True Believers

(Over-)Thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it’s “cinema,” or if it’s something even more relevant to the 21st century

Hey, did everybody catch the latest episode of WandaVision. It was pretty rad. The feeling of a TV-series-long homage to “It’s a Good Life” was stronger than ever, with the added depth of being invested in the characters to make it super sinister. My favorite gag in the whole episode was how they called back to the various ways TV series have tried to hide an actor’s pregnancy over the years: putting them in big coats, standing behind counters, holding a bowl of fruit.

While I was reading back over my gushing about WandaVision, a few things stood out: first was that I seriously need an editor.

Second is that I referred to Paul Bettany as “Jennifer Connelly’s husband,” which could come across as a weird dig against him out of nowhere, but I really intended it as a dig against his agent. Or probably more accurately, the byzantine union rules that resulted in his getting top billing over Elizabeth Olsen. Because that doesn’t seem fair at all. Bettany himself, on the other hand, seems pretty cool.

But third was how I put in a dig against Martin Scorsese for saying that “Marvel movies aren’t ‘cinema.'” This was a quote that I’d heard a while ago, back when the internet was trying to gin it up into a controversy, but at the time I just rolled my eyes and moved on. Last week I realized that if I’m going to keep referencing it, I should probably look it up and see what he actually said.

And I was disappointed. I’d expected it disagree entirely, but I figured that coming from a filmmaker with Scorsese’s stature, it would be a well-thought-out and multi-layered argument. Instead, it’s just the same old “high art vs low art” gate-keeping that fans of “genre fiction” have been used to seeing for decades. It uses a narrow definition of “cinema” that is just flexible enough to include the stuff that Scorsese likes, it conflates subject matter with artistic merit, and it goes on to conflate artistic merit with financing, production, distribution, and exhibition. And it should come as little surprise that it frames the predominance of “franchise pictures” as the death of the auteur-driven film model in which he became world-famous and widely respected.

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“I Love WandaVision”

Reviewing (or really, effusively gushing about) the first two episodes of the new MCU series WandaVision

Two warnings first: 1) This has spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision. 2) I’ve barely read any Marvel comics, so if you got here via a search, hoping for easter eggs and hidden comics references and storyline speculation, I’m no help. Luckily for you, there’s a metric shitton of that already online: ScreenCrush has a bunch and tries to speculate on future story developments, while Nerdist keeps it a little bit more to the comics references themselves.

As an only-partially-abashed fan of Disney, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve maybe been a little too much of an apologist for global media conglomerates. I feel like I’ve abandoned any claim to indie cred several times over, when I suggest that not all IP is bad, and that sometimes mega-budgeted corporate productions can result in fantastic experiences.

WandaVision makes me feel a little vindicated, because I’m skeptical you’d ever see something quite like it without ten years of blockbuster movies and a corporate-owned streaming service behind it.

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IP Freely

Finding inspiration for independent creativity via an investor announcement from a multi-billion-dollar multinational entertainment conglomerate

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in a mopey funk thinking about intellectual property vs creator-owned original work, and how the landscape of creative work has changed so dramatically, and what it says about my own career.

My first job in video games was for a sequel to a game that I loved, and after working on several more sequels and licensed titles over the years, I finally got to work with some of my all-time favorite characters. I even got to make my own small contribution with an original character.1Well, as original as a pastiche of at least five different other characters can be. Recently I saw that character being used as company branding for a license-holder who’s making re-releases for the games, which just feels like giving me a huge middle finger.

I guess the lesson learned, after 25 years, is: never confuse a “feeling of ownership” over something you’ve made with actual ownership. Turns out that the conversion rate between USD and a sense of pride in a creative work is, at the time of this writing, 0.00.

Way back in the dark mists of the mid-1990s, when I was working in that first job in game development, there was a pervasive false dichotomy between “licensed titles” (the term “intellectual property” hadn’t really hit mainstream yet) and original work. In short, you were either working on something original, or you were selling out.2The first company I worked at had a couple of gigantic all-encompassing licenses, so that probably had a lot to do with it, but I know that it wasn’t limited to just LucasArts, since you can still see it all the time in regards to Imagineering projects, and the rise of “not cinema” super-hero movies.

It was silly even back then, but seems particularly absurd now. Some of the most brilliant, genre-redefining games were licensed games; and I’ve had a much greater sense of ownership over my work on a couple of licensed games than for the “original” ones. But still, it was pervasive enough that I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more inherently valuable about original work.

I suspect I was always too idealistic to admit that this was just trying to put a “celebrate the unique magic of creativity” spin on what was in reality a much more financial concern. Obviously, talented people can make something great out of a license just as well as they can out of an original concept. The biggest differences are who gets control over it, and who gets to profit from the labor involved. In retrospect, I probably should’ve noticed that the people who were shouting the loudest about the integrity of original content were the exact same people who stood to benefit the most from it.

I’ve always appreciated that I had a very rare opportunity in that my first job in games was not only for my favorite game developer, but on what was one of my favorite properties. If you think of it as “professional fan fiction,” which is basically how I thought of it, then it’s easy to focus only on living up to your expectations as a fan. It’s easier to forget about all the practical concerns like budgeting and recognition and marketing, and forgetting how much the license is giving you a head start. You’re riding on top of a built-in audience, as well as probably a larger budget and a bigger team. Not to mention all the more subtle advantages, like you’re probably not having to pitch the basics of the concept to people.

A big part of my mopey funk is just realizing how much work is involved when you don’t have that head start. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of creative people sharing their work online — paintings and drawings, CG models, animation, short films, music, independent games — and I’ve been marveling at how anyone has the time and energy to be making so much stuff these days. Most recently I’ve been getting back into the YouTube channel of David Sandberg, a Swedish filmmaker who’s built a Hollywood career off of his short films, and is somehow still making short films and tutorials. On Instagram, I’ve been following artist Sean Kiernan, who’ll casually post concept images for an animated series or video game that has yet to be made.

It’s equal parts inspiring and paralyzing. How do you even get started?

The encouraging thing is that there are not only more sophisticated tools available than ever before, for cheaper than ever before, with a network of people eager to share what they’ve learned. There are even more platforms eager to help you monetize it, if that’s your end goal.

Today, there’s been a firehose of announcements from Disney, for the purposes of reminding COVID-wary investors that even if the theme parks, movie theaters, and cruise lines are closed, the company still has seemingly billions of beloved properties and characters available to work with. There are some Star Wars series that sound amazing, and also Rogue One spin-off Andor; various MCU series in the works; some new series based on Disney Animation properties like Big Hero Six and Zootopia; and even a feature-length Toy Story spin-off about Buzz Lightyear.

In addition to announcements for existing properties, they also announced Encanto, a movie set in Colombia with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which seems to be pitched to emphasis similarities to Moana; and Iwaju, which looks like an original afrofuturism fantasy story, no doubt made Disney-viable by the success of Black Panther.

It’d be easy to be cynical and say that this is just Disney pumping out a glut of licensed properties to milk every last penny from their licenses. You can tell it’d be easy to say that, since I’ve already seen so many people saying it on Twitter. What’s interesting to me, though, is that very little of this fits into that whole mid-1990s dichotomy of IP vs original content. Original concepts become less risky when combined with known talent or known properties, and vice versa. And licenses are just as likely to be used as vehicles for more established talent (like Jon Favreau, Taika Waititi, and Dave Filoni with Star Wars) as not-as-well-known talent (like the team behind the Ms Marvel series).

There are still tons of creators and tons of ideas out there; the biggest difference between now and the “good old days” is that more of those ideas are getting made by more of those creators. Of course not all of it will be great, but it doesn’t need to be.

And I think it dispels that old dichotomy once and for all. It’s called “intellectual property” for a reason; that’s the only thing that companies like Disney and Lucasfilm truly “own.” They don’t own the talent or creativity of the people making stuff, even though in the past, the gatekeepers of the IP were almost always the same as the gatekeepers of the resources to make everything possible. Being an independent creator was a much, much, much bigger liability back then than it is now.

A huge company is making it possible for tons of new ideas to become reality. A bunch of people who made their names off small indie projects will get much greater exposure from being attached to a big-name project; and a bunch of people working on big-name projects will now potentially have the resources to make their own stuff independently.

As it turns out, the only finite resource is time. I hope I’ve got time to make new stuff with all this TV I’m going to have to watch.

Walt Disney Imagin

Congratulations to Joe Rohde on his retirement, plus my thanks, and some speculation about the future of Disney parks

I wanted to congratulate Joe Rohde on his retirement after 40 years with Imagineering, and to say a public thanks for his involvement in projects that have meant a lot to me.

Over the years, Animal Kingdom has become my favorite park at Walt Disney World. Of course, that’s not due to any one person, but I think the main reason Animal Kingdom has gotten better over time is because of a commitment to world-building in every single detail, whether it’s inside an attraction or not. Being able to communicate, explain, express, and defend that vision is most often credited to Rohde, and it makes sense. He just seems to get, on a fundamental level, what that park is about and why it works. On top of everything else, I love that Animal Kingdom exists as tangible proof that an insistence on thoughtful, exhaustively-researched, ethically conscious design can actually make a tangible difference.

Today I’ve seen a lot of people online worrying about what Rohde’s retirement will mean for the future of Disney parks and Imagineering, and I’ve got some opinions on that, too. I should probably emphasize that I list the WDI projects I worked on in my “About” section because I’m extremely proud of them, not because I’m in any way an “insider” or have any kind of informed opinion about how Imagineering actually works. I contracted for everything, and I was never a “real” employee. Disney has such a culture of “magic” and showmanship that even their behind-the-scenes specials are as carefully controlled and presented as anything actually happening on-stage, and there have been plenty of times that I haven’t been able to tell the difference. So all of this is just one fan’s opinion, based on nothing other than interviews, documentaries, and being in the parks quite a bit.

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Welcome, Foolish Meeples

When hinges creak in doorless chambers… that is the time when nerds are present, talking about the Haunted Mansion: Call of the Spirits board game.

I’ve already mentioned I’m in the middle of a low-key obsession with Prospero Hall, a game design studio based in Seattle. The game that set me off was Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, a kaiju beat-em-up that I enjoyed so much that I immediately set off to 3D print a bunch of pieces for it. Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic bereft of Game Nights, I haven’t been able to resist getting all the Prospero Hall games I could get my hands on.

So when I found out they’d made The Haunted Mansion: Call of the Spirits, there was no point in my even pretending I’d wait to get a copy. It’s one of my top 5 Disney attractions, and the game is like a love letter to the ride, with every single detail and design element seemingly aimed directly at fans.

The Haunted Mansion: Call of the Spirits is a set collection/press-your-luck game, with the premise that the ghosts have, as the song says, come out to socialize. Each player gets a piece shaped like the bats on the end of the stanchions in the queue, and you can move between the seance room and the endless hallway. Cards representing the ghosts are placed around the board, each with a suit representing its room in the ride — the stretching room, portrait hall, ballroom, graveyard, attic (with grooms of the haunted bride), etc. You’re trying to collect ghost cards to build sets from the same suit, each with a Sushi Go-esque point value system. At the same time, you’re trying to avoid collecting too many haunt cards, which cost points at the end of the game. These are received mainly from crossing paths with the hitchhiking ghosts trying to follow you home.

A particularly clever element is that the endless hallway is represented by a rondel in the center of the board. In addition to moving from space to space, a player can rotate the piece any number of spaces, moving herself and any other players in the hallway. The only thing that feels even remotely like a missed opportunity in the entire game is the lack of doom buggies, but they’re here in spirit: riding on an infinite circular track, passing through all of the rooms of the mansion.

I’ve only played it once, but it’s fun and quick-moving. The time estimate on the box is 30 minutes, which seems about right. But there were plenty of opportunities for interesting decisions, so don’t assume that a short, licensed game is necessarily shallow.

Really, that’s exactly why I’m in love with Prospero Hall’s games at the moment, especially the ones made in conjunction with Funko Games. Frankly they’re better than licensed games have any right to be. Most of the time, especially with Disney licenses, publishers just lazily slap new artwork on top of a mass market game most people are already tired of playing: Clue, Life, Risk, or now even Catan. Prospero Hall seems to be making more interesting games based on licenses they love — if they don’t love them, they’re doing an awful good job of faking it.

Production values and art direction are impeccable. In Call of the Spirits, the ghost cards all have art that fans of the ride will recognize from paintings or animatronics. (There are some familiar paintings arranged on the outside of the box as well). There’s another nice surprise detail for Haunted Mansion fans in the box, that I didn’t take a photograph of to let players discover it on their own.

As I said, as a fan of the Haunted Mansion, there was no way that I wasn’t going to buy this game. But I think even non-fans should be impressed with what they’re doing here. They’re raising the bar not just for licensed games but for mass market games in general. The game mechanics here aren’t completely original, but it is a novel combination of some familiar mechanics, and there’s a good chance it’ll introduce players to a type of game they’ve never played before. 1Lords of Waterdeep, a licensed D&D game, was what made me love worker placement games more than any of the traditional choices for “best in genre.” Disney Villainous is the most accessible asymmetric game I’ve seen, and I still have yet to play anything else quite like it. I’d certainly rather play Call of the Spirits than Sushi Go, which is the most similar game I can think of.

I’ve only played the two-player variant, and much like with Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, I can already tell that the game’s probably more interesting with three or more. I think even if I didn’t love the Haunted Mansion, I’d have fun with this game. And even if this one weren’t for me, I’d be impressed that they’re working to make board games more accessible to more people, and better overall.

Tomorrowland Trivia Authority

90% of me bragging about finally winning something, 10% reminiscing about Hipster Tomorrowland

If you like hearing recordings of people saying my name, then you should definitely check out episode 61 of the RetroWDW podcast! Because I’m a big big winner. Every episode, they do a contest called the Audio Rewind, where they play a sound clip from somewhere and sometime in Walt Disney World’s past, and you have to guess where it’s from.

After multiple failed attempts, I finally won one by identifying “Music Makers” by Esquivel, which used to play in the exit queue of Space Mountain. I’m especially happy about this one, since that addition had a big impact on me. It was part of the 1994 refurb of Tomorrowland, which as far as I’m concerned was a Golden Age for Imagineering.

They just nailed the tone. It’d been obvious for decades that Tomorrowland — in both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom — was never going to work as even a semi-realistic representation of the future, so the more sustainable direction was a retro-fantasy version. Disney had already been doing this with attractions like Horizons and World of Motion, but the most clever idea of the 94 refurb was that they didn’t limit it to just one version of “retro.” Instead of just going all-in on “steampunk” or “space age,” they combine elements of just about every popular futuristic fantasy from the late 1800s to the 1980s. Art Deco, 1920s modernism, mid-century modern, post war and Cold War, with lots and lots of neon.

Space Mountain’s new exit had an extended FedEx advertisement in the form of a long moving walkway past a series of dioramas about interplanetary deliveries. Including robot dogs on Mars, for some reason. At the time I had just “discovered” Esquivel via a compilation called Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, and hearing it in Disney World made me feel like Disney and I were perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of retro-cool.

This was around the same time Disneyland’s Space Mountain got a light tunnel on its lift hill and an on-ride soundtrack with Dick Dale doing a space-surf guitar version of Carnival of the Animals. The rest of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland refurb was… less that successful, but that was probably due to cost-cutting and short-sighted exec decisions instead of a lack of imagination. But the first time I rode that version of Space Mountain remains one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had at a theme park.

Disney Parks will always have an element of dated corniness to them, but that’s not a criticism; it’s an important part of how they work. It part of what makes them feel safe and nostalgic. 1And why attempts to be scary and “edgy” like Alien Encounter, or mockingly self-aware like Tiki Room Under New Management, are always going to be a failure. Seeing and hearing the park playing something that I actually thought was cool felt like it was speaking to me directly for once.

Postcards from Batuu

Photos from various trips to Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland (before the pandemic)

I’m still in the process of figuring out how to use WordPress as a Flickr+Facebook+Instagram+Twitter replacement. A previous version of this post with vacation photos got broken while I was removing plugins, so here’s an attempt to re-post.

The key takeaway from these photos is that Galaxy’s Edge is rad, and has everything a middle-aged nerd could possibly want. It’s got spaceships and other vehicles:

MORE ACTION-PACKED PHOTOS AFTER THE BREAK!

Museum of the Weird

Reading Rolly Crump’s book convinced me I’ve been wrong about Disney’s tension between originality and familiarity.

I just finished reading It’s Kind of a Cute Story, a memoir from Rolly Crump about his career as an Imagineer and afterwards. Even though I’ve been trying to follow the history of the Disney parks and their creators for years, there were quite a few things I hadn’t known before. One was that Crump was straight-up jacked. More significantly, though, I learned about an aspect of working for Walt Disney the man that’s gotten lost among the decades and the huge volume of work generated by Disney the company: Disney the company has gotten a reputation for safe, predictable, homogeneity; but Walt Disney himself was often a champion of the original and the weird.

In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious to somebody with even a cursory knowledge of Walt Disney’s career. But all my experience with the parks, cartoons, and TV series happened after his death. And according to every account of the company’s history that I’ve seen, including a mention in Rolly Crump’s book and an episode of The Imagineering Story, the period after Walt’s death was filled with timidity and aversion to any risk. Ironically, by making “What Would Walt Do?” the question that drove every decision, they ended up doing the opposite of what Walt would probably have done.

Still, that shaped my perception of Walt Disney as a conservative above all else. It cemented the idea that everything had to be on model, everything had to fit into an easily recognizable “Disney Look,” and it all had to be accessible and easily digestible: the most cynical interpretation would be that he hired some of the finest artists in the world to create art for the lowest common denominator.

And what’s remarkable is how I kept that simplistic and condescending impression despite tons of evidence to the contrary. It’s weird that he had a friendship and collaboration with Salvador Dali. It’s weird to make an animated film that’s nothing but artistic (and sometimes abstract) interpretations of orchestral pieces. It’s weird to build a successor to a hugely successful theme park and decide to focus not on the theme park, but on an elaborate planned city. Long stretches of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are just weird. There are plenty of other examples, but I somehow ignored them and continued to think of Walt Disney as the genius at safe, family entertainment who occasionally had an aberrant weird idea.

So it was interesting to read Rolly Crump’s book and see him give Walt so much credit for some of his own best and most memorable work with Disney. Crump is one of the rare Imagineers who’s managed to have his own style and influence stand out as recognizable, since it’s only recently that the company has begun giving more credit to individual artists and engineers. Pretty much everything he had a hand in designing is part of my favorite Disney attractions — the clock outside Disneyland’s it’s a small world, the Haunted Mansion, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and The Land pavilion at Epcot. According to Crump’s own account, he was encouraged by Walt and chosen to bring his unique style to projects, despite not being the studio’s most traditionally skilled artist.

It seems so odd compared to the popular (and likely over-simplified) perception of how creative businesses work today. The stereotype is of the artist with a unique vision who somehow manages to make something new despite the people in charge, never because of them. To use an example from Disney animation: I’d always thought of Sleeping Beauty as a case of Eyvind Earle’s wonderful art and design work being constrained to fit into yet another princess movie, with mostly traditional Disney character design, right down to the prince who’s all but indistinguishable from the ones in Cinderella and Snow White.

But after hearing Rolly Crump’s description of how Walt Disney would think about projects, I think I may have had it completely reversed. Walt wanted to make use of the outstanding artwork of Eyvind Earle (and Marc Davis, and a ton of other legendary artists), and he recognized that a commercial, family-oriented production was the best way to make that financially possible. I’m so used to hearing about the tension between art and commerce as the broadest, most simplistic dichotomy — it’s even baked into the Disney “mythology” that insists that Walt was the creative one while Roy was the money guy. But that makes it sound as if Walt was perpetually in “Blue Sky mode,” which I suspect does a disservice to the actual extent of his genius. Walt wasn’t interested in taking weird and original stuff and sanitizing it, sanding off all the rough edges to make it something safe and homogenous; he recognized that safe, homogenous, and predictable sold really, really well to a global audience. Making Sleeping Beauty meant that the entire world would get to see Earle’s beautiful work. Building a corporate-sponsored pavilion at the World’s Fair meant that millions of people would get to see Rolly Crump’s kinetic sculpture.

I realize that that’s probably just as over-simplified take as the opposite, and that there was likely as much commerce as art involved in every decision. But as a lifelong Disney fan who’s still well aware that “the Disney version” almost always has a negative connotation, I like reminding myself that originality and weirdness are an essential part of the company’s creative history, and not just one-off exceptions. And I like seeing more of that looser, freer originality making it out to the public. There’s more experimentation with art styles and character designs — the current Mickey Mouse shorts are brilliant, and I love that their place has been cemented in Disney history with a dark ride in that style. The new look of Duck Tales, weird and off-model concept art from the Toy Story movies, the varied and experimental art and animation styles in the shorts (and even occasionally the features, like Wreck-it Ralph), are all signs that creativity, originality, and weirdness can be profitable.

Everything is Counterfactual

Changes to Splash Mountain reveal how a Disney-loving southern boy came to have false memories of his childhood

Yesterday, Disney announced that they were going to re-theme the Splash Mountain ride to The Princess and the Frog instead of Song of the South. Nobody can honestly claim that the announcement is all that surprising, but to hear it in 2020 still makes me profoundly sad.

To be clear: it’s undeniably a positive move in the long run. The Princess and the Frog is an excellent movie that pays homage to the entire history of Disney animation. It’s better representation for a ton of children who haven’t seen enough characters like them. It’s better business for Disney to have marketing tie-ins with a property they can actually continue selling. If I were any other adult Disney fan, I’d only have two complaints: First, that the movie, and the character of Tiana in particular, could be better served by a new dedicated attraction instead of a re-skin of an existing one. (But it sounds like this is set after the movie, which is a good sign that it’ll be more a continuation of the characters, like Mission Breakout, and less a pleasant-but-decade-too-late retelling of the story, like Voyage of the Little Mermaid). My second complaint is that I don’t really like any of the songs from the movie. Even the strongest, “Dig a Little Deeper,” is nowhere near the memorable classics that “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and “How Do You Do?” are.

But this post isn’t me writing as an adult Disney fan. This is me writing as a guy who grew up in Georgia in the early 1970s, and who has a ton of early-childhood memories associated with the animated sections of Song of the South. Those characters are my earliest memories of Disney movies. (Along with the Chip and Dale or Humphrey Bear shorts that were shown at Fort Wilderness). The beginning of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” with Uncle Remus walking through a field that turns into a cartoon, birds flying all around him, Mr Bluebird landing on his shoulder, was the quintessential Disney image for my childhood. (At least until The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon came along). And those memories are all tangled together with my “sense memories” of the Tales from the Okefenokee ride at Six Flags over Georgia — I don’t actually remember specifics except for a scary dark drop, and a character warning “Don’t go into the swamp!”

Because it reminds me so much of my early childhood, it can’t not remind me of my mother. When I was young and she was mock-scolding me or my brother, she’d imitate Brer Bear saying “I’m gonna knock your head clean off!” When I was a little older, she taught me about Joel Chandler Harris and The Wren’s Nest, since she was so interested in the history of Georgia and Atlanta in particular. It always comes across as condescending to say that “things were simpler then,” but I can honestly say that in the 80s, I never got any sense of “appropriation.” It just felt like an attempt to preserve the folklore of my home state.

So for years, riding Splash Mountain has brought back very special and very specific memories. It felt as if they’d already found a way to save just the good parts and present it divorced from anything negative. The thought of having to get rid of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit and the singing possums feels like having to destroy part of my childhood.

Good riddance to Song of the South, though. We shouldn’t entertain the idea that it’s ever been a good movie. No doubt the message boards are already full of people making the predictably tired complaints — “it’s political correctness gone mad!” ad nauseam. But the movie on the whole is not a cherished classic, and it’s definitely not a new phenomenon to recognize that. Even in the 40s, people recognized it was, to put it mildly, “problematic.”

But I do have to wonder how many people have strong opinions of it despite never having seen it, or based on faulty memories of it. Even my own memories of it were selective. It’s been unavailable for so long that the first time I saw it as an adult was around 2000, and even then only as a bootleg recorded from a Japanese laser disc. It was almost nothing like I remembered it. For one thing, I’d forgotten almost all of the live action parts, which actually make up the majority of the movie. And I must’ve forgotten how much I disliked the main character, because I felt an instant, almost irrational hatred of him and his little velvet suit and with its lace collar and his tendency to cry about absolutely everything. Even as a somewhat delicate and precious white boy myself, I must’ve been able to recognize him as the personification of white male fragility.

I’ve seen people describe Song of the South as “shockingly” racist, but I’d disagree — I reserve that for stuff like the crows in Dumbo, or the maid in Tom & Jerry cartoons, or all the cringingly awful moments in Warner Bros and Disney shorts where a character converts to blackface after an explosion. Song of the South’s “tar baby” would qualify, which is why it was replaced in the Splash Mountain ride with Brer Rabbit getting caught in honey from a bee’s nest. (I’d personally never heard that used as a slur, so I imagine it was already outdated by the 1970s). And Brer Fox’s voice work could be interpreted as a racist caricature in the 21st century, but unlike some of the most egregious examples in the history of animation, it sounds to me more like a genuine attempt to capture a dialect.

But if it were just individual cases of insensitivity, or dated references, or tone-deaf attempts at “humor,” those could’ve been explained a way with a disclaimer, and the movie could’ve been kept in the library. The problem with Song of the South is that it’s not so blatantly, overtly racist. Instead, it’s inherently, inescapably rooted in white supremacy. It presents a fantasy version of the Reconstruction in which slavery seems to have been nothing more than a bureaucratic oversight — and now that it’s been fixed, everybody has gone back to their pre-war roles in which black people and white people all happily work together, all for the benefit of white people. That can’t be dismissed away as a relic of the past, since it’s a lie we’re still being sold, almost eighty years later. We’re still saddled with this idea that we should close our eyes and wish for a “post-racial” society, and that’s all that’s required to make everybody free and equal. “I don’t see race.” “All lives matter.”

The other big lie of Song of the South is that the fantasy world it presents is the essence of “The South.” It’s all white plantation houses with all white people in elaborate suits and dresses lounging around complaining about the heat, while poor but honest, magical black people use their gifts of storytelling to make white people feel better. Americans have had centuries to come up with an image to represent the south, and over and over and over again, they’ve chosen one rooted in segregation and treason. For my entire life, I’ve seen people trying to present tortured justifications for the Confederate flag or Confederate memorials as if they were symbols of our “heritage” instead of symbols of racism. Of course it’s bullshit, but I can’t put the blame entirely on them — for generations, they’ve been told that this shallow, segregated fantasy was their entire identity.

I’m part of a generation of southern white men who were born over a century after the Civil War, but we’ve still spent our entire lives being saddled with a white-washed, propagandized version of it as our only “legacy.” Lately I’ve been seeing odious videos on YouTube from New Yorker-turned-country-boy-impressionist John Schneider, talking about filming The Dukes of Hazzard (in my hometown!) while just asking some casual questions to give you something to think about, like was the show really all that racist? Did people intend it to be racist in the late 1970s to make a shamefully faux-populist TV show about a car with the Confederate Flag painted on the top and named after a Confederate general? And while he’s at it, what is all this “division” getting us, anyway? Aren’t things just fine without a bunch of rabble-rousers stirring them up? I’d bet that Schneider’s main incentive these days is to help pay off his alimony, but the sentiment is the same today as it was in 2000, as it was in the 1970s, as it was in the 1950s, as it was in the 1930s, as it was in the 1900s, as it was in the 1880s — to keep the right kind of white people in power, by convincing other white people that racism and rebellion are the bedrock of their culture. We can mock the people getting upset at seeing Confederate statues torn down, and many of them are stubborn fools if not outright racists. But they’ve also spent their entire lives being lied to, told that the only connection they have to a larger history is one failed insurrection.

And even though southerners have been practicing racism for so long that they’ve gotten to be experts at it, it’s by no means a purely southern phenomenon, even though it’s the one that’s sold as an essential part of their identity. I’ve said before that I grew up trying to get rid of my accent and any affiliation with being a “redneck,” and then as an adult moved to Marin County, the most segregated place I’d seen in my entire lifetime. In fact, I’d say that the newly-energized civil rights movement of the past 5-10 years has been the result of America spending a century and a half telling themselves that their problems with racism were all safely sequestered in one corner of the country. After all, Song of the South wasn’t intended to play just in the southeast, and The Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t only a hit in Georgia. Tell people that systemic racism is a uniquely southern thing, and they can “not my problem” it out of existence, convincing themselves that all the incidents they see across the country are weird one-off aberrations, instead of signs of a deeper problem.

The Princess and the Frog is, obviously, another fantasy presenting a “South” that never actually existed. But it’s the kind of fantasy that I’d rather see being perpetuated for another century or two. It’s got actual magical black people, and it has wealthy whites and working-class blacks living together in harmony, and it’s likely taken all kinds of liberties with actual religions with its mishmash of generalized Disney-esque magic and voodoo. But much like the real New Orleans, there’s more a sense of a mixture of races, cultures, and religions, instead of a fixed and segregated social structure. One of the most subtly clever things about the movie is that it takes a very European fairy tale and “appropriates” it for Disney’s first African-American princess story. It’s a synthesis of all its disparate influences, which builds on its past, instead of being beholden to it.

So it’s ultimately a positive move, especially since as an attraction re-design, it’s being creatively led by black women. If we want to believe that we are getting better painfully slowly, instead of just repeating the same cycles over and over again, that’s a sign of progress. Kids being able to see themselves represented in movies and being inspired to make more stories to share with an even wider audience. No doubt there are plenty of cynical dismissals of it as nothing more than “optics” or public relations, but that’s missing the point entirely — when the issue is so closely tied to our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and what we’re all capable of, then showing audiences the right images is crucial. When the problem is representation and visibility, “optics” are important.

In any other year, I’d probably be better able to be excited about it and look forward to the changes. But this is 2020, a year filled with death and loss. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of loss. So many happy memories of my childhood, my formative Disney experiences, my mother’s love of history. Even a vague sense of southern identity that wasn’t completely ruined by the Confederacy. But ultimately, none of that is real — I shouldn’t overstate my love of Song of the South, since I never really liked the bulk of the movie and only actually remembered the “good parts.” There were plenty of Disney movies I liked better, and the source material was already a white man’s interpretation of African American folklore for white audiences. My mother’s interest in history was more about Native Americans, the founding of Savannah, and the histories of Atlanta and my hometown than some simplistic Gone With the Wind-inspired fantasy version. And my pleasant associations with the south aren’t the kind that can be co-opted and ruined by white supremacists: good food, cicadas, hot and humid summers with amazing clouds, people being polite to each other. In every case, the reality is so much more interesting than the over-simplified version.

Splash Mountain exposes the limitations of “The Disney Version,” trying to the best parts of something out of its original context and presenting a sanitized, family-friendly interpretation of it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that — I don’t need The Little Mermaid to learn her lesson, and having been to the real Venice just made me better appreciate the one in Epcot. But whenever you remove the context and try to keep just the good parts, there’s always the risk that you’re left with something hollow. Like a ride from the 1980s based on a movie from the 1940s based on the works of a writer in the 1880s re-interpreting stories from the early 1800s. The core of the original stories, and especially the people telling them, was completely lost. The Princess and the Frog is a much more solid foundation for people to be building memories on.

Disney Blasphemy Featuring IPCOT

Second-guessing some truths that Disney fans hold to be self-evident.

This month I’m encouraging people to donate to and/or get involved with Black Girls CODE, an organization in the Bay Area working to encourage girls of color to become innovators and leaders in STEM fields.

I have to admit I can’t spend very much time on Disney parks-related forums or — even worse — Twitter, because I just don’t have the patience for it. I get all kinds of anxiety when I see adults screaming at each other over which is the most magical novelty popcorn bucket, or starting discussion threads to ask whether the parks are an insultingly hollow shadow of what they used to be, or if they’re just a disgraceful insult to everything that Walt stood for.

And it’s a shame, too, because I have irrationally strong opinions about the parks. If it sounds like I’m mocking the kind of person who goes online to scream about the evils of FastPass, I’m not, because I am that kind of person — we just differ in magnitude. They all seem to be operating at around 15, whereas I’m usually around 11 or 12.

But there are some things that all Disney fans, no matter how obsessive, can agree on… or can we?! There are some ideas that I’ve seen for years treated as just common knowledge among fans, but I disagree with, because I am a rebel and an iconoclast.

Horizons was just okay.

Yeah, I’m coming out guns blazing. Horizons is widely considered to be the best of original EPCOT Center, a masterpiece of “old-school” Imagineering, and the soul of Epcot’s Future World. I definitely don’t think it’s bad, but I’ve never understood the reverence for this attraction over, say, Journey Into Imagination or World of Motion, both of which blew my mind as a teenager.

As someone who went to EPCOT Center quite a few times in the early years, my main memory of Horizons was that it was never open. There seemed to be a ton of preview buzz around it, and it had the coolest park icon and a neat-looking building, so I was pretty excited. The “space” ending film is iconic, and I seem to remember seeing it before I was actually able to go on the ride, so I was already hyped for a senses-shattering simulator experience that probably wasn’t even possible in 1983. But I feel like at least a few years passed before I was finally at the park when it was open and not down for refurbishment.

I have to think that part of the reason I was underwhelmed by the attraction is because it always felt like a survey course in “Intro to Epcot Center Future World 101,” instead of a deep dive. I felt like I’d already seen everything from the ride, in one form or another, in Carousel of Progress, If You Had Wings, World of Motion, Listen to the Land, The Living Seas, Spaceship Earth, and Journey Into Imagination. It was like trying to get excited about the greatest hits album when you’re already at the concert.

The Adventurer’s Club was only really fun for people who love improv.

The Adventurer’s Club was another one of those things that I got hyped about for years before actually seeing it. My family weren’t enthusiastic about bars or nightclubs, so it wasn’t even really an option for me until I went back to Disney World as an adult, by myself. By that point, I believe I’d already heard rumors that it would be closing within a few years, so I went two nights in a row to make sure I got the full effect.

In terms of decoration and theming, it was outstanding, of course. You could try to describe it as “kind of like Trader Sam’s, if it were extended across multiple floors and multiple rooms and actually had enough seating,” which sounds perfect. And the idea of characters walking through the space, interacting with guests; and a drunken, possibly insane old adventurer puppet acting as host of the evening and leading everyone in a toast; and a room full of masks that talk to you and tell stories — it’s all wonderful in theory. But in practice, I’ve got to say that it was corny AF.

It’s here that I should talk about something that’s been a problem for me for as long as I’ve been going to Disney parks, which is literally my entire life. And that’s Improv People. I know many, many great people who love improv and find real joy in watching and/or performing it, and it genuinely makes me happy to see them enjoy it. But in general, people who love improv just cannot understand that not everyone enjoys improv. For some of us, it’s like torture.

When I’m in the audience and a joke bombs, it almost causes me physical pain. I can’t stand those moments of dead time and the look of manic desperation in a performer’s face when they’re trying to come up with the next thing to say. Even when it’s going well, I have the feeling of being trapped in a car going 150 miles an hour and knowing that it could crash and burn at any moment. If I could try to describe what watching, listening to, or ::shudder:: performing improv feels like to me: imagine you’re standing naked on a stage, with your arms tied behind your back, and a spotlight is shining directly on you. Right behind you, someone is standing with his mouth just a couple of inches away from your neck, and you can feel his hot, damp breath on the skin on the back of your neck and behind your ear, as he exhales, “hh-h-h-he-heh-heh-help me.”

People who work in themed entertainment and “immersive theater” tend to be unable to accept that not everyone loves improv as much as they do, so I tend to be put in situations where I’m dragged screaming out of my comfort zone. The Star Wars hotel has me torn between my lifelong love of Star Wars and my intense anxiety at the thought of being trapped in a two-day-long non-stop immersive theater performance. With the Adventurer’s Club, a can’t-fail theme and setting that might as well have been designed specifically for me, still weren’t quite enough to compensate for being surrounded by people who at any moment could assault me with family-friendly “yes, and…”s.

Also, the drinks weren’t any good.

The Grand Fiesta Tour is a criminally underrated delight.

When the Mexico pavilion opened at Epcot, there was a boat ride called El Rio del Tiempo. It used a lot of the same tricks of other modestly-budgeted rides of the time, and it was perfectly pleasant even if you weren’t quite sure whether the market vendor scene was really racist but suspected that it probably was.

With the Grand Fiesta Tour overhaul, it was improved ten thousand times. It added characters and music from The Three Caballeros, which is a no-brainer, and updated all the gags to feature Donald Duck instead of real human Mexican actors and dancers. Somehow, that makes it both more contemporary and also timeless.

I haven’t actually ever heard complaints about replacing the original — which is surprising, since every time they replace an original ride, they get complaints, even with a ride that no one actually liked unironically, like Maelstrom. But there’s rarely a wait for it, and people for the most part call it “cute” instead of acknowledging that it’s a must-see at Epcot.

I would rather ride a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster than an hour-long advertisement for fossil fuels.

When Disney at the D23 Expo last year announced that there was going to be a massive overhaul of Epcot’s Future World, my reaction was that I was surprised I wasn’t more upset about it. I’m as eager to throw a tantrum about Disney ruining my childhood as the next guy, but in this case the changes for Future World were at least 10 years overdue.

The big complaints I’ve seen are people calling it “IPCot,” for basing everything on Disney-owned intellectual property, instead of basing everything on original characters and concepts.

I want to be more sympathetic here, because most of my favorite Disney attractions are originals — Space Mountain, The Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, most of the original Future World. When Epcot first opened, Imagineering was pretty adamant about distinguishing it from the Magic Kingdom, which meant no attractions based on Disney movies and none of the familiar characters in the park. You eventually got Figment from Journey Into Imagination as your cartoon mascot, and you had to be satisfied with that.

Except guests weren’t really satisfied with that, and Epcot developed a reputation for being boring “edutainment” instead of a fun theme park. Even as someone who loved the original Epcot, I think fans (and some Imagineers) can be a little too precious about the “purity” of the experience; I don’t think it’s particularly shallow or dumbing things down if someone on their vacation would rather ride roller coasters than pay to hear corporations talking about the wonders of industrial agriculture or our not-at-all-worrisome dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, I’ve softened on this one a little bit. At first, I assumed that people complaining about trading corporate sponsorships for Moana and Guardians of the Galaxy themed attractions were just being unrealistically nostalgic. But I did see a friend explain his take: as a lover of World’s Fairs, he appreciated that Epcot uniquely had the feeling of a permanent World’s Fair. Part of that is the optimism of corporations working in the public interest; the presentations weren’t just crass advertisements, but sincere excitement over the things that could be made possible. I do like that idea, and I have to concede that these changes will leave Epcot feeling less like a unique place, and more like, say, California Adventure. Not so much of an overarching theme anymore, except “Disney also owns all of these properties, too.”

But I’m not completely sold on it. As a teenage insomniac who never missed Late Night, I idolized David Letterman. And I took his anti-corporate stick-it-to-The-Man schtick to heart (even though in retrospect, it’s almost offensively phony and insincere). So I think that the rotating screen display of the original Universe of Energy pre-show was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and the dinosaur section was such a fantastic homage to/extension of classic Disney and the Disneyland railroad, and the Ellen’s Energy Adventure version is still one of the cleverest and most charming ways of presenting educational material that I’ve ever seen. But it’s still an Exxon ad. Even with the best of intentions, Disney presenting pavilions dedicated to promoting Nestle, Kraft, General Electric, or Exxon in 2020 would just come across as really tone deaf.

Also, I think the Mission Breakout overhaul of the Tower of Terror in California Adventure is phenomenal. The original ride at Hollywood Studios is one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done, so I’ll be complaining if they ever mess with that one. But the California redo is better in every possible way (except for the outside of the building, which is still weird). It’s relentlessly fun, a perfect use of the ride tech — since it was never really a “free fall” ride, this has it hover up and down at each scene — and feels like it should’ve been this way all along. Plus the details around the queue are fantastic, and the character shows with Peter Quill and Gamorra leading dance-offs outside the ride are fantastic. So Disney knows how to make Guardians of the Galaxy attractions, and a show-heavy spinning coaster can’t not be fun.

Besides, the lines are going to be so long after the parks open back up and the ride opens, it’ll be a few years before any of us get a chance to ride it anyway.

Epcot embracing its theme parkness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would like to see Journey Into Imagination redone in the spirit of the original. But Disney’s had a pretty strong run of movies for several years now, with more hits than misses. If it became a Zootopia pavilion or something, it’d be disappointing but still far from the worst thing to happen to that attraction.

Galaxy’s Edge is the right way to do Star Wars in a theme park

This isn’t that controversial, really, since people liked Galaxy’s Edge, and Rise of the Resistance seems to be universally loved. (Early noise about Galaxy’s Edge being a “failure” seems to be a combination of clickbait wanting Disney to fail, and judging it in comparison to unrealistically high expectations). There are two pretty consistent criticisms I’ve heard:

First, that there aren’t enough droids and aliens wandering around. I agree with that. It’s all done so well that it’s actually jarring to be reminded of what’s missing. It’s noticeable that the droids and ships are trapped behind fences. It seems like there need to be aliens in the cantina. Especially considering how the land is practically “defined” not by its rides but by the walk-around interactions, it seems like an especially good investment here than it would be elsewhere.

The second criticism I hear often is that they should’ve set the land during the time period of the original trilogy, and on a familiar planet like Tatooine. I don’t agree with that at all. I mean, if I were just being consistent, I’d say that Imagineering shouldn’t be so precious with its “world-building;” just like people in Epcot and Animal Kingdom wanted to see Mickey Mouse, people in Star Wars Land want to buy T-shirts that say “Star Wars” on them. But I honestly believe that this is one of the rare cases where the “normal people won’t notice it” level of detail is actually noticeable in the end product.

Star Wars hasn’t been a sustained hit over 50 years; it’s been a cycle of six or seven years of intense popularity followed by long stretches of not many people caring. The fandom is all over the place — the animated series, video games, comics, novels all have their own super-fans. Any attempt to recreate a fan-favorite location is automatically going to miss the mark for a ton of people, and it’s inevitably going to feel like trying to hit a moving target.

Creating a new location, and having it reference the existing ones, give it a much longer life and just make the universe feel like it has more potential. I can remember being a Star Wars-obsessed teenager watching Return of the Jedi the first time in 1983, and when the opening crawl said that they were going back to Tatooine and to the Death Star, it felt like such a cop-out. A galaxy that seemed infinitely expansive with limitless potential for stories now seemed comically tiny and unimaginative.

For me, “Batuu” has just the right amount of familiar details, while still feeling like it’s a new place where new stories can happen. It doesn’t need to look like Mos Espa, it just needs to look like Star Wars. That has a ton more potential, because it establishes that Star Wars isn’t any one particular existing “thing;” it’s more a style. I may not be able to define exactly what makes something “Star Wars,” but I know it when I see it.

ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was irredeemably awful.

It was mean-spirited, humorless, and like so much of the 1990s, it was a desperate attempt to be “edgy” and “extreme.” It was completely tone deaf for the Magic Kingdom, and the attempt to “soften” it from being too scary just made it an attraction that was too scary and had a crappy, nasty opening that fried a cute animatronic for laughs. (Muppetvision 3D showed the right way to do that gag, several times over). It’s well known that it was originally intended to be an Alien-themed attraction, but it completely ignored that Alien had an actual hero in the form of Ripley. So it ended up just nihilistic and pointless.

Those were dark days, when Disney was trying to play to the lowest common denominator, making fun of the simplest and most obvious criticisms of Disney to make it seem like they were in on the joke. It seems like those days are gone, but I guess as the theme park industry stays competitive, there’s always the risk of falling back into bad habits. I hope Disney keeps thinking of sincerity, happiness, and a childish belief in “magic” as assets of the brand, instead of a liability.