Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Disneyland's Pirates are Back - What Can I Make of It?

The Louvre

Early this year, the Louvre Museum in Paris issued a press release indicating that the museum would close its doors on March 6th for four months as it underwent a special refurbishment. The great old museum – the world’s largest - home to such great works of art as the Venus de Milo, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, and the immortal Mona Lisa, needed a boost, curators said, to “keep up with the times.”

A March 7th press conference assembled in front of La Pyramide Inversée revealed that in light of the Ron Howard’s soon-to-be released Hollywood blockbuster film featuring Tom Hanks and based on Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, the museum closed so that it could be lovingly enhanced to reflect some of the more memorable scenes from the movie.

The most notable upgrade would be the placement of a naked Frenchman on the floor of the museum’s Denon Wing, a magnificent hall completed in the 17th Century by Louis XIII. The man’s nude body would be a likeness of the story’s fictional character Jacques Saunière – sprawled out face up with a pentagram drawn on his stomach in blood, and posed to resemble Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man. Likewise, the beloved Mona Lisa would be enhanced by the placement of the words “so dark the con of man” scrawled in special ink across its bullet-proof sealed encasement in the Salle des Etats. After the museum reopens, guests will be issued a special wand, officials said, with a small ultra-violet light that will allow them to view the words over the 16th Century painting just as they were seen in the film.

Responding to criticism of commercializing one of the world’s greatest museums of art, Louvre Chief Curator Jean Paul Le Croque balked. Our aim is not to change the spirit of the Louvre, but to make it more relevant today. We will make sure the additions look as if they were always a part of the museum and that they will blend in and strengthen the art that people have been coming to the Louvre to see for generations.

Le Croque laughed off the suggestion from one reporter who said that many people will undoubtedly say that the museum was selling-out one of the greatest artistic institutions in the name of a cheap cross-marketing gimmick.

Nonsense,” Le Croque shot back through a translator, “you should know that we were approached with the idea of using touch-up artists from Montparnasse to repaint the top of the beloved Mono Lisa’s blouse to reveal just a little bit more – as is customary and more acceptable for a portrait in the modern world -- but we said no to this idea without hesitation!”

Besides,La Croque clucked, “due to the abundance of low-cut clothing in Paris during the hot summer months, we believed that matching the museum’s overall theme with the new film would simply be more lucrative.”

It’s a Work of Art

Okay, I have a few of the details mixed up here. I’m not aware of any cross-promotional plans with The Da Vinci Code and The Louvre. The real story is, of course, the Walt Disney Company’s decision to close what may be the most sublime immersive artistic experience ever created, The Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland (and Walt Disney World), on March 6th of this year, so that it could be “refurbished” and tied in with the second Disney film of the same name premiering next week - a film Disney hopes will be a Da Vinci Code-type blockbuster.

But you see, the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, which turns 40 years old next year, is in the opinion of many, not just an expensive carnival-style, tunnel-of-love theme ride with a bunch of dressed-up pirate manikins with moving arms and nodding heads. And it’s not just about the Yo-Ho song you all know – though one must admit there’s a special beauty there. Many in fact believe that The Pirates of the Caribbean is a true masterpiece very much like, say Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Da Vinci’s Mono Lisa. Sound silly? Think again.

If you do think about it, Pirates is really something vastly original and elegant - a completely immersive artistic experience in which the viewer is invited to become one with the art itself. It’s as if you could literally jump inside Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and have a look around for awhile, or maybe spend a few precious moments with Bogey in the Sierra Madre. In Pirates, the illusion works because everything you can see has been given the level of detail of reality itself. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more carefully crafted and original creation of this kind anywhere. The experience is presented which such care that, as you travel through the fantasy, you live it.

What makes Disneyland something different and apart from its spawned-off copycat theme parks, is its unique care for creating a gracefully executed ambiance and extreme careful attention to detail. This marriage of Hollywood studio machinery, the remarkable Disney invention of audio animatronics, and an artistic vision from a cadre of Disney artists – all spawned from the core creative genius of Walt Disney himself -- makes The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction one of the world’s most cherished masterworks. It also would seem within the realm of reason that the Walt Disney Company is in a position to be the steward of a historical work of art.

The Pirates movies – well let’s just say they’re nice little pictures that happen to lack anything close to the experience that “inspired” them, if I can even use that adjective to describe something so distinctly uninspiring. If I’m feeling gracious, I’d call the Pirates of the Caribbean movies harmless fluff, but still pure commercialism, and come on, have no artistic merit like the original.

The Pirates of the Caribbean was created by a relatively small circle of people. Disney himself was the most important element. After him it was probably Xavier Atencio or “X” Atencio as he was known. Atencio collaborated with Disney way back in the early days. He started as an animator for Fantasia and worked on many Disney projects over the years. Notably, he scripted The Pirates of the Caribbean and the The Haunted Mansion. He also wrote the words to the song “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me.” (The music was by long-time Disney composer George Bruns.)

Atencio’s voice can be heard echoing through the caves in the ride pre and post the 2006 refurb – he’s the scowling, ghostly man behind, “Dead Men Tell No Tales …. Dead Men Tell No Tales …” If it doesn’t sound familiar, listen for it next time you are on the ride, just after the waterfalls. Atencio’s voice can also apparently still be heard in the Haunted Mansion. If your “Doom Buggy” stops because the ride is having a problem, Atencio tells you to stay in your seat. Note the famous “Ghost Host” voice in the Haunted Mansion is that of the late Paul Frees, who also was the voice in the Voyage Through Inner Space and many of the pirates. Anyway, Atencio is perhaps the rides most famous creator aside from Disney himself. He is still around today and attended the opening on Saturday.

Memories for Me

The Pirates of the Caribbean makes up some of my own earliest memories. I remember seeing the darkened misty bayou at Laffite’s Landing (where the ride begins) as a totally convincing representation of nighttime even after we came inside from the bright daylight of a summer day. Maybe I was four or five. I remember eating a very large plate of pasta as a youngster in the Blue Bayou. As each boat passed by us, I thought, “heh, wonder if they know about the waterfall around the corner?!” Inside that bayou it really WAS nighttime. There were fireflies in the bushes and a full moon surrounded by clouds. We’d go on the ride and after getting on our boat, I remember passing the little house and hearing a banjo playing O’ Susana – it also plays the Yo-Ho Song. The darkness around the corner was creepy. I remember the waterfalls as terrifying and looking around the caves with other cascading falls and gliding through caves with skeleton pirates playing chess and drinking. I remember the echo of “Dead Men Tell No Tales …” Then the ship battle and the gigantic pirate scenes of pillaging bandits and a burning city. It was larger than life and awe-inspiring. As an adult, the careful attention to detail and the immensity of this creation allows for a completely believable immersion. For a child, there is no immersion. It simply is real.

(I have to insert a trivia note about the skeleton’s chess game. Symbolism abounds in Pirates. The game is apparently arranged in a “stalemate” which is a situation where the player whose turn it is to move has no legal moves but is not in check. The term is also a metaphor for a situation in which neither side of a conflict can achieve victory.)

The fact that The Pirates of the Caribbean was not directly inspired from a particular movie or book and contained no otherwise familiar characters always made it an even more unique and self-defining experience for me. It simply was THE Pirates of the Caribbean it wasn’t a fake rehash some other thing.

When I heard a few years ago that Disney was making a movie about the ride, I wondered if the movie would come to define the idea, while Disney’s great creative attraction would end up as the afterthought. If Hollywood makes a blockbuster movie about the life and times of Mona Lisa and the story behind that smile, then the next generation thinks of the Mona Lisa as the movie – and oh, did you know that it was a painting first? Not to my surprise, I found the Pirates movie quite distastefully lacking in artistic merit and some sequences in the film made little or no sense. What a waste. And, of course, the move became a popular hit.

The Pirates rides around the world are not the same, but largely similar. (Note the Walt Disney World ride is also being changed to match the movie). Although it makes interesting fodder, I don’t refer to the other manifestations elsewhere in this writing.

Pirates opened at Disneyland’s New Orleans Square on March 18, 1967 about five months before I was born and only three months after the death of Walt Disney, who was heavily involved in the creation of the attraction until the end. So, Pirates makes for a nostalgic last masterwork from one of the greatest creative legends of the 20th Century. In fact, many of the park’s attractions remain as they were when Disney himself experienced them, and this, I believe, makes the park itself among many things, a museum. The Tiki Room is another fine example.

The Enchanted Tiki Room opened on June 23, 1963, and was the first audio animatronic experience ever created. Today it operates very close to exactly as it did then – and actually is only mildly dated – at least to me. But even if it is outlandishly dated, it still operates today much like a shrine to something so uniquely original and charming, it really does deserve preservation in much the same way any great artistic achievement should. The point of experiencing the Tiki Room, the visitor should know, isn’t really just about a bunch of singing birds and orchids, though its okay if that alone strikes you as nice. It’s really about putting yourself in the place of a visitor to that very same room more than 40 years ago. In its proper historical context, The Enchanted Tiki Room is a masterpiece of innovation. There was nothing even remotely like it before its existence, and it all spawned from Walt’s own desire to reach for an experience that could take us further than the movies could. I can’t imagine what the first visitors to The Enchanted Tiki Room must have thought. And it paved the way…

New Opening Day

Saturday June 24th 2006 was the red carpet opening for the reopening for Pirates, and I wasn’t invited. In my place there were such celebs as Kevin Pollack, James Cameron, Lynda Carter (oooow), Vincent D’Onofrio, Kiera Knightley (hey why not put her in the ride instead of Depp?), Orlando Bloom, the Deppster, and Governor AWNOLD Schwarzenegger. I think I saw James Cameron standing in line in front of me on the Indiana Jones Adventure, but it might have been sunstroke.

I arrived at the park early Monday, June 26 (Pirates opening day for the masses). There were huge crowds that rushed to Pirates as the gates flung open at 8am on this muggy and warm day. The line extended from New Orleans Square, through Frontierland, down Main Street and ended near the entrance to the park – that’s about a three-and-a-half hour wait. I went up to a guy standing in line:

Me: “Dude, This line isn’t for Pirates is it?”

“Yep, this is for Pirates.”

“Wholly crap, you got to be kidding me, right?”

“No, that’s what you’re here for dude, go on, get in line.” He motioned back toward the park entrance way down there.

I’m not sure how this guy knew that I was there only for Pirates, but I suppose it’s that Sixth Sense between us dudes.

I decided to defer my riding a bit later – and indeed the lines went down about an hour later. I got on pirates for the first time at around 11am.

Keeping it “Relevant”

In Michael Geoghegan’s Disneyland Podcast for February, Kathy Rogers, a Senior Show Producer for Imagineering, said “Our intent is not touch the spirit of the attraction but to strengthen it and make it more relevant today because in our movie franchise, Captain Jack Sparrow and Barbosa have always lived in this world of the Pirates of the Caribbean, and so its our goal just to bring them into this attraction as if they’ve always lived in this attraction.”

So, to keep alive the spirit of Imagineering, I’ll imagine I interviewed Kathy myself. Here it goes:

Kathy: Our intent is not touch the spirit of the attraction but to strengthen it and make it more relevant today …

Dave: More “relevant today.” Huh? Kathy what are you smoking? Who said Pirates wasn’t relevant – and what does that mean exactly? After 40 years, it’s still the most popular attraction in the park, right? So where’s the lack of relevance? And how do you strengthen a time-proven classic by adding elements from a mediocre pop movie? Are we to believe that the corporate suits meticulously went through a hoard of mail from caring Disney fans about the ride’s lack of relevance and said oh, gee that pirate ride needs to be more relevant – what can we do to help? Here, here’s some money Kathy, please help the fans!

Kathy: … because in our movie franchise, Captain Jack Sparrow and Barbosa have always lived in this world of the Pirates of the Caribbean

Dave: Huh? Neither Captain Jack Sparrow nor Barbosa ever lived in this world, babe. In fact they didn’t exist at all before 2003 – then, they only really lived in the mind of a bad screenwriter hack. Get a clue.

Kathy: … it’s our goal just to bring them into this attraction as if they’ve always lived in this attraction.

Dave: But they haven’t ever been in this attraction and nobody missed them. And, it makes perfect sense that no one missed them because the whole idea is just plain STUPID! Hey, thanks for allowing me to interview you. Take care and have a nice day.

By the way, Kathy was quoted in several articles this week saying the following:

"I cannot imagine how anybody can see this attraction and walk off and say, 'Boy, they did something they shouldn't have.”

Well toots, try to exercise that Imagineering muscle a little harder next time ‘cause here it goes: Boy, they did something they shouldn’t have.”

So I’ve made my point – here’s the scoop – and let me be clear: I rode the ride twice – and my overall verdict: Disaster averted. The ride is not ruined, life will not come to an end, and the changes are for the most part subtle. In fact, a big part of the Pirates renovation was to upgrade some 250 speakers throughout the ride and to digitize some of the sound effects (a good idea – though I’d expect it without a big shutdown.) Upgrading the sound and lighting as long as its not really changed is more like daily maintenance – such as dusting off the Mona Lisa display case. The ride “enhancements” are not different enough to be called anything more than a minor change – and thank goodness for that, because the changes that were made to fit the movies are by and large stupid and unnecessary – and, duh, just a marketing gimmick that happened to be inserted into a cherished piece of art.

Although the ride still stands up strong after the reopening, there is absolutely nothing (aside from some sound and lighting enhancements) about the “upgrade” that makes the ride better in any way. Take this obvious cliché to heart, folks: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There ain’t no need, okay? Drop the “relevance” talking points. Try your goofball movie promotions on something a bit less sacred than Walt Disney’s last earthly creation. It’s like The Vatican had some artists come in and paint a tiny little Snickers bar in Adam’s hand as he reaches out to God on the Sistine Chapel. Say they do a nice paint job, and it’s an excellent rendering of the Snickers wrapper. It’s small, and if you aren’t familiar with the work you would probably miss the Snickers entirely. Still, you’d have to ask – other than promoting Snickers, why do it? (Well to keep Adam relevant, of course.)

Some Details

The Pirates addition includes a few new special effects – and some music from the movie (ick). One new effect makes it look like your boat will go through a cascading waterfall in the caves – which also turns into an illusion of “Davy Jones” from the new movie. It’s really a projection on a sheet of fog. A nice-looking illusion, okay, but unnecessary and out of place. Another is the changed dialog from the pirates, such as those on the ship, the Wicked Wench – decidedly a BAD idea. The only thing I could pick out from the new dialog was the constant reference to CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW. Barbosa’s bantering goes something like this:


“Aye, ye maties, it’s who?”


“Aye, who again?”

“Aye, can everybody hear me out there! It’s CAPTAIN JACK SPARE – ROW!”

That’s SPARROW, you get it? Okay, I get it. You want me to know that CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW is now part of the ride. Honestly, I’d much rather hear the old talk about the lily-livered varmint. Can I say it? I’ll just say it just once – and forgive me: Who gives a shit about CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW anyway?

But, back to the ride. One scene shows an animatronic Sparrow hiding just out of view of some pirates. Another scene shows Sparrow popping his head out of a barrel. Does it look like Johnny Depp? Yep, it sure does, very good likeness. But hey! What the hell is Johnny Depp doing in the classic Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland? He’s an eccentric Hollywood actor. Get him the heck out of there! He just doesn’t belong. Interestingly, the original pirates faces were the faces of the ride’s creators – so Depp is truly a stranger among them. To take a not so subtle step just one step further, perhaps Disney Imagineers might want to place a Pirates movie DVD in Depp’s waving hand so that he might suggest that “Ye go buy one, in me gift shop up top!

The last scene of Depp – which is the last scene visitors see as they start up the exit ramp back up to the bayou –- is a really stupid and unnecessary scene of Depp sitting on a bunch of treasure and feeling happy about having it. He mumbles the Yo-Ho song and says some other crap, and is animated to mimic Depps annoying overacting. In fact the scene is set up in a square shaped alcove that looks like it was quickly and awkwardly knocked out of the wall for the only purpose of placing Johnny Depp.

So, Disneyland usually get’s things right, and on occasion, if the wind is blowing the wrong way, they screw up. In the grand scheme of things, Pirates is okay. This “upgrade” was roughly as degrading as the policitically correctifying stuff they pulled in 1997. You probably know the ride was changed to take out what was deemed to be too offensive a sin for Disneyland though somehow Disney himself didn’t mind. Pirates running around after women while reeking havoc and setting fire to a town, was too racy for the teenagers – presumably not the ones necking in the boats as they go by. Instead of chasing the women, the pirates now chase women carrying plates of food. Thus, the sin of lust was removed and gluttony was substituted. (The ride portrays six of the Seven Deadly Sins.) Politically correctifying Pirates was about as stupid an idea as hiring touch-up painters to raise Mona Lisa’s blouse higher to cover her bosoms. Shame on Disney management, but like this time around, thank God they didn’t do worse.

It has been suggested by some that the original Pirates story is actually a backward dream sequence. The beginning of the ride on the nighttime bayou is something akin to “modern day” and the waterfalls take us back in time – and we begin by seeing the skeletons of the pirates we’ll see in life later. The portrait of the red-headed woman in the drunken skeleton room may actually be a portrait of the red head being sold at the auction later, the suggestion being that she eventually becomes a pirate like her “owner.” It makes for an interesting way of looking at it, though, of course, the “new” story inserted in the ride which is roughly about Sparrow and the Pirates pursuing treasure - and Sparrow gets it in the end, kind of screws up this elegant and imaginative interpretation.

The Bigger Dream

Disneyland was one of those “boys and their trains” kind of things. Disney’s success in the movie business allowed for an extravagant boyhood in his adulthood. Disney started out building his own real train in his backyard in the Holmby Hills. The idea of Disneyland developed out of a simple Mickey Mouse park originally planned for Burbank. Later Anaheim was scoped out. Disneyland would have a lot of neat stuff, he said, and it would be “surrounded by a train.”

The train did yield some limitations on the park’s expansion – and some might not realize that the reason that the Pirates ride has waterfalls comes from the necessity of taking the boats outside of the park, beneath the railroad tracks to the bulk of the ride in a giant makeshift movie studio. The Haunted Mansion needs the same trick – thus the stretching room that everyone knows is really an elevator down, and get’s you to the bulk of the ride outside the railroad border.

Disney rides generally take place inside make-shift movie studios. In other words, a very large wherehouse-like room that can facilitate a controlled visual and auditory environment. Thus, the theme rides were something of a natural adaptation for a movie studio company.

In the Hands of a Corporate Giant

So, having a collection of great art in the hands of a corporate behemoth can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes that overpowering tendency toward making money can overtake the implied responsibility of caring for the collection. Corporate executives and marketing managers see opportunities in tying together the popular attraction into a popular movie. Then they see opportunities in tying the popular movie franchise back to the attraction.

It may all make sound business advice for the short term, but likely it doesn’t make good artistic sense. The idea of shutting down the Louvre to accommodate its ties to a popular movie might indeed be attractive if the Louvre were owned by stockholders expecting a good annual report this year, but it just seems like a stupid idea when you understand anything at all about art.

So are corporate behemoths always bad for the creation of art? Not always. When you have real artists on the payroll and a nice budget, great things can happen. Fantasmic, the giant nighttime water and pyrotechnic display débuted in 1993, is considered by many to be the most innovative outdoor type show of its kind ever created. I too was impressed by Fantasmic. The show’s theme at first seemed to be simply a display of the imaginative scenes – partly inspired, it seemed, by the famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in Fantasia and little swaths of many other Disney films. The simple imagination theme gives a nice vehicle for a lot of expensive special effects dazzlers and placement of Disney motifs and characters. But also, behind the effects, the show’s finale seems to suggest the metaphoric creation of the Disney universe and perhaps even Disneyland itself through the spirited imagination of Walt’s well-known alter-ego, Mickey Mouse.

In fact – this Disneyland creation theme has been well built into the Disneyland persona. Another recent example is the “Remember Dreams Come True Fireworks” display, meticulously and artfully executed this past year, which draws much from the Disneyland anthem “When You Wish Upon a Star, Your Dreams Come True” theme. The idea works so well, I think, because visitors watch the metaphor, and somehow, perhaps subconsciously understand that they are standing inside the physical reality of Walt’s own fantastic and gigantic dream and its continued manifestation through time, four decades after his death.


Me, I have my own dreams – like that stupid waterfall I’ve been building in the backyard. After three months of work, its way over budget and the stupid filter still leaks. What a pain that has been. As Disneyland and Pirates as a guide, I might realize my dream too. I just hope it’s soon.

My Turtle, and Me

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Iris Chang Post Script

Some seven months after writing about Iris Chang, her name continues to surface. Many people have told me her story has had a lasting impact. Despite this, I’ve come to believe that her absence remains and probably will remain a significant void in intelligent public discourse about a teetering foothold on civil liberties, and the “thin veneer,” as Iris called it, holding civilization back from the capacity to commit the unspeakable. Iris’ special mixture of passion and brave tenacity is too rare, I think, and the issues around Nanking’s past and other political struggles around world are too vast and messy to make a similarly charismatic and tireless advocate likely to emerge for a while. After all, being a lone warrior for such a sobering cause has its downside. Maybe this is the most resonant part Iris’ legacy. In the meantime, of course, events scattered around the world today continue to make Iris’ message timely and relevant.

New resources of looking back on Iris’ life occasionally pop up. A more accessible version of a 56 minute speech at the University of California Santa Barbara now appears on Google video along with an even more youthful, 30-year old Iris on the Charlie Rose program back in 1998. They reveal more images of a young writer on a mission, and also some glimpses of an ordinary person thrust into a stressful whirlwind of controversial issues, almost always dealing with them gracefully, and occasionally showing human vulnerability.

Shortly after posting my story, “Iris Chang One Year Later …” I was surprised and gratified to be contacted by Ying-Ying Chang, Iris’ mother who, to my delight, was pleased with the article even while pointing out a few (thankfully minor) errors, which I immediately corrected. I could never have expected her gracious expression of thanks, especially over an article about what must be such a painful source of grief for her and her family. It goes to show that the web can make the world a smaller place.

The Chang Family has been involved with the Iris Chang Memorial Fund that supports an essay contest supported by tax deductible donations.

An abbreviated version of my article also appeared in the newsletter of the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum in January.