Gorilla Filmmaking

On Escape from Tomorrow, how Disney works, and why more people seriously need to read David Foster Wallace already.

Junglecruise gorillas wdw2007ah(Image of the Jungle Cruise from Werner Weiss’s excellent Yesterland.com site)

There’s a movie called Escape from Tomorrow that’s coming out soon, and holy crap is it edgy and in your face. Apparently it’s about a man having an American Beauty-style mid-life crisis freak-out at Walt Disney World-but-also-Disneyland-somehow. It’s notable because it was made using “guerrilla filmmaking” techniques, i.e. using digital SLRs inside the parks without permission. The marketing page has a Mickey hand dripping with blood and animated GIFs of a woman saying “I HATE YOU” with a version of the Walt Disney’s signature font, and a man totally doing it with the words “HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH” super-imposed, so as you can tell they are seriously sticking it to The Mouse.

Plus there’s this puff piece preview of the movie on The Daily Beast that describes it as “Disney’s Worst Nightmare” and “the film that Disney doesn’t want you to see.”

Now, I understand, more or less, how movie promotion works. And I know that drumming up controversy is one of the best ways to sell something, short of actually making it good. But let’s all be clear on one thing: the only film that Disney doesn’t want you to see is whatever film is playing against Frozen on opening weekend.

A movie like this is only going to increase the aura and allure around Disney parks; the only way a project like this would’ve been any kind of a threat to Disney is if it’d been set at Universal Studios, and it implied that those parks have the same cultural cachet as Disney World. But then, it never would’ve been set at Universal, because making fun of Universal isn’t A Thing. The people involved in the promotion of this movie don’t seem to realize that Disney had already “won” before the movie was even made. Having a brand that’s iconic enough to make people want to tear it down means that the brand is working as intended.

That Daily Beast article describes a little bit of the process of making the movie.

Season passes for Disney World and Disneyland were purchased for the cast and crew, and filming commenced in September 2010. Worried that someone would leave a script in the bathroom and they’d be discovered, the cast and crew stored scripts and shot lists for the film on their iPhones. To create the illusion that they were tourists, two cameramen filmed using the video mode of digital single-lens reflex cameras. […] On a given day, the covert crew would range from eight to 15 people, including Moore, two cameramen, the assistant director, the actors, the child actors—each accompanied by a real-life parent—and a PA carrying water, “because water is a thousand dollars a bottle there,” jokes Moore.

The message that’s supposed to stand out to readers is, “Those filmmakers risked a lot to really put one over on the greedy Disney fat cats.” The message that stands out to Disney is, “Those filmmakers bought annual passes for both resorts for the entire cast and crew.”

It’s far more likely that Disney security was concerned about the crew filming because of its potential to create a dangerous situation for guests, resulting in a lawsuit; or that the crew was taking video of backstage areas or ride operation, which could be used in corporate espionage. The threat that their brand would be tarnished, that this crew would expose the dark secrets behind the magic, was I’m sure the farthest thing from their minds.

In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, David Foster Wallace’s astoundingly prescient essay, he writes about how the medium of television has become impervious to criticism because it is incapable of looking inward. It exists solely to be watched, so ascribing any other kind of agenda or motivation to it betrays a failure to understand how it works.

Of course, Disney’s a corporation and not an entire medium (although I’m sure they’re working on that), so the comparison isn’t perfect. But the basic idea is the same: Disney is so large and so well known that it’s not threatened by cultural criticism or parody. In fact, it feeds off of it.

It’s not even that subtle a concept. In MuppetVision 3D, which is now over 20 years old, Rizzo the Rat comes out during the pre-show dressed as Mickey Mouse and humming the Mickey Mouse Club theme. The climax of the movie — “A Salute to All Nations But Mostly America” — has characters from “it’s a small world” firing guns and cannons at each other and the audience while a version of the small world ride’s theme plays. Statler and Waldorf make jokes about being animatronics. On the Jungle Cruise, one of the standard Disney-approved gags is about how children left behind on the boats are captured and made to work in the “it’s a small world” ride.

In other words, Disney has been making fun of itself and its wholesome image for a long time. And even if there was a period where the company was ultra-uptight about anything that could threaten the brand, now in 2013 they’re more open to mash-ups and re-imaginings and re-interpretations than ever before. The company still caters to the people who are as reverent to the parks as to any religion, and to the people whose eyes glaze over when they talk about “The Magic,” but it’s astoundingly naive to believe that a company could grow that large targeting such a relatively small audience of obsessives.

Even the people who do unabashedly love Disney still make fun of the enforced whimsy and the preoccupation with the magic of dreams and imagination. Actually, we probably make fun of it more often, since we’re more often seeing children having complete meltdowns when surrounded by characters with smiling, wide-eyed faces.

To be clear, I’m probably going to check out Escape from Tomorrow at some point. If only to see CGI used around so many Disney landmarks, and because the guy with the Spaceship Earth head is kind of a neat image. I’m not protesting the movie; I’m protesting the idea that it’s in any way controversial or threatening or even novel. “Counter-culture” has spent decades going after Disney as a representation of everything Mainstream Capitalist America, by making fun of the rides or drawing the characters screwing or Mickey Mouse giving the finger. It just seems facile, and even more juvenile and infantilizing than “it’s a small world.”

I expect to do a lot of eye-rolling when I actually see the movie, though. Unless the marketing team is completely independent of the filmmaking team, which seems unlikely based on the quotes about “a team of Disney lawyers descending on your home” in that Daily Beast article. The tone behind it, and that whole website, seem like a much more blatantly dishonest attempt to manipulate the audience than anything I’ve ever seen in a Disney parade or fireworks show.

P.S. The title of this post made a lot more sense when I was thinking of describing Disney as a 900-pound gorilla, but then I forgot to make the metaphor. Whoops.

Force Majeure

Disney buying Lucasfilm is a good thing.

I can’t say I was all that surprised by the news a while ago that Disney was buying Lucasfilm. It’s not that I had any kind of insider info, of course, or that I’m all that savvy about the entertainment business. It just didn’t surprise me because it felt inevitable.

What did surprise me was seeing the reaction from people on the Internet, who acted like it came out of nowhere. Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in Disney parks over the last several years, but it’s seemed like Disney had already become de facto stewards of the Star Wars franchise. Disney buying Marvel was kind of a shocker. Disney buying Lucasfilm is like getting a wedding invitation from an inseparable couple who’ve been living together for over a decade.

Most bizarre were all the parody ideas and images that people kept tweeting or slapping together in Photoshop. Like Disneyfying quotes from the movies, or replacing Spaceship Earth at Epcot with the Death Star, or showing the Death Star with Mickey ears. They were bizarre because the people seemed completely unaware that these are all already officially licensed products. Do a Google Image search for Star Wars Weekends (which is an annual event at Hollywood Studios) and you’ll see that pretty much every possible variation on the theme of Disney + Star Wars has already been done. They have parades; and T-shirts with Darth Vader riding the carousel at the Magic Kingdom with the quote “This will be a day long remembered;” and Mickey ears that look like R2-D2’s head; and figures that mash-up Star Wars with Disney characters and the Muppets; and they sell it all near the Rock and Roller Coaster in a big warehouse they call the Darth Mall.

Sure, some of it borders on unfortunate. Even though I’ve been burned several times, I’m still just reverent enough of Star Wars that it bothers me to see a big dance party with Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. Especially when the music stops and Darth Vader says “Now witness the power of this fully operational dance floor.” But even that shows that Disney gets the tone right: mocking it as completely silly would feel off, but so would taking it too seriously.

The prime examples of it are absolutely great, though. The new Star Tours is a ton of fun, is filled with clever references, and makes the settings and designs from the prequels actually seem interesting. Plus, it feels even more fitting in the Star Wars universe than the original version of the ride did — you’re actually riding with C-3PO and R2-D2 on new adventures, instead of tagging along on the Death Star trench run and asteroid field with Pee-Wee Herman. (No offense to the original; after all, it was only his first flight).

And the Jedi Training Academy, a live show at Disneyland and Hollywood Studios, is fantastic. Kids are given padawan robes and a lightsaber, and they fight against Darth Vader himself. The kids love it, seeing Darth Vader and Stormtroopers showing up in Disneyland is always cool, and the Jedi trainer narrates the entire thing with a tone somewhere between Qui-gon Jinn and a Jungle Cruise skipper.

So what I’m saying is that Star Wars is in the best hands. I can all but guarantee that we won’t see anything like the Star Wars Christmas Special again, but it’s entirely possible we’ll see a better-animated equivalent to the Boba Fett short in the Christmas Special. And the rumors around the new movies — which were a complete surprise to me — make it sound as if they’re ignoring the “expanded universe” stuff in favor of a new story. I’m still not sure whether I can let myself get excited about Star Wars movies again, but I’m at least glad that we won’t have to see pheremone-spewing genius space admirals, or people carrying around sloths that have evolved to repel the Force.

When talking about hits and misses, Lucasfilm licensing has had a much worse track record than Disney. There have been a couple of stand-outs — both Genndy Tartakovsky’s and the more recent CG series of The Clone Wars are both excellent — but for the most part, it’s been pretty dire.

For years, the internet’s been full of people who go apoplectic at the sight of George Lucas in a “Han Shot First” T-shirt. They’ve convinced themselves that Lucas — nay, every artist — has an obligation to his fans, that the fans “own” Star Wars at least as much as he does. I think that’s complete and total BS, but in a sense, they’ve gotten their way. Whatever happens going forward won’t be a case of Lucas making only what he wants (or more accurately, what he believes kids want). It’ll be a bunch of Star Wars fans making the stuff they’ve always wanted to see.

Concern Tron

Wreck It Ralph is by every measure a movie that only Disney could’ve made, and it’s the best movie to come out of Disney Animation Studios in years.

It’s not minor praise to say that Wreck-It Ralph is the best movie that Disney Animation Studios has done in years; Tangled was surprisingly good, and The Princess and the Frog was excellent. But The Princess and the Frog was more than anything else a love letter to Disney animation itself, and Tangled was a pretty traditional fairy tale story Pixar-ified (and unnecessarily made a musical).

You can tell that Wreck-It Ralph was built out of a bunch of pre-fabricated components; it certainly doesn’t feel like the lifelong dream of somebody who’s had a story he’s just been dying to tell. Watching it is a little like examining the parts of a perfectly-constructed pop culture engine: here’s the traditional Disney story structure where the misfit finds redemption and acceptance. Over by the fuel tank is the 8-bit nostalgia craze that’s going to get man children like myself into the theater, but it’s a more modernized, hybrid engine that runs off Halo and Mario Kart as well. Covering everything is the Pixar sheen of aggressively detailed world-building, and an abundance of references and sight gags. And right here, just at the end, is where the princess fits in.

What’s amazing is how well it all works, and even I can tell it’s harder to pull off a movie like this than it looks. From the trailer, I’d expected it to be a flimsy framing story covering an hour and a half’s worth of video game references. (And don’t get me wrong, I still would’ve been first in line to see that). The initial reviews started coming in, and almost all said that the movie takes an “unexpected turn” — which I’m assuming is the fact that it doesn’t hop around from game to game, but instead spends the bulk of its time in an overly cute cart-racing game called Sugar Rush. In retrospect, though, keeping the focus smaller was probably the best decision they could have possibly made — an uninterrupted string of video game references would get tiresome quickly, and it wouldn’t take long for the delight of “Oh, cool! Zangief!” to turn into the disappointment of “YES FINE IT’S THE JUNGLE KING WE GET IT LET’S MOVE ON.”

Instead, they get it out of their system pretty quickly, and instead focus on just three games, using other cameos where they make sense. (I especially liked the graffiti in Game Central Station; I spotted “Leeroy Jenkins” and “Aerith Lives!”).

World-Buying and World-Building

When I say that only Disney could’ve made it, I don’t just mean in the way it manages to take the standard Disney formula and make it feel genuine again. I’m talking about the number of references, cameos, and licensing issues that only an enormous multinational entertainment corporation would’ve been able to afford. It feels as if the filmmakers were given free rein to reference anything and everything they wanted — did they really need a cameo from Beard Papa, for example? — and seeing a movie with that much freedom was actually kind of exhilarating. After years of seeing 555 telephone numbers and carefully-hidden brand names, it’s just neat to have a movie that says, “Yes, we really did pay to have both Dig Dug and Chun-Li for all of five seconds of screen time.”

Even better, they kept the licensed material to cameos and let the team go nuts with world-building for everything else. The inspiration for the different games couldn’t be clearer, but it makes all the difference that it’s Fix-It Felix, Jr and not Donkey Kong or Rampage, and Hero’s Duty instead of Halo or Gears of War. You’re not simply waiting to see when the next recognizable reference is going to pop up; you’re dropped into a familiar-but-not-too-familiar environment and shown how these games might work from the inside.

It’s inevitably going to get compared to Toy Story — and for one thing, that’s great company to be in; and for another, Toy Story is an obvious inspiration. But I think it’s worth pointing out the subtle ways they steered the story of Wreck-It Ralph in a different direction, and what a huge difference it makes in the overall tone.

The Toy Story movies built their plots around the premise of toys existing in the real world. They built most of the gags and references on the premise that each of the toys has its own personality. It’s worked for three features and at least two brilliant shorts, so they did something right.

It would’ve been easy for Wreck-It Ralph to do one or the other: pull all of its video game characters into the real world, or just have a series of gags based on “what if Bowser and Clyde from Pac-Man hung out together outside the game?” like the trailer promised. Really, either one of those would’ve made for an entertaining movie. But instead, they kept that stuff on the surface, spending most of their time exploring how the individual game worlds worked, and what would happen if you took a few key characters from one and dropped them into another. (I think the reason the Sugar Rush stuff seems so incongruous is that it turned into a ton of candy references, as if there wasn’t enough in the world of video games to play off of).

The result is more similar to the fantastic parts of the Toy Story series: when they show an episode of “Woody’s Roundup” to introduce all the new characters, or when they show Buzz Lightyear fighting Emperor Zerg, or when they have all the characters playing different roles in a kid’s fantasy. It ends up making Wreck-It Ralph a lot more about getting into the video game world than pulling the video game into ours. Even when translated into 3D, a character that only has 3 or 4 frames of animation is still going to move a certain way.

When I talked about Brave, I said that no matter how fantastic the premise, Pixar movies are all ultimately about people. That’s a huge part of why I think Wreck-It Ralph fits squarely in the realm of Disney Feature Animation; while there’s certainly a real-world message in there, the movie is ultimately about fantasy.

It Gets Blitter

That said, the real-world message was another nice surprise. We’ve been beaten down with the “Believe in Yourself!” message for so long, that it stopped having any relevance long ago. One of the reasons I liked The Princess and the Frog so much is that it turned the usual princess moral on its head: its ultimate message was actually “Hang on, don’t believe in your dreams too much; you might be missing out on what you already have.”

Wreck-It Ralph obviously has the story of the misunderstood villain who wants something more out of life; that’s baked into the premise. And it’s got the off-beat little girl who gets bullied but stays true to herself and eventually (spoiler!) comes out on top. I don’t want to sound too dismissive; the dialogue and voice acting are terrific, and everything feels genuine and not the least bit maudlin or insincere. If they’d left it at that, it all would’ve worked fine, and the only thing wrong with it would’ve been that it’s not all that original.

But what is original, at least as far as I’ve seen, is that the weightiest conflict in Wreck-It Ralph is a message about Concern Trolling.

Genuine spoilers follow. The Candy King convinces Ralph — and, I’ll be honest, he had me convinced for a while as well — that he’s not just picking on Vanellope because she’s different, but that he’s doing it for her own benefit. He doesn’t have a problem with her being a “glitch;” he’s just concerned about what other people will think. Players won’t understand, he says, and it’ll end up with the entire game being shut down. It’s not selfish; all the other characters will be fine, but Vanellope will never be able to leave the game. And it throws Ralph completely off course. Until then, he’d been a misfit who’d found another misfit who understood exactly what he was going through, and working together, they were going to finally earn the respect and acceptance they’d both always wanted. Now, he’d gotten exactly what he wanted, but had to ruin everything for someone else, all the while believing that he was making the tough but adult choice for her own good.

It’s actually pretty heartbreaking. And what’s this? A genuine, nuanced, and actually relevant message about bullying and the pressures of conformity, in a movie aimed at pre-adolescents? Characters doing the wrong thing not because they’re evil, but simply because they’ve made a bad decision? A case of someone having the best of intentions and still doing something horrible? And more than that, it’s all a message delivered by a character called the Candy King?!

Even though the movie pretty quickly rebounds into a more predictable structure, it still has those fantastic few minutes where it’s telling kids (and adults!) how bullying really works, in a way that’s not completely obvious and by the numbers. And even though it ends with a princess, it still has the more significant moment where the princess decides that being a “glitch” is an essential part of what made her cool. (It doesn’t explain why the non-Princess “glitch” version would’ve been painted on the side of the cabinet in the first place, but you can’t have everything).

So: great concept, tons of references, great voice performances, terrific animation, imaginative world-building, and a relevant, non-pandering message. Plus, the Paperman short before the movie is completely charming, and a beautiful combination of 3D and 2D animation that proves you don’t have to abandon the hand-drawn style of traditional cel animation to make a 3D movie. I would absolutely love it if this turns out to be as big a deal for Disney animation as The Little Mermaid was, and we get to see Pixar and Disney competing year after year to top each other.

Variations on a Queen

Or, “Maybe I’m Just Like My Mother.” Brave is a Pixar movie that doesn’t behave like people want or expect it to. Unmarked spoilers.

Brave merida elinor
I don’t think I really understood Brave when I saw it. I’d been lucky to see a rough cut a few months earlier, and I still went away from the final release thinking, “That wasn’t what I expected.” It’s not just that the movie is unabashedly weird, it’s that it maintains its weirdness while keeping up the appearance of being a completely conventional Disney movie.

It wasn’t until I read an outstanding essay by Lili Loofbourow on The New Inquiry, titled “Just Another Princess Movie”, that I started to really understand it. Not only does that essay explain exactly what it is about Brave that defies expectations, it might be the most insightful thing I’ve read about any Pixar movie. I think the author does herself a little bit of disservice with the preamble, in which she says that growing up having to make do with movies for girls prepared her to look for slight variations on predictable themes, and find the little bits of honesty amidst all the pandering. After all, if all the insight in that piece were just due to her gender, or her exposure to years of mediocre entertainment, then how did so many seasoned film critics, both female and male, manage to completely underestimate the depth and miss the true message of Brave?

Audiences had already reached a consensus on Brave weeks before the movie actually opened: Here was Pixar, the boys club, after years of making movies aimed at boys and dads-who-are-still-boys, finally a wholly-owned Disney subsidiary and finally making a movie with a female protagonist. So of course, she’s a princess. But they split the difference by making her an action princess, so that Disney can sell plastic bows and arrows along with all the dolls and dresses (and wigs!), and not completely alienate the boys in the audience. While technically and artistically beautiful, it’s all a conventional fairy tale story with the standard mixed message socialization inherent to every princess story: “be true to yourself and live your dreams!” and “wouldn’t it be great to be a princess so your life would actually be meaningful?”

I’d read a lengthy and vehement blog post decrying the movie as the death of Pixar’s integrity, based solely on one of the gags from the trailer. And once the movie was actually released, the majority of critics gave it a perfunctory screening and checked it off as their assumptions confirmed.

Jaclyn Friedman in The Guardian laments that “not even the sparkling minds at Pixar can imagine their way out of the princess paradigm.” And Roger Ebert’s almost completely insight-free review ends with this astoundingly misguided conclusion:

But Merida is far from being a typical fairy-tale princess. Having flatly rejected the three suitors proposed by her family, she is apparently prepared to go through life quite happily without a husband, and we can imagine her in later years, a weathered and indomitable Amazon queen, sort of a Boudica for the Scots. “Brave” seems at a loss to deal with her as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.

That’s right, ladies. If you have aspirations that don’t involve settling down with the right man, then you might as well be a boy.

You’ve got to give most of the reviewers a break (well, except Ebert), because the movie practically begs for misinterpretation. As Loofbourow describes it, Brave pulls an elaborate bait-and-switch on the audience starting with the first scene:

…there’s a voiceover at the beginning and the end that goes on about changing your fate and your destiny living within you and whatnot. And that’s fine, and it’s true in complicated ways, but it’s also a classic case of misdirection. By supplying an apparently easy message you barely listen to, the film actually gives the more complex one room to breathe. You might leave unconvinced by the explicit sermon on fate, but quite converted to the quiet redefinition of bravery, barely aware that you’ve been worked on.

The premise, setting, character types, situations, and even entire scenes in Brave are familiar enough for us to accept them without much mental processing. It’s shorthand. We see the princess, and we automatically know basically how the story’s going to play out. She’s an impetuous, free spirit who wants a different life for herself, you know, kind of like Ariel. We get the big, goofy, and kind-hearted dad and the imperious mom who actually keeps everything together. We recognize the King who bears a lifelong grudge against a force of nature like Moby Dick, the contest from Robin Hood, the old witch and the magic spell that goes awry, even the transformation that teaches a mom and daughter to understand each other from Freaky Friday.

We also recognize whenever a story deviates from the standard; we’re used to remakes, re-imaginings, re-interpretations, mash-ups, and twists. She’s not just a princess; she’s an action princess, who can shoot a bow and ride a horse as well as any man!

But I don’t think it’s as simple as that, because I don’t think that Brave is going for the simple change-up. It’s going for myth-making. It roots the story in the familiar to give it the resonance of a new type of fairy tale.

Brave still works on the emotional level that the best Pixar movies do: you don’t understand it so much as feel it. There’s a moment at the end that reliably triggers the tears in me, just like flipping a switch. But it’d be a mistake to assume that there’s nothing more to the movie than our gut response and a collection of familiar ideas from storybooks.

Loofbourow does a great job of highlighting the aspects that distinguish Brave from “just another princess movie;” I wouldn’t do a particularly job of covering those without repetition. I’m most interested in two areas where Brave takes a turn for the unexpected, and those give the story more layers and meaning than even another action princess story.

Ms. Finding Nemo

One of the first signs that Merida isn’t like other Disney princesses is that she has both of her parents. Not only are they both alive, but they both play a crucial role in the story.

Obviously, it’s a story about a mother reconnecting with her teenage daughter. But it’s not simply Finding Nemo for Her. That movie was all about Marlin accepting the fact that his son has to grow up. In Brave, Elinor does end the story having learned that she’s got to respect Merida’s independence and stop being so controlling; as we see her on horseback at the end of the movie, she’s loosened up and learned to appreciate life outside the walls of the castle. Loofbourow makes note of how much significance is embedded in Elinor’s new hairstyle.

But Finding Nemo ultimately wasn’t about Nemo; Brave is about both Merida and Elinor. And at the end, Merida’s changed, too. Her hair might not be any more under control, but she’s more poised. Every time we’ve seen her on horseback in the rest of the movie, it’s been out of escape or rebellion. At the end, she’s not running away. She’s just enjoying the kingdom, right next to the person who represented everything she’d been running away from. The lesson isn’t simply that Elinor had to give Merida the freedom to choose her fate follow her dreams and explore a whole new world and believe in the dreams of imagination. Merida had to learn about responsibility and, to make good on the new title, true bravery.

The first place the movie takes a dramatically weird turn is at the end of the archery contest. Until then, it’d been standard storybook set-up. We can see it all playing out according to schedule, including the impossible bulls-eye finale. But as Loofbourow describes, it’s not even remotely a victory for Merida:

…there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.

The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.

Things get awkward.

This was the point at which I began to suspect that Pixar was outsmarting me.

Merida doesn’t win anything by winning the contest; in fact, it’s the event that sets off every conflict in the rest of the story. When Robin Hood did it, sure he got outed by the Sheriff of Nottingham, but what’s key is he proved beyond all doubt that he’s the best archer in the kingdom. Merida proved she could out-shoot any man, but it accomplishes nothing apart from alienating everyone.

So you could compare it to one of the best movies of all time, the “women can kick ass too” kung fu comedy Wing Chun. Wing Chun proves she’s a better fighter than any man in her village, but it just results in her becoming a lonely spinster and lots of comical misunderstandings on her course to true love. Know your place, ladies. The patriarchy is preserved! Leave the men’s work to the men.

But Brave spends so much of its time showing how ineffectual the “men’s work” actually is. The warriors spend most of the movie comically bumbling around the castle and occasionally bearing their asses. Later on, when it’s Mor’du-killin’ time: it’s not Fergus, the Bear King, who finally defeats his lifelong enemy; and it’s not Merida’s arrow that undoes her mistake. It’s Elinor, the diplomat, who saves the day. And not even in her “feral” form; she does it in “mom mode,” while protecting her daughter. Merida’s skill at archery isn’t in dispute, but it ultimately doesn’t solve anything. It’s just something she happens to be really good at.

Again, Loofbourow nails it: the movie’s full of storybook examples of bravery, but none of it accomplishes anything. There’s a sense that the time of warriors has passed, and the kingdom is entering the time of diplomats. The type of bravery that interests Brave is shown by Merida, long before the climax at the ring of stones. It’s when she steps up and takes on the responsibility of keeping the kingdom united, even at the risk of losing her freedom.

And Mor’du isn’t just some arbitrary, external villain with no motivation. His back story makes clear how little the story values raw strength. His wish was for the strength of ten men, but it ended tearing apart the kingdom and cursing him for years. He’d lost his humanity and become a monster.

By that measure, it’s too simplistic to look at the relationship between Fergus, Elinor, and Merida as an example of how gender roles work. Saying that Fergus represents the masculine while Elinor represents the feminine might be true, but it’s not particularly interesting.

What’s more interesting is to notice that Fergus represents independence and freedom, while Elinor represents duty and responsibility. The kingdom would fall without the influence of both. And Merida’s strength comes not just from her father, and not just from her mother, but from both parents.

The Witch’s Cottage and the Boys Club

As if it weren’t bad enough that Brave rejects the gender roles and “believe in your dreams!” moral that fairy tale movies are supposed to have, it also ignores the rules about how magic works in these stories. There’s no clear moral or motivation. The supernatural is just weird and alien, and none of it makes sense.

When I first saw the movie, I didn’t really understand what the will-o-the-wisps were all about. I’m still not entirely sure I understand. Are they good or bad? Considering how much the movie’s explicit message is about changing your fate, I’ve got to assume that they function like the wisps in the traditional folk stories: they lead travelers off their current path. They don’t represent good or evil, but change.

It’s not any easier to figure out the Witch’s motivations. When I first heard the story, I thought it was obvious: the Witch was teaching Merida a lesson. Magic in fairy tale stories always has a moral attached: be careful what you wish for. Riches and power don’t guarantee happiness. The real magic lives within you. Always let your conscience be your guide.

When Mor’du went to the Witch and asked for a spell to give him the strength of ten men, she granted that wish, but it came with a cost: he turned into a monster. So when Merida asked for the Witch’s help, the Witch knew that transforming Elinor into a bear would teach them both how valuable their relationship was, and it was only by returning to a state of nature that they’d realize how much they depend on civilization, and…

…and wait, that doesn’t really make sense at all. The final version of the first scene in the cottage makes it pretty clear that this isn’t a wicked old witch, or a kindly Fairy Godmother, or even a genie teaching Merida about the ironic downside to magic spells. It’s pretty clear that she’s just a crazy old woman with a bizarre fixation on bears.

Merida’s first discovery of the cottage isn’t played up with skulls, chains, and cobwebs like the Wicked Queen. And it’s not played for laughs, like the goofy anachronisms of Merlin’s magic in The Sword in the Stone. It’s more like, well, a more comical version of The Shining. What is all this stuff? Did I really see that? What does it mean?! It’s all just weird. It’s even more unsettling for the audience than it is for Merida, because Merida’s not going in with as many assumptions about how these situations are supposed to play out.

(The scene works so well, in fact, that it kind of ruins a clever gag later on in the Witch’s hut. Using potions as a medieval voice-mail menu would be a perfectly fine referential joke in any other Pixar movie; it’s exactly the kind of gag that the Toy Story movies use in the background. In Brave, though, it’s just kind of jarring, because everything else in the film works in fairy tale language, not “their world is a lot like ours” language).

One of the things that’s been lost from all the attempts to modernize fairy tales is the simple fact that magic isn’t supposed to make sense. It’s supposed to be alien, dangerous, and unpredictable. An ambivalent witch is somehow creepier that one who’s downright malicious — Merida discovers that solving her problem isn’t as simple as just sewing a tapestry back together. Without an identifiable villain to defeat and an understandable spell to break, the solution is a lot more mature and a lot less predictable. It requires understanding, not magic.

More than anything else, that’s what moves Brave away from being “just another Disney fairy tale” and squarely back into Pixar territory. Ultimately, it’s character that drives the story, not magic. We should be skeptical of any plot development that reduces to “a wizard did it,” and we should be skeptical of any story with an easily-digestible moral. Pixar movies have always seemed to have a focus on honesty — the gags in Toy Story come from nostalgia and a recognition that “this is how this world would really work.” The emotional moments in Finding Nemo come from giving two fish the emotions of a father and son. The comedy in Up comes from having a kid who really behaves like a kid, and dogs that really think like dogs, whether or not they can fly planes and talk.

Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of representation in the media. (If TV had more than just Paul Lynde and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it would’ve made my 20s and early 30s go a lot more smoothly). But I never gave much credence to the allegation that Pixar’s movies have been too male-dominated. I’ve never gotten the impression that Pixar was making movies for boys or for girls; it’s just always seemed that they’re going for stories that are universal.

I’m not a dad, but I still found myself bawling at Finding Nemo. I’ve never lost (or had) a spouse, but I still found myself bawling at Up. They’ve always seemed more focused on honesty than on demographics.

It’s fantastic for girls to be able to recognize themselves in a hero of a well-made movie. When I was at Walt Disney World, I loved seeing some girls lining up to get an autograph from Merida, and other girls carrying around toy bows and arrows. But after seeing so much preoccupation with what message the movie is sending to girls, I have to wonder whether people put more emphasis on the message than on the honesty underneath it. Are we selling princesses too hard, or are we telling them that it’s wrong to be so wrapped up in “princess stuff,” and they have to be interested in archery and horseback riding if they want to be interesting?

I’ve been deliberately staying ignorant of the details behind the production of Brave, so I’m not even going to speculate about how difficult it is for women to get into feature animation. And I don’t for a second believe it’s necessary to have a female protagonist or female director to make a movie with a female protagonist that has the kind of “honesty” I’m talking about. So hopefully it won’t be long before female characters are so commonplace that there’s no need to make such an issue of it.

Then we can change the focus from what message are we sending to girls and look deeper into the question of what message we’re sending to kids — okay, adults and, incidentally, any kids who happen to be in the audience. A simple twist on a stereotype isn’t much better than the stereotype itself. Saying “believe in yourself” isn’t considerably more helpful than “find the right magic spell.” The review of Brave in the Guardian says that Pixar makes movies about toys, bugs, monsters, cars, fish, super-heroes, rats, robots, talking dogs, and now princesses; I say they’ve always just been in the business of making movies about people.


Oh, right, I’m totally old now.

To be fair, I did say, out loud, that I wanted to be at a Disney park for my birthday. But I’d just kind of assumed that it’d be Disneyland, and that I’d be on vacation for a couple of days.

Still, it’s hard to complain about being put up in a sweet hotel that, for as long as I can remember, I’d look across the Seven Seas Lagoon and swear that one day I’d have enough money to be able to stay there.

Also, seeing as how it’s central Florida in late June, it’s hard to complain about working inside an air conditioned building. Especially when your “work” consists of 90% sitting around waiting for something to go wrong. Follow that up with watching fireworks by a volcano pool every night, and feeling no shame in getting a cookie to accompany every meal, and it puts it pretty damn high on the “rad jobs to have” list.

Sure, it would’ve been nice to be with friends or at least my cat on my birthday, but come on: not only is it 41, it’s on a Wednesday. That’s about as boring a non-event as a birthday can be. I’m not sure I know many people who’d be in that celebratory a mood on a Wednesday anyhow.

I’m going to be otherwise detained most of the day, so this is being written on the night before, which I’ve been treating as pre-birthday ramp-up. And it’s been a pretty nice evening, enjoying the lack of rain and relatively cool temperatures, keeping it low-key and relaxing around the hotel while the precious few moments remaining in my brief time on earth drift away into unused nothingness.

Plus I’m totally getting one of those big “it’s my birthday” badges on my way into work tomorrow morning.


More insomnia means a curiously revealing and yet still dull year-end list.

Tonight’s this morning’s hell I don’t even know anymore’s list topic: things I should technically be embarrassed to like as much as I do, but I’m on this new “there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure” kick.

The New Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated series
Except for maybe “The Powerpuff Girls,” any animated series aimed at kids has failed the second they make it smart enough for adults to like, too. I really like that the new series is for fans of the old series — they’ve got all kinds of callbacks to the original monsters, cameos from “New Scooby Doo Mysteries” celebrities like Don Knotts, and clever bits like casting Casey Kasem as Shaggy’s dad. And they have a season-wide story arc hinting at the original bunch of crime-solving teens in the same city, with their talking parrot. I hope it lasts.

Aquaman on the new “Brave and the Bold” series
The series isn’t quite as charming as it used to be, but Aquaman (voiced by John DiMaggio, who does Bender from Futurama and Jake from Adventure Time) is still the best character. Nice to see the guy finally getting a little respect, since he’s had a hard few decades.

Man vs Food
Everything about this show is just wrong. It’s a testament to gross American excess and waste, the host is plenty likeable but he talks through his nose, and they referred to Walnut Creek as “just outside of San Francisco.” But still, if it comes on, my ass is fixed to the couch and my eyes to the TV for hours, or until creepy Anthony Bourdain comes on, whichever comes first. I’m not proud of it, but it happens.

The Daily Puppy
is my favorite blog, hands down. Don’t tell my cat.

The “Walt Disney World Ephemera” group on Flickr
and the “Disney Printed Matter” group
There are billions and billions of groups for Disney fans on Flickr, but these two are specifically for maps, magazine ads, FastPasses, ride tickets, parking tickets, and old shopping bags. When I was younger, I used to sneak into my brother’s room and rummage through the bottom drawer of his dresser, because that’s where he kept the bags full of souvenirs from our previous trip to Disney World. (Other families hid porn, my family hid Disney souvenirs). To this day, the EPCOT Future World icons and original Walt Disney World logo and even this photo still trigger a glee response at the base of my spine. Also this.

More evidence that no matter what you’re into, there are at least fifty other people somewhere on the internet who are even more into it than you are. And yes, I mean the naughty stuff too.

And unrelated, but just because I love it a lot: “Whiners Can Be Losers” from the Cartoon Network’s golden days.

Si, so low we can’t hear you

Travel don’ts for the solitary urbanite

Down Main StreetIt seemed reasonable enough: I had to be in Orlando for business, I just left my job and felt like I could use a vacation, and I like Walt Disney World. Love roller coasters, love Aerosmith, hello. I still stand behind my logic leading up to this decision.

Perfect logic or not, I can’t recommend it. It’s not even like I’ve never been to places inappropriate for the Lonely Planet treatment. Paris? Just hit the Louvre, take photos from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and skip the moonlight walks along the Seine. Venice? Just glare at the guys trying to sell you roses and go to the next museum. Disneyland? I can’t really recommend it, but they get enough annual passholders that you can make a go of it solo. But Disney World may be the most inhospitable place for the single guy outside of a Lamaze class.

It’s not as if the parks failed me somehow; the place is just plain designed for families or couples on their way to being families. And the result of going solo is that you end up at the Orlando airport going through what felt like every single side effect listed in ads for Abilify.

But hey, Disney World! I’ve been at least thirty times and I still see something new each time, and this trip was no different. One of the unexpected highlights was the “Gran Fiesta Tour” in the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, formerly “El Rio del Tiempo.” It’s still not an E-Ticket, but it’s got exactly the right touch and tone: still all the charm or the original ride but without feeling embarrassingly dated, and still a tourist promotion for Mexico but without feeling too dry. Plus they brought the characters back, which is something Epcot’s always needed, and they did it the cool way by using the Three Caballeros.

The Main Street Electrical Parade isn’t new, but it’s back, and it still does a great job of making me feel like a six year old again.

I finally got to play through all of the missions in the final version of the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, and it’s pretty cool, and it seems to be pretty popular. It also gets you into parts of the pavilion you haven’t seen before. In the Japan pavilion, I found the other new-for-me thing, an exhibit called “Spirited Beasts.” It has a display devoted to different types of Obakemono (creatures of Japanese folklore) with representations from traditional art, toys and anime. And it’s the perfect kind of exhibit for Epcot: it teaches about Japanese folklore by making it relevant to the audience. I was very impressed.

Plus it was the first time I’d ever seen the hotel I stayed at, and they let you take a riverboat to Downtown Disney. And the only advantage to going alone: they’ve got single rider lines all over the place, so I got to ride Expedition Everest like five times in a row. That coaster gets better the more I ride it.

So I still recommend everybody take an extended trip to Disney World, just take a buddy. And deodorant.

Update: Disneyland Still Fun

splashterror.jpgFrom the “posting just to say I’m still alive” department:

Last weekend I tagged along with some friends to Disneyland and it was, despite United Airlines’ best efforts, a great big ton o’ fun. One of the many things I like about Disney parks is that you can go hundreds of times, covering every inch of the park and even poking around back stage, and still manage to see something new each time you go.

Most of the time, the combination of familiar classics + a little bit of novelty + Dole Whips is enough to remind you why Disney does an outstanding job with the parks, but occasionally you’ll see something amazing. This trip I saw three:

  • Remodeled Sleeping Beauty Castle Tour: This has been closed off for years, rumored to be the blame of post-9/11 hypersensitivity. Even before then, it wasn’t a must-see; it’s always neat to go inside, but the Barbie doll figures re-enacting the dullest scenes weren’t exactly a big draw. Now, they’ve installed some amazing effects installations that combine 2D and 3D animation with flats and what seems to be rear projection and fancy particle systems and even an interactive section (like the brass apple at the entrance to the Snow White ride). I still have no idea how they did some of those effects.
  • The Toy Story Zoetrope in the Animation pavilion at DCA: I’d seen video of this in action, and apparently I’ve even been to the park since it was installed, but I never saw it working before. It’s absolutely incredible. I watched about five or six cycles of it and would’ve stayed longer if I’d been at the park for an extra day. There’s a “making of” display that explains the process and gives credit to the original zoetrope at the Studio Ghibli museum. So now I have to go to the Studio Ghibli museum.
  • Toy Story Midway Mania at DCA: This was open the last time I went to Disneyland, but we didn’t feel like waiting in a 50-minute line. As it turns out, that may have been a huge mistake. The idea of taking the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride, converting it to carnival games, and adding 3D glasses just didn’t sound that compelling. I’ve talked to people who’d been on it, but never heard a review more enthusiastic than “It’s fun.” All this is either a sign that I’m completely out of the loop in things Disney-related (possible), or this is one of the most under-sold attractions in Disney history (also possible), because it’s fantastic. The effects are perfect, the controls are responsive, and the whole thing feels just seamless — it’s not just a dark ride that gives you a score at the end, but a real game that makes you want to come back and play again. And unlike any Disney attraction I’ve seen in recent memory, it doesn’t feel as if any concessions have been made. All the money was put into exactly the right places.

Sometimes I’m amazed at how creativity can survive under all the constraints that Disney is under: not just the usual constraints of budget, but the fact that you’ve got to make something that appeals to millions of people but still isn’t watered down for the lowest common denominator. And as the technology gets more sophisticated, it gets even harder: how can you deliver something with that “wow factor” and a five-year production cycle, when tech that’s cutting-edge today will be available in a Best Buy one year from now? (I can still remember when the touch screens at Epcot were an amazing thing). They seem to be taking the right approach here: make sure that the technology isn’t the focus; the characters and personality and fun are.

There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware

it's a small world
So there’s a good bit o’ hoopla on the internet (at least among those of us who follow this sort of thing) about Disney’s changes to the “it’s a small world” ride at Disneyland. In brief: characters from popular Disney and Pixar movies have been inserted into their “home” countries, bits of Disney theme songs have been inserted into the soundtrack, and a new “America” section has been added.

First, back up a step, for something disclaimerish: Pretty much every genre of thing you can imagine has its own brand of obsessive fandom, but Disney’s in its own weird territory. There are people right this moment in the darkened comic book corners of the web, going into nerdrage over the developments of Final Crisis or whatever, but comic books are always going to be a relatively tiny subset of the population. Not so with Disney: they’re making stuff that has to appeal to millions of people, from the people who drop in for a weekend for the first time in 30 years, to the people who go to every ride and take obsessive pictures of peeling paint in the ride queues to post on their “What Would Walt Think?” blogs.

I’m definitely on the nerdy Disney fan end of the spectrum, but not quite enough to go into a sputtering rage over anything the company does. Except for the Tiki Room renovation in Florida. Whoever was in charge of that pissed on my childhood and should suffer for it.

So back to the “it’s a small world” (note my use of the preferred capitalization, a reminder of my Disney nerd status). A tribute to UNICEF, created for the World’s Fair, and Disney marketing suits are coming in and trashing it with crass merchandising possibilities. What a horrible insult to Disney and Mary Blair’s art and character design!

That’s the story you’re being told, anyway. If you look at pictures of the actual characters, though, it’s a little different. I’d had an image of Disney suits sweeping through the windows of the stores on Main Street and taking the character models out, then cramming them clumsily into a classic ride. (For an example: see the Tiki Room renovation in Florida). But the characters in those photos are done in exactly the same style of the “it’s a small world” characters that have been there for decades. If it hadn’t been picked up by the AP and spread throughout the internet by indignant Disney fans, I might’ve assumed that Alice & the White Rabbit had always been there, and I just never noticed.

So to make it clear: this is in fact a terrible, terrible idea. The people complaining have a point: the ride wasn’t intended to be about Disney characters, it had its own “world” and its own theme. Over the years, the company has managed to chip away at every “original IP” attraction that’s unique to the parks — the Swiss Family Treehouse, the Country Bears, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean — and insert Disney characters, turning the parks into a big homogenized — but synergistic! — mess. The quotes from Disney reps about how “Walt always wanted the park to never be finished” seem like a total cop-out in this instance. They could’ve revamped the ride, added a section that was true to its theme, anything to refresh it and make it feel new. There would’ve been complaints (because everything DIsney does gets complaints), but they would’ve been unjustified. Adding existing characters isn’t new or fresh or imaginative, however. It’s the opposite of new.

But. If they had to do it, it looks like the best job they could’ve possibly done. Based on the photos, it seems much less intrusive than the addition of movie characters to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and that ride suffered from the changes but wasn’t ruined by them.

So the question is: did they have to do it? Probably not. It’s not going to add riders, since they people who ride “it’s a small world” are going to ride it no matter whether Aladdin’s in there or not. Are they going to buy Aladdin or any of its direct-to-DVD sequels after seeing him in the ride? Probably not.

But consider this: so many people have complained about the theme song, and complained about hating the ride, and how grown-ups don’t enjoy going on it, that an eighteen-year-old attraction in Disney parks have parodied “it’s a small world.” If the ride now has an activity that parents can do with their kids, pointing out the characters they already recognize, is that the death of Disneyland as we know it?

Team Possible

I wanted to say congratulations to my friends at Disney Imagineering for completing the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at Epcot in Orlando. The attraction went into “soft opening”/preview mode last week, and everything I’ve seen online says that it’s a big hit so far. One of the quotes from this article about the attraction says, “It’s like a modern day Tiki Room, but on a grander scale — I think Walt himself would get a real kick out of this attraction.”

It’s a great concept, and it sounds like they made all the right decisions when making it permanent after the playtest. Now I’ve got to find some time to make it down to Florida and try it out for myself. And encourage them to install a version of it at Disneyland.