The Year of Living Disney

Chris and Minnie and Amy

Chris & Minnie & Amy

When I first came to Los Angeles three years ago and moved in with Amy, we briefly discussed going to Disneyland. We didn’t do anything about it because Disneyland is a pricey venture, even then edging up to $100 a person for a day of trying to cram in as many rides as you could tolerate without damage to your musculoskeletal structure. I had been once before, when I was 16, and had found it slightly disappointing, in part because (I’m really giving away my age here) I had been to the New York World’s Fair the previous two years running and, as man-made high-tech spectacles went, it had blown away any amusement park on earth. (I had also seen several Disneyland attractions there, like the talking Abe Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, before they even made it to Anaheim.) And long before I arrived at Amy’s house, Disneyland had been eclipsed by Disney World, the sprawling amusement park mega-complex in Orlando that Anaheim lacked the space to support.

But for all that, my dream of going to Disneyland and genuinely exploring it, as if it were a different continent and I was a tourist with a Eurorail pass, had been with me since childhood. One of my earliest memories is of watching the then-black-and-white television show Disneyland on ABC devote an entire episode to a virtual tour of (or half hour advertisement for) the newly opened park and I knew then, before I was old enough to read or write, that it was the main place on earth I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even on the same coast of North America at the time. More than being a different continent, it might as well have been on a different planet.

Last year, for her birthday, I gave Amy (and myself) annual passes to Disneyland Resort, the current name for the entertainment and hotel complex that includes Disneyland Park, Disney’s California Adventure and Downtown Disney. The annual passes, only available to Southern Californians, cost about as much as two visits to the resort without a pass. We activated the passes on August 25, 2011, and during the following year visited the park approximately 16 times, consciously trying to see every one of the attractions, scrambling madly to be present at special events like fireworks, parades and the uber-spectacles like Fantasmic and my favorite of all, The World of Color.

This is really part one of this post because I can’t describe our entire year in a single blog entry. Disneyland is compact compared to Disney World, but it still contains multitudes. It’s been packed so cleverly into its limited space that at first it seemed like we were exploring a fourth dimensional pretzel, which looped back on itself in a way that at first seems baffling but then becomes almost intuitively navigable. Over our Year of Living Disney we grew to know it so intimately that we could probably walk through it blindfolded. I’ll be back to write more about it later. Here are some of the things that I could devote entire posts to.

The Animation Academy, a tiny building where you can talk to Crush the surfer-dude Turtle (from Finding Nemo), watch a spinning Zoetrope machine that animates statues of the characters from Toy Story using a strobe light (I may link to video of this later), and learn to draw pictures of Disney characters like Pluto the dog:

Pluto as drawn by Amy

Pluto as drawn by Amy

Or you can simply sit in the Academy’s lobby and watch scenes and storyboards from Disney animated features projected on a 360-degree circuit of screens:

Scenes from Pinocchio in the Animation Academy lobby.

Scenes from Dumbo in Animation Academy lobby.

Scenes from Up in Animation Academy lobby

Disneyland at Christmas. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I’m a Christmas freak. Visiting Disneyland during the Christmas season is, for me, like having ice cream on top of cake on top of ice cream with fudge and peanut butter on top. It makes the child inside me (and the larger one on the outside) do virtual somersaults of happiness (and by “virtual” I really do mean virtual, since I’m not up to real ones any more). Here’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle during the transformation they do several times a night during December:

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Christmas

It’s a Small World. Possibly the most ridiculed ride at Disneyland, largely because of that simple and incessant theme song, It’s a Small World is an epic showcase for the 1960s designs of Disney artist Mary Blair and its facade is an intricate exercise in neo-Rococo excess, especially at Christmas:

It's a Small World facade at Christmas

In fact, It’s a Small World goes through more Christmas transformations than any other part of Disneyland:

It's a Small World facade at Christmas

It's a Small Clock as Santa Claus

It's a Small World Christmas interior

Club 33. Club 33 is a private dining establishment commissioned by Walt Disney shortly before he died, intended as a place where he could entertain important guests, and was to be the only place in Disneyland that would serve alcohol. (Walt was a teetotaler.) Now you can get alcoholic beverages in both California Adventure and Downtown Disney, but never mind. What’s important about Club 33 is that it’s hidden away behind an unmarked door in New Orleans Square and you and I can’t get in. It’s for people who are very important to Disneyland or people who know somebody who’s very important to Disneyland. We knew somebody who knew somebody who was very important to Disneyland and made it in by the skin of our Mickey Mouse ears. Here’s the main dining room, with the top of our friend’s head (Hi, George!) visible in the foreground:

Club 33 Main Dining Room

Club 33 is expensive, elegant and historic. I blew nearly a month’s grocery budget on one meal. I don’t regret it. I don’t think I’ll ever go there again, but I’m ecstatic that I had the chance to go there once.

World of Color. I’ve saved the best for last. The World of Color, in the Paradise Pier section of Disney’s California Adventure, is presented at least once a night, usually twice. It’s the most spectacular manmade thing I’ve ever seen that existed in the same portion of physical reality as I did rather than just being a picture. It’s a water show, which is like saying that Moby Dick is a fish story. It involves colored, dancing fountains choreographed to music from Disney films and used as projection screens for scenes from those same films. (There are also occasional towers of fire.) It is, in other words, indescribable and what I just said only vaguely approximated it. I could spend the rest of my evenings there watching the World of Color and count it a life well spent. It evokes our common cultural memories of Disney cartoons while transmuting them into a brand new art form, one that could only exist in a place where people with excessive talent are given excessive amounts of money to design things that are excessively entertaining. I deeply love it. Here’s a glimpse of it:

The World of Color

There’s more, like the cleverly revamped 3D Star Wars-based attraction Star Tours and Minnie Mouse’s dishwasher, where you can see real-life cartoon dishes soaking in bubbling real-life water. I’ll probably talk about those eventually too. I remember a time when it was hip to deride Disney and use the term “Mickey Mouse” as an all-purpose word to suggest cheap gimcrackery. Disneyland fell on hard times for a few years when the management tried to run on it on a budget, but now that the brilliant John Lasseter of Pixar has become the Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering and revived — nay, improved — the parks, those days are pretty much past. Our annual passes have expired now so we’re going to take some time off from Disneyland, but I don’t think we can stay away forever. Now that we’ve seen everything at least once, I think we’d like to concentrate on revisiting the things we loved, like Pirates of the Caribbean and Toy Story Midway Mania.

In the meantime, I’ll talk about the year that just ended. You’re welcome to stick around and listen.

Chris and Mickey and Amy

Chris & Mickey & Amy

Closing the Loop, Spoiler Free

Looper

I walked into the new science fiction movie Looper knowing only two pieces of plot information: The first was that it was about time travel. The second is one that I wouldn’t dream of telling you because, though it is technically a relatively minor part of the plot, it is still more information than you should know before the film begins. Looper is a movie that throws off startling nuggets of exposition and action like a downed electric wire throws off sparks and the fewer of those sparks you see coming at you in advance, the more shocking, powerful and emotionally affecting they will be when they hit you in the theater. If you haven’t seen a trailer for the film yet, count yourself lucky and avoid any that may be available to you. If you haven’t read a review, don’t. You only need to know that it gets an 84 on Metacritic, which is extraordinarily high for a science fiction film. And if someone tries to tell you anything about it, tell them to shut up. If they don’t cooperate, strike them. Forcibly.

I had the good fortune to see Looper nearly cold, with only those two aforementioned pieces of information. (You’ll learn the second one about a third of the way into the film.) Amy, who I talked into seeing it with me even though she’s fundamentally allergic to both science fiction movies and action-oriented films, knew even less. Both of us watched the movie with our mouths agape as it executed one of the most sophisticated and successfully deployed science fiction premises I’ve ever seen outside the pages of a Hugo- or Nebula-winning novel. Here, with no spoilers whatsoever, are the things I loved about it:

  • The usual stuff: brilliant casting, skilled directing, gorgeous cinematography, perfectly timed editing.
  • The trust that the film puts in its audience’s ability to understand a premise so complex and steeped in the possibilities and paradoxes of time travel that it would normally only be found in written sf.
  • Its willingness to use this premise to generate almost continuous movement throughout the film that never feels like action for the sake of action but always feels like action for the sake of plot and character.
  • Its willingness to follow that premise to a conclusion that is ingenious, moving and structurally, self-referentially perfect.

Looper is that rare action film that will leave tears in your eyes at the end without making you feel the slightest bit manipulated. The tears will come both from your feelings about the characters and from the sheer aesthetic joy of seeing a movie where every decision made by writer/director Rian Johnson feels right on the deepest level. And, if you’re like me, the tears will also come from the odd but dependable thrill of seeing a drama in which two characters are in conflict and yet you feel compassion for both of them, not because they are necessarily good people (though they are not bad people) but because you understand why each is attempting to do the thing they feel they need to do. It’s a situation with no obvious satisfactory resolution and yet Johnson finds one that in retrospect feels inevitable. Essentially, Johnson ends the movie by closing the loop. That phrase will mean nothing to you until you see the film, and then it will mean everything.

Amy, the non-sf, non-action-movie fan, loved it as much as I did. You will too. Go see it. Before anybody tells you anything about it.