Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frozen Imagination

I-ma-gi-na-tion, i-ma-gi-na-tion,
A dream can be a dream come true,
One little spark in me and you.
-          Dreamfinder and Figment’s “One Little Spark” song from Epcot’s Journey into Imagination ride.

At the beginning of this semester, I saw Escape from Tomorrow (2013).  The plot of the film involved a typical American family vacationing at Walt Disney World.  We join the family on their last day at the parks, where the father, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), finds out that he has been fired.  While Jim tries to put on a brave face as if nothing has happened, he slowly beings to unravel as the day goes on.  What follows is a study of the despair of the post-modern idea of fatherhood, with Jim fantasizing about two teenage French girls, having a fling with an older woman who is either a witch, cosplaying, or another skewed entity in Jim’s mind, and contracting the lethal cat flu.  While this is by no means a great film, nor does it paint the contemporary male in a very positive light, the film has a vision that it pursues which is unique.  It created some initial buzz because the director, Randy Moore, filmed the movie entirely within the Disney parks and did not inform Disney.  This is important because Disney controls its image fastidiously.  What happens in the film doesn’t really paint Disney in a negative light.  The thrust of the narrative is the moral and psychological failings of its protagonist.  What is interesting is that it places this problem in what is known as “The Happiest Place On Earth.”

In order to go forward, I must digress.  I grew up in two towns:  Altamonte Springs and Winter Springs.  Both are in Florida and are about an hour away from Disney World.  Disney World is not far away from the city of Orlando.  For decades now, Orlando has heavily marketed itself as THE vacation destination for not just the United States but the whole planet.  It also includes Sea World, is an hour away from a variety of East Coast beaches (most notably Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach, and Port Canaveral, where the Kennedy Space Center is located), and when I was young, there was another entertainment park which went through two iterations:  Circus World (closed 1986) and Boardwalk and Baseball (closed 1990).  More recently, Universal Studios (opened 1990) and Islands of Adventure (opened 1999) were added.  There are other attractions, such as Wet ‘N Wild Waterpark, Gatorland, some weirdness called the Holy Land Experience (which reenacts Christ’s crucifixion daily … sounds like fun).  For a while, there was an odd little place called Splendid China, which was a miniature version of China, complete with wall, which opened in 1993 and closed in 2003 (I’m bummed I never got to see it, but I do know one of the architects who designed the place).  Then, there’s the Orlando Magic basketball team, lots of water sports, golf courses.  In short, there is a TON of things to do in Orlando.  Just go there.

The weirdness of how Orlando and the surrounding area has developed is that its industry is rather single-track:  it’s all about tourism.  There isn’t any real industry to speak of.  There is some citrus around the area, but that is nowhere as prominent as it was back in the 1960s and 70s.  So everything is service-based.  Even if you worked in a fast food restaurant (I worked at the Lake Buena Vista McDonald’s for a summer – my very first job) or gas station (as I did for a few years after high school before I left for Ohio), you needed to be smiley and friendly.  Orlando sells an image – happy happy happy.  It is difficult to explain how this skews your perception of reality in a world so rooted in make-believe and fantasy, but it does.  It can make you cynical way before you really should be.  It also fosters a bit of a Puck-ish sense of mischief that isn’t altogether healthy.  There’s a guy called Swoozie on YouTube that has some videos about his experiences working for The Mouse which can give you a bit more insight.  It’s rare to find people who are “from” Florida, but many people have “been” there, and there is a gulf of experience between the two.  Oh, forgot to mention, the area outside of this tourist paradise is where all the retirees are.  They possess a whole different set of issues.

So, I was intrigued that Moore went commando and shot his film in Disney World.  The setting resonated with me far more than if he had set the film in some other vacation locale.  Unfortunately, I don’t think he did enough to exploit this decision, mostly so that he wouldn’t run too afoul with Disney.  Free use dictates that he couldn’t try to duplicate a Disney “experience” with the film, like you could watch the film and have it be in place of visiting Disney World.  He even changed the song for the It’s a Small World ride so as not to infringe on copyright.  So, I get it but am still disappointed.  There is very little Disney in his Disney film.

I was surprised to see there was so much venom involved in the film.  A few reviewers were practically salivating to see if Moore poked fun at or denigrated the Disney machine.  Outside of some enforcers (which they do have for crowd control purposes), which could or could not be part of Jim’s devolving mind, Disney is treated rather antiseptically.  Indeed, Disney ended up not pursuing an injunction or suing Moore.  While the plot is seedy, the setting is innocuous.

But that is not why I’m writing this post.  I am writing this post because of something that I do find egregious with Disney and, by extension, American society (or maybe even the state of the first world, for that matter), and that is the decided lack of imagination I am seeing on parade.  It comes in two forms, both of which I got to experience this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

The first is leveled at Disney directly.  Disney used to make GREAT films.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942).  They had heartwarming characters, laughter and tears, beautiful animations, and catchy songs.  However, somewhere along the way, Disney has lost its sense of imagination and has become the purveyor of the derivative.  I’m trying to nail down when this happened, and I would venture to say when the direct to video market started to take off, when sequels of theatrical releases went straight to video.  The first of these appears to be Beauty and the Beast:  Enchanted Christmas (1997).  From there, roughly half of their animation output is for video/DVD consumption.  Yeah, I know; who can blame them?  Especially in an era where minivans come with DVD players (more on that in a bit) and streaming video and a plethora of cable channels (especially Disney’s own) need content.  So yeah, crank out Cinderalla III (2007) and Little Mermaid III (2008).  Release another Tinker Bell adventure.  People will buy it.

What happens is that everything starts to repeat itself, so much so that when it comes to spitting out another theatrical release (which needs to happen around Christmastime and during the summer in order to maximize profit), the well is not just dry; they are fracking it.  It used to be that Disney liked to reinvent fairy tales and draw from folklore.  And they still sort of try to do that.  Take the completely forgettable Tangled (2010), which tries vainly to breathe new life into Rapunzel.  It was eye-rollingly tedious.  This year’s model is something called Frozen (2013), which I went to under protest.  It is the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna (who are princesses, because this is Disney).  Elsa, the older sister, has some sort of magical power (the how and why of which are not explained, so who cares?) that causes her to create ice (because if she created fire, they’d have to call the movie Melted, which doesn’t have the same holiday connotations).  She accidentally injures Anna and is sequester away so she can’t hurt anybody ever again.  Tragically (gasp!), the king and queen die on a sea voyage, and the two daughters live out their youth, isolated from each other.  When Elsa comes of age for a coronation, the castle is opened, and Anna revels in the opportunity to finally get out of the house (why she hasn’t been able to leave, we don’t know – it is her sister that is under lock and key - but again, not explained, so who cares?).  She meets a charming prince and falls madly in love at first sight.  Elsa is against them marrying, and the ensuing argument sets off Elsa’s ice powers (you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry), and she freezes the kingdom and runs away to an architecturally interesting ice castle where she can finally be herself and not have to hide anymore.  Anna then sets off to seek out Elsa in the hopes that she will unfreeze the world and come back home and live happily ever after.  This sets up conflicts about Anna falling for the rugged Kristoff (even though she is supposedly engaged to the dreamy Hans, but he turns out to be evil later on, so who cares?), Elsa learning to control her ice power through love instead of fear, and sisterly love.  Everything about the plot is telegraphed by the trailers and relentless marketing (my niece and nephew had books of the movie before its release).  The characters are one-dimensional archetypes.  It’s … so … boring.  The only redeeming aspect is the requisite fun, sidekick-y character.  In this movie, it is Olaf, the snowman.  But even then, he reminded me a lot of the character Yes Man from Fallout New Vegas.  That overenthusiastic, innocent, happy character that says cute things.

I’ll admit I am probably being a trifle unfair to Frozen, as my nieces and nephew seemed to enjoy it.  But they haven’t really hit critical thinking yet (oldest is 9), so everything is good except a majority of vegetables.  But for me, my soul took a hit.  Is this the same studio that made little tears fall from my young eyes while watching The Fox and the Hound?  Is this the group responsible for the witty writing of The Emperor’s New Groove?  What happened?  Are all stories told?  Where’s the original thinking?  Oh yeah, I know.  That’s Pixar.  Toy Story, Ratatouille, Up.  Right.  So what did Disney do?  Buy Pixar.  Fuck you, John Lasseter.  No, that’s not fair either.  Lasseter had a big hand of getting the deal between Studio Ghibli and Disney and has always been a big promoter of Miyazaki.  Ok, a grumbling thanks to Lasseter.  But when there’s less competition in the market, what happens?  Stagnation.  And I’m sorry, but there’s nothing about Cars (2006) or Planes (2013) that makes me want to see those films (What’s next?  Boats?  Trains?).  The imagination factories that once made Disney inspire animation creation around the world with Mickey Mouse is now a cookie-cutter money maker (Frozen made over $67 million dollars Thanksgiving weekend – in its first seven days of release, it has made almost $94 million dollars – oh my god).

But perhaps I am placing the blame on the wrong group.  There were a lot of people who ponied up money (me included) for the privilege of having 108 minutes wasted, not spending quality time with relatives, watching Frozen.   It’s our big, dumb fault.  How did we all fail so miserably?  That brings me to my second point.  The capacity to imagine is being slowly drained from our minds.  I take that back – this is not slow regression.  It is taking place within a few generations.  Now I’m going to sound like an old, crotchety person, but the influx of technology is sapping our imaginative capacity.  No one is bored anymore.  They are glued to their iPhones, iPads, video games, Kindles and other entertainment devices.  Hanging around my nieces and nephew (and my two year old niece knows how to operate an iPad flawlessly), I can see them immersed in their own worlds of their choosing (their apps and games).  You may be saying that a similar argument was made when books were invented, the great leap forward we made with the printing press and literacy.  But that promoted imagination, not squelched it.  Reading is an active process, and you have to create the pictures and interpretations of the content internally.  What about radio?  That’s only voice.  Your brain still had to fill in the blanks.  The backwards slide, I hate to say it, is film.  Sure, you can watch a film actively, but most people don’t.  For the majority, it is dispensable entertainment that leaves you soon after you view it.  Television is the same as well.  There are no blanks or gaps, but there is interpretation.  If anything, playing a video game is more active (or reactive).  But this constant interaction with something that is designed to cater to your every whim is dangerous.  It gives the user the impression that they should never have to be without entertainment with something they find interesting.  It shortens attention spans and robs us of periods of time where our minds can wander.  What happens when you were a kid (or heck, even as an adult) where you’re on a road trip somewhere and you are staring out the window at the world and your mind drifts to daydreaming?  You are creating that world.  How can you create that world if you are watching a DVD or playing a Nintendo DS?  The more we allow others to provide us content so that in turn we provide none for ourselves by ourselves and our own agencies, the more we lose the capacity to imagine.  Those synapses won’t fire as frequently, while other synapses, the ones keyed into what’s in front of our faces, will strengthen.  What will this look like in 80 years?

I know this is sounding rather maudlin, and I’m sorry.  I’m pretty sick about it myself.  I sat at tables in restaurants and watched my niece and nephew buried in their phones.  When their father took the phones away and “forced” the children to interact, it seemed more like they were counting down the minutes before they could get back to what they wanted.  When my sister appeared upset with me that I went back to my mom’s house after dropping off the kids after a trip to Toys ‘R Us to buy them Christmas gifts, and my nephew promptly descended into the downstairs game room to play his new copy of Lego Marvel Super Heroes, that I wasn’t going to hang out and spend “quality time” with the kids, I couldn’t muster the requisite guilty feeling that I knew I was supposed to have.