Wednesday, February 13, 2008
20,000 Leagues Under The Influence...
When you think of some of the marvelous creations that Disney has come up with in its theme parks and on silver screens over the decades there seems to be common thread among many of them that most people don't think about...
Verne. Wells. Burroughs.
As in, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs have played a great part in many past, present and yes, future creations at the Mouse. In film or parks these classic adventure/sci-fi novelist have added more to the creation of Disney myth than most anyone but Walt Disney himself.
Go all the way back to Walt's early forays into live-action. While he was building his personal pet project, Disneyland he was also filming a large, action adventure based on one of Jules Verne's classic "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea." A project which, if it had failed would have spelled out disaster for Disneyland btw.
The wonderful designs that were used in that film were a throwback to the Victorian Era but through a forward looking perspective. What Walt's designer of that film, Harper Goff actually wound up creating is what's called in modern times "Steampunk"(check out the WED Enterprises Blog for an interesting article on the subject). The worlds that these authors created have inspired many of the things we take for grated when we ride an attraction, go to a movie theater or watch an old film on DVD.
So I got to thinking about all the things in Disney's world that are affected by these men...
Of the three, Verne plays the most prominence and Burroughs the least... but that sense of Victorian wonder created in their writing has been translated into so many things by Disney that it might as well be called Disney.
Let's start with some of the films...
"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"
An adventure for a mythical monster that has been attacking naval ships in the blue Pacific. French Prof. Pierre M. Aronnax, and his assistant, Conseil travel on an expedition in search of the creature. On board an American warship they encounter a rebellious sailor named Ned Land and a friendship between Conseil and Land begins. Once the monster destroys their ship the three become castaways floating in watery graveyard where they stumble into the mysterious world of Captain Nemo, the captain of the Nautilus, a submersible ship that is a forerunner to what we know as submarines today. The Nautilus actually monster that has been destroying the ships in the Pacific. Their journey leads them across the globe as Nemo shows his visitors a world beneath the waves that mankind has only dreamed of. The travels lead them to Vucania, the secret island atoll that Nemo calls his port.
"In Search of the Castaways"
A tale of a brother and sister, whose father is the long-lost Captain Grant, beg Lord Glenarvan to begin a search for their lost father. Initially wary of the journey, Lord Glenarvan's son John and a geologist who discovered a note from Captain Grant in the belly of a shark convince him to search for the missing captain. They set sail aboard Glenarvan's yacht the Persevero II on a journey of danger and intrigue... essentially a children's tale, but a far better one than "Island at the Top of the World".
"The Island at the Top of the World"
The story of a Professor who travels with uptight, Sir Ross and French balloonist Captain Brieux in a Victorian airship, "the Hyperion"(named after the street on which Disney's first studio in Los Angeles resided) on an arctic expedition to find Ross' lost son, Donald. They discover a lost world above the Arctic circle where a volcanic oasis holds the remnants of ancient Vikings living there for over a millennium. Sounds cool, huh? It's not. The effects are bad and the script is worse... but the idea and feeling are pure Disney-Verne. I've always hated it when a studio remakes a classic, but a film like this has a great idea that was poorly executed... remake this with some talented writers, directors and special effects artists.
Based on the classic story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this tale of an English baby boy adopted by a group of apes has been adapted many times. It was thought when Disney did its version that there was nothing it could add. Not true. In typical Disney fashion they've created a wonderful story with great animation that works for the most part. The villain seems to be a little weak and the story in the last act seems rushed but overall a great film about the Lord of the Jungle.
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire"
The ambitious and beautifully drawn, but flawed 40th animated feature from Walt Disney Pictures was an entertaining story set a little after the turn of the century(1914) in an America emerging from the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Milo Thatch, a cartographer works in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and dreams of finding the mythical city of Atlantis. One day he gets a cryptic invitation to visit a mysterious old Robber Barron geezer who tells him he's decided to fund an expedition in search of just that very lost city. The film has a lot going for it... and truly wants to be another "Raiders of the Lost Ark..." but it ultimately falls short. Milo and a group of mercenaries plunge beneath the ocean in a gigantic Versian submarine known as the Ulysses. One look at this craft and you know that it had to be inspired by Harper Goff's designs of the Nautilus. But an example of one of the mistakes the filmmakers made(mainly due to major Suit interference) was to destroy this beautiful creation in less that seven or eight minutes. Huh? Can you imagine if the Nautilus was destroyed in the first five minutes of "Leagues?" What they didn't realize is that the Ulysses should have been a character unto itself. Not an afterthought. Also the "New Age" aspects of the story are not nearly as interesting as the crew that is pursuing it. My opinion would have been to find an Atlantis that was truly lost. Lost and dead. The focus should have been on the characters on this expedition and when they found Atlantis it should have been an archeological dig. It would then be possible to have them find out how and why the Atlantians died... instead of the living hippie survivors that we found. I found them the least interesting part of the film. The film is still a fun ride, but it leaves you feeling the loss of what might have been...
A Vernsian twists on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic "Treasure Island" novel. Great animation. A Plody story that doesn't quite come off as believable and the main character seems to be too old of a representation of the character from the book. The ships and designs are right out of something H.G. Wells or Jules Vern would have dreamed up though...
Now what about the parks...
The Disney theme parks have also carried the theme of these writers into the physical world as well with the Magic Kingdom's original submarine ride which had guest riding replicas of Nemo's Nautilus. Before it was filled in, the lagoon at Walt Disney World was a wonderful way for families to experience the thrill of actually being part of that classic film.
A much larger tribute to Verne and Wells is Euro Disneyland's Tomorrowland... or "Discoveryland" as the land in Paris is called.
Paris' version is basically Tomorrowland seen through Jules Verne's eyes according to Disney. When Michael Eisner began planning the park that we know today as Disneyland Paris, he gave Tony Baxter and a band of Imagineers the chance to build a land that he wanted to create originally for Disneyland in Anaheim. A land called Discovery Bay, which Baxter wanted to build as a new land at the Mother Park in the late 70's. It didn't happen and when Disney planned on building a European Gate for the Disney Empire, WDI's new park gave this plan new life.
It's Space Mountain is designed as if it was built in a Victorian time and evokes impressions of Georges Méliès' early silent film "A Trip to the Moon". Originally Paris' Space Mountain began life as an even larger creation than a period clone of its sisters across the world. Known as Discovery Mountain, it was an amazing textbook example of a Disney attraction themed to Versian/Wellsian worlds. "Les Mysteres Du Nautilus" or as it's known in English: "The Mystery of the Nautilus" featuring Nemo's sub floating in the Discoveryland Lagoon is themed heavily to in the vision of Jules Verne. The Orbitron(The original Disneyland has an Orbitron as well that was part of the abortive, Tomorrowland 98 project, which we'll cover in a future post) which inhabits Discoveryland is a ride that appears to have been designed by H.G. Wells creator of the Time Machine, himself. Then there was Videopolis, an attraction at Euro Disneyland featuring the Verne inspired Hyperion airship from The Island at the Top of the World.
A proposed new land for Disneyland in the late 70's. Discovery Bay was a Victorian place, a village or small town that was supposed to have cropped up in the north west around the turn of the nineteenth century. Imagine if Captain Nemo had escaped the disaster at the end of Leagues and had came across a mining town nestled in a bay in northern California in the middle of the Gold Rush. He and other reclusive inventors would have used the place as a base for experimenting and developing their ideas for a brighter future. The kind of place that Verne or Wells would have inhabited. An area where airships could be flown in seclusion(much like the Videopolis in Paris) or one could have dinner inside a luxury restaurant aboard the Nautilus(again, part of the original proposal for Discoveryland in Paris). Or you could have a Journey to the Center of the Earth ride... sounds familiar, don't it? Many of the concepts of "Discovery Bay" have made it into parks in Paris, Orlando or Anaheim.
But Tokyo has got the most detailed representation of what Imagineers were dreaming of...
Essentially the world of Jules Verne in Tokyo DisneySEA. It could be named "Verneland" and it would be quite accurate. Imagine that you are in the island base of Captain Nemo from the film, but you are there before the island atoll is destroyed by the outside world. You've been invited as a special guest of the Captain. Able to go on an undersea journey in his personal sub or use one of the devices he's built that will burrow into the ground toward the center of the earth. There are several places you can eat including a restaurant Built into the side of Mount Prometheus. The area is very dangerous because of all the volcanic activity and there are geysers all about the caldera shooting up around you. Pretty neat, huh? My favorite land in the park.
The park's Port Discovery is like an aquatic Tomorrowland with these strong influences as well and is built around the classical representation that Vern or Wells would have put into their manuscripts and stories. It is filled with a Victorian Industrial fantasy theme that evokes a challenging time when explorers thought that anything was possible and anyplace was reachable... much like the attitude of Disney himself.
The worlds that these Imagineers and filmmakers have created for Disney are a magical experience for almost everyone... and we will no doublably have more in the future. Several projects that WDI has designed have yet to be built and nothing is left around for long. Sooner or later a model or blueprint will be pulled out for some new land or new Disney park... that's simply the nature of this narrative. And as for films, in a three or four years we'll have "The Princess of Mars" based on the series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs that Andrew Stanton is directing. More will follow. After all, these themes are created about the past but they're built for the future...
The future is what this is all about.