never had any problem with before. But seeing a modern effect done in the art style of the original mansion makes it jarring to see the real photographs and live action video of the previous scene.
  • The fireworks aren’t what I expected, but are still cool. The 50th anniversary fireworks show is still the best fireworks show that Disney’s ever done (even better than Illuminations at Epcot). I’d been hoping that they’d do the same thing for the 60th, focusing on the parks and attractions themselves instead of being a treacly pastiche of songs from the movies. They kept it a collection of songs, but downplayed the usual dreams & wishes of magic and imagination and chose some songs that haven’t yet been overplayed to death, and also “Let it Go.” The architectural projection down Main Street is fantastic; chimney sweeps dance on the roofs in “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins, and the buildings wobble and shrink during “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh. The effects are so well done that they threaten to overpower the fireworks themselves — which is really only a problem if you’re only seeing it once instead of over and over again.
  • “Let it Go” has crossed the line to unsettling. As tired as I am of seeing Frozen stuff — the movie was completely charming, but Disney’s over-marketed it past the point of annoyance — including it in a show at the theme park was simultaneously cool and creepy. Being surrounded by dozens of little girls (and young women) (and older women) (and guys too) all singing in unison makes you realize that Disney could totally start a cult army if they wanted.
  • “Paint the Night” is the best nighttime parade they’ve done since the first. You’ve got to feel a little sympathetic to Disney, since they want to keep making new stuff, but the Main Street Electrical Parade (or “The Electric Light Parade” to those of us from the east coast) was so incredible that everybody just wants to keep seeing that. Previous attempts to come up with a replacement have been disappointing at best, but the new show is the first one that didn’t have me missing the old one. The floats and costumes all seem to be shooting for something between SpectroMagic and the Electrical Parade, and they all hit the sweet spot of weird enough to be imaginative but not so weird that they’re creepy. And having the characters ride around on modified versions of the old ladybug cars was a great callback.
  • I’d buy a copy of the “Paint the Night” song. I’m not a fan of the vapid One Direction-ification of Disney music, but if that’s a mandate now, they did as good a job as they possibly can. What impressed me the most is that it’s got enough “Baroque Hoedown” in it to satisfy old farts like myself, but not so much that it just feels like a rehash. And it’s catchy as hell. Asking “When can we do it again?” over and over seems like a slightly less subtle version of the Mount Splashmore song.
    BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Dave Cobb informs me that the song is already available on the Wreck-it Ralph soundtrack as “When Can I See You Again?” by Owl City. I don’t remember it from the movie (or any of the music from the movie, actually), and I’d assumed it was written specifically for the parade. I’d still like to get a version that’s used in the parade, mixed in with a lot of Baroque Hoedown and other songs.
  • World of Color is what I’d expected the anniversary fireworks to be. It’s more of a history of Disney and Disneyland, and it’s really well done. It does veer a little too far into preaching to the choir and comes off as a marketing push reminding us all how great Disney is. But for people like me who are more fans of the parks than of the studio, it has a section devoted to celebrating the classic attractions, with some new 3D animations projected onto Mickey’s Horror Wheel.
  • If Disney pays 4 billion dollars for something, they’re going to get their money’s worth. The section of the World of Color devoted to Star Tours starts out innocently enough, with the familiar chime and some audio from the ride. Then it inexplicably goes nuts and turns into a full-on ad for the new movie, with TIE Fighters swooping in and BB-8 rolling all over the place and the Millennium Falcon flying across the fountains and lasers and for some reason, a giant fireball. It was completely gratuitous and I loved every single second of it. At the theater in Downtown Disney, they had a teaser poster for The Force Awakens and I felt my heart rate increase along with a sinking feeling in my stomach that oh crap I’m a fan of Star Wars again.
  • It wasn’t that crowded, surprisingly. I’d been planning to wait until after the summer to go to Disneyland again, since I expected the turnout for the 60th Anniversary to be so huge that it’d completely ruin the fun. But seeing all the pictures and videos coming in from the park were just too much for me to wait. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that bad — in line with a busy day at Disneyland, but not obscenely crowded. There was a lot of stuff we didn’t bother riding, since we’d been so recently, but nothing that felt like I was missing out. Still, I wish they’d get moving on the third park that’s been rumored for decades: if the parks are so busy even on weekdays that they’re considering charging extra for peak times, that’s a clear sign that they’re at capacity and it’d be a good investment to expand. (Note to Disney executive staff: I’m available any time to tell you how to run your business. Glad to help).

Inside Out

Inside Out reminds us that we can’t be happy all of the time, an idea that angered, disgusted and frightened me.

insideoutmomshq
It’s taken the better part of 24 hours and three drafts of a blog post, but I finally have to begrudgingly concede that I liked Inside Out.

That’s not a review of the movie, since this isn’t a review. It’s just an unfocused — and completely personal — attempt to sort through the aftermath of the movie.

(And it doesn’t make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so it’s probably best to avoid this if you haven’t seen it).

If I were writing a movie review, I’d just cut-and-paste the review by Dana Stevens on Slate, because I agree with it completely, from the non-hyperbolic “astonishing” all the way to that killer of a closing sentence:

As Inside Out is aware to a degree that’s rare in kids’ movies, growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.

The only part I’d take issue with is the suggestion that it’s a “kids’ movie,” even if it’s just used for contrast. Maybe that’d help put a little emotional distance between me and a movie, but lumping it in with “kids’ movies,” even in passing, just seems oblivious to what Pixar’s been doing for decades. They’ve built a well-deserved reputation by insisting on making deeply personal movies that try to focus on themes that are completely universal.

And Inside Out takes that one “irreversible tragedy” that is completely universal and submerges us in an extended metaphor that forces us to confront it head-on. Like the reconditioning scene in A Clockwork Orange, but instead of violence, it’s the loss of childhood.

The Toy Story 3 Scale

When early reviews of the movie started to pop up, I made an only half-joking request that reviewers include an indication of how likely it would reduce us to heaving sobs. Crying in a Pixar movie is all but inevitable — I found myself tearing up at the storyboards for Brave — but I wanted to avoid something like Up‘s completely unfair sucker punch. I suggested a scale from Finding Nemo (bittersweet sniffling) to the finale of Toy Story 3 (complete emotional breakdown).

As it turns out, Inside Out affected me like the end of Toy Story 3, stretched out to feature length. It was too potent. It just left me feeling drained, exhausted, and pretty miserable for the next day.

It didn’t even feel like a cathartic “let it all out” venting, because there wasn’t a devastating but optimistic thanks for the adventure, or even the implied promise of new adventures with a new child and ongoing specials on ABC Family. It’s not that I think Inside Out was poorly structured or manipulative, but just the opposite. The “problem” is that I think it insists on being honest. The actual tear-jerking moments felt earned because they were an inevitable and integral part of the story. Which means that an uplifting “here’s how everything turned out great forever” would’ve felt artificial, too.

So instead, I interpreted it as a celebration of sadness as necessary and inevitable. Which may be true, and surprisingly mature, and exactly what I’ve been asking for as an alternative to what usually tries to substitute for a profound statement in “family movies.” But instead of a promise of adventure, the promise is… life as a relatively well-adjusted adult. I’ve seen how that turns out, more or less, and it’s not that great. There’s even the gag about the looming specter of puberty and the repeated question of “what could go wrong?” that seem — if not dark, exactly, then a little sardonic and defeatist.

“You’re going to be sad. A lot. It’s part of growing up.” It’s entirely possible that it’s just because my own headquarters functions better when Anger and Sadness are kept in check by the happy sprite of Wellbutrin, but I left the movie wishing it had been a more explicit, obvious, and artificial celebration of the grand triumph than an acknowledgement of the irreversible tragedy. That it’d let me keep on enjoying my already ridiculously overextended arrested development, instead of reminding me that “Growing up means that joy and optimism need to learn their place.”

Don’t Spoil Titanic For Me

Instead, they introduced (among other things) the character of Bing Bong, and as soon as it was clear that he was Riley’s imaginary friend, we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Because I’m sitting in the audience, realizing that it’s not just nostalgia for toys that I’ve put away or happy memories from childhood, but I can’t even remember the name of my imaginary friend. It played out less like an abstraction of a growing child’s mind and more like a primary colored version of Final Destination.

There’s more subtle foreshadowing throughout. When we first get a glimpse into the headquarters of Riley’s mom and dad, it’s played for gags but has an undercurrent I felt like a slow-motion punch to the gut as all the implications sunk in. Dad’s mind is run like a submarine in war, dominated by Anger keeping a tight check on any outbursts of emotion. And while the movie is still in the process of answering the question “what is the purpose of having Sadness?” we see inside Mom’s head, where the emotions are sitting around like the hosts of The View, pining over a long-lost potential romantic adventure, and we have to notice that Sadness is clearly in charge of the show.

“Here’s what you have to look forward to, kids! Now let’s get back to the action and find out what could possibly be in store for this little girl’s brightly colored imaginary friend!”

As it turns out, there’s a good bit more to it than that. Using colorful abstractions to tell the story doesn’t just make it universal beyond the experiences of one little girl, but it also allows the movie to make some pretty profound observations without stating them explicitly. So I’m going to do exactly what I’ve resolved not to do, which is to be reductive about the “message” of the movie. Simply because it took me a while to parse through everything I think it says and think it implies.

I also just want to call out some of the decisions that make Inside Out astonishing, since the movie doesn’t draw that much attention to them.

Cartoon Modern


On the technical side, Pixar has progressed to the point where I’m too much of a layman to even identify what’s remarkable. It seems like every feature has required at least one big technical breakthrough, but usually they exploit the hell out of it — if not showing off, then at least making sure they got their money’s worth. So if they’re going to set a movie underwater, you’re going to get a lot of sequences that just show how beautiful the ocean is. Or if they’re going to simulate every hair on Sully’s body, you’re going to see it in close-up. I wouldn’t have noticed the natural lighting effects developed for Monsters University if they hadn’t been pointed out to me, but it makes perfect sense for a story that’s set over the course of a year.

With Inside Out, I initially had a minor mental criticism that Pixar’s gone all-in on its House Style for human characters — they’re fine, but ultimately inoffensive at best, too cartoonish to be realistic but not cartoonish enough to be interesting. I quickly realized that that criticism is missing the point when the “stars” of a movie are toys, fish, bugs, robots, and emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions need to be expressive (obviously), but the humans need to be universal enough that every human in the audience can project herself onto them.

And with the emotions, the character design goes all-in on modernism. That’s possibly not the “correct” term, but it’s referring to the style from the 50s that was more graphic and abstract. So you get the character of Fear, who should only be able to work in two dimensions, and yet he coexists with the others with no obvious cheats. And then we get a sequence that drives the idea home, where the characters are rendered in more and more abstract forms until they’re reduced to a single line.

It’s even more apparent with Joy, who looks like someone took a piece of concept art done in pastels or crayons and said, “We want this, exactly, to be the main character in a feature-length piece of 3D animation.” I can remember only a couple of scenes where the camera’s allowed to linger on them up close, to show off the effect. But much like the animated paintings in Ratatouille, it takes what is steadfastly a static, two-dimensional art style and gives it depth and movement. It insists that the rough speckles aren’t just an artifact of Joy’s concept art, but an integral part of the character.

It seems like a confident decision that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of convenience. The movie’s full of confident decisions that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of “accessibility.” Most obviously, it’s a movie driven by female characters. It’s worth pointing out, even though it’s a shame that it’s worth pointing out, and even though it goes so far into the realm of universally accessible story that it makes the entire question seem irrelevant. Maybe its success will finally put the stupid “debate” — which is itself a modern invention, as a simple scan of centuries of female protagonists would illustrate — to rest.

What interests me a lot more is that there’s no villain. It’s especially astonishing considering that both Up and Frozen were brilliant movies that also took on more subtle and sophisticated themes than usual, and yet each one still suffered from a third act that required a Disney Villain to pop up and cause conflict. Again, maybe it’s optimistic, but I’d hope that the success of Inside Out will finally convince people that you can have a story based entirely on emotional conflict and it’s still completely accessible.

Sunny-Side Up, or, Happy Together

Which gets back to the last confident decision I’ll mention, which is the one that took me a while to get. Because it’s a question that’s asked at the beginning of the movie but isn’t explicitly answered. (At least explicitly enough that I picked up on it).

I read a review of Inside Out that made the minor complaint that the beginning of the movie, where Joy introduces herself and the other characters, was regretfully necessary exposition in an otherwise subtly-told story. But I don’t think it was just exposition. I think it was setting up the central conflict that Joy (and the audience) would spend the rest of the movie — and in my case, the weekend after — trying to figure out.

When Fear, Disgust, and Anger are introduced, we get an illustration of what they do and why they’re there to protect Riley in one way or another. In fact, that assertion that they’re not just manifestations of personality, but deeply invested in making sure she’s okay, is one of the subtle ways that Inside Out makes the complaint “this idea’s been done before!” seem laughably irrelevant. Tasha Robinson’s review on The Dissolve lists more examples of films and TV series that started from the same concept, but in comparison, they feel like gags riffing on a premise instead of a genuine attempt to explore all the deeper implications of a premise.

But instead of just an introduction to the “rules” of how all this stuff works, it asks the movie’s important question: why is Sadness there? For as much as I talk about Pixar being universal instead of just for kids, and how it tackles some mature and sophisticated themes, it could seem like “Why do we feel sad?” is an insipidly childish question. But it’s clearly one we struggle with as adults. Anyone who’s tried to figure out what’s “normal” vs what’s a breakdown in brain chemistry has had to ask it. Anyone who’s been frustrated to be told “stop trying to fix things, I just want to feel sad,” has had to ask it. If you use Facebook, you likely see people struggling with it every day, with self-actualization aphorisms like “Today I Choose Happiness.” How is sadness productive? What practical purpose does it serve?

On the surface, Inside Out seems to suggest an acceptance more than an answer. “Being grown-up is complex, yo.” The age of “pure” emotions doesn’t last long, and our memories are really tinged with a bunch of different emotions. Sadness is just there, and being an adult means learning how to deal with it. At best, it seemed to say, sadness made the joyful memories stronger. The explicit “moral” seemed to be that you can’t suppress it and contain it. You can’t expect to be happy all the time.

That was the part that hit hard with me, because it seemed to be reaching directly into my subconscious and calling me out. Cripes! They’re onto me! They know that I feel like I’m constantly trying to stay content and optimistic and put a positive spin on things when I’d rather just lie on a couch and moan.

And just like the jackasses who call me a “grouch” or “curmudgeon,” or tell me to “smile more” (as if I were a woman in corporate management or running for office!), they’re calling me a charlatan! They’re saying I’m doing a lousy job of it, and they can see right through me.

And if that weren’t bad enough, they’re saying it’s a futile effort in the first place! I just came here to see some bullshit about believing in my dreams; I didn’t come to see a Disney/Pixar movie whose uplifting message was “You are fated to a life of sadness so Deal With It.”

(Ever since I heard multiple men say that The Little Mermaid was exactly what they needed to deal with coming out in the 90s, I’ve made it a point not to under-interpret family movies or resist taking them too personally).

But then: movie studios don’t stay profitable with an audience of one. And if I were the only person feeling like that, then they wouldn’t have made a movie about it. Maybe the message is that everybody feels the same way, that they’re struggling to stay happy and keep sadness tightly controlled and prevented from leaking out. And it’s not necessarily that I’m doing a bad job of it, but that people can recognize it because they do it themselves.

Which brings back to mind the scene where Sadness helps the imaginary friend* get back on his feet by being able to relate to him, while Joy doesn’t know what to do. [*It’s hard to insist that these are adult, sophisticated concepts that it’s perfectly normal for a 44-year-old not to grasp immediately while talking about Sadness and Bing Bong]. Or the scene where Joy figures it all out, where the revelation isn’t simply that happy memories have an element of sadness to them, but that sadness has a purpose, too. It was sadness that brought the family together and turned the memory into a happy one.

Or the finale, which isn’t the scene showing Riley at hockey practice with all her personality islands back in place. It’s the one just before that, where Angry Dad and Sad Mom tell Riley that they’re sad too. Maybe I would’ve picked up on it faster if they’d included a sequence in which Sadness begins sparkling and magically transforms into Empathy.

But of course they didn’t, and of course the movie is a billion times better for not making it completely explicit. And the peek inside Mom’s mind magically transforms from quietly defeatist foreshadowing of a life dominated by sadness, to one where they’re all cooperating and sharing a happy memory together.

Showtime, Synergy!

Disney Infinity 2.0 shows how charm (and a ludicrous amount of development and marketing money) always win in the end.


I totally bought into the first iteration of Disney Infinity, both financially and philosophically. The toys themselves are well made, and even more significant than that, well designed. They had to create an art direction that would be suitable for a century’s worth of disparate characters — not to mention an indefinitely expanding group of characters as Disney grows to encompass the entirety of human creative output — across multiple media including 2D animation, 3D animation, CG-created characters, and live action actors; and make it look internally consistent.

And on top of that, they had to make the designs suitable for real-world sculpts and reasonable-poly 3D models for games on every platform including tablets. When you see how easily Violet Parr’s head comes loose from her body, since all of her limbs are ridiculously narrow; or how Phineas from Phineas and Ferb was clearly only ever intended to be seen in profile; it makes it clear how daunting a task that must’ve been. And how the complexity of the design doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Plus, the game itself emphasized a “philosophy” that superseded its existence as a platform for selling movie tie-in toys. Infinity is most obviously Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the business model established by Skylanders. But if you play for a while, it becomes clear that it owes just as much to the Lego video games by TT Games. (No relation to Telltale Games). The most cynical take on the Lego franchise is that they’re capitalizing on whatever license that Lego and Warner Bros are able to acquire, with a competent-but-not-groundbreaking platform game. But the cynical take completely misses the appeal of those games: they’re most memorable not for their licenses but for their sense of humor and their charm.

Disney Infinity took the opening scene from Toy Story 3 and turned it into an enormous, all-encompassing platform. Each of the playsets has its own emphasis — racing for Cars, ship battles for Pirates of the Caribbean, pranks for Monsters University — which is impressive, considering how the game mechanics had to be as simple as general-purpose as possible out of necessity. But throughout the story-based playsets and the open-ended Toybox mode, the one constant is that these are unapologetically toys. You’ve grabbed a bunch of figures from your toy box and slammed them together on the living room floor for your own epic story.

There are plenty of products that promise to be about play and creativity — and, especially where Disney is concerned, imagination — but Infinity is one of the few that feels completely sincere.

These Toys Are for My Nephew in Canada

Still, I quickly hit a wall in how much I could enjoy it. The problem wasn’t, surprisingly, having to rationalize being a 42-year-old man and still buying action figures. At some point along the way, I crossed a significant milestone of not caring too much what people think or worrying too much whether something I like is age-appropriate. The problem was that it became impossible to disguise the fact that the game just wasn’t made for me.

The playsets are engaging enough, but they’re always going to be limited. The engine has to favor breadth over depth, so it can’t go too far in tailoring the gameplay around any one specific license. Instead, you get characters that all have a primary attack, a secondary attack, and can ride things. It’s genuinely impressive that they got as much variety out of it as they did, but the games are inevitably going to end up being simple and repetitive, and the characters are all inevitably going to feel mostly the same.

And the infinite expandability of the Toybox mode is clearly intended for someone much younger with more free time and patience than I have. If there’s a single image that sold me on Disney Infinity, it was Stitch driving an Autopia car on a racetrack past Spaceship Earth and the Haunted Mansion. And you can absolutely do that in the Toybox mode. But then what? A pre-teen — or even 20-year-old — might have a million different things in mind. I just want to sit back and watch TV or level up in an MMO.

So I ended up putting the toys in a plastic bin and leaving them under the entertainment center. Where, presumably, Jesse would lead the group in a mournful Sarah MacLachlan song about how no one ever plays with them anymore.

Version 2.0

But Disney continued its relentless assault on my wallet by releasing version 2.0 of the game, coming out swinging with a Marvel Super Heroes set and at least a dozen associated characters. Even if it weren’t inevitable that I’d keep getting Infinity stuff for as long as they put it out, they started with sets based on Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that I absolutely loved. (Along with hundreds of millions of other right-thinking people).

The game engine feels like a modest iteration on the last version instead of an entirely new version of the game. There are more bloom effects, and it now allows for interior environments, but there’s also a surprising amount of stuttering and generally poor performance on the Xbox One.

In terms of content, the playsets (at least based on what I’ve seen so far) seems to be aimed for a slightly older audience. (As you’d expect with a Marvel Super Heroes theme). There’s less platforming and more combat, and leveling up a character brings an RPG-like skill tree where you can spend points on different abilities.

One tremendous improvement is that they eliminated the random chance element from “buying” toys for the Toybox mode of the game. Now you unlock them from a tree similar to the skill trees. That means there’s still some since of accomplishment and progression as you unlock more and more stuff, but it’s not frustratingly random. And even better, everything that was unlockable in version 1.0 of the game comes already unlocked in 2.0.

I haven’t actually played with the Toybox mode yet, but it certainly looks like they’ve made plenty of improvements. The possibility of interiors, combined with more stuff to track player progress, and ways to generate text, means it’d be possible to create mini-adventure games. Again, 16-year-old me would be ecstatic at the prospect; 43-year-old asks “who has that kind of time?”

There’s something a little self-defeating about the Toybox mode, though, and it’s the game’s granularity. There’s plenty of stuff that seems as if it were made specifically for me — for just one example, if you have a character drive the Autopia car, it plays the audio from the original Disneyland incarnation of the ride. Like I said, I can plop down a Spaceship Earth or Haunted Mansion and realize that this is as close as I’m probably ever going to get to a real Walt Disney World Tycoon game.

But once you plop down the pieces, they’re mostly inert. I’m skeptical it’ll ever really match the appeal of something like Minecraft, because it emphasizes fidelity over granularity. Nothing in Minecraft ever looks quite like what it’s supposed to, because it’s made out of blocks. But that’s not the point or the appeal; the appeal is being able to build anything you want. All that said: if Infinity ever gave me a complete set of parts to make my own version of the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d be all over that. Make a “Dark Ride Playset,” please.

When I first popped in the game, and it took me directly to a menu, I was a little disappointed that they’d omitted the charming (if over-long) introduction that came with the first version of the game. It taught you the basic game mechanics while running around chasing a spark through all kinds of different Disney environments, with a voice-over talking about creativity and imagination. And by the end of it, you believed that they were absolutely sincere about creativity and imagination.

As it turns out, there’s a similar semi-interactive introduction in 2.0, but it’s at the bottom of a text menu in the Marvel Super-Heroes edition. Which is fair enough, since there’s a good chance the kids who buy the game to play as Iron Man and the Hulk will have a little patience for running through a semi-interactive movie as Aladdin, Tinkerbell, and Merida. But the whole thing is still charming. It ends up feeling something like a playable version of Mickey’s Philharmagic at the Magic Kingdom, which in my opinion is still one of the best things Disney’s ever made.

Make Theirs Marvel

I was always a fan of DC Comics growing up, so Marvel characters just don’t have the same type of appeal for me. Several of them I just don’t recognize — why is Spider-Man sold with a character called “Nova?” Who’s the woman in the white catsuit? Why are Captain Marvel and The Wasp so prominently featured in the Avengers set? What’s the deal with the “Iron Fist” apart from looking cool? Why do the Guardians of the Galaxy get all their missions from a dog in a spacesuit with a Russian accent? (Actually, the story behind that is super-cool, if you weren’t already familiar with the comics. He just made a brief non-speaking cameo in the movie).

But even though I can tell there’s a level of fandom and love for the characters that’s simply lost on me, it’s absolutely clear that it wasn’t lost on the people making the game. Whether it’s true or not, the game certainly feels as if it’s made by people who love these characters, grew up reading the comics, and have wanted for decades to make a video game featuring the Avengers and Spider-Man.

It’s clear a lot of effort was put into making the characters feel right. A game with super-heroes means flying, so the game tries to convey the feeling of speed and scale that goes along with it. And I’d say they nailed it: when you hover as Iron Man, then press the left trigger to shoot off with a sudden burst of speed, it’s tremendously satisfying. When Thor swings his hammer in a circle before flinging it at an enemy, it’s satisfying. When Captain America flings his shield and it clangs against an enemy before circling back into his hands, it’s satisfying.

Best of all, by far, is Spider-Man. I’ve never had any real investment in the character, never read the comics, only watched the cartoon series because nothing else was on. So I’d planned to skip the Spider-Man playset, until curiosity overtook me. And swinging around Disney Infinity‘s smaller version of Manhattan is crazy fun. He picks up speed until he’s covering entire city blocks in seconds, spinning around the tops of skyscrapers to land on a corner, clinging to walls before flinging himself off and catching himself with a web at just the right moment — it’s straight-up delightful. The only other game that I’ve played that comes even close to getting it right is Neversoft’s Spider-Man game from 2000, and this feels bigger.

There’s such an enthusiasm for the characters and what makes them cool, that it overwhelms any reservations you might have about this being a revenue-generating machine. It just feels as if the developers are getting to make the super-hero games they’ve wanted to make.

Shadows of the Empire

Back when Disney bought Lucasfilm, I insisted on putting a positive spin on it. (In retrospect, I was doing that as several people I knew were losing their jobs or seeing their projects get canceled, so my timing could’ve been better). I’d said it would be ultimately better for all of us to open up the properties to more development teams. Instead of seeing developers cranking out one title after another, to the point where Star Wars becomes just another license to them, you could see different groups of fans give their take on the license, because they loved it.

I feel like the Marvel stuff in Disney Infinity is the first evidence of that. One of the reasons Marvel’s had so much success with their movies is that they’ve opened up their properties to creators to give their own take. So even if they’re not lifelong fans, they still have something different to bring to the property: Sam Raimi on Spider-Man, Jon Favreau on Iron Man, Joe Johnston on Captain America, Kenneth Brannagh on Thor, and Joss Whedon on The Avengers. So even if I don’t have any particular attachment to the characters, the filmmaker’s own excitement is infectious.(Even for Thor, which works well as bombastic semi-Shakesperean semi-sci-fi opera).

Hollywood’s been so overwhelmed with re-interprations and “re-imaginings” for so long, that it’s easy to forget that they don’t all have to be soulless, creatively bankrupt cash grabs. That’s the central assumption of this essay in The Atlantic which dismisses the new Star Wars movies as just a crass attempt to capitalize on nostalgia. But not only is that needlessly, pre-emptively cynical, it ignores all the evidence to the contrary. JJ Abrams made an unabashed love letter to Steven Spielberg with Super 8, but we’re still supposed to believe that he’s not genuinely excited to be working on Star Wars? Or that the teaser videos from the sets, showing off life-sized spaceships and practical effects, is nothing more than viral marketing?

I’ve long had the opinion that licenses and sequels and adaptations and remakes were inherently inferior to “original IP,” even as I’ve spent my entire career working on licenses and sequels. But I’m gradually starting to think that that’s simple-minded. It misses a crucial component that’s unique to working on a license — the energy and love that goes into unabashed fandom.

Which is a good thing, because it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Disney Infinity 2.0 comes with a poster that shows all the figures and “power discs” that are going to be available, and it’s an overwhelming reminder of just how much stuff Disney owns now. These go from the Infinity Gauntlet to Doctor Strange to The Muppet Show to Gravity Falls, “it’s a small world,” Darkwing Duck, The Rescuers, and Gus, the field-goal kicking mule.

I pretty much gave up on the “power discs” with the last version, since it really does feel more like a shameless money-grab than anything else. But I see now that they have one for Mr. Toad’s car, and a Main Street Electrical Parade float. So those bastards know they have me at their mercy.

And if it’s an overwhelmingly compelling force for consumerism now, it’s only going to get worse. If I can get hooked on Marvel characters I don’t even care about, the inevitable Star Wars expansion is going to be devastating.

The Curious Case of Tow Mater

Pixar sequels and another installment of “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Multinational Entertainment Conglomerate”

Empire Strikes Back ending shot
Everybody knows that sequels are always worse than the originals.

Except, of course, in the multitude of cases where they’re better (in order of universally regarded as superior, to this one writer’s opinion, which also happens to be objective fact): The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, X2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2, Aliens, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, Monsters University.

The reason I’m mentioning all of those (two of them Pixar sequels) is because of the announcement of upcoming sequels to The Incredibles and the Cars series. From what I saw, there was a wave of excitement — Incredibles 2 — followed by a backlash of Emperor’s new clothes — Cars 3. I saw several people say roughly the same thing: Why is everyone celebrating more creatively bankrupt cash grabs? If Pixar had remained semi-independent and hadn’t been bought by Disney, they’d still be focusing on original titles instead of churning out franchises.

I’ve been guilty of the mindset that “of course original content is always better, and there’s always an element of creative bankruptcy when sequels or licensed properties are involved.” But now I believe that that’s superficial. Having an adamant “no sequels” policy is at best being overly precious about The Muse, at worst extremely arrogant. Not to mention ignoring the fact that actual geniuses are capable of making something amazing even from a faithful adaptation.

(I should probably point out that my entire career in video games has been essentially that of a professional fan fiction writer. Sequels, spiritual sequels, or video game adaptations, all working with other people’s stuff. So I’ve put quite a bit of thought over the years into the topic of “original IP” vs. licensed content and sequels).

It’s understandable that people would be skeptical, considering that Disney spent several years making uninspired direct-to-video sequels of classic movies. And calling them “uninspired” isn’t a criticism of them in the same way it would be with a real movie, since at no point in the process were they intended to be creative works.

Of course it’s different when you’re talking about real feature releases. On that front, it seems to me that Pixar is just staying the course: sequels to Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars 2 have been announced, and so have two original projects. People are cautiously optimistic about Finding Dory, somewhat excited about The Incredibles 2, and calling Cars 3 an unsurprising cash-grab.

But look at the Cars movies. They are:

  1. The worst Pixar movies. (In my opinion. And of course, “worst Pixar movie” still means that they’re technically flawless, have striking concept work, and several clever moments, but are ultimately just “entertainment” instead of instant classics).
  2. The most profitable Pixar movies, by a wide margin.
  3. By all accounts the result (at least the first one) of a very personal, passion project by John Lasseter.

Which suggests to me, as an outsider, a less superficial and more realistic idea of how Pixar works. Any time a studio or production company is presented as a haven for tortured artists to get the resources they need to bring their artistic visions to reality, that’s probably bullshit, coming either from marketing or self-promotion or cynically idealistic fans. What’s a lot more likely is that like any creative business, you get the most success by being able to balance creativity, accessibility, and profitability.

My Singular Artistic Vision would’ve said that casting Larry the Cable Guy as a wacky sidekick in a Pixar movie was the epitome of the cynical marketing-driven cash grab. As it turned out, though, he’s a really good voice actor for animation, and he helped make a genuinely memorable character. Which shouldn’t be that surprising considering that his entire public persona is a fictional character, but still completely counter-intuitive when conventional wisdom said it should’ve been a disaster on the scale of casting Jeff Foxworthy. It still hurts me down to my soul to hear “Git R Done!” in a movie, or anywhere really, but give credit where it’s due.

I used to believe that LucasArts had the perfect can’t-fail business model: have the titles based on a ludicrously successful license which make your money and fund your original, creative titles that build your brand as an independent studio. In retrospect, though, that doesn’t make sense. Instead of being so precious about originality, why not apply creativity and imagination to titles that won’t be mediocre selling critical darlings? The balance got completely out of whack at that company, resulting in 100 variations of the Hoth battle or the Death Star trench run, but something like 1313 seemed to be the right idea. It just came too late to be realized.

Ultimately, if you’re arguing in favor of the creative process, then you have to acknowledge that creativity can come from anywhere.

It’s possible that this really is the beginning of the end for Pixar, their days of cranking out one classic film after another are over, and now that they’re wholly owned by Disney, they’re doomed to start cranking out movies like Planes. I’m extremely skeptical, after seeing not just the talent still at the studio, but seeing Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen. Anything’s possible. But if it does happen, then it won’t be just by virtue of putting out sequels.

For my part, I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2. The first is a movie I’ve always wanted to love but couldn’t. The art direction is amazing, every single environmental design is taken directly from the Book Of Stuff Chuck Likes, and the scene where drones chase Dash around the island is, without exaggeration, one of the best scenes in any movie ever made. If I can get all that without the creepy, didactic, bizarrely defensive, Objectivist message, then that’d be perfect.

Is the Mailman Watching Me?

My take on Walt Disney World’s “magic bands,” which will probably be misinterpreted as a defense of the NSA.


My friend Michael sent me a link to “You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race,” an article by John Foreman on GigaOm, and made the mistake of asking my opinion on it. I think it’s a somewhat shallow essay, frankly, but it raises some interesting topics, so in the interest of spreading my private data everywhere on the internet, I’m copy-and-pasting my response from Facebook. Overall, it seems like one of those shallow mass-market-newspaper-talks-about-technology pieces, the kind that breathlessly describes video games as “virtual worlds” in which your “avatar” has the freedom to do “anything he or she chooses.”

For starters, I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who says something like “Never will we take our children to Disney World.” (Assuming they can afford it, of course; considering that the author had just talked about vacationing in Europe and enjoying the stunningly blue waters off crumbling-economy Greece, that’s a safe assumption). Granted, I’m both childless and Disney theme park-obsessed, so my opinion will be instantly and summarily dismissed. But all the paranoia about Disney in general and princesses in particular strikes me less as conscientious parenting and more as fear-based pop-cultural Skinner-boxing. It seems a lot healthier to encourage kids to be smarter than marketing, than to assume that they’re inescapably helpless victims of it. Peaceful co-existence with the multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerate.

Which is both none of my business and a digression, except for one thing: I really do think that that mindset is what causes a lot of shallow takes on the Disney phenomenon, which are based in the assumption that people can’t see past the artificiality and enforced whimsy, so an edgier, “counter-culture” take on Disney is showing them something they haven’t seen before. It also causes the kind of paranoia about Disney that describes it as if it were an oppressive government, and not a corporation whose survival depends on mutually beneficial business transactions.

There’s no doubt that Disney wants to get more data on park guests, but that essay’s extrapolations of what they’ll actually DO with that data are implausibly silly. They’re all based on the idea that Disney would spend a ton of money to more efficiently collect a ton of data aggregated for weeks across tens of thousands of customers, and then devote all that money and effort to develop creepily specific experiences for individuals.

It’s telling that Foreman compares Disney’s magic bands to the NSA, since I think the complaints miss the point in the same way. People freak out that the government has all kinds of data on them, when the reality is that the government has all kinds of data on millions of people. The value of your anonymity isn’t that your information is private; it’s that your information is boring. All your private stuff is out there, but it’s still a burden to collate all of it into something meaningful to anyone.

This absolutely is not an attempt to excuse the NSA, by any stretch. The NSA’s breaches are a gross violation, but the violation isn’t that they’re collecting the data, so much as that they’re collecting the data against our will and without our knowledge.

Anything Disney does with the Magic Band data, at least in the next ten years or so, is going to be 1) trend-based instead of individual based, and 2) opt-in. For instance, they’ve already announced that characters can know your name and about special events like birthdays, but they’re only going to use something like that at a character meet-and-greet. For example, you’ve specifically gone to see Mickey Mouse, and he’ll be able to greet you by name and wish you a Happy Anniversary or whatever. Characters seeking you out specifically is just impractical; the park has already had enough trouble figuring out how to manage the fact that tens of thousands of people all want to get some individual time with the characters. The same goes for the bit about “modifying” a billion-dollar roller coaster based on the data they get from magic bands; it’s just as silly as assuming that you could remove floors from a skyscraper that weren’t getting frequented enough by the elevators.

It’s absolutely going to be marketing driven; anybody who says otherwise doesn’t get how Disney works. But I think it’s going to be more benign. Walt Disney World as a whole just doesn’t care about a single guest or a single family when they’ve got millions of people to worry about every day. So they can make more detailed correlations like “people who stay at the All Star resorts don’t spend time at the water parks” and adjust their advertising campaigns accordingly, or “adults 25-40 with no children spend x amount of time in Epcot.” But the most custom-tailored experience — at least, without your opting in by spending extra — is going to be something like, at most, coming back to your hotel room to find a birthday card waiting for you.

The creepier and more intrusive ideas aren’t going to happen. Not because the company’s averse to profiting from them, but because they’re too impractical to make a profit.

Wicked Cold

Frozen is ridiculously charming and makes me optimistic about a resurgence in Disney Feature Animation

Frozen annakristoff
I was surprised to see so many people saying how much they enjoyed Frozen. From what I’d seen, it looked as if it’d be basically interchangeable with Tangled, which was perfectly competent and entertaining, with fine-but-forgettable songs that technically didn’t need to be there.

And a lot of Frozen does seem familiar — similar character designs, similar characters, replace the non-talking sidekick horse with a non-talking sidekick reindeer — but it somehow manages to do it a little better. My brain kept wanting to put the movie in the “competent but nothing exceptional, don’t get too attached” category, but every time I tried, the movie would do something else to win me over.

There’s a lot of singing, and one of the main characters is voiced by Idina Menzel, who sings everything very hard. I sometimes get the impression that she knows I’m not a huge fan, so she’s trying to win me over in sheer volume. (I don’t feel particularly bad saying I’m not a fan, since there are billions of people in her target audience, like for instance my mother, who think she’s the best). And apparently Kristen Bell does all her own singing, which makes me wonder why she doesn’t sing more often in stuff.

But here’s the thing: the songs were forgettable, but they didn’t really feel like filler. They did what musical theater is supposed to do, which is advance the story with music and lyrics. I wouldn’t say that the songs were “classic” musical theater, like what Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were shooting for, but they did seem stronger. Everything in Tangled seemed to be shooting for some nebulous Disney Radio pop audience; Frozen‘s songs seemed targeted directly at fans of Wicked. (Not that I’ve actually seen more than a couple of scenes from Wicked, so take my assessment with a big old salt lick).

All of the character designs were really appealing, and if that’s what they’re sticking to as Standard Disney Animated Feature Model, I’m all for it. The environmental design was terrific, never threatening to take attention away from the characters but delivering some fantastic imagery (the Ice Castle you’d expect, the sailing vessels tumbling in cracking ice that you might not expect).

And something you just don’t expect from a Disney animated feature: the dialogue was excellent. Dialogue in these things is supposed to be serviceable, setting up the next scene or the next punchline and making sure to get the 42 required mentions of being true to your dreams. Here, the lines seemed to transition effortlessly between modern romantic comedy and Disney fairy tale, more often than not sounding like something actual human beings would say. Alan Tudyk was great as the Duke of Weasel-town; much like I completely didn’t recognize him in Wreck-It Ralph, I had no idea it was him voicing this character as opposed to someone who’d been an established voice actor for decades. Josh Gad was a wacky sidekick who, incomprehensibly, was actually genuinely funny. And I think Kristen Bell can pretty much do no wrong.

Since I knew little about the movie going in, and I wasn’t familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen story it was “inspired by,” I spent most of the movie having no idea what was going to happen. Which is another unusual thing for even live-action romantic comedies, much less Disney animated ones — you’re supposed to be following along looking for minor variations in the standard formula, not wondering how the situation’s going to play out exactly. One of the reasons I liked Brave was that it was so unapologetically weird for a formula movie; Frozen isn’t nearly as strange, but it has its moments.

In fact, my only gripes about it are that the troll characters, once they’re given an entire scene with accompany musical number, are pretty predictable “animated movie side characters.” That whole segment felt more like TV animation to me, and it seemed strangely out of place. My other complaint is that a villain is introduced towards the end, and it seemed predictable and unnecessary. There was a ton of opportunity for purely character-driven conflict; I think it would’ve been more interesting to see it play out without having someone practically come out and declare evil intentions.

But apart from that, I couldn’t help but love it. And the really imaginative Mickey Mouse short beforehand, too, which seemed like something that would play in the Disney parks, with all of the in-theater water effects. The short did what the best animated gag-heavy shorts do: take an idea and run with it, exploring all the different possibilities. I would’ve thought it was impossible to make Mickey Mouse interesting again, but with things like that and the new 2D Mickey Mouse shorts, it seems like they’re actually doing it.

And with Wreck-It Ralph and now Frozen, it seems like Disney Feature Animation is re-establishing itself as the makers of modern classics. They were in danger of getting their “brand” muddled — while shooting for Pixar, they could’ve ended up more like Dreamworks. Instead, they’ve landed at distinct other place, which feels modern, but can still trace its heritage back at least to Sleeping Beauty.

Also: stay through the credits, not just because it’s polite but because there’s a brief post-credits sequence. And look for the disclaimer message in the credits scroll, about the opinions that don’t necessarily reflect that of the Walt Disney company.