One Thing I Love About Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s a ton of fantastic stuff packed into Shang-Chi, but my favorite was choosing an antagonist who’s In the Mood for Love

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was compelling enough to get me into a theater, which is good because Disney insisted on releasing it in theaters only, while we’re still in the midst of learning about the impact of the Delta variant. Good job, Disney! (Kudos to the Alamo Drafthouse in SF for requiring proof of vaccination on entrance, and of course having lots of space in between the seats).

Still, the movie was worth the effort and the trip, stuffed full — overstuffed, even — of different movie genres they wanted to absorb into the MCU. Why not combine 30 years of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema into one movie, and throw another Ant Man in, while they’re at it?

I thought it was excellent, and a little more focus, plus some more breathing room between sequences, would’ve made it perfect. As it is, you just have to settle for several fantastic action sequences, tons of CGI spectacle that somehow managed to be genuinely thrilling, and several of the most preternaturally charismatic performers the world’s biggest movie franchise can attract and afford.

Ever since I first saw her donkey-kicking fools on top of a speeding train in Supercop, Michelle Yeoh has been my favorite part of anything she’s in. Simu Liu is so handsome, ripped, adept at both action sequences and light comedy, and so effortlessly charming, that he might as well have been genetically engineered to lead an American mega-corporation’s attempt at creating a new kung fu franchise. In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the movie, which is remarkable considering that everyone has to shift constantly between action and comedy with little warning.

So it’s saying something that even with all of that going on, the performance that stood out to me as exceptional was Tony Leung’s as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu.1Also I just saw on IMDB that he and I have the same birthday, which is rad.

It took the movie into a direction I hadn’t expected at all, making it feel more substantial than a super-hero blockbuster take on a kung fu movie. Explaining why would require spoiling some of the surprises of the movie, which would be a shame, since I was surprised that it even had the capacity to surprise me.

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Walt Disney World, Part 2: Report Card

A run-down of the trip I took over a month ago

For years, Disney and I have had this implicit agreement: I would spend a considerable amount of money to go to their theme parks, they would ask me repeatedly to fill out a survey describing my experience, I would treat the survey like a solemn obligation and give my detailed feedback, Disney would politely discard the results.

I don’t know what happened to that arrangement for my once-in-a-lifetime birthday trip this year, because it’s been a month since we got back and I never got a survey. So now I gotta take it to the internet, I guess.

My overall review: it was an excellent trip that satisfied something I’ve wanted to do for almost literally my entire life. Disney World has been hugely important to me at key times throughout my life: some of my best times with my family, hugely inspirational for my career at every step, and the site of some of my best work experiences. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being able to take an extended vacation there. It’s amazing that everything finally fell into place to make it possible.

It also made me realize how fragile the “magic” of a Disney vacation is: when everything is working together, it’s outstanding; when something goes wrong, it sets off a cascade of failures that can make it all come crashing down. To be clear, I don’t have any patience at all for the people who constantly complain about how expensive everything is at a Disney park. I mean, you knew the cost going in, so if you’re still whining about it — especially if you’re asinine enough to wear one of those “Most Expensive Day Ever” shirts — then you’re just trying to drag everybody else down to be as much of a miserable chode.

But. When you’re surrounded by examples of Disney cutting costs, or giving a diminished experience and blaming it on COVID, and still charging the same amount as they did pre-pandemic, it can be extremely disheartening. There were a couple of days when I set out in the best mood, with the highest expectations, and had so many things chip away at me — slow or shut-down transportation, no parking lot trams, no shade, not enough places to sit, not enough air conditioning — that I was already in a foul mood long before they charged me five bucks for a small plastic cup filled with Powerade.

Since the rest of this post is likely to come across as hyper-critical, I’ll say again that it was a great birthday trip overall, and I’m fortunate that everything came together for us to be able to go. It satisfied my curiosity for an extended Disney World vacation, and I think I’ll be happy limiting future Disney trips to a couple days at a time. (And yes, this will be a food-heavy report, both because I really like food and eating it, and also because there were few attractions available that I haven’t been on dozens of times before).

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Another Thing I Love About Black Widow

More thoughts about Black Widow, and how clever it was to pit Natasha against the Taskmaster.

It’s a little frustrating to see so many reviewers dismissing Black Widow as being too overloaded with Marvel Cinematic Universe action to have any depth — or worse, dismissing the entire MCU as commerce — because it’s a sure sign the reviewer is just phoning it in. Some of them seem to be pre-written like celebrity obituaries, making the same predictable complaints with each installment, just copy-and-pasting in a new movie title to maximize search engine optimization.

It’s frustrating because we’ve all got assumptions about how super-hero movies work, but I think Black Widow shows how super-hero movies can work. It is undeniably packed full of over-the-top action sequences that, especially towards the end, strain any notion of believability. But it’s also completely aware that those action sequences are at the core of a super-hero movie. Instead of trying to compartmentalize them away from the “real cinema” of thematic exploration and character development, it’s really clever in how it uses the action to introduce or reinforce the themes.

One of the best examples of that is how it introduces a new incarnation of the villain The Taskmaster to the MCU. In the comics, it’s a character from the 80s who trains other mercenaries, and whose super-power is being able to reproduce a hero’s abilities and fighting style just by watching them. In Black Widow, the character’s super-power is being able to perfectly encapsulate a hero’s character development and personal growth.

To explain why requires lots of spoilers, though, so don’t read this unless you’ve seen Black Widow.

Credit goes to Ryan Arey for his video giving his take on “the real meaning of the movie and her journey in the MCU,” which if I’m being honest, is a little too reductive for me, but does a great job making explicit a lot of aspects of the movie that I appreciated, but couldn’t put into words how and why. Watching that video, and a re-watch of Captain America: The Winter Solider, which I highly recommend to get more out of Black Widow, helped clarify it.

Read More if you’ve already seen the movie

One Thing I Love About Black Widow

I mean, it’s Florence Pugh, 100%. But also, the tone.

I admit I was skeptical about Black Widow, and I’d been assuming that it’d be the first MCU entry (apart from The Incredible Hulk, which has never seemed like it really counted) that I didn’t see in its theatrical release. But the combination of mostly positive reviews, and the chance to see a movie in a theater for the first time in over a year and a half, made me change my mind.

Good call on my part, as it turns out, since the movie is fantastic. I might still be in a post-action-movie high, and I’ll change my mind as time passes, but right now it’s one of my favorite entries in the entire series.

The reason I was skeptical was probably common to anyone who’d pre-judged it based on the trailers: Marvel spectacle inflation. This looked like a spy-themed, entirely Earth-based action movie. The MCU is pretty good at those, but it’s hard to get super-enthused after they’ve had super-powers, aliens, Norse gods, space travel, and wiped out half the population of the universe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been a favorite of mine for the way it integrated a Marvel super-hero movie with the feel of a paranoid 1970s spy thriller, but I still have to admit that it only really picked up for me when they had super-villains embedded in old computers. Natasha is allowed to be an absolute bad-ass in that one, but it still feels as if she’s supporting the super-heroes.

That’s one of the things Black Widow makes fun of, the idea that Natasha is one of the “lesser” Avengers. The character who’s keeping her in her place — which includes mocking her well-known three-point landing as “posing” — is Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh in a performance that threatens to steal the whole movie.

She’s sardonic without ever completely giving in to bitterness, tough without seeming invulnerable, irreverent without seeming glib. All with an accent that is probably accurate but still feels like it’s from a cornier spy movie, but still somehow true to the character. She makes it an outstanding hero origin story, because she so thoroughly inhabits a comic book character without letting it veer too far into realism or too far into camp.

That perfect balance of tone is carried throughout the movie. This has some of the darkest material of any of the MCU installments I’ve seen, with ever-present reminders that this is a story about betrayal, paranoia, abandonment, abuse, and human trafficking. But it treats everything with what I think is an appropriate level of gravity, without letting it become completely bleak and somber.

From the trailers, I’d been worried that it would be just another wise-cracking action movie. The scene of Natasha’s family getting back together was highlighted in the trailers as a bit of comic relief at Alexi’s (David Harbour) expense. That turns out to have been a bit of a bait-and-switch, since in the movie, it’s an extremely sinister moment with an extremely sad undertone.

The Breakfast All Day review mentioned one moment that I think illustrates the balance in tone perfectly: in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha explains that she was sterilized as part of the Widow program, in a scene that’s played for maximum emotional impact. In Black Widow, Yelena describes her hysterectomy a lot more bluntly and matter-of-factly. As Alonso Duralde points out, not only is it less about equating a woman’s worth with her capacity to bear children, it’s truer to the characters and the way they would think about what’s been done to them.

It’s also truer to the tone of the movie overall: this is a movie about characters surviving and fighting against the trauma they’ve gone through, not using it to manufacture pathos. It’s tempting to join the dogpile on Joss Whedon for setting up powerful women characters just to put them through torture, especially since WandaVision showed how her character could’ve been handled so much less clumsily. But really, it’s a problem throughout a series that has never been quite sure how to handle characters who aren’t super-powered.

The trailer including that scene at the dinner table, with Alexi stuffing himself into his Red Guardian suit, is also a bait-and-switch because it implies a break in the action. But the action in Black Widow never completely lets up. It’s relentless without being exhausting. People complain about the dominance of the MCU, but one of the advantages is that it can include one of the most exciting car chases I’ve ever seen — which would’ve used up the entire budget of a normal movie — and it’s still just getting started. “I could do this all day.”

Again, that car chase isn’t a shift in tone into action mode. It’s establishing Yelena’s character and her relationship with Natasha. Black Widow manages to do what few action movies can pull off, which is combine character development and plot momentum with action scenes, never at the expense of either. There’s a sense that chase scenes, daring heists, shoot-outs, and exposition-filled mission debriefs are the only way these characters can really communicate with each other.

Early in the movie, Natasha is shown watching Moonraker on a laptop, in a scene that foreshadows the level of spectacle that’s yet to come. It’s a neat inclusion because it establishes Moonraker as fantasy; this movie will soon be hitting (and then exceeding) the scale of that spy adventure, but without all of its camp.

By the time Black Widow reaches its climax, piling spectacle on top of spectacle and stunt on top of stunt, I was a little taken aback. Up to that point, the movie had been smart and thrilling, but relatively grounded compared to the rest of the MCU. But then I remembered: not only is this still the MCU, it’s Natasha’s long-overdue showcase as one of the Avengers. Not just a supporting character. Earlier, Yelena had called her a “super-hero,” but in context, it seemed mocking. By the end, it’s clear that there was no mockery at all. Natasha may not have had super powers, but she was still every bit a super-hero.

Even before the pandemic delayed it over a year, I had been thinking that Black Widow was coming far too late to have any relevance. No matter how much I liked the character, her story was over. While the rest of the universe was mourning Tony Stark and speculating on the fate of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff had simply closed out her story as a self-sacrificing hero. A prequel would add nothing.

I was mistaken. I said that Florence Pugh “threatens to” steal the movie (along with Rachel Weisz, who was perfectly creepy, and who incidentally seems to also be stealing Paul Rudd’s anti-aging serum), because as much as Black Widow sets up her character to be a great addition to the next phase of the MCU, it’s also a fantastic conclusion for Natasha’s character. It takes near-throwaway bits of her backstory and makes them not just trauma she has to overcome, but a cause to fight for. It calls back to her most standout moments in The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War, and shows why she wasn’t just Captain America’s or Nick Fury’s assistant, but a key member of the Avengers, and more than just a poser.

I’m sure future installments will be full of action, drama, intrigue, comedy, magic, spectacle, science fiction, lasers, robots, mad scientists, and anything else that can fit into a comic book movie. But they’ll have a hard time keeping all of it in as perfect balance as Black Widow does.

Walt Disney World, Part 1: Leaving the Bubble

My recent trip to Walt Disney World changed my idea of what I want out of a vacation

This summer, my fiancé and I went on a ten-day trip to Walt Disney World for my 50th birthday. Because it was such an arbitrarily momentous occasion, I was selfish and splurged in all the ways I’ve never been able to before: two days in each park, a whole day devoted to just hanging out at the hotel, dinners at some of the fanciest restaurants we could get reservations for, and staying at my two favorite hotels for peak nostalgia value.

I’ve spent most of the last year convinced that with everything terrible happening, it was inevitable that something was going to go wrong and make the trip impossible. But somehow, everything came together: we were both able to get vaccinated, our neighbors graciously offered to take care of the cat, we managed to get time off work, my favorite hotels opened up (at least partially), and Disney ran a discount that made the hotels just ridiculously expensive instead of impossibly expensive.

It ended up being a terrific birthday, and about as nice as it can possibly be to spend ten days in central Florida in late June. As great as it was, though, I could feel my perspective subtly shifting while I was down there. This felt like the last time I’ll take a lengthy trip to Disney World. Not just because I’ll never be able to justify the cost again, but because it doesn’t feel like my type of thing anymore.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not actually committing blasphemy by saying I’ll never go again. I already want to see the new stuff that’s going to be opening for the anniversary and in 2022, and onward. I’d love to be able to stay at — I mean take a space cruise on the Star Wars not-a-hotel when it opens. But this felt like checking “dream Disney World vacation” off of a list, and I don’t feel the need to do it again.

It’s not that I’m getting tired of it, either. I got absurdly spoiled on previous jobs where I’d spend weeks at a time at the parks, and it never got old. (Almost. It turns out that two weeks living on theme park food is my limit). Instead, I think I’m just at the point where I want something different out of a vacation.

I can honestly say I’ve never had any hesitation or regrets about spending almost all my vacation time at Disney parks. Complaints that they’re just for kids, and it’s weird for childless adults to go there, are just absurd, and I never even give them a second thought. Same for complaints that it’s all a corporate money-making machine; I mean, welcome to the 21st century.

The only complaint that’s ever gotten any real traction with me is that it’s all manufactured, a fake substitute for “the real thing.” And that pretty much dissolved as soon as I went to Italy, and I realized that Epcot’s version felt more realistic than actual Venice and parts of Rome. I’m skeptical that the people so dismissive of Disney are actually going on exotic adventure treks, or living like a native in delightful out-of-the-way sections of foreign cities, but even if they are, that’s not me.

I’m not convinced that “travel and live like the locals do” is actually a thing, at least unless you’re lucky enough to have friends who are locals. And even then, I’m not convinced it’s all that great a goal. I live in one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the United States, and the thought of people paying money to recreate my day-to-day experience is profoundly depressing. They’d have a lot more fun doing the predictable, touristy stuff accessible to everyone: going to Fisherman’s Wharf, taking photos of the Golden Gate from the Marin Headlands, riding a cable car, getting a Mission burrito, desperately searching for a public restroom.

I’ve been lucky to do a fair bit of traveling, and I’ve always ended up in the touristy areas anyway, if only because I’m helplessly monolingual. I don’t even like talking to strangers in English; it was stressful enough being in Ireland, and people constantly greeting me with “Are you okay?” as if I looked like something horrible had happened to me. The idea of actually roughing it — either in terms of residence or social interaction — doesn’t sound like a relaxing vacation in the slightest.

So I’ve realized that I’ve spent years thinking about Disney parks — especially Walt Disney World, with its emphasis on all the resorts and stuff to do “inside the bubble” — in the wrong way. I’ve thought of them as taking a real-world travel adventure and making it safer, more compact, and more generically family-friendly. But now, I realize that it’s actually taking a family-friendly vacation and trying to inject a little bit of real-world adventure into it. It really doesn’t matter at all that it’s not an authentic experience; all it needs to do is give you something to look at and do that’s more interesting than just sitting by a hotel pool.

And I can’t speak for anybody else, but now that I’m firmly in my middle age, the idea of sitting by a hotel pool is more attractive than it’s ever been. My travel goals for the future are seeking out the most comfortable hotel pools in the most exotic places.

Next up: my report card for the trip.

Mine Train Through Nature’s Bafflingly Sexist Wonderland

Disneyland’s Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland closed in 1977 (according to Wikipedia), and by the first time I went to the park, its replacement Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had already become a 20-year-old classic. So I never saw the original ride, but knew just enough about it to be able to recognize references to it.

For instance, one of the best Mickey Mouse shorts, Nature’s Wonderland, is full of references to the entire history of the ride, from the Rainbow Caverns to Big Thunder Mountain, and even Disneyland itself. I’ve seen this one several times, and patted myself on the back for catching the references, but I never knew how much was being referenced.

Fortunately, someone on YouTube compiled a full ride-through of the Nature’s Wonderland attraction, combining a recording of the original voiceover with restored film and photos from various sources at the appropriate points. It’s fascinating to see the whole thing put together after years of seeing and hearing about specific scenes and saying, “Yeah, I get it.” Some things I never realized:

  • How long and meandering it was. Everything was a lot more leisurely back in the early days of Disneyland, before concerns about capacity ruled everything.
  • It puts the Calico Mine Train at Knott’s into better context, which has seemed to be this weird outlier among any other theme park ride I’ve seen.
  • I never appreciated just how much Big Thunder Mountain Railroad calls back to Nature’s Wonderland, from Rainbow Ridge and the rainbow caverns, to the dinosaur bones at the end.
  • I never appreciated how bafflingly, unnecessarily sexist the original voice-over was.

It’s almost comical how often the narration veers off into “ahhh, women, am I right, fellas?” for no reason. I’m guessing this was part of the good-natured comedy that was injected to keep the rides at Disneyland from being too dry, as they were in their original incarnations. Regardless, it’s kind of a stark reminder of how much the parks have evolved over the years.

It seems especially relevant now, since Disney has changed the opening of its fireworks shows from the traditional “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…” to a more generalized and inclusive one. As usual, people are complaining about political correctness, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the parks have been updated to be more inclusive to guests for decades. And they haven’t lost their classic charm, either.

Complaints from self-proclaimed “traditionalists” depend on the erroneous idea that things have always been a certain way, and it’s modern special interests trying to ruin everything to fit their own special agendas. What they ignore or deny is that the “traditional” versions were a special interest imposing their own special agenda on everyone — it’s not as if everyone in 1960 was delighted to hear needless misogyny (no matter how seemingly gentle) on a theme park ride. It’s a safe bet that a lot of Disneyland visitors found it grating, but not enough to make a big deal out of it or anything.

Remember that the next time you see some chucklewit complaining about encroaching wokeness. Take a step back and realize how changes made for the purposes of inclusivity have been happening forever.

Jungle Cruise, or, The Wonderful World of Corny

The Jungle Cruise movie has already won me over before I’ve even seen it.

To be clear: I’m fully prepared for Jungle Cruise to be more the disappointment of The Haunted Mansion than the thoroughly pleasant surprise of Pirates of the Caribbean. Obviously, I hope it’s as much the goofy spectacle that the trailers promise; we are long overdue for another The Mummy. But I’m not going to be shocked or crushed if it turns out to be empty nonsense.

But as far as I’m concerned, they’ve already won just by virtue of the marketing campaign. The ongoing gag is Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson bickering with each other for attention, most brilliantly illustrated by the teaser posters, with the Rock peeking over Blunt’s shoulder, or her face mostly obscured by a torch.

Two new trailers continue the gag, and they’re a little bit more corny and obvious than the posters, but I mean, this is a movie based on the Jungle Cruise. Corny and obvious should be the go-to. This is still obviously a Disney take on The African Queen, but I was happy to see so many references to the ride in the Rock’s trailer.

I was even happier to see Paul Giamatti chewing up the scenery. One thing Giamatti and Johnson have in common is that they always understand exactly what they’re making. It’s definitely not always good, but when it’s bad, it’s never because they didn’t get the tone right.

This isn’t an easy tone to get right. The combination of corniness, self-awareness, and CGI-heavy spectacle can be completely insufferable — or worse, forgettable — if any of it’s out of balance. But no matter how the movie’s turned out, I’ve already enjoyed the hell out of the version that’s playing out in my imagination, based on the promotional material.

Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Thoughts about the relentlessly delightful ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida

We just got back from a week-and-some-change-long trip to Walt Disney World for a milestone birthday. I’ll probably have more to say about it later after I’ve done more reminiscin’, but there were two immediate standouts: the Skyliner, and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

The ride replaced The Great Movie Ride in the Chinese Theater at the center of the park, and it’s notable for being the first ride with the Mickey Mouse characters. (There have been shows and movies, but never a ride).

I just loved it. I’d already spoiled myself by watching ride-throughs on YouTube, but still had a huge grin throughout, both times we got to ride it. It most reminded me of the first time I rode Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland, not just because they’re both trackless ride systems, but because they’re both start-to-finish delightful in a way that supersedes individual gags or overall spectacle.

There’s too much it does well for me to pick just one thing, so here’s five:

Continue reading “Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway”

One Thing I Like About Loki

The new Loki series is a victory for “genre fiction,” since it’s full of weird stuff that’s not that weird anymore.

Pretty early in the first episode of Loki, there’s a brief scene where he’s forced to consider whether he’s a robot without being aware of it. I like the scene because it’s got such good line reads from both actors. More than that, though, it’s a good example of how the MCU acknowledges the absurdity of the whole premise of the MCU: trying to translate decades of comic book weirdness into “mainstream” movies and television.

I liked the first episode of the series a lot, but there wasn’t the same “electricity” I felt from the novelty of watching WandaVision. And I don’t think that’s a criticism! It’s a sign that 10+ years of gradually pushing out the borders of what’s “too weird for Hollywood” has paid off.

There’s so much great stuff going on in this series: the set direction, art direction, costume design, prop design, a fantastic retro animated sequence, some imaginative VFX with various time doorways and what is essentially an “exposition projector,” not to mention great casting including the always-welcome Pillboy. (Eugene Cordero, who’s just great).

And yet, I don’t have much to say about it! It’s not that novel anymore; its presence alone isn’t that remarkable. Which means I don’t have to consider the changing level of respectability of genre fiction in the mainstream, parallels to aesthetics of the Fallout series, how ideas established in comics translate to live action, any of it. I can just enjoy watching it. (Of course, I realize I don’t have to write about any of this stuff for free on a personal blog; I just am unable to turn off that portion of my brain for some reason).

The first episode was full of moments and design decisions that would’ve drawn attention to themselves just a few years ago, but now it just feels like it all simply works without comment.

Also, I was surprised at the end of the episode. We’ve known about the premise of this series forever, so in retrospect, the revelation probably should’ve been obvious. “Who’s the villain in a Loki series?” But I didn’t see it coming at all, which I take as a sign that I was actually watching the show, instead of being in detached cinema studies/media analysis mode. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of metatext, but just as a story.

Which is how most of the source comics work, now that the 90s are over and there’s less of a trend of high-profile comics stories about comics stories. It feels like we can stop defending genre fiction and justifying genre fiction, and just enjoy genre fiction. And appreciate a Marvel series that finally seems to be embracing the Marvel aesthetic.

Image of the Timekeepers and the "sacred timeline" from the animated sequence in the first episode of Loki

999 Happy Cooks

An idle observation about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it timeless

At this point, I’ve read two books about Disney’s Haunted Mansion; Rolly Crump’s autobiography, which as you’d expect contains a lot of his stories about working on the attraction and the Museum of the Weird; and I’ve gotten to ride the three versions of the attraction in Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo, plus the Phantom Manor in Paris. So I’ve got some opinions.

To give an idea of how much I like this ride: one morning, I got the opportunity to ride the Magic Kingdom’s version over a dozen times back-to-back — I lost count, but I think it was 16 times? — and if I’d been given the option (and had a bathroom break), I would’ve wanted to ride it over a dozen more. It would be going a bit too far to say that you see new details every time you ride, because there’s definitely a point at which you’ve seen everything, but it doesn’t get old because it’s just fun to be surrounded by all of it.

One recurring bit of information that I’ve seen pop up repeatedly is that many of the Imagineers who worked on the ride — Marc Davis in particular — weren’t happy with how it turned out. In The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Jeff Baham describes how the attraction went through years of design with multiple teams of Imagineers assigned, all with different styles and opinions about how the attraction should be focused. Some wanted stronger story, while other wanted “mood.” A persistent argument, never settled even after the ride opened, was whether the attraction should be funny or scary. Baham cites an interview from Haunted Attraction Magazine, in which Davis says there were “too many cooks.”

Marc Davis was a genius, and his work is indisputably one of the main reasons I love Disney parks so much. But I disagree on this one. I think the apparent lack of focus in The Haunted Mansion is exactly why it’s so timeless, and why I never seem to get tired of it.

For evidence: the Phantom Manor in Paris. It’s more cohesive, more consistent, and more polished. The visual design of the house itself — like just about everything in Disneyland Paris — is striking, and it sets a perfect mood as an Old West version of the Bates house. It’s got a story that (if I remember correctly) is made all but explicit, which fits in as a key part of the fully-fleshed-out story of the entire land. It felt to me like a team had the vision of what they wanted from the start, and they worked to make everything fit. And it didn’t do a thing for me.

The key impression I got of the attraction was that it was overwrought. There’s very little of the fun and humor I associate with the “real” Haunted Mansion. The tone does lighten up in the last act of the ride, but by that point, I was just left with an overall feeling that they’d tried harder to make the story work than to make the experience fun.

Even an attraction I love, the Tower of Terror, loses a little something from its focus on story. The build-up can’t be beat: seeing the tower from a distance, passing the sign into the ominous queue, the path through the garden covered in fog from the misters if you’re there on a hot day, haunting 30s jazz music coming quietly from out of nowhere, an abandoned fountain with a long-neglected statue, the cobweb-covered lobby, and then the preshow that has the lightning from the TV escape out into the real world… it’s just exceptional place-building. But then our characters are zapped into the Twilight Zone, and the whole thing is over.

And while I haven’t ridden Rise of the Resistance enough to be sure, my first impression is that its story is part of what’s kept it from being one of my all-time-number-one favorite attractions. It is a phenomenal piece of design and execution, but I was still left with the feeling “Well, that happened.” It felt over, instead of ongoing.

I get the sense that there’s a long-running “debate” within Imagineering — frankly, probably more within the nerds like me who have strong opinions about Imagineering — about what it means to say that Disney’s strength is “story.” My opinion is that “story” is the best word for it, but that’s only because I can’t think of a good word for “something in between just a themed queue, and a narrative with beginning, middle, and end.”

The Haunted Mansion feels endless. Even as you’re leaving, the ghosts are encouraging you to hurry back. It’s a place, not a story, and it feels as if things are happening inside, and will continue happening forever, even when I’m not there to see them. It’s obviously most similar in tone, design, and structure to Pirates of the Caribbean, but unlike that ride, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching scenes from the past, but from a perpetual present.

Except that’s not quite it, either. One of the things that makes Walt Disney World’s version superior — for the record: California has the better exterior, Florida has the better interior, there will be no further questions — is that it has so many paintings still on display. They’re intensely nostalgic, of a very specific time and aesthetic, which is late 60s camp horror. Some have the quality of the best Scooby-Doo concept and background art, some seem straight out of horror comics like Creepy and Eerie, some feel like cover art of a cheap horror paperback.

Combined with other memorable visual touches throughout the mansion — like the chair next to the endless hallway, or the eyes repeated in the wallpaper — they’re such a specific aesthetic that they feel unquestionably designed. It’s foolish to assign sole authorship to anything in something as collaborative as a Disney theme park attraction, much less one with such a long process involving so many people not just in the original version but with all the refurbs, but the details feel distinctly like they were made by someone. Not a committee, or a project leader, but individual artists. Each adding their mark to the house over the years, like a real mansion.

Disney fans like to make it sound as if originality in the parks is doomed because of the company’s preoccupation with IP over original attractions, as if there weren’t at least a dozen counter-examples of outstanding attractions based on an existing property. I think that’s mostly nonsense, but there is the tiniest of valid criticisms at the core of it: making something as long-lasting as a Disney attraction needs to have enough room for it to be indefinitely expansive. Even if you have a ton of talented people working to the best of their ability, all filling the experience with tons of expertly-crafted details, it’s inevitably going to feel a bit small if it’s kept tight, focused, and cohesive, instead of being given room to grow and be at least a little bit weird.