Do or do not; there is #nohomo

More spaceships and laser swords, less snogging.

Whenever Star Wars comes into contact with the internet, dumb things happen. One of the most annoyingly dumb things recently has been the insistence that the new sequel trilogy is a perfect stage for better LGBTQ representation, but Disney overlords have kept it from happening.

The kiss between two women at the end of Rise of Skywalker is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it example of tokenism, they claim, kept short so it could pander to liberals but still be easily cut for less gay-friendly foreign markets. And of course the characters of Finn and Poe were obviously well-suited to be a couple, until skittish Disney execs insisted that they each be paired off with hetero romantic interests.

As a red-blooded American white male gay nerd, I’m calling that a bunch of nonsense.

Of course I’d prefer it if a company as large as Disney would choose to stand its ground. Release the movie with its completely innocuous kiss between two women, and let the market decide. (Retaining the arbitrary and unearned kiss between the trilogy’s hero and villain is a lot more offensive, anyway). But then they’d get accused of cultural insensitivity, so I guess there’s not one easy solution. At least the Huckabee family has to see it and get angry about it, so that makes me happy to think about.

But as for making it a more significant beat in the story, my question would be: why? What do you hope to get out of it? These aren’t stories that do a great job with romance in any case; the most successful one in the entire series is still insufferably corny in places. If it’s just a question of representation — which is absolutely important — then I think showing two secondary characters kiss during a happy moment is a great way to handle it.

When I was growing up watching these movies, I would’ve been happy to see any acknowledgement that other gay people exist, and that they don’t need to be primarily defined by or driven by their sexuality. In a series that doesn’t tend to focus on the personal lives of any of its secondary characters, devoting more time to those characters’ relationship would inevitably feel shoehorned.

The one that I feel a lot more strongly about is the business about Finn and Poe. With that, I can’t be as sympathetic to the call for representation, because I think it’s actually a huge and disappointing step backwards. In modern American entertainment, it’s getting increasingly common to see representation of two men in a romantic relationship. What’s still disappointingly rare, though, is to see two men in a supportive, affectionate relationship that isn’t romantic or sexual.

I’m sure that the people pushing for a Finn & Poe romance (including Oscar Isaac himself) believe they’re pushing for open-mindedness, but I think it just reinforces the kind of toxic masculinity we’re already overwhelmed with. It sets a limit on how much two men can show they care about each other before it turns gay. They hug, they’re concerned about each other, they even share clothes — now let’s see them kiss!

Believe me, nobody wants to see Oscar Isaac kissing another dude more than I do, but I think the better and more valuable representation — which could impact more of the audience than just the people who identify as gay — is to show men being caring and supportive of each other without having to be romantically linked. If for no other reason than it reminds all the guys in the audience who don’t identify as gay or bisexual that being affectionate isn’t a threat to their sexuality or their masculinity.

Now, the obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker in particular is that they introduced Zorii Bliss as a character whose presence in the movie is at least 75% to give Poe Dameron somebody to mack on. I think they handled it well for the most part, seeing as how she’s portrayed as a bad-ass who’s able to show she cares about someone while still not being just a sexual object. And it gave the movie one of its best moments, when Poe turns on the full smolder, and she shoots him down immediately. But there’s no denying that it’s hella heteronormative.

Since that whole character relationship was already loaded down with the kind of corny, when-do-I-get-that-kiss “romance” that already exists in Star Wars, I say the “best” LGBTQ representation would have been to have Zorii Bliss open the helmet and reveal another man. (Like, say, me. I’ll do it. Just call me). It would’ve felt every bit as shoehorned in, but it would’ve at least been somewhat novel.

But let background characters stay in the background, and let Finn and Poe just be friends. It’s not progress to push for gay characters at the expense of telling men that they can’t be straight and give another guy a hug.

A New Hope, or, We Would Like to See the Baby

Ending a week of Star Wars obsession by acknowledging that everything is going to be fine.

If there is one through-line to this week’s of posts, it’d be “Man, that guy sure does like to ramble on about Star Wars, doesn’t he?” But the second idea is that Star Wars has gotten huge, even by its own standards.

There’s just more Star Wars than there ever has been before, across the movies, toys, comics, books, TV series, and now theme parks. That means that it’s gotten way too big for any narrow definition for what it is or what feels “right” in an adaptation. People bring their own nostalgia and associations to it, have different ideas of what fits in with the tone, and have different ideas of what they want from it.

On the one hand, it means that it’s ridiculous for anyone to appoint themselves gatekeepers. I’m reluctant to put too much thought into the “anti-SJW” nonsense that surrounded The Last Jedi and the like, because I suspect much of it was manufactured controversy that just handed a microphone to a bunch of embittered, miserable people that’d be better off ignored. But it’s also a good reminder for all of us to be less possessive of it.

I was listening to the ForceCenter podcast talk about their hopes for the new movie, and their discussion put the whole thing into a good perspective: the growth of the franchise, especially with the potential for Disney+ series, doesn’t “dilute” the story, but expands it.

No part of it, even the main-line movies, has to be the definitive take on Star Wars, and if we don’t like one part, there’s a dozen more takes that we might like. I’m due to see The Rise of Skywalker tonight, and I’ve been bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the (initial, at least) disappointment of The Last Jedi. But no matter what I end up thinking of it, I love The Mandalorian.

Every episode of that series has landed for me, not in spite of the simplicity of its storytelling but because of it. To me, it feels definitively, quintessentially, Star Wars, even though it’s slightly different in tone and scope from anything that’s come before. If somebody doesn’t like it, they don’t have to just wallow in their (horribly misguided) misery, but can find something else. There’s going to be at least one more TV series, and who knows how many movies.

The model of having a trilogy of mainline movies with “A Star Wars story” one-offs doesn’t seem to have worked like they wanted, so they’re not bound to that model. They’re not necessarily bound to the Marvel Cinematic Universe model, either. It seems like the only two overriding requirements are: 1) Does the Lucasfilm story group approve of it? and 2) Can Disney make money off of it?

They’ve already shown a commitment to letting creators bring their own voice to the material, which in my mind is still the key to the MCU’s success, more than any release schedule of solo movies + Avengers blockbusters. As long as it lets Jon Favreau bring his take on the material (like the MCU did with Iron Man, now that I think of it), I’m all in.

I still hope I enjoy The Rise of Skywalker, of course, but I don’t have to. For the first time in 40 years, I can go to a Star Wars movie reassured that even if I don’t like it, I can see a great TV show next week and ride a great theme park ride next month.

I’m trying to choose which cheesy reference to end on, and I decided on: Star Wars has become more powerful than I could possibly have imagined.

One Thing I Already Love About Rise of the Resistance

I have opinions about a ride I haven’t even been on yet.

To keep my Star Wars streak alive, I’m going to write about a new attraction in Galaxy’s Edge that I haven’t even been to yet. The Rise of the Resistance ride/attraction opened in Walt Disney World at the beginning of December, and it’s scheduled to open in Disneyland in mid-January 2020.

I’ve been seeing and hearing about this ride for years, getting the slow drip of information that Disney’s been releasing to keep everybody hyped for a time when their friends would arrive to find the new land fully operational. But I pledged to keep my knowledge to a high-level overview, so I’d have an idea of the overall beats but would remain unspoiled for all the details.

That pledge lasted for about 30 seconds once I learned that ride-through videos were available on YouTube. The first video made my soul ache. All I could do was lay my head on my desk and moan that I wouldn’t be able to ride it right now. At this point, I admit I might have overdone it. I caught myself at the end of a ride-through video, mouthing along with the characters’ final dialogue, like I do in the Haunted Mansion. (Silently, because I’m not a monster).

I’ve no doubt that seeing it in person will have an impact that videos can’t fully convey, but it’d still be good to keep myself from getting over-familiar. This post does have spoilers for Rise of the Resistance, so please don’t read it if you want to remain completely surprised.

From what I’ve seen, Rise of the Resistance is kind of “Imagineering’s Greatest Hits.” It looks as if they’ve taken some of the best gags, effects, storytelling techniques, and ride vehicle systems from all of their most successful attractions, then compiled them all to tell a new-sequel Star Wars story. My favorite thing I’ve seen is an example of that.

In the Tower of Terror ride — both the Walt Disney World original and the version that was in California Adventure — they do a masterful job of building anticipation for when the drop is about to happen. The original is still my favorite (and still one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done), because it has that extended sequence of moving out into darkness, then seeing the star field converge into a point that becomes opening elevator doors.

But both versions have a gag where you see a window at the end of a corridor, and then the window shatters and drops. No matter how many times you ride, it gets a gut reaction, as you’re positive that the drop is going to happen right then.

At the end of Rise of the Resistance, your vehicle moves into an escape pod, and you can see other escape pods suspended beneath the Star Destroyer. Across the way, one of the claws holding the pods opens, and you see the pod suddenly drop away from the ship and fall towards the planet. And then, you’re left hanging for a few seconds, waiting for the drop that is about to come….

I love it because it proves that Imagineering didn’t just make a great ride with Tower of Terror, but that they understood exactly why it stood out from being just another drop ride. I think Disney is prone to overstate the role of “story” in their attractions in public-facing material, but the Tower of Terror rides are proof of how much of what defines a great Disney ride comes down not to ride technology but to techniques of storytelling. Place-setting, sound effects, music, pacing, and anticipation.

Seeing all the ride technology working in conjunction in Rise of the Resistance has my super-hyped for it as a theme park ride. Seeing one of my favorite moments in Tower of Terror echoed in the new attraction has me hyped for it as a new Disney experience. I’ve heard several people call the ride “next level” or describe it as the start of a new age of Disney attractions. I’m glad to see that it wasn’t just a case of adopting a new ride system (all our rides are variations on Soarin’ Over California now!), but that it’s a synthesis of all the things they’ve been excelling at for decades.

But Not For Me

Thoughts on living in a world where both The Force Awakens and Rogue One exist, and each has huge fans.

I might as well make this week all Star Wars, all the time, since it’s impossible to navigate the internet without seeing someone’s opinion of the new movie or the new TV show blasted in my face. A headline from Forbes in my RSS feed reads “The Rise of Skywalker Is The Worst Star Wars Movie Ever,” and it delights me to see Comic Book Guy getting work again. Plus thinking about spaceships and Force powers is more fun than thinking about any of the other stressors that adults are supposed to think about.

It’s an odd time to be an obsessive Star Wars fan. It’s not a case of being surprised by how big it’s gotten — anyone who was alive between 1977 and 1983 has seen first-hand how it got preposterously huge almost immediately — but in the ways that it’s gotten so big. It’s not just that it’s a huge cultural phenomenon that appeals to millions of people, but that it has to appeal to millions of people who don’t all want the same things from it.

The feeling is similar to that of seeing the long list of Kickstarter backers rolling in the credits of the Netflix Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot: the realization that this thing I’d always felt a personal connection with wasn’t actually targeted specifically at me.

Which sounds like the typical problem of a white middle-aged American man having to grapple with the idea that for the first time in his life, he has to come into contact with things that aren’t made specifically for him. And no doubt that’s a big part of it for me. But there’s a less selfish aspect to it, that’s tied into how I think about art and entertainment in general.

I’ve always thought that the main overriding goal of analyzing a piece of art was to evaluate its success based not just on what I want to get out of it, but based on how well it achieves what it sets out to do. I don’t believe it’s possible to get a truly objective review of anything, but I do think that we should at least be able to distinguish between things that work or don’t work for us, and things that succeed or fail at doing what they wanted to accomplish.

I always think back to a review of The Empire Strikes Back that I read in Starlog magazine, not long after the movie was released. Starlog was a niche magazine aimed directly at a particular kind of genre nerd, and the reviewer prefaced his article by saying that he knew that Star Wars was already a phenomenon, the movie was widely beloved, and he was offering his opinions to an audience that didn’t want to hear criticism of it. Even back then, before the internet and arguments about “SJWs” and who shot first, everybody understood that Star Wars attracted a passionate and not-always-socially-well-adjusted fandom.

But this review was formative for me as a nine- or ten-year-old, because it was the first time I’d seen a review of anything that I didn’t immediately classify as either dismissible trash, or an expression of joy and hype from someone who loved this stuff as much as I do. Honestly, it’s probably the first time it even occurred to me that you could examine Star Wars critically.

The key thing that stuck out to me was that the reviewer brought up points that hadn’t occurred to me while watching the movie six times in theaters, but were still valid criticisms. The space slug couldn’t exist because there was nothing in an asteroid field for it to eat, and the Millennium Falcon would take years to travel from one star system to another if it had a broken hyperdrive. Both are true, but they ultimately don’t matter, because the movies aren’t science fiction and don’t try to be.

But the reviewer also says that Yoda shouldn’t have pulled Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp, because the entire purpose of the training wasn’t to teach Luke that the Force was powerful, but that he could be powerful. That’s a criticism that has always stuck with me, because it’s not based on sci-fi but on story. It’s evident that this was a moment that was intended for spectacle but doesn’t make sense in terms of character development.

Reading that review, and recognizing the distinction between science fiction and story, shaped how I think about every piece of art or entertainment worth thinking about. It’s also why I reject the typical line — Star Wars is for children, and we should put aside childish things — that’s been used as either a blanket defense or a lazy dismissal all the way back to 1977. It’s no doubt intended as a blistering take-down of adults like me, accusing us of refusing to engage with material that’s intellectually or artistically challenging, but in reality, it’s not just snobbish but stupid. It shows a refusal or inability to engage with a piece of art according to its own mission statement, instead of the viewer’s own biases. Which is something I’ve been able to do since I was 9. Suck on that, New Yorker.

That all was thrown into disarray when I saw The Force Awakens and then Rogue One. With The Force Awakens, I realized that it’s completely impossible for me to see it objectively. I’ve heard the criticisms of it, and I have several criticisms of my own, but they’re all but completely irrelevant. It’s not just that I disagree with the opinion that it’s just a retread of the original trilogy; I don’t care about that opinion at all. My enjoyment of that movie still bypasses any rational thought and goes directly to the portion of my brain that loves Star Wars.

Rogue One is the opposite. I still have criticisms of that movie that I think are objectively valid in terms of cinema and storytelling, but in the end my main complaint is that I just don’t think it’s what Star Wars is “about.”

At the same time, there are thousands of people who think Rogue One is exactly what Star Wars is about, and it’s everything they could want from a Star Wars movie. For me to point out all the ways I think it’s off tone is as irrelevant to them as it would be to point out to me that having a bunch of costumed adults standing around a screen talking about a “thermal oscillator” is clumsy and silly exposition.

So it’s distinctly odd cognitive dissonance to see a film that slavishly — and near-perfectly! — re-creates the exact look of the original Star Wars, right down to the sideburns, and still have to acknowledge that it just wasn’t made for me.

I’ve already written about going to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, seeing myself surrounded by so many other middle-aged bearded nerds, and the sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing that at last I’m among My People. But there’s also the realization that many of the people there have an intensely personal connection to Star Wars (and Disneyland, for that matter) like I do, but are expecting to get something entirely different from what I’d recognize as being definitively Star Wars.

As someone who considers art and art interpretation as being fundamentally about communication, it’s kind of unsettling and isolating. I’ve long been able to recognize that even if something doesn’t appeal to me, I can at least engage with it based on what it’s trying to do. But what if I don’t understand what it’s trying to do?

I guess basically what I’m saying is that even if The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be a disappointment, we’ll still have The Mandalorian.

Frozen II: More and Less of the Same

Frozen II has all the baggage you’d expect from the sequel to a runaway Disney fairytale blockbuster, but insists on having its characters grow and change.

This review has minor spoilers for Frozen II.

I admit I didn’t expect much from Frozen II. I figured that in the worst case, it’d be another direct-to-DVD sequel, bloated to feature length. But even in the best case, I figured that it’d never be quite able to escape that feeling of desperately trying to recapture the one-in-a-lifetime combination of timing and talent that made the original such an unexpectedly charming breakout hit.

But after seeing — and enjoying the hell out of — Frozen II, I realized that not only did it do all of the “next right things” that an inspired sequel should do, it made me retroactively respect the original even more than I already did.

I’d always thought of Frozen as a happy accident: a not-particularly ambitious Disney fairytale that happened to get the right cast, and make one inspired decision to tell a story about a different kind of true love, that made it stand out beyond all the elements that Disney animation just gets right “by default.” But that’s absurdly dismissive of how many decisions must have gone into the movie. Kristen Bell deliberately wanted to introduce a Disney princess who was clumsy and goofy, who’d appeal to girls like she was growing up. And hearing early versions of songs and seeing deleted scenes from earlier versions of the movie make it clear that the movie’s charm wasn’t effortless but instead the result of many iterations.

That’s something that’s clear after only one viewing of Frozen II. You can immediately see that they refused to rely on just what would be expected from a sequel, and instead make a story that’s explicitly about transformation and maturity. Elsa’s character is more open and more impetuous, Anna’s character is less clumsy and more confident, and even Olaf spends a lot of the movie talking about what it means to grow up.

You can kind of even see it in the song that Disney is pushing as the successor to the movie’s big show-stopping musical number. “Let it Go” is an absurdly catchy Broadway-style song designed to show off Idina Menzel’s talents but also make something that a Main Street full of people can sing along with during the Disneyland fireworks. “Into the Unknown” isn’t anywhere near as catchy (I don’t think any of the songs in Frozen II are, really), but it feels a little more sophisticated. It’s got a range that only Menzel and the guy from Panic! at the Disco can hit.

To be clear, the movie does check off all the requirements of a blockbuster sequel. The characters are smashed together for the sake of having them together again, they make frequent callbacks to the first movie and in particular the runaway popularity of “Let it Go,” and they even have an entire scene where Olaf recounts the first movie. If they’d just done that throughout, it would’ve been insufferable. But I noticed three masterful aspects of Frozen II that I believe show the insistence on maturity and change:

Lighting
Even a layman like myself can see that the movie got a rendering upgrade. The characters look mostly the same as far as I can tell, although their hair and clothing is more complex and sophisticated. (Fortunately, there are fewer of those uncannily appealing characters from the first movie, so that unsettling realization of “Wait, am I actually attracted to an animated character?!” is limited to Kristoff). But the more dramatic changes are to the environments.

Water, rocks, leaves, and trees are all beautiful and more painterly, a purposeful change from a movie that was previously covered in snow. But the more advanced lighting is what I noticed. It seemed similar to the jump from lighting in Monsters, Inc to Monsters University: I’d read that Pixar’s big tech advance for that movie was more sophisticated natural lighting, which was crucial to the story that took place over a school year, allowing you to tell instantly what time of year it was based solely on the quality of light and shadow. The jump from Frozen to Frozen II feels like the transition from winter to autumn — again, thematically appropriate as the story goes from a season of cold to a season of change.

Facial Expressions
This was the first detail that jumped out to me. The characters’ facial animation in Frozen II is outstanding, and it’s key to the thing that makes Frozen unique. Much of the movie’s charm comes from having fairytale characters delivering naturalistic, contemporary dialogue. If you don’t nail the tone of that perfectly — and, frankly, if you don’t have actors like Kristen Bell and Josh Gad bringing their personality to the part — then it comes across as insultingly cheesy, the way 9 out of 10 animated movie trailers have a character mugging the camera and saying “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt!”

But the first movie still seemed to me to apply traditional animation techniques to 3D characters. Their faces are still transitioning between fairly broad keyframes. In Frozen II, the style seemed like a combination of performance capture and keyframe animation. I don’t know what the actual process was, but the effect was as if they’d taken motion capture data from the actors and turned each frame into a professionally animated keyframe. Some scenes seemed to have dozens of subtle shifts in expression. The actors more or less vanish, and it’s as if the Frozen characters are actually delivering their lines.

“Lost in the Woods”
This has to be my favorite scene in the movie. I love that they just went for it. They REO Speedwagoned the hell out of this scene, all the while knowing that a significant chunk of the audience was born after 2010.

And most likely, a significant chunk of the team who made the scene was born after 1990. That’s a trend in pop culture that I really like to see; it feels like people are getting better at being able to make fun of things without being completely dismissive of them. Every aspect of “Lost in the Woods” is simultaneously mocking the power ballad and earnestly loving it. That works for Frozen II because of its careful balance in tone — balanced at the tipping point between mockery and melodrama.

Overall, the movie tries — and mostly succeeds — to carry on all of the charm and and goofiness of the original while also refusing to just make an uninspired victory lap that just repeats the first movie. I can’t go so far as to say that this is a story that demanded to be told, but if they had to make a follow-up to such a blockbuster hit — and why wouldn’t they? — I have to respect the integrity that went into this one. It insists on doing something new, it forgoes the over-simple villain of the first movie in favor of more sophisticated obstacles, it downplays the conventional fairytale story in favor of one that’s about respecting people instead of seeing them as “other,” and it emphasizes that change isn’t just inevitable, but positive.

I’ve got a good feeling about this

Gay nerds in love in space!

On October 4, 2019, I got engaged to my boyfriend at the new Star Wars land in Disneyland. As recently as 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought any part of that sentence was possible.

When I say I didn’t think it was possible, I’m not just talking about the obvious fact that for most of our relationship, California has been under a bigoted ban against marriage equality, initiated by a bunch of homophobic Mormons and opportunistic Republicans. At this point in my life, I’ve finally learned not to let other people’s bigotry get in the way of my own happiness, so the less time spent thinking about those a-holes, the better.

Instead, I mean every aspect of it seemed like something I’d never get to see. Which is probably best illustrated if I back up a step to explain how the whole idea started.

Disneyland’s a popular place to get engaged, so I’d always had it in the back of my mind as a maybe-some-day possibility. When they announced a Star Wars land where you could actually go inside a full-size Millennium Falcon, that seemed even better. I’d been wanting to get married and fly off on the Falcon ever since I was nine years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back and its very confusing romantic scenes between Han Solo and that other person.

We went to Disneyland twice in June, at the end of the month for my birthday, and earlier in the month to take advantage of a reservation against the insane crowds that never seemed to materialize (yet). While there, I was trying to get a feel for the logistics of popping the question, and I wasn’t having much success. They move people too quickly through the queue for Smuggler’s Run, which is good for wait times but bad for once-in-a-lifetime romantic gestures. And Plan B, surprising J with a ring while we were posing for a photo in front of the Falcon, lacked any sense of privacy.

Worse than that, though, was that it seemed very selfish of me. I’m the one who’s had a lifelong obsession with Disney parks. J’s a fan, but not as into them as I am (because I’m not sure it’s even possible to be as into them as I am). And I’m the one who was such a Star Wars nerd growing up that it’s the entire reason I moved to California. Naturally I’m predisposed to fall in love with the idea of a Star Wars land in a Disney park, but for a proposal, it’d be better to pick a location that’s special to the both of us.

During that second trip at the end of June, it started to become a place that was special to the both of us. We had a great time. (Especially surprising since we didn’t get a great first impression earlier in the month). And as we were headed back into Galaxy’s Edge for a third time, I thanked J for indulging me with so much time in Star Wars land over our vacation, and he replied with something remarkable: “I’m not ‘indulging’ you. I like Star Wars at least as much as you do.”

And then he added “I even like the prequels.” Which is troubling, granted, but I know that mixed marriages can work. What was even more startling was realizing how astoundingly dense I’d been. Not just realizing that I’d been living with another Star Wars fan. I’d spent so many years — decades! — feeling like I had to apologize for or make excuses for the things I loved, that it had gone past being self-deprecating and had turned into something I do reflexively, like a verbal tic.

In my defense, even working at LucasArts, I felt like I’d get made fun of whenever I outed myself as a Star Wars nerd. So even though Disney had spent billions of dollars to build a place catered specifically to Gen Xers like me who’d tear up at the sight of a full-size Millennium Falcon, I was locked into thinking of Star Wars as my own weird little nerdy obsession. And that mindset, once it takes hold, is pervasive. If it were just about a bunch of movies or theme parks, it’d be trivial. But for me, the constant feeling of being weird and other had taken over completely. It affected how I think of everything, both insignificant and significant.

One of the things that was hard to get used to when J & I started dating was that so much of my sense of humor was based on being sarcastic, and tearing things and people down. I had to get used to the idea of just trying to be kind instead of always trying to be clever. After nine years being more supportive and unapologetically enthusiastic about the things that make us happy, I can’t say I miss the days when I felt like I always had to have a snappy comeback or defensive explanation at the ready. I finally realized that we were a couple of big gay adult nerds in the middle of a playground built for fans of movies about space wizards, and I was with someone who shared my enthusiasm for big gay nerdy stuff without any need for qualification or judgment, and it seemed like the perfect place to get engaged to the perfect person to get engaged to.

The next step was to start the next phase of our relationship based on an elaborate lie. Neither one of us wear rings, and I had no idea about ring sizes or how to measure them. So I just took a wild guess about size and ordered a plain ridiculously cheap ring off of Amazon. (This will factor in later). I figured that since the ring wasn’t going to impress, I’d have to work harder on the presentation.

Since J really enjoyed the datapad games in Galaxy’s Edge, I thought of a scavenger hunt that would lead to the ring. I contacted my friend and former boss (and guardian angel who’s been directly or indirectly responsible for the highlights of my career), who works with Imagineering, and asked if there were any way I could get mocked screens into J’s datapad app. Since that isn’t possible for obvious reasons, he came up with a better suggestion: 3D print something that looked like a Star Wars artifact to hold the ring, “discover” it at Dok-Ondar’s antiquities shop, and then give it to J.

That’s the point where the scope of the project exploded. I’m glad that it did, in retrospect, but it did end up taking the better part of a month. I knew that I wanted it to look vaguely Star Wars-y, and I wanted it to light up when opened. I started by trying out variations on the Jedi Holocron, but I couldn’t find a model that opened in a way that I liked. (And I wanted to avoid the possibility of its getting confused with the ones on sale in the store). Then I looked at various puzzle boxes on Thingiverse, but they all required narrow tolerances and complex shapes that I’d need a CAD tool to be able to modify, and I wanted something more personalized. So I ended up scrapping the puzzle box idea and just making a simpler box in Blender that just twists open.

I wasn’t looking forward to having to wire up and solder a bunch of LEDs and sensors, so fortunately I didn’t have to. Adafruit makes a neat board called the Circuit Playground, and it comes with LEDs and several sensors attached. After a good bit more experimentation, I settled on a design with the main board at the base, soldered to a smaller LED board (called the NeoPixel Jewel, if you’re curious) just underneath the ring holder.

The board in the base responds to motion, pulsing a slow purple (one of J’s favorite colors) when it’s left alone. When you pick it up, it starts to pulse in a rainbow pattern, both because it’s pretty and appropriate for a proposal during gay days, and because Adafruit makes rainbow LEDs super easy to code. Capacitive touch sensors are wired to the ring holder, so when you touch the ring, both LED boards light up with a brighter, constant rainbow pattern. It all ended up being a lot simpler than I’d originally intended, but it soon became apparent that what I’d originally intended was way more complicated that necessary.

After I’d printed and assembled the box, I was fortunate yet again to have a co-worker with a lot of experience designing and painting 3D prints. He introduced me to the dry-brushing technique. Considering that I’d never painted anything like this before, including miniatures, I’m pretty happy with how much it ended up looking like aged bronze. The hardest part of the whole process was having to do it at work, to keep it a secret. Actually, keeping it a secret from J was the hardest part overall, since every time I made a new development or learned something new, he was the first person I wanted to tell about it.

Once the thing was built, I just had to figure out the logistics. My friend put me in contact with someone who works at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, and she was absurdly, preposterously helpful. She helped come up with a version of the proposal that would fit in with the park’s overall storyline and how to incorporate the cast and the character of Dok-Ondar himself.

Finally, to explain to J why we had to be at a certain place at a certain time, I made up the story that we were helping to playtest an early prototype of a new interactive game in Galaxy’s Edge. I said that because it was such an early prototype, I’d been sent a bunch of static screens that would later take place of the Datapad app.

For the past few years, we’ve been going to Disneyland to spend the Gay Days weekend along with a bunch of friends. I asked a friend to be my accomplice, taking the box from me and sneaking it into Dok-Ondar’s ahead of us, and then the plan could start.

The first screen was presented as a message from an explorer who’d spent almost nine years (how long J and I had been dating up to that point) looking for a rare artifact (named after the place where we had our first date). He’d traced it to Batuu and said it would probably be in the hands of someone who dealt in rare antiquities. That obviously led to Dok-Ondar and the next screen. (As long as I’m describing everything, I should probably admit that I was super nervous, so I rushed through the “game” part instead of letting J do it at his own pace).

The next screen told us to go to Dok-Ondar’s and look for an artifact with a certain symbol on it. (Nerd sidenote: I put in a pattern of two-rings all around the jewelry box and again on top, assuming I’d say it was supposed to represent the twin suns of Batuu. I was reminded at the last minute that the fiction says Batuu has three suns, so I had to change the text to say the twin moons. I may have bought an engagement ring that didn’t fit at all, but at least I got the number of suns on a made-up planet right).

As we headed to Dok-Ondar’s, my heart sank into my stomach when I saw a line of guests waiting outside. I’d been worried that the store would be too crowded to pull this off — we wouldn’t find the box, or it’d be taken by another guest by accident, or it’d just be too loud and chaotic and ruin the whole thing. But right as we came up, I got a text message from my accomplice saying we should talk to the cast member at the door. I told them our names and that we were looking for an artifact, and they let us in. The cast had actually started a queue outside the store so we’d have the place mostly to ourselves for the proposal!

Once inside, we both set off to look for the box. While J was searching the shelves, I went to the counter and pointed at a glowing box behind it. “I found it,” I called out, totally cheating. J came over and we checked the next screen.

It said that Dok-Ondar probably had no idea how valuable the box was, so we could get it for a steal. I held the jewelry box up to Dok-Ondar and asked him to appraise it. He spoke a few words in Ithorian (!) and the Cast Members translated it for me: “It’s only valuable if you give it to J.”

So I gave it to J. He opened the box, and it began to pulse with a rainbow light. Then my choice of a less-expensive, nondescript “placeholder” ring came back to haunt me: it wasn’t clear that it was an engagement ring. It looked just like a Star Wars-y machine part or something. It didn’t help that I’d set J up for a puzzle hunt. It also didn’t help that I didn’t get down on one knee or anything, which is something I’d resolved not to do a long time ago, since I feel like it’s an outdated part of the ritual that sets up a weird power dynamic when you’re supposed to be entering into an equal partnership. Whatever the case, the thing I’d planned to be the big reveal wasn’t quite.

J was still figuring out what to do with the ring, so he put it on his index finger. I pointed to his ring finger and said, “It works better if you wear it on that finger.” He said, “But that’s where married people wear a ring.” I said, “So will you marry me?” He said yes, and the cast members cheered.

Afterwards, some super-nice operations cast members took us to the Smuggler’s Run ride and gave us the VIP treatment by letting us use the FastPass queue. Then they took our picture in front of the Falcon, and escorted us into Oga’s Cantina for a celebratory drink. (My friend and accomplice bought us a round, but Disney let us in without a reservation). It was all a big wonderful blur, and we ended up spending most of the rest of that day in Galaxy’s Edge, too. Everything from that weekend after the proposal is now jumbled together in my memory, but I know I built a droid and named it R3-X4 in honor of the date. And that night we watched the fireworks going off over Dok-Ondar’s shop as if in celebration.

In all, it turned out even better than I’d hoped, and even better than I imagined “get engaged at Disneyland” would go after years of having it as a vague some-day possibility. I’ll always be grateful to the friends that helped make it happen, and to all the cast members in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland who went out of their way to make the engagement of a couple of strangers into something unforgettable.

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.